An "Election Theology" of Covenant (1)

This at bottom is the objection of "Liberated" Reformed theologian Dr. J. DeJong to the Protestant Reformed doctrine of the covenant (cf. the letter in this issue of the Standard Bearer). He expresses this fundamental objection when he writes, "And Engelsma is only perpetuating the same kind of 'election' theology which refuses to entertain the Scriptural teaching of faith as the way or condition to salvation...." He says the same thing when he accuses me of misreading the Reformed creeds "through the glasses of the typical Protestant Reformed interpretation that makes election dominate all other doctrines." 

For the "Liberated," the one, basic error of the Protestant Reformed doctrine of the covenant is the place—the foundational and determinative place—it gives to God's eternal election. For the "Liberated," "election theology of covenant" is the charge that finally disqualifies the Protestant Reformed covenant conception. For the PRC, this very "charge" is the vindication of our doctrine of the covenant as soundly Reformed. Since the charge against our covenant doctrine by the "Liberated' implies that the "Liberated' doctrine of the covenant is not an election theology of covenant, the charge is itself the condemnation of the "Liberated" covenant conception, as far as the PRC are concerned.

One thing becomes clear from Dr. DeJong's contribution to the discussion concerning the Reformed doctrine of the covenant with the children of believers: the doctrine of the "Liberated" and the doctrine of the PRC concerning the covenant of God with the children of believers are two, sharply differing doctrines. Their difference concerns basic truths of the Reformed faith; exegesis of crucially important passages of Holy Scripture; understanding of the Canons of Dordt; and the practical matter of the approach to the baptized, covenant children. 

The "Liberated" teaching is that God makes the covenant promise, "I will be the God of your children," with all that this promise contains, to every child of believing parents. With this promise comes the demand that the child believe in God when he grows up as a condition upon which the promise depends for its realization in the child

The doctrine of the PRC is that the covenant promise, with all that it contains, is for the elect children of believing parents only. The demand or calling that accompanies the promise, rather than being a condition upon which the fulfillment of the promise depends, is based upon the promise and constitutes both the way in which God realizes the promise (the way of faith) and the part in the covenant (believing) of the one taken into Gods covenant by the promise. 

In order that the issue between us not be obscured or confused, several points in the debate must be clarified. First, I did not misrepresent the "Liberated' doctrine when I wrote that it teaches that God extends His covenant grace to all the children of believers. This is simply what it means that His covenant promise is to them all. The covenant promise is a gracious promise. At the very least, it makes known the gracious attitude of God toward the object of the promise, as well as His desire to save the one to whom the promise is given. This is certainly what the PRC understand by the covenant promise, although we also hold that the promise is gracious in the sense that it works the renewing power of salvation in the one to whom it is given. 

But the "Liberated' too regard the promise as gracious in the sense that it makes known the favorable attitude of God toward those to whom He gives the promise. The "Liberated' have always condemned the disciples of Abraham Kuyper for restricting "grace" to "subjectively-realized grace," i.e., regenerating power in the heart, and for failing to recognize that also the word of promise itself is grace. The "Liberated" theologian J. Kamphuis makes this very point against the Kuyperians in his book, An Everlasting Covenant (Publication Organization of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, 1985). Criticizing the Kuyperian view of the covenant and infant baptism, Kamphuis writes:

This means (i.e., the teaching of Abraham Kuyper and his followers—DJE): If that grace will be real grace, it has to be innerly present in man, and cannot be "only" a word, a promise. Is not the choice of words revealing? Only that which has been realized subjectively can reallybe called grace, and is to be clearly distinguished from the contents of God's speaking in a promising way. Real grace is here subjectively-realized grace (p. 44; all emphasis his—DJE).

According to the "Liberated," the word of promise is "real grace." I agree. But DeJong must not then charge me with misrepresenting the "Liberated" when I say that they teach that God extends His grace to all the baptized children of believers. For they maintain that the word of promise is for all the children. 

That there is in the "Liberated' doctrine of the covenant the teaching that God desires to save all baptized children is plain from Klaas Schilder's explanation of the crucially important phrase in the Reformed baptism form, "sanctified in Christ": "It belongs to the contents of the promise that has to be embraced in faith, that the Holy Spirit desires to sanctify us, (indeed) imparting to us that which we have in Christ (in the promise, by rights)" (quoted in Kamphuis, p. 80). Kamphuis explains that in the covenant promise of baptism, which according to the "Liberated" is given to all the children, "the Holy Spirit promises us that Hewants to sanctify us." Kamphuis adds, "the LORD really means it when He says to all children of the Covenant: 'holy,' 'sanctified'..." (p. 81). 

There is good reason, in fact, to analyze the "Liberated" position as teaching that God extends His covenant grace to all the baptized children in the sense that He bestows upon them all a significant blessing of the covenant. I refer to their explaining "sanctified in Christ" as meaning that all baptized children "have been adopted as Gods children (as 'sons')" by a "public, judicial act of God." Of this public, judicial adoption of every baptized child as a child of God, baptism is a sign and seal, according to the "Liberated" (Kamphuis, p. 83). 

I frankly find this incredible in a Reformed church. Adoption unto children of God by a public, judicial act of God of all the children of believers, the Esaus as well as the Jacobs, those who perish under the wrath of God now and eternally as well as those who have eternal life? But this is certain: it is no misrepresentation to describe the "Liberated" covenant view as one which has God extending His grace to all the baptized children. This is inherent in their fundamental doctrine that the covenant promise is for all the children. And this means that the "Liberated" must explain both to themselves and to others, why their covenant view does not necessarily involve them in serious transgression of two fundamental truths of the gospel as confessed by the Reformed churches: the irresistible nature of Gods grace and the impossibility of falling from grace (which the Canons of Dordt describe as God's not allowing the elect to "lose the grace of adoption," V/6). 

A second point that must be clarified is that the PRC do indeed emphatically hold and freely preach demands in the covenant. We would not like to think that we come a whit behind the "Liberated" in this regard. There is in baptism the demand to the children to repent, believe, and obey God's law. The Declaration of Principles adopted by the PRC in 1951 states that the promise of God in baptism "confronts us with the obligation of love, to walk in a new and holy life." There is also in the baptism of the infants a demand of the covenant to the parents to instruct their children in the truth to the utmost of their power. The PRC maintain Article 21 of the Church Order of Dordt which requires parents to instruct their children in good Christian schools as one of the "demands of the covenant." A theology of the covenant that has election as its foundation in no wise weakens, much less abrogates, the responsibility of children, parents, or church. On the contrary! 

The PRC also preach the warning—the awful warning of Hebrews 10:25-31—that the baptized member of the covenant people who violates the covenant by his unbelief will be beaten with double stripes. Nor are these empty words with us. When our own physical children manifest themselves as profane despisers of the covenant, we exclude them from the kingdom of Christ by Christian discipline. 

But the PRC differ from the "Liberated" in that we deny that the demand to the children is a condition upon which depends the fulfillment of the promise. Rather the demand to believe is the way in which God realizes the covenant in the case of the elect children. Their obedience to the demand, namely, believing, is itself the fruit of the promise in their lives. The promise does not depend upon the demand (faith). But the demand (faith) depends upon the promise. With regard to the reprobate children, the same demand, namely, repent and believe!, is their duty, regardless of their inability. Indeed, their responsibility is heightened by the fact that they receive the covenant sign, are reared in the covenant truth, and have membership for a time among the covenant people. 

The third point that requires clarification so that the real issue can be profitably discussed is that, for the PRC, "faith-as-a-demand" is not the same as "faith-as-a-condition." Dr. DeJong simply identifies "demand' and "condition." He writes: "Paul stresses the condition of the covenant: the call to faith! And the requirement of faith as the way to salvation does not detract one iota from the certainty of God's promises." The implication is that the "call to faith" and the "requirement of faith" are the same as "faith-as- a-condition." Again, he writes, "(the theology of the PRC) refuses to entertain the Scriptural teaching of faith as the way or condition to salvation...." Faith as a "way" is supposed to be the same as faith as a "condition." The effect of this identification of "way" and "demand" with "condition" is that the impression is left that by denying "faith-as-a-condition" the PRC are, in fact, denyingdemands in the covenant. The impression is also left that in affirming "faith-as-a-condition" the "Liberated" are only affirming demands in the covenant. 

Leaving out of sight for the time whether Scripture and the Re formed creeds permit the church to call faith a condition, I only want to establish here that the PRC make a sharp distinction between faith as a demand and faith as a condition. The former, we teach; the latter, we as firmly deny. And such a distinction rings perfectly true to everyday life. A Reformed husband requires godly submission from his wife, not as a condition for becoming his wife, but as a demand based on her being his wife. Submission is also the way in which she expresses what it means to be a wife. Similarly, the honor that a father requires from his child is not a condition that the boy must fulfill in order to become a child, but rather that which is demanded exactly because he is a child. 

The issue between the PRC and the "Liberated" is just this: Does God, particularly in baptism, promise the blessing of the covenant of grace to every baptized child on the condition of faith? Is the covenant conditional in its establishment with the children of believers personally? The "Liberated' Reformed Churches say yes. They hold that all children of believers alike are in the covenant in this sense that God promises them all salvation and extends to them all His covenant grace in Christ. Against this view, I charged that it conflicts with cardinal doctrines of the Word of God. Specifically, I charged that this view makes the covenant promise and grace of God dependent upon the child; that it: necessarily implies that the death of Christ fails to secure the salvation of some for whom Christ died; and that it expressly teaches that the promise of God fails in some instances. 

Dr. DeJong answers these charges in his letter, rejecting each of them as without substance and false. 

The editorial in the next issue of the SB will examine the "Liberated" theologian's refutation of these charges. 

- DJE