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


by David J. Engelsma
Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2005.
Pp. x + 239 (hardback)
ISBN: 0-916206-91-2
Reviewed by Ronald L. Cammenga in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, November 2006

This book is a stirring defense of God’s sovereignty in the covenant, which is to say, God’s sovereignty in salvation. The book sets forth the biblical doctrine of the covenant, as that doctrine has been confessed and developed within the Protestant Reformed Churches. From Scripture, Prof. David Engelsma demonstrates that "The covenant is the relationship of friendship between the triune God and his chosen people in Jesus Christ" (p. 4). Engelsma rejects the view that considers the covenant a contract consisting of mutual obligations of God and the believer. And he rightly grounds God’s covenant of grace with believers in the triune covenant life of God Himself. God is a covenant God in His relationship to His people because God is a covenant God within Himself. God is a covenant God within Himself.

Because the book’s focus is on the place of the children of believers in the covenant, Engelsma concentrates on that very important aspect of the truth of God’s covenant. By appeal both to Scripture and the Reformed confessions, Engelsma sets forth what is the proper Reformed conception of the place of the children of believers in God’s covenant of grace. Of special interest, in this connection, is the author’s treatment of Article 17 of Canons of Dordt, I. This has always been a controversial article in the Canons. The article reads:

Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace in which they, together with the parents, are comprehended, godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy.

Engelsma’s explanation of this article of the Canons is altogether convincing and refreshing. On the one hand, he rejects the understanding of the article, and of I Corinthians 7:14 quoted in the article, that makes the holiness of covenant children only their formally being set apart from other children as outward members of the visible church. On the other hand, he argues against the position that reduces the "comfort" of Article 17 to the likelihood of the salvation of the children of believers who die in their infancy, inasmuch as according to His covenant promise God gathers His children from among the children of believers. This was the view of Herman Hoeksema, a view with which Engelsma respectfully differs. Doing justice to the language of Article 17, and understanding the article to give real comfort to grieving Reformed parents, he explains the article properly to teach that "Grieving godly parents do not stand at the graveside doubting with regard to the particular infant who has died" (p. 33). Behind this article and its rejection of a particular Arminian calumny is "The thinking of the fathers of Dordt … that God has the reprobate children of godly parents come to the age of discretion, so that they render themselves guilty of transgression of the covenant by their own wicked unbelief and disobedience. The outstanding examples of reprobate children of godly parents in the Bible—Cain, Esau, Absalom, and Judas—support this reasoning. Never does Scripture teach the reprobation and damnation of children of godly parents who die in infancy" (p. 33). Only the Reformed faith and its doctrine of the covenant can give real comfort to parents grieving over the death of an infant.

But not only does Engelsma set forth covenant truth positively in The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers, he also is polemical, as the gospel always is. He is first of all polemical against the Baptists, whose covenant view has ever been inimical to that of the Reformed faith. But Engelsma’s polemics reaches closer to home, directed as it is against wrong covenant conceptions within the Reformed churches themselves. Over against the Netherlands Reformed view and its leading proponents, Engelsma argues for the proper view and treatment of covenant children. Over against the Canadian Reformed Churches ("liberated") and their leading proponents, Engelsma argues against the conditional covenant conception. Appealing to the struggle over the conditional (Heynsian) view of the covenant fought out within the Protestant Reformed Churches themselves, he demonstrates from Scripture and the Reformed confessions the unbiblical character of this popular view of the covenant and champions a view of the covenant that is unabashedly controlled by election.

The last two parts of The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers are concerned with a fairly recent development within Reformed and Presbyterian churches. This development is the rise of the teaching known as the "Federal Vision." The Federal Vision is a heresy that, among other things, distinguishes itself by denying justification by faith alone. The advocates of the Federal Vision insist that the Reformers and the Reformed creeds have it wrong in their insistence on justification by faith alone, apart from works. Instead they impudently insist that justification is by faith and by works. Engelsma demonstrates that the root of the Federal Vision heresy is the false teaching of the conditional covenant. The Federal Visionaries are only consistently working out, as they themselves steadfastly insist, the implications of a conditional covenant view. The only possibility, therefore, of demolishing the grand image of the Federal Vision is demolishing the legs of clay upon which the image has been erected. This is what the proponents of the conditional covenant must recognize. Opposition to the Federal Vision can be successful only if it is acknowledged that this heresy is rooted in the false teaching of the conditional covenant.

That is the clarion call of The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers. It is a call to Reformed Christians everywhere to recognize what is the biblically and confessionally consistent view of the covenant. It is a call to Reformed Christians to repudiate once and for all the false teaching of a conditional covenant. It is a call to Reformed Christians to embrace the teaching of the one, everlasting, unilateral covenant of grace. Only this teaching honours the God of the covenant. Only this teaching is consistent with the doctrines of sovereign grace. And only this teaching gives to believers and their children their proper place in the covenant, calling them to thankful, holy living out of gratitude to the covenant God. Our prayer is that The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers receives a wide audience and is used by God for the promotion of the truth, the truth of the covenant of God’s grace.

This book is available from the CPRC Bookstore.