I have followed this controversy closely since it began. It is of special interest to me. I am very concerned with this tendency in the preaching of some Protestant Reformed ministers to improperly emphasize man’s response and obedience to the preaching of the gospel. It comes as no surprise to me that this is now coming to a head in our churches. In fact, for the truth’s sake, I believe it must.
Let me say at this point that I am not a hyper-Calvinist or antinomian, nor do I believe God saves man as a stock and a block, as those who speak up seem to be so readily accused of. I firmly believe that grace is conferred to the elect by means of the admonitions of Scripture, “and the more readily we perform our duty, the more eminent usually is this blessing of God working in us” (Canons III/IV, 17). Further, I have no issue with Canons III/IV, 12 when it ends by saying (after correctly explaining why), “Wherefore also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent, by virtue of that grace received.” And, finally, I have no problem with the demand of the gospel to every hearer of it, that they repent and believe.
As to Rev. Koole’s criticism of Rev. H.H.’s [Herman Hoeksema] sermon on Acts 16:30–31, he is completely wrong. Rev. H. H. understood clearly what he was saying and what he was trying to emphasize to his hearers. Nor does this sermon contradict other sermons by Rev. H. H. or John Calvin, as Rev. Koole tries to tell us. In fact, if you listen carefully, as I urge every reader to do, you will notice that Rev. H. H. even affirms that the call of the gospel to repent and believe is a true and correct statement. What Rev. H. H. wants us to understand is the grave danger, not in the wording itself to repent and believe, but in where the emphasis is placed. Man or God. What will you have? The one leads to conditional theology, the other to the truth.
Rev. Koole puts all the emphasis on what man must do, instead of what God irresistibly does by His grace. That is what is wrong with his teachings. He doesn’t deny outright that one’s obedience is wholly the fruit of God’s salvation of him, of course not. To deny that would be going too far. Nevertheless, the fact is he wants to place all the emphasis on man and what man must do in order to come to a conscious enjoyment of his own salvation, not on God. Rev. H. H.’s sermon on Acts 16:30 was aimed exactly at this teaching. No wonder Rev. Koole wants to discredit it.
Herman D. Boonstra,
member of Loveland PRC
Brother H. Boonstra:
An interesting letter and charge, namely, that my articles “[put] all the emphasis on what man must do, instead of what God irresistibly does by His grace.” I find that statement interesting and significant because it brings us to what is becoming the heart of the issue in our present controversy, namely, when it comes to the wonder of irresistible grace, what historically has Christ’s church meant to establish by this confession? Or, briefly stated, what is it that the sovereign God actually accomplishes by this grace that is irresistible?
What we must understand is that when it comes to the church’s confession of salvation all of grace, the question is not only what is it that God in His sovereign grace has accomplished for a man by the death of His Son, but also what does He by this grace work in an elect person? What does the Lord Christ by His Spirit do to a man, or, if you will, make of a man?
When it comes to H. Hoeksema’s sermon on the Philippian jailer, I understand quite well what HH was doing. He was magnifying God’s sovereign grace over against the incipient Arminianism in conditional covenant theology. I esteem him for that. But in this instance, he went about it in an unnecessary manner, one that can easily lead to improper doctrinal conclusions and charges.
HH’s explanation of the salvation of the Philippian jailor in this one sermon is not the full Hoeksema.
In order to condemn conditional covenant theology, one does not have to say that the apostles were calling regenerated men to do nothing. All one needs to do is to bring into the picture the truth of irresistible grace. And by that I mean, the truth of grace as the power of the Spirit of the risen Lord Jesus that so transforms a man’s heart and mind that he is, in the words of Galatians 6:15, a new creature. A new creature is a man in whom, as a rational-moral, choosing creature, has been restored the image (life and mind) of the last Adam, Christ Jesus. And having been made a new creature, one is able to respond obediently to the call of the gospel to repent and believe. When the call to repent and believe comes to such a one with the voice of Christ (one whose “ears” have been opened—spiritual deafness removed), one actually does that—one repents in utter abhorrence of self and casts oneself on the mercy and work of Christ.
Such a perspective in no way diminishes that salvation is all of grace. Rather, this magnifies grace and its confession. Not of self, not of man, but of the saving power of a renewing Jehovah God.
We are speaking, after all, of a grace of irresistible power that enables a man (gives him the gift, the ability) to do once again what he (what we) had lost and forfeited by man’s first rebellion in the first Adam. Such grace enables sinners to respond to God’s call and word in an obedient way. Spiritually renewed, they once again sincerely desire righteousness and its ways.
This is the teaching of the Canons in Article 16, Heads III/IV. This article was written over against the Arminian contention that the rigorous Calvinistic view of things turned men into nothing but disabled stocks and blocks, meaning, that for all intents and purposes the Spirit does the repenting and believing for men. Because after all, charged the Arminians, rigorous Calvinism maintains that fallen man can do nothing for or of himself when it comes to salvation.
Which is true—fallen man can do nothing for or of himself when it comes to salvation. For that matter, neither can the regenerated man! Not for and of himself. But that does not mean that when God by grace irresistibly works newness of life, elect man is still unable to do anything spiritual and respond to the gospel call in a spiritual way. After grace works in the sinner, now he is able to—not of himself, but because of what the Spirit of Christ has worked in him. All the glory still goes to the risen Christ Jesus, re-creator of men and women now renewed! But it is the renewed sinner who does the responding. One must actively, willingly respond in faith “if one is to be saved” (which is nothing less than biblical language), that is, if one is to appropriate salvation for himself in a personal way.
This is the burden of Article 16, Heads III/IV. In this way the Arminian “stock and block” charge was dismissed. Having pointed out that true-hearted Calvinism does not teach that sin deprives man of his human nature (that is, being a rational-moral, self-aware willing creature) the article goes on to explain the significance of irresistible grace (the grace of regeneration, as the Canons call it, a grace that does not “take away [our] will and its properties”), namely:
[T]hat where carnal rebellion and resistance formerly prevailed, [now] a ready and sincere spiritual obedience begins to reign, to which the true and spiritual restoration and freedom of our will consist [emphasis added].
Notice, in place of carnal rebellion comes now a ready and sincere obedience to the gospel call. Regenerated men and women hear the call to come to Christ and to lay hold on the righteousness that justifies in order to appropriate it as their very own. And they do. According to the Canons, a man does so by the restored freedom of his will (a will renewed and sovereignly set free.)
That’s confessional truth. And it is confessional truth over against Arminianism and any supposed conditional covenant view and its doctrine of a conditional promise.
Now, we ask, to whom goes the glory? Does this give too much credit to man, and by implication steal glory from God?
Not according to the conclusion of Article 16. Take note!
Wherefore, unless the admirable Author of every good work wrought in us, man could have no hope of recovering from his fall by his own free will, by the abuse of which, in a state of innocence, he plunged himself into ruin [emphasis added].
So, according to the Canons, by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, in place of a carnal rebellion, a “ready…obedience begins to reign.” How is this possible? By irresistible grace a man’s will has been set free, enabling one to hear and choose aright again.
Yes, we do the choosing. And it is incumbent upon us to do so. The gospel confronts us with that command. But, as the Canons make plain, this in no way diminishes or steals the glory from the “admirable Author of every good work wrought in us,” which is to say, from the Son of God and His wonder-working grace. In fact, it is exactly this that underscores what He as the Word, by whom God made all things to begin with, is able to remake (recreate) out of burned, charred, and ruined material. We have once again been made willing in the day of His power.
In conclusion, I say this: Brother Boonstra, you state that “[Rev. Koole] doesn’t deny outright that one’s obedience is wholly the fruit of God’s salvation of him, of course not. To deny that would be going too far. Nevertheless, the fact is, he wants to place all the emphasis on man and what man must do….”
In reply, I say, first, if indeed, what I have been asserting does put too much emphasis (or, to use your allegation, all the emphasis) on what man, elect man in particular, does (is called to do), then so do the Canons. But that I can assure you is not so. The Canons are as balanced and biblical as a document can be when it comes to what sovereign, irresistible grace works.
But, second, you inform us that you are neither hyper-Calvinist nor antinomian, and that you are convinced God does not save man as a stock and a block. I am glad to hear that. To do otherwise would be anti-confessional. But, that said, for one to claim something is so does not mean one’s position is consistent with his claims (as you pointedly allege in regards to myself).
Brother Boonstra, I am convinced that while you want nothing to do with hyper-Calvinism, antinomianism, or labeling regenerated men stocks and blocks, you are heading in that direction by your failure to give full glory to what irresistible grace makes of a man, what it enables us as new creatures to do in response to the Word of God in law and gospel. That’s what becomes consistent with your view. Not staying out of the hyper-Calvinist ditch, but sliding into it. And that must not be.
It is the truth and power of irresistible grace preached and worked that keeps us out of that ditch, calling us to keep to the strait and narrow way and then enabling one to do what the Lord Christ calls His disciples to do.
All of this, I say again, does not diminish or take from the Lord Christ His proper glory and that salvation is all of grace. Rather, it is exactly this that properly magnifies the Lord Christ, the Lord Christ who on the basis of His cross work has the right and the power to restore what we forfeited and lost, spiritual gifts and abilities, and so once again enabling us to begin to function and respond as living, willing, choosing children of God.
It is the view you are espousing, brother Boonstra, that in the end seriously underestimates and diminishes the true power and work of the indwelling and sanctifying Holy Spirit. And that, in turn, will have an adverse effect on what the preaching can and must expect of regenerated, confessing men and women in Christ’s church.
May God graciously keep us from that.
Yours for the cause of truth and grace,
Rev. Kenneth Koole