God Dwelling with His People in Covenant Fellowship (1): A Summary of the Covenant Theology of the Protestant Reformed Churches*

Prof. Dykstra is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

In September of 2000, a conference on the doctrine of the covenant was held between the Committee for Contact with Other Churches, a committee of the Protestant Reformed Churches, and the Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity of the United Reformed Churches. At this conference, both committees submitted papers on the covenant. What follows is the paper given by the committee of the Protestant Reformed Churches.


The covenant is undoubtedly one of the most significant doctrines revealed in the Scriptures. In the judgment of most Reformed theologians, the covenant is the very heart of Reformed doctrine and life. In the doctrine of the covenant all theology “comes together.” The various doctrines of a church come into focus in her doctrine of the covenant, thus revealing either intrinsic conflict and contradiction in its theology, or, harmonious, organic unity. Clearly it is good that this doctrine receives due attention and discussion among us.

For the Protestant Reformed Churches, the doctrine of the covenant is essential to her existence as a denomination. Already in 1950, Rev. Herman Hoeksema set forth what he believed to be the distinctive contribution of the Protestant Reformed Churches to the Reformed faith, as well as their distinctive stand in the Reformed church-world. He wrote:

But I ask, what is the heritage of the Protestant Reformed Churches? Is there any part of the truth which they have emphasized and further developed in distinction from other Reformed Churches?

…If you ask me what is the most peculiar treasure of the Protestant Reformed Churches, I answer without any hesitation: their peculiar view of the covenant.

And what is their particular conception?

It stands closely connected with their denial of common grace, and with their emphasis on the doctrine of election and reprobation.

Moreover, it emphasizes and carries out the organic idea.

Briefly stated it teaches that God realizes His eternal covenant of friendship, in Christ, the Firstborn of every creature, and the First-begotten of the dead, organically, and antithetically along the lines of election and reprobation, and in connection with the organic development of all things.

That is, in a nutshell, the peculiar Protestant Reformed heritage.*

Subsequent events in the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches would only confirm that conviction, and if possible, make the covenant to be even more distinct and more beloved by the members of the PRC.

Numerous differences exist among Reformed churches concerning the doctrine of the covenant. However, we are convinced that the essential element of the covenant that distinguishes the covenant theology of the Protestant Reformed Churches from virtually all others in the Presbyterian and Reformed church world today is the insistence that the covenant is sovereign, unconditional, and particular. In fact, we are convinced that only an unconditional covenant is fully consistent with the Reformed faith, particularly the doctrines of sovereign grace.

A Bit of History

The Protestant Reformed Churches did not arrive at this peculiar stance without struggle, or in a vacuum. We are well aware that, historically, the prevailing theology of the covenant has often included some notion of conditions. Bullinger, Calvin, and Olevianus all used the term “conditions” in their discussions of the covenant. At least part of the reason for this has been that the term covenant itself seemed to demand it. A covenant can mean “an agreement” in Scripture, as it often did in the covenants made between men. And the Latin term for covenant, foedus, a compact or league, seems to imply the same.

Hence, many theologians viewed the covenant between God and man as a contract, where God promised certain blessings and demanded that man fulfill certain obligations, sometimes called conditions. When they discussed the ability of man to keep the covenant, Reformed theologians insisted that Christ fulfilled the conditions for us.

The Arminian controversy in the Netherlands, however, exposed the grave dangers inherent in the term “condition,” and by the time of Bavinck and Kuyper, the term was not used by these leading Dutch theologians to describe the covenant. In fact they rejected the notion that the promises of God are conditional.

However, two twentieth century theologians in the Reformed camp introduced conditions into the covenant—Prof. Heyns in the Christian Reformed Church, and Dr. Klaas Schilder, of the GKN, and later the GKNV (Liberated). Their views are almost identical, and we will present them as one and, at the proper place, point out the one difference that existed between them. The purpose for setting forth their views is not to take them to task, as such. The goal is rather to set forth the covenant theology of the Protestant Reformed Churches as clearly as possible. The covenant theology of the PRC was developed in the context of these other, conditional covenant views, and to a certain extent, over against these views. The PRC came out of the Christian Reformed Church, where the covenant views of Heyns held sway. And the PRC dealt with the covenant views of Schilder in 1953 in what is known in our history as the “split of 1953.”

Conditional covenant proponents Heyns and Schilder maintained that the covenant of God consists of a promise spoken by God, namely, “I will be your God.” God establishes his covenant with every baptized member of the church. At baptism, God gives to the child the objective promise of salvation. In fact the baptism form is interpreted to mean this:

When we are baptized in the name of the Father, God the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us, that he doth make an everlasting covenant of grace with us…. And when we are baptized in the name of the Son, the Son sealeth unto us, that he doth wash us in his blood from all our sins…. In like manner, when we are baptized in the name of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost assures us … that he will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ, applying unto us what we have in Christ…. [My emphasis, to explain the conditional covenant understanding of the form, RJD.]

In other words, the form is understood to mean that the covenant is objectively realized with each baptized child, the Father making the covenant, the Son sealing to the child the benefits, and the Spirit expressing the desire to apply all theblessings of the covenant to the child.

One justification offered for this is the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 74, which teaches that infants are to be baptized because “they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost…is promised to them….” This is taken to mean that all children of believers are included in the church and covenant of God, and the promises are to every one of them.

When and how do the promised blessings of the covenant become the possession of the child? When he believes. Faith thus becomes the condition for receiving the blessings of the covenant.

The illustration is often used of a blank check. At baptism, it is said, the child receives a check which is made out to him, signed by God, and written out for the amount of salvation and eternal life. That represents the objective promise given to the child at baptism. It is very really his. The child can then do one of three things with that check. First of all, he can keep it all his life, even frame it and put it on the wall, pointing to it with a measure of pride and assurance. He is a baptized member of the church. He has this promise from God. However, just as an uncashed check is of no value in itself, so the individual who never “cashes” the check of God’s promise, has nothing. When he dies, he perishes.

Secondly, the baptized member can reject the promises of God. He might tear up the check and throw it away. Such a one incurs God’s wrath, forfeits any right to the inheritance, and perishes. He is called a covenant breaker.

Thirdly, the baptized member can “endorse” the check and receive the substance of the covenant promise, salvation from sin and eternal life. This he does by means of faith, that is, by believing the promise of God. Faith, then, is the condition that must be met in order to receive the blessings of the covenant.

In such a covenant view, the covenant is unilateral, or one-sided in its institution, that is, as established by God; but it is bilateral in its execution. The covenant is ratified by man’s act of believing.

Admittedly, the word condition can be used in various ways, and Schilder rejected what he called the Arminian use of conditions—as a prerequisite. Nonetheless, the explanation he gave of his conception of conditions in the covenant is less than satisfactory. He spoke of conditions as the means to an end. And, if the problem was that man fulfilled a condition, then the response was ever that God gave man the faith, thus it was all of God and all of grace. (We will return to this below.)

The only point at which Heyns and Schilder differed was over the existence of common grace. Heyns insisted that every baptized child received a subjective grace that enabled him to respond to the offer of God in baptism. Schilder rejected such a notion. He did not deny that such a child enjoyed blessings of the covenant. But he did not allow that this was a grace operating in each child.

In the practical working out of this view, it has much in common with Meredith Kline’s presentation of the covenant. God makes a covenant with man that is patterned after the suzerainty covenants made by Hittite kings with their subjects. In this “covenant,” God holds before man the demand to love and obey God. If man does that, he will live. If he does not, he will die and the curse of the law comes on that man. However, while Kline maintains that that covenant is with all men, Schilder and Heyns limit it to the sphere of the church. Consequently, with Schilder and Heyns’ view, all members of the church are in God’s covenant.

Other important features of this covenant view include the cutting asunder of election from the covenant. The Liberated rail against an “election theology of the covenant” and insist that the PRC equate election with the covenant. A concomitant teaching is that the place of Christ is not the Head of the covenant, but only the Mediator. To make Christ the Head would connect election and the covenant. And finally, many proponents of the conditional covenant view also hold that the covenant is temporary. It lasts until God’s purpose is fulfilled, namely, the salvation of His people. The covenant is not eternal in the sense that God eternally established the covenant with His people in Christ. Some would insist that it is eternal because it lasts into eternity. However, the covenant of grace is viewed as the means to another end, i.e., salvation.

A Critique

The Protestant Reformed Churches object to this conception of the covenant of grace for numerous reasons. First of all, it conflicts with our conviction that common grace and the well-meant offer are Arminian, not Reformed. Heyns’ conditional covenant included the doctrine of common grace. Although Schilder rejected that, Liberated theology today apparently allows for this common grace also. In addition, both Heyns and Schilder in effect maintained a well-meant offer of the gospel, limited to the sphere of the covenant. To each and every baptized child, God comes with a sure promise: “Iwill be your God. I desire to apply to you the blessing of salvation.” It is self-evident that a rejection of the conditional covenant is necessary and consistent with a rejection of common grace and the well-meant offer.

Secondly, in that connection, as is necessarily the case with the well-meant offer that the doctrine of the atonement is affected, so is it true in connection with the conditional covenant. If God promises salvation to every baptized child, salvation must be available to every baptized child. If salvation is available, then Christ must have earned it on the cross. Thus a sort of hypothetical universalism (within the covenant) is introduced. If God sincerely promises and the Spirit sincerely desires to apply salvation, then salvation must be available. Christ must have atoned for the sins of every baptized child. This is Amyraldism applied to the covenant.

Thirdly, we reject the notion that faith is a condition of, that is, a prerequisite of, realizing God’s covenant. It is not sufficient to assert that God fulfills the condition by His grace and gift of faith, for the conditional view maintains that man’s act of believing is still necessary to obtain these blessings of the covenant, which are the blessings of salvation. As far as the relationship between faith and salvation is concerned, we insist that only one of two things can be true. Either faith is a condition unto salvation (man gets faith, and then by means of faith he obtains the salvation that he did not have prior to believing); or, faith is part of the salvation that God gives to the elect sinner. With the latter, when a man is given faith, he is already saved, because faith is part of the “package” of salvation. Scripture and the Reformed confessions teach that faith is part of our salvation, and salvation is all of God, even the act of believing (Eph. 2:8-9Phil. 1:29; Canons III, IV, Art. 12-14).

Fourthly, the promises of God fail in a conditional covenant. God comes to every baptized child and promises salvation. Yet, He will not necessarily give salvation and eternal life to the child. In fact, it depends on whether or not the child will believe. The proponents of the conditional covenant charge that the Protestant Reformed conception of the covenant makes God to be insincere in the promises given at baptism, in that God promises to give salvation but does not really intend to give it to each child. They insist that God means it, sincerely promising salvation to every baptized child. Every child can know that God solemnly stated at baptism—”You, John, you Jane, have my promise.”

Our response is that God’s promise is not to every child baptized any more than God’s promise is to every child or adult sitting under the preaching. The promise of God is real, unchanging, and certain. He will not promise and then renege. But His promise is particular, that is, to the elect alone.

Fifthly, we reject the conditional covenant view because it treats the covenant not as a covenant of grace, but a covenant of both grace and wrath. That because in a conditional covenant God gives both promises and threats to all members of the covenant. If the covenant child walks in faith and obedience, God blesses him. If he walks in unbelief and disobedience, God curses him. A conditional covenant is not the “covenant of grace and reconciliation” as the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper describes it.

Finally, we maintain that the covenant of grace is not established with the reprobate, but only with God’s chosen people in Christ. The proponents of a conditional covenant insist that God establishes His covenant with all baptized children. We consider it totally contrary to Scripture that God establishes His covenant with the Esaus, with Ishmaels, with Judas Iscariots in the church on earth! Admittedly, the Bible sometimes uses language that, at first blush, seems to include elect and reprobate in the covenant, as when God addressed Israel as a nation. No one argues that Israel as a nation consisted of elect alone. When God addresses Israel as His covenant people, or as the preaching addresses the congregation of Jesus Christ, what are we to say of the carnal seed in the congregation? Are they not somehow in the covenant of grace?

Our answer is that the covenant people must be considered organically, that is, as a living whole. The nation of Israel is described as a tree (Rom. 11) and the church as branches of a living vine (John 15) or as a field of wheat (Matt. 13). The elect Israel is the tree that God will save. In time, there is a reprobate element that is part of the tree, by virtue of birth. However, God does not intend to save that reprobate element. They are eventually cut out of the tree by God Himself. In the meantime, the carnal element is in the sphere of the covenant. They enjoy some of the external benefits of being part of God’s chosen nation. However, God never promises to save them. All His promises are particular—for the seed of the promise. The good things that the carnal seed enjoys in the company of Israel only add to their condemnation. With this carnal element, therefore, God does not establish His covenant.

Thus it is our judgment that the conditional covenant is contrary to the Reformed doctrines of sovereign grace. It may be that a church is able to hold to the “Five Points of Calvinism” and a conditional covenant inconsistently—for a time. But these doctrines conflict, and, since the covenant is a crucially important Reformed doctrine, adopting a conditional view, we are convinced, will result in the eventual loss of the Reformed stand on salvation.

In addition, let it be noted that a conditional covenant is a cold, business-like arrangement that holds no joy for the people of God. Who can get excited about a contractual relationship? Especially when it holds over the believer’s head the constant threat of the curse? Liberated theologians on both sides of the ocean are finding it necessary to inject some warmth and life into the covenant.

… to be continued.


* “Protestant Reformed,” The Standard Bearer, Vol. 26, March 15, 1950, p. 269.