Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: December 1, 2007, p. 102.
Controversy over the Covenant
In 1861, two ministers, K.J. Pieters and J.R. Kreulen, introduced a new doctrine of the covenant into the Christian Separated [Dutch: “Afgescheidene“] Reformed Church—the denomination formed in the Netherlands by the Secession of 1834. This doctrine was a radical departure from the doctrine of the covenant of the “fathers of the Secession.” The fundamental feature of the covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen was its denial that the covenant of grace with believers and their children has its source in, and is governed by, God’s eternal decree of election. Therefore, this doctrine of the covenant extended the (saving) covenant grace of God in Jesus Christ to all the baptized children of believers without exception. God on His part is gracious to all the children alike with what the two ministers called “objective” grace.
According to the two Secession ministers, this covenant grace is not irresistible, or efficacious, but conditional. It depends for its efficacy upon the faith of the children, as does the covenant promise by which covenant grace is extended to all the children. Many children, therefore, lose the grace of the covenant (which once was theirs), fall away from the covenant Christ (to whom they were once united), and perish everlastingly (although once they were heirs of eternal life).
Although the two ministers denied the charges, their covenant doctrine taught that covenant salvation is by works, covenant grace is resistible, and covenant saints can fall away from grace.
Implied was that the reason why some children are saved, abide in the covenant, and finally inherit eternal life is not the grace of the covenant, or the promise of God, but their own performance of the stipulated condition.
In the person of Simon Van Velzen (Hendrik de Cock was dead by this time), the “fathers of the Secession” defended their and the churches’ covenant doctrine, and condemned the novel view of Pieters and Kreulen. The doctrine of the covenant of Rev. Pieters and Rev. Kreulen, wrote Prof. Van Velzen, is “in conflict with all our godly fathers, in conflict with the confession of the church, and in conflict with the Holy Scripture.”¹
Covenant and Election
Writing in the January 20, 1865 issue of the magazine of the Secession churches, De Bazuin, Van Velzen grounded the covenant of grace in an eternal “covenant of redemption” between the Father and the Son. Van Velzen’s understanding of the source in eternity of the covenant of grace is not now our concern. What is important is Van Velzen’s insistence that there is in eternity “a covenant between Jehovah and the Lord Jesus…concerning the elect” and that this eternal covenant is the “origin” and “ground” of the covenant of grace in history. Since the covenant of grace originates in this eternal covenant, the covenant of grace is with the elect and with the elect only.
The covenant of grace and our covenant relation with God in Christ have their origin and their ground in this covenant of redemption between God and Christ. From this proceeds the beginning, continuance, and end of the salvation of men. Before one existed, before the gospel was preached to him, it was already decreed and arranged in this covenant when he would be born, when and by what means he would be delivered [from sin], how much grace, comfort, and holiness, how much and what kind of strife and cross he would have in this life—all of this was decreed and comes to each one from this covenant. The elect have then, on the one hand, to do nothing and let the Lord work…. By the power of this covenant, the Lord Jesus is the one who carries out the salvation of the elect.²
Although Van Velzen did not mention Pieters and Kreulen, there can be no doubt that he was opposing the covenant doctrine they had introduced four years earlier in the book Infant Baptism. Van Velzen was defending the orthodox doctrine, that eternal election, which was reflected in, and virtually identical with, the eternal “covenant of redemption,” is the source and ground of the covenant of grace. Van Velzen was earnestly contending that the covenant of grace with believers and their children is governed by election.
Here a matchless love reveals itself, which surpasses all understanding. In this covenant [of redemption in eternity], to be known and thought of; to be given by the Father to the Son; to be written by the Son in His book; to be an object of the eternal, mutual delight between the Father and Christ to save you—that is blessedness! that is a wonder! Here was no foreseen faith, no good works, by which the parties were moved to think of certain persons in this covenant. Here was no necessity, no constraint, but only eternal love and sovereignty. “Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love.”³
Baptism as a (Certain) Seal
In the same issue of the magazine, Van Velzen condemned Pieters and Kreulen—his colleagues in the ministry in the churches of the Secession—by name. Van Velzen used his editorial prerogative to give a running criticism of an article by K.J. Pieters on infant baptism and the covenant. In one of his long editorial comments, Van Velzen expanded the scope of his criticism to include the book that Pieters had written with J.R. Kreulen four years earlier, Infant Baptism. Because of their insistence that Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s grace and salvation for all the baptized children alike, Pieters and Kreulen were forced drastically to weaken the significance of Baptism. They had written that in the baptism of infants Christ merely testifies that all the children “can find in Me a rich righteousness, salvation, and honor in the way of faith.”
Van Velzen responded:
“Can find…in the way of faith?”! Merely this? The believer says more, much more. As certainly as our children have been washed with water, they have the forgiveness of sins, for to them is promised redemption from sins by the blood of Christ, no less than to the adults (Heid. Cat., Q. 74)…. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and the sacrament of that which Christ has done for them (Bel. Conf., Art. 34).4
Those who deny that election governs the covenant are forced to view the baptism of infants as an uncertain sign of what the Savior is willing to let the children do (“find in Me a rich righteousness,” etc.), rather than as the sure sign of what Christ has done and will do for the children, namely, shed His blood for them, forgive their sins, and sanctify them unto life eternal.
Turning his attention back to Pieters’ article inDe Bazuin, Van Velzen answered Pieters’ charge that those who maintain that the true covenant children are the elect children of believers strip the sacrament of its meaning in the case of the other children who are baptized. Without naming him, Pieters directed this charge against Van Velzen, editor of the magazine in which he made the charge. Pieters wrote: “Most administrations of Baptism happen to those who are no members of the covenant [by election, on the view of Van Velzen—DJE]. What then does Baptism signify and seal regarding them? Must not the answer to this question be, ‘Nothing, absolutely nothing’?”
Van Velzen’s answer was brief, and conclusive:
What Baptism signifies and seals to those who are no members of the covenant? It is the same in this case as with the Lord’s Supper. “The ungodly indeed receives the Sacrament to his condemnation, but he doth not receive the truth of the Sacrament” (Bel. Conf., Art. 35).5
A “Common and Powerless Grace”
Striking to the very heart of the error of Pieters’ conditional covenant with all the baptized children alike, Van Velzen charged that Pieters’ covenant doctrine made the covenant promise of God false and ineffectual. In the words of the apostle in Romans 9:6, in Pieters’ doctrine “the word of God hath taken none effect.” For Pieters taught that God promises the forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all the baptized children without exception. Regardless of this promise, however, many of the children perish, unforgiven and damned.
Van Velzen contended for a true and effectual promise—a promise that saves, a promise that God not only makes, but also keeps.
If God gives them this promise, a promise that is not empty and useless, then He will not impute their sins to them, then they have forgiveness with Him, and they are partakers in “the strongest sense of the word” [Pieters had suggested understanding the grace promised to all the children in a strange, obscure, weak sense—DJE] of saving grace.6
Closely related to Van Velzen’s objection to the false and impotent promise of Pieters’ conditional covenant was Van Velzen’s condemnation of Pieters’ doctrine of covenant grace. Pieters taught that God is gracious to every child at Baptism. Because this covenant grace is conditional, it fails to save many of the children. Covenant grace can be lost. Covenant children can very really fall away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ once bestowed upon them. In what was a damning indictment of the new doctrine of the covenant in the churches of the Secession, Van Velzen condemned it as a doctrine of a “common and powerless grace.”7 The indictment was damning because the doctrine of common, resistible grace was the heart of the Arminian heresy condemned by the Canons of Dordt, official and beloved creed of the Christian Separated Reformed Church.
The “father of the Secession” saw clearly the implications of Pieters and Kreulen’s doctrine of a gracious, conditional covenant promise of salvation to all the children alike. At the conclusion of Pieters’ series on Baptism and the covenant in De Bazuin, Van Velzen summed up Pieters’ doctrine this way:
In Baptism, the forgiveness of sins is promised to the entire visible church, to all the members of the visible church without distinction, to children and adults, head for head. In the promise, the benefits of salvation are given to each and every one of them. But the promise of forgiveness and of the other benefits is not saving.
Van Velzen added this ominous prophecy:
It is easy to perceive that this opinion must have great influence on the preaching and that by necessary logical consequence the idea of the covenant of redemption, election and reprobation, limited atonement, and such truths [the doctrines of grace as confessed in the Canons of Dordt—DJE] must undergo enormous change.8
Van Velzen’s prophecy has been fulfilled in all the Reformed churches that have embraced Pieters and Kreulen’s doctrine of a conditional covenant of grace with all the children alike. The preaching does not magnify the sovereign grace of God in the salvation of the covenant children. It proclaims a grace for all the children alike that does not save, but merely makes salvation possible. Refusing to find the source and ground of the covenant of grace in election, it necessarily finds the source of the covenant in a will of God for the salvation of all, and the ground in the faith and obedience of the children.
That these churches are well aware of their apostasy from the Reformed and biblical truth of sovereign grace is evident from their readiness to strike out against the preaching of sovereign grace in the covenant with the slander, “hyper-Calvinism!”
The prophecy of the “father of the Secession” is fulfilled with a vengeance today in the theology and preaching of the federal [covenant] vision. The men of the federal vision openly teach justification by faith and works and the doctrine of universal, resistible, losable grace—in the covenant.
Their heresy is the necessary development of the doctrine of a conditional covenant.
A doctrine of the covenant that cuts the covenant loose from God’s election.
The covenant doctrine of K.J. Pieters and J.R. Kreulen.
Emphatically, not the doctrine of the covenant of the “fathers of the Secession” of 1834.
… to be continued.
¹ Simon Van Velzen, quoted in E. Smilde, Een Eeuw van Strijd over Verbond en Doop (Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1946), 45. This and all other quotations of Dutch writings in this article are my translations.
² Simon Van Velzen, “Het Verbond der Verlossing,” De Bazuin, 20 Januarij 1865. The magazine is not paginated.
³ Ibid. Van Velzen mistakenly gave the reference as Jer. 33:3.
4. Van Velzen, commenting on K.J. Pieters’ article, “Eenige Opmerkingen over de 69e vr. en antw.van den Katechismus, De Bazuin, 20 Januarij 1865.
7. Van Velzen, commenting on Pieters’ article, “Eenige Opmerkingen over de 69e vr. en antw. van den Katechismus,” De Bazuin, 12 Mei 1865 (“eene algemeene en krachtelooze genade”).
8. Van Velzen, commenting on Pieters’ article, “Eenige Opmerkingen over de 69e vr. en antw. van den Katechismus,” De Bazuin, 19 Mei 1865.