The 2018 Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches convened on Tuesday, June 12 and recessed on Friday, June 22. At various times Synod recessed—once for an entire day—to allow committees to study and prepare advice. Because the actions of synod have been announced in church bulletins and can be read on the PRCA website, there is no need to recount these. This editorial focuses on one particular issue faced by Synod 2018, namely, the place of obedience (good works) in the believer’s experience of covenant fellowship.
It has been said that the particular controversy brought to this synod could only occur in the Protestant Reformed Churches or in a church that maintains the same covenant theology. The covenant theology, briefly, is that God’s covenant is a relationship of friendship that God establishes with His elect people in Christ. It is a covenant with believers and their seed. The covenant is governed by election—God eternally chose His covenant people in Christ. The covenant, therefore, is not established with every child of believers, but with every elect child. In this covenant, Christ is the Mediator; He is also the Head of the covenant people. Everyone with whom God establishes His covenant is saved and cannot be lost. In this covenant relationship there are no conditions. Fellowship is enjoyed between God and His people—the covenant people are not robots. But they earn nothing and fulfill no conditions in the establishment or maintenance of the covenant.
The issue of the place of good works in the covenant life is important because the covenant and salvation are inseparable. A Reformed man will confess concerning salvation that 1) it is all of God; 2) salvation is found in Christ alone; 3) God sovereignly saves His elect through faith in Christ alone. Likewise a Reformed man will say that 1) the covenant is all of God; 2) the covenant is established with Christ and therefore with those chosen in Him; 3) God effectually brings His elect into the covenant and gives access to fellowship with Him through faith in Christ.
Since salvation and the covenant are so closely related, the theology of the covenant must correspond with the theology of salvation. The Reformed theology of the covenant must agree with the five points of Calvinism—unconditional election, particular atonement, total depravity, irresistible particular grace, and preservation/ perseverance of the saints. Reformation theology also insists that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone. Works are excluded in salvation—“ For by grace are ye saved, through faith…. Not of works…” (). Rather, works are the fruit of faith and the expression of gratitude to God for the salvation that God worked for us and in us.
The issue of the place of works is also important because error has been introduced exactly through a wrong idea of works. Around the year A.D. 400, Pelagius, while insisting that salvation was by grace, also taught that a man who used that grace of God to do good works was the one God saved. Augustine exposed that error, and the church of his day rejected it.
Pelagianism was revived in the church under Rome in the Middle Ages with some refinement. The theologians, insisting that salvation is by grace, taught that justification is by faith in Christ and the believers’ good works. The Reformers rejected that, insisting that justification is by faith alone without works. Man’s works contribute nothing to his salvation.
Not a hundred years later the Arminians in the Netherlands essentially returned to the position of Rome. They taught that man has a free will and, assisted by grace, is able to choose salvation. Election is conditioned on faith and the good works that men perform, God looking ahead to ‘discover’ who would believe and who would persevere in faith and obedience to the end. The Canons rejected that, insisting that election is unconditional, natural man totally unable to do good or choose salvation, and works earn nothing.
Of late, the men of the Federal Vision, using the platform of a conditional covenant, have inserted works into salvation. The child of the covenant is saved by filling the condition of faith, and is justified by faith and his faithfulness—his works.
In 1953, the Protestant Reformed Churches faced a wrenching controversy over the covenant of grace. The issue then was whether the covenant can be conditional. Klaas Schilder insisted that one could teach a conditional covenant that was in harmony with the Reformed confessions. Some in the PRC wanted to make room for conditional covenant theology. Some indeed were convinced that it was the correct theology. The PRC rejected the position that a conditional covenant was within the bounds of the confessions. The Declaration of Principles demonstrated that conclusively. This is settled and binding in the PRC. The struggle of 1953 was painful, because over half the ministers and members left the denomination, eventually returning to the Christian Reformed Church. But it was a blessing to the churches to have the doctrine of an unconditional covenant maintained. And that view of the covenant is fully in harmony with the Reformed teaching on works—they are the fruit of faith, and do not contribute to salvation.
The point of the history is twofold. First, it demonstrates that the place of works is an important doctrine in our theology. We do well to sit up and take notice when a claim arises that works are given a wrong place and function in salvation. Specifically, the claim brought to synod was that good works are given a wrong place in the experience of covenant fellowship.
The other point of this history is that the Protestant Reformed Churches are well grounded on the doctrines of sovereign grace and the unconditional covenant. Coming to synod were not two groups of elder and minister delegates with opposing theologies. No one may imagine that in the PRC one group wants to have works contribute to salvation, and another group does not. It is not that one group has leanings toward Federal Vision theology, and another group opposes it. It is not that one group teaches justification by faith alone and another justification by faith and works. It is not that some want an unconditional covenant, while others want to make room for conditions in the covenant. All the delegates of synod, representing the churches well from a theological point of view, were and are committed to the theology of justification by faith alone and an unconditional covenant, rejecting Federal Vision and all such like heresies.
Yet, there was controversy. Objections were brought against the teaching of a minister, against the consistory’s defense of the minister’s teaching, and against a “Doctrinal Statement.” The issue was doctrinal, and it was significant. The task of synod was to reject the statements that were erroneous and set forth the proper way to express the place of good works in the experience of covenant fellowship. The discussion at synod was a united effort to do this. Not everyone agreed that this or that statement was in error. But all were committed to the truths that the Protestant Reformed Churches hold dear.
Let it be stated at the outset—these are some deep theological waters, for many of the terms in the controversy have not been defined in Protestant Reformed theology or even discussed in the Reformed confessions. The experience of covenant fellowship? The enjoyment of covenant fellowship? Are these the same as simply “covenant fellowship”? How is our experience of or enjoyment of fellowship with God related to a life of obedience?
In the Reformed theology of salvation the issue is clear, and all ministers, elders, and, I trust, members agree. Works have no place in salvation in the sense that works contribute to, earn, or merit salvation. Further, works are not an instrument to obtaining salvation or the blessing of salvation. Rather salvation is all of grace. All of salvation is in the crucified Christ. Salvation’s benefits flow to the believer through the bond of faith, for faith appropriates Christ with all His benefits. Works are but fruits of thankfulness. They do not make God love us more, be more disposed to favor us, or earn any mercy or grace.
The Reformed theology of the covenant of grace must parallel that. If works do not contribute to salvation, they also do not contribute to maintaining covenant life. Works do not merit fellowship, favor, or the enjoyment of fellowship. Rather, as an elect, regenerated sinner by faith in Christ enters fellowship with God, he lives a life of thankfulness, a life of good works. Another way of expressing that is this: “In the way of obedience, the believer experiences covenant fellowship.” Not, notice, because of obedience, but in the way of obedience. The ground for covenant fellowship is Christ’s cross and justification by faith; the access to God’s fellowship is Christ alone; and in the way of obedience, the believer enjoys covenant fellowship.
Confusion can arise at this point. Is it not true that good works are required of believers in the covenant? They certainly are. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches this in question 86: “Since then we are delivered from our misery, merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?”
Is it also true that when we fail to live a life of obedience, walking in sin and refusing to repent, we lose the enjoyment of fellowship with God? Yes, indeed. Canons V, Article 5 speaks of this result of the grievous sins of a believer:
By such enormous sins, however, they very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences, and sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor, for a time, until on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them.
So, can it be concluded that good works are necessary in the covenant? Yes, for God requires them. Can it be concluded that good works are necessary for covenant fellowship with God? If one means that God requires obedience in the life of the covenant, the answer is yes. If one means that the good works earn or obtain fellowship with God, the answer is no.
While it is true that a life of impenitence results in the believer forfeiting the enjoyment of covenant fellowship, the converse is not true, namely, that the good works obtain or maintain fellowship with God.
Therein lies the problem. Synod judged that statements in a minister’s sermons were wrong because they gave to the believer’s good works “a place and function that is out of harmony with the Reformed confessions.” Synod added, “Necessarily then, the doctrines of the unconditional covenant (fellowship with God) and justification by faith alone are compromised by this error.”
Those synodical declarations demonstrate the significance of the error, and the reason that synod determined that the minister be examined by synod to remove any suspicion concerning his understanding and convictions.
However, synod did not declare this error to be heresy. Synod did not state that this teaching denies the unconditional covenant or justification by faith alone. The minister will be examined, but he is not suspended.
Let this be clear. Anyone who, from this date on, concerning the minister, consistory, committee to assist the consistory, or Classis East, anyone, I say, who alleges that those individuals or ecclesiastical bodies taught heresy, or justification by faith and works, or Federal Vision, or a conditional covenant, is guilty of slander. Such a one must be rebuked. Slander against officebearers, such serious slander, is the devil’s tool to divide the church of Jesus Christ. This is the sin of schism, a sin so serious that officebearers are deposed for it. And members excommunicated for it.
Painful as controversy is, God can use it to clarify His truth. I believe this happened at the Synod of 2018. Synod worked together to reject error and clarify right relationships. One particularly helpful explanation is the following:
Properly expressing the relationship between obedience as the necessary way of the covenant and the experience of covenant fellowship is: We experience fellowship with God through faith (instrument), on the basis of what Christ has done (ground), and in the way of our obedience (way of conduct or manner of living).
The churches are urged to study these decisions in the Acts of the Synod of 2018 when they are printed and distributed. Good discussions of this material will be rewarding. It will result in a better understanding of the place of Christ in our salvation—His saving work for us and in us. And that in turn will lead to even more appreciation for God’s gift of His only begotten Son for our salvation.