California Colloquium – May 2014

Summary of the Doctrine of the Covenants: A URCNA Perspective

Cornelis P. Venema and W. Robert Godfrey

May 2014


We have been asked by the CERCU of the URCNA to address the question whether our federations’ (URCNA and CaRCs)  hold to different views of the doctrine of the covenant, and whether these views, though different, fit within the boundaries of acceptable teaching, as these boundaries are defined by the Three Forms of Unity. In order to fulfill this mandate, we decided to focus upon two doctrinal matters: 1) the doctrine of the pre-fall covenant relationship between God and the human race in Adam (commonly termed the “covenant of works”); and 2) the doctrine of the covenant of grace, particularly in respect to its relationship to the doctrine of election. We believe that these are the two primary topics where there may be differences between our two federations.

It should be observed that we do not intend to offer a summary in what follows that fully expresses the diversity of opinion that obtains within the URCNA. What we present is a summary of what we believe is a common understanding of these topics within the URCNA. The key questions are: Are these opinions in conformity to, or within the boundaries set by, the Three Forms of Unity? Are they opinions that the CaRCs believe are within confessional boundaries?


The Pre-fall Covenant (“covenant of works”) 

We believe that the following theses summarize a common view of the pre-fall covenant, which is held by many in the URCNA to conform to the teaching of the Three Forms of Unity:

1.Adam’s obedience to the requirements of his pre-fall fellowship with the Triune Creator was the “condition” for his continuance in and entrance into further life in blessed fellowship with God. The “life” implicitly promised (indeed, the promise of “eternal life” in immutable fellowship with God; cf. Gen. 3:22) in this fellowship would not be a “free gift” of God’s saving grace, but a covenanted reward granted in the way of (and in no other way) of Adam’s “perfect obedience.” What Adam would have received from his Triune Creator, were he to have obeyed the requirements of the pre-fall covenant, would fully accord with divine truth and justice. (See Belgic Confession, Article 14, the “commandment of life”; HC Lord’s Day 3.6, “so that [aus dass] he might live with Him in eternal blessedness”; HC Lord’s Day 16.40.) 2. Adam’s “justification” prior to the fall, though a matter of his “reputation” by God’s declaration (forensic), was not on account of the righteousness of Another, but on account of a righteousness which was his own (though his by virtue of God’s favor, enablement and provision). Prior to the fall into sin, Adam was properly reckoned to be righteous by God, but this was not an act of God’s saving grace in Christ (see Rom. 5:12-21). Even if Adam’s enjoyment of justification and eternal life would not be “merited” by “strict justice” (because it depended upon God’s covenanted promise to grant him life on condition of his obedience), it would be granted him as a reward for his obedience. In this respect, it would be a “covenanted merit” or reward based upon Adam’s obedience to the condition of the covenant. 3. The justice and truth of God satisfied through the work of Christ, the second Adam, consists in His active and passive obedience. For this reason, we speak (and the confessions consistently speak) of Christ’s “merits” or of His “meriting” for us righteousness, favor and eternal life. (See, for example, Belgic Confession, Article 20-23; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 2-7, 16.40, 23-24.) 4. The Reformed tradition (including Calvin) has always fully concurred with the “distinction” (yes, even a repugnance) between “law” and “gospel,” when it comes to the decisive matter of the believer’s free justification. (See Belgic Confession, Article 22-23; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 2,21,23-24,44; Calvin Comm. Jn. 1:17; Rom. 4:15; Gal. 3:19; 2 Cor. 3:6; Deut. 7:9; Institutes II.ix.4; II.7.16; Bavinck, GD, vol. 3, par. 349: “wettisch [and not an] Evangelisch verbond.”) 5. The Reformed objection to Rome is not that it uses the language of “merit,” but that it speaks of the believer’s “merit” rather than acknowledging the perfection, the sufficiency and the power of the merit of Christ imputed to us for justification. 6. Thus, everything that constitutes a necessary and sufficient basis for affirming a pre-fall covenant of works in distinction from a post-fall covenant of grace is set forth in the Three Forms of Unity. (See, for example, Belgic Confession, Articles 14,20,22,23,24; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 3-6,15-17,23-24; Canons of Dort Head of Doctrine II; III.2.)

The Covenant of Grace

In the following summary, we begin with points (#1-3) where there is little or no difference of expression or emphasis, so far as we can determine, between our two federations. The following points (#4-6) address areas where there may be differences of expression or emphasis.

1. After the fall into sin through the disobedience of Adam, the triune Redeemer instituted a second covenant, the covenant of grace, between Himself and believers and their seed. In the covenant of grace, believers are promised salvation and new life through the work of Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, and are called to faith and obliged unto new obedience. 2. In the historical administration of the covenant of grace, we may distinguish without separating between the “promises” of the covenant and the “demands” or obligations of the covenant. When believers and their children embrace the covenant promises in Christ in the way of faith, they enjoy the “blessings” of the covenantfellowship with the living God through Christ and by His indwelling Spirit, the forgiveness of sins and free justification, the restoration of the image of God, renewal in righteousness by the Spirit, and the promise of everlasting life. When believers and their children do not believe or embrace the covenant promises, or walk in a manner that is consistent with the covenant’s demands, they break the covenant and come under God’s judgment. 3. Believers and their children may be assured of God’s gracious promise to them, which is communicated through Word and sacrament, and be confident in the reliable Word that God speaks to them. The doctrine of election is one that honors God alone as the Savior of His people, and provides a sure basis for the believer’s confidence in God’s saving power. However, the doctrine of election must be handled with appropriate care, and never be treated in a way that undermines the believer’s confidence in God’s covenant Word or promise. 4. It is important to distinguish the covenant of grace in its historical administration and the covenant of grace in its saving efficacy (sometimes called the “dual aspect” of the covenant). In its substance and saving efficacy, the covenant of grace is the means whereby God saves his elect people in Christ. Redemption is ultimately a divine gift and gracious inheritance granted in Christ to fallen but elect sinners. The covenant of grace, so far as its saving efficacy is concerned, is not merely a “conditional offer” of salvation to those who are “under” the covenant, but it is also the instrument whereby God communicates to his elect people all that is granted them in Christ. With respect to the saving efficacy of the covenant of grace, God grants to the elect all that is theirs in Christ. The very “conditions” that God stipulates in the covenant of grace, are obtained and granted to the elect upon the basis of the perfect work of Christ on their behalf. (See Canons of Dort, II.8; II, Rejection of Errors 3-6.) 5. The covenant of grace, though it graciously realizes what was typified by the covenant of works, is properly viewed as a “second covenant,” and not simply as a re-institution of the covenant relationship. Because Christ, the Mediator of the covenant of grace, accomplishes all that is necessary for the redemption of His people, and communicates the promise effectually to them by His Spirit, we may not view the promises and demands of the covenant of grace as formally the same as the promises and demands of the covenant of works. Christ gives to His own what He requires of them in the covenant of grace. (See F. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Twelfth Topic, Q. 4, #7, 2:191-92 (*quoted below) 6. Though the Three Forms of Unity do not expressly speak of the “visible” and “invisible” church, they do distinguish between those who are “externally” in the church but not genuinely members of Christ (Belgic Confession, Art. 29). The distinction between the covenant in its historical administration and the covenant in its saving efficacy, is parallel to the distinction between all believers and their children who are members of the visible church, and the elect who are known to God (2 Tim. 2:19) and who are properly and genuinely members of Christ and partakers in His saving work. This distinction is an important one to maintain, and is supported by the apostle Paul’s distinction between those who enjoy certain covenant privileges but are not, strictly speaking, “children of the promise” in the sense of God’s purpose of election (Rom. 9:6-8).

(Note: Regarding the distinction between the “visible” and “invisible” church, we believe that Article 29 of the Belgic Confession is translated properly in the English translation in use in the URCNA. In this translation, the third paragraph reads: “With respect to those who are members of the church, they may be known by the marks of Christians: namely, by faith, and when, having received Jesus Christ the only Savior ….” In the English translation of this Article in the Book of Praise of the CaRCs, the third paragraph omits the “when” of the original French and Latin (it reads: “Those who are of the church may be recognized by the marks of Christians. They believe in Jesus Christ the only Saviour ….”). Omitting the “when” of the original may suggest a rather different view as to who genuinely belongs to and is of the church of Jesus Christ.)

*“Nor can it be objected here that faith was required also in the first covenant and works are not excluded in the second …. They stand in a far different relation. For in the first covenant, faith was required as a work and a part of the inherent righteousness to which life was promised. But in the second, it is demandednot as a work on account of which life is given, but as a mere instrument apprehending the righteousness of Christ (on account of which alone salvation is granted to us). In the one, faith was a theological virtue from the strength of nature, terminating on God, the Creator; in the other, faith is an evangelical condition after the manner of supernatural grace, terminating on God, the Redeemer. As to works, they were required in the first as an antecedent condition by way of a cause for acquiring life; but in the second, they are only the subsequent condition as the fruit and effect of the life already acquired.”


Summary of the Doctrine of the Covenants: A CanRC Perspective

Theodore G. Van Raalte and Jason P. Van Vliet

May 2014


We have been asked by the CERCU of the URCNA and the CCU of the CanRC to address the question whether our respective federations hold different views of the doctrine of the covenant, and whether these views, though possibly different, fit within the bounds of the Three Forms of Unity (TFU).

 To the best of our knowledge, we do not believe that any differences between our federations on the topics of covenant and election are of such a nature that they are beyond the bounds of the TFU and therefore doctrinally suspect. In fact, many of the differences between us as federations may well also be differences within each of our respective federations. Thus, we have not significantly disagreed with our URCNA brothers Venema and Godfrey, but have pointed out some nuances and further considerations.

 We consider it important to note that our CanRC forbears often emphasized that there was no unique “CanRC doctrine/theology/view of the covenant.” They were adamant that they were bound simply by what is found in the TFU and that the churches ought to have a measure of flexibility within those bounds.

 In addition, it appears to us that the view of the covenant presented by brs. Godfrey & Venema is substantially the same as that which is presented in the Westminster Standards.  Since 2001 the CanRCs have had ecclesiastical fellowship (sister church relationship) with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), which obviously subscribes to the Westminster Standards.  Although the doctrine of the covenant was certainly discussed by the OPC and CanRCs in the years prior to 1998, in the end those discussions did not prevent the relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship from being established. This official decision of Synod Fergus 1998, which has also been upheld and reconfirmed at every CanRC synod since then, indicates that the CanRCs are willing to work with those hold a Westminster view of covenant theology, without themselves subscribing to the Westminster standards.  By the same token, the OPC have not officially objected to any covenant views found within the CanRCs on the basis of their secondary standards.  Keeping this broader perspective in mind gives us good hope that the URCNA and CanRCs, both subscribing to the TFU, should be able to find common ground on the doctrine of the covenant.

 Finally, we note that the contribution we hereby offer has no official standing in the CanRCs. CERCU and the URCNA Synod will be well aware of the reticence of the CanRCs to adopt position papers and can no doubt appreciate that we are expressing our own views in ways that we think would be helpful for the promotion of unity between the URCNA and the CanRCs.

 The considerations below have been crafted in response to questions posed by Drs Godfrey and Venema in an email dated Feb 19, 2014, as well as the summary they have put forward (see “Summary of the Doctrine of the Covenants: A URCNA Perspective”).  Thus, our considerations should be understood in that context and not regarded as a comprehensive treatment of the covenant, either pre-fall or post-fall.

 Their initial questions were:

(1)  What is the understanding of our respective federations regarding the nature of the pre-fall relationship (or covenant) between God, the Triune Creator, and mankind as represented by Adam? We have attached a short summary of what we believe is a common understanding of this pre-fall relationship within the URCNA (see attachment), and would invite you to comment on it from the perspective of the CanRC’s.

 (2)  What is the understanding of our respective federations regarding the nature of the post-fall covenant of grace? We are especially interested in the question of the relation between the formulation of the doctrine of the covenant, with its “promises” and “demands” (conditions? In what sense?), and the doctrine of election. In the URCNA, it is common to speak of the “dual aspect” of the covenant (G. Vos), and to recognize that the conditions of the covenant are ultimately fulfilled in accordance with God’s “purpose of electon” (Rom. 9:1ff.).

 (3)  How do the CaRCs regard the decisions of recent URCNA synods re the doctrine of justification, the federal vision controversy, and the relation between covenant and election? The question is not so much whether the URCNA has (arguably) adopted some form of “extra-confessional binding.” Rather, the question focuses upon whether it is permissible, even necessary, to distinguish between the covenant in its historical administration and the covenant in its substance and efficacy in the salvation of the elect (what is often called the “dual-aspect” of the covenant, or what is expressed by the distinction between the “visible” and “invisible” church).

 (4)  In the URCNA, it is commonly believed that Article 29 of the Belgic Confession warrants a distinction between those who truly belong to Christ and his church and those who are “externally” members of the (visible) church. This Article is thought to warrant a distinction like that between the “visible” and “invisible” church, or the distinction between those who are “in” but not “of” the covenant people of God. What is the understanding of the CanRC’s re this distinction? (Note: We are curious that the English translation of the Article in the Book of Praise, third paragraph, reads: “Those who are of the church may be recognized by the marks of Christians. They believe in Jesus Christ the only Saviour ….” In our translation, it reads: “With respect to those who are members of the church, they may be known by the marks of Christians; namely, by faith, and when, having received Jesus Christ the only Savior ….” Your translation seems to ignore the “when” of the original French and Latin, and may suggest a rather different view as to who genuinely belongs to and is of the church of Jesus Christ.)

Key Considerations concerning the Covenant before the Fall

 Concerning Question 1 and Theses on the Pre-fall Covenant [Venema & Godfrey]

  1. We agree that God’s covenanted reward of “immutable fellowship” would be given in Paradise by way of Adam’s perfect obedience. We agree that Adam was created with the freedom of choice to serve God or not, a freedom he had to exercise rightly, so that he would show in act and fact that he truly loved his God by submitting to his authority and fulfilling the God-given mandates. However, we point out several nuances:
    1. When God said that his creation was “very good” (Ge 1:31) and when he walked in the cool of the day with Adam and Eve in the Garden pre-lapsum (inferred from Ge 3:8) they enjoyed a sinless and uninhibited fellowship with God. Therefore their entrance into “further life” should not be understood to be more than the entrance into a state of non posse peccare, or of “immutable fellowship with God” and whatever that entailed. In other words, Adam and Eve already enjoyed the gift of life with God and we should not speak of them as though they lacked any gift or capacity from God, lest we impinge upon created goodness.
    2. When God threatened the sentence of death in the very day that Adam took of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Ge 2:17), he thereby taught Adam that he had within him the possibility of sinning against God and his neighbour, depending upon the choice of his will. This text, more than Genesis 3:22, ought to be the ground for speaking of Adam’s state of posse peccare. The history of redemption and history of revelation teach us of God’s purpose to bring man to the state of non posse peccare (e.g., Re 21-22).
    3. When Adam obeyed God he did so out of a heart of trust in God. His calling was to have that faith in God which took God at his Word, that hope which looked in faith to the time of “immutable fellowship,” and that love which flowed out of such faith. In other words, while the leading measure of Adam’s faithfulness was his “personal, perpetual, and perfect obedience” (WCF 7.2, WLC 20), this loving obedience could only have been present together with faith and hope, and particularly as the fruit of such faith/trust.  The Westminster Confession thus uses not only “covenant of works” but also “covenant of life” and indeed theologians of the period also spoke of a “covenant of friendship,” “legal covenant,” “first covenant,” and “covenant of nature.”
    4. We caution against stringing together phrases from the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession without due attention to their context, as is done in thesis 1. To wit, the result clause in HC, LD 3.8 “so that he might . . . live with him in eternal blessedness” is not in the context of Adam doing good works but in the context of having been created good – “God created man good and in his image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that . . .” The fuller quotation emphasizes that Adam was created in true righteousness, not that he had to earn it.
    5. In sum, the life implicitly promised would be a covenanted reward granted in the way of Adam’s perfect obedience. As a covenanted reward, it would still be a gift out of God’s favour to the creature. Adam’s prefall obedience should be understood to be the leading measure of his trust in God.
  2. We affirm that Adam’s righteousness or “justification” prior to the fall was a righteousness of his own, though our typical use of the word “justification” applies it to our post-fall forensic justification in Christ. The reward granted to Adam prior to the fall would indeed have been a reward for his obedience within the terms of his relationship with God, that is, a meritum ex pacto that consists in claiming the promises that God is already holding out. In our view, Adam could not have merited his reward by strict justice outside of any covenant terms because that would require the creature to produce something entirely of his own (ex nihilo, as it were). But everything, including the terms of Adam’s pre-fall relationship with God, is a gift of God (1Co 4:7).

Turretin writes, “From these [foregoing considerations] we readily gather that there now can be no merit in man with God by works whatsoever, either of congruity or of condignity . . . Hence it also appears that there is no merit properly so called of man before God, in whatever state he is placed. Thus Adam himself, if he had persevered, would not have merited life in strict justice, although (through a certain condescension [synchatabasin]) God promised him by a covenant life under the condition of perfect obedience . . .” (Turretin, Institutes, 2.712; also quoted in URCNA Report of the Synodical Study Committee on the Federal Vision and Justification, footnote 52).

  1. We agree wholeheartedly with Godfrey & Venema’s thesis. Our confessions clearly teach that Christ alone fully merited our salvation and that God imputes to his elect both the active and passive obedience of Christ.
  2. Although the debate generated by Piscator about the imputation of the active obedience of Christ was subsequent to the composition of the BC and HC we affirm that these should be understood to affirm the doctrine, on the grounds that the textus receptus of the BC, as improved by the Synod of Dort 1618-1619, clearly affirms the doctrine in Article 22, “he imputes to us all his merits  and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.” We note also the closing of HC 23.60, “He grants these to me . . . as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me.” Our Form for Lord’s Supper celebration also includes, “By his perfect obedience he has for us fulfilled all the righteousness of God’s law.”
  3. At the same time we caution against pressing the term “passive obedience” too far, for it does not mean that Christ was not active in pursuing the cross for our sakes, but that he suffered for us as the Paschal Lamb. In this case the word “passive” should be understood according to its shared root with the word “passion,” as in the “passion [=suffering] and death” of Christ.
  4. We agree that in the decisive matter of the believer’s justification, law and gospel are antithetical concepts. Indeed, to affirm this is fundamental to our salvation, as the various confessional references in this thesis affirm (see further our comments on the role of faith in justification below under Covenant of Grace, Consideration 7). Yet we also affirm that in the language of Scripture the gospel is to be “obeyed” and even includes threats (Jo 3:36, Re 3:14-22, 2Th 1:8, Latin & French of CD 5.14). Scripture thus also speaks of the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2; 1Co 9:21). Scripture teaches us, too, that the law or Torah is a wonderful instruction of the LORD that is full of promises (Ps 119, Eph 6:2-3). Thus, we caution against an arbitrary dichotomization of Scripture texts containing commands into “law” and those containing promises into “gospel.”
  5. We wholeheartedly agree that we may use the language of merit for Christ’s work. We humbly and earnestly confess that Christ has merited our entire salvation. He is our only Saviour, given by grace alone and to be received by faith alone.
  6. Venema and Godfrey have affirmed that “everything that constitutes a necessary and sufficient basis for affirming a pre-fall covenant of works in distinction from a post-fall covenant of grace is set forth in the Three Forms of Unity.” This would seem to imply that all confessors of the TFU must affirm the distinction and perhaps also the terms “covenant of works” and “covenant of grace.”

On the one hand, we agree in affirming the distinction and disjunction between the pre-fall and post-fall situations. Indeed, we affirm a radical discontinuity that must be strongly emphasized so as to avoid Pelagian errors. Without doubt the fellowship in Paradise could not be restored by man himself; it was done and gone unless it was restored through Another, a Mediator, and by faith in him. Adam and Eve died spiritually “on that day,” and were thrust permanently from the fellowship in body and soul that they enjoyed with God in the Garden. That fellowship will not be restored fully until our Lord Jesus Christ returns in glory to bring in the new creation.

On the other hand, we do not hold each other to the term “covenant of works,” since the TFU do not require the term. We note that the Westminster Standards also use “covenant of life” (WLC, 20) and speak of the covenants of works and grace as “commonly called” (WLC, 30), implying that other terms are possible. Indeed Reformed theologians have affirmed the radical discontinuity between the pre- and post-fall situations by using other terms for the first covenant such as the covenant of nature or creation (Ursinus), covenant of friendship (Burgess, Ball), legal covenant (Sedgwick), covenant of favour (de Graaf), Adamic administration (Murray), and covenant of love (Stam), among others; as well as terms for the second covenant such as the covenant of reconciliation (Burgess, Ball), covenant of grace (the commonest term), covenant of the gospel (Davenant), or evangelical covenant (Sedgwick). Such terminology can be discussed within the bounds of the TFU, and we should grant each other room for this.

In conclusion, we are in unity with our URC brothers in affirming the uniqueness of Adam’s relationship to God pre-fall compared to his and humanity’s situation post-fall. In other words, Adam’s situation while in a state of righteousness yet able to sin (posse peccare) was radically different from our situations in the states of unrighteousness wherein we can only sin (non posse non peccare) and of justification by grace through faith wherein we are enabled not to sin (posse non peccare).


Key Considerations concerning the Covenant after the Fall, or the Covenant of Grace

 Concerning Questions 2 & 3 and Theses on the Covenant of Grace [Venema & Godfrey]


  1. Concerning the relationship between the covenant of grace and election, it is clear that the two are not identical even though they are connected to each other in significant ways.  To mention but one obvious difference, election is a decree that God made before the creation of the world (Eph 1:4), while the covenant of grace is a relationship initiated by God after the fall and in history (Gen 15:18).  Furthermore, not every child of the covenant is elect (Rom 9:6-13). In this sense, there is a certain duality in the covenant: there were both elect and reprobate among the circumcised in the OT, just as there are both elect and reprobate among the baptized in the NT.  Another way of expressing this is that the circle of the covenant is larger than the circle of the elect.
  2. The more challenging question is: what is the best way to describe the aforementioned duality in a scripturally responsible and pedagogically effective way? Over time various terms have been proposed: external and internal, administration and essence (substance), or conditional and absolute. Although these terms attempt to express the truth of the previous point (#1 above), they do have limitations. For example, the following can be mentioned:
    1. although not decisive in and of itself, it is noteworthy that these terms do not appear in Scripture or our confessions;
    2. although the proponents of these terms often wish to prevent it, it does happen that the dual aspect of one covenant becomes, for all intents and purposes, two distinct covenants in the minds of God’s people—an external covenant and an internal covenant—while our confessions speaks of one covenant of grace (BC 34; LD 27; CoD 1:17) with two dispensations, old and new (LD 27);
    3. these terms can leave parents in the pew, who are holding their just-baptized baby, in a state of uncertainty, wondering whether their child is really in the covenant or not;
    4. these terms do not always do full justice to the scriptural reality of covenant breakers and profaners (Lev 26:15; Deut 31:16,20; Mal 2:10; Heb 10:29): if someone is only externally or conditionally in the covenant can he truly break it?
  3. Considering the aforementioned limitations, it is helpful to take another look at the terminology that is found in Scripture, namely, that of the blessings (Deut 28; Gal 3:7-14) and the curses (Deut 29:1, 9-14; Gal 3:15-18) of the covenant. These passages shift our attention from aspects of the covenant to outcomes of life within the covenant.  Clearly, there are two different outcomes for covenant people, those who believe “are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal 3:9) and those who do not embrace Christ by faith are under the curse (Gal 3:13-14).  In this way, there is a clear confession of one covenant, while the two outcomes express the duality which was already mentioned in point #1 above.
  4. At the same time, there is more than a difference in outcomes (#3 above), there is also a difference in the way that individual believers live within the covenant. Someone can merely “go through the motions” and live within the covenant in a merely external and superficial manner. This is ungodly hypocrisy. Conversely, someone can live within the covenant genuinely, that is to say, from the heart in true dedication to, and with fellowship with, the Lord.  This is the way it should be.  Yet both kinds of people can be found within the covenant, as the apostle Paul indicates in Rom 2:28-29.  Here an analogy may help. The Lord compares his covenant with his people to a marriage covenant (Jer 31:32, Eph 5:22-33, etc). Just as a couple can be truly and legally married yet not live together in true harmony and love, so too people may be truly and legally part of the covenant, but not live in genuine faith and love toward the LORD.[1]
  5. In addition much can be gained by emphasizing the two parts of the covenant: promise and obligation (Gen 17:4, 9; Form for Baptism).  If the preacher emphasizes both parts, in the right order and in a balanced way, his congregation will not walk away with the impression that one is automatically saved simply because he is baptized.  Furthermore, the obligation is, in the first place, a call to trust the LORD and believe in the covenant promises he has given, and then, flowing out of that to also live a life of holiness (LD 23-24, 32-33).
  6. The doctrine of election should not overshadow the doctrine of the covenant in such a way that doubt, rather than assurance, is cultivated in the hearts of God’s people.  Believing parents who bring their covenant child forward to be baptized should be certain that their child belongs truly—not merely possibly or potentially—to the covenant of grace. Along the same lines, the maturing Christian should be fully convinced of the reality of God’s promises for him, as well as the reality of his obligations toward God, rather than constantly questioning whether he is elect or not, or whether he is actually in the covenant or not.  In this respect, the concluding paragraphs of the Canons of Dort regarding “the consolation of afflicted souls” are very much to the point.  We read the Canons of Dort precisely to underline the divine origin, full efficacy, and transforming and preserving power of God’s sovereign grace, leading us to assurance rather than doubt.
  7. With respect to the role of faith, we need to distinguish carefully between justification and sanctification. With respect to justification, faith relies entirely upon, and accepts, the free gift of Christ’s perfect righteousness, satisfaction and holiness.  This is what we confess when we say that we are saved only by faith and without any merit of our own (LD 23, 32).  With respect to sanctification, faith produces the fruits of good works, as described in the letter of James and summarized in BC 24 (“We believe that this true faith… regenerates him and makes him a new man.”)

Considerations concerning Question 4 and Theses on the Covenant of Grace [Venema & Godfrey]

  1. BC 29 clearly speaks of hypocrites who are in the church but not of the church.  The CanRCs not only confess this truth with the mouth but also believe it with the heart (to borrow some language from BC 1).  Thus, the issue is not with confessing the truth that there are hypocrites in the church, or in the covenant (see #4 above), but rather how this sad reality is best described in theological terms.  Here the CanRCs tend not to use the terms invisible and visible church.  To begin with, such terminology is found neither in Scripture nor in our confessions. In addition, past experiences, particularly in the Netherlands in the time surrounding the Liberation of 1944, have taught us that speaking of an invisible church can lead to a certain pluriform view of the church which, practically speaking, often compromises the truth we confess in BC 28, namely, everyone’s duty to join the church, being active members within it and respecting the authority of local office bearers.  In short, the CanRCs have no difficulty with using the in the church but not of the church distinction, but we generally avoid the terms invisible and visible church for the reasons stated above.
  2. Concerning the translation of BC 29, we do not think there is any significant issue here.  The sentence in question reads: “With respect to those who are members of the Church, they may be known by the marks of Christians; namely, by faith, and when, having received Jesus Christ the only Saviour, they avoid sin, etc” (URCNA Psalter-Hymnal) or “Those who are of the church may be recognized by the marks of Christians. They believe in Jesus Christ the only Saviour, flee from sin, etc” (CanRC Book of Praise). The question revolves around the presence of the word “when” (Fr. quand). First of all there is a textual issue that adds a certain wrinkle in the translation history of this sentence. The original text of 1561 did not have quand ayans recue un seul Sauveur Iesus Christ, but rather ce qu’ils reçoyvent un seul Sauveur Iesus Christ.  Now, the textus receptus (Synod of Dort 1618-19) certainly does have quand, but the different word choice between the original and the textus receptus already indicates something about the semantic force of the word quand in that sentence.  In that case the word is not suggesting that church members must at a certain point in time receive the Lord Jesus Christ in some kind of special conversion experience. Rather, it is logically connecting the various marks, or indications, that ought to be noticeable in the life of a sincere Christian, specifying that the works of sanctification are not simply parallel with the gift of faith, but flow from it. We fully agree with this, as is clear from many other places in the confessions.  Whether the word quand is there (as in the textus receptus & URCNA Psalter Hymnal) or not there (as in 1561 edition & CanRC translation), the meaning of the sentence remains the same. As a matter of interest, an earlier translation of the BC used in CanRC had the word “when” in it (see Book of Praise 1972). The word “when” was removed in a linguistic and stylistic revision in the early 1980s.  We have consulted some internal archive documents of that revision process, and we have the distinct impression that the change was made simply for linguistic reasons (i.e., ease of English expression) and not theological reasons.

[1] In its main lines, this is also what L. Berkhof, citing G. Vos, is saying on pp 286-87 of his Systematic Theology.  It also coheres well with K. Schilder’s emphasis on the legal reality of the covenant, even if the communion within the covenant has not yet flourished due to immaturity (in the case of infants) or is being rejected in unbelief (in the case of hypocrites). See Schilder’s Main Points of the Doctrine of the Covenant, esp pp 3, 11-12.


Moderator, Rev. Bouwers:

I invite our brothers to come and join me here. A hearty welcome to the brothers Dr. Cornel Venema and Dr. Robert Godfrey of the United Reformed Churches, as they come to join me here.  We will see which side they sit on, on the right or on the left?  And the brothers Dr. Jason Van Vliet and Dr. Ted Van Raalte of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton as they join me as well.

I trust you brothers from Hamilton have been made to feel at home with the singing of Psalm 47 as we have it now from out of your Book of Praise, a wonderful Genevan.  I hope you were encouraged by that.

So, we will not take more of the brothers’ time. We’ve been allotted by Synod a generous amount of time for this discussion.  We are going to give the brothers an hour amongst themselves. Following which we are going to have opportunity to interact with them and raise questions or concerns that we might have.

Not much more needs to be said by way of introduction, I trust, in terms of your having received and read the material as synodical delegates.  The brothers are first going to give a brief summary of the material.  Then they are going to begin the dialogue with one another in this Colloquy, or Colloquium.

We pray for the Lord’s rich blessing on all of the preparations that have been made.  We are very grateful for you men, for your willingness to serve the churches in this way.  We are grateful the labors you have put into this and for your willingness to travel all the way here to be with us. We pray and trust that it will be of blessing for us in seeking to understand one another better, and bringing us to clarity, Lord willing, in terms of the matters that are before us.

The particular question that we have before us is the matter of where we find ourselves within the Confessions. And if there are concerns that we have over against one another with regard to our respective “Covenant views,” the question needs to be asked:  Does this, or does this not fit within our Confessional commitments together? That needs to be our governing focus in all that we do here tonight.

One of the things that we have experienced as the CERCU[1] committee in various settings throughout various opportunities, is the blessing that the Apostle John speaks about, both in the ending of 2nd John and of 3rd John:  I would have written you, but I wanted to see you face to face. So here, we have received the writings in preparation for the Colloquium, and now we have opportunity in this large setting to see one another face to face.  To sit across from one another, to speak with one another and to dialogue with one another in everybody’s hearing. And we trust that will be of mutual benefit. That the Lord will bring us to greater clarity in all of these matters that are before us.

So, once again, a hearty thank-you for your willingness to join us, and the Lord’s richest blessing in what we do together!

In terms of the format for the evening, the first hour will be devoted to the brothers speaking among themselves. The first fifteen minutes, seven and half minutes per federational representation will be for introducing the matter.  This will be followed by about thirty to thirty five minutes for dialoging amongst yourselves. And then five minutes each for some closing statements. At that point we will open the floor for questions, for concerns and for clarification.  Those questions will be limited to the delegates of synod as this is a synodical Colloquy.

We are going to ask the brothers from the United Reformed Churches’ side to begin.

Dr. Cornel Venema:

Thank you Rev. Bouwers.  Let me begin by expressing my gratitude for the opportunity to participate in this Colloquium.  I know the time of Synod is precious, so giving up a couple of hours on this evening is quite a gift, and I hope we use the time wisely in a way that is helpful to the Synod and to our federations as we discuss the question of unity and what needs to be done in order to achieve that unity.

Now, Dr. Godfrey has for some reason allowed me to take up all of our seven and a half minutes.  It may be his desire to reserve the right not to be responsible for whatever I have to say.  So, I am not assuming this seven and a half minute time-slot; it was granted to me by Dr. Godfrey and that’s why only one of us is speaking at the outset here, whereas two of the brothers from the Canadian Reformed Churches will be making their opening statement.

Now, to the statement.  I’d like to underscore my understanding of what this Colloquy aims to achieve.  And that is that we keep the focus on the question:  Are there between our federations, in terms of our understanding of the doctrine of the covenants, or the covenant, differences of formulation, or emphasis, teaching, that would prevent unity, because they in some sense are judged to be in conflict, or outside of the boundaries of what we confess is taught in the Word of God in the Three Forms of Unity.  It is very important that we keep that focus clearly before us. What we are asking is, as we discuss together our understanding of the covenant:  is that understanding, with whatever particular emphasis or formulation that may be prevalent or present in one or another of our federations, a formulation that we recognize to be within the boundaries of what we believe the Scriptures to teach as confessed in the Confessions.

And I think it is important for us to remember (just a comment in that connection), that in the history of the Reformed Churches (at least in the Continental Reformed church tradition) probably no topic has been more often the occasion of disagreement, of even separation and schism in the churches, than the topic that is before us.  It is a very sensitive topic.  It needs to be handled carefully.  We need to avoid the temptation to represent the other’s position in the worst possible light, or to find reason to be in disagreement where no such reason really exists.

And at the same time we have to seek clarity and be frank and direct with each other, to make sure that we are secure in the conviction that there are no differences of a Confessional nature between us.

And I say all of this simply to underscore the difficulty of the task.  We haven’t done well in the history of the Reformed Churches at addressing this question without separating and going our distinct ways.

Now, I assume that all of the delegates received from CERCU the materials, the summary of the exchange that took place between Dr. Van Raalte and Dr. Van Vliet with Dr. Godfrey and myself. So I am not going to attempt to review with you all of that material.  I assume that you have it.  I just want to say a few things about why we presented the summary in the form in which we did.

Now again I make a disclaimer, and it is this: we do not presume, as we indicated in our introduction, to suggest that what we are summarizing is the view held by all office-bearers in the United Reformed Churches, or that there isn’t a very significant range of opinion.  There might be members of the United Reformed Churches who think that the brothers from the Canadian Reformed Churches express better their view than we have expressed it.  But we are trying to, as best as we can, call attention to our understanding of what we judge to be a very common view of the Covenant in the United Reformed Churches. And doing so in a way that is perhaps a bit provocative.  That is, calling attention, even deliberately, to where there may be differences of emphasis or accents, so that we have an honest exchange between us.

Now you might ask, why did we start with the doctrine of the Covenant of Works – the pre-fall covenant relationship that God-Triune establishes as Creator of the human race in Adam, when in the Three Forms of Unity the language of “Covenant of Works” is not explicitly employed?   Well, we did that for two reasons. One, we recognize that it’s not language that is always favored in the Canadian Reformed Church tradition. But also because we do believe that the rudiments, or the main elements of the doctrine of what historically has been called a Covenant of Works are present, not only in the Scriptures, but echoed also in our Confessions, the Three Forms of Unity.  And this is a doctrine commonly affirmed among us as in keeping with Scriptures and our Confessions.

It’s a significantly important doctrine because it relates to a doctrine often in discussion, the doctrine of Justification. Was the work of Christ, as Mediator of the Covenant of Grace, the work in which all of the obligations under the law of God, that were first set forth in the Covenant of Works, have been met on our behalf by Christ through His active obedience, or perfect obedience to that law, as well as by His substitutionary endurance of the sanction (that is “on the day that you eat thereof”[2] that is, the day that Adam representing us would offend against God’s holy law, he would come under the curse and come under judgment. The curse and judgment in which all of us who are conceived and born in sin, are born).

So we attempted to set forth there as best we could what we would regard as a consensus understanding of the doctrine of that covenant.  God entered into a relation with the human race, a covenantal relationship in Adam. A relationship in which Adam was required and obliged to obey God’s holy law, to meet the standard of what’s often called the probationary command.  And that Adam’s failure to do so plunged the whole race into sin, and is the occasion, at least in terms of history, for the provision of another Covenant, the Covenant of Grace, whose Mediator is the greater-than-Adam, the last Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ who has done for us under the law, both in terms of its obligations and its sanctions everything needed in order to restore us, if we participate in His righteousness by faith, to favor and right-standing with God.

I won’t say anything more about our summary of the doctrine of the Covenant of Works.

In terms of the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace…


There is just less than one minute.

Dr. Venema:

Less than one minute on the Covenant of Grace!

Let me say this.  The summary that we provide there, if you’ve read our report, I trust you have, begins with several points where I think there really is no historically significant dispute or debate or difference of formulation between our respective federations.

I think where we in the latter part of that section want to call to your attention what has often been a point in dispute between our respective traditions is the extent to which we should relate the doctrine of the Covenant to the Biblical doctrine that we confess in the Canons of Dort, the doctrine of Election.  And we argue there that it is important, in terms of the doctrine of the Covenant, to remember that the obligations of the Covenant of Grace (which is a Covenant consisting of promises of salvation and life through Jesus Christ and faith in Him that obliges those to whom that promise is addressed, believers and their children, to respond in the way of faith and repentance, it’s outcome if one does believe is saving blessing and life and communion with God, or further condemnation and judgment if one does not believe.  In those respects there seems to us to be very little reason for disagreement or difference of emphasis between us), what we emphasize there (and I am summarizing, Rev. Bouwers), is that if you read the language of the Canons of Dort, particularly Head of Doctrine II, the Rejection of Errors, you will find that the authors of the Canons are concerned to emphasize that God does more in the Covenant of Grace than simply make promises with appropriate accompanying demands.  Ultimately, He by the work of the Mediator of the Covenant of Grace both procures the blessings of redemption and applies them unfailingly to all those whom He has purposed to elect unto salvation in Christ Jesus.

And therefore, some distinction is needed in our understanding of the Covenant of Grace between the Covenant in its broader administration to believers and their seed, and the Covenant in terms of its saving efficacy in the instance of those to whom God gives, according to His purpose of election, what He requires of them, in that Covenant relationship.


Thank you.  And on that happy note.  That’s an encouragement!

Dr. Robert W. Godfrey:

[Humorously interjects] I will concede the rest of our time.


Thank you.  And with no corrections!

Dr. Van Raalte will now speak first.

Dr. Ted Van Raalte:

Thank you very much.  Thank you for the invitation.  It is a trust entrusted to us to represent the Canadian Reformed Churches to all of you.  It is a joy to do so, and a daunting task.  But you should also understand that in the end we are representing our own views. We are certainly within the pale of the Canadian Reformed Churches, but we can’t speak for everyone and say everyone holds to the same thing. There is a variety among us, also.

I thought for my opening statement, that I would explain some of the Latin that was in the Covenant of Works part of our submission.  I was largely responsible for that part.  We talk about the four-fold state of man.  Man being created posse peccare, which just means “able to sin.”  And then once sinning, man is “not able not to sin,” [non posse non peccare] but in redemption we are “en-abled not to sin,” [posse non peccare] and in consummation, when Christ returns, we are “no longer able to sin” [non posse peccare].  That’s a nice little survey of all of redemptive history.

And, the first state of man, “able to sin,” we relate to Genesis 2:17:  but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for when you eat of it you will surely die.  Now, sometimes my Catechism students wondered about that. How could Adam and Eve even know what death was; there was no death before the fall.  But Adam and Eve had to understand the language God used, so intellectually they knew that death was possible though they had not yet experienced death themselves.  And when God says, on the day you eat of it you shall surely die, He teaches them that they have a possible instability.  And that’s the flip-side of the freedom-of-choice which He had awarded to them so that their love for Him will be genuine, heart-felt and of the creature. And we exercised that liberty against the Lord, and found out what the result was:  freedom-of-choice was against God.  So it’s not a potential instability, it’s not a potency that just has to come to act, but it is a possible instability based on the freedom-of-choice.  What that entails, or what that teaches Adam and Eve is:  find your stability in the Lord, find your strength in the Lord. Make Him your foundation, even in this pre-fall situation.

But then, having fallen into sin, we come to the state of “not able not to sin.”  Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God, Romans 8:8.  The sinful mind is hostile to God, Romans 8:7.  But then, the state of redemption, which describes us in this era: You, however are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.  Here is our state of “able not to sin.”  And then our final state of “not able to sin” we can infer from at least two places in Scripture.  The one being First Corinthians 15, that the resurrection body will be imperishable, it will be immortal, in order that we may inherit eternal life. And then, Revelation chapter 21, there is no longer any death, there is no longer any curse, sin is taken away, and in the new Creation we can dwell with God, forever.

How am I doing for time?  Done?  OK, thank you!

Dr. Jason Van Vliet:

I would also like to begin by saying thank you for the invitation here.  And I would like to ensure our Moderator for this evening, that we have felt very welcome, and that did not begin when we sang the first Genevan, but long, long before that.  So, thank you very much.

Genesis 15:17.  I would like to read a couple of verses with you:  When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces (pieces of the animals that Abram had put there at the Lord’s command).  On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.

On that day the Lord made, literally cut, a covenant with Abraham.  On this day, or this evening, we are not going to cut covenant, but in a manner of speaking we may be dissecting the doctrine of the covenant. I think it’s helpful from the start, brothers, and sisters here as well, that we keep the connection between that day in which the Lord cut a covenant with our forefather Abram, and this day when we are discussing various details of the doctrine of the covenant. I don’t know what’s all going to come up – there may be questions about conditions in the covenant, merit in the pre-fall covenant, the matter that has already been brought up, the connection between covenant and election – all of these things.  But when we are finished speaking this evening, I would hope that also through the discussions, we have a deep sense of awe!  Because that’s what Abram had on that day. I didn’t read all those verses for the sake of the time, but it’s clear from verse 12 that Abram was in a very deep, and even, as Scripture says a dreadful darkness, there was a deep sense of awe.  The LORD Almighty has cut covenant! With him!  A small, mortal human being.  And the LORD Almighty has cut covenant with him and given him these great promises.  He, at that point, wasn’t looking for covenant.  He was looking for a son.  He wanted a baby boy to hold in his arms.  The LORD cut covenant with him.

And that covenant—a couple of chapters later will reveal this in more detail—is the everlasting covenant, which only increases the awe.  The LORD Almighty has cut everlasting covenant with us? And not only with us, but as it says in chapter 17, with our descendants after us?  What wonder of grace!  What manner of kindness, undeserved glory, is this?  And I hope that in all the details, we don’t lose sight, brothers and sisters, of just what an awe-inspiring doctrine this ought to be.

Do I have a little more time?


30 seconds.

Dr. Van Vliet:

Ah, that’s great because all I have to do in 30 seconds is introduce covenant and election, and that’s no problem. What I would like to say on that topic, as I am sure we are going to get into this evening, is that, obviously from the history that Dr. Venema has described, it’s a very challenging thing. And I don’t think that on this evening in two hours we are going to nail down the definitive approach. That would be rather presumptuous on our part.  Nevertheless, it seems to me, and maybe this will get us going in our discussion, that the challenge is on the one hand, to not let those two doctrines drift too far apart, but on the other hand, to not overlap them to the point that they become equated as one and the same thing.  The challenge is to chart between those two.


OK, thank you very much!  All of you, Dr. Godfrey included, for all of your contributions. So, at this point we are opening it up for mutual interaction and whoever would like to go first, may.

Dr. Godfrey:

Well, since I’ve been so well-behaved to this point, let me first of all say that I’ve always had a very high opinion of Rev. John Bouwers, until he invited me to be a part of this enterprise. And it seemed to me from the outset that I was not a good choice because developments in the Netherlands from the 1940s on is not my area of expertise.  And so I need publically to say that almost all of the work on our side has been done by Cornel Venema and I am very grateful to Cornel for his wisdom and involvement from the United Reformed side.  The only substantial contribution I made to our statement was the marvelous quotation from Turretin, which is worth the price of all that paper.

I want to say at the outset that I don’t know exactly what we are supposed to do now (there may be a question coming at some point). As I tried to get involved in this process I’ve found it a very helpful learning experience. I sat back and I said, since I don’t know in detail much about the controversy in the Netherlands and the extent to which the separation of 1944 was carried over into Canada by the Canadian Reformed, what I do know is what I’ve heard over the years as a measure of criticism of what we might call Schilderite theology.  I don’t know if you appreciate that label or not, but … Alright, Vrijgemaakt (Liberated) theology.  And, what I have heard as criticism was, as I thought about it, reducible to three points, relative to covenant.

The first was that Liberated theology was too objective and therefore did not have adequate place for the subjective doctrine of regeneration in Reformed theology.

Secondly, that it was too communal and therefore did not have an adequate place for the individual response of faith, which perhaps we could relate to the doctrine of justification.

And, thirdly, that its theology was too exclusive, claiming, some contended, that only they were the true church.

So, I went into the discussions we have had with the brothers here with those questions in the back of my mind: What do they really make of covenant and regeneration, covenant and justification, and covenant and true church. And what I discovered was something a historian should never have to discover is that we have very different histories.   And, as a result of those different histories, we do tend to talk a slightly different language. As I’ve enjoyed our conversations, what dawned on me, really only yesterday, is that the Dutch Reformed experience in the United States has been heavily shaped and colored and directed by the far larger dominance of Reformed theology in the United States, represented by Presbyterianism.  Relative to the size of the Presbyterian churches in America in the 19th and 20th century, the Dutch Reformed churches have been much smaller. Many Dutch Reformed leaders have been educated in Presbyterian institutions, and, as a result, our thinking in Dutch Reformed churches in the United States has been significantly colored by the Westminster Standards, since that’s what colored Presbyterian thinking.

Now I think that that’s not as terrible as some people might think, because I think that in the 17th and 18th century, most Reformed Christians, whether Scottish, or Dutch, or Swiss, or Hungarian, were all influenced by the developing Reformed theology that is basically summarized in the Westminster Standards.  But I think in the 19th and 20th century, several things happened that led Dutch Reformed churches, and to some extent Presbyterian churches, away from that theological world of the 17th century.  And, particularly in the 19th and early 20th century, a lot of reaction and criticism to scholasticism as a very bad thing, led, to much vaguer theological formulations, or at least a less common theological vocabulary. So, at least for me, it was a learning experience to realize that the Canadian Reformed brethren have been far less Presbyterian-ized, far less Westminster-ized, for better or for worse, and remind us, who sort of take for granted certain kinds of covenant language that is really a 17th century development, that that covenantal language is not actually to be found in the Three Forms of Unity.

Now I think the work that Cornel did does show that in point of fact that substantial elements of the Covenant of Works are to be found in the Three Forms of Unity, but that term is not to be found there.  And so I think we need to recognize that we are coming from a somewhat different cultural-historical-theological world, not worlds in conflict, so much, as worlds that have developed different language because of different circumstances.  And while in the nature of the case, because of the separation of 1944, our Canadian Reformed brothers have remained very focused on this issue of covenant and what it reveals about the doctrine of baptism, I think that at least for a number of us, at least in the United Reformed Church in the U.S., our concerns about covenant have been more focused in our reaction to Barthianism and its conflation of the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, and also in the battle to maintain the Protestant doctrine of justification, which has come under attack in Lutheran circles, in Evangelical circles, and in some Reformed circles in our time. And it’s been the passion of some of us to maintain Reformed orthodoxy on those points.

As I have gone through this experience, and this conversation, I have come out feeling very gratified to discover that although we may use slightly different language, I am convinced that at least these two brothers are exactly committed to the doctrine of Justification as we are, and that they are committed to the doctrines of regeneration, and similar ecclesiologies to us as well.

I fear that that may disappoint some of you. Perhaps some of you came tonight hoping that we would have “fun” as they did at the great Synod of Dort when Franciscus Gomarus challenged Martinius to a duel on the floor of synod.  Being a coward myself, I am willing to let Cornel do that, but presumably it is not necessary.

The question-to which I finally come- was actually about the last page of the Canadian Reformed response, where they expressed concern about a certain view of the pluriformity of the church. And that was really the only formulation that concerned me, primarily because I am not sure what they mean by that. And it does perhaps relate to this question of true church and what we mean by true church and who is able to qualify to be labeled a true church.  So, if I am allowed to ask a question after a long introduction, it would be: could you provide greater clarity for what you see as a danger of a certain pluriform view of the church?

Dr. Van Vliet:

Thank you brother.  In some of our discussions leading up to the public discussion, Dr. Godfrey would make comical little remarks about the long-windedness of Dr. Venema. I am not sure that Dr. Venema is the only one who has that distinction…

Let me try to address a few things mentioned.

First of all, the difference in background and what was said by Dr. Godfrey, that the United Reformed Churches, because of their history may be more, did you say Presbyterian-ized? There’s something, brothers, very real about that.  The Canadian Reformed Churches, as you understand by the first word in the name of our federation, are predominantly in Canada.  We have a few in the United States of America, but very few.  And in Canada, there are not a whole lot of really strong, vibrant, confessional Presbyterian churches.  The Presbyterian Church of Canada is completely liberal. Once in a while you will find an OPC here or there, or an RPCNA.  But it’s vastly different than your experience here in the United States of America. You are constantly bumping into OPs and RPCNAs and PCAs.  So we’ve gone through a different history, and are still going through different circumstances which lead to familiarity with certain language, terms, ways of thinking. We need to keep that in mind.

Maybe I can say something about the objective-subjective thing that you mentioned.  This ties in with the whole matter of the history.  The Canadian Reformed Churches, as a federation, find their birth point in 1944, the Liberation, as you’ve seen in the document. And, at that time, the teachings of Abraham Kuyper had led to an experience among the people in the pew, concerning baptism, that was very troubling to them.  To make a long story short, Abraham Kuyper’s understanding of presumptive regeneration – you have to presume that there is a seed of regeneration in your child, [and that] the baptism water points to, [or] is a sign of, the seed of regeneration. But what it all ended up in, was that the parents bringing their newborn to the front of the church were uncertain: now, did my child receive real, genuine baptism, or was it something that was kind of just an appearance but didn’t connect to reality? In that situation, there was an emphasis on the objective nature of the covenant.  When the Lord makes promises, He means it. It’s real.  You can count on that as parents.  When the Lord also gives a sign of the covenant, which includes obligations, that’s real.

Now, whenever there is crisis in the church, leading perhaps sadly to a split in the church, we know that certain points become very strong and then we tend to swing the pendulum in the other direction out of that concern.  Now, 70 years have gone past since 1944.  We’ve learned that we have to be careful about that.  And there is that element of appealing to God’s people that’s very important, calling them to faith, calling them to repentance, speaking to them in a personal [way], or in a way that has a certain subjective emphasis. So, we all went through histories, and under the Lord’s blessing some of these things balance out, over time.

Lest Dr. Godfrey accuse me of being long-winded, I will quickly turn it over to my colleague, Dr. Van Raalte.

Dr. Van Raalte:

OK, maybe I’ll just remark on the “Schilderite” term; I shook my head when you said that.  Through four years of Seminary, for me that was ’95 through ’99, I would really have to search to see if I was ever assigned a reading from Schilder. Schilder is very difficult to translate, you can’t expect students to read him in Dutch, and it’s hard to find somebody who’s willing to actually translate his material. He had a very intricate use of the Dutch language.  And we tend to shy away from identifying ourselves with certain people.  So for instance, don’t call me a Calvinist, I am Reformed. In the same sense, I wouldn’t want to say Schilder was the founder of our church.  So you mustn’t think that the Canadian Reformed Churches are just running on the theology of Klaas Schilder, and I am sure he wouldn’t want us to say that either.

We’ve used Louis Berkhof, probably for four decades. I know Dr. Van Vliet has tried another Dogmatics, and he’s gone back to Louis Berkhof with supplements from Herman Bavicnk.  And I suggest we would find a lot of common ground in Herman Bavinck and his very clear Biblical explanations, and in his reaching into history, and in his own reconstruction of doctrine in continuity with the Scholastic Reformers, and the Reformation and those thereafter, the Orthodox.  So, we prefer to be identified by the term Reformed and say it is the Confessions of Faith and the Scriptures as interpreted in the Confessions of Faith that are the touchstone for us, and the starting point.


If I may, you did have one question directed to you that I don’t believe you’ve addressed?

Dr. Godfrey:

There can be an excessive brevity.

Dr. Van Vliet:

Yes, the matter of pluriformity.

Just to put some context to that, in our discussion, the question from our URC brothers was, why don’t you use the terms invisible church and visible church, [and] connect that to [a] dual-aspect of the Covenant, speaking perhaps of internal and external aspects of the Covenant… why don’t you use that language more?  Why are you perhaps a little bit reluctant on that?   And it was that question that we wrote [about] on the last page there, page 15, point 1.  To say that, particularly in connection with speaking of the invisible church.  Now as Abraham Kuyper worked with that, and as those who were following Kuyper worked with that, the idea developed that the church in its real essence, in what was really important, was invisible.  [And] of course what’s invisible is kind of nebulous.  But that invisible church is manifest in various different forms, therefore:  pluriformity. So it is manifest in all kinds of different churches here on earth.  And, in practical experience, what that led to was people who had a weak consciousness of what it means to find a faithful church of the Lord Jesus Christ, to be involved in that, and to be committed to that, to be under the supervision and discipline of the office-bearers in that faithful church. So it became a very loose commitment to church membership.  And because of that experience, connected to that term invisible, we’ve been reluctant to use that word.

Now, what we tried to indicate in what we wrote is that [this is] the heart of the matter: the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, as it’s gathered here and as we experience it from Sunday to Sunday under the preaching and administration of the sacraments, does contain hypocrites.  We confess that inBelgic Confession 29.  We clearly speak of those who are in the church, not just in the church building, they are in the church, they are members of the church, but they are not really of the church, because they are putting on a show.  They are hypocrites.  And whereas some might use the terms invisible and visible church to get at that reality, and deal with the reality that there are hypocrites in the church, we would tend to use language such as is found in the Belgic Confession 29, and speak of those in the church, but not of the church.

Now properly understood, the way the Westminster Standards use invisible and visible church, that’s not the same way that Abraham Kuyper was developing it, there’s a difference there.  And we need to distinguish that.

Dr. Venema:

Since our conversation has been so friendly, let me introduce, at least, a question that might be more provocative.  We have talked about this, so it doesn’t come as a surprise.

I will raise the specter of what is known to many of us as the Federal Vision. And I do that not to introduce a red herring into our discussion, but because among those who have advocated what is today referred to as the Federal Vision, some of the principal proponents have cited the influence and persuasiveness of what they understand to be Schilder’s doctrine of the Covenant, to their own development of the doctrine of the Covenant.  And in doing that, their view involves a couple of things, one in terms of the doctrine of Justification within the Federal Vision.  The question whether the righteousness that is granted and imputed to us – Christ’s obedience under the law in its full respect, active and passive – is an entire righteousness, necessary to our right-standing with God?  Or is it simply His passive obedience that constitutes the righteousness granted and imputed to us?  And that argument is often associated with a rejection of the doctrine of the Covenant of Works. That’s why in our presentation, we didn’t introduce the doctrine of the Covenant of Works to introduce a sort of alien Presbyterian notion into the picture.  But to call attention to what we understand to be one of its implications, to use a perhaps weak word, namely, that the work of the Mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ, that is necessary for our justification requires that His obedience unto the law be entire. And that includes what is sometimes distinguished as His active obedience – doing what the law obliges us to do, but doing it in our stead.

And, I think it would be helpful to the body if you would express how you view that question.  I think it is very clear in the materials that were presented. But it will be helpful because the association of a rejection of the doctrine of the Covenant of Works with a like-rejection of the full righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, all His merits, as basis for our justification is a question, I think, that is lively among the United Reformed Churches.

And just while I am on the whole question of the Federal Vision, it is characteristic of the argument of many in the Federal Vision movement, that we really need to hold election and covenant so closely together, that all those to whom the promise of the covenant is addressed, and who receive the sign and seal of the covenant in baptism, and the promise of the covenant, are to be, not simply regarded but are actually and in truth, elect persons, having all the saving blessings that are theirs in Christ Jesus, unless and until they should break covenant.  So, election, in this formulation, tends to be viewed as temporary and losable, and therefore in a profound sense, conditional.  And I think it would be helpful to the body – I am not suggesting for a moment that these are your views – but how would you distinguish the doctrine of Justification that lives within the Canadian Reformed Churches, and even the doctrine of the Covenant, from some of the views, that at least within our federation have been found deeply troubling, in terms of the Federal Vision, in terms of our own actions in that respect?

Dr. Van Raalte:

OK, that sounds like we have quite a few topics to cover.  But where shall we start?

Let’s begin with the question of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. We have taken the position that this is a Confessional matter.  It is not up for grabs.  Just to read a short portion of page 11 here, 3a:  and we said: Although the debate generated by Piscator—Piscator here is the first to deny the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, saying that Christ was actively obedient, but that this was simply to make Him fit for His own office of Mediator; it wasn’t to be accounted to us. And so although that debate about the active obedience of Christ was subsequent to the composition of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism – the debate doesn’t start until the 1580s or so and the Belgic Confession and the Catechism were written in 1561 and 1563.  So,

we affirm that these should be understood to affirm the doctrine, on the grounds that the textus receptus of the BC, as improved by the Synod of Dort 1618-1619, clearly affirms the doctrine in Article 22, “he imputes to us all his merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.” We note also the closing of HC 23.60, “He grants these (the righteousness, satisfaction, and holiness of Christ) to me . . . as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me.” Our Form for Lord’s Supper celebration also includes, “By his perfect obedience he has for us fulfilled all the righteousness of God’s law.”

So, (in answer to the question) how do we separate our view from some of the things that have happened in Federal Vision.  Well simply by articulating what we ourselves teach, what we would train our Seminary students to follow, what we think our Confessions of Faith teach.  Federal Vision can run the whole gamut from being more objective about the covenant promises of God, and we could find some benefit from some of the things they may have written, but then they go on to confuse terms like election, and speak of a temporary justification or a losing of election. That just goes up against the language of the Canons of Dort and confuses the people of God.  That’s not the way we normally talk.  Even if you are redefining the term election for yourself in some covenantal way, it’s just not helpful.  And then, furthermore, Federal Vision can run the gamut all the way to a kind of tri-theism where the unity of the persons of God is not a unity of essence but is a unity of covenant.  I would think that we would all repudiate that very quickly.

So, how would we distance ourselves from that? Well, by affirming these things such as we are now and assuring you that certainly these sorts of things don’t live among us.  There may be a person here or there in the Canadian Reformed circles who says:  I’ve learned a lot from Federal Vision, or, I like that.  And I actually wonder then, if they’ve really immersed themselves in all of the various things that are said?  Baptismal regeneration? I mean, since when did baptism do more than the gospel does?  So I would just plead that we will try to represent a very Biblical approach.

The last thing I would just mention has to do with justification, sanctification, the role of faith, the question of whether faith is to be a living faith when it is the instrument of justification? Of course faith is supposed to be a living faith, but when we are speaking of the matter of justification, we agree with you that law and gospel are antithetical and we mustn’t introduce into the receptor of grace, some kind of works. It would adulterate the grace that’s given to say that the receptor itself [true faith] is required to be living, obedient, etc.  So with respect to justification, faith is an instrument which relies on, trusts in, accepts the promises of the gospel.  With respect to sanctification, faith is probably more the efficient cause of good works. But we are going to distinguish those things very carefully.

I can think of Dr. Van Vliet’s inaugural address for the Seminary where he mentioned something along the lines that he wasn’t going to teach a blender-ized mix of justification and sanctification.

Dr. Van Vliet:

Yep, I said that.  You see, a blender is excellent for smoothies.  And I enjoy it at home when my wife makes a good smoothie for me. She puts various things in there and my favorite is banana and mango.  And you turn it on and the content is great.  But you don’t do that in Dogmatics!  You don’t take justification, drop it in there, sanctification, drop it in there, turn it on and blender-ize them all.  That’s not only going to cause confusion, that’s going to compromise the gospel.

Now I hope that we’ve made it abundantly clear in this document, that when it comes to the heart of the gospel, concerning justification, we clearly, and wholeheartedly, and firmly affirm that justification is a) only on the basis of Christ’s merit, both in His death, paying the penalty, and in His obedience in our place. And I know that Dr. Van Raalte read it, but I would just like to bring this a little closer to home in that last sentence in 3a (page 11).  Please remember, brothers, that every time that the Lord’s Supper is celebrated in Canadian Reformed churches, the following words are heard and affirmed:  By His perfect obedience, he (that is, Christ) has for us fulfilled all (emphasis added) the righteousness of God’s law. That’s read usually every two months in every Canadian Reformed Church.  Now, with that kind of a statement, even if we don’t always use the terminology of active and passive obedience, [we clearly affirm the truth.] And we don’t typically use that terminology because that terminology is not in our Confessions, and when we talk in the midst of the churches we, as a rule, use Confessional language. When we teach at the Seminary, we get into active and passive obedience, but when I am teaching Catechism I may not talk about active and passive obedience all of the time.  But that’s the heart of it, there it is.  That’s the doctrine.  And that’s being said from Canadian Reformed pulpits every time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated.

Now, just back to Schilder, and I’ll be very quick on this one. Dr. Van Raalte hardly had the opportunity to read too much Schilder in his Seminary education, and my education was very similar.  We were just a couple of years apart, [we didn’t read much Schilder] because not much had been translated.  Now, I would like, then to ask the question, even if there are writers out there associated with the Federal Vision movement who have footnoted Schilder here or there, how well does anyone in North America understand Schilder, unless they are fluent in the Dutch language?  And I’ve even spoken to those who are perfectly fluent in the Dutch language and they say, “I’ve never read anything more difficult than Schilder.” So we need to be very cautious on that. Just because you footnote someone doesn’t mean that there’s a complete one-for-one identity between theologies. You can footnote all kinds of different people, [but what that actually means is a different question.]

And then, finally on the Covenant of Works and Covenant of grace in connection with the doctrine of Justification. When you speak with Canadian Reformed brothers, then when it comes to defending the doctrine of Justification against what I’ve called blender-izing it with Sanctification, then those who are more familiar with Westminster Standards language, they gravitate towards the distinction – Covenant of Works / Covenant of Grace – and that’s their tool, that’s their go-to instrument in order to defend the doctrine of justification in its purity.  We would more likely go to the Heidelberg Catechism than the Covenant of Works / Covenant of Grace distinction. We, in that endeavor to protect the doctrine of Justification, would go to Lord’s Days 23 and 24, and point out, particularly in Lord’s Days 23 and 24 that works are excluded, very strongly.  And the topic of good works only comes later.  And we [point out that] the Catechism did that on purpose.  And it’s only in (Lord’s Day) 32 that you start to hear about good works, and then it’s framed up as: Christ’s second blessing to us of renewing us in His image.

So that’s the tool that we would use. We would say, look, don’t mix up Lord’s Day 23 and 24 with Lord’s Day 32.  But we are getting at the same thing.  We want to defend the same doctrine, but with slightly different tools.

Dr. Venema:

If I may, I appreciate very much what has been said. I suppose just one observation: I think it’s true that we would more likely go to, for example, the distinction between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace to get a broader, Biblical-theological background for insisting that the work of the Greater, Last Adam is a work that redresses in every respect the consequences of human sin, the failure of Adam under the first covenant.   I don’t mean to delay the Q and A, but I would be a little bit interested to ask: if you go to the Catechism for a warrant for saying that our justification requires the fullness of Christ’s righteousness, that of course still leaves the question unanswered, where in the Scriptures does the Biblical-theological warrant for the Catechism’s saying that, lie?  And historically, certainly a very significant, if not an integral component of that Reformed theology has been an understanding of what Adam failed to do and lost by his sin and disobedience, and what our Lord Jesus Christ, in his place, for our salvation, has accomplished for us in doing what Adam did not do and suffering the consequence that results from Adam’s failure on our behalf. It would seem to me that’s a pretty big, broad-stroked and rather common basis in the broad tradition of Reformed theology.

Dr. Van Vliet:

And one that resonates completely.

Dr. Van Raalte:

Yeah, I believe that resonates completely. And the Adam-Christ parallel, I’ve heard it much in our Reformed preaching, I’ve used it myself. We reflect on these things carefully also, and if I might, I’ll just read a short paragraph of something that I myself have written and presented to colleagues.  Now, I don’t think, well actually maybe a few people here have heard it before, but, at the time I read it really fast.  Now I will do it slower.  I want to do this just to show you that we can reflect on these things as well at a theological level, for the purposes of rightly understanding the work of Christ, and, with power, presenting Christ as our Savior and Mediator.


First, regarding the passive obedience of Christ, I understand that to mean that he took upon himself the curse of the law incurred by our sins. He bore an infinite wrath which he could do by the power of his infinite divine essence, as we confess in Canons of Dort II, articles 1-4. This suffering and death of Christ pays for all that we have done wrong and as such returns us to the Garden (He paid the price, we are at least back to Adam in the Garden).

Second, I also think that Christ fulfilled the covenant of works in Adam’s place. We may call this his active obedience. I relate this particular to his human nature and term it a finite active obedience. I read Romans 5:18 to describe Adam and Christ as two federal heads, and thus I have no problem calling Christ the Mediator and Head of the elect, as we confess in Canons of Dort I, 7. But what did Christ achieve by the active obedience that fulfilled the requirements of the covenant of works? I suggest he perfectly keeps the law and supplies the perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience God required. This finally passes the test in the Garden of Eden. Christ did not transgress the command not to eat of the tree and he kept all the commands of the moral law. But there is no evidence that this obedience alone is sufficient to bring us to the eschaton (Right?  The “not able to sin” condition).  For this we turn to the fact that he is Mediator according to both natures (which is always important for the Reformed over against the Lutherans). In his passive obedience the unity of his person ensures that he can bear an infinite wrath in his human nature by the power of his divine nature (Heidelberg Catechism, QA 17). In his active obedience the unity of his person ensures that his human nature did not falter when an obedience was required of it which no human could endure. He had to set his face to the cross and go there because God had commanded it through prophecy. This was commanded of no one else. He had to do so all the while having the power, with one wish of his heart, to call on ten legions of angels, or, to come down from the cross. It took an infinite power to be obedient to the Father, and I would suggest that this is what takes us finally to the new creation. Bearing the curse and obeying the same law we had to obey was not enough. He also had to submit to the very role that from eternity he had agreed to take, and this was God’s way to the new creation where we would no longer be able to sin, where the possibility of a fall will have been taken away.

Thus far.


  1.   Thank you very much.

Brothers from the URC side, could you give us a quick summary before we go to the question period?

Dr. Venema:

We are hesitating because we are not sure who of us can be quickest?  Neither.

I don’t really have a prepared summary. I think the discussion that we’ve had thus far confirms what Dr. Godfrey and I have experienced in our discussion with Drs. Van Raalte and Van Vliet.  That is, though we have some difference by virtue of history and other kinds of influences, I don’t think that we’ve found in the course of our discussions back and forth that there was a matter of substance that touched upon our integrity in terms of the Confessions.  If they are willing to live with our formulation where it might at certain points have a little different emphasis than their own, and we likewise, theirs, I think that’s in the main our general sense of what our discussions together have led us to conclude:  that we do not judge that what we’ve heard from them is something that puts them outside of the boundaries.  And I think it’s important to use the language of boundaries. The Confessions do not limit every possible difference of emphasis and formulation on these questions that have existed within the Reformed churches for a long time.  And there is a freedom that’s permissible within those boundaries, that I don’t think has been violated.

Dr. Godfrey:

Could I just say very briefly, that for many of us the development in the 17th century of discussions of Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace were precisely an effort to clarify and defend the 16th century distinction between law and gospel.  And that all that needs to be said to protect, I think, the work of Christ and the Reformed doctrine of Justification is present in the law/gospel distinction as well as in the Covenant of Works/ Covenant of Grace distinction.

And let me say, as one who has been beat about the head any number of times by people who call themselves Reformed, accusing me of being a Lutheran for promoting the law/gospel distinction, that I am particularly gratified to the brothers for writing:  We agree that in the decisive matter of the believer’s justification, law and gospel are antithetical concepts.  I love you for that.

And let me say that Dr. Van Vliet is to be congratulated for having anyone remember anything he said in his inaugural lecture. My experience is that those things are not usually well remembered, but congratulations again.

Dr. Van Vliet:

You will have to ask him, but it may be the only thing he remembers from that address.

Dr. Van Raalte:

I wasn’t even there. [laughter]

Dr. Van Vliet:

So it was just gossip. [laughter]

Summing up, we have the same Word of God. And I realize to say that is, on the one hand, a beautiful privilege, but [on the other hand] it’s a little bit too simple.  Because there are all kinds of different churches, and people of all kinds of different theologies [who] can say they have the Word of God.  But in addition to having the same Word of God, we have exactly the same Confessional Standards, the Three Forms of Unity. And then I realize that even that may be a little too simple because beyond the language that we find in the Three Forms of Unity we have theological dialogue and discussions and we have terms and phrases that we use, and sometimes we sense different nuances.  And the one that we’ve kind of identified here, I think, Dr. Godfrey, from the beginning, is that as Canadian Reformed Churches we haven’t gone through the kind of being Presbyterian-ized that, at least some of, you have.  But, might I add, brothers, that some time after the Vrijgemaakt came to this good Continent, they started to come in contact with the OPC. And we, as the OPC brothers will know, have had very, very extensive discussions.  Also on these points of visible church and invisible church and Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace, and all these kinds of things. But at the end of the day, after we talked about it long and hard, it was deemed to be, by the Canadian Reformed Churches, no obstacle to fellowship. We have a sister church relationship with the OPC, just as you do yourselves.  So that demonstrates that even when more Westminsterian language is used, it may not be what we are accustomed to using historically, but we never regarded that as being an obstacle.  It’s within the bounds of how we can work.

[1] CERCU – the United Reformed Churches Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity

[2] Genesis 2:17



Thank you very much brothers. That’s been very helpful and encouraging.  So at this point we are going to open the floor to the delegates for questions. So, go ahead.

Rev. Michael Brown:

Well first I just want to thank you, all the brothers, for participating in this, and thank you to the convening Consistory and whoever’s responsible for putting on this Colloquium.  This is a great use of our time at Synod and far more enjoyable than many of the things that we do.  And thank you (Canadian Reformed) brothers.  As an American URC minister, it’s great to get to know you, it’s great to read what you believe concerning Covenant theology and how much overlap we have, how much we are saying the same things, but maybe using different language. And, clearly your love for the gospel is evident, so I want to thank you for that.

I just have two questions, for my own sake, to get to know the CanRC better, which is what this Colloquium is partly about, both on Covenant theology.  One, with regard to the Covenant of Redemption, the pactum salutis, you know, the doctrine that there was an inter Trinitarian covenant before the foundation of the world.  I think I heard it referenced maybe in that paragraph that (Dr. Van Raalte read).  How widely held is that in the CanRC?

Dr. Van Raalte:

I don’t know how widely held it is. We could talk about the use of the Canons of Dort in the Canadian Reformed Churches, which I think is quite robust.  I myself on the basis of the many things in Scripture hold to a form of it:  this election is from before the creation of the world, Ephesians 1. How about Isaiah 49 and the Servant of the Lord who is bargaining with the Lord, and the Lord says you have to save my people and gather them from the East and from the West and so on. And then the servant sounds a little bit hesitant and the Lord says, it’s not enough for you to do this, you are going to bring in the Gentiles also.  And when you think, when does a discussion like that take place, it just pushes you into and towards a pactum salutis. Now once again, we are talking, what shall we say, scholastic theology, which for me is good, I like that, though some people don’t like the term.

Now, you don’t go to your congregation and mention pactum salutis in your sermon. But you do affirm that the Sovereign God, from before the creation of the world chose His own. And that love of God arises from His own heart, His electing love.  And that the death of the Lord Jesus Christ is an effective grace that effectively redeemed all those for whom He died.  And the work of the Holy Spirit is a transforming grace, changing their hearts. And the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God is preserving His own until the end.

Maybe I should speak just a little bit more about the use of the Canons of Dort. When I had my Preparatory Exam to be eligible for call, Rev. Clarence Stam assigned me the Canons of Dort.  OK? You have to know the Canons of Dort.  So I asked him, which section?  The Canons of Dort, the whole thing! It was a huge blessing in my life, because it was an opportunity to just pull together all the things that were in there.  And I’ve just been so thankful for that assignment ever since.  And we have, from early on already, Dr. Jelle Faber, who was our Dogmatician for what was it, 30 years?  20 at least. He had a book called The Bride’s Treasure together with several other authors. It was a Commentary on the Canons of Dort. We have Clarence Bouwman who gave Post-Confession classes on the Canons of Dort and one of his students dutifully wrote down everything he said.  That’s what Calvin had, right?   Peter Feenstra is another one of our ministers who has a Commentary on the Canons of Dort. Catechism classes: my students always got the Canons of Dort for an entire year. Not all ministers do that the same way. Some stick more tightly to the Catechism, but a lot of us make sure our students get the Catechism, Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort. And so I would say that it is fairly alive and well.  And, I have preached on Rev. Freswick’s pulpit on Romans 8.  And he let me do it twice, so…

Rev. Brown:

So, it’s not uncommon to meet CanRC ministers who hold to the Covenant of Redemption as a doctrine?

Dr. Van Raalte:

I don’t know.

Dr. Van Vliet:

The only thing I would add to what my colleague has said already is that certainly whatever is there in the Canons of Dort, we affirm wholeheartedly, robustly. Now, the question is then, do you want to take part of what is in the Canons of Dort and put the label pactum salutis on it, or Covenant of Redemption?  Some CanRC ministers may do that, others wouldn’t.   But I would just remind all of us here that not even the Westminster Standards do that.

So, we tend to be careful about using Confessional language, especially in our work in and among the people.  And then, when we are sitting here talking as ministers, or in the Seminary classroom, we will talk about other things, but when it comes to God’s people, we try to use Confessional language as much as possible.

Rev. Brown:

That’s helpful, thank you.

So my other question was with regard to the Mosaic Covenant and its relationship with the one unifying Covenant of Grace. As you both know, there’s been a variety of views and nuances in the 16th and 17th Century about how that relationship works, including the view that somehow the Mosaic Covenant republished or re-enacted, as Charles Hodge said, or was a re-statement as John Owen said, of the pre-fall Covenant, usually using this for protection of Justification, the law/gospel distinction.  Though not in any way saying it was for individual salvation but relating only to Israel’s land promises.  So, that doctrine. Is that something that you would see outside the bounds of the Three Forms of Unity? Within the bounds? Would you accept a minister who held that kind of view in the CanRC?

Dr. Van Vliet:

We’ve certainly heard these more recent discussions, as the intensity of these discussion come up on the Republication of the Covenant of Works in the Mosaic era.  I wouldn’t want to jump to any quick and rash judgments on this. Because I would really want to know, in the first place, what exactly that teaching is, what motivates it? I haven’t spent hours and hours reading this stuff; there are many things to do in life.  But from the reading that I have done, and maybe that’s my own dullness, but to be perfectly frank, I just don’t get it.  What actually is the issue?  What is it getting at?  And so to say, would that be accepted in the CanRC, would it not be accepted, we have to understand what it’s all about before we could properly make any judgments.

Dr. Van Raalte:

I could add a little bit to that. I’ve never heard it said in the Canadian Reformed Churches that the Mosaic Covenant is in some sense a republication of the Covenant of Works.  In fact, it would be, I think, universally said that it is an administration of the Covenant of Grace, because God says, I am Yahweh your God and here’s what I did for you, so that’s my grace, and here’s My expectation of you and how you will live in grace and prosper in the land.  This would be your response.  I think that the original context of the Sinaitic legislation is the Third Use of the Law. I realize that that’s in dispute, when you bring up the question about whether it’s in some sense a republication. So, I think it’s fair to say the Mosaic Covenant would be viewed as an administration of the Covenant of Grace. We’ve never actually come across someone who thought otherwise, and like Dr. Van Vliet said, we’d have to study that in more detail.  I have looked at some of the Reformed Baptists in the 17th Century and their debates on Covenant theology.  They had to grapple with the fact that there are covenants in the Bible as well, but they didn’t want to make the inference that circumcision carries over to baptism. And one of the ways that they prevented that was by saying that any command to circumcise belonged to a Covenant of Works, but the promise of eternal life belonged to the Covenant of Grace.  And it ended up being an arbitrary stamp on the Bible which took one text and said, that one’s law and the Covenant of Works and it’s revoked – so therefore the command to circumcise doesn’t carry over in the command to baptize the infants.  I am familiar with that, but that’s something different than the doctrine of republication.


OK, thank you.

Dr. Godfrey:

For your comfort, all those who hold to the Westminster Standards and are interested in promoting the idea of Republication, are also obligated by the Westminster Standards to say in the first place that the Mosaic economy is an administration of the Covenant of Grace.  That’s the first thing that has to be said.  Republication is a secondary development of reflection on the Mosaic Covenant.


Brother Slagter –

Rev. Lou Slagter:

Good evening brothers.  Again, thank you very much for everything that’s been spoken of. I had one question here that’s on page 11 and number 4 where you say:

We agree that in the decisive matter of the believer’s justification, law and gospel are antithetical concepts. Indeed, to affirm this is fundamental to our salvation, as the various confessional references in this thesis affirm (see further our comments on the role of faith…

So there you come out with a robust understanding of how we are justified.  A huge Amen to that! I wanted to just ask one question. Can you speak about what you wrote in the next sentence?  You say: Yet we also affirm that in the language of Scripture the gospel is to be “obeyed” and even includes threats.  And I know you quoted a couple of texts like John 3 and the like, so I recognize the idea, what you are saying is that you have to embrace the gospel, you have to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Is there more to that in what you are saying here?  How does the gospel even include threats?

Dr. Van Raalte:

Ok, this is my section so I’ll begin here. This is in the spirit of Klaas Schilder. Let me just say why. If you say Common Grace, what does Klaas Schilder say:  what about Common Curse?  If you say Church Militant and Church Triumphant, he will say, well isn’t the Triumphant Church calling out that God would avenge their blood, these souls under the altar? So aren’t they also militant? Something that he liked to do was to “push back” a little bit and say, let’s think about this a little more. You’ve got a nice theological construction, but does it satisfy all of the language of Scripture?  And don’t lock yourself into the theological construction to such a point that you can’t let Scripture speak anymore.  And I think that’s the spirit in which this is presented for discussion here, and that it (the gospel) even includes threats.

Let’s see, I’ve referenced there 2 Thessalonians 1:8. I believe that’s the text – “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Let me see here.  So 2 Thessalonians 1:8 – He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. I can’t do a complete exegesis of that right here but let me at least suggest that it would seem that that’s speaking of those who do not obey the command to believe and repent. So in that sense the gospel commands, and you should obey.  For didn’t the Apostle say to the very same church, and this is his first letter as far as we know, 1 Thessalonians 2:13:  We also thank God continually because when you received the Word of God which you heard from us you accepted it not as the word of men but as it actually is, the Word of God which is at work in you who believe. Yeah, they accepted it, but I think it would then also have the sense that they obeyed the call to believe and receive this as the Word of God.

I also had referenced Revelation 3 there: if you are lukewarm I will spit you out of my mouth, and so on. How about this: just thinking that believers also have commands to obey, in fact the whole Third Use of the Law is that.  Aren’t they gospel commands in Second Corinthians 6:14 to 7:1, what does the unbeliever and the believer have in common?  It is obviously written to believers. It’s not just to convict them of sin, but to guide them in righteous and holy living, and say, Christ and Belial have no fellowship, you shouldn’t be having associations with unbelievers that are compromising your faith.

And then we’ve referenced the Latin and French texts of the Canons of Dort 5.14 where it clearly says that the gospel threatens.  We could go on more, but the sense is, one, that the gospel commands us to believe, and, number two, as a believer, the commands you receive to walk in the way of righteousness are given to you as a believer.  That comes out of the gospel as well.

Dr. Van Vliet:

Just very briefly, in addition to that. What my colleague mentioned a little earlier, I believe is a true point:  That we want to be careful with our theological constructions, our frameworks, our terminology… [we want to be careful with them so] that we don’t adhere to them so rigidly that when we read something that sounds a little bit different in Scripture, for instance that the gospel ought to be obeyed, that we have no more room for that language as well.  Obviously we have to let our theological constructs be determined by the language of Scripture.  So we have to be careful.


  1.   Brother Postma –

Elder Will Postma

I too want to thank you all for coming. I am an elder in the United Reformed Churches, and to be honest with you, I maybe speak for many here, the hour was quite short.  I would have liked to have heard a little bit more, and not to pick out differences, but actually to enjoy the similarities that exist.   And I am very encouraged that I can go back to Kansas City where I am from and make a very positive report of what we’ve heard here tonight.

We’ve heard a little bit about some of the doctrinal issues or things that we are connected to one another with. Perhaps from a practical standpoint I have some questions and let’s perhaps look at one subject matter in particular, and that’s the Lord’s Supper.  When it comes to the Lord’s Supper, we have in our churches, churches that practice differently.  Some have weekly communion, some have quarterly, some have monthly.  How do the Canadian Reformed Churches practice that? And how do you view our divergent practices?

And then, number 2, we also have what we would call Supervised practice. It’s my understanding that in the past, the Canadian Reformed Churches have had more of a fencing type practice. Has that changed? How does that work together with our churches today?

Dr. Van Vliet:

OK, first of all, the first question is simply about the frequency of the Lord’s Supper?  The most common now in the federation is six times per year, once every other month.  There are churches that do it quarterly.  There has also been a church that did it weekly, a small congregation.  So there has been variety on the frequency, and I don’t see it as being an obstacle.

Then about the supervision of the Lord’s Supper. There are certain differences in the way that we handle the matter of the supervision of the Lord’s Supper. We are most familiar with an attestation system, which may be unfamiliar to at least some of you. With an attestation, the home Consistory gives testimony that [a certain] brother, or brother and sister are of sound doctrine and in good standing.  And on that basis they will attend Lord’s Supper with another congregation. I know that, at least in some URCs there’s an interview and then something goes back to the home Consistory to say that so-and-so attended Lord’s Supper here.  I guess the difference is that, historically speaking, we did that upfront. We didn’t tell the home Consistory after the fact that someone attended, but rather, beforehand, and put the responsibility upon the brother and sister to get the attestation. So that there is that clear connection that those who are ordained to supervise those attending the Lord’s Supper, hear a testimony to their faithfulness.  These are practical matters that need to be talked about, worked on. But I am fully confident that such matters could be worked out.

Elder from Michigan (Elder Lubbers??)

Good evening and thanks for your presentation. I have one question on what you wrote on the bottom of page 12, with regard to the states that we are in, and the very last part, where it says:  and of justification by grace through faith wherein we are enabled not to sin.  So is it your position that, possibly on this side of the grave we are able to not sin, and even possibly to lead a perfect life?

Dr. Van Raalte:

That’s not our position.  Even the best works of the saints are tainted with sin. We know this of ourselves by experience: you do some good work, and then afterwards, what happens?  You pat yourself on the back and all of a sudden you are smitten with remorse because you have taken glory for yourself.  So, even the best works of the saints are still filled with sin.  But we must not diminish the power of the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration who does enable us not to sin, and “begin in this life the eternal Sabbath,” that rest from sin.  It’s a beginning, it’s not a completion.  And we could say that the sentence is a little bit of a short form because to “justification by grace through faith” you probably should add: plus the gift of the Spirit in sanctification, and then say we are enabled not to sin. OK?


  1.   Rev. Najapfour –

Rev. Najapfour:

Thank you so much.  I appreciate very much your dialogue, and I only have one question. How would comment on those who say that we are to view our covenant children as elect, or born again, and therefore, by implication, we do not need to call them to repentance, or faith? I often hear that comment, and I am curious as to how you would respond to that.  Thank you.

Dr. Van Vliet:

Brother, I think I understood your question, could you just repeat it again, or sum it up?  Just to make sure we understand.

Rev. Najapfour:

  1.   How do you respond to, let’s say families, who would say to you, well my child is a covenant child, and therefore I am to view my child as elect, or born again, and therefore by implication there is no need for me to present the gospel to my child, after all, he or she is already elect, by virtue perhaps of God’s covenant.  Thank you.

Dr. Van Vliet:

I would point [out], brother… if such parents spoke like that, I would say:  were you listening when the Form for Baptism was read, when your child was baptized? For, right from the beginning of the Form it was said:  First, we and our children are conceived and born in sin and therefore are by nature children of wrath, so that we cannot enter the kingdom of God, unless we are born again.  It does not say that the sacrament is administered because your child is born again, it says, clearly, unless we are born again.  There the Form says, this is what has to happen.  But we cannot give that rebirth to ourselves. Only God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, John 3, can give us regeneration.  And therefore we have these promises as well. Clearly, covenant children have to be called to faith, called to repentance.

Rev. Najapfour:

Dr. Van Raalte:

I’d like to add one thing.  A good number of our churches have used Ted Tripp’s video series Shepherding a Child’s Heart. And if there’s anything that’s clear from Ted Tripp’s video series, it’s that you are as a parent seeking to bring out, to reach the heart of your child.  You are not just conforming them to some moral obedience, you want them to come to a living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  And we’ve all benefited from that, and that’s what we teach. I can’t say that everyone always teaches it exactly right, or the same, or whatever, but that call is vitally important.  And we are looking for that when we bring our Young People through Catechism classes. I mean, I know some colleague ministers who say, I don’t just stand there and teach my class, I look them in the eye and say, why are you here?  What are we doing?  You are here to come to a mature expression of your faith, to make public profession of faith. That’s your answer to God’s promise of baptism.  And, you know, as Consistory, when they come for an exam, we ask them, do you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of all your sins?  We need to know these things.  And, yes, so our children, we need to teach them those things as well.


I see brother Benjamins, and brother Lankheet.

Elder John Benjamins:

Thank you brothers.  My question is, you had mentioned that every two months at your Lord’s Supper, your Form, we know kind of distinguishes. And I know you also do church discipline. I know it is exercised, the keys of the kingdom.  How would you say the keys of the kingdom are used in your preaching?  I need you to explain just a little bit about that. And, to kind of connect that, what do you think of “discriminating preaching?”  I am sure you’ve heard of that phrase.  How would you look at -“discriminating preaching?”  Those are my questions, thank you.

Dr. Van Vliet:

I think that we tried to get at this matter when we said that, in point 5 on page 14:

In addition much can be gained by emphasizing the two parts of the covenant: promise and obligation (Gen 17:4, 9; Form for Baptism). If the preacher emphasizes both parts, in the right order and in a balanced way, his congregation will not walk away with the impression that one is automatically saved simply because he is baptized. Furthermore, the obligation is, in the first place, a call to trust the LORD and believe in the covenant promises he has given, and then, flowing out of that to also live a life of holiness (LD 23-24, 32-33).

So, it’s true that the term “discriminatory preaching” is not one that, you know, we use all of the time, it’s not part of our common lingo.   But, what is part of our practice, and [also] wholeheartedly [so], is that you need to preach everything that’s in the Scripture; you need to preach the two parts of the covenant and do that heartfeltly, do that powerfully, and that will discriminate. The Lord will work His [redemptive] work through that kind of preaching.

Dr. Van Raalte:

I can just do this briefly.  When I grew up, I don’t remember the minister ever distinguishing and saying, now for you who are elect, I have this message, and for you who are not, I have that message.  In fact I don’t think a Canadian Reformed minister has ever done that, as far as I know.  I don’t do that.   But in preaching, I love those opportunities when I know that there are unbelievers in the congregation, from outside, people who don’t profess to be Christians, and I can address them in the preaching, and say, do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, look what the gospel says, and you have to believe in Him. But then again, I say that to my congregation when I am preaching (I don’t have a congregation to serve actively all the time now, but I still preach all the time).  They need the call to faith.  If the preaching of the gospel doesn’t call God’s people to faith, it lulls them to sleep.  So, discriminating? Not in the sense that we would say, I have this message for that part of the congregation, and that message for that part, but in terms of saying, at times, if you don’t believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you need to.  And you don’t just assume all your congregation does.  And when we pray, sometimes then we pray Lord, we pray for those who haven’t accepted this message.  So, yeah, it happens.


Rev. Lankheet and then Rev. Van Eeden Petersman

Rev. Lankheet:

So, brother Bouwers maybe just a little clarification? The question time is about covenant and election and the issues in the paper, or can we go more broadly? Questions were asked about the Lord’s Supper.  I am not quite sure if you want to keep it focused on the paper and the topics?


Largely, yes.

Rev. Lankheet:

Largely yes.  Then I think I’ll… but just let me make this observation. I am personally living now in Canada, being an American, who never knew a real-live Canadian Reformed person until – well that is not true, brother Den Hollander was in my Greek class at Calvin College, so I did know a real-life Canadian Reformed person. I don’t think I knew that at the time. But the biggest concern for me is not the theology.  Every time I hear a Canadian Reformed pastor preach, every time I hear a lecture at the Seminary, the Theological College in Hamilton, wow, we’re on the same page, there’s unity.  My concern is on the practical issues of day-to-day congregational life, frequency of Lord’s Supper, the Forms…  So we’re talking about all the unity.  But I personally, I think a lot of us are concerned, if we go for unity, are we going to be spending the next ten, twenty years having all this restudying about frequency of communion, what kind of forms, attestations, women voting in congregational meetings, all this sort of culture-stuff in the church that we are gradually figuring out in one way, and that the Canadian Reformed Churches have, by and large, another kind of culture.  And are we (not going to be arguing our main theology, the Three Forms of Unity), but is this going to take a lot of time on the minutia and the other things.  So maybe a forum, or questions on those other things sometime would be good. Because I really think that’s where the rubber’s going to hit the road more than Covenant, and Election, and Mosaic Covenant, and all that.  It’s going to be the practical issues:  Book of Praise, Genevans, Common Cup, individual cup, and those things are potentially going to be more decisive.  In my personal opinion.


  1.   We will instruct the committee to take note.  Thank you.

Brother Van Eeden Petersman.

Rev. Van Eeden Petersman:

Thank you.  In the opening of Dr. Godfrey and Dr. Venema’s letter, on page 2, item 3 was not addressed in you responses.  Would you briefly explain how the CanRCs regard the decisions of recent URCNA synods on these topics, concerning justification and election.  I note at your 2013 in Carmen, there were three churches that wrote letters questioning the decisions that we’ve come to in the URC. The debate for this night is in the interest of exploring possible barriers to federative unity, and so I wonder if a united federation would be seen to maintain the important stand that we took to affirm and articulate our Confessional commitment to the Reformed doctrine of Justification?

Is that clear?  Chiefly the question is, would you explain briefly how the CanRCs regard the decisions of recent URC synods, particularly the Report on Justification?

Dr. Van Vliet:

The question of historical background, it’s probably important to understand that, going back to 1944, the birth of the Vrijgemaakt, or here on this side, the Canadian Reformed, had to do with an issue of being bound to certain statements beyond what were in the Three Forms of Unity.  And when that was pressed, that’s when the difficulties began. Now, so we’ve tended to be very careful about that.  And if you’ve followed Canadian Reformed history and synods, we’re not in the habit of making a lot of statements on this, or that; we are cautious about that. Why?  Because we are always reminding ourselves that at the end of the day, what are you going to do with discipline?  Right?  So, if you make a certain statement at a synod, are you going to discipline on that, yes or no? Clearly in our Form of Subscription we have said that on Confessional matters, there will be discipline if there is transgression.  So, always with that in mind, we can talk, we can debate things, but…  So, now as URCNA you have subscription to Confessions, you have Doctrinal Affirmations, you have Pastoral Advice, is there one more?


There could be.

Dr. Van Vliet

So our Synod Carman has said to our Deputies in our Committee for Church Unity: look into that, talk about that, we need to figure out where this is going.

But to your question about the Reformed Doctrine of Justification, I hope this evening has demonstrated that we are one with you, brothers in wanting to firmly defend the doctrine of Justification in all of its purity.

But there will [need to] be discussion on all of these categories [of statements] and how that links to the Form of Subscription.  I suppose you may have had those discussions among yourselves as well.

Dr. Van Raalte:

A brief answer?  You mentioned three churches, that’s three out of about 55, their writing to Synod. The question is, what does Synod do with it?  I mean, we could have a minister that teaches a very aberrant doctrine, but that doesn’t fault us. The problem is whether we discipline him or not, right?  I am not saying that this is a matter of discipline, but the fact is that the Synod did not accede to the concerns of these churches.  And it doesn’t represent the majority of the churches.  So, keep that in mind.  And then the other thing, the Nine Points [Synod Schererville, 2007] and then the Fifteen Points [Synod London, 2010], as they came forward, some of them were at first not appreciated by Canadian Reformed consistories. But it turned out, and they realized that soon enough, that they were reading them against the background of 1944 and not against the background of Federal Vision. When you read them in their proper context, they are appreciated.  And it seems to be that, by and large, these are appreciated among us. And certainly I would want to, and I think I can speak for all of my colleagues at the Seminary, definitely want to preserve the free grace of justification in whatever way that needs to be done.


I recognize Rev. Marcusse.  But I have a question for the chairman [of Synod]. We had agreed to sort of an open-ended [format], but we are at the order of the day.  So, what is your advice?

Rev. Bradd Nymeyer, Chairman of Synod:

By my watch we began the Colloquium as 7:20. That leaves an hour for Colloquium, that’s 8:20.  We said no more than an hour for questions.  I would entertain a motion to extend the order of the day.

Moved, supported, carried.

Rev. Ed Marcusse:

I want to thank the brothers, all the brothers up there, for coming and doing this here tonight.  And I want to say that I think the talk here tonight has really reinforced where my thinking has been going.  And that is, that our differences are not in our theology.  I hear you explain these various points, and I like what I am hearing. Our differences lie in our practices. And I want to repeat, or slightly repeat the things two of the men have already said.

Your answer to that question on parents who assume that their child is saved simply because they are part of the Covenant, your answer is exactly right.  And yet let me also tell you my personal experience with the Canadian Reformed Church. A dozen years ago, we were serving a church in Canada, and this was right when the whole idea of union started coming up and the recommendation from Synod was, you have to meet with them, you have to get to know them, we have to get to know one another. So I went back with that to my elders, and my elders said, yeah that’s great, that’s a good idea, let’s do that. We met across the table, with the Canadian Reformed Church, at their invitation we went to them, and they sat on that side of the table, and we, me and my elders sat on this side of the table, and the discussion went along.  But I remember asking them, I myself asked this, and so maybe I could have said it in a better way, a more understandable way, maybe we talked past one another. But I asked them this, I said, how do you evangelize your children?  How do you preach the gospel to your children?

And it was this dead silent in there. They looked at one another, shrugged their shoulders, and there was no response.  Until the minister, the minister himself, finally said that our children are told that you are already saved, now go out and live it. And that broke my heart. Because that will kill the church quicker than any other thing.   And that is my concern with this whole process.

I lived in a “former life.”  And that’s our code-word for coming out of a previous denomination. That was a dying church. And the Lord, by His grace, gave us this federation, through blood, sweat and tears.   And I do not want to go back to a dying church.

That’s my concern.  And that’s my experience.   And I hope you can tell me that was one rogue, strange teaching. But none of the elders there could give us a reason.   I have a copy of that minister’s sermon from Peter, that said you are saved by your baptism.   It is obviously what he taught, over and over and over again.  That’s my concern.

Dr. Van Vliet:

Thank you brother.  I will try to step through what you’ve said.  So the question was to the group of elders there, and the minister, “how do you evangelize your children?”  That’s the way you phrased the question.  I can understand why that threw the brothers.  Because if the question had been phrased, how do you preach the gospel to your children?  Or how do you impress on them the fact that they need to believe and they shouldn’t just, you know, assume that, well, I was baptized, and however I live, it will be OK in the end?  But when the question was phrased, “How do you evangelize your children?” [Well,] evangelism, in the minds of those brothers, is probably associated with speaking to, preaching to those who are outside the covenant, who are presumablypagans. Then they would have been thinking, yes, but these are covenant children.  The Lord has given them a great privilege in being covenant children, children of believers, and they have the sacrament, they have the promises that are signed and sealed in the sacrament, they have the obligation, also the call to believe and to the new obedience, as the Form says.  So, I can see that the phrasing of the question threw them off because of the terminology:  evangelize.

But as you rephrased it yourself, then, that’s helpful: how do we preach the gospel to our children?  Well, of course, we have to preach the gospel to our children.

Now then your next question was about when the minister finally spoke and said: we tell our children they are saved, now go out and live it.  I am assuming that’s a direct quote, I don’t know, but I will assume that.  I think the way that you would need to work with that is to say: OK now brother, what do you mean by that?  Do you mean that each and every child that is baptized, by the very fact that he’s been baptized, has been saved?  Isn’t that an ex opera operato type of theology? You would need to press him on that. And I would hope (because I wasn’t in your circumstance, but I would hope) that had you pressed him like that, he would have backed off and phrased things differently.  But I don’t know what happened there, in that room, OK? But yeah, so leave that for a beginning.

Rev. Christopher Folkerts:

Again, thank you brothers for being here and it’s just really good to hear your answers.  And again my question is on the practical side of things. I was born and raised in Canada and had the privilege of going to a Canadian Reformed school. And in my experience, which is not just limited to where I lived, but just in talking to other youth from the URCNA, in Alberta, for example, we came to see that there seemed to be a lot of worldliness amongst the youth in the Canadian Reformed, a lot of partying and drinking, to the extent that I wasn’t invited to their parties. No, seriously though, this was something that really grieved me, and I wasn’t going to put up with it. So the question is, as I began to wrestle with that, it seemed like this was a result of what we have called a hyper-covenantalism:  my children are born within the covenant, therefore everything is good. They might even sow their wild oats, but when they are thirty, forty, they’ll come back.  And so I guess my question is, again this is a matter of perception, but is there, and in trying to listen to the other comments that have been made, are we saying to our children, are you saying to your children, are the preachers saying to the children of the church:  you need to be converted, and you need to live a holy life, and is there – like I echo the sentiment that our [Heritage] Reformed [fraternal] delegate was speaking to us about:  a call to piety. And I think that’s well from the URC churches.  I know we don’t live up to our confession either, we don’t live up to the Word of God, we fall very short, so I am aware of that too.  But what I am anxious to see and hear is, is there within the Canadian Reformed Churches a really heartfelt, robust, gut-wrenching cry to the youth: you need to live a godly life, a pious life, a holy life, a life that shuns sin.  And I know our Confessions speak about that, and I know here theologically we can all agree on that.  But practically, what’s going on in the life of the Canadian Reformed youth in particular, how are they being brought to that holiness?  Thank you.

Dr. Van Raalte:

Well, the last question, and this one, in terms of being anecdotal, are similar, in that anecdotes are always hard to deal with. But it’s, I’ll be honest, it’s been my sense that this is something that we needed to improve on. I can remember, growing up, and the minister we had would actually stop the sermon and say, you in the back over there, wake up, and somebody had to poke the person.  And, actually, I was the little kid sitting in the front once, and I woke up to his finger pointing right at me:  this is for you too!  It scared me out of ever sleeping again.  My cure for not sleeping now is, I preach instead.

This grieves me as well, as a pastor I’ve gone into a bar and taken kids out.  And one of them was in my pre-confession class, and I said, look, you’ve got to make a choice right now.  If you want to go back in, you are out of my pre-confession class.  Because this place, it wasn’t just a friendly-have-a-beer, it wasn’t a good place. And these sorts of concerns, yeah I understand them because I know what was going on when I grew up. My children are younger right now, they are just, you know, starting to come to that age.  God has blessed them, the ones that are at home, to be very godly, and receive these things, and to love the Lord.  But there are going to come times when they are challenged and then I have to step up to the plate.  It may be that in some cases the parents do think this way: it’s a stage, they’ll snap out of it. I’ve preached against that. The elders—the church I was pastoring was in Winnipeg—as elders we knew that there was a hockey tournament, the young people were drinking.  Stuff went wrong, some of them came back for Sunday, some of them didn’t.   We sat down with a group of eight of them and we had it out and said:  is this the Christian way, and should they live this way?  So what more can we do, than keep working on it, cry out from the pulpit, deal with them individually, and try to stir up parents to care about it more.  I don’t think things like that should prevent us from church unity. But where, let’s say, a neighboring pastor or elder became aware of it, don’t just say, oh, there they go! But come and share that with your brother elder or pastor in the Canadian Reformed Church and help us.


Thank you.

Brothers to my left [the URC brethren, Dr. Godfrey and Dr. Venema].  Do you have any comments to make?  Any final words?  I don’t see any further questions coming from the floor.

Dr Godfrey:

We’ve enjoyed this part of the discussion very much. [laughter]

Dr. Van Vliet:

I would like to add something to what was just said.

Here at this synod, I had a discussion with a URC minister struggling with similar things in his own congregation. So, as my colleague has said, this is all the more reason that we need each other.

We’ve heard a number of addresses here [saying] that Satan is out to attack the church.  And we need to help each other and stand together, to resist all of his attacks. Whether that’s among the older, whether that’s among the youth.  And we need to look at it in that way:  let’s help each other address those problems.  We all agree about what’s wrong.

Dr. Van Raalte:

OK, in closing?


Yes, sure.  Do you have some final remarks, and then I will ask these [the URC] brothers as well.

Dr. Van Raalte:

OK, I thought about these closing remarks[1]

I would like to close my remarks by emphasizing that all of our careful theological constructions of covenant theology are intended to illuminate the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. They should not make him obscure but glorify him in all his saving work and help us see him in all the Scriptures. We should do our work in the spirit of the request those Greeks made of the disciples in John 12:21, “Sir, we would see Jesus!” Our theologizing should help us see him in all of Scripture, for he himself explained to the two men on the road to Emmaus “all that was said in the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Indeed, he had earlier said, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39). A chapter later John records his saying, “The work God requires is to believe the one he has sent” (John 6:29). Let our theology serve this call to faith! Paul said that, “Jesus Christ has become for us wisdom from God, that is, our righteousness and holiness and redemption (1Co 1:30). Thus Paul knew “nothing but Christ and him crucified” (1Co 2:2).

Though we have debated some finer points, in the end the purpose is to make manifest our unity in doctrine which itself manifests our unity in Christ, in him as the Unique Person. And we are motivated in our covenant theology to give clarity and power to our preaching of Christ. We believe he took the covenant curse and so destroyed death, supplied the active obedience required in the covenant and so brought to light life and immortality through the gospel (2TIm 1:10) His resurrection was a reward for his obedience within the covenant. He merited that. Thus he brings us to the new creation, with no more sin or curse, with immortality and imperishability, for Christ is also our God. He completed the work the Father gave him to do on earth (John 17:4). He himself, in his person, is the consummation of the covenant. He is Immanuel, God with us, so the very centre of the covenant is found in him. Let us give him the glory.

[1] The audio of the remainder of the address was not recorded. Dr. Van Raalte has provided a reconstruction of his concluding remarks based on his notes.