Key to a proper understanding of the Reformed doctrine of salvation and therefore also of the doctrine of the covenant, is faith. How faith fits as an instrument must be carefully taught, lest one slip into hyper-Calvinism or into Arminianism.
That faith is an instrument is clear from the confessions. The Belgic Confession (Art. 22) teaches that “the Holy Ghost kindleth in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ, with all His merits, appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him.” It goes on to maintain that believers “possess Jesus Christ through faith.” The article rejects the notion that “faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness.” And it concludes, “faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him and all His benefits.”
The Canons echo this in Head I, Article 4:
The wrath of God abideth upon those who believe not this gospel. But such as receive it, and embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith, are by Him delivered from the wrath of God, and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them [emphasis added].
Conditional covenant theology maintains that God establishes His covenant with every baptized child, and then requires faith as a condition that the child must fulfill. We have already seen that the Canons explicitly reject faith as condition of election, maintaining rather that faith is a fruit of election (I, 9). Really that should end the matter, and the Reformed theologian should recognize that for his covenant theology to be consistent with the Canons, faith is not to be set forth as a condition in the covenant.
The idea of faith as condition in the covenant is also in conflict with Head IV, on the conversion of man, and its clear teaching on faith as God’s gift.
Here the conditional theologian who holds to the Canons recognizes a problem. His solution is to insist that while faith is a condition, it is not man’s work. Rather, God gives faith. This, he insists, makes his conditional faith not Arminian, but in harmony with the Canons. This is Klaas Schilder’s explanation:
Now someone has said that actually you are speaking as a Remonstrant, because the Remonstrants teach that faith is a condition for salvation. No, no, we respond! You must watch out. The Remonstrants teach that man must do that and make this good work the ground of salvation (faith seen beforehand by God is ground for salvation). We do not teach this. We say that God makes and devises everything. That God has also created my saying “yes” and my faith. Any good that comes from me is God’s gift and is from Him alone! Yet we must speak of conditions: I will not receive it if I do not comply with the demand—faith is the first demand.1
In response, we note first of all, that it is not the usual idea of a condition if God demands a condition, but then fulfills it. Why call it a condition? But leaving that aside, it will become plain that this idea is contrary to the confessions because it requires that man fulfill a condition in order to be saved.
This comes out in the typical illustration given by Liberated theologians, namely, the notion that the baptism certificate can be compared to a bank check. As they explain it, at baptism, each child receives a check written out to him or her, signed by God Himself, promising the child salvation from sin and eternal life. The child can do one of three things with that check. First, he might decide to frame it and hang it on the wall. He is a member of the church and has the personal promise of eternal life. But if he dies, the check is worthless because he never claimed the promise (cashed the check), and he perishes. Second, he can rip up the check and throw it away, rejecting any promise of God. He is a covenant-breaker and likewise will perish. Third, he can turn the check over, endorse it with his signature, and taking it to the bank, claim the promise and receive it—eternal life is his. He does that by believing God’s promise to him. Without that, as Schilder writes, “I will not receive it if I do not comply with the demand—faith.”
There is a serious problem with this presentation. One can try to distinguish it from the Arminian conception of faith as a condition, but the problem remains. It is this: The child must do something in order to get saved. He has the check, the promise, but not what the check promises, namely, salvation. Only after he fulfills the condition, by believing, does he receive salvation. So, faith, the activity of the child, gets him salvation. To be more explicit, he is not saved so long as he only holds the check in his hand. But, in that unsaved state, he obtains salvation by his act of endorsing the check, that is, believing the promise.
This contradicts the truth of total depravity. This child is, apart from the saving work of the Spirit, dead in sin. Before the Spirit works salvation, the child can in no way believe.
Over against that, the Reformed teaching on faith is that faith is not a condition unto salvation. Rather, faith is part of God’s work of salvation.
Head I taught that election is the cause of faith. Head IV does the same:
Article 10. But that others who are called by the gospel, obey the call, and are converted, is not to be ascribed to the proper exercise of free will, whereby one distinguishes himself above others, equally furnished with grace sufficient for faith and conversions, as the proud heresy of Pelagius maintains; but it must be wholly ascribed to God, who as He has chosen His own from eternity in Christ, so He confers upon them faith and repentance, rescues them from the power of darkness, and translates them into the kingdom of His own Son [emphasis added].
In Head IV, the Canons explain the marvelous saving work of God under the broad term “conversion.” Included in this is regeneration and faith. Article 11 gives an overview of God’s work in His elect:
But when God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, He not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illumines their minds by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, pervades the inmost recesses of the man; He opens the closed, and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.
All that is required in the dead sinner to produce the fruits of salvation!
Article 12 warns that God works this “in us without our aid.” Then the Canons point out:
But this is in no wise effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation, that after God has performed His part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not, to be converted, or to continue unconverted.
On the contrary, “it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable.” And, the result? “All in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner, are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe.” And this is the marvel of it: “Whereupon the will thus renewed, is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence, becomes itself active. Wherefore also, “man is himself rightly said to believe and repent, by virtue of that grace received.” [Emphasis added.]
Finally in Article 14, the Canons answer the question, In what way is faith a gift of God? First, it rejects some Arminian explanations of how faith could be a gift of God, and yet remain in some way a work of men. “Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure.” Is faith an external gift offered to all, take it if you want it? No, rather, faith “is in reality conferred, breathed, and infused into him.”
A second possibility taught by the Arminians is that “God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should, by the exercise of his own free will, consent to the terms of that salvation, and actually believe in Christ.” That also is rejected by the Canons. And the Canons then state this astounding truth: God “who works in man both to will and to do, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe, and the act of believing also.” The very act of believing is God’s work in His elect!
And how can anyone think then—this act of believing is the way that a baptized child will fulfill a condition with God?
Indeed, faith is an instrument that embraces and appropriates Christ. But this is not to be understood as if a dead sinner gets faith, and then reaches out to take salvation that he did not have before. Rather, when God saves His elect, part of His saving work is faith. This is the teaching of Canons II, 8 concerning “all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death.” Faith is one of the “saving gifts of the Holy Spirit” that Christ earned.
With this faith, the saved believer embraces Christ and appropriates Him personally. He has the certain knowledge and hearty confidence that Christ is his personal Savior. This is no condition. Rather, it is God fulfilling His promise made to the elect child at baptism. “I establish my everlasting covenant with you. You are washed in the blood of Christ. The Spirit will work faith in you, even the act of believing. You belong to me.” And God keeps His promise infallibly.
However, more can be said about faith and its role in salvation.
Herman Hoeksema wrote an eleven-part series in 1949–50 entitled “As to Conditions.” In this marvelous series, he demonstrated that faith is not and cannot be a condition. He dealt with many aspects of the discussion, including the question of man’s activity, or responsibility. He wrote:
But, you say, how then about the responsibility of man? Do we not need the term condition to denote that man is a responsible creature? Do we not make man “a stock and block” by laying all emphasis on the truth of election and sovereign grace?
My answer is decidedly: No!
I must say more about this in the future. I am not yet through with my discussion of conditions.
But let me suggest that instead of the Pelagian term “condition” we use the term “in the way of.”
We are saved in the way of faith, in the way of sanctification, in the way of perseverance unto the end.
This term is capable of maintaining both: the absolute sovereignty of God in the work of salvation and the responsibility of man.
But, as I say, about this I must write more in the future.2
Here, Hoeksema, rejecting the notion that faith is a condition in any sense, introduces the expression “in the way of” as a better way to speak of the relation between faith and the blessings of salvation. He promised to write more about this idea of man’s activity and faith. What he wrote in subsequent editorials is clear and therefore helpful and valuable for us yet today, and portions of it will be quoted in the next editorial on the covenant and Dordt.
1 “The Main Points of the Doctrine of the Covenant,” p. 13 (a speech given by Dr. K. Schilder August 31, 1944, translated in 1992 by T. van Laar).
2 “As to Conditions (5),” Standard Bearer, December 15, 1949 (Vol. 26, No. 6), 125.