The year 1953 is a year remembered well by most o, the older members of the denomination. It marked the point of departure by many who had formerly belonged in the Protestant Reformed Churches. The controversy caused deep grief and even division within families. Many articles in the Standard Bearer during this period treat that controversy. God used that controversy, too, to strengthen the church and to cause it anew to search the Scriptures to see what things were true. The following is an editorial of the late Rev. H. Hoeksema who experienced the brunt of the battle of those days.
“The Heart Of The Matter”
Rev. H. Hoeksema
The later it becomes in the day of the recent history of our Protestant Reformed Churches, the more it becomes and will become apparent that the heart of the whole matter is the doctrine of election and the truth of sovereign grace.
This we should never forget.
This truth the Protestant Reformed Churches always wanted and still want to maintain.
But this truth those that apostatized from us and from those churches deny.
They may claim, as they still do, that they are Protestant Reformed and that they are a continuation of the Protestant Reformed Churches; but no one with a sound and unprejudiced mind will believe them, and history will surely justify us in claiming that not they but we are the Protestant Reformed Churches.
They may seek refuge in all kinds of lies, slander, and false quotations, and even become guilty of perjury, as they do, this merely corroborates the fact above mentioned and even shows that their own conscience condemns them.
And when all the dust of lying and camouflage is raised (should be: laid) and the ecclesiastical sky is cleared up, history will justify, not them, but us.
The history of doctrine clearly shows that what calls itself church in the world never maintained and stood foursquarely, for any prolonged period of time, on the truth of election and reprobation and of the sovereign grace of God in the salvation of the sinner.
We but have to mention the names of Augustine, Calvin, the Synod of Dordrecht, Kok, Kuyper, to verify this statement.
Augustine, we know, defended the truth of sovereign grace over against Pelagius. And over against all opposition he became more strongly confirmed in this truth as the years of his life sped by.
The question that was in dispute between Augustine and Pelagius was, strictly speaking, not directly concerned with the truth of predestination.
It rather was concentrated about the total depravity of man.
Pelagius taught, as is evident especially from the teachings of his chief disciple, Coelestinus, that Adam would have died even if he had not sinned; that all children are born in the same state and condition in which Adam stood before the fall; that the sin of Adam, therefore, concerned him alone and not the whole human race; that, whereas the whole human race was not corrupted in Adam and dies because of his sin, all do not participate in the resurrection through the resurrection of Christ; that the law as well as the gospel can cause us to enter into the kingdom of heaven; that, before the coming of Christ, some have lived without sin; that grace is not necessary to live a holy life; that grace is given to man according to his merit.
It stands to reason that, when Augustine opposed this Pelagian doctrine, he must needs come to the doctrine of predestination. The truth of total depravity and that of absolutely sovereign grace are inseparably connected.
Only one that teaches that God, on His part, is willing to save all on condition of faith, can teach that it is our act of conversion that causes us to enter into the kingdom of God.
On the contrary, one that maintains the truth of Scripture that God does not promise salvation to every man on condition of faith, but that He saves only His elect, will also insist that, not our act of conversion, but only the power of God’s predestinating grace can cause us to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Hence, through the controversy with Pelagius, Augustine was led to a deeper contemplation of predestination and God’s sovereign grace.
He emphasized that man is utterly dependent upon sovereign grace and, therefore, on sovereign election, to know or to will or to do any good at all. Nor can anyone make himself ready or worthy to receive this grace. Grace is strictly first and absolutely sovereign. And this grace is bestowed only on the elect, through the Holy Spirit that is given unto them. Man can do nothing about it. The Holy Spirit is the great gift of God, the beginner and perfecter of all the work of salvation, and this Spirit is given only to the elect.
The point I wish to make, however, in this connection, is that the church as a whole and officially did not maintain this truth very long in all its purity.
Even in his lifetime it was already denied or, at least, camouflaged. That those who always were enemies of the truth of predestination attacked him does not surprise us, of course.
They were especially men like Coelestius and Julianus.
It is interesting to note that they came with the same arguments which the opponents of this truth advance today. They appeal to such passages of Scripture as I Tim. 2:4, Matt. 23:37, and Rom. 2:4. But they also adduced other arguments such as that the doctrine of predestination implies the acceptance of the person, that it makes God the author of sin, that it denies the responsibility of man, that it is determinism and fatalistic.
But also Augustine’s disciples began to have questions.
In his lifetime there arose those that are known as Semi-pelagians. They taught that God, on His part, is ready to save all men that God’s calling comes to all men, but that while God seriously offers salvation to all, all do not accept it. Only those are saved that believe and those God has from eternity chosen in His foreknowledge.
When these Semi-pelagians spread their doctrine, which soon was embraced by many, Prosper, one of the disciples of Augustine, addressed several questions to him; and from the very nature of these questions it is evident that even he is in doubt and is in need of more light. He would like Augustine to show very clearly what danger there is in the Semi-pelagian conception, he points out that even the fathers before Augustine had taught a predestination which is based on foreknowledge, and especially would he like Augustine to show that the doctrine of predestination does not eliminate the ethical choice of the will of man.
From these very questions it is evident that even Prosper, one of the most faithful disciples of Augustine, began to question Augustine’s presentation of the truth of predestination.
Augustine, however, answered all these questions in two tracts. In these he maintains very strongly the truth of election and reprobation, enters rather broadly into the various questions asked him, and emphasizes that his doctrine is not based on any philosophical arguments, but only on the testimony of Holy Writ.
However, the opponents were not convinced by these tracts.
This could be expected.
The acceptance of the doctrine of Predestination, with election and reprobation, is not according to man. It is not a matter of logical argument. It is above all a matter of the regenerated heart that, unconditionally, accepts the clear testimony of Scripture. It implies, above all, the full acknowledgement that God is GOD and that, therefore, He is absolutely sovereign, also in the matter of the salvation of man. And this acknowledgement is always in conflict with our carnal nature.
Instead, therefore, of allowing themselves to be persuaded by the arguments of Augustine, the Semi-pelagians strengthened themselves in their opposition. With all sorts of human arguments they blasphemed the truth of predestination and placed it in a very unfavorable light. Once more they argued that Augustine’s doctrine was fatalistic, that by it men are driven to sin and death. A pious life, so they argued, was of no avail since God does not want to save the reprobate anyway. God, according to the doctrine of Augustine, so they said, wills sin and is its Creator. The choice of man’s will, whether it be to good or evil, means nothing since God’s predestination determines and works all things, both good and evil.
Thus they blasphemed.
On the other hand, however, these men cast the accusation of downright Pelagianism far from them. And so they assumed a position between Augustine and Pelagius, which is, of course, impossible.
They believed in original sin, but denied that through this, man is dead in sin and misery. He is not entirely incapable of choosing the good. He is only weakened. The seeds of virtue are still implanted in his soul, but they can sprout only through God’s grace. Man, therefore, has a certain receptivity for the grace of God. He has a free will and this cooperates with the grace of God in the internal calling. God certainly wills that all men shall be saved. The call of the gospel comes to all. And that many are not saved is due only to man’s rejection of God’s calling. God’s election is based on His foreknowledge. Of reprobation they must have nothing. All men can be saved if they only will.
It is true that the teachings of Augustine still found defenders. Among these was Prosper, whom we mentioned before. But their defense was very half hearted. They conceded too much to the opposition. Prosper, for instance, certainly, maintained the doctrine of election and reprobation, and especially the former he wants to explain only from the good pleasure of God. But next to this, he also teaches a general will of God for the salvation of all men. It stands to reason that, in the light of this general will of God unto salvation the doctrine of reprobation could not be maintained. That many are lost cannot be attributed to God’s will of reprobation but only to their own will. That many are saved is because of God’s gracious election, but that some are lost is caused only by their own rejection of the grace of God.
Thus came the Synod of Orange in 529.
This synod has often been characterized as standing on the basis of Augustine’s doctrine of election and reprobation and fully maintaining the Augustinian doctrine of predestination.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
It was rather clearly evident that the synod was very much afraid of the strict doctrine of predestination as Augustine had maintained it. It is true that the synod confessed the total incapability of the natural man to do any good. But, on the other hand, the infallibility and irresistibility of the grace of God was denied. As to the doctrine of predestination, the synod really said nothing at all about a reprobation, but thought it sufficient to reject a predestination to evil. They assumed really a thoroughly apologetic attitude over against the semi-pelagians.
May this bit of early history warn us not to assume a half-hearted attitude over against the stand of those that have recently departed from us and apostatized from the Protestant Reformed truth.
Remember that their official stand is that the promise of God is for every one, on condition that they believe; and that our act of conversion is a prerequisite which we must fulfill before we can enter into the kingdom of God.
Reformed? Protestant Reformed?
God forbid that we should ever be deceived to even imagine that it is!