Covenant and Election in the Reformed Tradition, by David J. Engelsma. Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2011 (www.rfpa.org); cloth, 288 pages; $28.95; ISBN: 978-1-936054-02-2. Reviewed by Charles J. Terpstra, a member of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan.
Covenant theology is a “hot topic” in Reformed and Calvinistic circles at present. Partly due to a renewed interest in the doctrines of grace and in the full (deep and wide) teaching of the Reformed faith (especially by the so-called “new Calvinists”), and partly due to impetus from the federal vision heresy, the doctrine of the covenant is increasingly being studied, developed, and defended in the Reformed camp. I can’t remember a time (in my lifetime) when so much is being written and published on covenant theology. And with that focus on the doctrine of the covenant, of course, goes the Reformed and biblical doctrine of election. If God’s covenant is the heart of the Scriptures (and it is!), and election is the heart of the church (and it is!), then it stands to reason that those who are serious about these doctrines and serious about the Reformed faith will link them together.
But not all want covenant and election joined together—even in the Reformed camp. Because some would maintain and defend a conditional covenant (and justification/salvation), and that just doesn’t fit well with the Reformed doctrine of unconditional election. That’s why this new book by David J. Engelsma, professor emeritus at the Protestant Reformed Theological School, is so significant. Through his own years of diligent study as a pastor and seminary professor, Engelsma has distinguished himself as a noted covenant theologian and an ardent defender of the indispensable link between God’s covenant of grace and His election of His people in Christ. He has written of this before in several places, but now in full-book form he lays out his mature statement on “covenant and election in the Reformed tradition.” Engelsma’s latest work is a vital and valuable—even unique—contribution to Reformed covenant theology, at a key time in the history of Reformed and Presbyterian churches and her doctrine.
Engelsma begins his book by tracing the history of the “crisis” in covenant theology over its relation to the doctrine of election in Reformed churches culminating in the present federal vision heresy. He then launches into a staunch defense of covenant theology governed by the doctrine of God’s sovereign, gracious, unconditional election, enlisting these witnesses: the (Dutch) Reformed Baptism Form; the Canons of Dordt (which responded specifically to the Arminian view of condi-tional election and salvation); the Reformation gospel of salvation by sovereign grace (applied specially to the covenant); Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant (with focus on his view of “union with Christ,” “covenant and election,” and “elect infants in the covenant”); Dutch theologian C.Graafland (whose major work showed that Calvin taught that the covenant was governed by election); and Herman Bavinck (who himself clearly and concisely joined covenant and election together in his Reformed Dogmatics).
In connection with Calvin’s teaching on the covenant, Engelsma spends an important chapter countering Peter A. Lillback’s “preposterous proposal” that Calvin separated (divorced!) the doctrine of the covenant from that of election—cf. Lillback’s book The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001). This is also an important section of the book, in no small part because Lillback’s book carries much weight among contemporary Reformed and Presbyterian theologians and students of the covenant. Engelsma’s voice deserves to be heard over the shouts of others in the field of Calvin studies.
The closing chapters of the book are likewise important for the linking of covenant and election. Relating the covenant concretely to Christ, Engelsma in these chapters “offer(s) a fresh, comprehensive, exegetical explanation of the covenant of God with men in all its administrations” (Abraham, David, Adam, Noah, Old and New). This is outstanding material in defense of a truly Reformed and biblical view of God’s covenant of grace with His people.
Finally, also of significance and value is an Appendix to the book, which presents the “Declaration of Principles of the Protestant Reformed Churches” adopted by the Synod of 1951 in the midst of her own ecclesiastical crisis over the doctrine of the covenant. The document defends the truth of the unconditional covenant on the basis of the Reformed creeds, especially the Canons of Dordt. Engelsma includes a brief introduction to the document explaining its historical significance then and now.
Covenant and Election is not “light” material to read; it is “heavy” with high doctrine and sound arguments. But neither is it a book just for theologians and scholars of the covenant. This is a book for all of God’s people, for your own personal knowledge and defense of the doctrines of sovereign grace applied to the covenant. If you believe the covenant is central to your own faith and life as a saved child of God, then you will want to read this book, cover to cover. You will be the better (spiritually stronger) for it. May God be pleased to use this title greatly for the further development and defense of the truth of His covenant of grace with His elect people in Christ.