Before the fiftieth anniversary year of the great schism in the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) passes, reflection on the doctrinal issue that occasioned the split is in order.
Earlier editorials called for a denomination-wide remembrance of the schism, informed readers of a fine, new resource for study of the schism, and demonstrated that the dividing of the PRC was indeed schism on the part of the faction that left the PRC (Standard Bearer, April 15, May 1, and May 15, 2003).
The controversy that rocked the PRC in the late 1940s and early 1950s culminating in the schism of 1953 was doctrinal. Personality conflicts may have intruded, but the schism was not about personalities. The dark underbelly of the church may have surfaced in struggles for ecclesiastical power, but the schism was not political.
At issue was a doctrine. That doctrine was a fundamental truth of Scripture. It was the truth of the covenant of grace.
In the controversy leading up to 1953, it was not the case that two parties were struggling for control of the PRC. Rather, two teachings were contending for the soul of a denomination of true churches of Jesus Christ. One was the teaching that God establishes His covenant by promise with all the children of godly parents alike, indeed with all who hear the gospel, on condition that the children and those who hear the gospel will believe. The other was the teaching that God establishes His covenant by promise with the elect children of believing parents, as with those hearers of the gospel whom God calls (Acts 2:39).
The doctrinal issue in the schism of 1953 was the unconditionality of God’s covenant in Jesus Christ. The covenant with its blessings and salvation depends solely upon the sovereign grace of the promising God. It depends upon nothing in the sinner. Specifically, the faith of the covenant friend of God is not the condition upon which the covenant depends, whether for its establishment, its maintenance, or its perfection.
Opposed to this doctrine in the late 1940s and early 1950s, within the PRC, was the teaching of the conditionality of God’s covenant. The covenant depends, finally, not on God’s promise (which He is supposed to make to all alike), nor on God’s grace (which He is supposed to show and extend to all alike in making the promise to all), but on the child’s act of believing.
That the schism of 1953 was at its heart doctrinal and that the doctrine at issue was the unconditional covenant are beyond question. For several years before the schism in 1953, the two periodicals in the PRC, the Standard Bearer and Concordia, were full of writings about the conditionality or unconditionality of the covenant. In those days, as I myself remember, sermon after sermon dealt with the covenant. The covenant was the subject of discussion and often heated, passionate debate among the members of the PRC.
The division in the PRC crystallized in the contention over the adoption of the “Declaration of Principles” in the early 1950s. The “Declaration” explained the “Three Forms of Unity” as teaching an unconditional covenant promise to the elect children of believers. Half the ministers and churches in the PRC strenuously opposed adopting the “Declaration.” In their opposition to the “Declaration,” these churches expressed their own commitment to a conditional promise and a conditional covenant. The overture of the Sioux Center, Iowa PRC to Classis West, March 1951 and to Synod, June 1951 against adopting the “Declaration” is representative. The Sioux Center consistory asserted that it is not objectionable to speak of a “conditional offer” of the gospel. The consistory stated that “we cannot agree that the promise of the Gospel is not conditional. The covenant promise is indeed an oath of God unto the elect. But the promise of the Gospel is confrontation of all the hearers; the promise of the Gospel is preached to all promiscuously and consists herein, that whosoever believeth shall not perish, but have everlasting life…. Considering faith as condition only in the Reformed sense, it may therefore be said that from this aspect the promise of the Gospel is conditional. It promises life: the conditions is (sic) repentance and faith.”
Shortly before the schism took place, a Protestant Reformed church in Canada, whose consistory embraced the doctrine of a conditional covenant, summarilydismissed its minister for teaching the unconditional covenant.
When the split occurred, the immediate cause was a minister’s deposition for teaching the conditionality of the covenant. God, he taught, promises salvation to everyone on the condition of faith. This faith, he added, with the conversion it accomplishes, is a “prerequisite” to one’s entering the kingdom, or covenant, of God.
From the very beginning of their history, the PRC had rejected the doctrine of a conditional covenant, which was (and still is) the prevailing doctrine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), whence they had been expelled. The PRC did not come to the conviction of the unconditional covenant in 1953. They had always confessed the unconditional covenant. As early as 1927, Herman Hoeksema had written the work on the covenant that would later be published as Believers and Their Seed. In this foundational work, he demonstrated that the truth of the unconditional covenant is more basic to the existence and nature of the PRC than is rejection of common grace.
Indeed, in an open letter to the Dutch Reformed theologian Klaas Schilder at the time of the controversy over the covenant in the PRC but before the adoption of the “Declaration of Principles” in 1951, Hoeksema contended that the PRC had already officially rejected the conditional covenant and adopted the unconditional covenant. Hoeksema’s argument was that the Churches’ rejection of the well-meant offer of the gospel, certainly an official position of the Churches, implied rejection of the conditional covenant. It is worth listening to Hoeksema on this point.
That conception [of the unconditional covenant] is binding in the PRC, not because it is the theological conception of one man, but rather because the conception of the Rev. Hoeksema is the official conception of the PRC, and the conception of the latter [the PRC], in distinction, at least, from the liberated view, has been adopted in their rejection of the first point [of common grace adopted by the CRC in 1924]. That first point maintained that there is a favorable attitude of God toward the reprobate. . . . They [the CRC] virtually declared that the preaching of the gospel is grace for all including the reprobate. And this “puntje van het eerste punt” [“real point of the first point”] was rejected by our churches even more emphatically than the rest of the first point…. Your [Schilder’s] churches still maintain “het puntje van het eerste punt” with application to the covenant. For what else is the conception that the promise is for all the children that are born in the historical line of the covenant than that of grace for all, elect and reprobate alike? Certainly, the liberated, however they may wish to separate election, and especially reprobation, and the covenant, cannot deny that there are reprobate in the historical line of the covenant. And if they maintain that the promise is for all, head for head, they at the same time maintain that God is gracious to the reprobate. And the rejection of the first point of 1924 makes it binding upon all our churches to reject this view of the Liberated (Standard Bearer, Sept. 15, 1949, p. 510; emphasis, Hoeksema’s).
Hoeksema was right. The rejection of universal, conditional grace in the preaching of the gospel—the well-meant offer—implies rejection of universal, conditional grace in the covenant. The “Declaration of Principles” then only made explicit what was already implicit in the PRC, namely, that the doctrine of the unconditional covenant is the official position of the PRC.
The astute Christian Reformed theologian James Daane saw the relation between the doctrine of a conditional covenant embraced by the faction that broke with the PRC and the Christian Reformed doctrine of common grace. Writing soon after the schism of 1953 in the Reformed Journal, Daane, no friend of Protestant Reformed theology, told the faction that had left the PRC that their embrace of a conditional covenant implied acceptance of the theology of common grace, particularly the doctrine of the well-meant offer. Daane accurately predicted their return to the CRC. Theologically, they were one with the CRC.
The doctrine of a conditional covenant that threatened to take possession of the soul of the PRC in the late 1940s and early 1950s is at loggerheads with the Reformed faith. The Reformed faith, as the message of the biblical gospel, teaches salvation by sovereign, particular grace, having its source in divine election. The conditional covenant extends the grace of God to many more than the elect by its teaching that God, in His covenant grace, promises the covenant and its salvation to all the children of believers alike at their baptism.
Because the covenant and its blessings are rooted in the cross of Christ, which, as the Canons of Dordt teach, “confirmed the new covenant” (Canons, II/8), the conditional covenant necessarily implies a death of Christ for others than the elect.
According to the conditional covenant, the cross fails to accomplish the redemption of all for whom it confirmed the new covenant. Likewise, the grace of God in the covenant promise fails to effect the salvation of all the children to whom God promises the covenant and its blessings.
The gospel of a conditional covenant is essentially the same as the doctrine of conditional salvation.
The Reformed faith is the sworn foe of conditionality in salvation, whether mission-field salvation or covenant salvation. Once and for all at Dordt, the Reformed faith condemned conditionality, specifically the doctrine that faith is a condition and that God, the promise, and salvation hang on this condition. Faith is neither “a condition of salvation,” nor a condition of election (Canons, I/9, 10).
The hallmark of the false gospel of salvation by man’s works and by man’s will, Roman Catholic works-righteousness, and Arminian free-willism, is conditionality.
The Reformed faith, gospel of salvation by God’s mercy, says “no” to conditionality in all the saving work of God in Jesus Christ. The covenant is certainly the saving work of God.
Nothing less or other than this was the victorious struggle of the PRC in 1953. The churches were not merely struggling for their existence. They were struggling that the truth of the gospel of grace might continue among them.
Far more belongs to the truth of the unconditional covenant as held by the PRC than only that God establishes, keeps, and will one day perfect the covenant by grace alone. Christ Jesus is the head of the covenant. To Him is the covenant promise made, and with Him is the covenant established, as Romans 5:12ff. and Galatians 3:16, 29 teach. This honors Christ. To strip Him of His headship in the covenant is gross dishonor of the Son of God.
In addition, the unconditionality of the covenant permits the covenant to be a living bond of fellowship between God and His people and between God and each one of us whom He has called as friend and adopted as child personally. Basic to the doctrine of conditionality is the notion that the covenant is a business-like “bargain” between God and the sinner. This makes covenant life the dreary business of keeping one’s end of the bargain, with the terrifying possibility of coming up short always in the back of one’s mind. Covenant life is as little like a contract as the joyous, exuberant life of the Christian family is like the cold, formal, suspicious goings-on at the negotiation-table of the AFL-CIO and General Motors.
It is not the least of the glories of the unconditional covenant that it exalts and rests in divine election. The establishing of the covenant with us by gracious promise, the bestowal upon us of the blessings of the covenant, the saving of us in the covenant, and the privileging of us to believe the promise and obey the demands of the covenant are due to God’s election of us in grace, as the apostle teaches in Romans 9. Against this confession of election, the enemies of the unconditional covenant object in a surly statement that has become a mantra in Reformed circles, “The covenant is not the same as election.” What they mean, of course, is that reception of the covenant promise, the making of the covenant with someone, the enjoyment of the covenant blessings, and salvation in the covenant are not determined by God’s election.
To which the response is: “Whose will then does control the covenant? Whose will do you want to determine the covenant?”
The PRC did not arrive at the doctrine of the unconditional covenant in 1953. The unconditional covenant was their doctrine from the beginning of their history. In 1953, their covenant doctrine was preserved for them in the face of opposition. And 1953 put the truth of the unconditional covenant more deeply into the heart of the PRC, as only struggle—life-and-death struggle—for the truth can do.
That was a good thing.
The members of the PRC live the life of the gracious covenant, however imperfectly.
The PRC confess the gracious covenant in a church-world given over to conditions.
The doctrinal struggle for the unconditional covenant has equipped the PRC to withstand and expose the grievous, contemporary threat to the gospel of grace in virtually all the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches. This is the false doctrine of justification by faith and works on the basis of a conditional covenant. About this I have written recently in this magazine.
Whether God will use the PRC for the help of others, where the heresy of Shepherd, Schlissel, Barach, and many others is taught and tolerated, remains to be seen.
In any case, in the goodness of God, that false doctrine will get no foothold in the PRC.
As fire needs oxygen, that error needs conditions.