75 years Liberation

203

75 years Liberation: back to the firm ground of God’s covenant

The Act of Liberation or Return was read out 75 years ago (11 August 1944) and signed by several members and overseers of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. By this action they liberated themselves from decisions about baptism and regeneration which synod had taken and which it forced the office bearers to adopt, defend and preach. Those who did not do so were suspended and deposed. This is how the synod tied the churches’ office bearers to its decisions. But synod’s declaration about baptism and regeneration deviated from the line of Scripture and the Reformed Confession.  And that’s why these brothers liberated themselves from synod’s yoke, that they might again fully and freely enjoy being reformed.

THE TREASURE OF THE COVENANT 

When God created the heavens and the earth, He established His covenant with Adam. In that covenant God declared the promise of eternal life together with the demand that Adam and Eve must be obedient to Him. If they did not obey, they would die the eternal death.

Adam and Eve chose not to listen to God but to Satan. Hence death became their destination, and not theirs only but the destination of all Adam’s descendants.

After the fall into sin God promised that His Son Jesus Christ would die in order to reconcile us to God.  And because Jesus did accomplish this, both our salvation and the way to that salvation lie firmly anchored in Jesus Christ. Every believer has this firm assurance: God keeps His church alive. For He gathers, from the day of man’s creation until the last day, a church chosen to everlasting life (LD 21).

It is important to understand that Jesus Christ makes His gospel of the forgiveness of sins known by His Word. In the parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus, that rich man asks Abraham to let Lazarus warn his family. But Abraham answers: “They have Moses and the prophets!” (Luke 16). Calvin says about this text: “To be sure of our salvation we must begin with the Word. That’s what should satisfy our trust.” [1] We’re not allowed to look for certainty outside of the Word. Compare this also with Article 7 of the Belgic Confession that deals with the sufficiency of the Scriptures.

God comes to us with His firm and reliable Word, the glorious gospel of life and reconciliation for us and for our children. God gathers on this earth a people young and old. Our children are not outsiders; but they belong to the people of the Lord.

THE SYNODAL STATEMENT

Baptism: sign and seal of God’s covenant promises

On 8th June the synod of Sneek-Utrecht 1942 declared that children of believers are baptised on the basis of a presumed regeneration [a seed of regeneration thought to be planted in elected children]. According to that synod, believers must presume that their baptised children are born again[2] and that their place under Christ’s care is not certain either. Other synodal statements confirmed that parents must presume this. Yes indeed, for if the certainty of the truth of His promises is hidden behind a haze of one’s own experience, then the ground under that assurance of full grace disappears. Here synod looked at baptism from the viewpoint of election. God knows who will be saved from death; He knows who His genuine children are. Well then – synod reasoned further – He will give His promises only to those of whom He knows that they are going to believe. Otherwise God would be saying things He is not going to do, and that is impossible.

The Reformed view, however, is that baptism rests [not on something presumed to be in the child, but] on the covenant God made with His people. For what God has decided in His counsel is hidden from us (Deut 29:29). But what we do know is that He works out His counsel in the way of the covenant. In that covenant He promises life and forgiveness, and he stresses the call to embrace those promises with a believing heart. Those promises of the covenant are trustworthy.

We like to sing about that covenant: “He will remember and uphold, His covenant made in days of old”. A covenant with the young and the old, with adults and with babies. See Genesis 17:1-8 where God says to Abraham, “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.” And the apostle Peter says: “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39).

God’s covenant is for everyone in His congregation. Both the old and the young have His firm promises together with the demand to believe. That is why the Form for Baptism says about our children that they are ‘sanctified in Christ’. This does not mean that our children are chosen saints or that they are without sin. ‘Sanctified’ in Christ means ‘dedicated’ to Christ, ‘set apart’ in Christ, to live for God and for Christ. Our children have the calling to live as Christians, to be ‘not unbelieving but believing’.  Parents must bring them up to that end. If you wrongly understand the word ‘sanctified’ to mean ‘saved’ you will immediately read the expression ‘sanctified in Christ’ from the viewpoint of election.

THE EVANGELICAL MOVEMENT 

As from 1944, the Reformed Churches (GKv) were allowed to continue as liberated churches. In the preaching the complete gospel was preached again: whoever believes the Word has life and whoever disobeys it forfeits life. You must look for your eternal salvation in “the word of faith that we preach” (Rom 10:8). Parents again whole-heartedly and confidently had their children baptised in the assurance that they are in God’s covenant. We may tell our children in full assurance: Be aware of your baptism and believe that you are a child of God.

But what has been happening in recent decades? The Evangelical movement has grown and gained influence in all kinds of churches. 

And what is wrong with that movement? It separates the work of Christ from the work of the Holy Spirit. It teaches that Jesus has paid for the sins of all people; everyone is reconciled. And it teaches that the work of the Holy Spirit is now to bring that reconciliation to the people. He takes hold of them so that they say: ‘I am with Jesus.’

However, thereby the joint activity of Christ and the Spirit is ignored. Instead, it presents two independent works of God: on the one hand He chooses His Son Jesus to earn salvation for everyone; on the other hand, He has the Holy Spirit give to people the faith that is a condition for salvation. 

We see that in this manner God is presented as working in two ways. Christ earns the reconciliation but does not participate in its distribution. That’s done separately by the Holy Spirit. Thus Christ’s work becomes separated from the work of the Holy Spirit. This undermines what we confess about the unity in the will of the triune God (CoD I, art. 8).

With this theology people of the evangelical movement can tell everybody that Christ has died for them: “it is a fact, He died for you; now let the Holy Spirit work in you, and in that way accept Jesus as your Saviour.” Directed by these thoughts many say: The work of the Spirit does more in my life than the work of Jesus.

There is nothing here of the confession in CoD II, 8: “God has willed that Christ through the blood of the cross should redeem all those who from eternity were chosen to salvation, by giving to them faith which He acquired for them by His death …”  Yes, Christ bestows faith. The Bible says it too: “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name (italics HWvE), He will teach you all things … which I taught you” (John 14:26).

‘In My name’ has the meaning of ‘on My behalf’, ‘at My request’. Here Jesus says that He does not stand isolated from the work that the Holy Spirit does in His church.

THE CONSEQUENCES

Because the Evangelicals expect to receive the assurance of living in God’s presence from the Spirit who works independently from Christ, they have no eye for the church as the place where Christ works by His Word and Spirit.  Again and again He assures the hearers, especially in the preaching, that in their fight against sin they may rely on God’s Word and the Spirit who works with that Word. If that communion of saints is not sought, one can also no longer speak about being incorporated both into the covenant and the congregation of the covenant by baptism. Here we notice the similarity with what the 1942 synod declared. Then they said: We baptize on the assumption that we are allowed to include the baptized child with God’s elected children. The Evangelicals baptise on the basis of the Spirit’s assurance that you are victorious with Christ! That’s why they know about a baptism for adults only, since only adults know about that assurance.

This evangelical doctrine also gets into conflict with the first question in the Form for Baptism: “First, do you confess that our children, though conceived and born in sin, and therefore subject to all sorts of misery, even to condemnation, are sanctified in Christ and thus as members of His church ought to be baptized? ” (italics HWvE).

There are also in other churches (including Christelijk Gereformeerd, Nederlands Gereformeerd and the GKv) people who find these words ‘too harsh’. One pastor wrote: Consider a response like this: ‘A God who is angry with a newborn child? How can you believe such a thing?’ 

But that’s just how the misery of our guilt in Adam is denied! It is especially the knowledge of our misery that is needed if we are to embrace the gospel. Think of Question and Answer 2 of the HC: “What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” And then follows that triad: “I must know how great my sins and misery are; how I am delivered from all my sins and misery, and thirdly how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.”

It is that truth that confronts the parents in the first baptism question. Not as a discouragement for their child that is to be baptized; but that they may hear what the Form also professes: that their child is sanctified in Christ! God says it: this child, with all the guilt it had already at birth, may live under My promise that Jesus Christ died also for him/her. And that He will also by His Holy Spirit impart to him/her what he/she has in Christ.

THE REALITY OF THE LIBERATION

We see, regrettably, that in particular the younger people are on the way towards the Evangelicals. Because, they say, it’s happier there and more lively, and it makes you feel better. Plenty of arguments from whatever man himself experiences as the work of the Spirit. Here is forgotten that the liberation struggle was really about the firm ground of God’s covenant.

If this is no longer understood, the emphasis on God’s Word falls away, as does the certainty that as a baptized child you belonged to God’s people right from your early years, and together with them are on the way to glory.  As baptised people we are called to confess: my salvation does not rest on my feelings or experience, but on Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Translated from: Rev H W van Egmond “75 jaar Vrijmaking, in De Bazuin Vol 13/16, November 2019.

[1] Actual formulations used by the synod can be read in G. Janssen “De feitelijke toedracht”, De Vuurbaak.

[2] See J. Kamphuis “With Calvin at a dead end”, in Woord and Wereld, no.10.