The Covenant Of Grace Its Scriptural Origins and Development in Continental Reformed Theology - Rev. C. A. Schouls
As stated earlier, in the post-Dort period two strains developed in the view on the Covenant of Grace: the one held that children of believers possessed some form of "internal" holiness - baptism could therefore be applied to them on that basis. When, in later life, these children would prove to be not born again, it was argued, in retrospect of course, that they could never have been covenant children. This position has to lead to the conclusion that the Covenant of Grace is limited to the elect only. The other strain espoused the view of "external" holiness and saw the children of believers as being separated from the world, placed under the umbrella of the covenant and therefore subject to covenant blessings, challenges and, in case of failure to obey, curses. These developments took place in the Netherlands against a backdrop of other struggles within the church ( of which the Voetian-Cocceian debate was only one), struggles which almost always had political overtones, in which the ruling upper classes usually held to the more liberal views and the House of Orange often allied itself with the more conservative stands of the common people; struggles which even brought communities to the brink of civil war.(68) The Dutch have a long history of taking their theology seriously! Picking up the thread of the covenant line only does not do justice to all that happened around it. The period of the mid eighteenth to the mid nineteenth centuries was one in which many developments took place in Reformed church life which have left deep traces which can still be seen and experienced. Various efforts to correct the dead orthodoxy in the State Church led to pietism, experientialism and independentism. Reading further in Dutch church history, one comes across the names of Jean de Labadie, Anna Maria Schuurman, Jodocus van Lodesteijn, F. A. Lampe and E. Francken. They, and others, each had a certain input and effect on the life of the church and provoked responses. To follow the path into which each name beckons would take us too far afield. Perhaps just the mention of their names will stimulate to further study and research.
The doctrinal laxity, spiritual corruption and decay of the Reformed church in the Netherlands had reached alarming proportions. During the time when the Netherlands had been made part of the French Empire of Napoleon, changes had been made in the legislation governing the churches which had left much in disarray. After the Netherlands was established as a monarchy by the Congress of Vienna (1815) and William I returned from eighteen years of exile to assume the throne, changes were made to church life which were so far reaching that a secession was almost inevitable. William, who had spent his formative years in England, had been influenced both by what he had seen of the government of the Church of England and by his relative, Frederick William III, King of Prussia whose efforts for church union resulted in his Protestant subjects of Lutheran and Reformed variety being pressed into one "united" church in 1817. Although William tried hard to help the Dutch church, his efforts were misguided. He imposed a new church order upon the Reformed Church which made it, in fact, a State Church. The national government had a cabinet position called "Ministry of Religion". The Church was nationalized, with all the implications thereof. It was in this setting that the Secession of 1834 took place. Again, to enter into further detail, other than that which relates to the covenant of Grace, is not possible.
At their first Synod (1836) it became apparent that the leaders of the Secession (mainly very young men in their twenties and thirties) had no unified view on the congregation and this was related to their view of baptism, confession of faith and the Covenant of Grace. Although other factors came into the picture, relating to the peculiar circumstances of being secession churches trying to become established in a hostile environment, the old problem, before seen in the "internal-external holiness" debate, reared its head again, although in a different form and context. Among the leaders of the Secession we may certainly mention the ministers H. De Cock and H. P. Scholte. They could not agree on how to view the congregation. Scholte (who later led a good part of his congregation to settle in Pella, Iowa) stressed that none belonged to the church but those who had made confession of faith and confirmed it by their walk of life, and their children. De Cock allowed the baptism of children whose parents could not "...consistently affirm all that was asked of them at the baptism of their children."(69) These different views became a matter of contention in the drafting of the fledgling church's new Church Order. The synod of 1837 dealt with this matter again and made pronouncement which has done much to set the tone of the spiritual climate in those churches which trace their descent directly from these early Seceders.
"It (i.e. that Synod) was of the opinion that the danger of hypocrisy and self-deception called for constant exposition from the pulpit of the marks of spiritual life and also for constant exhortation to self-examination, but that this danger did not justify the making of the distinction, in practice, between converted and unconverted members and that the Church's inability to judge of the heart excluded all possibility of ecclesiastical action with respect to the latter."(70)
Underlying this was, again, a different evaluation of the Covenant. De Cock was broad in his views: the Covenant exists and is not dependent on an act of faith on our part in order to be realized. It exists prior to that. He chose for the position of the reality of the Covenant, of its promises and of its demand for repentance and faith. He wished to go in the historically reformed line, giving room for the preaching of the promises and the work of the Holy Spirit in applying them.
Scholte had a different view. With his stress on confession of faith, he left much room for subjectivism, although many were suspicious of this and thought he left little room for those who were "little in the faith".(71)
De Cock proceeded from what God does in the covenant of Grace, without trying to penetrate into the secrets of God's election; Scholte, on the other hand, placed his emphases otherwise. He insisted that baptism may not be administered unless there is not only the possibility to be taken up in God's covenant at some time but there is also the external evidence of having received the internal grace of being in the covenant. De Cock viewed the holiness of 1 Cor. 7:14 as strictly relative and relational - i.o.w. "external"; in fact, in writing about the church, he states,
"Also the children belong to the congregation; even as they who, in the sight of God are not converted: 'Unconverted, as this is the case with most children who are born in the same and who are not sanctified from their youth up...but have only a relative covenant holiness..."(72)
Scholte did not share this view. Nevertheless, the brothers managed to stay together on this and the differences, although never resolved, did not, as such, cause further division in the church. However, the different emphases can still be found among the descendants of these men. Naturally, through the passage of time, so many other influences have left their mark that it is now not possible readily to identify one strain or the other.
The matter surfaced again, but now more directly linked to the old question of 1 Cor. 7:14, when at the Synod of 1863 objections were lodged against a booklet written by the ministers Pieters and Kreulen. Their historical research led them to conclude that the "holiness" was not subjective, through regeneration but objective - covenantal holiness. They rejected the concept of internal holiness. In this they stand with De Cock who had followed in the line of Koelman. They see the covenant as being broad; baptism seals the promise of the Covenant of Grace. Whoever is included in that covenant, has the promise of the covenant and, therefore, has a right to the sign and seal of the promise. Since the little children of the church are included in the covenant, they have the right to be baptised. They pointed out, correctly, that the Covenant is not to be driven back into eternity as an agreement between the Father and the Son in which only the elect are included. Were this so, they stated, then no one could be baptized unless it were known for certain that such a person is, indeed, elect. They reject both regeneration and election as the ground for baptism and considered that when the Form for Baptism speaks of the children of believers it refers to the entire visible church. The children are in a covenant relationship with God; however, this does not mean they are saved. In answering the question why the promises remain unfulfilled in so many, they pointed out that the promises are not unconditional. As covenant promises they cannot be isolated from the covenant demand of faith and repentance. Only where this demand is filled through the grace of the Holy Spirit and the promises are appropriated in true faith, they will serve to salvation.(73)
The Synod made a pronouncement on the case which, although clear, was not satisfactory to all concerned. It stated that the brothers Pieters and Kreulen were not in conflict with the confessions of the church; that this did not mean it felt that their development of the doctrine of baptism was always expressed in the most clear manner; that the church saw no need to say anything more of the doctrine of the Sacraments than had already been stated in the Confessions. Pieters and Kreulen were neither condemned nor approved by the Synod. The most it would say was that although there was unity in the main issue, there was diversity of opinion about the particulars. A wise statement, indeed. The churches of the Reformation should be careful to adopt no extra- creedal pronouncements.
Not surprisingly, protest came quickly. A certain Rev. Joffers did the work. Joffers was not an easy man. "By his hard, sometimes insolent and rude and fanatical actions, he made himself impossible".(74) Although he sincerely fought for the principles of the Secession, his manner and method was such that, ultimately, he was not welcome at the Synodical meetings. His name appears often in the various Acts of Synod, and always in connection with some protest. This particular protest was simply a restatement of the "internal holiness' view. Joffers taught that the covenant was made with the elect, in eternity and that "sanctified in Christ" referred only to the elect - sanctification was internal, given in regeneration. The consequence of his view was that all children in the church must be considered as covenant children which means, they are regenerated and elect.(75) Apparently, his theory was much broader than his practice.
This was not the view of another who disagreed with Synod's statement. Van Velzen, in some articles written about this issue, agreed with the sentiment of the Synod of 1857 which had stressed that although the children of the congregation must be baptized, yet "it is not all Israel that is called Israel and that amongst the children of believers there are the unconverted and reprobate".(76) Van Velzen further rejects various possible interpretations of "sanctified in Christ": it does not mean that children of believers possess spiritual life nor that we should not pray for their conversion nor that their holiness means only that they are to be distinguished from heathen children. But it means this: the children of promise are counted to be in Christ; He is made unto them sanctification.(77) Although Veenhof in his book "Preaching and Election" interprets Van Velzen as holding that these children of the promise are elect, van't Spijker in his article in "Rondom de Doopvont" ("Around the Baptismal Font") makes a more subtle observation:
"Van Velzen also speaks of covenantal holiness but then in this sense that, although the little children are devoid of spiritual life, everything which is necessary for salvation will be given to them. The expression 'sanctified in Christ' may not be applied to all children head for head. It relates to the seed of the covenant, spoken of in general."(78)
In contrast with Pieters and Kreulen who had no objection to making the promise very specific, since it always was tied to the demand of repentance and faith, Van Velzen would not dare to say about any particular child that the promise applied to that child. As long as it could not be shown from the marks of grace, it could not be said of any child that he or she was in a state of grace. One senses in this the germ of the idea later worked out by H. Hoeksema (Protestant Reformed) in his organic view of the congregation.
Pieters, Joffers, Van Velzen, Kreulen - they all had their followers in a period in which outspokenness must have been considered a virtue. It is hard for us to trace all the lines, especially when we remember that a number of other issues impinged on this one; in fact, it is doubtful whether this issue was even recognized as the main one. There was conflict over what form of the Church Order to use; there were synodical pronouncements on what ministers should wear; there were disputes about what version of the Psalms should be sung - and all of these disputes created divisions and turmoil. As one historian notes, "Had the Secession not been a work of God, it would certainly have gone under in all these troubles."(79) It is not particularly edifying to learn of all this disharmony but, without some acquaintance with these struggles and developments, we can never come to a clear understanding of where we are today. In order to have this, we must now deal with the views of Dr. Abraham Kuyper.
Kuyper was a man of broad vision, tremendous intellect and deep piety. It may well be that he was the greatest theologian Holland ever produced. He founded a university (Free University of Amsterdam), was editor of a daily paper (De Standaard) for nearly fifty years, was politically active to the point of not only founding a party but being a member of parliament and even, albeit for a short term, prime minister. Internationally he was renowned and respected as a statesman and a theologian. To deal with Kuyper from a limited perspective, as we must do, cannot do justice to the full man; we will overlook some strengths and failures and accentuate others.
In the popular view, with respect to the doctrine of the covenant of Grace, Kuyper is often seen as the man who gave us the doctrine of "Presumed Regeneration" - the belief that all covenant children are presumed to have been born again until, later in life, through their actions, they should prove otherwise. Baptism is then performed on the basis of this presumed regeneration. Kuyper, himself, would have strenuously rejected this charge. In fact, he claimed that his view was nothing but an agreement with a long list of reformed theologians and ministers (80). The list is impressive and the support for his position seems to be strong. Many are quoted by him (most in Latin) and it is obvious that all of them are of the "internal holiness" school. He begins with Z. Ursinus and says of him that both in his answer to Q. 74 of the Catechism and in his explanation, it is clear "that the ground for infant baptism rests on this, that their regeneration must be presumed."(81) In searching for support for this position, Kuyper went back, through the various reformed theologians, to Calvin in whom he thought he discovered that the connection between faith and baptism was present not only in adults but also in infants for Calvin speaks of infants as having the seed of repentance and faith: "...infants are baptized into future repentance and faith, and even though these have not yet been formed in them, the seed of both lies hidden within them by the secret working of the Spirit."(82). Kuyper then goes on to trace this line in the thinking of others. According to him, Beza, Calvin's successor at Geneva, denied this connection and had the baptism of infants grounded in the faith of their parents. This is further developed by, especially, W. à Brakel, whom Kuyper accuses of having had a very negative influence on this subject.(83) In fact, he sees à Brakel as one of the spiritual fathers of the currently devalued view of baptism. On the other hand, he finds in Voetius a strong ally. Voetius had taught that "infants have the Holy Ghost and forgiveness of sins just as much as the adults".(84) His position led him to strongly reject the necessity for the means of grace in working the beginning of grace in children. This must be seen as a link to Kuyper's position on regeneration being immediate, rather than mediate - that is, without means, rather than only (normally) through means.
Kuyper's view had, of course, consequences. First of all, in order to make his view on the presence of faith in little children legitimate, he made various distinctions: there is a root of faith, there is the ability or faculty of faith and there is the act of faith. The root of faith is to be seen in regeneration in which God gives the faculty of faith, the ability to believe. From this flows the act of faith, the actual believing. As the young child develops and matures, these various stages, ideally, will develop. Although he may not yet have performed the act of faith, the root is present. In fact, it is possible, and, according to Kuyper, it often happens this way that the root may slumber in a young person for many years and not issue in the act of faith until much later. Behind all this stands the idea that these children are elect for only they receive the gift of regeneration and faith. Further, it must be said that Kuyper admitted that in many cases the presumption of regeneration would prove to be incorrect and that, therefore, this doctrine might never be used to soothe one into assuming he is saved; in fact, the preaching which calls to self-examination, faith and repentance is never superfluous. Presumed regeneration does not provide false rest.(85)
In the second place, this view has shaped a century of theological development in a large section of the reformed community. Inevitable, that which Kuyper warned against, namely that this doctrine must not become a pillow upon which to rest, did happen. When year after year a congregation is told that it is made up of the "covenant people of God"; when the stress is laid upon the presumption that children are born again; when funeral messages speak of the assurance of salvation, not just for infants who did not reach the "age of discretion" and could not give evidence of faith but also for older children, young people and even adults who did not give such evidence and when such assurance is based on the assumption that faith was present but 'slumbering"; when obedience is hollowed out to actions within the realm of a newly defined "Kingdom of God" without stressing that the obedience demanded in the covenant relationship is principally this that "...we cleave to this one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; 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"(86); when such things happen, spiritual life becomes meagre, to say the least. Although it would be a gross over-simplification to say that developments in certain reformed churches in the Netherlands (and in North America) are as a direct result of Kuyper's covenant views, the impact and subsequent development of these views cannot be discounted in searching for the root of the problems which has affected these churches.
The third consequence must be sought in the area of broader church life. Following the "Doleantie" of 1886(87), the expectation was that union with the Seceders of 1834 would soon take place. It did, but not all those of the earlier movement joined. There were various reasons for this; one of them was this very doctrine of presumed regeneration. The Secession churches had, officially, at their Synod of 1846, issued quite a different statement regarding the meaning of baptism. Kuyper, at this time, was only 9 years old. This Synod, faced with the question how to view the baptized children, declared as follows: "...all the children of those who have joined the congregation ought to be baptized; this, however, imparts no internal holiness to the children and when these children, in coming to maturity, give no evidence of godliness, they must, without exception, be dealt with as children of wrath." Now, although this doctrine was touted as only a personal opinion, they were, in fact, forced to abandon their viewpoint agreed upon, after much struggle, only forty years earlier. A number of them felt they could not do so and saw in this view a grave danger for the entire church. Although union between the two groups was attained in 1892, three Secession churches did not go along with it. Within 10 years, they had grown to a sizeable, albeit small, denomination of 60 congregations with 22 ministers. Today it numbers about 75,000 members. The Free Reformed Churches of North America form the counterpart of this denomination.
Although the objections against the union did not spell out the matter of views on baptism and covenant, that these were certainly underlying causes is made clear by the fact that already in 1905 the Synod (Utrecht) of the newly formed Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (Reformed Churches in the Netherlands) issued clarifying statements on this matter. At this synod, all the arguments of the past came together into one issue and, to the delight of many, it was all resolved. It has been referred to as the "Reconciliation Synod". The long standing disagreements on several issues were settled. The synod made pronouncements on: 1.Infra- and Supra-lapsarianism; 2. Justification from eternity; 3. mediate and immediate regeneration and 4. Presumed regeneration. These pronouncements showed that Kuyper's views had won the day. On the fourth item, regarding presumed regeneration, the Synod said:
"Finally, as concerns the fourth point of presumed regeneration the synod declares that according to the confession of our Churches the seed of the covenant, by virtue of the strength of God's promise, is to be considered as regenerated and sanctified in Christ until, as they mature, the opposite should be shown from their walk or doctrine; it is, however, less correct to say that the baptism of the children of believers is administered on the ground of their presumed regeneration as the ground is the commandment and the promise of God..."(88)
With much joy it was proclaimed that, finally, the differences were settled. There was now not only organizational but also spiritual unity between what had been two distinct movements. Nothing could have been further from the truth. For the next forty years the questions remained, perhaps largely underground, but real, nevertheless. It was during the Second World War that they came up again and this time the disagreements were so sharp that they led to a rupture in the Reformed Church of the Netherlands. This history is, in itself, fascinating and important. It involves the birth of those reformed churches which experienced "liberation" in 1944 - the Canadian Reformed churches are the counterpart.
The decisions of Utrecht, 1905 were adopted by the Christian Reformed Church of North America at the synod of Kalamazoo, 1908 (and rescinded, although not declared in error, by the CRC synod of 1962, in order to facilitate talks with other reformed bodies, such as the Canadian and the Free Reformed). This decision, in fact, ruptured the historic ties of the (American) CRC with the 1834 secession churches (whose name, "Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken" they had adopted) and officially bound them to the church of Abraham Kuyper. The immigration of this century gave to that official tie an organic reality which has done much to shape the developments and the current situation in that church. As we have now seen, during its formative years, both in North America and in the Netherlands, there was much discussion and even argument about the meaning of the covenant. It is a sad and ironic development that in a community where so much "covenantal language" has been used, the classic doctrine of the Covenant of Grace, in all its rich meaning and with its varying interpretations, now seems to be of little or no consequence. Perhaps this is a result of battle-weariness: the children have seen how the parents dealt with each other and vowed not to repeat the process. Other factors are also at work. But let us learn that this truth is precious, worth contending for but that such contention must always be conducted in a brotherly and humble manner.
We have now dealt with the major developments in the understanding of the Covenant of Grace. We have seen that, all along, the point of conflict has been: What is the holiness of children of believers (1 Cor. 7:14) - internal or external? We have seen that Abraham Kuyper, in appealing to many Reformed theologians of prior ages, did not stand alone with his doctrine of "Presumed Regeneration" - it was not grabbed out of thin air. We noted also that Kuyper tried to bring together the matter of faith and baptism and thus, in a way, tried to silence the old criticism of the Anabaptists (and the current Baptists) that we are wrong in applying baptism where faith cannot exist, namely, in infants. Kuyper said, in effect, "We presume faith does exist in such infants. They have the root of faith". And on that basis, he baptized them.
There remains one more name to look at and we can be very brief in that for what he proposes is nothing new.
G. H. Kersten is the man who, in 1907, united various independent congregations and groups into one denomination which we know as "the Netherlands Reformed Congregations". In popular parlance, they are sometimes referred to as the "far right wing" or "the most conservative" of the (Dutch) Reformed churches. As the date of the formation of this denomination indicates, Kersten was active at the time of Kuyper, although considerably younger than the latter. Contemporary with Vander Schuit, Schilder and all those who were embroiled in the controversy which led to the schism in the Reformed church in 1944, Kersten lived at a time which saw so much debate about the Covenant of Grace.
His views really present nothing new. He holds to the "internal" holiness view; he joins the Covenant of Redemption to the Covenant of Grace and believes it is made with the elect only. Whereas Kuyper baptized all on the assumption they were elect, Kersten proposed baptizing them all on the basis that "God's covenant and promise are the immovable grounds for the baptism of the children. God's covenant and promise are sealed in holy baptism, even though baptism is administered to children who (like Ishmael and Esau) will never inherit salvation because they are vessels of wrath fitted to destruction (Rom. 9:22)."(89) We can more readily agree with Kersten with respect to the ground for baptism than with Kuyper; Kersten, at least, grounds baptism in the objective realities of the covenant and promise of God whereas Kuyper slides into speculation. But, because Kersten then applies these promises to the elect only, since only they are in the covenant, and because his system then turns to a preaching of the "marks of grace" which are required to test oneself whether one is in the covenant or not, the end result is that spiritual life in the circles of his followers is often submersed in self analysis, testing of certain marks and feelings and setting up of norms for acceptable spiritual behaviour which are simply not found in the Scriptures. Whenever the preaching focuses more on the Christian than on Christ, there is always the danger of a new form of bondage which binds people to the measurements laid down by other people.
Amongst those who believe, as we do, that the covenant is established with believers and their seed, there has been considerable debate (and not always in that spirit which is the mark of the mind of Christ) as to what this means. Obviously, if we proceed from the position that all the children are included in the covenant, we must conclude that there are both elect and non-elect in the covenant. But how are they in the covenant? Are they both in there in the same way? Hoeksema, Kersten and Kuyper, each in his own way, provides an answer which to some degree is logical and satisfies the mind. As stated, they all hold that the covenant is made with the elect only - no matter how they or their disciples dress it up, they must logically conclude that the non-elect were never in the covenant. To say that such are under the influence of the covenant or to say that they are only in the covenant in an external way, really does not cut it. Either they are in or they are not in. Any kind of half-way arrangement will lead to confusion, blurring of the lines and to all kinds of impediments to preaching the covenant promises and obligations. How can you really stress God's promise, "I will be your God", if you have good reason to suspect that He will not be the God of a number of people to whom this is said? On the other hand, how can you really stress the obligation of faith and repentance if there is not the certainty that you really are obliged because you really are in the covenant. The net result of maintaining such covenant lines is a preaching which either assumes all are in (elect) unless clear evidence is given to the contrary (in this scheme, the preaching really serves mainly to stimulate the hearers to live according to what they are, namely, redeemed people) or which assumes all are out (non-elect) unless clear evidence is given to the contrary (in this system, they who have the testimony that they are in would come to church to be confirmed in their status while others, who are "under" the covenant, would come only to be instructed in the evidences acceptable as proof of being in.)
Although this is an over-simplification, this is how the matter has been dealt with and the results of such approaches can be seen in various Reformed circles.
But, if distinctions such as "internal/external", "in/under" the covenant are not acceptable, how shall we then answer the question? For the problem is still there - not all experience the blessings of the covenant, not all receive the salvation in Christ in the way of faith and repentance. Various attempts have been made to explain this knotty problem. The idea of there being two aspects to the covenant really does not satisfy. If there would be, how can God be serious in His call and promise? We can then talk of the will of God being revealed to us as two wills (Will of Decree ' what God has planned in His unchangeable counsel; Will of Precepts ' what God wants us to do) and we can speak of the inability on our part to reconcile God's sovereignty with man's responsibility. If used carefully, these are valuable tools in coming to grips with some aspects of the problem but it still leaves the question lying there - what about the children, all the children of believers - are they in the covenant or not? And if they are in, are they covenant members in a sense which we can understand? This can be a matter of genuine spiritual concern for godly parents. And it will not do for a pastor to argue like a Philadelphia lawyer, trying to explain that, "Yes, maybe they are not and No, maybe they are".
How did John Calvin deal with this vexing problem? The answer can best be obtained from his comments on Genesis 17:7 In explaining the words "...and thy seed after thee...", he deals with the perplexing problem of covenant membership. He suggests that there are two kinds of children in the covenant:
"Here, then, a twofold class of sons presents itself to us, in the Church; for since the whole body of the people is gathered together into the fold of God, by one and the same voice, all without exception, are, in this respect, accounted children; the name of the Church is applicable in common to all: but in the innermost sanctuary of God, none others are reckoned the sons of God, than they in whom the promise is ratified by faith."(emphasis added)
Calvin's use of the expression "a twofold class of sons" has given rise to all sorts of further distinctions which he probably never wished to be made. The argument has been made that if there are two kinds of sons, they cannot both be in the Covenant in the same way and so, it has been suggested, some are "in" the Covenant and others are "under" the covenant. Some who have felt ill at ease with this have shifted the "twofold" distinction to the Covenant itself and suggested that it has an internal and an external aspect. Neither of these distinctions can adequately answer the question and both smack of scholasticism - the attempt to provide well fitting and logical answers to every question. What is not emphasised sufficiently in these positions is that Calvin spoke of the promise being "ratified by faith".
However, to show just how complex the case really is, we must remember that Paul (inspired by the Holy Spirit!) writes in Romans 9 of "children of the promise and children of the flesh". Should this not be determinative for our view on the question of who is really in this covenant? If the "children of the flesh" are not the children of God (Rom.9:8), may we then still say that all the children of believers, which includes at least some who are not elect, are children of the covenant, truly and fully? And are those children of the Covenant not part of the people of God? Or may we say that since here, in Romans 9, Paul is dealing with the question of election, we must not apply the terminology to the matter of the Covenant of Grace?
We are not satisfied with these various distinctions. What we now present is based on the Dogmatics Notes of Prof. J. J. Vander Schuit who taught at the Seminary of the CGK at Apeldoorn from 1922 to 1954.
He said there is not enough ground in Scripture to make a distinction of internal/external, in/under the covenant. The notion of "covenant" is much too positive for that. It is one or the other: the bond of the covenant does exist, or we stand outside of it. Covenant is testament - one is heir of the testator or one is not heir. You cannot be half heir. What does the Scripture say about all this? Who are the members of the covenant?
True and full covenant members are all those who live" on the terrain of the covenant" ("de erve des verbonds") and who have received the sign of the covenant. Under the Old Dispensation this was Abraham and his natural seed; under the New it is the believers and their natural seed. We believe this is so for Genesis 17:14 speaks of the possibility of breaking the covenant. Had the covenant been made with the elect only, there would be no possibility of breaking it. Various Scripture passages bear this out:
John 15:1, 2 "I am the true vine and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that bears not fruit he takes away..." This teaches that one can leave the covenant relationship. This can not be said of the elect.
Romans 11: 17, 18, 21 "And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them and with them partakes of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches...For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee." The covenant and the people of the covenant are compared to an olive tree. It is said that one can be a branch and share in the fatness of the tree and still be cast off. This proves that both elect and non- elect are in the covenant.
Hebrews 10:29 "Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who has trodden under foot the Son of God and has counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing...?" One can be sanctified by the blood of the covenant and still count it as something unholy. Surely, these, and other passages teach us that it is possible to be in the covenant and still not to receive all the blessings of the covenant. It is possible even to be sanctified and still to be lost. The content of the covenant, the "goods", which are comprised of the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life, are not received by all who are in the covenant. Yet, we do believe they are all in the covenant. How, then, can one lose these goods?
Earlier, in the beginning of our discussions, we saw that the word "covenant" is also translated as "testament", especially in the letter to the Hebrews. A testament provides, usually, a gift upon the death of the testator. Theoretically, it is possible to refuse such a gift. In the same sense, it is possible to refuse the gift of the covenant. That gift can be received only in the way of faith and repentance. That is the essence of the "new obedience" required of us. This is due, when we come to the years of discretion, i.e. when young people can understand the issues at stake. We, then, are called to live in the covenant relationship and that in a special, conscious manner. This involves the knowledge of the three parts laid out by the letters of Paul (Romans, Galatians) and the Heidelberg Catechism - the knowledge of misery, deliverance and gratitude. Each covenant child is placed before the choice ; but, it is a covenant choice. It is not a matter of doing as we please but it is a matter of responding to God and his demands. It means nothing other than the putting to death of our old nature and the leading of a godly life. This is not just something that happens, more or less, by itself because we are living in decent homes and attend church and live a "Christian life". It is at this point that we must warn against self deception.
It can and is easily assumed that amongst covenant children, the norm is to comply to the covenant demands and to accept responsibility for your own baptism. Of course, this is how it should be. And, we hasten to add, this is often, even usually, how God works. However, this does not mean that we, from our side, should see it as a matter of course that covenant children grow up to be believers. It is still a great miracle, also for them. It still requires them to come to faith, to plead God's grace and mercy, to experience the fact that, by nature, they are lost and outside the Kingdom of God and they cannot enter it unless they are born again. It may be true that many of them are born again in their early youth, but as they come to the age of discretion, this is something which they will and should experience, consciously. And when they do, they will also be made ready and willing publicly to confess their faith and, thus, to take their place in the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ as adult members. (All this has been based on what Vander Schuit wrote more than 50 years ago.)
This is how it should be. The sad reality is that it is not always so. Does that still leave us with the question: "But how are we to see membership in the covenant?" Does it still leave fuzzy the matter of in/under, internal/external membership? Is there no satisfactory answer?
Remember that Calvin spoke of two kinds of covenant children and said that faith was needed to ratify the promise. This does fall into line with the thought of Romans 9:8. The only difference then between these sons is the present or absence of faith. At this time we must resist the urge to push this back into the realm of election and say "But faith is the gift of God; therefore, how we are in the covenant is dependent upon election for God gives faith to whom he pleases." This may be true as far as it goes, but will do nothing to help us in our quest for solutions. We must stay with the existential reality - the reality of the "here and now". Can we do that? Yes, provided we turn again to Scripture.
When we turn to Scripture for guidance on this question, we will find that especially the Old Testament has some imagery which we can use. You recall how we proved that the covenant in the Old Testament is, in essence, the same as the New Testament covenant and that, therefore, baptism replaces circumcision. We now limit our self to finding an image in the Old Testament which will adequately answer the question: How are all these children covenant members?
To be sure, not all Israelites were saved, although they were all in the covenant. Romans 9:6 is very clear - "...For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel". I Corinthians 10:5 bears this out - "But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness."
Clearly, the situation then was similar to ours today - they were all Israel but some were not pleasing to God; we are all church members but some are not pleasing to God. In both cases - they all belonged to the covenant, yet they did not all receive the covenant blessings. What is the difference?
To answer this by stating only that some become covenant breakers is to say the obvious and does still not do justice to the question. Why do they become covenant breakers? Because they do not repent and believe. Why do they not repent and believe? Because they harden themselves against God. You will sense that, sooner or later, in pursuing this line of questioning, we will find our self limited by the decree of God's sovereign election. As was said a moment ago, this is not the way to go.
This is also not the way laid out in Scripture. The Old Testament is very graphic in its description of the relationship between the Lord and His people. It often speaks of it as the union between a man and his wife; words as "betrothal", "marriage", "unfaithful", "harlot" and similar expressions are used to describe various aspects of the relationship between God and His people, a relationship in which Israel is personified as a bride who is often unfaithful. The prophesies of Hosea come to mind when speaking of Israel as an unfaithful wife. The covenant relationship, then, is to be thought of in terms of a marriage. (In the New Testament it is especially the relation between Christ and the Church which is pictured as a marriage relation but this, although a related matter, is not to be identified with the subject now being discussed. There the Church is the true Church, redeemed, cleansed and made perfect in the blood of Christ so that He can present her to His Father as a bride, unblemished.) This is what the Holy Spirit pictures for us in the Scriptures: this is what we may use not only as an illustration representing some hard-to-get-hold-of truth but as the expression of that truth as such. In the Covenant of Grace God is married to His people!
It is true, this idea will not remove all obstacles. It is also true that this idea, or some variation thereof, has been developed in the past.(90) But it is good to be refreshed in our thinking and to have some old ideas put into new focus.
Others have spoken of there being two ways, two senses in which we can speak of the covenant. Some emphasized the sense that the covenant is a legal relationship between two parties with obligations and conditions on both sides. It exists, even when nothing has been done to realize its goal. This, of course, makes the promise the essence of the covenant, as is claimed by Heyns.(91) It is rather striking that Heyns then goes on to describe the unbreakable character of the covenant in terms of the unbreakable character of the marriage bonds; yet, he does not come clear and specifically state that the covenant is a marriage between God and His people. Pity. The second sense in which the covenant can be and has been viewed is that of a fellowship. H. Hoeksema (the Protestant Reformed theologian) did this and spoke of the covenant as being a fellowship of friendship. According to him, this is the essence of the covenant. Friendship is always a two way street; it is always reciprocal. In Hoeksema's conception of the covenant this fits in quite well. You recall, he believed (as did Kuyper and Kersten) that the covenant was made only with the elect. This neatly gets around the question: What of covenant people who are not friends of God? Hoeksema would say, "They are not, and never were, covenant people." The fellowship arrangement suits quite well for those who hold the covenant is made with the elect only. But does it also suit us who believe that it is made with believers and their seed?
It is possible to view the covenant as a fellowship and, at the same time, to recognize that there are non-elect in the covenant if we keep before us the Scriptural picture of the marriage between God and His people. A fellowship, such as marriage, concerns not only what ought to be but also what really is.
When does a marriage take place? We all recognize that the marriage has been made when the vows are given and the minister says: "I pronounce you man and wife". Now, we can make various distinctions and arbitrary cut-off points and ask, at each one, "Is the marriage now made?" For example: are they married when they say their "I do's", or are they married when the minister says his words; or are they not married until the forms and the register have been signed? Let us simply say, as far as the law and the witnesses are concerned, all these elements belong together and when they leave the church they are man and wife. But are they? The law recognizes that the marriage needs to be consummated through the physical union of man and wife and, where that does not take place, the marriage may be annulled. So, we can say: Yes, they are married when they leave the church, but that is in anticipation of the consummation of that marriage. When that happens they are really, truly married.
But now, this same marriage develops problems. Communication between husband and wife is perverted to shouting matches. We say: "That is no marriage." Rightly so, for the essence of marriage, the loving concern for one another and the completing of each other, is gone. Yet, such a marriage may not be dissolved (we will not go by the loosening standards of the world); reconciliation and rehabilitation must be tried. Although we say, "This is no marriage", it really still is and our calling is to save it. However, there comes a point which, once passed, may be used for the legitimate dissolution of the marriage and that is when one of the partners has, in fact, broken the bonds of the union by entering into an unlawful sexual union with a third party. That is adultery. Now the marriage is broken. It can still be repaired if the injured party wishes to forgive and take back (provided the sinning party is willing, of course) but there is enough ground to say: "It's over". The covenant bond of marriage is then finally ruptured.
Now, it should not be so difficult to apply all this to the Covenant of Grace. God comes to us and says : "I will be a God unto you".(92) This is not just a "marriage proposal" but this is God actually taking us. (Remember, in His grace God made the covenant one-side, unilateral, in its origin.) However, that bride must respond to her "husband" in such a way that we can say, "The marriage has really taken place". In terms of the covenant, such response is always the act of faith and repentance. Where there is a life to the glory of God, there is the evidence that the covenant obligations have been realized. It was the oft repeated sin of Israel, to the grief of God, that she did not fulfill her part of the marriage arrangement and that she did not, as God had charged father Abraham, "...walk before me and be thou perfect".(93)
When we consider the covenant of grace as such a marriage fellowship we avoid the restriction of the "friendship covenant", which can only exist in the case of mutually exercised love. In fact, we avoid all covenantal constructions which, in an honest effort to give real content to the covenant, must limit it to the elect only.
The objection just begs to be raised (and rightly so!), "But is marriage not the bond of mutual love?" Indeed, it is. A marriage without love is, in a certain sense, not a marriage. Yet, it truly is a marriage and the fact that something essential is missing does not negate the fact that there are marital obligations. But, representing the covenant in this way allows for both the ideal to be spelled out and for the reality to be recognized. The ideal is communion with God; the reality on the part of all God's people is that they fall short in the exercise of this communion while the reality on the part of the unregenerate (much better to speak of "unregenerate" than of "non-elect") who are in the covenant is that they are in great peril for not having fulfilled their covenant responsibilities. Whether you wish to say that they have "broken their marriage vows" or that they have "failed to consummate the marriage" (through failing to believe and repent) makes little difference.
Further, this view of the covenant also allows us to get a handle on the notion of "covenant breaking". Can the covenant be broken? Is it breakable? Allow me now to quote from Heyns at some length:
"...the question may arise whether the Covenant of Grace must not be regarded as a breakable Covenant? This, however, would be incorrect. We have to judge such matters, not according to what sin had made possible, but according to the ordinance of God. Marriage, too, can be broken. But from this fact it does not follow that marriage is a breakable covenant, since it is the ordinance of God that it never shall be broken, Matt.19:3-9. To regard it as a breakable institution would mean that it not only can, but that it may be broken, whereas to regard it as an unbreakable institution means that, although it can be broken, it may not be broken, so that breaking it is not a lawful deed but a sin, and no sin has a right to exist. So also the Covenant of Grace. It is an unbreakable Covenant because God has given it for an everlasting Covenant, so that, although it can be broken through sin, it never may be broken."(94)
There is still the question: "How can God sincerely offer His grace to all covenant members, both elect and non-elect?" We must make a distinction between the objective promise and the subjective appropriation of the promise. For example, the Prayer of Thanksgiving in the Form for the Lord's Supper states: "...we render Thee most humble and hearty thanks, that Thou hast of Thine infinite mercy, given us Thine only begotten Son, for a Mediator and a sacrifice for our sins, and to be our meat and drink unto life eternal, and that Thou givest us lively faith, whereby we are made partakers of such great benefits". Again, quoting Heyns, "Here mention is made: a) of the giving of Christ to be our Redeemer, and b) making us participants of His benefits through faith. This implies that the giving does not make us actual possessors, but that together with the giving we need an application of these benefits by the Holy Spirit."(95)
That this dual form of giving was recognized not only by those in the Dutch Reformed tradition ( it was and still is taught at the seminary of the CGK at Apeldoorn and it was taught at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids) is clear by noting that a similar distinction was made by Dr. James Bannerman, the Scottish Presbyterian, who wrote in 1869: "Baptism, in the case of all infants baptized, gives them a right of property in the covenant of grace; which may in after life, by means of their personal faith, be supplemented by a right of possession".(96)
Elsewhere in his writings, Bannerman makes clear that the work of the Holy Spirit is required to come to that faith.
We conclude. It is striking that, although we have not searched out the Puritan position on this subject, in our closing comments we hear the voice of one of them. We see here that the position which we have taken is not unique. We believe this to be main-line Reformed. We believe this avoids all the argument about what may be: internal, external holiness, etc. and stresses squarely what should be: faith and repentance. Without faith it is not possible to please God (Hebrews 11:6) and unless a man is born again, which is made evident in his repentance, he cannot even see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it (John 3:3). This is true, also of covenant children.
68. D. H. Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Tradition, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1943, p.55
69. Op.cit p. 96
71. Van't Spijker, Rondom de Doopvont, pp 412, 413
72. Op.cit, p. 414
73. Op.cit., p. 420
74. C. Veenhof, Prediking en Uitverkiezing, Kok, Kampen, 1959, p. 174
75. Van't Spijker, op.cit. p. 423
76. Op.cit., p. 423
77. Veenhof, op.cit, pp. 172, 173
78. Van't Spijker, op.cit., p. 423
79. J. C. Rullman De Afscheiding, Kok, Kampen, 1930, p.289
80. A. Kuyper, Dictaten Dogmatiek IV Locus de Sacramentis (lecture notes recorded by one of his students) J.B. Hulst, Grand Rapids, Mich.(no date) pp. 141-145
81. Op.cit. p. 141
82. J. Calvin, Institutes, II, xvi, 20, p. 1343
83. A. Kuyper, op.cit. p. 144
84. Gerstner, op.cit. p. 122
85. Van't Spijker e.a., Rondom de Doopvont, p. 451 (C. Graafland: De Doop als Splijtzwam)
86. Form for the Administration of Baptism, The Psalter, Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1927. p.55
87. "Doleantie" means "grieving" or "complaining" and is the name given to the second secession movement from the Dutch Reformed Church. Kuyper was the leading person in this secession. Its spiritual character and its formal structure differed from the Secession of 1834.
88. E. Smilde, Een Eeuw van Strijd over Verbond en Doop, Kok, Kampen, the Netherlands, 1946, p. 357
89. G.H. Kersten, Op.cit. p. 275
90. W. Heyns, Manual of Reformed Doctrine Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1926, p.130
91. Op.cit. p. 126
92. Genesis 17:7
93. Genesis 17:1
94. Heyns, op cit,p.130
96. James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974) Vol. II, p.113.
- "Covenant of Grace" lectures
Bannerman, James. The Church of Christ, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960.
Beeke, James W. Bible Doctrine, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Berkouwer, G. C. The Sacraments, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969.
Bosma, M. J. Exposition of Reformed Doctrine, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1927.
Bruggen, J. Van. Annotations to the Heidelberg Catechism, Neerlandia, Alberta: Inheritance Publications, 1991.
Calvin, John. The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973.
--. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960.
--. Commentaries on the Book of Genesis, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Faber, J. "The Liberation; the Doctrinal Aspect", in C. Van Dam, ed. The Liberation: Causes and Consequences, Winnipeg: Premier Publishing, 1995.
Genderen, J. Van. Covenant and Election, Neerlandia, Canada: Inheritance Publications, 1995
Gerstner, Jonathan Neil. The Thousand Generation Covenant. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1991.
Hanko, Herman. We & Our Children, Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1981.
Heyns. W. The Manual of Reformed Doctrine, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1926.
Hoekema, Anthony A. "The Covenant of Grace in Calvin's Teaching", in Calvin Theological Journal, vol. 2 no. 2, November 1967.
--."The Christian Reformed Church and the Covenant", in Perspectives on the Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983.
Hoeksema, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1966.
Jewett, Paul K. Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978.
Jocz, Jakob. The Covenant: A Theology of Human Destiny, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968.
Kamphuis, J. An Everlasting Covenant, Launceston, Australia: Publication Organization of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, 1985
Kline, Meredith G. By Oath Consigned, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968.
Murray, John. Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977.
Robertson, O. Palmer. The Christ of the Covenants, Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1980.
Small, Dwight Harvey. The Biblical Basis for Infant Baptism, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1968.
Bavinck, H. Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, Kampen, the Netherlands: J. H. Kok N.V., 1929.
Genderen, J. Van. Verbond en Verkiezing, Kampen, the Netherlands: J.H. Kok, 1983.
Genderen, J. Van & Velemea, W.H. Beknopte Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, Kampen, the Netherlands: J. H. Kok, 1992.
--. Vorming en Verdieping, Amsterdam: Buijten en Schipperheijn, 1995.
Goedhart, H. e.a., Vast en Zeker, Kampen, the Netherlands: J. H. Kok, 1974.
Graafland, C. Het Vaste Verbond, Amsterdam: Ton Bolland, 1978.
Heyns, W. Gereformeerde Geloofsleer, Sneek, the Netherlands:J. W. Boeijenga Zonen, 1927.
Honig, A. Handboek van de Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, Kampen, the Netherlands: J. H. Kok N.V., 1938.
Hoor, F. M ten. Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, Holland, MI: A. ten Hoor.
Kersten, G. H.. De Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, Utrecht: De Banier, 1950.
Kuyper, Abraham. Dictaten Dogmatiek IV, Grand Rapids, MI: J. B. Hulst.
--. E Voto Dordraceno III, Amsterdam: Hoveker & Wormser, 1905.
Loonstra, B. "De Historische Wortels van de Leer Aangaande Het Verbond", in Theologia Reformata, XXX, no. 1, March 1987.
Schuit, J. J. Van der. Dictaat Dogmatiek, unpublished notes of Dogmatics class at Seminary of Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken at Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, dating from late 1920's.
Smilde, E. Een Eeuw van Strijd over Verbond en Doop, Kampen, the Netherlands: J. H. Kok N.V., 1946.
Spijker, W. van't. e.a., ed. Rondom de Doopvont, Kampen, the Netherlands: De Groot Goudriaan, 1983.
Veenhof, C. Prediking en Uitverkiezing, Kampen, the Netherlands: J. H. Kok N.V., 1959.
Wielenga, B. Ons Doopsformulier, Kampen, the Netherlands: J. H. Kok N.V., 1906.
Woelderink, J.G. Verbond en Bevinding, Amsterdam: Ton Bolland, 1974.
--. Het Doopsformulier, the Hague: Uitgeverij Guido de Bres, 1938.