Also Yet the Canadian Reformed ("Liberated") Covenant View

In your editorials entitled "The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers" of April-December 1990, you have made some strong allegations against the Canadian Reformed Churches. 

Considering such strong allegations, could you publish our response to your statements? You may then take this submission as a "Letter to the Editor" and give your response to it. 

Let me first summarize Engelsma's position. One can only laud his initial description of both the centrality and importance of the doctrine of the covenant in Scripture. One can agree with most of what he says. Engelsma begins with stressing the fact that the children of believers are included in the covenant. His concern is with the place of the children of the believers. Hence he points out that the covenant was made with Abraham and his offspring. And in a following issue he says that the children of believers are included in the covenant. In opposition to the Baptists who deny a place in the covenant to the children of believers, Engelsma says that our creeds are clear: they belong to God in the covenant! 

Then Engelsma proceeds to confront the age-old problem concerning those children of believers who upon reaching the age of maturity do not accept the gospel in true faith. What are we to think of them? Engelsma says that we cannot presume them to be regenerated for this is contrary to Scripture and experience. Here, too, we can agree! Indeed, presumptive regeneration was the heart of the conflict of 1944! 

Prof. Engelsma then proceeds to give three possible explanations concerning the meaning of the children of believers being included in the covenant. The first view he presents is that of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations and the Free Reformed Church. This view states that the children of believers are unregenerate and unsaved. But, living in a Christian environment, they have a better chance of being converted than other children. The second view he presents is that of the Canadian (and American) Reformed Churches. Engelsma puts it this way:

All the children of believers without exception are in the covenant in this sense, that God promises them all salvation and extends to them all His covenant grace in Christ. However, the actual fulfillment of the promise, the actual reception of covenant grace, and the actual realization of the covenant with them personally depend upon their believing in Christ and thus taking hold of the covenant when they grow up.

Then Prof. Engelsma presents his own view, to which we shall return later.

Engelsma's Critique

First, let us consider Engelsma's critique of the Netherlands Reformed and the Free Reformed position. This view, says Engelsma, must be rejected. "God does not merely put the children of believers in a more advantageous position, so as to make it likelier that they will be saved; but He establishes His covenant with them, so as to be their God." Who could not agree? 

Then the Canadian Reformed position gets its turn. This view, says Prof. Engelsma, "conflicts with cardinal doctrines of the Word of God, doctrines which are precious to every Reformed man and woman." Three arguments are brought forward: 

1. This view makes the promise of the covenant grace of God depend on the work and will of the covenant child. The covenant and its salvation are conditional and dependent on the faith of the child, and this is "diametrically opposed to the teaching of Scripture...." Here he quotes Romans 9:16. It is also against the confession, says Engelsma, quoting the Canons of Dordt, I/9, 10 ("Election is not Based on Foreseen Faith" and "Election is based on Gods Good Pleasure"); the Rejection of Errors I/3 (The act of faith is not the cause for salvation, but only God's good pleasure); Canons III-IV/14 (Faith is a gift of God); and Rejection of Errors III-IV/6 (Faith is not an act of man but a gift of God). The basic argument: the Canadian Reformed position is Arminian. 

2. This view implies that Christ's death for some persons fails to secure their redemption. At baptism God promises salvation to the children on the basis of Christ's blood shed for them. But some of these children perish. This denies the doctrine of limited atonement, "at least within the sphere of the covenant." Thus we are held to teach universal atonement. Again: the Canadian Reformed position is Arminian. 

3. This view means that the promise of God fails in many cases. God's promises are considered to have failed. The Word of God is made of none effect. And this, too, is contrary to Scripture and confession.

Are we Arminian?

These are Engelsma's arguments. Before we consider them we must point out that he has not accurately represented the view of the Canadian Reformed Churches. We do not teach that God extends to all the children of believers His covenant grace. Rather, He includes them with their parents in the covenant of grace and He promises to them His covenant blessings in Christ, and includes with promise the demand to believe the gospel and to receive Christ's blessings in true faith. We also do not teach that the actual reception of covenant grace and the actual realization of the covenant depend on the faith of the children of believers. Rather, God fulfills His covenant promises in His time and in His way in the lives of the children of believers whom He chooses. We also confess that such faith is a work and gift of the LORD, according to His sovereign good pleasure and electing love. Yet in this work, He is pleased to use the means. He fulfills His promise in the way of faith. 

We then proceed to answer Prof. Engelsma's arguments:

1. Engelsma holds that we make the covenant and its salvation conditional and dependent on the faith of the child. But this is a fiction. As Prof. K. Schilder pointed out to Rev. Hoeksema long ago (!), it all depends on what one means by "conditional." If one means with this term that one can earn his salvation, or merit any part of it by his own act of believing or any other work, then we join in rejecting the word "conditional." But if one means by this term that God is pleased to establish certain means through which His covenant promises come to realization, then this term can never be disqualified. Indeed, there are many examples of conditional language in Scripture, as Prof. Engelsma well knows. Think ofIsaiah 7:9: "If you will not believe, you will not be established." Think of Acts 16:31: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." This latter text not only shows that the covenant is conditional in its existence, but also shows how the children were included! 

Thus, there is no substance to Engelsma's charge, nor to his Scripture proof. He cites Romans 9:16—a text which makes no direct reference either to children or to the covenant, but to God's sovereign work of election. Who can deny this? Pointing out conditions that exist in the covenant does not in any way detract from God's sovereign decree of election (see II Cor. 6:16-7:1). 

The same holds for Engelsma's references to the Canons of Dordt. He quotes I/9, 10, but why does he ignore I/3, 4, and 12 or II/5, where the means or conditions of the covenant are mentioned? Canons I/3 speaks about the preaching of the gospel; I/4 speaks about the twofold effect of this preaching. Canons II/5 says that the Lord sends the gospel wherever He wills and adds with the promise the command to repent and believe this gospel. Engelsma quotes III-IV/ 14, but why does he not read V/14 as well? Canons V/14 says that the use of means are included in His sovereign work of grace. One cannot successfully argue a case by upholding only a part of a creed, and silently passing over the other parts. And here I have not even mentioned I/17, where all the children are explicitly included in the covenant. 

2. In the second argument, Engelsma holds that we teach universal atonement as regards the children of believers. Frankly it is a mystery to me how this is even logically possible, let alone actually true. "Universal" means: "all men" and thus logically incorporates a category incongruous with "children of believers." There is little clarity in this way of speaking. 

Aside from this strange terminology—which only reflects Prof. Engelsma's difficulties in hunting up critique against sound Reformed doctrine—we also must reject the sense of Engelsma's argument. We do not teach that the children1 of believers are promised the covenant on the basis that Christ has washed them all in His blood. We say: God in Christ promises them that He will wash them in His blood from all their sins and adds with the promise His demand that the children turn from evil and believe His Word, and that the parents instruct their children in these things. When children grow up not believing Gods promises, it does not mean that Christ takes back what He first gave them. It means that His gifts are spurned, and the covenant breaker incurs the wrath of God's covenant. God has thus instituted His covenant in order to stress how serious our covenant obligations are in His service. 

3. Engelsma's final objection is that the Canadian Reformed view implies the Word of God fails. For those who do not believe, Gods promise does not hold true. But this, too, is a caricature of our standpoint. Faced with the unbelief of many of Israel's sons, the apostle Paul takes pains to point out, "But it is not as though the Word of God had failed" (Rom. 9:6). The unbelief of men can never nullify the grace of God. God's Word never returns empty but always accomplishes its purpose—effecting grace to one, and wrath to the other, all in accordance with His sovereign good pleasure (Is. 55:11). But the covenant promise remains the same for all children of believers.

Engelsma Uses Strong Words Against the Canadian Reformed Churches

Their teaching stands "in diametrical opposition to the teaching of Scripture" and "conflicts with cardinal doctrines of the Word of God." But when it comes to developing a case for these statements, one discovers that he has not one sound argument in his arsenal to support such strong allegations. On the one hand he makes us say things we do not say, and on the other hand he misreads our (and his own) confessions through the glasses of the typical Protestant Reformed interpretation that makes election dominate all other doctrines. Hence we are falsely accused of Arminianism.

Engelsma's View

We will now consider the view that Engelsma himself defends with regard to the children of the covenant. We have already noted that all along he has argued for their inclusion in the covenant. He has insisted on this position in opposition to the Baptists and the view of covenant held by the Netherlands Reformed Congregations and the Free Reformed Church. Here then is Engelsma's view.

Although all our children are in the sphere of the covenant and therefore receive the sign of the covenant and are reared as covenant members, the covenant of God, the relationship of friendship in Jesus Christ, is established with the elect children only.

Here the truth of his position finally appears. The children of believers are included in the covenant, but actually they are also excluded from the covenant. 

What is anyone to make of this reasoning? What does it mean to be included in the sphere of the covenant? Here Engelsma's language suddenly becomes vague. And there is a clear reason for this turn to the vague concept of the "sphere of the covenant." When one closes the door to the simple teaching of Scripture, one begins to reach for whatever might fit the occasion in order to salvage the situation. 

Once Engelsma begins on this road there is no end. Whereas he began with denying presumptive regeneration, in the end he says: "Viewing their children as Gods children, believers must approach them as elect children in teaching and discipline, even though there may indeed be reprobate and unregenerate children among them. Election determines the approach." What is this but presumptive regeneration? He even goes on to say that the Canons of Dordt restrict the promise of the gospel and the sacraments to believers, (quoting III-IV/8 a statement which the article quoted does not make, and which flies in the .face of the clear language of II/5. Ultimately we find Engelsma reading his view into the confessions, and hence entirely misinterpreting their message.

What Scriptural references does Engelsma bring forward to support his view? He refers to God's words to Moses in Romans 9:15: "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." But as I have previously stated, this text does not deny for a moment the seriousness and the validity of God's covenant promise made to the children of all believers in the covenant. Engelsma reads this denial into the text. The focus of Romans 9 is on the fulfillment of the covenant promise through God's own sovereign act, and it does not touch the validity (legal reliability) of the covenant promise made to all the offspring. Then, quoting Romans 4:16, Engelsma says: "The promise of God is sure to all the seed." But then he must have strange glasses on, for Romans 4:16 says: "That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his (Abraham's) descendants—not only to the adherents of the law but also those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all." 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 reasoning of Prof. Engelsma is an unending circle, fraught with self-contradictions. First the children are included, then they are excluded. First there is no presumptive regeneration, then we must presume our children to be elect children. Where does this end? In effect, there is not much difference in the view on the position of children in the covenant between the Protestant Reformed and the Baptists and Netherlands Reformed Congregations that Engelsma is op posing. They each differ in degree, but not in essentials: they all do not really include all the children of believers in the covenant of grace. 

The sad part of all of this is that the theory of the "sphere of the covenant" as propounded by Engelsma is foreign to the Scriptures. It is a "sphere of the covenant" theory much in the same vein as propounded by several church leaders opposing the simple view of Scripture upheld at the time of the Liberation in 1944. And whereas Rev. Hoeksema took a good stand op posing the "Three Points of Kalamazoo" which made the doctrine of common grace binding in 1924, in 1950 all his gains were lost when he made a binding statement of his own excluding the view of the confessions defended by Schilder. 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 and the notion of Gods wrath against covenant breakers. 

In sum: we reject the allegations of Prof. Engelsma that we are Arminian in our view of the covenant, and we reject his charges that we teach doctrines diametrically opposed to the Scriptures. We teach those confessional doctrines which are clearly maintained in the creeds and which he does not appear to notice: the covenant has conditions. 

The crux of this debate is ultimately very practical. How do we view our children? How are we to approach them in teaching and instruction? The Lord demands a great sacrifice precisely because they are included in the covenant—a covenant in which our responsibility is never abrogated. Let no one bury the clear demand of the gospel under a smoke screen of "sphere" theories, but simply do his duty in the place he is called. Then we will also see the rewards! 

(Dr.) J. DeJong 

Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches

Hamilton, Ontario


My answer to Dr. DeJong appears as the editorial in this issue of the Standard Bearer. Dr. DeJong has published the above letter as an editorial in the January 18, 1991 issue of Clarion, the magazine of the Canadian Reformed Churches. I am asking that he publish an adaptation of my editorial response to his article as a letter inClarion

My original analysis of the "Liberated" covenant view (held by the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands, the Canadian Reformed Churches, and other churches), to which Dr. DeJong responds, can be found in the May 1, 1990 issue of the SB (pp. 341, 342). My defense of the covenant view of the PRC against the view of the "Liberated" can be found in the July 1, 1990 SB(p. 413). 

Anyone interested in studying the PR defense of an unconditional covenant on the basis of the Reformed creeds should read the "Declaration of Principles," adopted by the PR Synod of 1951. This document, intended to be used "only by the Mission Committee and the missionaries for the organization of prospective churches," is found in the book of Church Order of the PRC. 

Since I suppose that there can be no additional objection to the doctrine of the covenant that I have been setting forth in these pages, objections from all possible quarters having already come in, I take this opportunity to express thankfulness—and pleasant surprise—that there is still obviously a great deal of interest in the vital truth of Gods covenant with believers and their children. It is disheartening, however, that after almost 500 years of Reformed church history, there are still so many and so great differences among Reformed and Presbyterian churches over this truth. 


A Horror Out of Hell

Your editorial "The Collapse of Communism" (theStandard Bearer, Feb. 1, 1991) was a very accurate diagnosis of the horror out of hell known as Communism. (Of course, it is still the ruling tyranny in many countries.) It has been a curious thing to me that until recently the atrocities and utter bankruptcy of Communism was almost an unmentionable subject in supposedly sophisticated circles. For anyone to expose its evils and unimaginable atrocities was to invite the ridicule of being called a "Right-wing, John Birch, McCarthyite, Anti-Communist Crusader." Remember the scorn heaped on President Reagan for his remark that Russia was "an evil empire"? In my own experience since the early 1950s, I was often ignored or ridiculed, even by Reformed "intellectuals," for daring to expose the brutal truth about Communism, truth which was readily available to anyone who really cared. 

You are absolutely correct in stating, "the theological liberals in the West will carry into the Judgment complicity in Communism's evils." The story of how the liberals and, yes, many theological conservatives also, aided and abetted this monstrous criminal conspiracy by refusing to condemn it forth-rightly and without qualification is truly a shocking chapter on the hardness and blindness of heart of 20tlh century Christian "intellectuals."

Thanks for a very penetrating succinct commentary. 

(Rev.) Norman Jones

Pierre, SD