This article first appeared as an editorial in the April 1, 1950 issue of the Standard Bearer and was written by Rev. Herman Hoeksema, then minister of the Word in First PRC, Grand Rapids and professor of theology in the PRC Seminary.
Faith A Condition According To Scripture?
“In the first period Reformed theologians spoke freely of conditions of the covenant. But when the nature of the covenant of grace was thought into more deeply and had to be defended over against the Romish, the Lutherans, and the Remonstrants, many had objections against this terminology and avoided it.”—Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, III, 241. (translation from the Dutch)
It is sometimes alleged that in my opposition to the conditional theology of the Rev. Petter I do not do him justice, or I fail to understand his meaning: by conditions he refers to something entirely different from the meaning I attach to the term. I am supposed to be fighting a straw man. I seem to be in the same position as the Rev. Ophoff, when Prof. Holwerda accused him of failing to understand the very A, B, C of Liberated theology. Now, I can honestly assure the readers that it is far from my purpose to do an injustice to the Rev. Petter; and I certainly hate to fight straw men. I must certainly grant the possibility that the views expounded by the Rev. Petter in Concordia are beyond my comprehension and that I fail to understand just exactly what he means by the term condition while others understand very well what he means. But if that is true, the mystery certainly ought to be capable of being cleared up. For I certainly refuse to admit that I cannot grasp the meaning of a clear definition of terms. And therefore, I would kindly ask the Rev. Petter to state in clear terms what he means by condition, especially as the term occurs in the phrase, “faith as a condition”. Or, if he is not willing to offer a clear definition of the term, let those who claim that they understand him very well help him and me to understand each other. But, in the second place, I claim that I understand very well what is the meaning of the term condition according to the usus loquendi in Reformed theology. It is, for instance, very plain to me what the term voorwaarden (conditions) means in the statement quoted above from the Reformed Dogmatics of Prof. Dr. H. Bavinck. And it is also very plain to me why Reformed theologians, although at first they spoke very freely of voorwaarden, later condemned the term and avoided it. Again, it is very clear to me what the term means when it is so plainly condemned in our confessions and when instead they give an entirely different conception of faith from that which is expressed or suggested by the term conditions. And, if the Rev. Petter attaches an entirely different meaning to the term condition from that which through the usus loquendi it has always acquired in Reformed theology, I am certainly to be excused if I fail to understand his meaning. And there is all the more reason for him clearly and carefully to define the term before he uses it. And therefore, I am waiting for a clear definition of the term either by the Rev. Petter or by anyone that claims to understand him.
In the meantime, however, I must continue with my examination of the texts on which the Rev. Petter allegedly bases his conception that faith is a condition. Of course, I must also hold him responsible for the task of explaining his conditional theology in the light of our Reformed confessions. For this too I am still waiting. But seeing that the Rev. Petter preferred to appeal directly to Scripture, I must examine the exegesis, or the implied exegesis, on which he bases his conception.
The next text to which the Rev. Petter appeals is quoted again from the sermon of the apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost. And I quote: “And once more in this same Sermon of Peter he says to them, ‘Be saved from this crooked generation’. Thus also it is by his exhortation, and their response of obedience to that exhortation, that they are to be progressively saved, drawn out by that crooked hardening nation, socially, ecclesiastically, spiritually, eternally.”
Now, in the first place, I cannot possibly understand how the proposition “faith is a condition” can be based upon a passage of this nature. Does the Rev. Petter mean to complete this text as follows: “Be saved on condition of faith from this untoward generation?” But this would be sheer nonsense. For to be saved, or to save ourselves, (sootheete), from the wicked world to which the apostle Peter refers in these words, is an act of faith itself: it presupposes faith. In the text we read that the apostle Peter did testify and exhort the multitude that listen to him with many other words. And among these exhortations was also the one that admonished them to be saved, or to save themselves, or to separate themselves, out of and from the wicked world and from that wicked generation among which they lived. This is plainly the meaning. Salvation here, therefore, does not at all refer to the act of God which includes the gift of faith unconditionally, but to the fruit of that act of God within them, to the activity on their part of the saving faith which God had already implanted in their hearts. Again, do not forget the context. Through the word of Peter, that is, through the preaching as a means of grace by the Holy Spirit, the multitude were pricked in their hearts. God had already worked faith in their hearts. And that faith is further awakened into conscious activity by the preaching of Peter, that is, by the Word of God, exhorting them to repent and be baptized and to save themselves, or to be saved, from that untoward generation. Hence, they must be saved not on condition of faith, but by the power of faith which God had implanted in their hearts and which had been brought to activity by the preaching of the gospel as a means of grace through the Holy Spirit. That this is the meaning is also plain from the commentary of Calvin, in loco: “The sum was this, that they should beware of that froward generation. For they could not be Christ’s unless they would depart from his professed enemies. The priests and scribes were then in great authority, and forasmuch as they did cover themselves under the mask of the church, they did deceive the simple. This did hinder and keep back a great many from coming to Christ. Also some might waver, and other some might fall away from the faith. Therefore Peter plainly declareth that they are a froward generation, howsoever they may boast of the title of the church. For which cause he commandeth his hearers to separate themselves from them, lest they entangle themselves in their wicked and pestiferous fellowship.” Also this text, therefore, has not even a semblance of proof for the proposition that faith is a condition.
Nor is the Rev. Petter’s theology proved by Paul’s answer to the jailor in Philippi. He writes: “Of the same thrust is the answer of Paul to the Philippian jailor. The question of the conscience-stricken man is, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ And the answer is, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.’ Does our conception of the way of being saved, lead us to expect from Peter and Paul in these tense situations to answer these anxious inquirers, ‘Nothing, you cannot do anything?’
“That would be wiser than Scripture, and we would completely fail of our calling as preachers and ministers of His Word, of His Gospel.”
This last remark by the Rev. Petter causes me to wonder whether he has ever understood the pure Protestant Reformed truth that must have nothing of conditions, but insists that the salvation which God works for us and in us is absolutely unconditional, is not even conditioned by faith. Does he really imagine that it is Protestant Reformed to answer one who anxiously inquires about the way of salvation, who therefore was already pricked in his heart by the Holy Spirit, by saying very foolishly to him that He must do absolutely nothing and that he cannot do anything? If that is really the Rev. Petter’s conception, then he has never understood us at all. How could we ever say to a man that is anxiously inquiring for the way of salvation, or, in fact, to anyone, whether he is inquiring or not: “My dear man, you must do absolutely nothing; you must not even repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Just wait, like a stock and block, and you shall surely be saved.”
On the contrary, to such a man, as well as to anyone, we simply preach the gospel, that is: we preach the Lord Jesus Christ and faith in Him as the only way of salvation. We do not hesitate to preach the way of faith even in an imperative form, as the apostle Paul does to the jailor in Philippi: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” For we know that the preaching of the gospel is a means of grace and that through that means the Holy Spirit will work faith in the hearts of the elect. And this is exactly what happened in the prison at Philippi. There was a man who already was anxiously inquiring about the way of salvation, a man, therefore, who, as Calvin explains, had already been influenced by the Holy Spirit and was prepared to obey the gospel. And there was Paul preaching to that man, preaching the gospel. Mark you, Paul did not merely function as a man, simply informing another man about the way of salvation. But he functioned as a preacher, that was sent. He was confident, therefore, that if it pleased God to save that jailor, Christ Himself would speak through Paul’s word and work faith,—active faith,—in the heart and mind of the jailor at Philippi. And that is exactly what happened. For the jailor and ail his house were saved. And in the same confidence, namely, that the Holy Spirit will work faith in the heart of the elect, we preach the gospel, as a means of grace. But we do not say ever, to any man, whether he be elect or reprobate: “God will save you on condition that you believe; you must first fulfill a condition before God will ever save you.” That certainly is not the gospel; and it certainly is not the Reformed conception of the relation between faith and salvation. And therefore, also this passage of Scripture does not offer the Rev. Petter a basis for the proposition, “faith is a condition”.
The Rev. Petter now turns to some passages from the Old Testament to prove his proposition. The first is the passage from Isaiah 1:19: “Now in the Old Testament this faith is often presented as a condition. We read in Isa. 1:19: ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow, if ye be willing and obedient ye shall eat the good of the land. But if ye refuse and rebel ye shall be devoured with the sword.’
“Now if this is not a condition, then there is no such thing as conditionality, in any sphere of existence. C. Vitringa, the great commentator on Isaiah, discusses this fully, taking careful note of the predestination and efficacy of God also, but does not think of denying that it is simply a conditional relationship.”
Now I wish once more that the Rev. Petter, instead of just quoting a text, would offer some exegesis. It certainly is not Reformed simply to quote texts at random, without any consideration of the place where it is found and of the context in which it is found, in order to prove a certain doctrine. Reformed theologians have always believed in the analogia Seripturae, in the current teaching of Scripture. And only by having regard to this analogia Scripturae did they avoid eliciting all kinds of heretical conceptions and were they strong in refuting false doctrine. But the Rev. Petter not only completely ignores this current teaching of Scripture, but he also fails to offer any exegesis of the passages which he quotes. He simply throws texts at us. And that surely is not the Reformed method of establishing doctrine. I must therefore ask him to offer us a thorough and sound exegesis of the passage from Isaiah 1:18-20, which reads in full as follows: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith Jehovah: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken it.” He must, of course, explain this text in such a way that it clearly appears that it teaches faith as a condition, and also in such a way that he avoids the error of Pelagianism. I am ready, on my part, to offer exegesis of this passage.
But this must wait until the next issue of the Standard Bearer.
Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965) was born in Groningen, the Netherlands on March 13, 1886 and passed away in Grand Rapids, MI on September 2, 1965. He attended the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church and was ordained into the minitry in September of 1915.
"H.H." is considered one of the founding "fathers" of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. He and his consistory (Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI) were suspended and deposed from their offices in 1924-1925 because of their opposition to the "Three Points of Common Grace" adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in the Synod of Kalamazoo, MI in 1924. He, together with Rev. George M. Ophoff, Rev. H. Danhof and their consistories continued in office in the "Protesting Christian Reformed Church" which shortly thereafter were named the "Protestant Reformed Churches in America."
Herman Hoeksema served as pastor in the 14th Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, MI (1915-1920), Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1920-1924), and First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1924-1964), He taught in the Seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches from its founding and retired in 1964.
For an enlarged biography, see: Herman Hoeksema: Theologian and Reformer
Notes: You may also find many sermons of "H.H." at the RFPA website. And you may find copies in print of an entire set of "H.H.'s" catechism sermons here.