The Reformed Churches Do Not Confess Baptismal Union With Christ

A Preface On Paradigms

As Baptists and Reformed folk engage each other’s theological traditions two things need to happen to make that engagement productive: 1) They need to realize that each tradition is theologically distinct. Some Baptists have historical and institutional relations to paedobaptist (infant-baptizing) churches and traditions. E.g., some of the Particular Baptists emerged from the Anglican Church but part of their departure from the Anglicans involved accepting theological and hermeneutical premises and convictions that led them away from the Reformed theology, piety, and practice in important places. Those who left to become Baptist did so, in part, because they had undeniably embraced the Anabaptist view of baptism and some version of the underlying Anabaptist view of redemptive history (e.g., the relations between the Old and New Testaments and the highly realized eschatology of the Anabaptists) shared by some of the more extreme Congregationalists.

Please note that I am not arguing that Baptists are Anabaptists in every respect. That claim cannot be sustained. They were and are influenced by the Anabaptists in certain respects. It is beyond argument that all Baptists agree with the Anabaptists about who is eligible for baptism and under what conditions. That agreement did not just happen accidentally. Still, the Particular Baptists rejected, e.g., the Anabaptist “celestial flesh” Christology and their view of Christian involvement in civil life. Further, in distinction from the Anabaptists, the Particular Baptists accepted the Reformation doctrine of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). By contrast, to the degree the General Baptists agreed with the Remonstrants (which they tended to do), like the Remonstrants, they also rejected the Reformation.

2) Both Reformed and Baptists should realize that each tradition has its own paradigm (from Greek, παράδειγμα), a pattern or a model. A paradigm is a grid, an inter-related set of assumption, through which data (e.g., biblical passages) are interpreted. There is a Baptist paradigm and a Reformed paradigm. In the Baptist paradigm the covenant can only be administered outwardly to those who profess to have received inwardly what it offers, Christ and his benefit (to use the language of the London Baptist Confession of 1689). In the Reformed paradigm, however, the covenant is to be outwardly administered to all those whom the Lord has declared to be  eligible to receive the outward administration. Both traditions look at Scripture quite differently and they read it quite differently. Each tradition has its own assumptions and its own way of doing theology. Failure to recognize this reality has hindered mutual understanding.

A Baptist Complaint

This paradigmatic confusion is evident in Chris Whisonant’s analysis of the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Confession on baptism. He writes,

At one point (around 27 minutes in – see the transcript below for the full context), Dr. Renihan asked Pastor Brown if he thought that the following statement from the Westminster Confession went too far and asked “Do you think that the standards say too much when they talk about baptism as a symbol of union with Christ?”

Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church, but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his Church until the end of the world. (emphasis mine)
Westminster Confession of Faith, 28.1

As you can see, Dr. Renihan raises a valid question. Baptism is “not only for” the “admission…into the visible Church”, but it is also a “sign and seal” of the party being baptized having been “ingrafted” and “regenerated”. This is what Dr. Renihan means when he asks if the standards say too much when speaking of Baptism as a symbol of one’s union with Christ. To be more clear, union with Christ is what refers to the invisible Church. When we Reformed people talk about ingrafting/union/regeneration, this is not something merely external. Though, as Dr. Renihan also pointed out wonderfully in this episode, “we [Reformed Baptists] absolutely affirm a visible, invisible distinction that baptism is, as our confession talks about for professing believers, for those who who profess.”

Whisonant continues by claiming that not only the Belgic Confession but also the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort teach baptismal union with Christ. He writes,

However, I would argue that the Three Forms of Unity in The Belgic Confession from 1561, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort are indeed united and actually may go further than the WCF on the point of baptism and union with Christ.

Where does the Belgic go too far? He is unhappy with Article 34:

Article on Baptism, we read that “Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults.” It is because of this, “therefore” that the children of believers should be baptized. It is due to the fact that Christ shed his blood for the little children of believers that the sacrament of baptism should be given to them (emphasis original).

He concludes:

As Dr. Renihan asked about the Westminster Standards, “is it just the administration for them?” I too would ask how the efficacious blood of Christ said to redeem only his elect can be said to be administered in a special way to the “little children of believers”? Yes, the Belgic Confession has gone too far in this statement on infant baptism. If the blood of Christ shed to forgive the sins of an elect, true Christian and place them into union with Him was also shed for children of believers, this has some far-reaching consequences which are neither good nor necessary. To say, Confessionally, that children of believers especially have Christ blood “shed for them”, is to say that children of believers are numbered among the “true Christian believers” of the invisible church – this goes well beyond just placing them generally among a visible church. Those who confess the Three Forms of Unity are urged to see the logical consequences of this doctrine which they confess.

This is worth addressing because it reflects a confusion about Reformed theology that seems, in my experience, to be shared widely among Baptists. It is not that Baptists are incapable of understanding the differences between the Reformed and their own tradition but it does seem to be that they sometimes fail to do so for the reasons I have listed.

A Reformed Reply

As noted above, the Baptist and Reformed traditions think very differently about the outward (external) administration of the covenant of grace. In the Baptist paradigm only those who are able to profess that they have received Christ and his benefit are eligible to be initiated into the visible church. In effect, in the Baptist paradigm, baptism has a dual function: both as sign of initiation and the sign of renewal or personal appropriation of what the covenant of grace offers.

the double mode of communion

Another way to say this is to observe that in the Baptist paradigm, though there is a distinction between the the visible and invisible church, they do not share the Reformed distinction between the two ways of being in the one covenant of grace: externally and internally. To be sure, I was not clear about this myself until around 2004. I learned this distinction first in Herman Witsius, Economy of the Covenants. I reported what I learned first in a journal article (see resources) and then, in more popular form, in a booklet. I wrote those things in response to the Federal Vision but before long I found that I was receiving as much resistance to this idea from Baptist friends as from the Federal Visionists.

Briefly, in the Reformed understanding of redemptive history, there have always been two ways of being in the one covenant of grace. Scripture says:

The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.  Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright (Gen 25:25–34; ESV).

Jacob and Esau were both members of the covenant people. Both participated in the external administration of the covenant of grace yet they had radically different relations to the substance of the covenant of grace. Jacob participated in the external administration of the covenant of grace and, sola gratia, sola fide he received Christ and his benefits (justification and sanctification). Esau participated in the external administration—indeed Hebrews says of people like Esau that they have “tasted of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Heb 6:4)— of the covenant of grace but all he received was lentil soup. It was impossible to restore Esau again to repentance because, as Hebrews says, he and all like him are “crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Heb 6:6; ESV). They have, “trampled underfoot the Son of God” and they have “profaned the blood of the covenant” and “outraged the Spirit of grace” (Heb 10:29; ESV).

signs, seals, and administration

This is only possible because Esau actually participated in the external administration of the covenant of grace and that administration means something. Contra the Romanists and the Federal Visionists, the external administration (e.g., Baptism) is not magic. The sacraments do not work, as the Romanists say, “ex opere” (from the working). According to the sacerdotalists such as Romanists and Federal Visionists, the sacraments become the thing they signify. They cease to be sacraments, signs and seals.

For the Baptists, however, a sign and a seal can only be so retrospectively. In that sense, the Baptist has too little appreciation of the external administration of the covenant of grace or at least they have a radically different understanding of it. For the Reformed, when Paul asks rhetorically, “What advantage has the Jew?” and answers, “Much in every way!” (Rom 3:1, 2) he is reflecting on the value of the external administration of the covenant of grace. There is value because it is through participation in the external administration that God executes his decree in history. We see this relation in Romans 10:14 when Paul asks, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (ESV). God has ordained to use what the Reformed call the means of grace not merely to confirm what he has already done (as in the Baptist view of baptism) but to bring his elect to new life (regeneration), true faith, and through faith to union with Christ by the mysterious work of the Spirit.

Against the Judaizers, who, like the Romanists and the FV, identified the Old Testament sacrament of circumcision with the thing signified and sealed. Circumcision became justification not merely figuratively or sacramentally but really. The Judaizers had an ex opere view of circumcision. Against such a confusion Paul warned the Galatians (5:2-3) against the danger of entering into the covenant of works offered by the Judaizers. If the Galatian Christians took the sign of circumcision as a religious act, they were obligating themselves to present themselves to God on the basis of law-keeping. Such an act would not be a circumcision but a severing from Christ (Gal 5:4). “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal 5:6; ESV). We may certainly substitute the word baptism for circumcision. Baptism neither regenerates nor justifies. It is a sign of what Christ does for those to whom he has given new life and true faith. It is a seal, a promise of what is actually true, to those who believe. Paul denies preaching “circumcision,” effectively denying baptismal regeneration and baptismal union with Christ and baptismal justification. He is so furious with the Judaizers that he wishes that, if they love circumcision so much, that they would go the whole way and cut themselves off (Gal 5:12). This expression is a pun with a double meaning. In Old Testament terms, they would be cut off from the covenant community and from God as well as emasculated.

The Reformed confess that the external administration is important (Rom 9:4,5) but we do not confuse the external administration for the thing itself, Christ and his benefits. The external administration works for the the decree, as it were. Paul says this too in Romans 9. Circumcision did not regenerate Esau. It did not make him elect. It did not unite him to Christ. Before either Jacob or Esau had done anything, good or bad, “in order that God’s purpose in election might stand” (Rom 9:11), “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Rom 9:13).

In his allegation that the Reformed Churches confess baptismal union with Christ he has misunderstood the Reformed confession and ignored these crucial distinctions that I have sketched here.

What The Belgic Confession Actually Says

The language of Belgic art. 34 has to be read against the rest of the Confession. In art. 22 we have confess that faith is the “sole instrument” of our justification, that Christ is our righteousness and salvation and that we only have him by faith. We do not have him by baptism. We confess explicitly:

But Jesus Christ is our righteousness crediting to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place. And faith is the instrument that keeps us in communion with him
and with all his benefits. When those benefits are made ours they are more than enough to absolve us of our sins.

Whisonant’s explanation of the Belgic is at stark variance with the Belgic’s own understanding. The principal author of the Belgic Guido de Bres (1522–67) had written extensively against the Romanists and the Anabaptists before he preached the sermons that became the Belgic Confession (1561), which was received by Synods of the Dutch Reformed Churches in 1566 et seq and definitively by the great Synod of Dort (1619). Whisonant would have us believe that the same Synod who renounced the Remonstrants as Pelagians unknowingly (or knowingly) embraced a doctrine of baptismal union with Christ? To put it mildly, this seems unlikely since none of the Reformed theologians who participated and none of the Churches who received the Canons or the Belgic thereafter understood either document to teach what Whisonant alleges.

Neither does Heidelberg Catechism (1563) teach baptismal union with Christ. Again, the catechism is clear that we are united to Christ by the  Spirit, through faith:

Q. What is true faith?

A.True faith is not only a sure knowledge by which I hold as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word; it is also a wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the gospel, that God has freely granted, not only to others but to me also, forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness, and salvation. These gifts are purely of grace, only because of Christ’s merit.

The Holy Spirit works faith in “by the gospel” not by baptism. Heidelberg 65 makes clear what “by the gospel means.”

It is by faith alone that we share in Christ and all his benefits: where then does that faith come from?

A. The Holy Spirit works it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it
by the use of the holy sacraments.

The Holy Spirit grants new life and true faith “by the preaching of the holy gospel.” This is Romans 10:14. What do the sacraments do? They “confirm” what has already been created by the Holy Spirit.

This gets us back to Belgic art. 34. It is a long article but since the Reformed Churches have been charged with teaching baptismal union with Christ it seems necessary to read the whole article in its context. I will break up the article into sections and explain it a bit at a time.

We believe and confess that Jesus Christ, in whom the law is fulfilled, has by his shed blood put an end to every other shedding of blood, which anyone might do or wish to do in order to atone or satisfy for sins. Having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood, he established in its place the sacrament of baptism. By it we are received into God’s church and set apart from all other people and alien religions, that we may be dedicated entirely to him, bearing his mark and sign.

The first thing that we confess is that Jesus is the end (i.e., the telos, finis, the purpose) of the Mosaic laws. Their purpose was of the bloody types and shadows was to point the Jews and us to Christ. Circumcision was among those bloody types and shadows. Circumcision witnesses to a forthcoming “cutting off” of Christ on the cross. This is just what Paul says in Colossians 2:11–12 (see resources below). When Paul thinks of circumcision he thinks of Christ’s death and then, in the next breath, he mentions baptism. One is prospective (circumcision) and the other retrospective (baptism). They are not, in the first instance about what has happened in me but rather what Christ does for his elect. It has implications for my Christian life, since Paul’s argument here is about progressive sanctification, which he has illustrated by appealing to circumcision and baptism.

We do not say that baptism regenerates nor do we say that baptism unites us to Christ. By baptism we are received, outwardly, into the visible church and outwardly set apart from the world.

It also witnesses to us that he will be our God forever, since he is our gracious Father. Therefore he has commanded that all those who belong to him be baptized with pure water “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” In this way he signifies to us that just as water washes away the dirt of the body when it is poured on us and also is seen on the body of the baptized when it is sprinkled on him, so too the blood of Christ does the same thing internally, in the soul, by the Holy Spirit. It washes and cleanses it from its sins and transforms us from being the children of wrath into the children of God. This does not happen by the physical water but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God, who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, who is the devil, and to enter the spiritual land of Canaan. So ministers, as far as their work is concerned, give us the sacrament and what is visible, but our Lord gives what the sacrament signifies—namely the invisible gifts and graces; washing, purifying, and cleansing our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts and filling them with all comfort; giving us true assurance of his fatherly goodness; clothing us with the “new man” and stripping off the “old,” with all its works.

Calvin called Baptism is the gospel made visible. It is a witness of what is true of those who believe. We do not infer from that fact that only those who profess belief may receive it any more than only those who professed belief received circumcision. Baptism is a witness to God’s grace. It is not the thing signified. It is a visible promise of what is true of believers.

Notice too that in this section, we explicitly distinguish between the external application of the water and the internal work of the Spirit. Whisnonant has missed this vital distinction. Baptism testifies to us that Christ is our Red Sea (see the essay linked below, “One Important Difference…”), and that it is only by faith in Christ that we are delivered from the tyranny of sin. In the very article that Whisonant alleges to teach baptismal union with Christ, we re-affirm what we confessed in art. 22.

Ministers do not have the power to give new life. God does and he does so not through baptism (a view with which the Reformed were well familiar among the Lutherans and the Romanists) but through the announcement of the gospel. Ministers are just that. They are not magic-working priests.

For this reason we believe that anyone who aspires to reach eternal life ought to be baptized only once without ever repeating it—for we cannot be born twice. Yet this baptism is profitable not only when the water is on us and when we receive it but throughout our entire lives. For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers. We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children. And truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, just as the Lord commanded in the law that by offering a lamb for them the sacrament of the suffering and death of Christ would be granted them shortly after their birth. This was the sacrament of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, baptism does for our children what circumcision did for the Jewish people. That is why Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ.”79

We confess that baptism does for New Covenant children what circumcision did for the children of believers who lived under the types and shadows, i.e., Abraham before the Old Covenant and Moses under the Old Covenant. Circumcision did not save or regenerate or unite one to Christ. The Old Testament saints were, as were, participating in the external administration of the covenant of grace. Through that administration God was bringing his elect to new life and true faith by the gospel, preached under types and shadows. The covenant of grace was in, with, and under those types and shadows.

We follow the Abrahamic pattern and we believe the divine promise, that God gave to Abraham and that Peter repeated at Pentecost: “for the promise to you and to your children and to all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39). Thus we detest the error of the Anabaptists (which the Baptists share), who deny the sign and seal of the covenant to their covenant children.

Christ has shed his blood for the elect among the visible covenant community. That includes children. They receive Christ and his benefits sola gratia, sola fide but we do not wait until they profess to put the sign upon them. We put the sign and seal on them in hope that they will receive all that is promised to believers in baptism. It is a sign to all and a guarantee to those who believe.

In Heidelberg 69 we confess:

Q.How does holy baptism remind and assure you that Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross benefits you personally?

 

A.In this way: Christ instituted this outward washing and with it promised that, as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and his Spirit wash away my soul’s impurity, that is, all my sins.

It is believers who embrace this promise. The Heidelberg Catechism is the confession of believers. This is so from Question 1. “What your only comfort in life and in death?” through the end of the catechism in 129.

We reject explicitly that Baptism grants new life or saves:

Q. Does this outward washing with water itself wash away sins?

 

A.No, only Jesus Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sins.

Baptism does not do it. The Spirit does not ex opere do it through baptism. Nowhere do we remotely hint let alone teach what Whisonant believes that he has found in our confession.

Conclusion

Because of the paradigmatic differences between the Particular Baptists and the Reformed, Whisonant and Renihan both seem to have quite misunderstood the Reformed confession on this point.

All we say in the Belgic is that we believe that there are elect among our children. We are not authorized to guess whom among our children is elect. Thus, we humbly submit to God’s Word by applying the sign of initiation (not renewal, i.e., communion) to our covenant infants. When, in the providence of God, after our children come to new life and true faith,  they have made profession of faith, we admit them to holy communion as the sacrament of nourishment.

Union with Christ is the work of the Spirit, through faith, which gift is given only to the elect. By the Supper, the union and communion of believers with Christ is strengthened (Heidelberg 76) but it is not created in the sacraments.

I hope this exercise in clarification is helpful for Reformed Christians, who confess the Reformed Standards and for Baptists, who are genuinely puzzled about why we say and do what we do, who are trying to understand the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

Resources

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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36 comments

  1. Thank you very much for this article, especially the explanation of BC article 34 and how we must view our confessions in this debate.

    I think another thing that confuses the particular baptists, is that there are reformed theologians and church traditions (subscribing to the Three Forms of Unity) that taught (and still do teach?) that each and everyone (head-for-head) baptized, adults and children, are in true union with Christ, i.e. has been washed in the blood of Christ. All the baptized must then fullfill the ‘conditions of the covenant’ to stay in the blessings of the covenant of grace, but if they do not fullfill the condition of faith (which these would say is a ‘gift of God’, not our ‘work’), they come under the curses of the covenant of grace, fell away and are eternally lost.

    A example would be Klaas Schilder and his ‘Vrygemaakte’ tradition of the Netherlands, which seems to be much like the Federal Vision ideas? They understand the ‘us’ of the Three Forms of Unity not as all the elect that are saved among the covenant community, whether adults or children (HC q/a 4), whenever the it pleases the Lord to gift them regeneration, faith, repentance, etc., but the Schilder tradition believes the ‘us’ is each and everyone baptized = each and everyone are not only externally but also internally baptised in Christ.

    They therefore will also reject the visible – invisible sides of the church distinction, distinction between external administration of the coveant and the covenant of grace essence, etc.

    One of the preachers in this tradition, B. Holwerda, preach us such in one of his Catechism sermons:

    “If you all believe or not, to everyone of you I say: your sins are forgiven for His Names sake…It must be said to you: the fire are put on your heels, your sins are forgiven for His name sake. Woe unto you, if you do not believe it yet. … The preaching of God’s justification is a richness for you all, to work faith or strengthen faith…. Children, your sins are forgiven for His Name sake. Everyone of you.”

    (Translated from: B. Holwerda, De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn (trans. The things that were gifted to us by God), Goes: Oosterbaan&Le Cointre, p.350-351)

    • As one who grew up in the “Vrigemaakte” tradition, I was always taught that baptism does not save, just as circumcision did not save. It is the work of the Spirit that brings one to faith. While Schilder and others disagreed with Kuiper, what ultimately led to the liberation of 1944 was that the theological college insisted that only the views of Kuiper were to be taught. This then bound the consciences of Schilder et al, which led to the liberation. I suggest you read The Liberation: Causes and Consequences by C. Van Dam.

      • Peter,

        1. It’s Kuyper.
        2. Yes, the church-political question was real but there were underlying theological issues. One of those was presumptive regeneration.
        3. Schilder did reject the historic Reformed distinction between the internal and external distinction in favor of his “head for head” and “all or nothing” approach to the covenant of grace. His rejection of the internal/external distinction created genuine problems. It is notable that though the URCNA has explicitly and repeatedly rejected the Federal Vision theology and re-asserted the historic Reformed theology, the followers of Schilder in North America have not. When asked about the FV theology they have tended to downplay it either asserting that it is not a problem for the CanRC (which more than one of their ministers has contradicted) or simply ignored it, even though we, with whom they have said they want to merge, have rejected it.

        In 2104 Wes Bredenhof wrote of the CanRC:

        URC brothers who are paying attention will undoubtedly read some of this with concern. Three local churches wrote letters to our synod stating that “some points of Federal Vision can find sympathy in the Canadian Reformed Churches.” One church wondered whether the URCNA “has a clear picture of the Federal Vision movement.” Though for the sake of honesty and transparency it’s necessary that these sentiments be expressed, I deeply regret that they live in our federation. At least now the URCNA will have a clear justification for their concerns about pursuing full federative unity with us. There are now official CanRC documents stating that there is sympathy for “some points of FV” in our churches.

        Source

        Wes is no longer serving the CanRC but the issue he raised remains and it has long seemed to me that there is a relation between Schilder’s revisions of Reformed theology, which were appropriated by Norman Shepherd, whose theology was defended in the pages of the Clarion by a CanRC theology prof in Hamilton, and the FV theology, which grew out of Shepherd’s experimentation.

        All this to say, I think Slabbert has a point. I’m aware that Wes has argued against connecting Schilder to the FV but I’m unpersuaded. Yes, I’ve read Van Dam’s book.

    • Thank you Dr. Clark. I have never heard of any sympathetic views towards the Federal Vision coming from anyone in the CanRC. I believe that there are those who may have sympathy towards it, but I suspect the same would hold true in the URCNA, and other Reformed denominations as well. If memory serves me correctly, Schilder advocated for both positions to be allowed, but the followers of Kuyper insisted on their view. I confess I haven’t read on it much lately, so it is possible I am wrong, and I apologize in advance. I believe the biggest cause of 1944 was the political tensions, and to a much lesser point, the doctrinal positions

      • Peter,

        According to the report, “three local churches” in the CanRC have expressed degrees of sympathy with the FV. I heard the FV doctrine, preached from a URC pulpit, c. 2004, in which we were all said to be members “head for head” (in the same way) in the covenant of grace and to have been united by baptism to Christ. Not outwardly identified with Christ but united to him. This minister is now in the CanRC.

    • And I believe that. I seem to recall reading that myself. I think I know who that Minister is, and if I am correct, he is causing some issues in the CanRC, which will likely be heading to Synod. Ministers I have spoken with have all denied the FV, But I am sure there are those who hold views identified with the FV.

      • Peter, thank you for your comment.

        I was a member of a vrygemaakte church for about 10 years, and also married a great lady from that church! 😉 Still have good contacts with some those brothers. Really learned a lot from them, and also much appreciation for Schilder and other’s on many issues with which I agree with them and still do.

        In my time there and since then read some Schilder, and some other vrygemaakte theologians, also a few books from the vrygemaakte’s view on the whole issue of why the ‘Vrymaking’ took place, church polity wars, and the doctrinal issue of the covenant. The one I remember most is “Schilder’s struggle for the unity of the Church” by Rudolf van Geest.

        Only after I left there, I started reading more of the other side, Kuyper and other’s view of the covenant, etc. and begin seeing some problems and that one has to read and study both sides ‘original sources’, not only what the one says about the other, and vice versa.

        If you can read some Afrikaans, see this article by one of our denomination’s professors back then (1946), prof. S. Du Toit. He shows the problems of both sides, but also said that there was a problem with the vrygemaakte’s view of the covenant:

        https://proregno.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/skeuring-in-ndl-s-du-toit.pdf

        (English title would be: Battle and church split in the Netherlands Reformed Churches)

        Back to us:
        What is your view of Holwerda’s sermon I mentioned above, do you agree or disagree with Holwerda saying to each and everyone, i.e. all baptised, your sins are forgiven, because yes, I do agree with your view that Schilder et. all would not say that the sacrament of baptism itself saves us, but what it means/signifies.

        Therefore the question is more, is the meaning baptism, Whom it signifies (the truth of the sacrament…Christ, BC art. 35) received by everyone baptized, and therefore Holwerda preaches to his whole congregation = ‘each and everyone’ of your sins are forgiven, i.e. head for head in the local vrygemaakte church?

        Do you agree with that preaching and theology?

    • If I may Dr. Clark, what I have been taught is that baptism is an entrance into the visible church, not necessarily of the invisible however. Only the elect are members of the invisible Church. We all know from experience that there are those who have been baptized and later in life reject the promises made to them by God. I also believe that the children of believers who are taken by the Lord prior to rejecting Him are saved as they have not out rightly denied the promises. God speaks of one covenant in Genesis, and later repeated by Peter. So I am not understanding how the quote is wrong. The sins of believing children are forgiven, presuming they are elect. For those who don’t believe, it may be that the Lord will work in them by His Spirit to bring them to faith, in which case it is a blessing.

    • Unfortunately brother, I neither read or speak Dutch(or Afrikaans) If I read the quote correctly, Rev. Holwerda is at the end addressing children. He concludes the quote by saying your sins are forgiven. All of you. I believe he is speaking to the children at that point, so yes I would agree with the quote. Until children expressly deny the promises made in baptism, we assume them to be saved. I do not agree with the beginning. Forgiveness is granted to those who confess their sin and place their faith in Christ alone.

    • Allow me to further explain. Is Rev. Holwerda speaking to the congregation or to the world as a whole? I would like to believe that those whom I worship with and have communion with are saved. I don’t like the idea of viewing everyone as a hypocrite. One must have faith in Christ alone for the promises made at baptism to be of value, ie, justification. So, , just reading the quote, I disagree with the first part and agree with the second part. What is missing is the context. What preceded this quote, and what came after? How does it fit in with the rest of the sermon? I dare say that any sermon preached could potentially be misquoted. As a former minister of mine used to say…context ,context, context.

      • Peter,

        Go back and look at the quote. Holwerda is quoted as saying “everyone” is forgiven, whether or not they have believed (yet). This is the Schilderite “objective” view of the covenant that makes baptism the instrument of the covenant of grace. No, faith is the “sole instrument” of the covenant of grace.

        The promise confessed in Dort 1.17 is to pious or believing parents. They are to have confidence that their children who died in infancy are with the Lord. The FV (e.g., John Barach) have tried to change Dort 1.17 to say parents whose children are baptized. That’s not what we confess.

        See this article.

    • Dr. Clark, I don’t believe I ever stated that baptism is the instrument of the covenant of grace. What I stated was that baptism is the visible means of entry into the visible church. All the promises of baptism are made a reality by faith, which is a gift of God through the working of the Spirit. Is it wrong to say that those who do not yet believe, but later in life will, do have their sins forgiven?

      Correct me if I am mistaken, but was this sermon not originally preached in Dutch? I have been led to believe that translations are generally not 100% accurate, simply because some words do not translate well into English. Isn’t that one of the main reasons that confessional seminaries want their students to be proficient in the originals?

      • Peter,

        I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m explaining why some of us have concerns about Schilder’s theology.

        I’ve documents on my hard drive from advocates of the FV citing Holwerda and Schilder favorably, claiming that their views are influenced by Schilder and Holwerda. I have a document by C. Van Dam, “Reflections On A Conference,” (2008) defending Norman Shepherd and linking him to Schilder. The connection is real.

        I’m pointing you to published, edited works where I’ve interacted with Schilder et al.

        It is possible to translate Dutch into English with relative accuracy. It’s not that difficult.

        Please take a look at the article. I think I also engaged Schilder in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, which is available still in an electronic format via Amazon.

    • Dr. Clark, I found an essay from a protestant Reformed. He quotes Holwerda, and it does appear that he had strong views which line up with the FV. One can certainly see, then, how there are those in the CanRC with sympathetic views toward the FV. I do believe however, with the passage of time, sympathies toward the FV within CanRC circles will diminish, with the few remaining possibly seeking and FV place of worship. It is certainly not a view that I hold to. I was never taught that in my youth through catechism or preaching. It appears that Schilder had a sympathetic view toward those holding to an FV view, while not totally agreeing with it. I get the sense that Schilder had a view of liberty, in that one could believe that position or another. Schilder’s main objection, from what I can ascertain, was the binding of the conscience toward a particular view.

  2. Dr. Clark, Enjoyed reading this article while in lockdown. Thank you for your faithful service. Please know that your service on the Heidelblog is a great blessing to a Reformed pastor in India.

  3. This is a wonderful article for clarifying the actual Reformed understanding of baptism. So many want to broaden the definition of what Reformed means so that it becomes virtually meaningless. I suppose they want to cash in on the Reformation’s reputation for recovering the true Christian Faith, by presenting their ideas as if they are in agreement with it. That is why it is so important to read the Reformers and the Confessions in order to compare the claims, that are being made, to what the Reformation actually stood for.

    • Some also narrow the definition of reformed so that it becomes virtually meaningless.

      • Dr,

        Who does this and how? Certainly it’s not we who confess what the Reformed Churches confess. The English translation of all the major and minor Reformed confessions (and a few more) comprises 4 sizable volumes and then there are thousands of classic (and orthodox contemporary) Reformed volumes.

        Real Reformed theology is deep and rich. It’s just not Baptist.

  4. Peter, you write:

    “I don’t like the idea of viewing everyone as a hypocrite.”

    Me neither, not ‘everyone’ is a hypocrite, but, not ‘everyone’ is a believer also.

    We must believe according to Scriptures and our confessions, that there is in history (administration of the covenant) in the visible church two lines, the line of the godly and ungodly, believers and non-believers, elect and non-elect, and they are among the adults and children.

    To quote just two parts of our Confessions (capital letters added):

    BC article 29:
    “We believe, that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church. But we speak not here of hypocrites, WHO ARE MIXED IN THE CHURCH WITH THE GOOD, YET ARE NOT OF THE CHURCH, THOUGH EXTERNALLY IN IT; but we say that the body and communion of the true Church must be distinguished from all sects, who call themselves the Church. …”

    BC article 35:
    “… Further, though the sacraments (note: plural, i.e. both sacraments, baptism and communion – slc) are connected with the thing signified, nevertheless both are not received BY ALL MEN: the ungodly indeed receives the sacrament to his condemnation, BUT HE DOTH NOT RECEIVE THE TRUTH of the sacrament. As Judas, and Simon the sorcerer, both indeed received the sacrament, BUT NOT CHRIST, who was signified by it, of whom BELIEVERS ONLY are made partakers….”

    Yes, we do practice waht we call the “judgment of favor or love” towards all baptized members, i.e. we treat and view them as children of God until their confessions or walk shows they are ungodly, and even then we still practice the keys of the kingdom (HC Sunday 31), but we do not say or preach to each and everyone head-for- head “your sins are forgiven”, i.e. all of them are washed by the blood of Christ, but they still can be lost forever ‘if they do not do their part of the covenant’.

    All that repent and believe, all that are born again are saved, it is for them and them alone that Christ gave His life, His blood of the covenant (see Joh. 10:11,26-28 and Dordt 2.8), and essential to being bought by Christ, is ‘forgiveness of sins and eternal life’, as we confess in Dordt 5:9,

    “Of this preservation of the elect to salvation, and of their perseverance in the faith, true believers for themselves may and ought to obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith, whereby they arrive at the certain persuasion, that they ever will continue true and living members of the church; and that they experience forgiveness of sins, and will at last inherit eternal life.”

    True living members = have forever forgiveness of sins = will inherit eternal life.

    And this truth teached and confessed here according to Scripture, can never be true to all
    and everyone in the visible church … as Holwerda preached in his sermon?

    If we do not acknowledge the scriptural and creedal distinctions between visible and invisible side of the church, the administration of the covenant and the covenant itself, we get into lots of problems.

    • Slabbert, I very much appreciate this this clear explanation of our confessions on this subject, and why it is essential that we are firm on the doctrines of the meaning of baptism and the true church. If we do not get these right, it undermines our understanding of the gospel. It leads to errors like the FV. We cannot just say, in the interest of freedom of conscience and avoidance of controversy, that opposing views are acceptable. That is why we have the Reformed Confessions, to precisely distinguish between true and false doctrine.

    • And I agree with you. Not everyone who says Lord Lord will be saved, but only the elect. I believe that baptism saves no one, but only a true faith in Christ will lead to eternal life. As I stated earlier, it does appear that Holwerda had views that aligned with what we call the FV. Schilder’s struggle was more political that doctrinal, which I believe is what ultimately lead to 1944.

      • Peter,

        It’s interesting that you’re willing to allow a connection between Holwerda & the FV but you seem to want to deny any connection to or influence by Schilder, even though the sources of the FV (e.g., Shepherd et al) consistently cite him as an influence.

        In my conversations with Liberated/CanRC folk I’ve yet to see one ever criticize him. They deny that Schilder is their theologian but they won’t admit that he might have made a mistake about anything (e.g., his rejection of the covenant of works was a profound shift away from historic Reformed theology).

        That reluctance to criticize him is worrisome, frankly.

    • Dr. Clark, the information I have read seems to point out that Schilder objected to the Synodical abuse of Church Order. Certainly he made mistakes. The fact that he appears to be sympathetic to what is now called the FV is troublesome, but I haven’t read anywhere that he adopted that position. The fact that the FV proponents cite him doesn’t bother me to much, since things can be taken out of context, and misused for a purpose other than what it was intended for. It happens to Scripture all the time, the taking out of context, misquoted, etc.

      • Peter,

        I understand that there were multiple issues afoot.

        To be clear, I am not accusing Schilder of being sympathetic to the FV. It didn’t exist in his life time. That being said, the theologian of the Free Reformed Churches did accuse him of being essentially Arminian in his theology. I quote and cite him in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, which is still available as an e-book.

        I am saying, however, that some of the idiosyncratic theological moves that Schilder made were influential later on those who did form the FV theology and they seem to have kept the CanRC from recognizing the danger of the FV since the CanRC have not seriously addressed the URCNA concerns about the FV nor have they done anything about the presence of FV sympathizing congregations in the CanRC.

        The doctrine of justification sola gratia, sola fide is not an extra-confessional matter (which I understand to be a CanRC concern). The FV is contrary to the gospel.

        I understand that CanRC/Liberated folk are generally reluctant to hear/make any criticism of Schilder but until they are ready to do that, to think critically about their hero, as we all must do, then they will remain where they are.

    • Dr. Clark, that is a fair statement. I think that a lot of the older generation held Schilder in higher esteem then the generations since. I, for one, have never read or heard any of his sermons, but what I appreciate is his stance on matters of Church Order. That is what I remember being taught about him, and maybe that is why I am more knowledgeable about CO than the doctrinal issues of the time. I do think however, that Reformed churches in general, have always been influenced by great minds, such as Kuyper, Schilder, Bavinck and the list goes on. In some cases for the good, and in others perhaps not so good. Perhaps some day the CanRC will see the FV for the danger that it is, and how the theologians of the past had an influence. But the same can be said for all the Reformed Churches in general.

    • From what I read and understand, the main issues were Schilder’s opposition to Kuyper’s view on presumptive regeneration, and the ensuing struggle with CO, specifically article 31.

      • Peter, about Kuyper, maybe the Schilderians through history also only wanted to read him onesidedly, not reading everything he said in (like you said above)… context, context, context?

        Dr. Mark Beach (MARS professor) gives this more balanced view about Kuyper:

        In fairness to Kuyper, however, the above criticisms should be modulated a bit inasmuch as Kuyper himself would not dispute the above mentioned arguments. As J. C. Rullman has observed, when controversy first emerged concerning Kuyper’s little book ‘Voor een Distel een Mirt’ (1891), generating action at the General Synod of Middelburg in 1896,
        Kuyper subsequently clarified his view pertaining to the ground of baptism in De Heraut on 4 October 1896, in an article entitled “De Grond” (“The Ground”).

        Here Kuyper distinguishes four ways of thinking about the ground for baptism:

        (1) If we speak of the ground upon which parents have the right (het recht) to request baptism for their children, then naturally for the parents the ground clearly rests in the divine ordinance of the covenant of grace.

        (2) If we speak of the ground upon which rests the right and duty of the church to administer baptism to the infants of its members, then the ground can only be, as before, God’s ordinance as set forth in the covenant of grace.

        (3) If, however, we speak of the ground upon which the ordinance in God’s name rests, then naturally the ground cannot be the covenant of grace, which God himself established;
        rather, the ground can only be his sovereign good pleasure.

        And finally (4) if we speak of the ground upon which rests the spiritual reality of baptism administered to an infant (as we have done), then naturally the only answer can be that the spiritual reality of baptism rests on nothing other than regeneration.

        Thus Kuyper clearly affirms that the legal ground (rechtsgrond), as distinguished from a sacramental and a spiritual ground, for infant baptism rests in God’s covenant alone, for parents cannot know infallibly whether their child is regenerate. The church can judge only whether the child is born of believing parents and in this fact alone—that the child is
        included in the covenant promise of God as seed of believers—the legal ground for the baptism of infants is established for the church; and this rests upon nothing other than the rule of the covenant.

        Unquestionably, Kuyper’s accent upon an assumed regeneration as the ground for the baptism of infants was driven by a concern to safeguard the truth that the infants of believing parents are the objects of God’s saving mercies, even though they are not yet capable of the manifest signs of faith and conversion; and so, should they die at a tender
        age, believing parents may rest in the assurance that Christ’s work of salvation is for them, as baptism itself testifies.”

        Source: Kuyper, Bavinck, and “The Conclusions of Utrecht 1905”, MJT 19 (2008) 11-68, available here: https://www.midamerica.edu/uploads/files/pdf/journal/beach19.pdf

        And to make my own position clear: I wholeheartedly believe the grounds for infant baptism is the command and promise of God (Gen. 17:7; Acts. 2:39), but I understand why Kuyper wanted to emphasize regeneration, the important role and place of baptism being a sign of regeneration (also), for those who our truine God sovereignly elects for His good pleasure, whether adults of infants, He knows who are His (2 Tim. 2:19):

        HC Q 71. Where does Christ promise that we are washed with his blood and Spirit as surely as we are washed with the water of baptism?

        A.In the institution of baptism, where he says: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”1
        “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”2 This promise is repeated when Scripture calls baptism “the washing of regeneration”3 and the washing away of sins.4

        1 Matt. 28:19
        2 Mark 16:16
        3 Titus 3:5
        4 Acts 22:16

  5. Dr. Clark, do you have the follow up on the ‘Conclusions of Utrecht’ (1905) in English, namely:

    1. ‘De Leeruitspraak van 1942 aangaande genadeverbond en zelfondersoek’, (GKN Acta Generale Synode Sneek/Utrecht 1939-1943, art. 682), (my English translation: “The Doctrinal Decision of 1942 in regards to the covenant of grace and self-examination, GKN Acts of General Synod Sneek.Utrecht), and

    2. The ‘Vrygemaakte’ (Liberated Churches’) answer on that, called : “Verklaring van Gevoelen, 1943″ (eng: Declaration of Feelings?).

    I’ve got it in Dutch, but not in English.

    When one do not know all the history and personalities behind these struggle, one wonders what is the big difference between them, what did the Liberated find Scripturally and confessionally wrong with both the decisions of 1905 and 1942, that they feel they need to break away? Both decisions says clearly that ‘presumptive regeneration’ is not the ground for baptism (i.e. Kuyper’s view where not ‘canonized’ in the GKN?), but that the command and promise of God is the ground (with which all agree?), so why do the Schilderians felt they still had to leave?

    No could the Liberated view be ‘accommodated”?

    Utrecht 1942 points 3- 5 is very important, and if that points are true, and were aimed at the Liberated view of the covenant, then there are some very serious problems with the Liberated view of the covenant, like (and this I also heard from men supporting Schilder’s views):

    – Liberated view rejects the visible vs invisible distinction of the church.

    – all baptized are washed by the blood of Christ (Holwerda’s: all of you, your sins are forgiven), but because you do not fulfill the covenant conditions = curses of the covenant applies to you = eternally lost (which mean imho: faith is a work, not a gift and fruit of the covenant, no matter how many times you say ‘the condition = a gift from God’).

    – Some will argue: all baptized are washed by the blood of Christ, but not all elected, which means you can be ‘in Christ’ (washed by His blood), but not elected to eternal life.There is therefore no ‘golden chain’ (Rom. 8:29,30) in the Liberated view of the covenant, i.e. you can be washed in the blood of Jesus (in the covenant of grace = in His blood), but not elect and regenerated, therefore fall away. (Side question: is the Liberated view of the covenant of grace not a ‘republication’ of the the ‘covenant of works’ under the disguise of saying it is ‘the covenant of grace’?)

    – they therefore do not see a distinction between the (administration of the) sacrament and the truth (Jesus) of the sacrament (see Utrecht 1942 b. point 2).

    It seems to me that Utrecht 1905 and 1942 wants to acknowledge that there is two lines revealed in Scripture (Rom. 9:6-8), regarding how and who are in the covenant of grace, church, etc., which the Liberated rejects, and this creates all kinds of biblical, theological and confessional problems?

    • Prof. Clark, as a follow up on my previous message, I see there was also a “Vervangingsformule van Utrecht, 1946, aangaande die genadeverbond” (eng: Replacement Formula of Utrecht, 1946, concerning the covenant of grace), which in part replaced 1942, and has more content.

      If you have that in English, it would be much appreciated.

      • Slabbert,

        I do not believe that I have these things in English. I last researched the schism between the GKN & the Liberated for Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, which was some time ago but I share your concerns. My impression is that they developed a highly idiosyncratic version of Reformed covenant theology, which was skeptical of the Reformed tradition. Schilder et al. were skeptical of Reformed orthodoxy, which they dismissed as scholasticism.

        There is a tantalizing clue, perhaps, in Vos’ letters to Bavinck, to the origins of this movement. He mentions a strange group he encountered in Grand Rapids, whose views he describes. Some of what he describes seems similar to what Schilder later said. It was to this group that Vos was responding in his history of covenant theology, which he gave as his inaugural address as the rector of the Theological College of the CRC (later Calvin Seminary) around the turn of the 20th century, early in his career. I don’t know if Bavinck replied or gave him any background. Perhaps there are no connections.

  6. Prof., now that you mention it.

    I read some of it last year in Danny Olinger’s book on Geerhaardus Vos.

    Vos corresponded with Kuyper, Bavinck and Warfield on his struggles in America, on issues like supra&infralapsarianism, election, covenant, baptism, etc. Lambert J. Hulst, editor of the theological journal De Wachter and a member of the Curatorium at the Theological School (CRCNA?) had a big problem with Vos’ supralapsarianism and especially Vos’s view that election (via the covenant of redemption?) governs the covenant of grace in history.

    Vos said that Hulst’ view (which a Canadian reformed professor [from the Liberated church tradition], Jelle Faber supported, see quote below), “works to cut the doctrine of election from the covenant” a view he never can agree with. He wrote to Bavinck saying Hulst view means “Election comes last, and functions like a second Amyraldian conclusion. ”

    Here are a few quotes:

    Vos wrote (to Kuyper in 1891),

    “The stumbling blocks are the covenant view and baptismal view, which reckon with election, and are dominated by the Calvinistic principle. They will likely adhere to election, but only as something separate that may not influence and have a lasting effect on any other field. Vos concluded that this mindset was decidedly un-Reformed as the covenant was employed to render the doctrine of election harmless.

    Election, Covenant and Baptism
    While “Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology” allowed Vos to explore what would become core beliefs of his Reformed biblical theology, there could be little doubt that the concluding remarks in the address on the relationship of election and the covenant were an answer to his main critic, Lambert J. Hulst, editor of De Wachter. Starting in February of that year, Hulst had attacked Vos in print for not endorsing infralapsarianism, which Hulst believed to be the position of the Canons of Dordt.

    Apparently, Vos’s comments struck a nerve in Hulst. On the day after the address, Hulst submitted an official protest about Vos to the Curatorium of the Theological School. In the protest, he argued that Vos had strayed from the confessional standards of the Christian Reformed Church in teaching supralapsarianism to the students.

    Canadian Reformed theologian Jelle Faber in his book American Secession Theologians on Covenant and Baptism detailed the dispute from Hulst’s perspective. According to Faber, Hulst could not reconcile God’s election and God’s covenant of redemption as eternal decrees with the execution of God’s covenant as a relation established in time. Hulst concluded that understanding the connection between election and covenant belongs to the secret things of the Lord. He stated, “When I saw this clearly, I abandoned that speculative idea of a covenant of grace from eternity and I descended to the covenant that God has established with Abraham and his descendants, Genesis 17. This is the covenant to which the entire Bible refers.”

    When Vos stressed the centrality of the covenant of redemption in the plan of salvation, Hulst believed that he was advocating a speculative position that could not be supported from Scripture. But, just as objectionable was when Vos spoke of two sides of the covenant, one forensic and the other relational. The forensic or judicial agreement is seen as being under the covenant, and the relational or fellowship of life is seen as being in the covenant. Faber wrote of Vos’s division, “The purpose of the forensic agreement is the transition into the fellowship of life. Being under the covenant is meant to lead to life in the covenant. Where the fellowship of life is absent, there the essence of the covenant is absent.”

    Faber, supporting Hulst, believed that this distinction denied the teaching of the Canons of Dordt regarding the baptism and salvation of the infants of believers. He said, “When Geerhardus Vos thus restricts the being in the covenant to the elect only, he does not do full justice to the confessional expressions of Lord’s Day 27 and of the Canons of Dordt I, 17.”

    Whereas Faber sided with Hulst, Charles Dennison sided with Vos. Dennison argued that Vos’s distinction is helpful in answering what had become a perennial question in the Christian Reformed Church of the late nineteenth century, the relationship between membership in the covenant and divine election. On the one hand, membership in the covenant of grace is limited to the elect since only the elect can enjoy true communion with God. On the other hand, membership in the covenant of grace includes more than the elect as many members of the covenant never arrive at true communion with God. Could these two positions be reconciled?

    Dennison wrote: To resolve this difficulty Vos says we must speak on biblical grounds of the covenant as a “legal relationship.” Here the emphasis is upon what ought to be. But we must also speak of covenant as “living fellowship” and not of what ought to be, but of what actually is. Only those who truly believe are in the covenant in the latter sense. However, all born into the covenant of believing parents are under the covenant and can be said to be in the covenant.

    Dennison explained that Vos’s distinction between the legal and the essential throws light upon two different questions that may be asked. If asked, when looking at the legal relationship aspect of the covenant, “of whom can it be expected that they live the covenant life?” the answer is believers (all who have professed the faith) and their children. If asked, when looking at the essential side of the covenant, “in whom has this legal relationship become a living fellowship?” the answer is the regenerate, those who have faith and are living for God.

    Dennison concluded, “The covenant relationship into which a child of believers is born is the image and likeness of the covenant fellowship in which he is later expected to live.”

    Source: Olinger, Danny. Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologian, Confessional Presbyterian . Reformed Forum. Kindle Edition.

    • It seems to me that the problem is that, by insisting that all baptized children are in the covenant the same way, these people have made the covenant of grace a conditional covenant, where the children must obey the terms of the covenant in order to qualify for salvation. That is also what the FV teaches, that the final salvation of those who are united to Christ in baptism, must do their part. That is the inevitable result of this theology, it turns the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.

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