Herman Bavinck on Covenant and Election (1)

Editor’s note: 

This article is offered to the readers to help clear up some of the confusion on the doctrine of the covenant. It comes to the SB as a result of a private conversation of the undersigned with Prof. Engelsma. I expressed disappointment concerning the lack of clarity in some of the summaries that have been written on Herman Bavinck’s covenant theology. Prof. Engelsma informed me that he had written a summary of Bavinck’s doctrine of the covenant, and he offered it to the SB. We readily accepted it. It is as straightforward and clear as Bavinck himself on this vital doctrine. Come to find out, this summary of Prof. Engelsma is part of a book that he is completing entitled Covenant and Election in the Reformed Tradition. If the book is as helpful as this presentation of Bavinck, we eagerly await its publication by the RFPA later this year, D.V.

The summary of Bavinck’s doctrine of the covenant will appear in two installments in theSB. —RJD

In the long-standing controversy over the doctrine of the covenant in the Reformed churches that God now brings to a head by the heresy of the Federal Vision, the relation of covenant and election is fundamental. The covenant theology of the Federal Vision, like the covenant theology of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”), which the Federal Vision is developing, denies any relation between covenant and the eternal decree of election. Covenant must be “liberated” from the divine decree. Election only “oppresses,” “hampers,” and “enslaves” the covenant. The only relation between covenant and election is one of “tension.”

But purported critics of the Federal Vision evidently share this fear of and aversion to election, at least with regard to the relation of covenant and election. Either they remain silent about the relation of covenant and election, or they nervously warn against allowing election to govern the covenant. Or they so obfuscate the relation as to make it impossible for the theologian, much less the Reformed layman, to know what the relation is, or whether indeed there is one. One thing they never fail to make clear is that those who teach a close relation between covenant and election are on the furthest fringes of the Reformed tradition, if they have any place in the tradition at all.

Thus wounded in the house of its friends, the Reformed faith concerning the precious doctrine of the covenant of grace suffers grievously.

Defense and development of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant at the beginning of the twenty-first century demands a clear, orthodox understanding of the relation of covenant and election.

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), held in high esteem as a Reformed dogmatician by virtually everyone, can help the Reformed churches in this regard.

Election Governs the Covenant 

Bavinck teaches as his own belief the position of the Reformed tradition and the doctrine of Scripture that election and covenant are closely related. Treating explicitly of covenant and election in his Reformed dogmatics, Bavinck writes that election is the source and fountain of the covenant. This is Bavinck’s own figure: “The covenant of grace isthe channel by which the stream of election flows toward eternity.”¹

Election governs the covenant; the covenant is God’s execution in history of His elective will of salvation in eternity. “Election only and without qualification states who are elect and will infallibly obtain salvation; the covenant of grace describes the road by which these elect people will attain their destiny.”² “The elect…[are] gathered into one under Christ as their head in the way of the covenant.”³

Basic to this conception of the relation of election and covenant is the recognition of Jesus Christ as head of the covenant of grace, as Adam was head of the covenant of creation. For Bavinck, Jesus Christ is “head of the covenant of grace,” as well as “its mediator.” This means that “the covenant of grace has been made with Christ.” In and through Christ, the head of the covenant, the covenant “reaches out also to his own.”4 “His own” are all those whom the Father has given to Jesus in the decree of election (John 6:37, 39, 10:29, 17:2, 6, 9, 11, 24).

In support of his teaching that God has made His covenant with Christ, as head of the covenant, and, in Him, with “His own,” Bavinck appeals toGalatians 3:29: “If ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed.”5 This text depends on a preceding verse, Galatians 3:16, which teaches that God made the promise of the covenant to Abraham’s Seed, Jesus Christ.

Difference of Covenant and Election

Of course election and covenant are different. Bavinck does not “identify” them. No Reformed theologian has ever “identified” them. When opponents of Bavinck’s teaching that election and covenant are closely related, as a fountain to its stream, charge those who confess this close relation with “identifying” covenant and election, what they really intend to deny, and to root out of the Reformed churches, is the teaching that election governs the covenant. Invariably, an examination of the mantra, “covenant and election are not identical,” will show that those who sound the mantra mean: “election does not govern the covenant.”

Election is the divine decree in eternity appointing Jesus Christ as head of the church and, in Christ, choosing a certain number of persons to redemption as the body of Christ. The covenant is God’s structured bond of union and communion with Christ and His people in history, in which living relationship God works out the salvation of the church and its members.

The difference that Bavinck emphasizes is that, whereas in election the members of the church are passive, in the covenant the Spirit of Christ makes the elect members of the church active. This activity includes that they “consciously and voluntarily consent to this covenant.”6

Bilateral Covenant 

This is what Bavinck means by the covenant’s becoming “bilateral.” He does not mean that a covenant that was originally established “unilaterally,” by God alone, now becomes dependent for its maintenance and perfection upon the will and work of the member of the covenant. This is indeed what many Reformed theologians mean by their teaching that the covenant is unilateral (one-sided) in its establishment but bilateral (two-sided) in its maintenance. This is to teach that, whereas the beginning of the covenant with a human is sovereign grace, the maintenance and perfection of the covenant are a cooperative effort of God and men. This is to teach that, whereas the establishment of the covenant depends solely upon God, the maintenance and perfection of the covenant depend upon the sinner. This is to teach that, whereas the beginning of the covenant and its salvation is God’s work, in the end the covenant and its salvation are the work of man himself.

Bavinck will have none of this. “The doctrine of the covenant maintains God’s sovereignty in the entire work of salvation…. Into that entire work of salvation, from beginning to end, nothing is introduced that derives from humans. It is God’s work totally and exclusively; it is pure grace and undeserved salvation…. This doctrine of the covenant…purely and fully maintains God’s sovereignty in the work of salvation.”7

God not only unilaterally establishes the covenant, but He also unilaterally maintains the covenant: “The covenant of grace…is indeed unilateral: it proceeds from God; he has designed and defined it. He maintains and implements it. It is a work of the triune God and is totally completed among the three Persons themselves.”8

When Bavinck speaks of the covenant’s becoming bilateral (after its unilateral establishment with a person), he means rather that once God establishes His covenant with a child, a woman, or a man, that person becomes active by the grace of the covenant and is commanded to be active. Bavinck tells us that this is what he means by the bilateral character of the established covenant:

It [the covenant] is destined to become bilateral, to be consciously and voluntarily accepted and kept by humans in the power of God…. The covenant of grace does not deaden human beings or treat them as inanimate objects…. It does not kill their will but frees them from sin.9

By the covenant’s bilateral character, Bavinck has in mind what orthodox Reformed theologians have taught as the “mutuality” of the covenant. The covenant is a bond of mutual love and fellowship between God in Christ and God’s covenant friends. It is like the marriage of the Christian man and the Christian woman.

By the covenant’s bilateral character, Bavinck has in mind what the Reformed Baptism Form teaches when it declares that the covenant of grace, unilaterally established, maintained, and perfected by the triune God, contains “two parts.” Members of the covenant have a “part” in the covenant. Our “part” is “new obedience, namely, that we cleave to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”10

By the covenant’s bilateral character, Bavinck has in mind exactly what the Protestant Reformed Churches declare about the covenant of grace in their “Declaration of Principles” (concerning the covenant):

The sure promise of God which He realizes in us as rational and moral creatures not only makes it impossible that we should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness but also confronts us with the obligation of love, to walk in a new and holy life, and constantly to watch unto prayer.11

That the covenant friends of God undertake their “side” of the bilateral covenant, that they actively enter into the mutuality of the covenant (as a loved and loving wife in a good marriage), that they do their part, that they carry out their obligation in the covenant to love their covenant God—this is due to the sovereign grace of the covenant working in them.

Bavinck thinks so. “Into that entire work of [covenant] salvation, from beginning to end, nothing is introduced that derives from humans. It is God’s work totally and exclusively.”12 “The covenant of grace…re-creates the whole person and, having renewed it by grace, prompts it, freely and independently, with soul, mind, and body, to love God and to dedicate itself to him.”13

Harmony of Covenant and Election 

Covenant and election are different in important respects. They are not different in respect of sovereign grace. Covenant grace is as sovereign as is the grace of election. They are the one, saving grace of the triune God in Jesus Christ. And the grace of God in Jesus Christ is sovereign.

Neither are covenant and election different, in the judgment of Herman Bavinck, with regard to their extent. That is, for Bavinck the grace of election and the grace of the covenant are coterminous. The grace of the covenant is not wider than election. The covenant grace of God is for the elect and for the elect only. Bavinck expresses this fundamental harmony of election and covenant in these words: “The two [election and covenant] are not so different that election is particular while the covenant of grace is universal.”14

What Bavinck states concerning the particularity of both election and covenant applies to the physical, baptized offspring of godly parents. Evidently, Bavinck intended that his statement concerning the particularity of the gracious covenant apply specifically to the children of godly parents. One essential aspect of the particular covenant is the inclusion of the children of believers. “It [the covenant] is never made with a solitary individual but always also with his or her descendants. It is a covenant from generations to generations.”15

A few pages after he has insisted that the covenant, like election, is “particular,” at the end of his treatment of covenant and election, with explicit appeal to the distinction in Romans 9:6-23between two kinds of children of Abraham, Bavinck will affirm that the covenant is established with the elect, and with the elect only.

According to Herman Bavinck, it is not true that, whereas election embraces only some of the physical offspring of Abraham, of Isaac and Rebekah, and of believing parents today, the covenant embraces all of the physical offspring without exception.

Covenant is not the welcome doctrinal instrument by which Reformed and Presbyterian theologians who detest the particularity of election may broaden and universalize the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ. Covenant is not a doctrine with which to shove election far, far into the background of Reformed preaching and teaching, until finally it disappears altogether.

Election and covenant do not differ in this respect that, whereas election is particular regarding grace towards the children of believers, the covenant of grace is universal with regard to circumcised or baptized children.

That Bavinck means by the particularity of the covenant that the covenant of grace is established, maintained, and perfected with the elect, and the elect only, is evident, not only from the statement itself, but also from what immediately follows. Immediately, Bavinck declares that the covenant is “made with Christ [and]…his own.”16

Bavinck clearly sees that any extension of the grace of the covenant beyond the limits of God’s election necessarily implies the heresy of free will. If covenant grace is wider than election,covenant grace is resistible. Some towards whom God has a gracious attitude, desiring to save them, or upon whom God bestows grace as a covenant power, resist this grace, and go lost. Implied is that whether one is saved by covenant grace depends, not upon the grace itself (for many who are objects of this grace are not saved by it), but upon his own decision, his own will. Extending covenant grace more widely than election necessarily introduces the heresy of salvation by the free will of the sinner into the gospel of the covenant.

Repudiating the idea that election and covenant differ regarding the extent of their grace, Bavinck adds, in the same sentence: “that the former [election] denies free will and the latter [the covenant] teaches or assumes it, that the latter takes back what the former teaches.” The complete sentence reads as follows: “The two [election and covenant] are not so different that election is particular while the covenant of grace is universal, that the former denies free will and the latter teaches or assumes it, that the latter takes back what the former teaches.”17

… to be concluded.

¹ Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, tr. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 229. The editor of the English translation of Bavinck’s dogmatics rightly gives this section of the dogmatics the heading, “Covenant and Election.” Here Bavinck states, not only his own definitive theological thinking on the subject, but also what he considers to be the biblical and Reformed (and for Bavinck “Reformed” means creedal) doctrine concerning the relation of covenant and election. With specific reference to the relation of covenant and election, Bavinck explains the relation clearly, precisely, and thoroughly, if briefly. This passage is decisive regarding Bavinck’s understanding of the relation of covenant and election. One may fill out this explanation from other places in Bavinck. But all efforts to weaken and even contradict Bavinck’s doctrine in this passage by references to other writings of Bavinck, sometimes ignoring this passage—the locus classicus on the subject—are smashed, and must be smashed, on the rock of this passage.

² Ibid.

³ Ibid., 232.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., 224.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 228, 229.

8 Ibid., 230; emphasis added.

9 Ibid.; emphasis added.

10 “Form for the Administration of Baptism,” inThe Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches(Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), 258.

11 “Declaration of Principles of the Protestant Reformed Churches,” in ibid., 426.

12 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 229.

13 Ibid., 230.

14 Ibid., 229.

15 Ibid., 231.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.; emphasis added.