This article first appeared in the October 15, 1949 issue of the Standard Bearer (Vol.26, No.2) and was penned by the editor, Rev. Herman Hoeksema.
As the reader knows there has been, for the last year or so, a controversy in our papers about the question of conditions in the covenant of God. The question was really whether the term “condition” could be used properly in Reformed theology, and especially whether it could be used to express Protestant Reformed thought.
The controversy was introduced by the Rev. A. Petter who defended the use of the term, and, evidently conceived of the possibility of its being used in a sound Reformed sense. He even thinks that we need the term in order to express a necessary element in the Reformed conception of the covenant, the element of the responsibility of man.
Some of our ministers, especially the Rev. G. M. Ophoff and the Rev. H. Veldman, opposed his views. They were evidently afraid that the Rev. Petter was turning in a wrong direction, and that, following that direction, we would ultimately land in the Heynsian conception of the covenant. And others of our ministers had somewhat the same notion as I gathered from remarks made in some of their sermons. Besides, the Revs. J. De Jong and B. Kok, according to the letter of Prof. B. Holwerda to the immigrants in Chatham, reported that recently an entirely different sound was heard in our churches, and that they meant by this a sound in favor of the liberated conception of the covenant is evident from the fact that this report was meant for liberated ears. And also some ministers in the Netherlands who read Concordia received the same impression from the writings of the Rev. A. Petter, and they even gathered from the fact that no discipline was applied to him the idea that there was ample room in the Protestant Reformed Churches for the liberated view of the covenant.
Now, it cannot be denied that the Rev. Petter himself is the cause of all these impressions. In his articles on the covenant he wrote in a way that favored the covenant view of the liberated and certainly “emitted an entirely different sound” from what has generally been accepted among us as Protestant Reformed people. Nor did he develop anything new on the subject, but what he wrote appeared definitely to turn into the direction of the Heynsian view of the covenant, although I am far from saying that he is Heynsian. Thus, for instance, I seem to remember that quite a while ago he wrote about the “covenant of works” without criticism. More recently he favored the idea of parties instead of parts in the covenant. And now he introduced the controversy about “conditions”.
Yet I am not ready to believe that the Rev. Petter is ready to embrace the covenant conception of the liberated and discard our conception. It is not quite clear to me what he wants. Although he is quite an able writer and undoubtedly has literary ability, his ability is often somewhat obscure so that one is often at a loss to know exactly what he wants and in which direction he is moving. Perhaps, he tries to borrow some conceptions from the liberated, which he thinks we need, and introduce them into our view. But however this may be, I do not believe as yet that the Rev. Petter means fundamentally to disagree with us. And his more recent Writing shows that he does not agree with the liberated view of the covenant.
Nevertheless, I do not agree with the brother on the question concerning conditions in the covenant, and I think, too, that this terminology is dangerous and is liable to convey a meaning that is foreign to the Reformed conception of the truth. Whatever meaning we may attach to certain terms, we must never forget that words have meaning in themselves, and that this fundamental meaning of the terms stands out in the minds of the people. And when it is said that God establishes His covenant with us, or that we are saved, “on condition of faith and obedience”, the impression this expression makes upon the minds of the people (and not without reason) is that the will of man is one of the determining factors in the matter of salvation. And thus, on the wings of a term, one instills nolens volens the Arminian heresy into the minds and hearts of the people. And for that reason I consider the term “condition” dangerous. Nor is the Rev. Petter justified in quoting me in support of the use of the term, as he did. If he will check up on his quotations, he will admit that I wrote quite the opposite from the way he quoted me.
Now, in order to have a fruitful discussion on the matter from a Reformed viewpoint, it seems but proper that we, first of all consult our confessions, the Three Forms of Unity, and the Reformed Confessions in general. Besides, we can also turn to our liturgical forms, such as the Form for the Administration of Baptism, etc., which must be used in our churches and which are often considered standards of secondary value and importance.
And then we discover, in the first place, that the term “condition” never even once occurs in any of our Reformed Standards.
Do not minimize the importance of this obvious fact by saying that this is a mere argumentum e silentio, an argument from silence, which has but little force. For this is not true. In the first place, consider that our fathers certainly were acquainted with the term conditio for already Calvin who had a profound influence upon Reformed thinking at the time and upon the formulation of the Reformed symbols, used the term . Yet the Reformed fathers in the composition and formulation of our confessions studiously avoided the term condition, or at least had no room for it anywhere in the expression of Reformed thought.
Besides, in as far as this is, indeed, an argumentum e silentio, we must not overlook the fact that our own Three Forms of Unity together with our liturgical forms are rather elaborate expositions of all the fundamental doctrines of the Reformed Faith, treating of God and man, of the fall and original sin, of the covenant and man's original state of integrity, of election and reprobation, of the incarnation and the atonement, of faith and justification, of regeneration and sanctification, of the church and the means of grace, etc., etc. Surely if the term condition had represented an important element in Reformed thinking it would be met with more than once in this elaborate exposition of our truth as we confess it. Yet it is never once used.
I think this makes this argumentum e silentio rather weighty and valid. It proves definitely, if not that our Reformed fathers consciously rejected the term and purposely avoided it, yet that they had no need of it, and that they found no room for it in the system of Reformed truth.
But there is much more.
The question is, of course, whether faith may be presented as a condition of salvation, and whether the establishment and continuation of God's covenant with us is in any sense of the word contingent upon our fulfilling the conditions of faith and obedience. This, unless we juggle words, is the plain and simple meaning of the question, and in this simple form it certainly will stand before the minds of the people.
But I dare say that, in this sense, the term condition not only has no room in the Reformed system of doctrine, but is, as far as our Confessions are concerned, thoroughly unreformed.
For our Confessions uniformly present faith not as a condition which we must fulfill, but as a God-given means or instrument empowering the soul to cling to Christ and to receive all His benefits, and that is a radically different conception from that of condition. And as far as obedience or walking in the way of the covenant is concerned, also this is never presented as a condition but rather as the fruit, in fact, as the inevitable fruit, of our being engrafted into Christ.
Let us consult our Confessions on these points.
In the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day VII, question and answer 20, we read: “Are all men, then, as they are perished in Adam, saved by Christ? No; only those who are engrafted into him, and receive all his benefits, by a true faith.”
Notice that faith here is the spiritual means or, as it is often called, the instrument, whereby we are engrafted, incorporated (ingeljfd, einverleibt) into Christ. This is an entirely passive notion. Man has nothing to do with it. Besides the Word of God plainly teaches us that this instrument is given us of God. Man does not have the power to believe in Christ of himself. This, too, is taught by the Heidelberg Catechism in the next question and answer, which reads as follows: “What is true faith? True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His word, but also an assured confidence which the Holy Ghost works, by the gospel, in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given me by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ's merit."
The point is, of course, that if faith is an instrument which God uses and works in the heart of man, it certainly cannot be, at the same time, a condition which man must fulfill in order to obtain salvation, or to enter into the covenant of God. How different the sense of question and answer 20 of the Catechism would become if we would read: “Are all men then, as they perished in Adam, saved by Christ? No; but only those that comply with the condition of faith, and receive all his benefits." I am well aware, of course, that those Reformed theologians that favor the term “conditions", usually add that God Himself fulfills all conditions. But this is plainly camouflaging the truth that there are no conditions which man can or must fulfill to obtain salvation.
The same truth is implied in Lord's Day XX, which reads: “What dost thou believe concerning the Holy Ghost? First, that he is the true and co-eternal God with the Father and the Son; secondly, that he is also given me, to make me by a true faith partaker of Christ and all his benefits, that he may comfort me and abide with me forever." Also here it is evident that faith is the instrument, not of man but of God, to make us partakers of Christ. And once more, the idea of condition is completely foreign to this Lord's Day.
It is true that in the Lord's Day that speaks of justification by faith, it is the activity of saving faith that is emphasized rather than faith as a power. If tells us that we are justified because God imputes to us the righteousness of Christ, “inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart." And in question 61 we read that we are righteous by faith only because “I. cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only." But also this is far from saying that faith is a condition unto justification. It only means that the believer is able to receive the grace of justification by faith as a means which is given the sinner by God.
Again the same truth is emphasized in question and answer 65: “Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence does this faith proceed? From the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments." Also here, let me point out, there is no room for anything man can or must do. We are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by a true faith and of that faith the Holy Ghost alone is the author. Where would there be any room for the notion that faith is a condition unto salvation? There is no room for it whatever.
(to be continued)