The Promise and/or Law

Rev. Woudenberg is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all.

Romans 4:16

There are numerous old sayings which reflect on the tendency of those who have a fault to see that fault as existing in nearly everyone else, while failing to recognize it in themselves. One is reminded of this when reading through Dr. Schilder's little book, Extra-Scriptural Binding — A New Danger. This book, being a critique of our Declaration of Principles, seeks to demonstrate that this document did not warrant being adopted because it was "not clear" in its formulations. But Schilder does so in terms so often obscure and confusing that one can hardly refrain from recalling that ancient proverb brought to our attention by Jesus, "Physician, heal thyself" (Luke 4:23). 

Nevertheless, it is important that we try to understand what Schilder was meaning to say. Both he and Hoeksema were men of exceptional ability, and able communicators, each in his own way — which is perhaps where the problem lay. As deep as was their respect for each other, their theological outlooks were different. Hoeksema was a logician, Schilder a rhetorician; Hoeksema built his ideas through well organized theological thinking, Schilder searched for effective expression; Hoeksema was concerned with finding truth and explaining it, Schilder with establishing moral responsibility; Hoeksema worked to build understanding, while Schilder would make authoritative pronouncements. The result was that, as simply and concisely as Hoeksema sought to lay out the formulation of the Declaration, Schilder insisted he could not be sure what it meant. His claim was that, because of weakness in its composition, the Declaration was not allowing for what he was convinced had to be allowed, while in fact he and Hoeksema were looking for different things.

The focal point of this problem was in that central portion of the Declaration of Principles, to which Schilder directs his primary criticisms throughout. It reads:

a. All the covenant blessings are for the elect alone. 

b. The promise of the gospel ... concerns only the believers, that is, the elect.

c. If the promise of God is for them (the little children), then the promise has to be infallible and unconditional and can therefore only concern the elect.

d. Hence, that promise is surely only for the elect.1

Now for those familiar with traditional Reformed thinking, these propositions would seem to make perfectly good sense, and, given the Arminian influences of our day, to lay down principles which are well worth being said. 

What is dealt with here are the blessings of the covenant as they derive from that basic promise given by God to Abraham in Genesis 17:7: "I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee." The point is simple and beautiful. The Lord God appeared to Abraham and promised him that He would always be with him as his God and his friend (James 2:23), as well as with his children after him. 

The difficulty is that historical development made it clear that this seed did not include all of Abraham's physical descendants, or even all who received the sign of the covenant; but rather, as the New Testament goes on to explain, this seed was essentially only one, the Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16), and all those who, by sharing the same faith which Abraham had, are joined to Him (Gal. 3:26-29). Such faith is not something anyone can produce by himself, but it is a gift wrought by God in those He has chosen from eternity (Canons 1:5,6). And this is what the Declaration very briefly says: "the covenant blessings are for the elect alone." 

This, however, Schilder insisted, is not in every sense so. There is a very real way in which the blessings of the covenant are for everyone; and his effort to prove this is the central focus of this book. 

Schilder begins his effort in this way:

What is the meaning of are for in the sentence the covenant blessings are for the elect alone? Does it mean lawfully and legally affecting the addressed man to the letter, seizing him and putting him for all eternity under an unremovable claim? Then we say "It is for everybody."2

With this we are given our first insight into Schilder's chief concern, the matter of legality and law, the legal rights and responsibilities of the individual person. To him this is what the covenant is all about: "seizing him and putting him for all eternity under an unremovable claim." Apparently, to the mind of Schilder, it is not friendship which God brought to Abraham, but a legal claim, to his life and that of his children, with rights and responsibilities for all. 

And so it is that Schilder, as he continues in the next chapter, would apply this to baptism:

The big question that now appears is: What happens at baptism? Do I receive a dogmatic statement: God brings all the elect to salvation? Or am I addressed with a legal statement, in which I am personally and individually involved?3

This is what baptism means to him; and it lies at the heart of his controversy with Hoeksema—the meaning and significance of baptism. As far as Schilder was concerned, it has to do with rights and responsibilities, and the fact that they are inalienably tied together. With the rite of baptism, a "legal statement" is made with regard to every baptized child. God claims that child for His own, and will hold him responsible to meet His demands throughout life and into all eternity.

Now there is a certain truth to the fact that God does have such a claim, not just to those who are baptized, but to every child born throughout time and in every land. Their Creator holds a right to them, which includes a responsibility that will never cease, even after the close of time. But is that what the covenant is about? Evidently Schilder thought it is. 

But there is another element which appears here almost in passing which we should not overlook. Schilder takes a sneering attitude toward stating of doctrinal truth when he says, "Do I receive a dogmatic statement: God brings all the elect to salvation?" It is as though somehow such would be a repulsive thing. And one wonders. Did Schilder not know what he was doing, for fewer things were closer to the heart of Hoeksema than that. Hoeksema had spent his life seeking out and teaching doctrinal truth to young and old. It was to him the central focus of Christian service and life—as it had been to all of the great Reformers in their time. And now Schilder would snub it off as though of little regard? 

And that is not the end. In the next chapter Schilder continues in the same vein:

If the words "are for" mean that the promise creates a legal connection and acknowledges the already existing connection and also puts the baptized person individually under legal claims, then we say the promise is for all.4

Once again we have this same thing, a "legal connection" and "legal claim." It sounds so strange. What was Schilder's fascination with things like that. Then we have to remember that he grew up in a different place and in a different age. His were those days in Europe when great dictators were all the rage, men like the Czars of Russia, and then Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini, always confronting the world with the question of who, and what nation, had the right to rule. And in the middle of it all, especially in Schilder's formative years, there was the influence of the great Dutch leader, Abraham Kuyper. For a whole generation Kuyper had worked to mold the minds of the people to his concept of sphere sovereignty, the idea that every person is given a place, a sphere of operation within which he held special rights tied to special responsibilities. And if these responsibilities were kept, men would be given the right to rule in their own sphere, pro rege, for the king; but if they did not, they would have failed. To the Dutch of that day it was an idea with endless fascination, and for Schilder as well. Differ as he might with Kuyper's view of presupposed regeneration, there still continued in his heart, apparently, the conviction that this kind of a legal claim was that with which the covenant of God has to do. 

And so it continues as he moves further into this book. There Schilder returns to the idea of promise, as he writes:

If I understand only one syllable of the gospel, it is that it has to do with messages, not with God's hidden thoughts, but with what He has to say to us. In this case it is not spoken by an objective reporter who can produce news of facts and happenings, but by an ambassador sent by Him. In front of others, such an ambassador represents his own king with authority. He does not just come to tell something about His majesty, such as when and where he was born, what his family tree looks like, how many children he has, where his residence is, what his habits and hobbies are, in short, news that fills our papers and magazines numbers and facts. Not so this ambassador; he comes with official authority as an accredited representative, to do business. He comes not to refer to a truth, but

to say, "This and that is the will of my King. I am appointed to make this known in His name. I do not bring a news report and I do not just communicate facts, but I bring an authoritative word concerning a testament."5

Now it is the rhetorician that speaks, concerned not with the content of what is said, but with what authority the speaker says it. No interest here with pleasing words, decorated and garnished verbiage, designed to appeal; Schilder's would be the voice of one having "official authority as an accredited representative" pro rege, for the king. Schilder would speak as an ambassador to whom the listeners are required to listen. And that is fine. Certainly with such authority the gospel does speak. But as gospel, as good news, is it not in the fact that God will save those who believe—who are only the elect in the end? 

And we could go on, except that there is also here another ironic slur that should not be overlooked. With condescension Schilder speaks of "hidden thoughts" as "spoken by an objective reporter who can produce news of facts and happenings." With "something about His majesty, such as when and where he was born, what his family tree looks like, how many children he has, where his residence is, what his habits and hobbies are, in short, news that fills our papers and magazines numbers and facts." And one wonders what is meant. Perhaps, of course, there is validity to such when speaking of earthly kings. Their personal lives are often far less than what one might wish to have known. But here in the covenant it is the Lord God of heaven and earth with whom we have to do, pure and perfect and holy in all of His ways. A whole book, the Bible, He has given to us, filled with news and facts about who He is and what He does, so that, in the words of the Shorter Catechism, "We may glorify God and enjoy him forever." Is all of this to be sarcastically shoved aside so that simple pronouncements of law may be made? 

But Schilder is not through. He goes on to explain further what he has in mind:

In short, when I read of the promise of the gospel then I stick to this leading thought.... I want to read this term promise of the gospel as it is used in the Canons of Dort, especially in II, 5, where we can read that the promise of the gospel ought to be announced (this is something different than reading the heading "City News" in the newspaper) and proclaimed (this is something different than giving an objective paraphrase of it) with the demand to repent and believe. I would love to see the Canons of Dort maintained.

They frankly say:

a. The promise comes with the command. This is not a mere news report, mere objective, "hm, hm," but a placing under God's claim. No news-cast, such as: apples don't fall far from the tree, or: it is nice weather, or: the earth has two poles, or: God is a simple Being, or: three persons are together one Being, or: a heaven and a hell are coming.

No dogma, no mere statement, but an official address to someone, an approach. An announcement. A proclamation!(Proponere). Don't be a proponent of yourself or of your sermon proposal. For that proclamation of your word has nothing to do with the Canons of Dort II, 5. The preacher must officially present God as the Promiser and Commander in one, in one authoritative message.6

And once again there is no dispute, that is, in regard to what the Canons have to say. That the promise of the gospel with this command to repent and believe is to be proclaimed to all nations, no one would ever dispute. But is this what the covenant is about? This is God's word to the nations; while the covenant was given with sign and seal to Abraham, and with him to all who, as he, did believe. It was a confirmation of love that He would always be there as their friend—hardly a commandment of law. 

And one would that that were all, but once again, even more harshly, there comes through that bitter caricature concerning the teaching of facts. Schilder now speaks not just of "reading the heading 'City News' in the newspaper," but he goes on to add, "No news-cast, such as: apples don't fall far from the tree, or: it is nice weather, or: the earth has two poles, or: God is a simple Being, or: three persons are together one Being, or: a heaven and a hell are coming." And one shudders. With one breath he combines such aphorisms as "apples don't fall far from the tree, or: it is nice weather, or: the earth has two poles," with great Bible truths as "God is a simple Being, or: three persons are together one Being, or: a heaven and a hell are coming." These are some of the great truths of the Christian faith, things of which Jesus says, "ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 6:32). 

There is a sadness to that. Here is one who suffered so much for the faith, and spent his life teaching and inspiring the people of God; and did it come to the point that, here so close to the end of his days, he was ready to defend the proposition that pronouncement of law should be substituted for the doctrines of grace as the essence of the covenant of God? One could only wish it hadn't been. 

1 Schilder, Klaas, Extra-Scriptural Binding — A New Danger, Inheritance Publications, Neerlandia, Alberta, Canada, p. 88. 

2 Ibid. p. 89.

3 Ibid. p. 89.

4 Ibid. p. 90.

5 Ibid. p. 136.

6 Ibid. pp. 136-137.

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