Reflections on the Battle for Sovereign Grace (3)

Today we conclude our brief consideration of the Battle for Sovereign Grace in the Covenant. In this post we will focus on the relationship of the conditional covenant to the well-meant offer of the gospel and common grace, as well as the way in which this connection is elucidated by the history of the controversy over the covenant. This matter is treated in the second to last chapter of the Battle for Sovereign Grace, the chapter which examines the far-reaching effects of the adoption of the Declaration of Principles. This is a very important chapter of the book and one with much applicatory value. It is well worth a careful and thoughtful read, for it sheds light upon the interconnection between the notion of the conditional covenant and the doctrine of common grace. In this regard it can be said in a genuine sense that the doctrinal issues involved in the controversy over common grace that occasioned the founding of the PRC were very similar to the doctrinal issues which occasioned the schism of 1953. Indeed the matters at stake were largely the same. In the former the founding fathers of the PRC defended the particularity of sovereign grace, that God gives grace only to his elect in Christ, and that grace is in no way common but is always and only saving grace. In the latter the PRC battled for the sake of sovereign grace in the covenant, maintaining the truth that election governs the covenant and that God extends the promise of the covenant only to the elect seed, not to every single baptized child. Both were battles for sovereign grace over against new doctrine that in one way or another made grace general and ineffectual.

Chapter six unpacks this connection by examining the fate of the “post-schism” schismatic churches as they attempted to survive and legitimize their existence as a separate denomination. Indeed this is one of the more interesting details of the history considered in this book. As the author describes, throughout the controversy over the covenant the opponents of the Declaration insisted adamantly that they remained Protestant Reformed. They insisted that they remained faithful to the distinctions that had defined the PRC and led to their separation from the mother church. However, as the subsequent history illustrates, following their departure from the communion of the PRC the distinctiveness of the schismatic churches quickly dissolved. The schismatic congregations hastily warmed up to the three points of common grace which, at least according to their confession, they previously rejected. Very soon after the schismatic churches organized as a new denomination, they began to trickle back into the CRC, whether by congregations or a few individuals at a time. Eventually the denomination as a whole decided officially to unite their remaining churches to the CRC and end their existence as a separate denomination. Apparently their deep theological disagreements were not as deep as they had seemed. The author aptly describes their end as “ignominious.” Thus, in less than a decade after the schism, the doctrine of common grace that the schismatic churches and ministers had opposed was largely accepted and adopted by the very same ministers and churches.

Why was this the case? What can explain this apparently rapid change of theological opinion? Undoubtedly there were a number of pragmatic considerations that prompted the schismatics’ return to the CRC and made them more ready to compromise for the sake of expediency. But this is not the full explanation. The author makes the rest of answer clear, namely that the theological differences, which had separated the schismatics from the CRC, had dissolved, and this dissolution was caused by the conditional covenant doctrine that they had come to embrace. The conditional covenant has an affinity with the doctrine of common grace and the well-meant offer of the gospel, for they are both children of the same parent, namely Arminianism. They both teach that grace is general and that it is given both to the elect and to the reprobate. Due to this fact the acceptance of common grace is a logical outgrowth of the acceptance of the conditional covenant. In rejecting the unconditional covenant the schismatic churches not only rejected those Protestant Reformed distinctives that legitimized the separate existence of the PRC, but also they rejected the very foundation of the Reformed faith. They rejected the truth that God’s grace is always particular, and they rejected the truth that grace is always and can only be sovereign. By embracing the conditional covenant the schismatics embraced an inherently Arminian view of salvation. This opened the way to accepting common grace and the free offer of the gospel, both of which are compatible with a conditional covenant. Rev. Hoeksema is quoted to illustrate this point, for Hoeksema saw more clearly than any other at the time that the doctrine of the conditional covenant was the injection of Arminian notions into Reformed theology: “God does not promise salvation in Christ to every living child of believers. No more than there is a general offer in the preaching to everyone who hears, no more is such a general promise in God’s covenant. This presentation must be totally rooted out. It lies wholly in the line of Pelagius and Arminius” (144-5).

The opponents of the Declaration and the unconditional covenant refused to recognize this fact, and so they allowed the great error of conditional theology to infiltrate their Reformed theology. The result was that they gave up their heritage. This is the danger of such disguised Arminianism. To borrow an example from the medical world, such disguised Arminianism that begins as a small infection in a soundly Reformed body soon becomes a systemic infection, which spreads throughout the organs and tissues of the entire body. Before long the body is wholly corrupt and dies. This is always a great danger for churches that let down their guard against false doctrine. In the end the author provides an important conclusion, which we readers ought to draw from this history. The controversy surrounding the Declaration of Principles and the doctrine of the unconditional covenant has been very beneficial for the denomination. For the covenantal controversy and the painful schism in fact preserved the PRC, as the author asserts, the adoption of the Declaration accomplished nothing less than the salvation of the PRC (143). The adoption of the Declaration was a faithful continuation of the testimony of Dordt: salvation is of grace alone, grace that God sovereignly gives is to his elect alone, which is effectual to accomplish its end and irresistibly draws its recipients to God. This grace depends on nothing in man. This grace has no conditions. Salvation is, in toto, of the Lord. In remembering the schism of 1953 let us give thanks to God; first, for the preservation of the truth that he was pleased to work in our midst, and second, for the marvelous role which He gave our churches to perform in the development of the truth of the covenant. The Battle of Sovereign Grace is a book that draws our attention back to these great works of God. The Lord has been good to us indeed.

JS

Read! Read! Read!

For many of us “Young Calvinists” who live in the West Michigan area, we had the pleasure of attending Mr. Terpstra’s recent speech about what it means to be a “Reformed reader.” In this speech we were exhorted to work hard at becoming better readers of books in general, but especially of good, solid and Reformed books. Well, fortunately for us all, the RFPA has recently published a book which makes our task that much easier, a book which easily takes its place in the upper echelons the “good Reformed material” category. That book is Battle for Sovereign Grace in the Covenant by Professor Engelsma.

As indicated by the book’s subtitle, the Battle for Sovereign Grace in the Covenant is primarily about the Declaration of Principles, the document which was adopted by the Synod of 1951. On the surface one might think that a book about a document entitled the “Declaration of Principles” would be abstract and overly cerebral. However this is not the case. The Declaration of Principles is a document that articulates and clarifies the doctrine of the covenant that we know and love. In this regard this book is just as much about the defense and development of the doctrine of the unconditional covenant of grace, the very beating heart of our theology. And what topic could be of more interest to us than this personal, warm, and beloved doctrine? What topic could be more relevant to us as Protestant Reformed young people than the history of that doctrine which more than any other defines us within the ecclesiastical world? Moreover the Battle for Sovereign Grace in the Covenant has been written with us as part of its intended audience. It is not a tome of theology written for ministers and professors, but a book designed for all the members of our Churches in all different stages of life. As the author makes clear: “I write this book for a popular, as distinguished from a scholarly, theological audience, for young people as well as their parents and grandparents” (11-12).

The Declaration of Principles and the history surrounding it are matters with which we ought to acquaint or reacquaint ourselves. Either way we stand to profit. To this end we will spend the next couple of weeks reviewing and considering some of the significant points made in this book, particularly how they are relevant for us as Protestant Reformed young people and young adults today; for they are indeed eminently relevant. As the author writes in the preface: “no minister survives who took part in the controversy. Members who lived through those agonizing years and can therefore speak to the younger generations from experience become few” (9). We are yet one more generation removed from these events, and so it becomes all the more important that we seek out this knowledge and learn it well. This is our duty to our elders, and to our God. I know many who have already read this title and others who are in the process of reading it. I encourage anyone who has yet to pick up this book to join them. The goal of these upcoming blog posts is to stimulate the reading of and reflection upon subjects treated in this book concerning a turbulent period in the history of our Churches. Whether the material in this book is familiar or unfamiliar to you, investing the time to read it will be time well spent. In so doing we all may learn from history’s light, indeed the light of our own history no less, and thereby come to cherish all the more that heritage for which our fathers and mothers contended and have delivered down to us.

Next week we will look at a chapter or two from the book itself. If you can find the time or can make the time, get some reading done!

JS