What about “Covenantal Wrath”?

By “covenantal wrath” or “covenantal vengeance” I understand a manifestation of God’s wrath and vengeance which is peculiar to the sphere of God’s covenant. That is, it is peculiar not in its nature as such: God’s wrath is always the reaction of His holiness against sin and against the workers of iniquity. But it is peculiar in its measure. That is, His wrath burns in special measure against sin and against the sinner in the sphere of His covenant. The children of the kingdom who are cast out shall be beaten with double stripes. Israel, reprobate Israel, shall dwell alone in hell. 

In explanation of this idea I offer a rather lengthy quotation from Herman Hoeksema’s Believers And Their Seed, pp. 137-145, a work which I translated from the Dutch several years ago and which has been published by our Reformed Free Publishing Association. Even as I have done before, so again I strongly recommend to our readers a careful study of this little book. Its polemical early chapters are beneficial; but from a positive point of view, the later chapters, in which the organic view of the covenant is developed, are even more valuable. The quotation which I here present has the added benefit of explaining a difficult passage of Scripture,Hebrews 6:4-8. The quotation is from the chapter entitled, “The Reprobate In The Sphere, Of The Covenant.” It here follows in its entirety. 

This same idea is probably pictured most strongly inHebrews 6:4-8: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: But that which beareth thorns and. briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.” 

This last passage of Holy Writ casts considerable light upon the question under consideration. 

In the first place, it is plain that the text here speaks of children of the kingdom in the outward sense of the word, of the ungodly in God’s covenant, who never actually come to repentance. As might be expected, this passage is often quoted by those who hold to the possibility of a falling away of the saints. Superficially considered; one might be inclined to draw this conclusion from the text. After all, Scripture here describes men who were once enlightened, who have tasted of the heavenly gift, and who were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, who have tasted the good Word of God, and the powers of the world to come. It speaks of men who so much resemble true children of God that it is well-nigh impossible to distinguish them from the latter. But the doctrine of a falling away of the saints lies wholly in the line of Arminianism and militates so flagrantly against the whole of Holy Scripture that we may immediately rule out the very possibility that the text would teach such a falling away. Those whom God has predestinated unto salvation will also surely be glorified. The unchangeable love of God, the blood of Christ, the intercession of our great High Priest in the heavens, the powerful preservation of the grace of God—all these are the sure guarantee that nothing shall be able to separate them from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Regeneration and conversion and the entire work of God in His elect is begun by God, and He will never forsake that which His hand has once begun. This is absolutely sure. And if this is established, then it follows that in this passage we are dealing with men who live very close to the stream of grace, so close that they understand and taste something—or sometimes even much—of it, but always with a natural understanding and an impenitent heart. 

Now this can only take place and does only take place in the sphere of God’s covenant as it is revealed in the world. What is here stated could not be said of men of the world who perhaps come into contact with the gospel of Jesus Christ only once or possibly a few times. The text therefore teaches us nothing else than the influence which proceeds from this living in the sphere of that covenant of God upon those who remain ungodly. It is true that we may undoubtedly add here, that this strong language is not applicable in all its force to all the reprobate in the sphere of the covenant. It even requires a certain class of ungodly children of the kingdom to stand as high as those who are here described without being partakers of grace. Not all attain to this status. They are perhaps to be sought among those who stand foremost in the church. But this, after all, concerns only a question of degree. In principle this may undoubtedly be said of all the ungodly in the sphere of God’s covenant. Of all of them it may be said that in that sphere they receive something whereby they are distinguished from those who stand entirely outside, that by their being in that covenant—be it then, that this is only in the outward sense of the word—they are spiritually influenced. But the question remains yet: what is it, really, that they receive? 

In answer to this question we wish to remark, first of all, that also in that covenant as they belong to it in an outward sense they receive no grace. In some circles they like to speak of a general covenant grace, a certain grace of which all covenant members, all those who are baptized, become partakers. According to this view, taught for many years at Calvin College and Seminary by Prof. W. Heyns—the view on which we reflected earlier in this treatise—all those who are baptized receive a certain subjective grace by which they are put in a position to accept or reject God’s covenant. Of course, this is pure and simple Pelagianism applied to the area of God’s covenant in the world. This presentation is very dangerous, but it has nevertheless found wide acceptance in the Christian Reformed Churches. According to it, the covenant is merely a promise to all. Those who are baptized must consent to that covenant, they must accept that promise, if they are to be truly members of God’s covenant. And God bestows upon every covenant member sufficient grace either to accept or to reject that promise. Others do not go so far, but speak nevertheless of a certain general covenant grace in the same sense in which some also speak of a general, well-meant offer of salvation in the preaching of the gospel. That they are baptized, that they bear the sign and seal of the covenant on their forehead—the sign and seal in which the Lord God signifies and seals the benefits of the covenant,—that they may enjoy a covenant upbringing and may be under the good Word of God from earliest childhood, that some of them may even sit at the table of the covenant, in a word that with the church they may enjoy all the means of grace,—this, then, is grace for all who live and grow up under the covenant. And in all this they may see the grace of God, God’s well-meant offer of His covenant. 

Now let it be remarked, in the first place, over against this view that also in the seals of the covenant there is nothing common. There is neither in baptism nor in holy communion a general offer of grace. It is simply not true that God in holy baptism promises and seals something to all who are baptized. No more than this is the case with His Word, with the gospel of salvation, no more is it true with respect to the seals of God’s covenant. In holy baptism the Lord God, in final analysis, seals something to no one else than to those who believe. For it is the righteousness which is of faith which is sealed and confirmed both in baptism and in the Lord’s supper. The Lord does not lie—not even when the reprobate and ungodly receive the seal of the covenant! When the Lord affixes His seal upon this truth that He reckons faith for righteousness, then it is surely plain that such a seal is particular in its content and that no unbeliever can ever appeal to it. 

But, in the second place, such a presentation is exactly rejected and refuted by the passage inHebrews 6. For the holy writer exactly demonstrates by the example which he uses that such an ungodly man, though he may receive much, receives precisely no grace and no blessing from God. He cites the example of “the earth which drinketh in the rain which cometh oft upon it.” Now if in that earth the good seed lies hidden, and if under the influence of that rain that earth brings forth good fruits, then in that rain that earth receives blessing from God. But also, if there lie hidden in that earth the seeds of thorns and thistles, and those seeds of thorns and thistles sprout forth through that gentle rain, then in that very same rain that earth receives the curse and becomes ripe for rejection and destruction. By means of that rain, then, it exactly comes to manifestation what the real character of that earth is and what kind of seed lies hidden in it. Now the Scripture brings this in connection with those who indeed live under the covenant but who nevertheless are and remain ungodly. The rain falls in the sphere of that covenant many times. They do not dwell in the desert, where all remains dry and barren. No, the rain of baptism and of the Lord’s supper, of instruction and preaching, of the operations of the Spirit in the church, of the powers of the world to come—that rain falls, plentifully or less abundantly, in the sphere of God’s covenant on earth. And if, now, there is hidden in any heart the grace of God, the seed of regeneration, then through the means of that gentle rain that good seed sprouts forth and reveals itself presently in the good fruits of repentance and sorrow, in knowledge of sin, in faith and conversion, in the knowledge of the Savior, in the fruits of sanctification and of the battle for God’s covenant in the midst of the world. In that instance everything is grace and blessing. But when there is hidden in a heart the evil seed of ungodliness, and nothing more, then also that comes to manifestation exactly through that same rain. The heart in that case remains entirely without. Then it may very well be that someone is enlightened by the good Word of God according to his natural understanding, even to such an extent that in a powerful manner he can speak of the mysteries of God’s kingdom, while he nevertheless in the deepest sense of the word stands at enmity against it all. It may be, then, that he even obtains a certain taste of the things of God’s covenant. They taste the good Word of God. They acknowledge that it is good. They taste something of the powers of the world to come. They can even see in a certain sense the beauty of heaven, and speak of it. They cannot even, entirely escape the vibrations of the Holy Spirit as these operate and reveal themselves in the church. Rut with all this, they remain but natural men. Their own heart does not only remain outside all these things, but even stands spiritually at enmity against them. 

And now, the consequence of all this is that such ungodly men become hardened to the most hopeless degree, and either already in this life or in the day of judgment become revealed in all the dreadfulness of their wickedness. Far and away the majority of them fall away already in this life. Sooner or later, under the influence of various circumstances, they are compelled to reveal how they really have an inner loathing of the truth of God and of His covenant. And it is precisely from among these that first the apostate church and presently the power of the Antichrist is born. And so the reprobate shell in the sphere of God’s covenant never receives anything else than cursing and wrath. In nature the chaff, under the influence of rain and sunshine, grows up luxuriantly, along with the grain. But it nevertheless never becomes anything else but chaff. In the field the grain and the weeds both sprout forth under the same influences; but those weeds never become grain. In the vine; in a certain sense of the word, the fruitful branches stand under the same influence as the unfruitful branches. In fact, the latter can frequently manifest themselves much more luxuriantly than the former. But the unfruitful branches nevertheless only become ripe to be burned. And it is no different in the sphere of God’s covenant. Israel dwells alone. Also ungodly Israel on earth dwells alone. It becomes, under the influence of God’s covenant, much more ungodly than the heathen round about Israel. Israel shall even dwell alone yet in hell. For the children of the kingdom who are cast out shall certainly be beaten with double stripes, precisely because they despised and trampled upon that which they once tasted. 

At the same time, here also lies the answer to the question: what is God’s purpose with all of this? In the first place, we answer that it is exactly God’s purpose as far as such ungodly members of the covenant themselves are concerned, that sin shall come to complete manifestation as sin. God must be justified when presently He judges. The first root-sin of Adam in Paradise must bear its fruits to the full. The man of sin must come fully to revelation. Now this takes place not in the world of the heathen where men do not live in the sphere of God’s covenant. This does not even take place fully when in that world of the heathen the gospel is preached and some receive it while others reject it. But this takes place indeed in the sphere of God’s covenant. It is also, then, in that sphere that the power of the Antichrist is born. There sin comes to its most dreadful manifestation as sin. If Esau had not once possessed the right of the firstborn, he would never have become the fornicator; and he would never have been able to reveal himself in his Esau’s nature. But now this is different. He becomes Esau to the full, the ungodly man, who prefers a mess of pottage above the glory of God’s covenant. And God is justified when He judges Esau. And thus it is with all the ungodly. Presently they shall be punished with everlasting punishment in body and soul in the unspeakable anguish of hell. The equity of this judgment of God in proportion to the wickedness of sin must be seen, in order that God may appear to be justified when He judges. Therefore the terrible character of sin must also become revealed to the full. And this comes to manifestation in the sphere of God’s covenant, where the ungodly count the blood of the New Testament an unholy thing. 

In the second place, it is exactly through this divine arrangement that the antithesis comes to manifestation and the battle for the cause of God’s covenant in the world is fought. The believers do not have their fiercest battle with those who are outside, but with those who in the external sense of the word are within. These are always inspired in principle, and presently manifestly, with the spirit of the Antichrist. It is through them that the church on earth suffers and battles and wrestles for the sake of God’s covenant. The spiritual seed is persecuted and harassed by the carnal seed. The latter kills the prophets and nails the Lord of glory to the accursed tree and causes the blood of the servants of God to flow upon the earth. But in all this it nevertheless serves to make God’s elect people ripe, through suffering and battle, for the final glory. For that people has the victory, through their King, Who is given to them by Israel’s God, and according to His eternal good pleasure.