Should OPs and RPs Unite? (4)

By way of review, let me point out that this discussion was occasioned by a remark on my part that one might have doubts as to the strength of the OPC with respect to Arminianism. I made this remark because: 1) In our discussion of the proposed OP-RP union we noted that some of the OPC commissioners wanted a stronger emphasis on God’s sovereignty in salvation as one of the improvements in the Proposed Basis of Union between the two denominations. 2) The historical background of the RPC in the Bible Presbyterian Church would seem to indicate a tendency to Arminianism in the RPC, judging from the Arminian Declaratory Statement which the Bible Presbyterian Church has added to the Westminster Confession. 3) The OPC has given evidence of weakness on Arminianism, judging from the Clark Case and from the booklet The Free Offer of the Gospel, written by Murray and Stonehouse in the aftermath of the Clark Case. 4) Because the Proposed Basis of Union is not strong and specific on this score. These matters I mentioned in the course of my argumentation that the two denominations are not ready for ecclesiastical marriage. 

Then the Rev. John Mitchell, Editor of the Presbyterian Guardian (OPC), and himself a rather reluctant advocate of the marriage, wrote to me (Nov. 15, 1972 issue) taking rather strong exception to what I had written about Arminianism in the OPC, though I myself had thought I had expressed myself rather mildly when I spoke of having “doubts about the strength of the OPC over against Arminianism.” Briefly, Mr. Mitchell strongly insisted “that there is a sincere and free offer of salvation from God,” that this alleged offer is on God’s part “to any and all men,” and that this is not Arminian. Further, he denied that either the treatment of Dr. Clark or the Murray-Stonehouse booklet indicate any weakness at all in the OPC over against Arminianism. Thirdly, he denied that the Declaratory Statement of the Bible Presbyterians is Arminian, but asserted that it is “clearly in accord with the Westminster Confession of Faith, and is the traditional doctrine of Presbyterian Churches.” Finally, Editor Mitchell affirmed that “both OPs and RPs. . . would agree that the offer of salvation is freely extended to, all men, is sufficient for the sins of all men, but is applied only to the elect who repent and believe under the effectual working of the Holy Spirit.” 

Now although the Clark Case was treated in detail in the Standard Bearer at the time when it was before the Presbytery of Philadelphia and before the General Assembly some twenty-five years ago, and although the Murray-Stonehouse booklet was subjected to detailed critique some years ago by the late Rev. Herman Hoeksema, these issues are of sufficient importance that we give them some detailed attention. They have been, and still are, of importance to us as Protestant Reformed Churches: for the “free offer” doctrine of the OPC is substantially the same as the general, well-meant offer of the Christian Reformed First Point of 1924. Neither the former nor the latter is Reformed; but both the OPC and the CRC always claim that the offer-doctrine is Reformed. The OPC should have taken warning from the fact that in the CRC this offer-doctrine led—as we always predicted it inevitably would—to the general atonement doctrine of Prof. Harold Dekker in 1962-’67, a doctrine which the OPC apparently does not want and which led to estrangement between them and the CRC. But evidently the OPC has not taken warning; and in this failure they are playing with fire, as I hope to point out. True, the OPC does not admit to being Arminian; and it does not adopt all of the Arminian position. Then; of course, they would lose all claim to being Presbyterian. But the danger lies exactly in this dual position, this half Arminian: and half Presbyterian position, which they attempt to take, and that, too, at a very crucial point: the nature of the preaching of the gospel. 

Besides, a study of these matters will involve us all in a kind of refresher course on these matters in the light of Scripture and the confessions—something which will certainly do none of us any harm. 

Besides that, we owe it to the Rev. Mitchell to serve him with an answer to his letter. And we also cherish the hope that some of our OP readers will be enlightened and strengthened by this study. Hence, we propose to examine these matters in some detail.

The first object of our examination will be the Declaratory Statement of the Bible Presbyterian Church, a statement which Mr. Mitchell characterized as consistent Presbyterianism. Before we proceed to this study, however, I must make a few introductory remarks in connection with the whole matter of RP-OP union and in connection with our attitude toward it. 

The first remark is corrective. In my first editorial on this subject I suggested that Arminianism constituted one of the obstacles in the path of union. In the light of Mr. Mitchell’s correspondence, however, I am now inclined to doubt this. It appears to me that the two denominations are rather well agreed. And I also find it difficult to understand how, in the light of the OPC position, some commissioners wanted an improved statement on the matter of God’s sovereignty in salvation. If the OPC and the RPC are fully agreed on the matter of an alleged free offer of the gospel, and even on the Bible Presbyterian Declaratory Statement, then they may as well unite in their semi-Arminian agreement: I cannot see how any further OPC statement could influence the RPC for good on this matter. But let them not imagine that such a union will further the cause of genuine Presbyterianism! 

In the second place, I want to assert from the outset that, in accord especially with the Canons of Dordrecht, we emphatically subscribe to the doctrine of the general, or promiscuous, proclamation of the gospel to all nations and to all persons “promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the gospel.” I say this in advance because I want to forestall such old charges as “hyper-Calvinism” and “they believe in preaching only to the elect,” etc. These are red herrings of ancient vintage. And they are indeed red herrings! As I already made plain in my initial answer to Mr. Mitchell, we believe in the general proclamation of a particular promise. But the latter—and this we shall make plain in subsequent discussion—has nothing in common with the idea of a free, or well-meant, offer. The general proclamation of a particular promise is quite in harmony with Scripture and the Reformed and Presbyterian creeds; the doctrine of a free offer is in conflict with, both. It cannot be harmonized with sovereign election and reprobation. It cannot be harmonized with definite atonement. It cannot be harmonized with the truth of irresistible grace and effectual calling. It cannot be harmonized with the doctrine of total depravity. And, in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, it leads inevitably, first to the silencing of these precious truths, and then to the open denial of them. But it has been our experience that when we take this position, our opponents inevitably have hurled the aforementioned accusations at us. Hence, I wanted to forestall those accusations from the outset. They are old. They are false. We have heard them all before. We will pay them no heed—unless, of course, they can be proved, and that, too, with Scripture and confessions in hand. And if the accusations are nevertheless brought, I will only say, “I told you so,” and remind you that this is what the Arminians said to our fathers already at Dordrecht. 

With that, we turn to the first item, the Declaratory Statement of the BPC. 

First of all, let us get the Declaratory Statement before us:

In adopting the Confession of Faith this General Synod (the first General Synod of the BPC) declares: 

First: its firm and glad belief in the reality and universality of the offer of the Gospel to mankind. We believe that Christ’s atonement is sufficient for the sins of all, adapted to all, and is freely offered to all men in the Gospel. We believe that no man will be condemned except upon the ground of his sin. 

Second: with regard to the salvation of those dying in infancy we do not regard our Confession as teaching or implying that any who die in infancy are lost.

In adopting the Confession of Faith this General Synod (the first General Synod of the BPC) declares: 

First: its firm and glad belief in the reality and universality of the offer of the Gospel to mankind. We believe that Christ’s atonement is sufficient for the sins of all, adapted to all, and is freely offered to all men in the Gospel. We believe that no man will be condemned except upon the ground of his sin. 

Second: with regard to the salvation of those dying in infancy we do not regard our Confession as teaching or implying that any who die in infancy are lost.

The question is whether this is in harmony with the Westminster Confession of Faith, as the Rev. Mitchell asserted. 

In the first place, I call attention to the fact that the veryaddition of such a statement as this, especially to such a lengthy and detailed creed as the Westminster Confession, should at least be sufficient ground to render the statement suspect. I do not know the detailed history of this statement. In fact, for many years I was not aware of its existence, until a Presbyterian reader-friend once asked me, “Do you know about the Arminian Declaratory Statement which the Bible Presbyterians added to the Westminster?” Thereupon I made it a point to investigate the matter. And when I did so, my very first reaction was: “Where is the ‘hitch’? Why is it necessary to add such a statement?” If the Westminster Confession spells out Presbyterian doctrine, if it declares itself on the matters touched on in this statement, then why is it necessary to add—let alone the fact that it is not very Presbyterian to begin adding to confessions unilaterally? And knowing that the Westminster Confession is very particularistic, and sensing a universalistic tendency in the Declaratory Statement, I immediately became suspicious that the Declaratory Statement represents an attempted compromise, a soft-pedaling, and at bottom a conflict with the stringent position of the Westminster Confession. You see, if this is the teaching of the Westminster, it is unnecessary to add the Declaratory Statement. But if it is not the teaching of the Westminster, it is not legitimate to add the statement. In addition, the Declaratory Statement uses rather neutral and evasive language. It does not say, “In harmony with the Westminster Confession, we further declare. . .” or some such thing. For the first statement, no proof, not even any connection with the Confession, is so much as mentioned. And in the second paragraph it is merely said, “. . .we do not regard our Confession as teaching or implying. . .” The latter is a very strange expression, especially in the light of the fact that the Confession speaks rather explicitly on this subject, as we shall see. 

In the second place—and this is my main point,—this Declaratory Statement is in direct conflict with the Westminster Confession. Frankly, I am rather amazed that the Rev. Mitchell could write that “The first article is clearly in accord with the Westminster Confession of Faith.” I am not now referring to the “offer of the Gospel” as such. This also is in conflict with the Confession; but we shall write about this later in connection with the Murray-Stonehouse booklet. But we ought to note that the Declaratory Statement speaks of Christ’s atonement in connection with what is says about the offer. And about the atonement itself the statement says two things: 1) Christ’s atonement is sufficient for the sins of all. 2) Christ’s atonement is adapted to all. Then it goes on to say that Christ’s atonement “is freely offered to all men in the Gospel.” Now all this reminds one strongly of the position of Prof. Dekker. In the early stages of that history he took the position that Christ’s atonement is general (for all and every man) as to: 1) Its sufficiency; 2) Its availability; 3) The divine desire. Dekker left one category in which (at least originally) he deemed the atonement limited: its efficacy. The Declaratory Statement very evidently tries also to make Christ’s atonement universal in some respects. In the context of the general offer of the Gospel, it speaks of the atonement as sufficient for the sins of all men. The obvious implication is that if it were not sufficient, there could not honestly be an offer. But neither the Westminster nor the celebrated Canons of Dordrecht make any such statement. The Westminster Confession does not so much as breathe of any such universal sufficiency; it knows only of a definite atonement, as we shall show. But also the Canons speak a different language. For one thing, the Canons do not say that the atonement was actually sufficient for the sins of all, but that the death of Christ was “abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” This is quite different. For, secondly, the Canons are not speaking in the context of a possible general offer; but in the article referred to (II, A, 3) they are speaking of the “infinite worth and value” of the “death of the Son of God.” And as can be demonstrated abundantly, the fathers of Dordrecht (with the exception of the covert Arminian, Martinius) had in mind only this, that Christ’s death was so valuable that it would have easily covered the sins of the whole world if necessary, and as one delegation put it, of ten more worlds besides! 

But the Declaratory Statement says even more: Christ’s atonement was adapted to the sins of all men. No Reformed man should ever subscribe to that statement. Adapted? What does that mean? It means, according to Webster, that Christ’s atonement was “made suitable for, fitted unto, suited to, adjusted to” the sins of all men. And again, this must be understood in the context of the general offer. The point is, evidently, that the atonement could not be offered to all men in the Gospel if the atonement were not fitted unto, suited to, made suitable for the sins of all men. 

Now as I said, the Westminster Confession knows only of a definite atonement. And it speaks clear language on this score. In Paragraph I of Chapter VIII it immediately connects all the work of Christ with election, as follows:

It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only-begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man, the Prophet, Priest, and King; the Head and Saviour of his Church, the Heir of all things, and Judge of the world; unto whom he did, from all eternity, give a people to be his seed, and to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified.

What could be more particularistic? The Declaratory Statement can never be fit into this article! But this same chapter also speaks directly of the atonement, in Paragraph V:

The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself, which he through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, bath fully satisfied the justice of his Father, and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father bath given unto him.

Here is the Reformed doctrine of particular atonement.

And this is the only doctrine of atonement which Westminster knows. The Declaratory Statement is at odds with this doctrine! 

There is more fault to find with the Declaratory Statement. 

There is that strange statement that “no man will be condemned extent upon the ground of his sin.” The explicit evidence is nit at hand; and the presence of this statement needs explanation. But in the context in which it is found, this is a highly suspect statement. What is its intent? Is not the Westminster clear on God’s justice in the condemnation of sinners? Is this a covert attempt to minimize original sin? Or is it a veiled attempt, perhaps, to blunt the edge of Westminster’s, doctrine of sovereign reprobation? For after all it is also true that a man goes to destruction because of God’s sovereign decree of reprobation! The trouble with this sentence of the Declaratory Statement is, at best, that it is vague and partial. I would never subscribe to it as it stands and in this context. 

And the same is true of the second paragraph. I know: Rev. Mitchell did not approve the second paragraph. But the second paragraph nevertheless reflects on the tendency of the first. And it only lends support to the contention that the tendency of the first paragraph is Arminian. For while the Declaratory Statement is cautiously negative: “. . .we do not regard our Confession as teaching or implying that any who die in infancy are lost,” do not forget: 

1) That it was the Arminians who taught that all infants dying in infancy are saved. 

2) That it was the Arminians who tried to portray the Reformed as monsters, who taught that God cast thousands of innocent infants to hell. 

3) That the Westminster Confession very definitely limits salvation to the elect and consigns the “rest of mankind” to destruction, according to God’s decree to pass them by Chapter III. 

4) That the Westminster Confession specifically teaches (Chapter X, III) that “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth.” 

5) That, therefore, it is contrary to the Westminster Confession to say: we do not regard our Confession as “implying” that any who die in infancy are lost. For the implication of the Confession is plain as the sun in the heavens! 

No, the Declaratory Statement cannot pass muster as a statement in harmony with the Westminster Confession of Faith. And if the OPs and RPs accept the statement, they are as Arminian as the Bible Presbyterians.