Previous article in this series: December 1, 2011, p. 106. *Third installment of the text of the address given at the annual meeting of the Reformed Free Publishing Association (RFPA) on September 22, 2011 at Faith Protestant Reformed Church, Jenison, MI.
As to its format, the Declaration is set out in outline form. It consists of a preamble (which was added to the Declaration after its provisional adoption in 1950, at the synod of 1951) and of four distinct sections.
Between the preamble and the first main section there is what might be called a brief introduction. This introduction establishes that the PRC stand on the basis of Scripture, described as the “infallible Word of God,” and on the basis of the Three Forms of Unity. In addition, the PRC “accept” the liturgical forms, which are then listed and among which the baptism form has great importance in the body of the Declaration.
The special importance of this introduction is that it affirms the creeds as the basis of the PRC, inasmuch as the creeds are binding summaries of the Bible. Therefore, the Declaration may appeal to the creeds as authoritative for answering the covenant question that was troubling the churches.
Section I is a repudiation of the three points of common grace adopted by the CRC in 1924, especially the teaching of the first point concerning the well-meant offer. Section I also affirms that the grace of God in the preaching is particular and that the promise, which the preaching proclaims, is particular, concerning the elect only.
Rejection of the doctrine that the preaching is a well-meant offer to all hearers and affirmation that the grace of God in the preaching is particular bear on the controversy over the covenant. Section I, D, 2 indicates the connection: “The preaching of the gospel is not a gracious offer of salvation on the part of God to all men, nor a conditional offer to all that are born in the historical dispensation of the covenant, that is, to all that are baptized” (emphasis added).
The doctrine of a conditional covenant simply applies the teaching of a well-meant offer to the covenant. According to the doctrine of a conditional covenant, God on His part is gracious to all the baptized children of believers, those who perish as well as those who are saved. In this common (covenant) grace, He promises salvation to all of them alike and establishes His covenant with all of them alike.
Then, in Section I, follow quotations from various creeds.
Section II of the Declaration is the longest section. It is the heart of the Declaration. This section gets into the covenant controversy and draws from the creeds basic truths of the gospel that expose and condemn the conditional covenant as the heresy of Arminius and Pelagius applied to the covenant and its salvation.
Section II begins with two propositions that lay the foundation for the defense of an unconditional covenant. One is the proposition that election is the fountain of all salvation and of all the gifts of grace, including faith. The other is the proposition that Christ died for the elect, and for the elect only.
On the basis of these two fundamental, creedal doctrines, the Declaration affirms that the covenant promise, the covenant, and all the covenant blessings are for the elect children of believers only.
Section II also states that faith is a gift, not a condition.
Such is the importance of this section of the Declaration that in it occurs virtually the only argumentation that is found in the document. Significantly, this argumentation concerns Question 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Question 74 is the Catechism’s explanation and defense of infant baptism.
Are infants also to be baptized?
Yes; for since they, as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and people of God, and both redemption from sin and the Holy Ghost, who works faith, are through the blood of Christ promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by Baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by Circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is appointed.¹
The covenant controversy in the PRC centered on the baptized children of believers. The question was whether God makes the gracious promise of the covenant to all the baptized children, conditionally, or only to the elect children, unconditionally. The argument of the Declaration at this point is that Question 74 of the Catechism cannot be understood any other way than as referring to the elect children of believers. According to Question 74 the covenant promise is made to infants, in their infancy, prior to their baptism. But infants are obviously unable to perform any condition.
In addition, the covenant promise, which is the basis of infant baptism, includes the promise of faith: “the Holy Ghost, who works faith, [is] promised to them.” The covenant promise does not depend upon the child’s act of faith as a condition for its realization. Rather, God solemnly vows to give faith to the children who are the object of the promise, as one of the promised blessings of salvation.
In light of Question 74 of the Catechism, not only is it false doctrine to teach that faith is a condition of the covenant, but it is also absurdity: “I [God] promise to give you [infant child] faith, on the condition that you produce faith.”
A fatal weakness, and obvious error, of the doctrine of a conditional covenant is that, contrary to Question 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism, it does not include faith in the covenant promise.
Since election is the fountain of all the blessings of salvation (including faith), since Christ died for the elect (to purchase faith for them), and for them only, and since the covenant promise includes God’s vow to give the objects of the promise faith, the children who are the objects of the covenant promise in Question 74 of the Catechism are the elect children. And the covenant promise to them is unconditional.
For these principles, Section II appeals to the creeds, which it quotes.Section III
Section III draws conclusions from the preceding sections, especially from Section II. It does so in good, antithetical, Reformed fashion, that is, both negatively and positively. We repudiate, and we affirm.
The main negative conclusion deserves to be quoted in full: “We repudiate the teaching that the promise of the covenant is conditional and for all that are baptized.” This settled the covenant controversy in the PRC.
The chief positive affirmation is that “God surely and infallibly fulfills His promise to the elect.” God makes the promise of the covenant only to the elect children, and the promise includes its fulfillment. When God promises, He does not merely express what He would like to do—what He is willing to do—but what He certainly will do in and for the one to whom He makes the promise.
Section III also contains affirmations of the responsibility before God of both the elect and the reprobate. The foes of the Declaration charged against it that it did not do justice to human responsibility. On the advice of Herman Hoeksema, the synod of 1951 added an important passage to the edition of the Declaration that had been adopted provisionally in 1950. This passage warded off the charge that the Declaration did not do justice to responsibility, and serves to guard the PRC against the evil of antinomianism. Antinomianism rejects law, or demand, as an aspect of covenant life. The Declaration affirms that God’s covenant promise “confronts us with the obligation of love, to walk in a new and holy life, and constantly to watch unto prayer” (emphasis added).
Another element of this affirmation of responsibility, specified in Section III, is that the preaching comes to all who hear with the serious command to all to believe and repent. The preaching also (promiscuously) announces to all hearers the (particular) promise that everyone who does believe and repent will be saved. This makes plain to the Christian world that the PRC are not hyper-Calvinists, and helps to guard the PRC against this error.
Like the other sections, Section III quotes the creeds extensively in support of both the repudiation and the affirmations.
Section IV is anomalous. It has nothing to do with the great covenant controversy that is the concern of the Declaration. It has to do, rather, with church polity. Section IV affirms the commitment of the PRC to the autonomy of the local congregation.
No doubt, at the time this affirmation was a last-ditch, feeble attempt to maintain contact with the RCNlib, in spite of the Declaration’s condemnation of those churches’ doctrine of the covenant. The RCNlib were known as fierce enemies of synodical hierarchy, as indeed are the PRC.
If this was the purpose of Section IV, the attempt failed, and was doomed to fail. Within weeks of the adoption of the Declaration, Schilder wrote finis to all relations between the RCNlib and the PRC, in an article titled, “De Kous is Af” [ET: “The Stocking Is Finished”].
Section IV, too, quotes the creeds to demonstrate that the autonomy of the local congregation is Re-formed and biblical.
What now are the “principles” of the covenant that the Declaration declares on the basis of the Reformed creeds?
Ophoff wrote that the two main teachings of the Declaration are the truth of the unconditional promise and the truth that the promise is to the elect only. Hoeksema agreed.
We may be more detailed.
First, God graciously establishes His covenant with the elect, particularly, the elect children of believers, and with them only.
Second, God establishes His covenant with these children by gracious promise to them, and to them only. The covenant promise, “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” is not to and for all the baptized children, but for the elect children only.
Third, this promise God certainly fulfills, in every case. The promise includes the certainty of its realization with every child to whom God makes the promise. In contrast, the doctrine of a conditional covenant has God’s promise failing in multitudes of instances.
Fourth, the covenant promise is unconditional. It depends only upon the gracious, promising God, not upon the baptized infant.
Fifth, the promise includes faith, that is, when God promises to be the God of a child He promises to give that child faith. Faith is a covenant gift, not a covenant condition.
Last (but so far from being least, this, to my mind, is the main principle), election governs the covenant. This truth was at the heart of the covenant controversy in the PRC in 1951. It is at the heart of the controversy of Reformed orthodoxy with the federal vision today. Although it is never explicitly stated, this fundamental truth certainly is implied in the contents of the Declaration.
The issue, once again, as always down the ages, is God’s eternal, sovereign, unconditional predestination.
Now in relation to the covenant of grace.
(to be concluded)
¹ Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 74, in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, repr. 1966), 331.