Appropriation of Salvation
Reflection is Necessary
Recently I was asked the question: "Is it not possible that people who are wrestling with the appropriation of salvation (i.e. "Is it also for me?") could appeal to Scriptural evidence that God's promises do not always apply to everyone?" It does not happen very often among Reformed people any longer that this question of the appropriation of salvation is raised. In fact, in my first congregation I had quite a few older non-communicant members, some in their thirties or well into their forties; and even a brother of seventy. They were active church members, but they did not dare to appropriate salvation. They did not take their point of departure in God's covenant promise but in themselves, in their private experience of faith. The result was that they found so many shortcomings and personal failures that they could not muster the confidence to make public profession of faith and to request admission to the Lord's Supper. They doubted whether their faith was genuine and believed that they did not love the Lord enough. They had to be much more certain of themselves first. Or they felt that they were not good enough for it yet. First they had to become "better."
I told these members that they acted like the skipper who let down his anchor into the hold of his ship to moor it. Even if he had a cargo of clay in the hold of his ship, no secure anchorage could be found there. The skipper must cast out his anchor to the solid ground outside of the ship. In the same way we must cast out our anchor to Christ if we want to find security. So, the question is not whether we are good enough for salvation but whether Christ is good enough for us. Trying to get better ourselves first is like putting the cart before the horse. It is putting justification before salvation. That is how we used to say it in those days. Later the term "justification" was quite rightly (i.e. in Dutch) substituted by "being declared righteous" or "being made righteous." These expressions stress more clearly that we are not justified before God because of anything in ourselves or because we supposedly are better than other people. No, we are justified because of the righteous judgment of God which declares us righteous for the sake of Christ. As our Catechism puts it so beautifully in question and answer 60: "Although my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against God's commandments, have never kept any of them, and am still inclined to all evil, yet God, without any merit of my own, out of mere grace, imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ." Here you don't find a single line about "getting better" first. That absolutely is an impossible undertaking. The only way we can "get better" is through the power of Christ, through the working of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. That is why we always have to begin with God's love in Christ Jesus. That God comes to us in this manner has been sealed to us by Him in our baptism.
Through the church conflict which resulted in the Liberation of 1944, we have gained a clearer insight into the significance of covenant and baptism as well as a clearer view on the appropriation of salvation. But the need for this appropriation in itself was never challenged. By virtue of God's covenant we have received a lawful position as God's children in the household of God. But the mere fact of having that lawful position does not guarantee the blessing of that position and the inheritance of eternal life. Reflecting on the appropriation of salvation remains a necessity.
For Whom are God's Promises Intended?
Within the circle of God's covenant there is, therefore, no room for this question: "Is it also for me?" – certainly not as an open-ended question, a question without an answer. For us it should not be uncertain whether we have been adopted as children of God. Just as we are children of our own father and mother, we are children of God. But the question has a wider scope. Could there, perhaps, be other people who, reading the Bible, draw from it the conclusion that God's promises are not, or are no longer, intended for them? In general, we are not allowed to approach the problem in this way. We do read that God pronounces His curse on Cain, but this is a very specific case. Further, we often read in the Scriptures: Cursed is the man who does this or that. That curse is conditional, dependent on one's attitude. The Lord's curse also strikes people and nations who have turned away from Him in idolatry and unbelief. But there is mercy and forgiveness for them if they repent and turn back to Him. All people and all nations are commanded to repent. "Be wise now therefore, O ye kings; be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling" (Psalm 2:10,11). We confess, therefore, that the promise of the gospel "ought to be announced and proclaimed universally and without discrimination to all peoples and to all men in whom God in His good pleasure sends the gospel, together with the command to repent and believe." We further confess that "as many as are called by the gospel are earnestly called, for God earnestly and most sincerely reveals in His Word what is pleasing to Him, namely, that those who are called should come to Him. He also earnestly promises rest of soul and eternal life to all who come to Him and believe" (Canons of Dort, II, 5 and
People who ask: "Is it also for me?" are always people to whom the gospel has been proclaimed in its full scope and riches. One cannot appeal to Scriptural evidence to make a case for the statement: "The promises of the gospel are not intended for me." Yet, the promises cannot be separated from the calling to recognize and honour the God of our life and of life as a whole. Even for the greatest sinner, including the one who up till now has squandered his life, the promise holds true: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9).
Without Personal Appropriation, No Possession
When we take our point of departure in God's covenant and, as a result, in our position as a child of God, the danger may arise that we will be trapped in some sort of covenant automatism. We neither can nor may say, "All right, so I am a child of God. Now everything will work out fine for me in the long run." The Lord requires that we live sincerely as His children. In 1982/83 a survey was conducted by Reformed students in Groningen which inquired into the experience of faith among the young people of our churches. It struck me that more than 90% of those questioned said that most of the time they were certain of being a child of God. Yet 40% of them said that they never read God's Word on their own initiative. In view of this response, one cannot escape this urgent question: "How, then, is this being a child of God experienced?" Further, it could be asked whether the difference between young people and older people would really be so great. As for ourselves, the danger is certainly not imaginary that we know God's covenant only with our intellect – a knowledge which is a matter merely of the head instead of the heart. But having knowledge about God's covenant is not enough. We have to be party to it, to be acquainted with it. We must not just abstractly think and speak about the covenant. It may not be reduced to some "dogma" extracted from Scripture, but it has to take charge of our whole life.
In the survey mentioned above, also the following question was asked: "In your opinion, is faith within the church too theoretical?" About 50% of the young people thought that this was "often" or "most often" the case. If this is indeed the experience of the young people, it should make us think. In our tradition we are used to covenantal preaching. In catechism classes, too, God's covenant is central. The young people will be confronted there with the church conflict of the Forties. But it was precisely during this church conflict that the two aspects of this child-of-God position were so sharply outlined. Firstly, we are children of God by virtue of our lawful status in God's covenant. But secondly, we must also become children of God through a personal appropriation of everything we have in Christ. John testifies the following about the people of the covenant: "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become sons of God, even to them that believe on His name; which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:11-13). A personal appropriation of salvation, therefore, is a matter of life and death for all of us. Wherever that personal appropriation, in heartfelt faith, is absent, something happens: our being a child of God (a relationship in which we were placed in His good pleasure) will then condemn us rather than benefit us. Then God's covenant brings a curse instead of a blessing. That is why this question is so compelling: What is our position and how do we live in God's covenant? We are allowed to appropriate God's promises; in fact, we have to. The Lord invites us to sit down with His family at a table generously supplied with food. But we ourselves must eat of the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation. We must do this with the mouth of faith, a faith that acknowledges God as our God and testifies that the Lord Jesus Christ is "my Lord and my God." We have to apply ourselves with all our heart to know the will of our heavenly Father and to obey Him; otherwise all glory in God's covenant is onlyvain glory.