Monday, December 29, 2008

Book Review: The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers: Sovereign Grace in the Covenant - David J. Engelsma

I have just recently finished reading the book, "The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers: Sovereign Grace in the Covenant" by Prof. David J. Engelsma of the Protestant Reformed Churches. This photograph shows a Duplo wall built by my 16-month old nephew just after Christmas. It reminds me of how important and close to our hearts this issue regarding our children is. In this book, Prof. Engelsma wonderfully and comprehensively accomplishes the following:
  1. A biblical defence and explanation of the position of the Protestant Reformed Churches regarding infant baptism, covenant children and the covenant of God, including their various practical implications.
  2. A biblical repudiation of three false notions regarding these subjects.
  3. A biblical examination of the current controversy regarding justification (including the unopposed propagation of the doctrine of justification by works) in various Reformed churches, tracing the root of the issue to an erroneous doctrine of a conditional covenant (the same as that of Klaas Schilder and the "liberated" Reformed Churches against which the Protestant Reformed Churches had a massive internal struggle) which has now been developed into what Prof. Engelsma calls covenantal universalism.
  4. A biblical refutation of a conditional covenant and defense of the covenantal particularism of the Protestant Reformed Churches, the Reformed Creeds (including the Westminster Standards), and orthodox Reformed theologians of history.
In the first place, Prof. Engelsma puts forward the biblical understanding of the children of believers and infant baptism in contrast with other views which I would probably summarise as "Anti-paedobaptist", "Presumptive Unregeneration", and "Covenantal-Arminian". Prof. Engelsma often refers to key texts for the Protestant Reformed view like Gen 17:7 and Rom 9:6-8. He gladly accepts the charge that this is an "election theology" of the covenant, since this has always been the hallmark of orthodox Reformed theology.

This is that the children of believers are in the covenant of God unconditionally with all the blessings of salvation, even being regenerated usually early in childhood, yet not head-for-head. Not all the children of the flesh are children of the promise. There are Esau's among the Jacob's. Yet it is election that determines the approach towards the rearing of covenant children (which is part of why they all ought to be baptised). I found it especially helpful when Prof. Engelsma likened this approach to how the Reformed minister approaches the congregation (such as Paul in 1Co 1:2, 3). He knows that there are most likely hypocrites among them, but they are still collectively the congregation of the saints. Engelsma rightly applied the parable of the wheat field to this (Mat 13:24-30). He also called attention to the importance of church discipline culminating in excommunication, for those children who eventually grow up to manifest themselves as disobedient, wicked and unbelieving.

The "Anti-paedobaptist" view is simply one that seems to either utterly disregard all the promises of God to our children, or believe that the approach taken in rearing children of believers ought to be based upon some kind of conversion experience later on in the child's life, and that only on this basis are the children allowed to be baptised and included in the church. Against this Prof. Engelsma biblically defends the assertion of the 34th Article of the Belgic Confession where it says that "we detest the error of the Anabaptists, who are not content with the one only baptism they have once received, and moreover condemn the baptism of infants of believers."

The "Presumptive Unregeneration" position is inconsistent in that it a view exactly the same as the one above, but nevertheless insists on the baptism of the infant children of believers. This then negates the significance of baptism, and treats all the children of believers without exception (unless and until there is some conversion experience etc) as "little vipers". Prof. Engelsma identifies this unbiblical and harmful notion with Jonathan Edwards (despite his other valuable work) and the Revivalism of the "Great Awakening", and further defends the biblical approach to covenant children. Here he specifically notes the work of Herman Hoeksema, "Believers and Their Seed" for further reading, and explains the Protestant Reformed position as "promised regeneration" according to election, not "presumptive/presupposed regeneration".

Finally the "Covenantal-Arminian" view is that of a repudiation of any governing of the application of the covenant by election and the affirmation of a decidedly Arminian-style conditional covenant. This is the idea that God promises all the blessings of the covenant to all children of believers head-for-head on the basis that Christ has died for them all without exception, yet the efficacy of this promise relies on the work of the child - faith and obedience. Prof. Engelsma also explains that this idea also considers that this conditional promise of God for all to be grace in itself - even if it is rejected. Here we have all the errors of the supposedly "well-meant offer" and the 1924 synodical decision of the Christian Reformed Church on the "three points of common grace".

At this point David J. Engelsma rejoices in the charge of an "election theology" of the covenant in contrast to the doctrine of a conditional covenant which is in essence (within the sphere of the covenant): universal (losable) election, universal (losable) redemption, universal (resistible) grace, and a denial of limited atonement. This leads into a detailed discussion of the contemporary development of a conditional covenant. Engelsma pinpoints the root of the heresy of justification by works within Reformed churches as the commitment to a conditional covenant. He identifies this as covenantal universalism in which the atonement of Jesus Christ is ineffective and the grace of God is losable and conditional.

Prof. Engelsma comprehensively proves that these heresies are the necessary and logical outworking of a conditional covenant, and that all of this is totally opposed to the plain teaching of Scripture. Especially good is his biblical explanation of Hebrews 10 as opposed to that of the covenant-universalists, and his application of the Protestant Reformed understanding of the covenant to correct the error at its heart and to give a consistent biblical framework for understanding sovereign grace in the covenant according to unconditional election and reprobation.

He again biblically establishes the Protestant Reformed doctrine of the unconditional covenant with the elect only as the only consistent and biblical understanding of the covenant of God with the children of believers, and the only way to counter this new attack against the Gospel of grace, and the only way to remain true to the historical Reformed system of doctrine as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards. I was also greatly encouraged to see Prof. Engelsma's courage in comprehensively naming the heretics responsible for propagating these false teachings by name, as the Apostle Paul does in his epistles (1Ti 1:20, 2Ti 2:17-18, 2Ti 4:14-15, etc).

This book presents a solid biblical defense of covenant particularism, its importance especially in light of the current heresies being propagated on the basis of a conditional covenant, and its application for Reformed believers and their children and the manner of their rearing and treatment in the church. There is also a chapter providing a detailed and biblical explanation of the Canons of Dordt, Head 1, Article 17: "No Reason to Doubt", regarding the comfort of godly parents at the death of an infant child on the same basis as the comfort of the church on the death of any of their members and the promise of God.

For all of its many qualities and virtues, this book definitely and unhesitatingly receives my seal of approval:

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Blessedness of Children!

Wow! I just did a bit of study on covenant children; check out these passages:

Gen 9:9
Gen 17:7
Acts 2:39
Eze 16:20
Eze 37:25
Eze 39:25
Mal 2:15
Luke 1:15
Luke 10:21-22
Luke 18:15-16
Mat 11:25
Isa 44:3
Isa 49:25
Isa 54:13
Isa 59:21
Jer 1:5
Jer 31:31-34
Jer 32:39
Prv 20:7
Prv 31:28
Eph 1:1
Eph 6:1
Col 1:2
Col 3:20
Rom 9:6-13
1Co 7:14
Psa 22:9-10
Psa 37:25-28
Psa 71:1-24 - finally a psalm of a covenant child.

This really puts the right perspective on the blessedness of having children: Psalm 127:3-5!

- Sam W.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Lecture: The Reformation's teaching on the church

In the middle of this grand and outwardly glorious church building in France is Napolean's tomb. This is like the church today, beautifully white-washed on the outside, but at heart just a tomb for idolatrous images and the burnt ashes of the corpse of godless man, all built for the worship of Man.

Friday night's lecture was fantastic. Fewer of our (college) friends could come because of the pressures with exams etc, but we were nevertheless, greatly blessed. We had a friend who came down from Galway (and stayed for the whole weekend!) and we had another friend who has been coming to the Lord's Day meetings over for dinner beforehand who was delighted to learn the Reformed and biblical interpretation of 1 John 2:2.

We arrived early, and I was smitten from about 6 o'clock onwards with a splitting headache which endured throughout the entire lecture. But it was a great joy to meet the saints again (and to get loads of books that I had bought!). When the lecture began (which apparently was longer than usual), it seemed to me, that it was finished almost immediately.

I was quite gripped throughout the entire lecture, despite the headache, of which I recalled only afterwards and had to take paracetamol. The lecture covered all kinds of issues regarding the church, many of which are again very relevant today. For example, it would probably be abhorrent to some to consider the church to be the company of the predestinate (in fact to mention the words "the predestinate" is anathema to many). And for a while a few years ago, like many in the house-church movement I had also fallen into the grave error of presuming there to be no need for the church institute.

It was very helpful to hear not only the right view proven, but also all the myriad wrong views of papists, (Ana)baptists and fanatics disproven. What struck me was how comprehensive the lecture was. It seemed like every angle was covered; what the wrong views were (and why!) and what the right view is (and why!). There were (and are) so many controversies about the nature of the church etc, but the truth is so powerful. As always I am fascinated by what I learn about the Reformation and utterly astonished by how far the church has departed, and how gracious God has been to me to bring me to a true church.

Afterward there was some interesting questions and answers on the topic of children in the church. First, the Three Forms of Unity are very good on this subject, and also the CPRC kindly distribute many pamphlets to biblically prove the correct view on this, but I've also been reading Prof. Engelsma's "The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers". I was especially impressed by his treatment of Article 17 of Head 1 of the Canons of Dordt in the chapter "No Reason to Doubt", and I highly recommend it!

Almost all the "evan-jelly" church in Limerick while not necessarily baptist by name is (ana)baptist by nature; this false indoctrination and total ignorance of the covenant of God (and its nature) is why it is a big hurdle for people here to get around. I still marvel at how clearly I see the doctrine of covenant children in the Bible now, when once I thought it was a totally foreign concept.

The "evan-jellies" do a good job of inoculating us to the plain truth of the Bible until it is pointed out. This is what shallow preaching does: it causes confusion and ignorance and obscures the truth. I think this is why the foolishness of preaching does more than reading alone ever could. It's like God uses preachers who labour in their studies of God's word to point to the elephant in the room that you were too busy examining the toenail of to see that it was an elephant. How long did it take Luther in his reading to see that “the righteousness of God” is referring to His righteousness which can only be imputed to us by Christ, not a righteous standard that we must attain to of ourselves? But if it had been preached to him, the pieces of the jigsaw would have clicked together in very little time.

It is amazing to hear of all the many issues that were dealt with at the time of the reformation, and yet how ignorant most of us are of them. It is so sad, when there is such a precious wealth of biblical truth to be learnt from when these issues came up in the past, that the churches today seem to be like the proverbial fool returning to their folly (of the papists), like a dog to its vomit (Prv 26:11). If your father built most of a house already before he passed away, would you simply demolish it and start building your own from scratch? That's not only foolish, its obstinate and prideful - all of which I too am abundantly guilty.

In Limerick it seems like most church leaders are utterly blind to this. The lecture was like a bombshell going off making clear just how far the false churches have departed from the truth. God-willing others who received copies on CD of the lecture will see that they need to join a biblical church. I am always greatly encouraged when there is a public lecture, because I know that Christ is the one who builds His church (Matthew 16:18) and that it is by the work of ministers of the Word, especially in the preaching, that we are brought into unity, not to be blown about by every wind of doctrine (Eph 4:11-16).

There are certainly many winds of doctrines blowing around here in Limerick, but how can the lies stand against the word of God which is like a fire and a hammer that breaketh the rock into pieces (Jer 23:28-29)? Knowing this, I am courageous to pray and bold to approach the throne of our sovereign and gracious God who does as He pleases among the inhabitants of the earth, for the sake of the Reformed faith in this city, and that He would gather the saints here together so that we would obey 1Co 1:10.

We had some great chats afterwards as well. It was an absolute delight to hear the Reformed minister wholly confute all kinds of silly questions about the "age of reason" and other unbiblical notions, and defend the plain meaning of various passages of Revelation against the divers imaginations about communists, China, Russia, Gog and Magog and years etc. I told my friends about a book "Behold He Cometh!" by Herman Hoeksema (which can be read on-line) that I've been reading through, and how thoroughly sensible and biblical is the interpretation of Revelation it presents without wandering off into any foolish speculations and unscriptural ideas. The only right interpretation is what plainly comes by Sola Scriptura: “Scripture interprets Scripture!”

I think it was about hour after we said that we were going that we actually went, and even then we all spent some time thanking Rev. Stewart for coming down and talking about plans for possibly visiting the CPRC again in January. Exciting stuff! I could probably say a lot more, but I must get more study done - and lots of it.

- Sam W.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Foolish Prideful Imaginations of Man: Evolutionism

This is one of the particularly poignant hurdles against the subject of this prideful man-made imagination of the naturalistic evolution of all things from pond-goo or inorganic molecules.

Heed the graph to the right. On the horizontal axis we have the probability of a positive or negative effect of a mutation to be selected for by natural means. On the vertical axis we have the relative frequencies of these (im)probable mutations. Now, first it must be said that this graph almost certainly wholly underestimates the unlikelihood of an environmental factor to meaningfully select for or against a mutation.

The problems are numerous, first a mutation has to actually correspond to some kind of meaningful phenotype (which is unlikely in the extreme), and then also the environmental factors have to be so fine-tuned as to select specifically for this awesomely minor phenotype difference, and ignore all the other more acute phenotypes which crowd it and vy for its attention. Secondly the environmental factor has to also somehow ignore all the other uninherited factors which constitute the largest part of the realised phenotype, and somehow distinguish between a phenotype ever so slightly (if at all) influenced by an ever so slight mutation, and the full range of phenotypes brought about by the synergism of inherited factors and uniherited factors (there most likely will not be any way to distinguish). For example, it is thought that 99.6% of fitness is not related to inherited factors at all.

But even setting all these insurmountable problems aside (for the sake of our foolish and deceived atheistic naturalists, knowing that is only by the free sovereign grace of God that we ourselves are not so deceived), this graph gives us a gray region in which it is considered that the effect of the mutation is so near neutral, that it is considered to not have any effect at all. First notice that most mutations fall into this bracket, second notice that almost all mutations are deleterious, third notice that some deleterious mutations do emerge on the left, but fourth notice that the positive mutations (which in fact cannot increase information or create new functions anyway) do not come close to escaping the gray band. What does all this tell us (at the very least)?

  1. No mutation can provide new information or new functions, only "fine-tune" (or hugely more likely mess-up) what is already there.
  2. Positive mutations are thoroughly out-weighed by deleterious ones.
  3. Almost all mutations have little or no effect on actual phenotypes (and positive ones even much less so).
  4. Any effect on actual phenotypes is wholly crowded out by all the other factors which influence phenotypes, most not even heritable.
  5. Even if the right environmental factor was present to select for this phenotype it would have next to no correspondence to the mutation.
  6. The environmental factor that would select for a particular phenotype would mostly be entirely crowded out by all the other environmental factors involved.
  7. Natural selection is totally blind and mostly does not select for the best phenotypes, but rather the selection is mostly determined by chance in a natural environment because the difference in phenotypes is usually insignificant anyway.

All this is without even mentioning the vast plethora of other insurmountable hurdles, such as every single step from inorganic chemicals to organic chemicals, organic chemicals to useful biological molecules, useful biological molecules to useful cell components, useful cell components to cells, cells to specialised cells, specialised cells to tissues, tissues to organs, organs to systems, simple systems to complex systems, and the list goes on and on. And in between each of these is hundred more impossibilities or more. Added to this is the innumerable irreducible complexities within even the smallest components of every single living organism on the planet, living systems, cells, molecules, etc.

No, not in a million years would even one of these hurdles be overcome (and most not even by carefully-guided and designed processes). Not in a billion. Its time evolutionists faced up to harsh realities of physics, chemistry and mathematics. And then take a look at the fossil record too - distinct species, not intermediates are found. And then turn around and look at everything sensible biology and genetics has discovered to date and see that it has flown in the face of this fantasy of evolution.

Everything in the true science of biology teaches us about the awesome wonder of creation and the glory of the incomprehensible transcendent Creator. But all we ever learn here can only ever condemn us for our sinfulness in not giving the praise that our Creator deserves. The Gospel of Jesus Christ alone is what tells us of how we may be redeemed from our sins and the punishment we deserve.

- Sam W.

Thanks to CMI for this article:
For a full list of references see the above article.
Any questions or objections can be addressed to CMI but have probably already been answered or refuted by them.
See a previous post for more on why this issue is important for me and for all Bible-believing Christians.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Visiting the CPRC!

The weekend before last, my friends and I visited the church that is currently working with the fellowship I attend to plant a church in my area. I have never been so thoroughly convinced of the truth of the Belgic Confession when it says that the true and false churches may be easily distinguished! You might get the occasional poisoned scrap in one and a drop of gone-off milk, but in the true church the sheep actually get fed with pure healthy milk by the gallon and strengthened by bucketloads of good solid food!

It was an amazing weekend. Along with the other saints, I met a man, Francesco, again (he remembered me from the very first public lecture by this church that I had been to (17th August 2007)!), and we had some great and encouraging discussions. He was also able to recommend about half the bookstore, so my friends and I got a lot of books, and we've all been doing a lot of reading.

We've had to, because first, we had to be utterly convinced from Scripture that the CPRC's dogmatics were correct. There were various things that we had big questions about to begin with, as the minister can testify to. We gave him some pretty thorough grillings (and that was after we had read loads on the website)! Infant baptism and covenant children and mode of baptism, the nature of the Lord's supper, brethren-style church "order", some aspects of charismaticism, the regulative principle, exclusive psalmody, KJV and other Bible versions, observance of the Lord's Day/Christian sabbath, the use of creeds, the Three Forms of Unity (3FU), etc. There was a lot! But all these issues seem so clear to me now! And I could very easily prove every one from Scripture, because not only did I have to have these proven to me before I would accept them, but secondly, I have now had to prove them to others and defend the teaching of the CPRC as the 3FU tell me biblically that I should.

Thirdly, I have had to read loads, because the more I understand these things, the more I love and adore these great truths and all the teaching of the CPRC, and so have felt compelled to read more, not just for my own sake, but for the sake of those around me here, and so that I would be further conformed to the image of Christ and always be ready to give an answer for the hope that I have! It really encouraged me to hear also about how God brought Francesco into contact with the CPRC and out of such falsehood.

Many of our college friends have not taken very well however to our stance on many issues. At the heart of which, of course, as always, is Calvinism and most particularly, the five points thereof. The lie that man is involved in salvation is always where the heart of the battle rages. It is because salvation is the centrepiece of God's glory, and to say that man is in anyway responsible is the very pinnacle of human pride. But God will not share His glory with another, so may we never give an inch to the falsehoods that abound in this country.

I look forward to more such well fed weekends, and I cannot contain my excitement about this work here where I live. Our fellowship has begun to have morning meetings as well now. May God graciously allow this to continue, and build His church, and may we be thankful always, rejoicing in what He has done for us.

- Sam W.