Friday, July 9, 2010


A discussion paper by Chris A. Van Doodewaard,
St. Thomas

I believe that the Free Reformed Churches of North America uphold our forms and confessions in this matter, as do the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands.

We do not endorse “confession of the truth” Our churches agree with, and take the position outlined above, that confession of faith is to be a true confession. The great majority of the congregations in our denomination follow the proper Biblical and Reformed practice of requiring those who desire to confess their faith, to confess before God and His congregation their living union with Christ, their Saviour.

Perhaps some Free Reformed congregations do allow “confession of the truth”. I believe that the “confession of truth” position has a very detrimental effect on the health of the body of Christ. The church is not a religious society, but the living body of our Lord Jesus Christ on earth. Believers are united to Him through faith and are united in the church to one another.

Consistories are watchmen on Zion’s walls. They defend and protect the church from harmful influences and have regard to its purity in doctrine, confession, life and discipline. They hold the Keys of the Kingdom and their responsibility is to bring the Gospel message, encourage believers, admonish the unrepentant, and guard the church. Their duty is to exercise discretion and discipline both in admitting and removing members. It stands to reason that a church with an open door policy will be very weak, and subject to all kinds of error. The consistories’ responsibility is to admit only true believers to the body of Christ. Those who can truly confess with the mouth and show with their life and deeds that they believe in their Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our form for adult baptism asks the member who is doing confession to publicly, in the presence of many witnesses, confirm that he/she believes the following:

Question 3:
Do you believe that Christ, who is the true and eternal God, and very man, who took his human nature on him out of the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary, is given you of God, to be your Saviour, and that you do receive by this faith, remission of sins in His blood, and that you are made by the power of the Holy Spirit, a member of Jesus Christ and His Church?

Answer: Yes.

This question is unequivocal, and cannot be interpreted as a question regarding “confession of truth”.

If the consistory applies a double standard and requires from outsiders coming in to the church the above profession for entering the church by baptism and confession of faith, and for its home grown children requires only a “confession of the truth” it is not consistent, true to its calling, nor properly using the keys of the kingdom of God entrusted to it. The objective standard cannot be changed to suit the applicant.

Each applicant for confession of faith has to learn the Heidelberg Catechism. It also sets out the standard for doing confession of one’s faith. It teaches very personally, it does not teach: If you are a believer, what would be your only comfort in life and death? It teaches plainly: What is your only comfort in life and death. That is the question a consistory is to ask at confession of faith, and not: do you believe the Bible and the standards and doctrines.
The answer is very plain:

That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with His precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly father, not a hair can fall from my head, yes, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by His Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him. 2

Our denomination has published the book titled “ God’s Yea and Your Amen” by L.H. Vandermeyden. This book is given to persons doing confession of faith by their consistories. We take a very clear position against “confession of the truth” in this publication.

“It is a known fact that the General Synod of the Free Reformed Churches in the Netherlands decided in 1836 that no one may be considered a member of the church except upon confession of faith and by no means as the result of learning some doctrines by heart. Hence the Lord’s Church can never say: If you intellectually accept the truth, you may make confession of faith. That would be misleading.” 3

In an article with the title The Covenant of Grace in Reformed Theology Rev. C.A. Schouls, pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Chatham writes the following regarding confession of truth.

Where do we stand on these issues? A few things must be noted.
1. From a strictly church orderly point of view, we, as independent churches living in North America, have not only never made any official pronouncement on any of these issues, we have not even dealt with them in any official format. Our sister churches in the Netherlands did, not only in their formative years but as recently as the 1950's. Does this mean that we simply assume their position on these various matters? Does the relation of daughter/sister church imply that we inherit and accept as our own, their theological positions? Personally, I would favourably consider this, with prudent safeguards, but can this simply be assumed to have happened or should there be some form of formal recognition of this?
2. Continuing in this line, it must be noted that the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken have always been careful and rather broad in their official statements on this subject. Although the infra-lapsarian, three covenant position was widely accepted and taught at the seminary, those who held to the supra-lapsarian position and two covenant view were allowed to do so without fear of ecclesiastical censure.

What was dealt with at various times was the issue of Confession of Faith; an issue which in both theory and practice is derived from the matter at hand. In 1913 and in 1950 Synods rejected the notion of "Confession of Truth" as being something which the Church of Christ cannot appreciate.
Rev. A. Hilbers wrote in 1952 (De Nieuwe Gehoorzaamheid, p. 24) that at these synods

" ... it was pronounced, that on the basis of God’s Word and the Confessions, a living faith as demanded by God must be required in confession of faith. “

This was so stated, probably as a reaction to the neo-reformed doctrines, because many wanted to see in the public confession of faith nothing more than a formal act which happened to be a church orderly requirement. Saying "Yes" before the Lord and His holy congregation would mean only the recognition of the historical accuracy of the Scriptures. Confession is then made of the so-called "historical faith" and one speaks of confession of the truth.

The church cannot appreciate this expression. How could it? Truth needs no confession. The acceptance of this expression would mean the relinquishing of the line of the reformation, violate Scripture and confession and deny the principle of being Christelijk Gereformeerd (Free Reformed)."

I have quoted him at some length because I suspect that these things need to be refocused among us. For the sake of good order in the lives of our churches let us, at least publicly, hold to this line, even if in private we should favour a covenant view which may not be so congenial to this.
3. While no official recognition has been granted to statements made by the Dutch churches, and while these statements have no binding value, we do well, as office bearers, to focus our thoughts and our pastoral work on some of these truths. I would place before you especially the statements of the Synods of the Secession churches, held in 1837 and in 1846.

1837 - "the danger of hypocrisy and self-deception calls for constant exposition from the pulpit of the marks of spiritual life and also for constant exhortation to self-examination, but this danger does not justify the making of the distinction, in practice, between converted and unconverted members and the Church’s inability to judge of the heart excludes all possibility of ecclesiastical action with respect to the latter."

1846 - "...all the children of those who have joined the congregation ought to be baptized; this, however, imparts no internal holiness to the children and when these children, in coming to maturity, give no evidence of godliness, they must, without exception, be dealt with as children of wrath."

We have only touched upon some aspects of this fascinating and very important subject. The Covenant of Grace is a rich truth but it has weighted down many a soul who used this truth in the wrong way. Many have lost the way in the labyrinth of speculation and innovation. Two things can be done to avoid that danger:

1. In preaching, teaching and dealing with the Covenant of Grace and related matters let us not go beyond the bounds set by our Confessions;
2. In preaching and witnessing of these covenant mercies, let us always act as representatives of the Christ of the Covenant who is full of compassion and who, with arms stretched out wide, calls out, "Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely." 1

There is more Free Reformed material on the Covenant and Election. Rev. C. Pronk, Pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Brantford, has translated a book by this title written by Dr. J. Van Genderen, one of the professors at the Free Reformed Theological University in the Netherlands. This book takes a very clear position on the three covenant doctrine. The confusion and divergence on “confession of the truth” finds its root in the view on election and covenant. Rev. Pronk has provided a great service to the denomination in translating this work so that we have a clear outline of the Biblical doctrine of Covenant and Election.

Van Genderen states:

The confession that God chooses His people does not in any way obscure the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Any suggestion that over against the covenant which speaks of God’s sovereign grace as well as human responsibility, we are still faced with the fact of divine election which renders us passive, is contrary to Scripture.
Election to salvation is also election to the way of salvation which God has ordained that we should walk therein. (Canons of Dort 1, 8.) Also the confession regarding divine election does not pose any threat to personal assurance which flows from faith in what God has promised us in His covenant. That would be so if one first had to discover signs or fruits of election in one’s life before one were warranted to appropriate the promised salvation. The God of election Who in Christ has chosen sinners to a life of service in communion with Him, is the same God as the God of the covenant, Who comes to us with His promises and demands, because in Christ, the mediator of the covenant, He wants to be Emmanuel, God with us. Through Him we are the people of God. Christ is the mirror in which we perceive our election (Calvin). The gospel is the gospel of the electing love of God which goes out to people who deserve nothing. It is the essential love of God which was there before we came into being.
The covenant of grace, the promise of salvation, the proclamation of the gospel to the congregation, baptism and the Lord’s supper as covenant seals – they all point in the same direction. While the doctrine of election should not be dominant in the doctrine of the covenant, it is an important component of it. 2

Van Genderen makes some other noteworthy statements on this subject, under the heading of Is the covenant dominated by election? he writes:

In Steenblok’s historical overview Calvin comes last. This is very remarkable. Calvin, according to Steenblok, taught the same thing as the other Reformed fathers discussed earlier, namely that only the elect are truly in the covenant. He who is acquainted with the teachings of the reformer of Geneva cannot but object to this interpretation. For Calvin especially, the idea of a covenant of grace with promises for believers and their children is a real as can be!
The conviction that the covenant of grace is dominated by election has led to the view in the Netherlands Reformed congregations that the promise of the covenant is reserved for a segment of the congregation, even though there is admittedly, also an administration of the covenant which comes with a well meant offer of Christ and of the covenant benefits in the gospel.
In Steenblok’s theology this election-dominated thinking resulting in a covenant and promise for none but the elect has become a system which leaves room only for an offer of grace to those who have come to know themselves as sinners before God and who wait for grace – which presumably is the first mark of election.
In connection with the conflict of 1953 Steenblok and like-minded spirits produced this very consistent formulation:
The essence of the covenant consists in this “that through regeneration the elect are ingrafted into Christ and it is not until this ingrafting takes place that they receive the right to the promises which God in Christ has bequeathed to His elect”.

This view of election and the covenant, however, does not agree with Holy Scripture and the Reformed confessions. We admitted already that there is a reformed tradition which has evolved in this direction. But you cannot find support for this position with Calvin. 1

What happens when a consistory allows “confession of the truth”?

It is allowing unbelievers admittance to church membership, the body of Christ, and as confessing members the consistory now also permits these unbelievers admittance to the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. This is a violation of their responsibility in the use of the keys of the Kingdom. The consistory may not provide permission to unbelievers to have admittance to the Lord’s table.

What problems are created in allowing unbelievers to become members?

This leads to many problems in the body of Christ. When many dead members make up the “church” the church will feel the weight of that. The church will be half dead. This has an effect on everything the church does. It will be evident where ever these dead members function. In society at large they cannot give a witness of the hope that is in them. When they are asked what church they belong to they can give the answer, and then when they are asked if they believe; they are silent. They are useless for the purpose of witnessing for the Lord. In the church itself they will deaden the church’s activities because the required essential matter, a living faith, is missing. If they are Sunday school teachers will they then have a burning zeal for the souls of the children entrusted to their care? Or are they merely history teachers? If they are consistory members they will be blind leading the blind.
Dead orthodoxy will overtake such a church, and often we see when people come to faith that they want to leave a church that has these practices. Satan is very pleased with a church of which many members cannot give a testimony of their faith. It will make this church ineffective. It will rob the church of a living witness to the outside.

At synod we often hear reports of deadness in the church. There are so few people who are spiritually minded. Can it be that when the elders load the church with dead members, there is cause and effect? Can it be when we have no power of attraction on the world, that this is due to the debilitating effect of a partially dead church membership?

At the elders and deacons conference the question was discussed if such members who do not attend the Lord’s supper should be disciplined. This discussion is indicative of the quagmire “confession of truth” leads to. If a consistory allows an unbeliever (there are only two categories of persons; believers and unbelievers, there is no in between) to be a full member of the church of Christ and allows this unbeliever admittance to the sacraments, it would be hypocritical for the consistory to discipline this unbeliever for not attending the Lord’s supper.

We can note that in denominations where “confession of the truth” is practiced, that some members are given home visitation to question their motives, when they do “dare” to attend the Lord’s supper, while no care or home visitation is given immediately after the Lord’s supper to the many members who do not attend the Lord’s supper. There appears to be little care or concern for all those who are in darkness and do not participate in the Lord’s supper. In reality these are the members who need pastoral care, and a visit subsequent to communion if they have not attended.
The practice of normal Reformed admittance by confession of faith, when replaced by “confession of the truth” turns the church upside down and leads to harmful abnormalities.

Notwithstanding the “Nadere Reformatie” the practice of “confession of truth” is unbiblical and unreformed. It may, at great cost, give the appearance of peace in the church, by admitting all those who want to join, even those who have no personal testimony. It does ad a maximum number of members to the congregation. It also allows individuals to become communicant members without having to deal with the pressing demand of the Gospel, to be born again.
Does the preaching feed this wrong thinking or does it seek to correct it? Does it bring home man’s responsibility?

When young people are refused entrance into the membership of the body of Christ because they cannot speak of a living faith in their Lord, it requires them to be more earnest, to make this a matter of prayer, to fight against sin and to plead the Lord’s promises. If the consistory admits these young people on the basis of “confession of the truth”, they can rest comfortably, and continue as before.

Particularly because we have a joint seminary with the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregations we should clearly delineate our differences regarding confession of truth at our elders and deacons conferences. As Free Reformed Churches of North America, when we are cooperating with a denomination that has erroneous doctrines and practices in this area, we have to take position and affirm where we as Free Reformed denomination stand. I was disappointed by the weak position taken in the discussion on the Free Reformed doctrines at this conference.

Please peruse the attached translation from a book of J.H. Velema, one of the most respected and prolific authors in the Free Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. He discusses in his book “Who Are We?” and there clearly delineates the differences between ourselves and the Netherlands Reformed Congregations.

Although there are many matters we share in common with the HNRC such as a love for the scriptures, a recognition of the entire scriptures as the living Word of God, the same creeds, there are also dangers in having a joint seminary with this denomination. The material presented by Rev. J.H. Velema is a real revelation and shows the divergent views we hold compared with this denomination. Not only the matter of “confession of the truth” is at issue, but also the view of the church and the covenant.

The matter of confession of the truth is not the root problem, but only a symptom of wrong doctrines held by the HNRC that appear to go mostly unrecognized. The doctrinal differences concern the view of the Covenant, Election, the doctrine of the Church, and flowing out of that, confession of the truth. The view held by Velema is thoroughly Calvinistic and Reformed.

Chris A. Van Doodewaard

  • Background notes regarding "Confession of Truth", a continuation of the public discussion at the elders & deacons conference.

  • At the elders and deacons conference held on October 21, 2000 held in the Free Reformed Church of London, Rev. P. VanderMeyden, Pastor of the Free Reformed Church at Grand Rapids lectured on the above subject. The paper he presented regarding Confession of faith and truth was discussed. I will not repeat the scriptural analysis he presented. I am sure this would be available upon request. In the discussion, the line taken in this paper appeared to be bent in the direction of acceptance and tolerance towards confession of truth, or at least tolerance of a confession that did not include the profession of Christ as personal Saviour.

  • At the end of the conference Rev. VanderMeyden asked if anyone had further comments that these be communicated to him. Regretfully, the discussion at the elders and deacons conference was mostly a pastoral exchange and although I did try to speak on several occasions at the end of the meeting, the discussion was closed without having the opportunity to present some of the material below. For this reason I am communicating these comments to you and also to others, who were unable to reflect on this. I trust that it will impart some clarity to this matter and will be of benefit to the reader.

  • In the discussion one of the participants, stated that confession of truth should not be allowed, and that we should only have confession of faith. The discussion about this was ambivalent and appeared to create room for both a confession of faith, and a confession that was less than a confession of faith, since it did not include acquiescence in a most personal manner to LD 1, question and answer 1 of our Heidelberg Catechism.

cc. Rev. P. VanderMeyden

For further background information on this matter, a quotation follows from

Wie Zijn Wij?
by J.H. Velema.

published by Buiten & Schipperheijn, Amsterdam, 1992.

De Gereformeerde Gemeente (p. 166-177)

J.H. Velema. Who are We? Amsterdam: Buiten & Schipperheijn, 1992

The Netherlands Reformed Congregations (p.166-177)

The following is a translation of the above section of the above work into the English language. Rev.J.H. Velema is a pastor in the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands (Free Reformed Churches of North America equivalent). The work is of value due to the relationship developing with the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregations in North America through the Free Reformed use of and partial cooperation with Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, the official seminary of the HNRC. The HNRC has no official doctrinal differences with the Netherlands Reformed Congregations, but divided from them in over a situational issue of church polity.

“We steadfastly desire to continue to defend the doctrines and experiential emphases of our Reformed forefathers, holding the authority of the Word of God above all, as well as maintaining the authority of the confessions and the church order of Dort (which are based on the Scriptures and to which we have subscribed) as above the councils of men who depart from them. The Word of God cannot and may not be bound; the law and gospel must be preached to all people (Acts 4:29-31; 5:41-42).
Though we cannot refuse to assist those who, like us, cannot accept Synod’s unbiblical decisions and yet desire to continue on in the NRC (for we cannot cease to “teach and preach Jesus Christ” [Acts 5:42], and must remain our “brother’s keeper” [Gen.4:9], we wish to make it clear we still pray for ultimate reunion on scriptural grounds. Even though we may not turn a deaf ear to Macedonian callers (Acts 16:9) who yearn to remain true to the Scriptures and all that the NRC has always stood for... may God be pleased to heal the unnecessary breaches...” (Consistory of the First Netherlands Reformed Congregation “An Open Letter with Heavy Hearts” in The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth September 1993, 12.)

“After a brief discussion, unanimous approval was given to adopt the denominational name ‘Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregations,’ being understood as a continuation of the heritage and denomination of our fathers established in 1907.” (Report of the “Charter Classical Meeting of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregations of North America” in The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth September 1994, 189.)

A separate history

The following denomination, to which we now turn our attention, is formed by the Netherlands Reformed Congregations -- a denomination which takes an entirely separate, and fairly isolated place on the right wing of the Reformed community. It is a group of churches which has also over the years had a large influence and still influences the Free Reformed Churches, for various reasons. There is much that connects us to these churches -- not only that they desire to stand on the foundation of Scripture and the Reformed confessions -- that also binds us to the Canadian Reformed and the other Reformed Churches -- but first of all also the focus on the need for personal conviction of what we believe.
One of the deepest similarities is a common root. All of those who are outside of the Dutch State Church (Reformed Church) and claim the name Reformed have their roots in the Secession of 1834. This is also the case with the Netherlands Reformed Congregations. These churches came together under this name in 1907. In that year there was a combining of two smaller groups of churches -- two groups both dating from the previous century, running alongside, yet having real differences with the church of the Secession. These two groups were the Ledeboerian congregations and the Churches under the Cross.
The first group of churches is named after Rev. L.G.C. Ledeboer (1808-1863), who was a man of a peculiar personality, marked by subjectivism and an independent streak. On November 8, 1840, in the middle of his sermon he hurled his psalter and the church regulations from the pulpit, and then after the service buried them in the garden of the parsonage. During the week following he was suspended for his actions, but continued preaching, and was defrocked as a pastor in the following January. Because of this he ended up outside of the Reformed Church. Not surprisingly the Secession Churches sought contact with him. These contacts however did not lead to any sort of unity. The freedom or independence question of the Secession churches created a hindrance which Ledeboer did not want to accept. But at the same time we do not read in historical documents of any contact with the Churches under the Cross, who had the same problem with the Secession Churches. Ledeboer was an individualist and preached for all sorts of fellowships in all sorts of circles. Through his itinerating preaching he gathered various groups around himself, which -- not surprisingly -- were named Ledeboerian congregations. He lived by his mystic impulses and subjective feelings/experiences and therefore could hardly conform to an ordered church situation, where church order rules over the life of the church.
Towards the end of his life he had two followers: Rev. P. van Dijke and Rev.D. Bakker. It would be going too in depth for this book to describe the struggles between these two men and their followers in various congregations, especially in Zeeland. It is a colorful history from which it is clear that individualism and subjectivism had a substantial and formative role in the Ledeboerian congregations, to the point that these became definitive characteristics of the congregations. They followed in the tracks of the “father” of the denomination, Ledeboer.
In 1869 the Secession Churches and the Churches under the Cross united and were subsequently named the “Christian Secession Reformed Church and the Reformed Church under the Cross” as set out in chapter 2 of this book.
But despite having this new denomination as option to the national Reformed Church, not all congregations joined: Enkhuizen, Lisse and Tricht remained independent. There were also other congregations which felt uncomfortable in the new denomination and also wanted to stand as independents. People felt that the experiential preaching which was characteristic of the Churches under the Cross was being pushed to the background by the second generation of preachers of the Secession churches.
To sum it up briefly, around the turn of the century there were diverse free-floating “congregations” or small groups -- congregations each having their own independent existence. But during the same time period there was among the Churches under the Cross a gradual to increasingly strong tendency, desiring to move to a more ordered church life.
It was indeed a tangle of strands and threads -- churches, meeting groups, conventicles -- out of which the more structured Netherlands Reformed Congregations would be formed in 1907. The Churches under the Cross took the initiative. The driving and initiating force was Rev.G.H. Kersten who with great organizational skill bound together not only the circle of congregations to which he belonged, where he met with resistance, but also brought together the Ledeboerian congregations and gaining their support, so that at the mutual Synod of October 9 and 10, 1907 in Rotterdam there were delegates from 13 Churches under the Cross and 22 Ledeboerian Congregations.
A historian writes: “all of these congregations had different origins, and often were so isolated to themselves, that they only knew of one another by name, but not with the communion or fellowship of true understanding. No wonder there were at once tensions in the young fellowship of churches.”
Nonetheless Kersten remains a figure worthy of admiration, who as another albeit smaller Kuyper, stands as a similar organizer in church, politics, and education. He was the central and dominating figure. He wrote “Reformed Dogmatics explained to the Congregation” in order to give direction. He took care of the Church Handbook and in so doing underscored the importance of the church order in binding together denominational life. He edited the church periodical Bound Together (De Saambinder) and initiated the establishment of the Theological School in 1927. Talented with a skilled pen and being a gifted orator he received the support of many.
The Netherlands Reformed Congregations continued to develop and transformed themselves to a strong and closed church society, which found its strength in its isolation.


Also with these churches there is much to be appreciated and much that we wish we had some more of. Things such as sincere and earnest church-going, the willingness to give and make sacrifices, the steadfastness, the pious lifestyle, and the warnings against conformity to this world. Of course we know not all is well that looks that way outwardly; the power of tradition is strong -- and it is not the same as the power of faith. But in spite of these qualifications, the fact remains that these churches are less affected by the shifting tides of modern developments than the churches to their left.
In the last ten years the Netherlands Reformed Congregations have begun to come forward as defenders of the ancient Reformed heritage. They name themselves by preference “reformational”, because the word Reformed is deemed by them to have become too superficial. They have somewhat self-righteously taken the name for themselves, which they have no monopoly over.
In various areas the Netherlands Reformed Congregations have sought cooperation with those whom they deemed to be worthy of working together with as fitting their reforming, experiential standard and by this have developed one great strength, through which now in the Netherlands a Reformed influence has been established which must be thoroughly reckoned with.
During the sixties the fruit of ecumenism burst into the Netherlands, and Christian organizations, schools and media were infected with ecumenicism, generally there was a trend towards becoming superficial in spirit, truths were undermined, confessions pushed away, and the orthodox view of Holy Scripture was in decline. In response a right-wing front was also formed among the Netherlands Reformed Congregations. This was done using various means and included various people, who did not always operate from the same motives or with the same purposes. In newspaper, school, and political party, these presented themselves as solidly “reformational”, and that “reformational” theme often developed the filling of the days of the Dutch Second Reformation. There was a clear and discernable minimization of the Reformation of the 16th century. Nevertheless there is appreciation of the effort to throw up a dam to block the flow of secularization. Often also a concentration of Reformed believers, though different in background and formation, want to maintain the great importance of the confessions for all areas of life. As a result this reformational work in many respects earned support and cooperation.
In the following years this cooperation caused on the one hand an experience of spiritual unity, but on the other hand the particular emphasis of “reformational” (Dutch Second Reformation) church history and theology was underlined through this influence, which some continue to desire to push according to their own conception; these have lately have come to prevail and are at times difficult to dialogue with.
As Free Reformed Churches we feel kinship for the Netherlands Reformed Congregations as fellow believers in their love for God’s truth, which affects both heart and mind. But we also realize, certainly in organized interdenominational relations, our divergent history rooted in differing views, which ultimately go back to a different vision of the congregation and of the meaning of God’s Word for our personal lives.

History of the Relations

The Free Reformed Synod of 1919 named deputies who received the mandate to dialogue with the Netherlands Reformed Congregations regarding the possibility of unity. The Netherlands Reformed Congregations had by this point been in existence in this form for twelve years and some consolidation had taken place. In 1917 Kersten had formed the State Reformed Party (SGP), which also drew supporters from our denomination. This party was stood in opposition against Kuyper’s theology as well as Kuyper’s politics. The SGP gave a welcome political alternative, and eyes began to focus on the Netherlands Reformed Congregations as a result. It is worthy to note that at the southern Free Reformed regional synod concrete instructions were given to work towards unity with the Netherlands Reformed Congregations; those of the middle Free Reformed regional synod wanted unity with all those who loved the Reformed faith, while those of the northern Free Reformed regional synod did not even want to discuss the idea of unity, because they viewed the Free Reformed denomination as the only legitimate and true body of Christ -- believing cooperation and unity can only find a place where this legitimacy was acknowledged. These differences are typical of the Free Reformed Churches. It would not be a misstatement to say that the influence of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations in the south was the reason for the specific welcoming attitude of the southern regional synod.
The dialogues began and Kersten soon became aware of the perspective of the north. “As long as the error of schism was completely our fault, there was a possibility of moving towards unity; but there was no possibility at all if we took the standpoint ‘you schismatics ought to join us!”
The Synod of 1922 softened these statements and took the same stance as the Synod of 1869 regarding the Churches under the Cross. These Synods declared that the Netherlands Reformed Congregations were a legitimate revelation of the body of Christ. But despite the taking away of this obstacle the talks went nowhere. The Synod of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations was of the opinion that there was no mutual love and it was best that the talks were ended. There was a substantial separation in places where there is a Netherlands Reformed Congregation and also a Free Reformed Church. The present time is not prime for attempts toward unity.
The times have apparently never become prime -- not after the Second World War either. Moves towards talks by both sides were called off due to “large and difficult points of difference, which are not unknown to you – connected weighty and entangling problems which stand between us.”
In 1950 a more concrete statement was set forth:

that the Netherlands Reformed Congregations have not changed at all in their stance concerning the covenant of grace.

Because of this significant difference regarding this most important doctrine, the Free Reformed synod determined that any discussion would be a totally fruitless exercise!
While there are good personal contacts here and there, and while there is some cooperation in various efforts during the past years, there have been no official moves towards any sort of talks.


Where do the differences between the Free Reformed Churches and the Netherlands Reformed Congregations lie? Do they really exist? And if they do, are they in reality simply blown out of proportion?
These are understandable questions seeing the affinity between part of our churches and the Netherlands Reformed Congregations! If these churches, or people, can work together intensively in the areas of education and politics, why then can’t there be some sort of cooperation or official talks towards greater unity? The refusal to hold talks resides with the Netherlands Reformed Congregations. They see no future in, and have no vision for dialogue.
From an objective standpoint there are two outstanding and important points on which attempts for unity hit a dead end: covenant and experience.

1. Covenant

After the failure of the dialogues of 1928, the stances of the respective denominations were sharpened through the fierce polemics between “Bound Together” and “The Watchman” (Saambinder and De Wekker), between Rev. Kersten and Rev. Jongeleen (Free Reformed).
The latter preacher wrote on the topic of the covenant of grace and defended with urgency the Reformed position: the covenant of grace is made with believers and their seed: God’s promise is for all covenant members who must prayerfully ask for the fulfilling of these promises, in order to appropriate through God’s Spirit that which they are promised in Christ.
But Rev. Kersten took the standpoint, which was also common in the days of the Second Reformation, and above all stressed strongly among the Scottish theologians: the covenant of grace is made with the elect. The question of how then to view the place of children is immediately raised. What is the grounds or reason for their baptism? If the emphasis falls on the starting point: the covenant is only made with the elect, that means that by logical implication that the covenant is only with those who are actually part of the covenant and that the promise at baptism is actually in some places of no real value.
Those who study the history of the confessions of the Reformed churches, know that since the days of the Secession different insights have been given into these questions, which profoundly influence the practical life of the congregation, the view of the congregation, and the point of the preaching in its approach to the members of the congregation.
It is always remarkable that there is so much formal agreement between the covenant teaching of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations and the Christian Reformed Church. Both believe: the covenant is made with the elect.
As result of the debate with Rev. Jongeleen the 1931 general synod of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations pronounced six declarations, which were still deemed weighty and important by a professor of their Theological School, Rev. A. Moerkerken in 1979.
The first reads: that the covenant of grace is shaped by election to salvation; that the promise of the covenant is thus only of value, sufficient and efficient, for God’s elect and does not count for the natural seed. That the nature and essence of the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace are one and not two. In promise it is one covenant.
The second reads: that the Holy Scriptures speak of two covenants in relation to man’s eternal state, namely the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.
The latter stands squarely in opposition to what our churches hold -- though that is not written in any doctrinal statement -- namely three covenants, because we make a distinction between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace. Here lies the reason why our churches are more often scoffed than graciously named as the church of the three covenants.
It remains quite sad that the relations have developed this way and that the positions of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations are etched in stone by synodical decision.
Through Kersten and followers in his line the objection against the so-called three covenant teaching was brought, that the teaching of the covenant with the believers and their seed leads to and implies a veiled Arminianism: the covenant members have the promise and all they have to do is take hold of that, and all is well. This covenant teaching, they claimed, leads to spiritual superficiality.
It can be asked whether that same concern could not be brought against the sixth declaration of the synod of 1931: “in particular the responsibility becomes greater through the earnest call from Christ and the covenant promises in the gospel.” When Dr. C. Steenblok brought objections against the teaching of the offer of grace to everyone who comes under the gospel, he was right, given the starting point of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations. He followed the logical implications of the declarations of the synod of 1931.
The agreement between, at any rate the relationship between the theology of the doctrinal declaration of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations and that of the Christian Reformed Church concerns three points:
- both speak of an eternal covenant between Christ as Head with the elect; next to which the administration of the covenant is discussed.
- the promise is by both an unconditional promise of salvation, which is meant for the elect, and besides this the offer of grace is given in conditional form.
- Baptism is the sealing of the unconditional promise of salvation to the elect or of the being sanctified of the elect in Christ.
There is still a great deal of difference in practice. In the Christian Reformed Church the children are held to be regenerate until by their walk of life the contrary is shown, and so all covenant members are held to be elect, creating a broadly positive covenant view of the church as generally elect. However among the Netherlands Reformed all covenant members are viewed as unregenerate, until signs are shown of inclusion (“inlijving”) in the covenant through faith and conversion -- thus proving the opposite, and thus only the elect are covenant members, and the circle of the covenant becomes very small.
In the first situation generalizations are preached about the congregation as the congregation of the elect; in the second, the character and nature of the church as a covenant fellowship is minimized far too much, though they do admit there are children of God in the congregation. The first creates a false sense of security and a tendency towards complacency, and the second a false sense of passivity and inability. In the first situation the promises of God to covenant members are in practice generalized, where in the second these promises are completely individualized.
Another way of putting this point of contrast is: in the Christian Reformed Church the position of covenant members is overstated, and in the Netherlands Reformed Congregations it is understated.
When we say that the covenant of grace is made with the believers and their children we stand in harmony with the truth of the Scriptures, with the teaching of the church of the Reformation -- though the covenant is not set forth explicitly there --, with the form for baptism, with Calvin and many following theologians, also those in the line of the Secession.
The stance of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations, officially declared in 1931, goes back to a fairly old tradition, but that tradition cannot be called a biblical tradition.
The fact that the Reformed confessions do not teach a definitive covenant theology, makes it possible for everyone to claim them as their foundation, but in doing so they are certainly guilty of reading their own thoughts into the confessions. For example when the word “elect” is added to answer 74; but this was certainly not the intention of the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism.

In light of the above the following differences can be clearly stated:

Netherlands Reformed Congregations:

1) There are two covenants: covenant of redemption and covenant of works
2) The covenant of redemption or the covenant of grace is made with Christ, as the representative head of the members.
3) Christ is the head of the covenant.
4) The promise of the covenant is unconditional.
5) There is a difference between the promise and the offer of grace.
6) Only when people know they are elect does their baptism become of value.
7) The preaching culminates in the sincere wish that the hearer may be given “it” (faith).
8) Covenant and election are essentially the same.

In comparison the same eight points from a FRC perspective:

Free Reformed Churches
1) There are three covenants: covenant of redemption, covenant of grace, and covenant of works
2) The covenant of grace is made with Abraham and his seed; New Testament: with believers and their children.
3) Christ is the mediator of the covenant.
4) The promise of the covenant is conditional from the perspective of fulfillment; unconditional from the perspective of the giving of the promise.
5) The offer of grace comes in the form of the promise to covenant members.
6) Baptism is a pleading ground to ask of God that which He has promised to give us.
7) The preaching has the character of appealing for and compelling faithful activity in response to God’s demands and promises.
8) Election finds its realization in the realm of the covenant.

2. Experience

Another difference plays through these correctly stated divergences, one which influences the content, meaning, and understanding of the word “experience” or “experiential.”
As already stated previously, the words experience and experiential are fully biblical, and are essential to the Reformed faith. We take the emphasis of experiential Reformed in contrast to those who are simply orthodox Reformed or those who are neo-Reformed. Those who reject experience, do not preach experientially, or think that the preaching should not be experiential are not Reformed in the classic sense of the word.
The Netherlands Reformed Congregations are best classified under the experiential Reformed. Out of their practice it appears that experience plays a large role and has taken a unique character. Especially in publications of the last fifteen years, it becomes clear that experience is heavily emphasized above all else. Examples of this can be found in the paper written by the late Rev. A. Vergunst “The Theological Identity of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations among Reformed Denominations”, and in the book written by Rev. A. Moerkerken “A Life of Grace and the Covenant of Grace”, which begins with “The Stages in Spiritual Life.”
Both works contain valuable thoughts, which certainly need to be understood: the necessity of the new birth, the necessity of a personal relationship with the Lord, the personal knowledge of the necessity of the way to, and living out of Christian surety in the Saviour. But in both cases experience is very strongly set forth in a particular pattern. Experience is strongly pressed in a particular mold, and as a result one particular way is laid out by which the sinner must go in order to have true faith and become one of the elect.
Such people love Comrie, and take from him a peculiar model of the necessity of an experiential knowledge of our misery. The writer adds:

“In the entirety of the Reformed world this is often missed. We would not want to assert that this is found only in the Netherlands Reformed Congregations; but this is a matter that has set us apart. If the day should come that these words would no longer be heard, we would lose our identity, through which we, also by those outside us, are known.”

Here then is clearly stated that the Netherlands Reformed Congregations distinguish themselves from the rest of the Reformed world by the emphasis on the experiential knowledge of [conviction of] sin. Naturally that is their right, but then it follows that they are putting forth their own distinct emphasis -- as a characteristic it certainly can be seen to lie within the line of the classic Reformed confessions -- but this characteristic has received a specific prominence and has started to live a life of its own.
Clearly the knowledge of sin very easily becomes dominant and free-standing, is loosened from the prophetic teaching of Christ, and becomes a ground for salvation. The knowledge of sin becomes a criteria. Experiential Reformed then begins to mean: Reformed churches which put more emphasis and spend more time on stressing the knowledge of sin than other Reformed churches. It then follows that you must end up with a one-sided preaching. A certain hermeneutic is then laid over the text. And as a result there can be much truth in the saying: “our pastor preaches on many different texts, but he always has the same sermon.”
In this climate it becomes more important to have a specific experiential path for God’s elect church prescribed, rather than having God’s Word preached, explained, and brought to bear on the heart and life of the actual churchgoer. In the latter way biblical experiential preaching is brought, and experience is preached which flows directly from the Word of God.
For the remainder there is a close connection between the first and the second points of difference: the more election dominates the preaching, the more as well the particular path to getting behind the mystery of election is preached, along with all the ensuing consequences.
This analysis is written to clarify the differences between the Free Reformed Churches and the Netherlands Reformed Congregations. With thankfulness we can note that in practice some of the preachers in the Netherlands Reformed Congregations do bring a biblical message, which is not at heart in accord with the declarations of 1931.
It would be an amazing blessing if the day would come when these declarations were retracted. “Then the Netherlands Reformed Congregations would no longer be the Netherlands Reformed Congregations” -- was the last comment someone made in response to a similar statement. And indeed that would be true. The real importance is not about historical identity, but that of the one catholic church of our Lord Jesus Christ, which deals correctly with the entirety of God’s truth, and does not allow one “part” -- sin, salvation or thankfulness, to prevail over any other parts.

We would summarize the differences in the view of what is experience/ experiential as follows:

Netherlands Reformed Congregations
1) Experience concentrates itself on the knowledge of one’s misery/ conviction of sin.
2) Experience is a static idea.
3) Experience governs the preaching.
4) Experience gives a unique voice quality to the preacher which sometimes comes across as unnatural.

Free Reformed Churches
1) Experience relates to the totality of the life of faith: conviction of sin, redemption/salvation, and thankful living.
2) Experience is a dynamic matter.
3) Experience flows from the biblical unfolding of the text.
4) Experience is no addition to the preaching, but is identical with biblical preaching, which is brought in a natural and lively manner.

Translators note: Not included in J.H. Velema’s discussion of differences is the substantial difference of the view of the church, and particularly of church membership. In order to become a full member of a Netherlands Reformed Congregation a profession of personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour is not required. This view of the church remains in part as a pragmatic “solution” to the problem of little faith and assurance created by the very nature of the preaching, which in turn is closely related to views of covenant and election. A predominant focus of the preaching in these churches has been to convict men of sin and to seek to nurture spiritual experiences, with a strong focus on self-examination and the marks of grace in order to seek to discern one’s election.
The result is non-Christians make up a large portion of the full membership of these churches, can both vote for, and rule as office-bearers, and have their children baptized. Through these heresies, the problems are propounded and increased (including rather bizarre phenomena such as where those who attend communion receive pastoral visits to inquire of their motives), and the preaching and church view quickly lead to a self-fulfilling reality -- that most of the church is indeed not the church of Jesus Christ.

Translator: W.E. Van Doodewaard 11.02.2000