The closing years of the 1940s were years of unrest and change. The United States was welcoming home her servicemen from active duty in the European and Asiatic theaters of operations. Many thousands of her soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen did not return, or returned only to be buried in home soil. Huge factories which had been turning out tanks, planes, trucks, ships, and munitions were being retooled for domestic production. There were many shortages: cars, appliances, apartments. Of course, all these things affected the members of our churches as well. But there were winds of unrest and change of a more important, doctrinal nature rustling in the churches as well.Dr. K. Schilder had visited the United States in 1939 and again in 1947. Rev. H. Hoeksema suffered a severe stroke in 1947. Canada, with its open immigration policy, was welcoming many immigrants from Europe, especially from the Netherlands. Among these were many from the Liberated Churches of which Dr. Schilder was the leader. After a visit to the Netherlands by the Revs. J. DeJong and B. Kok, during which visit the Liberated brethren were assured that there was no official view of the covenant held by the Protestant Reformed Churches, the immigrants to Canada were advised to join these churches; there was room for them there. Missionary work was carried out by our churches in the Province of Ontario and two congregations were organized there: Hamilton (1949) and Chatham (1950). By 1952 these congregations had left our denomination. This short history was not harmonious nor the relationship smooth.
In 1951, with one dissenting vote, the Synod of our churches adopted a rather lengthy document entitled “A Brief Declaration of Principles of the Protestant Reformed Churches” (cf. The Church Order, pp. 110-134). This document became the focal point of much discussion for several years throughout the churches and her assemblies, and revealed basic differences in doctrinal positions between the Liberated and us not only, but also between our own members and clergy. When the smoke cleared in 1953, our churches remained intact with the same precious doctrines we always maintained, but we had lost about half our membership and clergy.
Before we analyze the contents of the Declaration we want to note two things. First, the contention of some that our churches never had an officially adopted view of the covenant had some truth to it. No classis or synod had every spoken to this issue from 1924-1951. There was no need for such a decision since no protest or appeal had ever been brought for adjudication; it was assumed that all held the same view. However, it must be remembered that the view of the covenant embodied in the Declaration and defended successfully by our churches in 1951-1953 against all other views was inherent in our history and positions since our churches began. Particular grace, not common grace, applied to the area of the covenant certainly meant for our churches a particular, unconditional covenant that God establishes only with His particular people, the elect. Secondly, the charge was made repeatedly against the adoption of the Declaration that it was a new confession which we did not need. We hope to show this charge to be false, and that it was a wise, masterful, and necessary compilation of articles from our existing Three Forms of Unity under certain points or principles “as these have always been maintained in the Protestant Reformed Churches” (Preamble to the Declaration).
The Contents of the Declaration
A brief outline of the Declaration will show the truth of the above statement. There are four main points.
First, the PRC repudiate the errors of the Three Points of Common Grace adopted by the Synod of the CRC in 1924, and over against them maintain that the grace of God is always particular, i.e., only for the elect, never for the reprobate; that the preaching of the gospel is not a gracious offer of salvation on the part of God to all men, (and now notice) nor a conditional offer to all that are born in the historical dispensation of the covenant, that is, to all that are baptized, but an oath of God that He will infallibly lead all the elect unto salvation and eternal glory through faith; and that the unregenerate man is totally incapable of doing any good, wholly depraved, and therefore can only sin.
The second main point sets forth our confessional stance that election is the unconditional, unchangeable decree of God to redeem in Christ a certain number of persons, and this election is the sole cause and fountain of all our salvation. Further, Christ died only for the elect, and the saving efficacy of His death extends only to them. After quoting Canons II, A, 8 for proof, the Declaration states:
1.That all the covenant blessings are for the elect alone.
2.That God’s promise is unconditionally for them only: for God cannot promise what was not objectively merited by Christ.
3.That the promise of God bestows the objective right of salvation not upon all the children that are born under the historical dispensation of the covenant, that is, not upon all that are baptized, but only upon the spiritual seed.
When the Heidelberg Catechism is quoted in proof (L.D. XXV and XXVII, the Means of Grace), the Declaration makes the points that the promise of the gospel sealed by the sacraments concerns only believers, that is, the elect; and only the spiritual children of believers are meant, for little infants cannot fulfill any conditions, and if God’s promise is for them, the promise is infallible, unconditional, and therefore only for the elect. The final point made under the second section is that faith is not a prerequisite or condition unto salvation, but a gift of God, the God-given instrument whereby we appropriate the salvation in Christ.
The third main section repudiates the teachings that the promise of the covenant is conditional and for all that are baptized and that we may presuppose that all the children that are baptized are regenerated. Contrariwise, the Declaration maintains
1.That God surely and infallibly fulfills His promise to the elect.
2.That the sure promise of God which He realizes in us as rational and moral creatures not only makes it impossible that we should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness, but also confronts us with the obligation of love, to walk in a new and holy life, and constantly to watch unto prayer.
3.That the ground of infant baptism is the command of God and the fact that according to Scripture He establishes His covenant in the line of continued generations.
The last brief point states that the PRC believe and maintain the autonomy of the local church.
This brief survey shows that our original, historical position that the grace of God is sovereign and particular can only lead to the conclusion that the covenant of God with us and our children is a covenant that is sovereignly established and maintained, that it is unconditional and without human prerequisites, and that it is indeed a covenant that is dominated, defined, delineated, and controlled by God’s eternal election of His people! We plead guilty to the charge, if indeed that be a charge.
This brief summary also shows that the Declaration, though officially adopted by our Synod, is not the full expression of our covenant view. It sufficed to safeguard the truth in the conditional covenant dispute with the Liberated brethren, but it does not reflect the development of covenant doctrine which had already taken place among us at that time, and which continues to be developed. The word friendship, which denotes the heart and essence of the covenant, is not found in the Declaration. The relation of friendship between God and His people in Christ is not described in terms of the covenant life of the Triune God, the most basic consideration in our covenant view. How the Father-Son relationship within the Trinity is manifest in God’s saving of believers and their seed is not entered into at all. We repeat, the Declaration sufficed for the task at hand, but it is not the final, complete word on our covenant position.
The Nature of the Declaration
That the Declaration is not a fourth confession is clear from two considerations. First, approximately ninety percent of its contents is made up of quotes from the Three Forms of Unity, our Liturgical Forms, and the Church Order. Really, the Declaration breaks no new ground, but brings the Reformed confessions to bear upon the vital subjects of the promise of God, the covenant of grace, and infant baptism. Secondly, that this is no fourth confession is brought out by the Preamble to the Declaration which sharply limits its use. A church’s confession is not limited in its use; the Declaration is. “The Declaration of Principles (is) to be used only by the Mission Committee and the missionaries for the organization of prospective churches on the basis of Scripture and the Confessions….”
Note that word “only.” If a member of a congregation is not satisfied with the preaching of his minister, complaining that it is not Reformed, he has no right to use the Declaration to show that his minister’s preaching is not Reformed. He must use the confessions in an attempt to show that. Officebearers when ordained into office are not required to sign the Declaration of Principles; they are required to sign the Formula of Subscription, which signifies their agreement with the confessions and the Church Order.
On the other hand, when a missionary is laboring with a group of people with the view to organizing a PR congregation, he not only may, but he must include the contents of the Declaration in his teaching. And the calling consistory of the missionary as well as the Mission Committee that oversees the work for the churches in common must judge the progress of the work, the spiritual growth of the people, and their readiness for organization for one thing on the readiness of the group to embrace, confess, and rejoice in the contents of the Declaration.
We may not allow the Declaration to lie at the back of our Church Order book as a dead document of little historical significance. It was adopted because the very basis of our churches was at stake! It was adopted only after a long and bitter struggle for the truth of God’s sovereign particular grace! It was adopted after hard toil, through broken friendships, and with a split denomination as the result. To refuse to use the Declaration as it was intended would be a betraying of our fathers of 1951-1953, and a lack of appreciation for the reformation which the Spirit of Truth worked in our churches just after the war.
Does the Declaration of Principles have authority in our churches? If so, what or what kind? Even though the Declaration is not a creed, even though its use is limited to the mission field that groups of believers who wish to be organized as PR congregations may know that we do have an official view of the covenant, the Declaration does have authority over every member of the denomination. Synod has taken a decision. And the decisions of Synod are settled and binding throughout the churches. Do you want to sharpen your understanding of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant? You may study the Declaration. Do you have opportunity to speak with others about the most important distinctive we have as churches? You may say to them, “Here, this is what we believe about the promise of God, the covenant of grace, and holy baptism.”
As we reflect on the necessity for ongoing reformation in the church of Jesus Christ, as we understand that controversy and struggle in the church always lead to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the truth, let us not fail to appreciate what was safeguarded and gained in the early fifties, especially for our work in preaching the Reformed faith to the nations.