Simon Van Velzen – Defender of Sovereign Grace

In every Reformation of the Church of Jesus Christ, there are capable men chosen of God to lead his people back to the truth. God raises up men like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli just when it seems that the church is about to disappear. These men are rightly remembered by us today, for without God’s use of them, we would still be lost in the superstition of Rome.

The Reformation of God’s church in the Netherlands in 1834 likewise brings to mind the names of those who arose as leaders in that movement.[18] Hendrik De Cock, Albertus Van Raalte, and Hendrik Scholte are usually celebrated as some of the great men of the Secession of 1834. Often overlooked, however (especially by those who despise his theology) is the life and work of a man who fought more valiantly than any other to return the church to the doctrines of sovereign, irresistible grace, especially as they are taught in the Canons of Dordt. His name is Simon Van Velzen. It is his story that we recount here.

Early Life and Education

Simon Van Velzen was born on either the 14th or 25th of December, 1809 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. His father, also named Simon, was a boarding school keeper, and his mother’s name was Neeltje Johanna Geselschap[19]. The family had their ecclesiastical membership in the apostate State church.

Van Velzen’s childhood education was undoubtedly steeped in the humanistic philosophies of the Enlightenment, which had permeated the schools of the 19th century Netherlands. He likely never heard about sin or the cross of Christ, and instead was taught the importance of living a virtuous life. If the young Van Velzen knew anything of the Bible or the Reformed faith, he probably heard it in only bits and pieces from what little his parents knew. Somehow, though, God worked in Van Velzen’s heart, so that by the time he entered his university studies, he began to understand and appreciate the Reformed faith.

Van Velzen received his ministerial training at the University of Leiden. It was here that he joined the Scholte Club, a small group of theology students who were unhappy with the condition of the State Church and the education they were receiving. These students, led by future Secessionist minister Hendrik Scholte, often met at the home of a certain Johannes le Febure, an aged grain merchant, who taught them the Reformed faith that their Leiden professors denied.[20]

After graduating from Leiden, Van Velzen married Johanna Wilhelmina De Moen on August 16, 1834. Sadly, she died in 1837 after only three years of marriage, and having given birth to one son, named Simon. Although Van Velzen married again the next year, his second wife, Hattum Johanna Alijda Lucia Van Vos, also died suddenly. On September 1, 1841, Van Velzen married his third wife, Zwaantje Stratingh, who gave birth to three daughters.[21] God no doubt used these early trials in Van Velzen’s life to prepare him for the difficulties that lay ahead.

A Ministry of Controversy

Van Velzen’s first charge was at the Reformed Church of Drogeham. His pastorate here did not last long, however. When Hendrik De Cock and his consistory seceded from the State Church on October 13, 1834, thus forming the Afscheiding(Separation), Van Velzen quickly adopted a sympathetic view toward them. Having also developed a strong personal conviction that the State Church was apostate, Van Velzen submitted an appeal to the General Synod of 1835, requesting that Synod declare its support for the Three Forms of Unity, bar the pulpit to ministers who refused to submit to these standards, and tolerate those ministers who preached the orthodox doctrine. Synod rejected this appeal, and the following January Van Velzen was deposed for refusing to withdraw it.[22]

Having been removed from his office and congregation, Van Velzen quickly joined the Afscheiding. Although he was now out of the apostate State Church, Van Velzen still experienced sorrow. For one thing, he and other Secessionists had to endure the persecution of the State Church and the government, which made it illegal for them to hold their own worship services. Ministers who were caught leading these services were severely fined and even jailed.

But for Van Velzen, there was added grief because of opposition from his fellow Separated ministers. Most of the ministers of the Afscheiding had Arminian tendencies and proclaimed that God sincerely offered his salvation to all who heard the preaching of the Gospel. This stood in stark contrast to Van Velzen, who preached salvation by God’s sovereign grace, to the exclusion of willing and working man. Concerning man’s part in salvation, Van Velzen declared, “Man can do nothing, yea, may not do anything, because this would be one’s own work, and that such work is condemned before God.”[23] Statements such as this angered Rev. Scholte, who in 1840 was deposed for slanderously criticizing Van Velzen’s theology.[24]

As time went on, the differences between Van Velzen and the other Seceders became more apparent. While Van Velzen, along with Hendrik De Cock, wanted to return the Church to the doctrines of grace found in the Canons of Dordt, men like Albertus Van Raalte and Anthony Brummelkamp wanted a more experiential theology. Ultimately, these divisions became geographical, as Secessionists of the northern Netherlands tended to follow De Cock and Van Velzen, while those in the South favored Van Raalte and Brummelkamp.[25]

Nevertheless, Van Velzen continued to preach the truths of sovereign grace, pastoring churches at Leeuwarden and Amsterdam, among other places. Especially after De Cock’s untimely death in 1842 and Van Raalte’s migration to America in 1846, Van Velzen was recognized as a leader in theAfscheiding. In 1854, he became a professor at the denominational seminary in Kampen, a position he held until 1890.[26] If Van Velzen experienced any peace during this time, it did not last long, for just seven years into his professorship, another controversy was brewing.

The year was 1861. Two Secessionist ministers, Revs. K. J. Pieters and J. R. Kreulen introduced into the churches the doctrine of a conditional covenant, teaching that God is gracious to all baptized children of believers. They added that the fulfillment of the covenant depended on the faith of these baptized children, thus allowing for the possibility that these children could fall away from Christ and lose their salvation if they did not believe.[27]

Van Velzen, in an outstanding demonstration of his orthodoxy, refuted the abominable covenant doctrine of these two heretics. Writing in the church magazine, De Bazuin, Van Velzen spoke of an eternal covenant of redemption between God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ “concerning the elect.” He argued that this covenant is the “origin” and “ground” of the covenant of grace in history, so that this latter covenant is with the elect only. As Van Velzen declared: “By the power of this covenant, the Lord Jesus is the one who carries out the salvation of the elect.”[28]

Moreover, Van Velzen condemned the grace of a conditional covenant as a “common and powerless grace,” because it made God’s word of no effect (Romans 9:6).[29] This is significant! Van Velzen clearly saw that the doctrine of a conditional covenant is no less than Arminianism. Even more striking is the fact that he referred to the promise in this covenant as “common grace,” and condemned it!

The fires of this controversy produced a refined understanding of God’s covenant. The Lord was pleased to use Simon Van Velzen to defend the doctrine of an unconditional covenant, not only for that moment in church history, but also for the future, so that the seed he planted would sprout in the next century, when the covenant controversy raged once more. In 1953, God caused the seed of Van Velzen’s teachings to come to fruition in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Union with the Doleantie

As has been seen already, Van Velzen’s theology did not fit in with the theology of most of the ministers of the Afscheiding. Therefore, it is no surprise that, shortly after the formation of Abraham Kuyper’s Doleantie (Aggrieved) churches in 1886, Van Velzen sought ecclesiastical fellowship between them and his own denomination. Kuyper’s churches were much more doctrinally solid than the churches of the Afscheiding, especially in that they rejected the well-meant offer of the gospel and emphasized sovereign, particular grace. To this, Van Velzen was strongly attracted.

The inevitable marriage of the two denominations took place in 1892. Van Velzen was present at their first joint Synod as the last surviving father of the Secession. Since he was too old to speak, his son spoke on his behalf, expressing to all in attendance that this union was the “fulfillment of the great wish of [his father’s] heart,” for he desired that “all God’s children might be able to live together as brothers.”[30]

In spite of this seemingly ideal union, it must be remembered that Van Velzen did not agree with Kuyper on everything, particularly Kuyper’s view of the role of government.[31] It is also certain that Van Velzen wanted nothing to do with Kuyper’s cultural common grace. Van Velzen was a strong believer in the Antithesis—the spiritual separation of the church and the world. Kuyper, on the other hand, wanted to bridge this spiritual gap and engage the modern culture. In the end, Kuyper’s view won out, as Van Velzen’s age prevented him from exerting a significant influence in the new denomination.

Nevertheless, Van Velzen rejoiced. The cause of sovereign grace had prevailed. God had preserved him through a long and difficult life, giving him the strength to see this great day. Having been granted the wish of his heart, Van Velzen lived another four years before God called him home in April of 1896 at the age of eighty-six.[32]

A Man of God

Simon Van Velzen has been criticized for his difficult and unbending personality in church affairs. While it cannot be denied that Van Velzen was often stubborn, his critics ought to remember that he was stubborn for a very righteous cause: the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation and the covenant. Although Van Velzen certainly had weaknesses (as we all do), God was nevertheless pleased to use this weak and sinful man for the glory of his name. Van Velzen did not decide on his own to stand up for the truth—God worked it in him, even as he had ordained Van Velzen from all eternity for this purpose.

Van Velzen could defend God’s sovereign grace as he did because he knew himself to be a recipient of it. Just as every child of God does, he loathed his sinfulness, and detested the idea that any of his works, even the very best of them, could earn his salvation. He confessed that salvation is all of grace—and so do we.

In the back of our Psalter is found the Chorale Section, which consists of some of the best-loved Dutch Psalms translated into English. Van Velzen was surely familiar with these songs and must have held them very dear to his heart. In one of these Psalms, we sing of the wonder of God’s grace as Van Velzen confessed and defended it. It is the confession of every believer:

Thou, O Jehovah, in Thy sovereign grace, Hast saved my soul from death and woe appalling, Dried all my tears, secured my feet from falling. Lo, I shall live and walk before Thy face. (Psalter 426, stanza 5) Thanks be to God for this truth—and for raising up men like Simon Van Velzen to defend it!