The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers: Sovereign Grace in the Covenant

The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers: Sovereign Grace in the Covenant, by David J. Engelsma. Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2005. 239 pages.

As the title expresses, the covenant of God and the place of the children of believers in that covenant are the central contents of this book. As the author states in the preface, the occasion for this book is “the appearance in conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches of a grievous heresy—one of the most dangerous threats to the gospel of grace since Dordt” (Preface, p. ix). This heresy is the “federal vision,” described by the author as “covenantal universalism.” The error is serious because it “denies justification by faith alone and, with this fundamental doctrine of the gospel, all the doctrines of grace—the “Five Points” of Calvinism” (p. ix).

The purpose of the book is to tear out by the root the heresy of the federal vision and along with it the false teaching of justification by faith and works. The “biblical, confessional truth concerning the covenant of God” (p. x) and the place of children in that covenant are set forth. Throughout the book both the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Standards are used not only to show how this heresy is condemned by the creeds, but how the doctrine of the covenant as it has been developed and is confessed in the Protestant Reformed Churches is in harmony with the confessions.

It is fitting that this book is written by a Protestant Reformed office bearer and especially a Protestant Reformed Professor of Theology. All Protestant Reformed office bearers, when they sign the Formula of Subscription, promise before the Lord that they “heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine, contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine, made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19, do fully agree with the Word of God.” This commits them “diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by [their] public preaching or writing.” Moreover by signing the Formula they declare that they “not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine and particularly those which were condemned by the above mentioned Synod, but that [they] are disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert [them]selves in keeping the Church free from such errors.”

Especially are Protestant Reformed Professors of Theology to do this. The Form for the Installation of Professors of Theology charges the professor to “expound to them (the seminary students) the mysteries of the faith; caution them in regard to the errors and heresies of the old, but especially of the new day.” No doubt the heresy of the “federal vision” is one of the errors of the day which must be refuted and contradicted so that our Protestant Reformed Churches are kept free from this error and others in the Reformed tradition may be warned of the consequences of maintaining the doctrine of a conditional covenant.

I found a couple of chapters of this book to be particularly interesting. The first was Chapter 4 about the Canons of Dordt, 1, Article 17. This article deals with children of believers whom God is pleased “to call out of this life in their infancy.” The author admits to disagreeing quite strongly with his seminary professor, the Rev. Herman Hoeksema, about the value and comfort found in this article. No doubt he would also not fully agree with the treatment that Prof. Homer Hoeksema gives this article as found in The Voice of Our Fathers, on pages 267-280. Whatever position one may take regarding the doctrinal value of this article, everyone must admit that the author convincingly sets forth the comfort that is to be found in this article for godly parents whose infants or even their unborn children are taken in death.

The third part of the book, dealing with “The Netherlands Reformed Objection”, I also found to be quite interesting. After first dealing with “The Baptist Objection” in Part II of the book, Prof. Engelsma refutes the Netherlands Reformed position that believers must view their children as being unregenerated and “under the sphere of the covenant” rather than “in the covenant” (p. 60).

The consequences of maintaining this view are frightening. Just how does an unregenerated child pray? (p. 61). How are little unregenerated children to obey the fifth commandment? (p. 64). How are admittedly unconverted young people to make confession of their faith before the consistory? (p. 70). How is it possible for confessing unbelievers to have full membership in the church? (p. 73). This position is confusing to say the least.

A paragraph quoted from the book illustrates the affect that the Netherlands Reformed covenant doctrine has on their Christian school education.

The covenant doctrine of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations and like-minded churches radically affects the Christian day school education of these churches and parents. This is spelled out in the 1988 statement of purpose and philosophy of education of the Plymouth Christian Elementary School, a school owned by the First Netherlands Reformed Congregation of Grand Rapids, Michigan. In this school, “the education of children should proceed on the principle that they are in an unregenerate state, until evidence of saving grace clearly appear[s]… But though the religious education of children should proceed on the ground that they are destitute of grace, it ought ever to be used as a means of grace.”

Those who believe and love the doctrine of the unconditional covenant of grace as it has been developed and is maintained in the Protestant Reformed Churches will find this book valuable and comforting. By the grace of God, it is the privilege of the PRC to maintain this doctrine in the midst of rapid departure concerning the truth of God’s sovereign grace. The high school and college age young people of the PRC ought to attempt to read this book. While it is by no means an “easy read,” with the doctrinal preaching and excellent catechism instruction that Protestant Reformed youth receive, the book will aid them in an understanding of our doctrinal heritage.

Parents, and especially newly married couples expecting a child or with young children, will find the book beneficial as well. It is very important in the instruction and discipline of children to have a proper understanding of their place in the covenant. This book helps lay the foundation for proper child rearing and the obligation of believing parents to instruct their children in the fear of the Lord.