Some Reflections on “Presupposed Regeneration”

Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.

Acts 2:39

The recent studies which Prof. Engelsma has been providing us in the Standard Bearer on the subject of the Covenant of Grace are to be appreciated. It has been a needed study, and helpful to many. To it I have little to add. Nevertheless, in working with some problems regarding the covenant, especially earlier this year in Australia, I gained an insight into one of the side issues of this subject which I would like to share. It had to do with that view of the covenant which has come to be known as “presupposed regeneration,” particularly as it was set forth by Abraham Kuyper and his followers.

With this position we, as Protestant Reformed people, are often identified, in spite of the fact that we have repeatedly rejected the identification. And yet the claim persists.

The problem seems to arise from two basic principles which we teach and defend.

The first of these is the principle that, according to the Bible, God can and often does regenerate children from infancy. This we find clearly set forth in the Scriptures, as when David wrote in Psalm 22:9, 10, “But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly.” And other passages reflect much the same thought [Isaiah 49:1, 5;Jer. 1:5Luke 1:15, 41, 44II Tim. 3:15, etc.]. These Scriptures are fundamental to the doctrine of infant baptism and are held to tenaciously by those who maintain the baptism of infants to be a true means of grace. They clearly imply, and the experience of many substantiates it to be so, that God often gives the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit to elect children born in the covenant from their earliest youth. The result is that there are goodly numbers of godly people who have been raised in faithful covenant homes and cannot remember a day when they did not know themselves to be sinners saved by grace. It is not as though a covenant rearing earns for them the grace of God; but rather that, when God gives the grace of covenant faithfulness to parents, He also often continues that grace in the generations which follow [Ex. 20:6]. In fact, it is this that infant baptism sacramentally designates.

In the second place, we consider it our covenant duty to deal with all our children as though they are true covenant children even while we know from Scripture that some may well be unregenerate, and some indeed reprobate in the end. The reasons are two. In the first place, it is not for us to try to judge which are true children of God and which are simply children following their natural inclination to conform to the desires of their parents. It is a judgment which only God can make [I Sam. 16:7]. And this must be brought out individually as each develops under the Word of God. Some will continue in it and some will not. For that we must wait. And, secondly, this is the way in which the Scriptures lead. While God warns often that not all of Israel are saved [Rom. 9:6], nevertheless, He always treated the nation as a whole as belonging to him. And so in the New Testament, while many warnings were given against insincerity and hypocrisy, Paul always addressed the church as saints in Christ [Rom. 1:7; I Cor. 1:2, etc.]. And so we, until individuals show themselves in their lives to be unbelievers, are to deal with them as part of the church of God, even while warning that none can presume his salvation, but each must live in daily conversion of life to God.

It is, however, in regards to this latter point that the problem arises. For many it seems that when we deal with all of our children as covenant children, we are presuming their regeneration, and holding to a latent Kuyperianism whether we wish to admit it or not. But that is not where the difficulty lies. It is not with our view, but with the failure of many to understand what the true implications of Kuyper’s “presupposed regeneration” are. It is actually quite a different thing.

This was the point that was brought home to me earlier this year while visiting in the home of a young couple in Australia. The mother in this home, who had immigrated to Australia while still a young child, was explaining to me how that she had recently been back to The Netherlands to visit her relatives. While there she had discovered something about family life in The Netherlands, particularly in the days before the Second World War, which she had never understood before.

In these families, it seems, it had been customary for the father to rule with a kind of autocratic authority. When he came home from work, the wife was expected to be waiting, ready to do his bidding whatever it might be. At a moment’s notice the children were to disappear and cause him no inconvenience. In turn, as the children grew, it was understood that, regardless what they did otherwise, they- and this was true especially of the sons, who would remain within the family clan -were to follow any instructions their father might give. If he told them to learn their catechism, they learned their catechism. If he told them to go to young men’s, society, they went. He chose their occupation and determined whom they might marry, and what church they were to go to, and when. If a young man submitted to this, he remained a member of the family with all of the advantages that that might involve. But should he think to rebel and go his own way, he could expect to be cut off and be counted a member of the family no more.

Moreover, within the structure of Kuyperian society, this well disciplined family was important. It was part of what Dr. Van Belle of Redeemer College has called “religious pluralism,” that peculiarity of prewar Dutch society according to which each religious community in The Netherlands provided its own people with a complete social structure in church and school, labor and politics, that was distinct and separate from all others. For the small, but extremely ambitious and active Reformed party, their strong family discipline carried through to the political polls, giving them, in spite of their size, a remarkable advantage for many years. The autocratic family lay at the heart of their strength, while providing for each individual an identity and a place within the whole.

But that was also where the problem lay. It was not uncommon within this structure to find young members, and even adults, who, while dutifully attending church and functioning as part of this Reformed social structure, showed little sign of true spiritual concern. Their confession was far from personal, and their lives for the most part little different from that of the world. But their place in the Reformed community was important; and accordingly the principle of “presupposed regeneration” was introduced. It was explained, according to Kuyper, that often regeneration, while taking place at birth, might lie dormant for years. To be sure, lack of spirituality was to be deplored; but it was to be understood that such people were not necessarily unregenerate. As long as they remained members of the church and a functioning part of the Reformed community, such members could be borne with in the presumption that they were regenerate and that eventually that would become evident.

It was this particularly against which Dr. Klaas Schilder, together with a number of his companions, objected. To them it seemed quite improper to presume regeneration in people who showed no signs of covenant responsibility in their lives. And so they began to warn against the teachings of Dr. Kuyper, and to maintain that it was destroying the life of the Reformed church by rendering it sterile and spiritually dead.

In was this also, no doubt, which goes far to explain the close affinity which developed between Rev. Herman Hoeksema and Dr. Schilder when he visited our country in the late 30s. The same deadness and worldliness which Dr. Schilder complained of in The Netherlands was what Rev. Hoeksema had always objected to in the Reformed community here. Although they may have differed somewhat in what they considered to be the cause, Dr. Schilder focusing on presumed regeneration, and Rev. Hoeksema on common grace, the two viewpoints did not seem at all incompatible, and far from mutually exclusive. Thus they parted as friends, determined to remain in contact, and to strengthen each other in their common battle. But then the war intervened; and the paths they followed in seeking to meet this common problem proved to be quite different.

But of that we must write more next time.l