Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: February 1, 2008, p. 201.
“[I] expect that my view [of the covenant of grace] will remain standing firm in God’s church,” wrote Christelijke Afgescheidene Gereformeerde Kerk minister H. Joffers in his defense of the doctrine of the covenant of the “fathers of the Secession” in 1865.¹
Christ has not put the hope of the fiery defender of sovereign grace to shame.
The doctrine of the covenant of the “fathers of the Secession,” particularly Hendrik de Cock and Simon VanVelzen, is confessed today by the Protestant Reformed Churches.
God’s eternal, gracious decree of election, accompanied by the just decree of reprobation, governs the covenant of grace with believers and their children, as it governed (and still governs) the covenant with Abraham and his seed, being one and the same covenant. Election is the source of the covenant of grace, of the gracious covenant promise, of the bestowal of all the blessings of the covenant, of covenant salvation, and of the preservation of covenant saints.
Accordingly, the covenant grace of God in Jesus Christ is particular and irresistible, or efficacious. God’s grace in the covenant is not universal, that is, wider than election, which is the source of covenant grace, and more extensive than the cross of Christ, which is the judicial ground of the covenant. The grace of the covenant is not resistible and losable, as it must be if it is universal in the sphere of the covenant.
Because the covenant has its source in election, and is governed by election, the covenant is unconditional. For its establishment, maintenance, and perfection, it depends upon the almighty grace of God in Jesus Christ. The covenant does not depend upon the will, work, or worth of the baptized child, whether the will, work, or worth of the child is aided by grace or is the child’s own unaided contribution.
The faith of the covenant child is certainly the necessary means by which the child receives and enjoys the covenant and its blessings, as it is the power of the demanded covenant life of obedience. But faith is the gift of God in the covenant, with regard both to the power of faith and to the activity of faith (Canons, III, IV/14). This gift of faith to the child is determined by predestination (Acts 13:48; Canons, I/6).
The faith of a baptized child does not make covenant grace, supposedly offered to all alike and even bestowed on all alike, effectual in some. The faith of a child is not the cause of the fulfillment in a few of a promise supposedly made to all the children alike. The faith of a child is not the reason why some children remain in the covenant in distinction from others, who once were in the covenant as truly as those who abide, but eventually fall out of the covenant.
On such a view, faith is a human work upon which the covenant, indeed the covenant God Himself, depends. And the inheritance and salvation of the covenant are, in fact, of him that runs and wills, rather than solely of God who shows mercy (Rom. 9:16).
Publicly, officially, decisively, and at huge cost of reproach, scorn, and exclusion in the Reformed community (not unlike the reproach borne by the Secession in its early days), the Protestant Reformed Churches have rejected the doctrine of a conditional covenant made in grace with all the children of believing parents alike. Thus, the Churches have maintained the covenant doctrine of the “fathers of the Secession.”
They rejected the doctrine of conditional, resistible covenant grace to all the baptized children alike, first, in their repudiation of the “well-meant offer of the gospel” in 1924. The “well-meant offer” of Christ as adopted by the Christian Reformed Church was the doctrine of preaching that arose out of Christian Reformed theologian Prof. William Heyns’ teaching of a covenant grace of God towards and in all baptized children without exception. Repudiating the “well-meant offer”—the doctrine that God is gracious in the preaching to all hearers without exception, that is, the doctrine that election does not govern the preaching of the gospel—the Protestant Reformed Churches also, in fact, rejected the doctrine of universal, conditional, resistible grace in the sphere of the covenant. As the history of the Secession of 1834 illustrates, the doctrine of a “well-meant offer” and the doctrine of conditional grace to all baptized children go hand-in-hand.
The Protestant Reformed Churches rejected the doctrine of a conditional covenant a second time in 1951. This rejection was explicit. It had to be explicit for, just as in the churches of the Secession in the early 1860s, ministers within the churches themselves introduced the new and different doctrine of a covenant cut loose from election. Unlike the churches of the Secession at their synods of Franeker (1863) and Amsterdam (1866), the Protestant Reformed Churches responded to the erroneous teaching as a Reformed denomination confessing the Canons of Dordt is bound to do. By synodical decision, they condemned the doctrine of a divine covenant dependent on human conditions as contrary to the Reformed creeds, including the Reformed “Form for the Administration of Baptism.” They affirmed the covenant gospel of sovereign, particular grace.
The Protestant Reformed Synod of 1951 adopted a statement that simply applied the teaching of the “Three Forms of Unity” and the Baptism form to the controverted issue of the covenant. The statement is titled, “Declaration of Principles of the Protestant Reformed Churches.” The “Declaration” affirms that “all the covenant blessings are for the elect alone” and that “God’s promise is unconditionally for them only: for God cannot promise what was not objectively merited by Christ.”² The “Declaration” denies that “the promise of the covenant is conditional and for all that are baptized.”³
The covenant doctrine that the Protestant Reformed Churches repudiated in 1951 was that of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”). Ministers in the Protestant Reformed Churches had become enamored of the doctrine of the covenant taught by K. Schilder, B. Holwerda, and C. Veenhof. But the covenant doctrine of the “liberated” Reformed was, and is, that of the Secession ministers Pieters and Kreulen. This is the case, not only because all forms of covenant doctrine that cut the covenant loose from election are essentially one and the same. But the “liberated” Reformed theologians deliberately patterned their doctrine of the covenant after that put forward by Pieters and Kreulen in their book on the covenant and infant baptism in 1861. C. Veenhof, leading architect of the doctrine of the covenant of the “liberated” Reformed, tells us this: “[The ‘liberated’ doctrine of the covenant] was drawn up in conscious connection with that which was taught by men such as Pieters and Kreulen….”4
Indeed, “drawn up in…connection with” fails to do justice to the dependency of the “liberated” doctrine of the covenant upon Pieters and Kreulen. One who has read Pieters and Kreulen’s De Kinderdoop (English translation:Infant Baptism) concludes that the “liberated” Reformed theologians simply made Pieters and Kreulen’s doctrine their own.
The dominant feature of the “liberated” doctrine, like that of the doctrine of the two Secession ministers, is its cutting loose of the covenant from election. It was the avowed purpose of the “liberated” Reformed theologians that election not govern the covenant of grace. “With regard to what was taught [by the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”)] concerning covenant, covenant promise, and Baptism, very consciously this was not placed under the control of election.”5
All of the other elements of the doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen make up the doctrine of the covenant of the “liberated” Reformed: a gracious promise to all the children alike, dependent for its realization upon the condition of faith; the failure of the promising God to keep His promise in many instances, because of the failure of the children to perform their condition; a covenant grace to every baptized child without exception, which grace can be resisted and lost; the bestowal of covenant blessings upon all the children at Baptism, which blessings can be lost; the very real possibility of apostasy from the covenant in which one was once included as truly as were those who persevere unto eternal life; and even the characteristic attack on the teaching that God establishes His covenant with Christ as head of the covenant and the elect in Him consisting of the charge that this doctrine robs Baptism of its meaning in the case of reprobate children.
By the Protestant Reformed condemnation of the conditional covenant doctrine of the “liberated” Reformed Churches, therefore, Reformed churches carrying on the tradition of the Secession of 1834 condemned the covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen as contrary to the Reformed confessions. What the Secession churches failed to do at their synods of 1863 and 1866, the Protestant Reformed Churches did in 1951.
The fundamental issue between the two contending covenant doctrines in the Dutch Reformed tradition, indeed in the history of Reformed Christianity from Calvin and Bullinger to the present day, is not, as Veenhof thought, the conditionality or unconditionality of the covenant promise: “the central question, namely, the nature of the covenant promise [whether conditional or unconditional— DJE].”6
The nature of the covenant promise, whether a gracious, conditional, resistible promise to all the children alike or a gracious, unconditional promise to the elect children only, that effectually realizes itself in all to whom God makes it, is indeed important. The promise of the covenant is a chief concern of the “Declaration of Principles,” just as it is a great concern of the apostle in Romans 9:6ff. that the word of God’s covenant promise to Abraham and his seed not be ineffectual in any to whom it referred: “Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect.”
Nevertheless, the fundamental issue in the controversy between the two contending doctrines of the covenant is not the nature of the covenant promise.
Rather, the fundamental issue is the relation of election and covenant: Does election govern the covenant?
If election governs the covenant, as the “fathers of the Secession” taught in the nineteenth century and as the Protestant Reformed Churches confess today, the covenant, the covenant promise, covenant union with Christ, the gift and possession of covenant blessings, perseverance in the covenant, and covenant salvation are unconditional. They depend, not upon the believing and obeying child, but upon the free, sovereign, electing grace of the covenanting God in Jesus Christ.
The issue is the gospel of (covenant) salvation by (covenant) grace alone.
That this, and nothing less, is indeed the issue in the longstanding controversy over the covenant, the heresy of the federal vision now makes plain in the community of Reformed churches. The men of the federal, that is, covenant, vision are, by their own testimony, developing the covenant theology of Schilder, Holwerda, and Veenhof and, therefore, the covenant doctrine of Pieters and Kreulen. This development of the covenant doctrine of the “liberated” Reformed Churches brazenly denies justification by faith alone and every one of the five, grand truths of the gospel of grace confessed, explained, defended, and adopted by the Reformed churches in the Canons of Dordt. I have demonstrated all of this in a full-length book, and need not argue, or prove, these incontrovertible statements here.7
It is not enough, therefore, not nearly enough, that Reformed churches affirm non-binding propositions gainsaying some of the more egregiously heretical teachings of the men of the federal vision.
It is certainly not enough that Reformed seminaries and theologians, under pressure, distance themselves from the men of the federal vision.
The God of Reformed church history, whose mills of judgment upon error grind slowly but exceedingly fine and whose advancing of the truth of the gospel to victory moves similarly slowly but surely, now puts all of Reformed Christianity to the test by means of the theology of the federal vision, His unwilling servant.
A conflict over the covenant that has continued, and repeatedly raged, over hundreds of years now must and will be resolved.
From the full, bitter fruits of the doctrine of a covenant cut loose from election, the Reformed churches must now recognize that this doctrine is the denial of the gospel of grace as confessed in the Canons of Dordt.
In light of the dreadful judgment of God on the doctrine of a conditional covenant in the form of the theology of the federal vision, Reformed churches are called to renounce the doctrine of a conditional covenant and to confess that God’s gracious, sovereign, eternal decree of election in Christ governs the covenant of grace.
They are called to return to the covenant doctrine of the “fathers of the Secession.”
Thus, in the great matter of covenant salvation they will return to the Canons of Dordt, which was the “credo” of the Secession of 1834.8
So that to God alone may be the glory of salvation—in the covenant!
1. H. Joffers, De Kinderdoop met zijn Grond en Vrucht (Kampen: S. VanVelzen Jr., 1865), 4. This and all other quotations from Dutch writings in this article are my translations. Joffers’ book has not been translated. The English title would be, Infant Baptism with its Ground and Fruit.
2. The “Declaration of Principles,” in The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), 418.
3. Ibid., 424.
4. C. Veenhof, Prediking en Uitverkiezing (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1959), 299.
5. Ibid. The emphasis is Veenhof’s.
7. See my The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers: Sovereign Grace in the Covenant (Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2005).
8. “One of the first publications that Hendrik de Cock provided for was the re-publication of the Canons of Dordt. With this the Credo of the Secession as a reformation movement had been expressed” (W. van’t Spijker, “De Synode en de Remonstranten,” in W. van’t Spijker and others, De Synode van Dordrecht in 1618 en 1619, Houten: DenHertog, 1987, 120).