This series is written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak.
A reader from the Canadian Reformed Churches wrote to me concerning her objection to my statements in a book review that the covenantal doctrine of her churches denies and overthrows the doctrines of grace in the Reformed creeds. I have proved that the idea that ALL the baptized children of believers, elect and reprobate alike, are given grace in the covenant is contrary to the Reformed confessions, which teach that the grace of God is for the elect alone. This is not the only issue with the Canadian Reformed covenantal doctrine.
One of the hallmarks of that doctrine is that faith is the condition of the covenantal promise that God makes to ALL the baptized children, elect and reprobate alike.
About the covenant with ALL the children, Coosje wrote, “We are clearly comforted and warned. Comforted by the promises when the covenant is responded to in faith, and warned when it is met with disbelief and/or carelessness.” For her, the response of faith is not part of the covenantal gift and work of grace in the covenant. Faith cannot be such a gift and work of grace, because ALL baptized children are included in the covenant. Even though ALL the children “go to church and sit under the preaching…where the Holy Spirit does his work,” not ALL who receive the grace of the covenant and the powerful, gracious work of the Holy Spirit “respond in faith.” Some respond “with unbelief and/or carelessness.” This makes the response of faith a work of the child, which makes him to differ from others in the covenant who are equally furnished with the gracious covenantal promise and are under the powerful, gracious work of the Holy Spirit. This makes faith a condition of the covenant and unto salvation in the covenant. I contend that to make faith a condition denies the truth about faith in the Reformed creeds.
The Canons of Dordt make faith the gift of God. It is wholly the gift of God. According to Canons 1.9, faith is a gift of God rooted in election: “Therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects.” Faith was purchased by the cross of Christ. According to Canons 2.8, the saving efficacy of the death of Christ, which includes the gift of faith, is for the elect alone. Faith is a gift because it is effectually bestowed upon God’s elect by the Holy Spirit: “Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God…because he who works in man both to will and to do, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also” (Canons 3–4.14). If faith is wholly the work of God and is to be considered his gift, it cannot also be a condition that man must perform unto salvation. The Reformed faith calls faith a fruit and an effect of election and teaches that it belongs to the gifts of salvation. It cannot then also be a condition unto salvation.
This kind of conditionality the Canons place in the mouths of the Arminians and condemn as false doctrine and as a denial of the doctrines of grace. The Canons deny that Christ merited for the Father only “the authority…to prescribe new conditions” and repudiate as Arminian those “who teach that the good pleasure and purpose of God…[consists in this] that he chose out of all possible conditions…the act of faith, which from its very nature is undeserving, as well as its incomplete obedience, as a condition of salvation” (2, error 3; 1, error 3). The Canons put conditionality, especially the idea that faith and faithfulness are conditions, in the mouth of the Arminians and condemn it as contrary to the true doctrine.
Canons 3–4.10 denies that faith is a condition:
That others who are called by the gospel obey the call and are converted is not to be ascribed to the proper exercise of free will, whereby one distinguishes himself above others equally furnished with grace sufficient for faith and conversion, as the proud heresy of Pelagius maintains; but it must be wholly ascribed to God, who as he hath chosen his own from eternity in Christ, so he confers on them faith.
The Canadian Reformed theologians may avoid the offensive language about free will, but their covenantal doctrine at bottom teaches nothing different than the Pelagians and Arminians, whose doctrine Dordt condemned in this article. The Schilderian covenantal doctrine is that ALL the elect and reprobate in the covenant are furnished with sufficient grace for faith and conversion and that some distinguish themselves from others by accepting—responding, they say—that grace in faith and by remaining faithful by grace. Upon that response the promise, grace, and covenant of God depend. Such thinking the Canons call a proud heresy, Pelagian, and Arminian.
Following from the idea that faith is a condition the Canadian Reformed covenantal doctrine teaches that the promise of God in the covenant is general, to elect and reprobate alike. Being a general promise to ALL, elect and reprobate, it is also a conditional promise. Because it is a conditional promise, these churches necessarily teach that God’s promise in the case of many children fails to save them and thus that the promising God frequently fails to keep his word.
The Reformed creeds teach that God’s promise is particular, that is, for the elect alone. They also deny that the promise is conditional and fallible, but make the promise unconditional and infallible. The particular promise is God’s almighty and unchangeable oath to save his people from their sins and to bring them to heavenly glory. That promise depends on the promising God and does not at all depend on the one to whom the promise is given. That promise is powerful and never fails. Canons 2.8 teaches this when it makes all the blessings of the promise the fruits of Christ’s death on the cross and thus for the elect alone because he died for them alone. God cannot promise to a reprobate what Christ did not purchase at the cross.
Because the promise is for the elect alone it never fails, since election is an infallible decree and God is a faithful God. Canons 5.8 denies that the promise can fail and that some to whom it is given fall away: “It is utterly impossible, since His counsel cannot change, nor his promise fail.” This very idea that the promise of God could fail the apostle Paul rejects in the strongest terms in Romans 9:6: “Not as though the word [the covenant promise] of God hath taken none effect.” He explains why the promise cannot fail: “They are not all Israel, which are of Israel.” That is, everyone who was born of the natural offspring of Israel and circumcised (baptized) was “not all Israel” as elect members of God’s covenant and recipients of the promise.
The doctrine of the covenant taught by Klaas Schilder and maintained in the Canadian Reformed Churches is completely at odds with the Reformed doctrines of grace as taught in the three forms of unity; indeed, it overthrows these doctrines at every turn: grace is not particular, the promise is not infallible, and faith is not a gift.
The covenantal doctrine that ALL children of believers, elect and reprobate, are included in the covenant teaches that one child can make himself to differ from another child who is equally supplied with covenantal grace and equally a recipient of a covenantal promise from God. This denies that God eternally made the children to differ in the decree of election and reprobation and that in time God executes that decree in a most perfect manner by giving grace and the covenant to one baptized child and not to another.
Love not only for predestination but also for the good name of the predestinating God and love for the power of his promise, love for the reality that faith is a gift, and love for all the doctrines of grace as clearly taught in the creeds must induce a Reformed man to reject the Arminian conception of the covenant that makes covenantal membership and grace wider than election, the promise fallible, and faith a condition.
This Arminian conception of the covenant also necessarily denies the gospel truth of justification by faith alone. To this truth I turn next time.
Read the next article in this series: Covenant of election or covenant of conditions (5)