A confessor of the Gospel of redemption by penal substitution
Groen van Prinsterer was a convinced confessor of the Gospel of redemption by penal substitution. This he expressed very clearly in his book Unbelief and Revolution. A word of warning: his way of writing was far from simple, and his language is that op the 19th century. A quotation from this book: ‘The indispensability of the Gospel truths appears very strikingly when they are absent. These truths are no mysteries to which one is introduced by the profoundness or the frivolity of some form of human philosophy. These are the secrets that the Lord makes known to the lowly and the meek.
The truths, which are expressed in Holy Scripture, are as clear as they are simple: peace by the blood of the cross. A sacrifice by which the ransom for many was paid; a change of heart, being visible in the activity of love and in good works; all this being an object of manifold resistance. But of this the Saviour says: I thank Thee, o Father! Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou hast hid these things from the wise and the prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes" (Luke 10:21) the childlike acceptation of these things is the first condition in learning to understand the secrets of this knowledge.’
Groen van Prinsterer typified himself as a Calvinist, but then as a Calvinist that was stamped by the Reveil. From the central motive of atonement by the blood of the cross he learned to value the confessions of the Reformed Church, and he pleaded for their upholding in the church in both an unequivocal way and in a way that could not be designated as narrow-minded. He never designed a ‘system’, nor in dogmatic, nor in politics. For such a building of systems time lacked him; and moreover, it did not suit his character.
As a man of the Reveil Groen van Prinsterer emphasized that real orthodoxy is ‘the orthodoxy of the heart’ (an expression dear to the men and women of the Reveil) . All emphasis was laid on the central truths of faith which all Protestants share, and which unite them, as redemption by penal substitution, justification by faith alone, the necessity of a renewal by the Holy Spirit, and the full authority of the Bible.
As to the Reformed orthodoxy in post-Reformation times Groen van Prinsterer had some reserves. It was his conviction that the church had not always escaped dogmatic hair-splitting, and in formulating distinctions that had hardly any meaning for the edification of the congregations. I think there is more than just a measure of truth in all this.
When Groen van Prinsterer speaks about a upholding of the con-fession in a way that could not be designated as narrow-minded, this applies to his vision on the Canons of Dort. He had some re-servations about this confession of the church. He himself confessed the truth of those Canons, and on his deathbed he was com-forted by the truth of God’s eternal and sovereign election. Never-theless, he thought that the Canons of Dort were first and foremost a thing for the theological colleges, and not for the church.
In the 19th century there were according to Groen van Prinsterer other fronts in the spiritual battle than the fronts of the Canons of Dort, and the doctrine of the predestination should not be pro-minent. I can agree with Groen van Prinsterer wish of coope-ration between all evangelicals Christians, but I must honestly confess that I have another view of the Canons of Dort and on the importance of the doctrine of predestination for the church than Groen van Prinsterer had.
Although it is true that the Reformed doctrine of predestination sometimes has been isolated from its biblical context and therefore abused, the truth and meaning of predestination in the church as confessed by the fathers of Dort in such a well-balanced way remain of eminent weight. It makes clear that salvation is all of God. Neglecting this doctrine ultimately leads to a religion that is man-centred instead of God-centred.