The Protestant Reformed “Declaration of Principles” is a lengthy decision by the Protestant Reformed synods of 1951 and 1953. It states important truths about the covenant of grace on the basis of the Reformed confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt. The decision is an official declaration, or expression, by the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) of the teaching of the creeds about the covenant of grace.
It is not a new confession. It is only a declaration of what the confessions teach. The declaration states the “principles”, or main elements, of the truth of the doctrine of the covenant. It is by no means a complete theology of the covenant.
The complete “Declaration” can be found in the “Acts of Synod [of the] Protestant Reformed Churches in America 1951”, pages 201-208, and in my book, Battle for Sovereign Grace in the Covenant: The Declaration of Principles (Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2013), pages 197-219.
The “Declaration” became necessary in the PRC because of controversy over the doctrine of the covenant. Some ministers were introducing a new and different doctrine than that taught in the confessions and held by the PRC from the beginning of their history as churches in 1924. The new, heretical doctrine was the teaching that God graciously establishes His covenant with all the children of believers by gracious promise to all the children alike. But the continuation of the covenant and its salvation are conditional, that is, they depend upon the will of the child. All alike are able to fulfil the condition of believing. However, only some do believe. With them, because they choose to believe, God continues the covenant, and saves them in the covenant.
The PRC judged this doctrine of the covenant to be a form of the Arminian heresy condemned by the Canons of Dordt. This doctrine makes covenant-salvation dependent, not on the sovereign grace of God originating in election, but upon the will of the child.
Against this false doctrine of the covenant, which was troubling and dividing the PRC, the PRC adopted the “Declaration”. It adopted the “Declaration” provisionally in 1951. It ratified the adoption in 1953. The result was schism in the PRC. More than half of the ministers and members split from the PRC. The cost to the PRC of the adoption of the “Declaration” was high. Those who broke with the PRC over the doctrine of the covenant soon rejoined the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), from which the PRC had been expelled in 1924. In the CRC, the doctrine of a conditional covenant and a conditional covenant-salvation reigned supreme, as they do to this day. In fact, there is good reason to believe that the CRC’s doctrine of common grace originated in its prevailing doctrine of a covenant of universal, conditional grace.
The fundamental issue in the controversy settled by adoption of the “Declaration” was salvation by grace alone, having its source in divine election. The “Declaration” confesses and defends this gracious salvation, specifically regarding the salvation of baptized children in the sphere of the covenant of grace.
The content of the “Declaration” is almost entirely quotations of the Reformed confessions. In fact, there is very little explanation of the quotations. The “Declaration” intended to be, and is, simply the “expression” of the creeds with application to the precise issue of salvation in the covenant. Whatever churches or theologians dissent from the “Declaration” thereby dissent from the Reformed confessions.
Specifically, the “Declaration” establishes the following truths concerning the covenant. First, the promise of the covenant, “I will be your God and the God of your children”, is particular, not general and universal. That is, God makes the promise to elect believers and to the elect children of believers, which children are the true seed of Abraham and the true seed of believing parents. This is the confession of Canons 2.5: “The promise of the gospel is that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life” (emphasis added). Although the promise is heard by all, God makes the promise to the elect in Jesus Christ.
Second, election governs the covenant and its salvation, as it also governs salvation in missions (cf. Acts 13:48: “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed”). This is the Reformed confession in Canons 1.9: “Election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith [and] holiness….and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects…”
Third, the covenant and its salvation are unconditional. This is to say that the covenant is gracious. It and its salvation do not depend upon the will of the baptized child, but upon the gracious will of God. This is the teaching of Canons 1.10, as indeed of the entire first head of the Canons: “The good pleasure of God is the sole cause of this gracious election, which doth not consist herein, that out of all possible qualities and actions of men God has chosen some as a condition of salvation…”
The only alternative is that the covenant depends upon the will of the child.
Fourth, God’s promise to a person, in this case a baptized child, includes that God will give the child faith. Faith is not a work of the child upon which the covenant and its promise depend, but the gift of God to the child, which gift of faith is part of the promise. When God promises to be the God of a child, He promises to give the child the faith by which the child is adopted and saved. Faith is included in the promise, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 74 and Canons 3, 4.14.
Are infants also to be baptized?
Yes; for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult…(Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 74; emphasis added).
Fifth, God always fulfills His promise. The promise is not a mere offer, dependent on the will of the child. It is as sure of fulfillment as God is true, keeping His promise, and as God is almighty, able to keep His promise. This is the teaching of Canons 3, 4.10-17.
But that others who are called by the gospel obey the call and are converted is not to be ascribed to the proper exercise of free will…but it must be wholly ascribed to God, who as He has chosen His own from eternity in Christ, so He confers upon them faith and repentance…and translates them into the kingdom of His own Son, that they may show forth the praises of Him who hath called them out of darkness into His marvelous light, and may glory, not in themselves, but in the Lord…(Canons 3, 4.10).
None of this declaration of God’s sovereign grace in the covenant denies, or even weakens, the important truth of human responsibility, any more than sovereignty rules out or weakens responsibility in any aspect of the gospel. This, of course, is always the charge of those who oppose divine sovereignty. With appeal to the confessions, the “Declaration” affirms that the promise of God “confronts us with the obligation of love, to walk in a new and holy life, and constantly to watch unto prayer” (Battle for Sovereign Grace in the Covenant, 213).
The alternative doctrine of the covenant teaches that God graciously promises covenant-salvation to every baptized child, the Esau as well as the Jacob (see Romans 9), and even establishes the covenant with every child at baptism. This realizes the gracious will of God to save all the children. But this covenant and God’s gracious will are conditional. They depend upon the will of the child. If he fulfills the condition of believing, he will enjoy covenant-salvation. If he refuses to believe, he breaks the covenant, renders God’s promise ineffective, and loses his covenant-salvation. The covenant, the covenant promise, and covenant-salvation are conditioned upon the child’s will.
Every Reformed believer, indeed every Protestant Christian, can see that this doctrine of the covenant overthrows the gospel of grace, which gospel was proclaimed by the Reformation of 1517. Every knowledgeable Protestant recognizes this doctrine of the covenant as the theology condemned by Luther in his great work, The Bondage of the Will. No Reformed believer has any excuse for failing to discern this false “gospel” as the heresy rejected by the creeds of Reformed and Presbyterian churches. All Christians must judge this doctrine of the covenant in light of the apostle’s declaration in Romans 9:16: “So then it [salvation, whether in the covenant or on the mission field—DJE] is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”
The benefit of the “Declaration” is great. First, it settled a heated and vitally important controversy over the gospel in the PRC in the early 1950s, and preserved a denomination of true churches of Christ in the gospel of grace. Second, in the wise providence of God it enabled the PRC, some fifty years later, to withstand a popular, powerful heresy in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. This is the heresy now ravaging these churches that calls itself the “federal [that is, covenant] vision”. This heresy openly and boldly denies the “five points of Calvinism” — the content of the Canons of Dordt and of the Westminster Standards. The origin and basis of the denial are the very doctrine of the covenant that the “Declaration” condemns, namely, the teaching of a gracious, conditional covenant with all the baptized children of believers alike. For a complete description and refutation of the federal vision, see my book, Federal Vision: Heresy at the Root (Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2012).
But there is yet another benefit of the “Declaration”. It is a compelling witness concerning the truth of the covenant to the entire world of Reformed, Presbyterian, and Calvinistic churches. From the time of the Reformation to the present day, there has been a lack of consensus concerning the covenant. The creeds do not develop the truth of the covenant at any length or pronounce explicitly on the orthodox doctrine of the covenant. The result is that the false doctrine of the covenant can find acceptance in Reformed churches.
The “Declaration” can be, and ought to be, helpful in clarifying the issues of covenant doctrine and in leading theologians and churches to the orthodox understanding of the vitally important doctrine of the covenant.
Admittedly, this account of the “Declaration of Principles” is (necessarily) brief. It is merely a sketch. For the full account of the history and of the doctrinal content of the “Declaration” I refer the readers to my book, Battle for Sovereign Grace in the Covenant: The Declaration of Principles. The book includes a brief commentary on the “Declaration” (pp. 221-267).
Written by: Prof. David J. Engelsma | Issue 52