Does calling for personal responsibility make one into an Arminian? Some Reformed people have real trouble with holding people accountable for the spiritual choices they make. Some get uncomfortable when Reformed preachers make a distinct call to faith and repentance. They feel that this somehow undermines God’s sovereignty. After all, if God wants to save someone, he will do so in his own time and in his own way. Calling for people to respond with repentance and faith seems to say that human beings may be trying to do something contrary to God’s purposes. In fact, once I was even told by a Reformed church member that the Heidelberg Catechism is Arminian when it says that justification is mine, “if only I accept this gift with a believing heart” (QA 60). Apparently, the Catechism is also Arminian when it says that forgiveness belongs to believers, “as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel” (QA 84). Some folks really stumble over that word “accept.” How can that be Reformed?
Leaving aside any popular misunderstandings of what constitutes Arminianism, can we speak about the need for all of us to personally accept God’s gospel promises? Does an acknowledgement of human responsibility add up to a denial of divine sovereignty? Or, to put it another way, does divine sovereignty mean that we are mere puppets on a string or perhaps pre-programmed robots who can only follow the Programmer’s wishes? These are important questions and they’ve been wrestled with many times throughout church history.
One path we might take in exploring these questions could take us back to Klaas Schilder (see here for a short bio). Personal responsibility in the covenant of grace was one of Schilder’s emphases. Against the background of others who placed everything under the umbrella of divine sovereignty, Schilder sought to drive home the reality of the covenant as a relationship between God and his people, a relationship where human beings are treated as completely responsible for how they respond to divine overtures.
A good summary of Schilder’s approach can be found in the essay of S.A. Strauss in the book Always Obedient: Essays on the Teachings of Dr. Klaas Schilder (yes, as noted before, an infelicitous title). Strauss noted that Schilder was contending with the covenant views of two theologians in particular: Abraham Kuyper and Karl Barth. Writes Strauss:
Schilder observed the same weakness in both schools of thought, even though this weakness arose from different motives. With regard to the doctrine of the covenant, both reasoned so strongly from the perspective of the eternal decrees of God that man’s responsibility in the covenant was underemphasized. In contrast, this responsibility was a basic motive in Schilder’s theology: in the covenant God treats man as a responsible being and confronts him with the choice of “all or nothing,” for God or against him! Schilder therefore did everything in his power always to define the covenant in such a way that justice was done to man’s responsibility. (Always Obedient, 21)
Schilder’s point of departure in this approach was not God’s inscrutable eternal decrees, but his dealings with humanity in history. God’s decrees are certainly behind all he does, but what is accessible to us and what we experience are his dealings here and now.
There are consequences that follow from this and one of the most marked is going to be found in preaching. Reformed preaching which acknowledges this reality is not going to allow for or encourage passivity amongst God’s people. Covenant preaching of this sort will not countenance fatalism. Strauss elaborates:
…it is Schilder’s view that true “covenant preaching presents the strongest appeal to human responsibility. This is why such preaching is also so tremendously serious, and revealing…comforting, but destroying all excuses for idleness [maar het stuksnijding van alle duivels-oorkussens].” Such covenant preaching is a prohibition against imagining going to hell while being on the way to heaven, and it is a prevention against imagining going to heaven while being on the way to hell. (Always Obedient, 25)
Taking Schilder’s approach means that a Reformed preacher is not going to be soft on human responsibility. In fact, you should expect a preacher who has learned covenant theology from Schilder to emphasize this rather strongly.
What about baptism? Where does that fit in here? Strauss explains that Schilder taught that all who are baptized receive a concrete address from God, “a message that God proclaims to everyone who is baptized, personally: if you believe, you will be saved.” (28-29). However, if a baptized covenant member rejects God’s overtures in unbelief, such a person will come under God’s covenant wrath and curses. Greater blessings and promises imply greater responsibility and accountability. Strauss concludes about what Schilder wanted to emphasize most strongly:
…that the covenant should never be allowed to lead to a false sense of security. People of the covenant may never think that salvation is already theirs because they have received the promise. The promises of the covenant are not predictions; they imply demands…
This is, then, the great and lasting signifance of what Schilder taught us about the covenant. When God establishes his covenant with human persons, he treats them as responsible beings. As Schilder characteristically put it, the covenant stands or falls by its rule “all or nothing.” (Always Obedient, 30-31)
The fact of the matter is that no one, least of all covenant members, can use God’s sovereignty to evade their personal responsibility to repent and believe the gospel. In fact, to do so would be to give in to a Satanic way of thinking. Satan wants people to stand idly by and be passive before God — because passivity before God always means plenty of activity that pleases the evil one.
So is it Arminian to insist on human responsibility? If it is, then not only am I guilty, but so is Klaas Schilder. Of course, the Protestant Reformed allege exactly that. Followers of Herman Hoeksema, most notably David Engelsma, have insisted that we are essentially Arminians because we hold to the view that there are conditions in the covenant of grace. This is not the time to enter into a full rebuttal of that view. Only let me say that their position is the result of viewing everything, and especially the covenant, through the lens of election. Everything has to fit in a neat system that we humans can comprehend. Against that, I acknowledge God’s full and complete sovereignty in our salvation in line with everything in the Canons of Dort, but at the same time I stress the human responsibility to repent and believe found in the Heidelberg Catechism and elsewhere. That is a responsibility far more weighty for those who have been included by God in the covenant of grace. In the covenant, God treats us as responsible creatures and, as such, calls each one of us to repent from our sins and accept the gospel promises in true faith.