But if, as the Baptism Form so plainly teaches, salvation and the promise of God unto salvation are absolutely sovereign and unconditional, can we still preach the gospel, and maintain the responsibility of man?
So some of us seem to think.
Now it is striking that in virtually all the protests that were lodged against us in 1924 this same accusation was found. Van Baalen, Vander Mey, Schans, all accused us that we could not preach the gospel sufficiently and fully, and that we could not and did not maintain the responsibility of man, and even that we made God the author of sin. These accusations were based on the fact that we denied common grace. And, so the accusers argued, if common grace was denied, the responsibility of man could not be maintained, and the gospel could not be sufficiently and fully preached. The Synod of 1924 did not consider these charges, because they said they could not judge my preaching of the gospel. Yet it is evident from the First Point of 1924 that they sustained even these charges. For if you take the First Point in connection with its proof from Scripture and from the Confessions, it is very clear, as we have always maintained, that the heart of the First Point is after all that the gospel is a well-meaning offer of salvation on the part of God to all that hear. It is not striking, then, that now we hear the same accusations, and that too from some in our own midst? To me it means that they no longer repudiate the First Point of 1924 together with all its proof from the Confessions and from the Scriptures. And, I am sorry to say, but it is a fact nevertheless, that I am convinced that in 1924 they would have agreed on this point not with us, but with our accusers. And so would the Liberated.
Besides, the accusation itself is characteristically Arminian: ex ungue lionem,—you recognize the lion by its paw. Always the Arminians have accused Reformed theologians, whether they were infra- or supra- lapsarian, of denying the responsibility of man, of making God the author of sin, and of being incapable of preaching a full gospel.
But there is no truth in this accusation whatsoever.
The same accusation can be lodged, provided that you nourish a wrong conception of the responsibility of man, against practically the whole line of Reformed theology. Thus, they say, if you maintain an unconditional and sovereign election, you deny the responsibility of man and can proclaim the gospel only unto the elect. Thus, they say again, if you maintain that man is conceived and born in sin, that he is guilty because of Adam’s sin, and that he is corrupt because of his organic connection with the human race, you cannot maintain the responsibility of man, neither is it of any use to preach the gospel to a sinner that is completely dead in sin. For how can you maintain individual responsibility if every man is dead in sin from his birth? The same accusation is lodged against Reformed theologians on the score of absolutely free justification by faith. If a man is justified without any work on his part, so they claim, it makes absolutely no difference whether he sins or not: let us continue in sin, that grace may abound. Hence, they make man sovereign in his own domain. Responsibility to them means that man is sovereignly free. And by maintaining their conception of the responsibility of man they destroy the sovereignty of God.
This position also lay at the root of the adoption of the First Point in 1924. If the gospel is not a well-meaning offer of salvation on the part of God to all men, if in that sense there is no common grace, it is impossible to preach the full gospel and to maintain the responsibility of man over against that gospel.
But once more, I say, there is no truth in this accusation, provided you maintain the correct responsibility of man. And that correct conception is not that responsibility presupposes sovereign freedom and presupposes conditions which man must fulfill in order to have God grant His salvation to him, but that man is responsible in his position as a creature, that is, always in a dependent position.
This is the position also which the Baptism Form assumes. For surely, in that second paragraph of the Baptism Form which we just discussed, salvation is presented as being solely of God and as unconditional. A conditional promise, a promise which is dependent on something which man must fulfill as a prerequisite is no promise, to our fathers. Otherwise they could never have maintained the validity of infant baptism. For infants are in no position to fulfill any conditions whatsoever.
Nevertheless, in the third paragraph, which speaks of our part in the covenant of God, they maintain very clearly and very beautifully the responsibility of man. There they teach: “Whereas in all covenants, there are contained ‘two parts: therefore are we by God through baptism, 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, with all our souls, 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. And if we sometimes through weakness fall into sin, we must not therefore despair of God’s mercy, nor continue in sin, since baptism is a seal and undoubted testimony that we have an eternal covenant of grace with God.”
The unconditional establishment of God’s covenant with us by no means destroys the responsibility of man, but rather make him responsible in the highest sense of the word; renders, him not sovereignly free, but free in the highest sense to which a creature can attain, that is, free to love God with all his heart and mind and soul and strength. It renders him responsible, not for God’s part, responsible, not in regard to the question whether or not God will bestow grace upon him, a question which then is dependent upon a condition as a prerequisite which he must fulfill, but responsible for his part of the covenant of God. And the relation between those two parts of the covenant is certainly not that of mutual stipulations and conditions. But it is such that the realization of our part of the covenant is the fruit of the part which God fulfills in us and through us. And that there is such a second part of the covenant possible is only because God realizes His covenant in us and through us not as dead stocks and blocks, but as rational, moral creatures.
Thus, in the church of Christ the gospel can be preached. Thus in that church that gospel can admonish believers, and, in fact, can admonish all that hear and all that are under the historical dispensation of the covenant to cleave to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, to trust in Him and love Him with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our mind, and with all our strength. Thus in the covenant of God we are placed before the obligation not of the law as an external code and demand, but of the law of love, of the law of perfect freedom and of highest responsibility. Thus in our part of the covenant of God as the fruit of God’s establishing His covenant with us, we are admonished to live from the principle of regeneration, antithetically in the midst of the world, and to forsake it. Thus in our part of the covenant as a fruit of God’s part, we are admonished to crucify our old nature, to mortify the members of the body, and to live in sanctification of life. However, all this is not a condition for God’s part of the covenant. For even if we fall into sin, we may nevertheless cling to the unconditional gospel and the unconditional promise of God, as sealed and confirmed in holy baptism, that we have an eternal covenant of grace with God.
Such is the pure Reformed position.
And this position we must certainly maintain as a
Protestant Reformed Church, if we would maintain our identity
There is still more regarding the promise in the beautiful Baptism Form.
In the part that introduces the doctrine of infant baptism, we read as follows:
“And although our young children do not understand these things, we may not therefore exclude them from baptism, for as they are without their knowledge partakers of the condemnation in Adam, so are they again received unto grace in Christ; as God speaketh unto Abraham, the father of all the faithful, and therefore unto us and our children (), saying, ‘I will establish my covenant between me and thee, and thy seed after thee, in their generations, for an everlasting covenant; to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.’ This also the Apostle Peter testifieth, with these words ( ), ‘For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.’ Therefore God formerly commanded them to be circumcised, which was a seal of the covenant, and of the righteousness of faith; and therefore Christ also embraced them, laid his hands upon them and blessed them ( ).
First of all, notice the clause, “for as they are without their knowledge, partakers of the condemnation in Adam, so are they again received unto grace in Christ.”
Let us first of all examine the clause, “so are they again received unto grace in Christ.”
To be received unto grace in Christ means, of course, the promise of salvation.
The Liberated want to include all this in the mere objective bequest. They say that all the children of the covenant are received unto grace in Christ, head for head and soul for soul, in the promise. And that promise is conditional. And so, just as Heyns would interpret this clause, infants are received unto grace in Christ if in the future they will accept the obligations of the covenant. But if they do not accept these obligations, and if they reject this promise by their unbelief, they were nevertheless in their infancy received unto grace in Christ. God’s promise is sincere, and sincere for all. If this is not common grace, and common grace too in the Arminian sense, applied to the sphere of the covenant, and if this is not the same as a well-meaning offer of grace on the part of God to all that are born under the historical dispensation of the covenant,—in other words, if this is not the same as the doctrine of the First Point with its proofs from the ‘Confessions and from the Scriptures, we cannot understand what they do mean.
But this certainly was not the meaning which the fathers meant to convey by this clause. For, first of all, the clause, “so are they again received unto grace in Christ,” can mean nothing else than that by God they are received into the state of grace in Christ, in others words, that they are actually partakers of that grace in Christ.
But secondly, notice the comparison implied in the entire clause: “as they are without their knowledge partakers of the condemnation in Adam, so are they again received unto grace in Christ.”
What does it mean that they are without their knowledge partakers of the condemnation in Adam? Does it mean that when they grow up and accept this condemnation in Adam and walk in the way of that condemnation, they will be condemned in Adam? Of course not. It means nothing else than that our little infants are by nature actually partakers of the condemnation in Adam. It means, as the very first paragraph of the whole Baptism Form has it, “that we with our children are conceived and born in sin, and therefore are children of wrath, in so much that we cannot enter into the kingdom of God except we are born again.” Without their knowledge our little children are actually partakers of the condemnation in Adam. They are actually partakers of the guilt of Adam. They are actually partakers of the corruption of our nature in Adam. But if this is the case, and it is, then the comparison demands that so, without their knowledge, our little children are received actually into a state of grace, so that they are actual partakers of the righteousness in Christ, and so that they are actual partakers of the application of all the blessings of salvation by the Holy Spirit in Christ. It is said in the Baptism Form that all this is without the knowledge of the little children. And, if it is without their knowledge, it stands to reason that it is unconditional: for without their knowledge they cannot fulfill, or even be aware of, any condition as prerequisite which they must fulfill on their part.