Prof. Engelsma is professor emeritus of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The doctrine of the covenant of grace is thrust to the foreground in Reformed and Presbyterian churches today by the heresy of the federal vision. The name itself of the false teaching indicates this, for “federal” means ‘covenant.’
In the providence of God, who uses heresy to clarify and establish the truth of the gospel, the federal [covenant] vision brings to a head the controversy over the covenant in Reformed churches from the sixteenth-century Reformation of the church to the present day. Two distinct and antagonistic doctrines of the covenant have struggled for the mind of the church. One holds that God graciously establishes His covenant with all the baptized children of believers alike, so that the covenant and its fulfillment in the salvation of the children are conditional, that is, dependent upon the will and working of the children. The other covenant doctrine teaches that God graciously establishes His covenant with the elect children of believers, and with them only, so that the covenant and its fulfillment in the salvation of the children are dependent upon the will and working of God.
The fundamental issue in the controversy between the two doctrines of the covenant is whether the covenant of grace is governed by election. The heresy of the federal [covenant] vision brings the ages-long controversy between the two opposing doctrines of the covenant to a head, inasmuch as the federal [covenant] vision is, and claims to be, development of that doctrine of the covenant that cuts the covenant loose from election and, therefore, makes the covenant conditional. The federal [covenant] vision heralds this doctrine of a conditional covenant as the denial of justification by faith alone and, with this fundamental truth of the gospel, the denial of the doctrines of grace confessed by the Canons of Dordt.
As AD 325 was the hour of crisis for the truth of the Godhead of Jesus, as the early sixteenth-century was the hour of crisis for the truths of the bondage of the will and justification by faith alone, and as the early seventeenth-century was the hour of crisis for the doctrine of predestination, so the present time is the hour of crisis for the truth of the covenant of grace.
At this crucial hour, the Reformed churches are called to examine, and re-examine, the doctrine of the covenant. They must conduct this re-examination in the light of Scripture, especially Galatians 3, where the apostle imbeds justification by faith alone and the cross of Christ, which is the ground of justification, in the covenant God established by promise with Abraham and Abraham’s “seed” and where the apostle identifies Abraham’s seed as “Christ” (v. 16) and those who are Christ’s (v. 29).
The churches do well also to let Calvin, who in many ways is the doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and spiritual father of the Reformed churches, shed light on the truth of the covenant.
John Calvin did not systematically, thoroughly, and perfectly clearly develop the biblical and Reformed doctrine of the covenant. One can, therefore, find inconsistencies in Calvin, especially in his commentaries. This is not strange. There is development of doctrine as the Spirit of truth guides the post-apostolic church into deeper, clearer, purer, fuller understanding of the biblical revelation. Invariably, the Spirit uses heretics and heresies in this process.
But Calvin did teach the doctrine of the covenant, and he taught it with regard to its fundamental aspects. So prominent is the covenant in Scripture that a biblical theologian such as Calvin had to reckon with, and explain, the covenant. In addition, Calvin was forced to pay close attention to the covenant in his defense of the faith against his Anabaptist (or, as Calvin referred to them, “Catabaptist”) adversaries.
Calvin regarded the doctrine of the covenant as fundamental to the Christian faith. In his commentary on Zacharias’ prophecy concerning the birth of Jesus in Luke 1:67ff., Calvin wrote, “[The prophets] all uniformly make the hope of the people, that God would be gracious to them, to rest entirely on that covenant between God and them which was founded on Christ” (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 1, Eerdmans, 1949, 70). He added, “Our chief attention is due to the signature of the divine covenant; for he that neglects this will never understand any thing in the prophets.” In keeping with his regard for the covenant as the source and meaning of Christ and His redemptive work, in the Institutes Calvin set his entire doctrine of Christ in the context of the truth of the covenant (Institutes, 2.10ff.).
Regarding the nature of the covenant, there is compelling evidence that Calvin viewed the covenant of grace as essentially the communion of the church and of the believer and his children with Christ. In addition to teaching that salvation is union with Christ and, thus, with the triune God, Calvin presented the covenant as a bond of fellowship between God and His people. Repeatedly, Calvin called the union of the believer with Christ, which for Calvin is the essence of salvation, “wedlock”: “that sacred wedlock through which we are made flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone” (Institutes, 3.1.3). “Wedlock” alludes to God’s marriage with Old Testament Israel (Ezek. 16) and to the New Testament church (Eph. 5), and this marriage is the covenant, as Calvin well knew. Marriage is a relationship of love.
In his commentary on the great covenant passage in Jeremiah 31, Calvin observed that the word “covenant” expresses that “God descends and appears in the midst of them, that he may bind himself to his people, as he binds the people to himself.” Regarding the words, “[I] will be their God, and they shall be my people”—the formula of the covenant, expressing what the covenant is—Calvin stated, “Here God comprehends generally the substance of his covenant” (Commentaries on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations, vol. 4, Eerdmans, 1950, 129, 133; emphasis added).
In viewing the covenant as a contract, or an agreement, or even as a “bargain” (as though the covenant of grace were similar to a business deal), many Presbyterian and Reformed churches have not followed this lead of Calvin, to the injury of covenant doctrine and life among them.
But the great issue between the two opposite doctrines of the covenant in the Reformed tradition is whether the covenant is governed by election.
Covenant and Election
In the theology of John Calvin, covenant and election are closely related; indeed, for Calvin the covenant is governed by election.
No one with the least knowledge of Calvin’s theology would deny that Calvin taught that the saving grace of God in Christ has its source in, and is determined by, election. But this is the grace bestowed by the covenant, especially the grace of justification on the basis of the cross, as Paul teaches in Galatians 3. That Calvin would locate the source of the grace of the covenant elsewhere than election is unthinkable, indeed absurd on the very face of it.
How closely covenant and election are related in Calvin’s mind is evident in his definition of predestination in the Institutes: “In actual fact, the covenant of life is not preached equally among men, and among those to whom it is preached, it does not gain the same acceptance…. This variety also serves the decision of God’s eternal election,” etc. (Institutes, 3.21.1; emphasis added). The direct object of God’s predestination is “the covenant of life.”
Considering the woeful degeneracy of the Jews under the old covenant, which might seem to imperil the covenant, Calvin assured his readers that “[God’s] freely given covenant, whereby God had adopted his elect, would stand fast” (Institutes, 2.6.4; emphasis added).
Calvin insisted that the promise of the covenant is for the elect only, so that God establishes the new covenant with the elect, and with them only: “This is that…covenant which God promises that He will not make with any but His own children and His elect people, concerning whom He has recorded His promise that ‘He will write His law in their hearts‘ (Jer. 31:33). Now, a man must be utterly beside himself to assert that this promise is made to all men generally and indiscriminately” (Calvin’s Calvinism, Eerdmans, 1956, 100).
The preaching of the gospel to the physical offspring of believers is governed by election with regard to its saving purpose and efficacy. Commenting on Isaiah 54:13, “all thy [Israel’s] children shall be taught of the Lord,” that is, the saving of the children of Abraham, Calvin explained, “The Gospel is preached indiscriminately to the elect and the reprobate; but the elect alone come to Christ, because they have been ‘taught by God.'” He added, “Therefore to them [the elect] the Prophet undoubtedly refers” (Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Eerdmans, 1956, 146).
As this last citation demonstrates, it was nothing less than a principle of Calvin’s interpretation of the Old Testament that Galatians 3 and Romans 9 determine who the true children of Abraham and the legitimate house of Israel are, to whom God is gracious, to whom He directs the gracious covenant promise, and with whom He establishes His covenant. “[The apostle] by no means makes the fleshly seed the legitimate children of Abraham, but counts the children of the promise alone for the seed.” Calvin was not content to identify the “legitimate children of Abraham” by their faith. For “[the apostle] ascends higher into the mind of God, and declares that those were the children of promise whom God chose before they were born” (Calvin’s Calvinism, 56).
Because, and only because, the covenant is governed by election is the covenant sure and steadfast. The source of the covenant is the sovereign, gracious will of God in eternity, not the bound will of totally depraved infants. The covenant depends upon the promising God, not at all upon the working children. By divine decree, the covenant is founded upon Christ and His cross, not upon conditions performed by little children. “Though men were a hundred times perfidious, yet God never changes, but remains unchangeable in his faithfulness; and we know that his covenant was not made to depend on the merits [that is, works—DJE] of men” (Jeremiah, vol. 5, 343).
The covenant with Abraham, Christ, and the elect, which is the subject of Galatians 3, is unconditional: “God gave it [the inheritance promised and bestowed in, by, and as the covenant] to Abraham, not by requiring some sort of compensation on his part, but by free promise; for if you view it as conditional, the word gave…would be utterly inapplicable” (Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, Eerdmans, 1957, 98).
Covenant in Calvin is not a doctrinal device with which to weaken, obscure, ignore, oppose, and in the end destroy God’s decree of predestination, as it is in many contemporary Reformed theologians. On the contrary, in the Reformed faith of John Calvin the covenant has its source in, is governed by, serves, and magnifies the gracious election of God in Christ.
The evil today in Reformed covenant theology is not that some few “identify” (as the foes of election deceptively, but foolishly, charge—no one has ever “identified” covenant and election) covenant and election, to the praise of the electing God.
But the evil—the very great evil—is that many tear covenant and election apart, to the praise of willing and working man.