When we speak of the covenant view of the liberated churches, we must constantly bear in mind, that there is no officially adopted dogma with them on this point.
By their covenant conception we mean the view that is consistently presented by their leaders, such as Prof. Greydanus, C. Vonk, R. Bremmer, Joh. Francke, P. Jasperse, H. J. Schilder, and others. However, they so unanimously present the same view, and that, too, in opposition to the view adopted by the synodical churches, that it is safe to speak of the covenant conception of the liberated churches, just as if it were an officially accepted dogma with them, provided we remember that no particular covenant conception is binding, in their fellowship, for the officebearers and members.
Their view, then, may be briefly characterized as follows:
To this view I offer the following objections.
1. It does not establish the certainty of which it boasts, i.e. the objective certainty that, according to the promise of God, all that are baptized are really in the covenant and have a God-given right to its blessings. For:
a. Either the conditional promise to all is a promise the condition of which must, be and is fulfilled by God. In that case all baptized children are actually saved. It is, of course, the Reformed view that all “conditions” of the covenant, all “conditions” unto salvation are fulfilled by God Himself. If, therefore, we say that our actually receiving the blessings of the covenant is conditioned by faith on our part, we must hasten to add that God Himself gives us the faith. You may also express it this way: the fulfillment of the condition is included in the promise. If the brethren of the liberated churches understand the “conditional promise” in this Reformed sense, and insist on it, they must be consistent enough to teach that all baptized children are actually saved. God promises to all the blessings of the covenant. He promises to all His grace and Spirit. He promises to all the lively faith whereby they become partakers of the blessings of the covenant. The promise of God is sure. Hence, all baptized children are surely saved. The sign and seal of this they receive in baptism. If the brethren would be thus consistent, they would, indeed, arrive at certainty for all, but it would be a mere theoretical assurance, always contradicted by the fact that many baptized children are not saved,
b. Or, if they dare not thus consistently carry out their conception (and they do not), and still insist that the conditional (in the Reformed sense) promise is for all that are baptized, they make God a liar. God promises to establish His covenant with all the baptized children. He gives them a right to all the covenant blessings. He promises that He will give them all His Spirit and grace, and the faith whereby they become partakers of the covenant. Yet, He does not, fulfill His promise to all, but only to the elect. In that case, they make God a liar, and all their talk of certainty is put to shame.
c. Or, if they will not subscribe to either of the above alternatives (and they will not), the conditional promise to all is a promise the condition of which the baptized children themselves must and are able to fulfill. That is the position of Heyns, as we have shown. The distinction between baptized children and others is that the former receive sufficient grace to accept the covenant, to bring forth fruits of faith and repentance, although they can still refuse to do this. That is the position of the Remonstrants. It is Pelagianism applied to the covenant. But, of course, even so, least of all so, there is no certainty. For in that case, the covenant is made contingent upon the will of the sinner. And that means that it has become impossible of realization.
Now, I am well aware that the brethren of the liberated churches reject also this last position. They repudiate the indictment of remonstrantism. They emphatically state that God must fulfill all the conditions.
Yet, I wish to remark, first of all, that I cannot conceive of a fourth alternative. Nor did I meet, in any of the writings of the brethren, of the liberated churches, even an attempt to offer an explanation of this problem. To me it appears that the above alternatives are exhaustive. If they can conceive of a fourth possible explanation of the dilemma that the promise of God is for all, while it is not fulfilled to all, it is up to them to state it clearly.
Secondly, if they are accused of Remonstrantism, they have only themselves to blame. Although I gladly accept that they reject the view of the Remonstrants, it is, nevertheless, true that they expose themselves to this indictment. They do this especially when, in the expository part of the Baptism Form as to God’s “part” in the covenant, they separate the work of the Father and of the Son from that of the Holy Spirit. Heyns does the same thing. It is pointed out that, in regard to the “part” of God the Father and of God the Son, the language of the Baptism Form is positive: “God the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us, that he doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for his children and heirs, and therefore will provide us with every good thing, and avert all evil or turn it to our profit. And when we are baptized in the name of the Son, God the Son sealeth unto us, that he doth wash us in his blood from all our sins, incorporating us into the fellowship of his death and resurrection, so that we are freed from all our sins, and accounted righteous before God.” But, thus it is pointed out, when that same Baptism Form speaks of the work of the Holy Ghost, of His “part” in the covenant, the language becomes contingent: “In like manner, when we are baptized in the name of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost assures us, by this holy sacrament, that he will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ, applying unto us, that which we have in Christ, namely the washing away of our sins, and the daily renewing of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without spot or wrinkle among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.”
You see, they pointed out, the “part” of God the Father and of God the Son is presented as absolutely and objectively sure: in both instances the word doth is used; but the “part” of God the Holy Spirit is presented as conditional and contingent: He will dwell in us, etc. In the former, the bequest, the objective right to the blessings of the covenant is stated; and this is sure to all. In the latter, however, the actual application of the benefits of the covenant is mentioned; and this is not sure at all: it is presented as conditional. The last sentence must be completed as follows: “He will dwell in us, etc. . . . if we fulfill our “part” of the covenant, and walk In faith and obedience before God.”
Now, this interpretation of the Baptism Form is, of course, wide open to criticism. How is it possible thus to separate the work of the Father and of the Son from that of the Holy Spirit? If the Father promises, “witnesseth and sealeth unto us,” that He makes an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for His children and heirs, and will provide us with every good thing, etc., does He not assure us that He will and does do so in His Son and by His Spirit? And when the Son “witnesseth and sealeth unto us,” that He washes us in His blood, incorporates us into the fellowship of His death and resurrection, so that we are free from sin and righteous before God, does He not assure us that He will do so of the Father and through the Spirit? Moreover, when the Holy Spirit assures us that He will dwell in ns, and sanctify us, and apply unto us all we have in Christ, does He not mean that He will make His dwelling with us efficaciously, of the Father and the Son, not because we fulfill any conditions, nor after we have fulfilled them, but before we can do anything to be received into God’s covenant and to receive any of its benefits?
More might be said against this interpretation of our Baptism Form.
However, the one thing I wish to point out in this connection is that the brethren of the liberated churches, by adopting this Heynsian interpretation, lay themselves wide open to the indictment of Remonstrantism. By thus making separation between the work of the Spirit and of the Father and the Son, they strongly suggest that Gold is willing to save all the baptized children, but that the realization of this will to save depends on something they must do. And this is Remonstrantism.
2. This view is in conflict with the plain language of our Baptism Form.
The truth of this statement is already evident from what we quoted of that Form above. That expository part of the Form establishes the whole of God’s covenant and all its benefits as absolutely sure unto the “children of the promise.” God’s part of the covenant is that He: realizes it completely, objectively and subjectively, both as to its objective establishment and as to its subjective application. God assures the “children of the promise,” that He establishes His covenant with them, that He adopts them, that He forgives their sins and justifies them, that He delivers them and sanctifies them, that He preserves and glorifies them. This is absolutely unconditional. No condition whatever is mentioned in this part. Fact is, that if there were a condition attached to this, the covenant could never be realized, and that entire expository part of the Baptism Form would be made vain. But God’s work is never conditional. And the language of the Baptism Form is as positive and unconditional as it possibly could be. The mere fact that the future tense is used in connection with the work of the Holy Ghost (He will dwell in us) does no more make this work contingent and conditional than when the same tense is used with respect to the work of the Father (He will provide us with every good thing); it merely denotes that God the Holy Spirit will surely fulfill this promise in the future, i.e. all our life long, as well as in the present.
To be sure, the Baptism Form makes mention of our “part” in the covenant, that “we by God through baptism (are) admonished of, and obliged unto new obedience, namely, that we cleave to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; that we trust in him, and love him with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our mind, and with all our strength; that we forsake the world, crucify our old nature, and walk in a new and holy life.” But this part is not presented as a condition for the part of God, which we must fulfill before, and in order that God will fulfill His part, but as the new obligation of love which follows upon and from God’s part. And only when and after God has fulfilled His “part” of the covenant, can we begin to fulfill ours.
Moreover, it would appear that the language of the first question that is asked of the parents who present their children for baptism is equally positive. “Whether you acknowledge, that our children are conceived and born in sin, and therefore are subject to all miseries, yea, to condemnation itself; yet that they are sanctified in Christ, and therefore, as members of his Church ought to be baptized?”
It seems quite impossible to me to interpret this “sanctified; in Christ” as referring to a certain objective, ecclesiastical holiness, as, for instance, the priests of the old dispensation were holy (consecrated in their office) unto the Lord, regardless of their own ethical, spiritual sanctification; or as even the vessels of the temple were holy unto Jehovah; and as all Israel are separated from the nations and holy unto God. For, first of all, the New Testament knows of no such objective holiness, not even in. In the second place, the question of the Form speaks of being “sanctified in Christ.” And the only sanctification in Christ of which Scripture knows is real, spiritual, ethical deliverance from the power and the dominion of sin, the inner cleansing of the heart. Thirdly, the contrast in the question leads to the same conclusion: it is either or, one is still (as also our children are by nature) “in sin, and therefore subject to all miseries, yea, to condemnation itself, or he is “sanctified in Christ,” that is, according to the contrast, no longer in sin, etc.
If it should be objected, that, in that case, the Baptism Form requires of the parents the confession that all our children are, at the moment of baptism, already regenerated, we deny this. The question is not: “Whether you acknowledge that. . . .this child is here and now sanctified in Christ,” but: “Whether you acknowledge that ‘our children’ are sanctified in Christ” an expression which is to be understood in the organic sense, without applying it to each baptized child; while the expression that they “are sanctified” may well be understood that before God, in virtue of the promise, they are holy in Christ, without containing any reference as to the time when this sanctification is to be applied to them. I believe that this way of speaking is thoroughly biblical.
Moreover, consider what is said in the thanksgiving of this Form of Baptism: “we thank and praise thee, that Thou hast forgiven us, and our children, all our sins, through the blood of thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, and received ns through thy Holy Spirit as members of thine only begotten Son, and adopted us to be thy children, and sealed and confirmed the same unto us by holy baptism.”
Here, at least, it becomes abundantly evident, that the Baptism Form does not intend to make a distinction and separation between the work of the Father and the Son and that of the Holy Spirit, and between the “bequest” and the application. Even if the forgiveness of sins, and the adoption of children, might be understood in that objective sense, the expression: “and received us through thy Holy Spirit as members of thine only begotten Son,” certainly cannot possibly be exegeted in this same way.
We conclude, therefore, that the view that all the children of believing parents are equally in the covenant in virtue of a conditional promise, is in conflict with the plain language of our Baptism Form.
3. Finally, we believe that this view is also in conflict with the plain teaching of Scripture.
However, the motivation of this statement’ must wait till our next issue, D.V.