41. What is the second view that has existed along with the other in the Reformed church?
The following: In the Word of God, there is an offer of the benefits of the covenant on the condition of faith and repentance. By external calling, the Word says: all these benefits are for you, presupposing that you believe. That is the universal offer of the gospel–however, not to everyone to whom it comes without distinction, but only to those of whom it is apparent by their profession and conduct that they do not reject and despise it.
Olevianus says: “In order that out this whole multitude would emerge a church, which God unites to Himself in Christ, God thus begins in that solemn transaction, as in a marriage contract, not with the sealing of grace offered in general (for many reject that grace openly and therefore it cannot be sealed to them; on the other hand, the Lord also does not will to bind Himself to hypocrites, who secretly harden themselves, which would happen if He first gave His seal); but with what in the manner of the offer of grace was the last, He makes in its establishment a beginning by visible signs, etc….Then there follows the sealing of the first in the grace offered in the gospel and the special bond of God” (p. 502.)
Now on must pay close attention to what is implied in this conception. Here in the sacrament there is an offer of the benefits of the covenant, but in what sense?
a) Not as an offer than can still be rejected or accepted, and whereby man is free or remains free. When the sealing takes place, man is bound. The sacrament seals the established covenant.
b) Also, not merely as an offer that must be accepted by virtue of the law and its demand applied to the promises. Every man who hears the gospel is under this obligation. The covenant of grace is not only offered to him, but he is also obliged to accept it and to live according to it. Still, the sacrament cannot yet be administered to him on this basis. The natural obligation to enter into God’s covenant provides no basis for the administration of the seals of the covenant.
c) There must thus be something else, and evidently this other thing is located in the fact that the recipient of the sacrament has solemnly bound himself to live in the covenant and to fulfill the covenant. He has concerned himself with the covenant and has entered into the covenant. It is an established covenant. If he does not walk the path of faith and of repentance, he therefore becomes a covenant-breaker and will be treated as such by God. And he has a weightier responsibility than do those to whom the word of the gospel has merely come, and have never been in relationship with God.
d) This view is thus distinguished from that of an external covenant. In the latter, merely the general offer of the gospel is sealed. Here there is a seal on the promises, whereby it is presupposed that one accepts them in faith. And the basis of that presupposition is the profession of the recipient of the seals that he deserves to live in the covenant and from the covenant. Therefore, not merely: if you believe, the benefit of the covenant is for you. But: since you, according to your own declaration, acquiesce in God’s covenant, there is sealed to you here the right to all the benefits of the covenant in the way of ongoing faith and continual repentance. The difference between the doctrine of an external covenant and this view can best be seen in the baptism of adults. And only this view is in agreement with our Form for the baptism of adults.
That principle is now extended to the baptism of the children of believers. By virtue of their birth from believing parents, they are also included in the covenant; one can even say, on the basis of Scripture, born into the covenant. Thus by this relationship the obligation is incumbent on them to live in the covenant and to live out of it. Again, not in the perfunctory sense in which the obligation to believe is incumbent on everyone to whom the gospel comes, but in the very specific sense that the children are no longer free, are members of the covenant, must keep the covenant, and, should they not do so, become covenant-breakers. Incumbent on them is a wholly unique and particular responsibility. On this basis, that is, on the presupposition and with the expectation that they accept and keep the covenant, the seal of the covenant is administered to them. If, in growing up, they show that they do not fulfill it, then they take a step backwards, they are idle and neglectful in keeping the covenant, or they in fact show that they are not willing to keep the covenant and break it.
One will notice that this conception also avoids the danger present in the doctrine of an external covenant. Here the demand of spiritual truth is held high. The internal is kept in contact with the external. The dualism, however much it may remain in practice, is in theory not legitimized and taught systematically. The ideal character of the covenant, its essence, is kept constantly in view.
42. Are both views, as now described, found beside each other in Reformed theologians?
Yes, in many of those mentioned above one at one time finds expressions that recall the first view, and then again expressions that recall the other. Anyone can be convinced of that by reading attentively. And the more one reads, the more one comes to the conviction that proponents of neither view have the right to commend theirs as the only historical Reformed view. Witnesses for both views can be produced in abundance.
- Geerhardus, Vos. (2014) Reformed Dogmatics. Bellingham, WA 98225: Lexham Press.