Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Chruch of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: 

Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. 

Romans 9:6, 7

In the September issue of Christian Renewal, there appeared an artic& by Rev. Jelle Tuininga reflecting on some of my recent writings concerning the Liberated view of the covenant. With this I am rather pleased, if for no other reason than that, when one writes, he seeks to put thoughts into words which can be accurately understood; and the real test of whether one has succeeded is in hearing from those who differ with him. It is not very difficult to get through to those who agree; they have their own way of filling in where one’s presentation is weak. It is from-those who object that one discovers whether he expressed himself as he ought; and, considering the response of Rev. Tuininga, it would appear that there remains much that has not yet been made clear. If there is to be theological development in our conservative Reformed community, we are going to have to learn to communicate together about our doctrinal differences with mutual kindness and concern and respect. And this in its own way relates to the problem we in the Protestant Reformed Churches had with the Liberated from the start.

At the beginning of his article Tuininga writes, “It was particularly disagreement about the nature of the covenant that ended the relationship between Schilder and Hoeksema. After all, Schilder had just gone through a bitter struggle about this very thing in the Netherlands. Schilder and his followers had been deposed because they refused to accept the Kuyperian view of the covenant which stated that infants are baptized on the basis of presumed regeneration. That is to say, we do not baptize children solely on the basis of the promise of’ God, but on the presumption that these children are regenerated. Imagine Schilder’s consternation when he was confronted by a somewhat similar version of this teaching on the part of Hoeksema.” Now this is an interesting and rather natural speculation on Tuininga’s part – except that it is not true.

In actuality, already when Dr. Klaas Schilder returned to the Netherlands from his first trip before the Second World War, he knew full well that the Rev. Herman Hoeksema held a covenant view different from his own. In turn, once the war was over and it became evident that there had been trouble in the Netherlands over the doctrine of the covenant, one of the first things sent there was a supply of Hoeksema’s De Geloovigen, and Hun Zaad (Believers and Their Seed), a book written already in 1927 analyzing and emphatically rejecting the covenant view of Prof. Heyns, which was in reality not greatly different from that of Schilder and the newly formed Liberated Churches. In fact, before Schilder came again in 1947, Hoeksema wrote, “Dr. Schilder . . . knows that we do not agree with their covenant conception, and that we take the same stand as they, church politically. He is assured too that, in spite of our differences, our churches will give him a hearing. He trusts that we still love him, and that we will give him a warm reception. In this, I think he will not be disappointed.” Meanwhile, Hoeksema in the Standard Bearer was writing about the covenant and inviting, even pleading for, a meaningful discussion of the differences between us. But that was where the problem came in. Schilder, even when personally present – although always gracious as he could be – was little inclined to give definitive answers on these matters. He simply promised to write about them in the Reformatie some day, which to any substantial degree he never did, and Hoeksema’s pleading for discussion went essentially unanswered. The interest of the Dutch seemed to be more in setting up ecclesiastical relations and finding a place for their immigrating families than in dealing with the theological differences which were there.

So, although we had no hesitancy about receiving their members, we were careful to inform them that, while they were free to believe concerning the covenant as they would, they could expect to hear quite a different view preached from, our pulpits. But then it was discovered that Prof. Holwerda was privately advising those same’ immigrants to join the Protestant Reformed, but to ignore Hoeksema’s covenant view and work their own into our churches – and, even more, that certain of our own ministers had privately expressed their approval of this. That, and not Schilder’s ignorance of our differences, was what brought about the breakdown of relationships between us and the Liberated, as well as causing a major disruption in our own denomination. Herman Hoeksema, and those of us who followed him, had no real interest in increasing the membership in our churches at the price of doctrinal unity, while others were willing to accept this. Even they, however, never succeeded in finding unity with the Liberated, but ended up back in the Christian Reformed Church which once “out of conviction” they had left.

Apparently, since that time, we have not been forgotten, but a selection of apocryphal anecdotes have arisen about us, designed, it would seem, to illustrate how extreme we can be. And Tuininga favors us with a few of them.

He writes, for example, “Fact is, Hoeksema once said that if he knew which children would go astray he would not baptize them. And consistency would compel him to say that. In actual fact, this position would be more consistent with believer’s baptism than with infant baptism.” For anyone who knew Hoeksema personally, or who is essentially acquainted with his theology, this can cause little more than a smile; for few things would have been more out of character with him. The fact was that Hoeksema had very little interest in determining, even in regard to the record of Scripture and much less in personal life, who are the elect and who not. Nor did he consider this in any way to be related to the question of who should be baptized. Apart from those very few instances in which the Bible tells us specifically that certain individuals were elect or reprobate, this, he would insist, is none of our business. And, should anyone be inclined to such judgments nonetheless, they would be apt to receive his rather sharp rebuke. He believed firmly in predestination; but also that the application of it to individual persons must be left among the “secret things (which) belong unto the LORD our God” (Deut. 29:29), into which we should not probe. ,

And the same is certainly true of Tuininga’s further observation, “That is why the Prot. Ref. had to change the traditional Form of Baptism,” arousing one to wonder (again what change this is supposed to have been. In actuality we have always used the translation of the Baptism Form found in the old 1912 edition of the Psalter with no reasons at all. (In fact, there are still copies of that edition floating around among us – some books had excellent bindings in those days -which one is free to use at any time.) As it was, Hoeksema himself was very fond of that form, often analyzing and expounding upon it, with a respect nearly equal to that which he held for the confessions. And, in its own way, it illustrates our covenant position quite well. It is true, of course, that it points out, as the Liberated properly observe, that Holy Baptism witnesseth and sealeth unto us the washing away of our sins through Jesus Christ . …” and that “although our young children do not understand these things, we may not therefore exclude them from baptism.” But this baptism comes to fulfillment only by a special work of God, as the Form goes on to imply in the two prayers that follow respectively, “We beseech thee, that Thou wilt be pleased of thine infinite mercy, graciously to look upon these children, and incorporate them by thy Holy Spirit, into thy Son Jesus Christ . …” and again, “We beseech thee, through the same Son of thy love, that Thou wilt be pleased always to govern these baptized children by thy Holy Spirit, that they may grow up in the Lord Jesus Christ, and that they then may acknowledge thy fatherly goodness and mercy, which Thou hast shown to them and us….” It recognizes that we may baptize with water, but it remains for God to apply the baptism of the Holy Spirit without which one can neither see nor enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3-8). And, we might note, this is not something which is presumed to have taken place, but is to be brought about at God’s own will.

Then there is the matter of logic -which warrants a smile of its own. All through his article Tuininga seeks to build one logical syllogism after another to prove how wrong we are, and then pummels us for daring to expect logical consistency of them. The fact of the matter is that God does not lie (Num. 23:19), which is to say that what He says at one point He will not contradict at another. This principle of non-contradiction, as one who has studied logic would know, is that from which all the rest of logic derives – as is implied in the Greek word logos (translated “Word” in John 1) from which the word “logic” is taken. There is a harmonious system of truth which flows throughout the logos by which God has created this world, based on His faithfulness or consistency. And this, in turn, provides us with that old exegetical rule which has always laid the groundwork for all sound Bible interpretation, namely, “the proper interpretation of any passage of Scripture must be in agreement with all the rest,” much as Jesus implied when He said, John 10:35, “the scripture cannot be broken.” One must not interpret one part of Scripture in contradiction to another. And the fact is that without such logical consistency meaningful communication cannot in reality take place. If what one says at one point may conflict with what he says at another, what do we have? All that would remain would be the throwing back and forth of invectives and opinions (only too common in our modem political age), to see who can outshout the other. But that is not what Christianity is about.

And yet in a way that is what it all comes down to the setting forth of presumptions on the one hand, which contradict realities on the other. Abraham Kuyper held that elect children of believers are regenerated at birth, and because of this are to be baptized as a means by which they may receive a covenantal grace, making them sensitive to the Word of God in a special way. He knew, of course, that some of these children are not elect, and therefore may not in fact be regenerated; but he insisted they are to be presumed so nonetheless, and dealt with accordingly. In fact, this is to be so even if as they grow older they show little sign of spiritual sensitivity, since it is quite possible for the seed of regeneration to lie dormant for many years. We must simply continue to urge those who have been baptized to search for indications of this grace within themselves, thereby to gain assurance that they are in fact elect. This the Liberated rejected; and rightfully so – only to base their own view on a presumption equally real.

The Liberated view is that every baptized child without exception receives a concrete promise from God that he is a covenant child and is incorporated into Christ – except that there are demands and warnings affixed to this as conditions which must be met if these promises are to be finally realized. That is to say, if a child grows to maturity without heeding these demands and warnings, he will lose his place in the covenant, and his promises will become a curse. The promise, therefore, may not materialize (in spite of Hebrews 6:17, 18), and salvation can be lost (in spite of Philippians 1:6). Salvation hangs in contingency on responsibilities man must keep. While presumed to be for all at the start, the covenant promise may become a curse when all is done.

In both instances we seem to have a kind of rhetorical positivism. As Reformed believers the Liberated know and acknowledge that according to the confessions salvation is all of God, and only for those of his choice. In our world, orientated to Arminianism, this is not an acceptable thing to tell children; and so they have searched for a way in which every child may be allowed to presume himself to be an object of divine favor, as though, if he does, this will outflank the realities of predestination. It is rather like that old saying which was bantered about by scholastics in the Middle Ages (wrongfully ascribing it to Augustine) that, “If you are not predestinate, then make yourself predestinate.” And so with us, if our children will presume themselves children of God, they will come to be that way – as long that is, as logical inconsistency may be allowed.

It is just this kind of ambiguity which we in the Protestant Reformed Churches have sought to avoid. We make no presumptions. The covenant of grace is essentially a relationship of friendship and love which God establishes with His people in Christ, and baptism is – as was circumcision before it – a sign pointing to the fact that one must be cleansed from the filth of the flesh in order to enter in. But such can come to one only through faith (Gal. 3:16) which makes one participant in the only true seed, Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:7).

In effect what happens is this. When a child is baptized, he is received into the church of God as it is visibly manifested in the local congregation. There, in accord with the promise of the parents, he is brought up in the truth of God as it comes to expression in the life and instruction of the family and the church. At the same time, however, he is assured that true participation in this covenant is not something that can be taken for granted (Lk. 3:8). Just because one has been born of believing parents and baptized, he is not to presume himself regenerated, nor to be an automatic recipient of the promises. He must believe, turn from sin, and follow in the way of Christ (Rom. 10:9). Nor is age a barrier to this. David had faith from his birth (Ps. 22:9, 10); and John the Baptist responded to the presence of Jesus while they were both still in the womb (Matt. 1:44); while all through the ages many have confessed to being unable to remember a day when they did not know themselves to be sinners saved by grace. It may be a very simple and childlike faith, but we are certainly warned not to despise such as that (Ps. 8:2; Mk. 10:14; Matt. 18:1-3). But, throughout, one thing should be understood. This is not something that anyone can do of himself. Faith is a gift of grace (Eph 2:8), and its author is the Holy Spirit (Lord’s Day 27), not man. Life in the covenant is not a matter of what we are willing or able to do, but of rejoicing in what God has done for us.

But it is not always that way. While some covenant children receive this grace at an early age, there are those as well to whom it comes only after they have delved deeply into sin (Lk. 15:17). And then there are those who, though they may have mastered Christian instruction and may even have shown a certain affection for parents and church, to say nothing of having shed tears for sin (Heb. 12:16, 17), yet find no place in their hearts for true repentance and fall away (Rom. 9:6). Within the sphere of the covenant, as without, the means of grace have their dividing effect, as Paul once said with a tinge of sorrow and pain, II Corinthians 2:16, “To the one we are the savor of death unto death; and to the other the savor of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?”

Nevertheless, Deuteronomy 7:9, “the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations.” In this God will keep His church to the end.


In the copy of this article sent to the Christian Renewal, we offered copies of our preceding articles on this subject. If there are any of our readers who are sufficiently interested in this matter to desire them as well, we will send them upon request [1355 Bretton Drive, Kalamazoo, MI 49006].