Many of the reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches are nourishing in their bosom an open, frontal attack on the gospel of salvation by sovereign grace.
Seminary professors, ministers, and ruling elders publicly reject every one of the doctrines of grace, beginning with justification by faith alone. They deny that these doctrines hold in the sphere of the covenant of grace.
Big names in the conservative Reformed realm plug their books. Powerful colleagues protect and defend them at the assemblies, if ever a layman screws up his courage and protests the heresy. Prominent seminaries pay their salaries.
Other ministers and elders remain prudently silent—prudently silent in the face of one of the gravest threats to the Reformed faith since Dordt.
Source of the Attack
The source of the contemporary attack on the gospel of sovereign grace in the Reformed churches is a certain doctrine of the covenant. The teaching that rejects the doctrines of grace, beginning with justification by faith alone, is covenant doctrine. It advertises itself as covenant doctrine. It grounds its rejection of sovereign grace in a definite covenant conception. This is the power of its influence within the Reformed churches. This is why the Reformed churches stand helpless before the onslaught, or welcome it, as the case may be. God knows.
The doctrine of the covenant spawning the denial of the doctrines of grace holds that God extends His covenant grace (which is His saving grace in Christ) to all who are in the sphere of the covenant. God is gracious to every baptized child of godly parents. God is gracious to every adult who professes faith and is baptized. Such is the grace of God to all in the sphere of the covenant that He elects them all with the election of Ephesians 1:4 and II Thessalonians 2:13; Christ died for them all; all are savingly united to Christ; and all enjoy the blessings of the covenant of grace.
Universal grace in the sphere of the covenant!
All are objects of grace, but all are not finally, everlastingly saved, for this covenant of universal grace is conditional. It depends for its continuance, for the continued enjoyment of its blessings, and for its accomplishment of final and everlasting salvation upon the faith and obedience of the member of the covenant. Faith and obedience are conditions of the covenant. Therefore, according to covenantal universalism, many lose their justification, lose their election, lose their atonement, lose their union with Christ, and lose their salvation. They perish eternally. They failed to fulfill the conditions.
The universal grace of the covenant is resistible.
By implication, the reason why others, similarly united to Christ at baptism, do endure to the end and are saved everlastingly is that they did fulfill the conditions. The reason cannot be the grace of the covenant, for the grace of the covenant is given to all alike. In covenantal universalism, not the covenant grace of God, but the obedience of the sinner is decisive. The work of the sinner in fulfilling conditions gives the grace of the covenant its power to save.
This lethal assault on sovereign grace by the men of the “federal [covenant] vision,” as they like to describe their movement, has its killing power from the doctrine of a conditional covenant.
Covenantal universalism is a new form of an older attack on sovereign grace. Covenantal universalism develops the older doctrine of a conditional covenant. It is especially the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”) that have taught the conditional covenant. Their theologians were K. Schilder, B. Holwerda, and C. Veenhof. They have influenced many Reformed and Presbyterian churches and theologians. They were the main influence on Norman Shepherd.
Admittedly, the doctrine of a conditional covenant is popular in Reformed circles.
In the April 15 issue of the Standard Bearer, I described covenantal universalism. I demonstrated its rejection of all the doctrines of grace in the sphere of the covenant. The editorial in the May 15 issue showed that the teaching of covenantal universalism now troubling many Reformed churches bases itself on, and develops, the older doctrine of the covenant taught by the “liberated” Reformed Churches.
Reexamination of Covenant Doctrine
The contemporary controversy over justification by faith alone, as well as all the other doctrines of grace, requires that Reformed and Presbyterian churches reexamine their doctrine of the covenant.
The churches will not be able to resist covenantal universalism’s attack on sovereign grace without condemning the erroneous covenant doctrine from which this attack naturally arises. The root of covenantal universalism’s attack on the doctrines of grace is the doctrine of a conditional covenant.
By the doctrine of a conditional covenant, I do not refer to the teaching that faith is the necessary instrument, or means, by which the elect sinner receives the covenant and its blessings, particularly justification. Some orthodox theologians, including Francis Turretin, spoke of faith as the “condition” of the covenant, meaning only that faith is the necessary instrument of covenant salvation. Turretin was at pains to spell this out: “Faith has the relation of a condition in this covenant … as it is the means and instrument of our union with Christ” (Institutes, vol. 2, p. 187; emphasis added).
Nor do I refer to the teaching that in the covenant faith and obedience are required of the member of the covenant. Some otherwise sound men have called faith and obedience “conditions,” unwisely and inaccurately, when they meant nothing more, or other, than that faith and obedience are demanded by God and are the way of covenant life and salvation. By “conditions,” they meant covenant duties. As Turretin observed, this was an “improper” use of the term “condition” (Institutes, vol. 2, p. 189).
But the doctrine of a conditional covenant that is at the root of the current attack on the doctrines of grace teaches that a universal covenant grace of God—grace extended more widely than only to the elect in Christ—is conditioned—really conditioned as regards its saving efficacy—by the works of sinful men.
This is not a matter of terminology, not even a matter of improper, dangerous terminology. This is heresy. This is denial of the gospel of salvation by sovereign grace, in the sphere of the covenant. The saving grace of God, which God bestows upon all, saves no one by virtue of its own inherent power. Grace in the covenant depends for its saving of any upon the faith and obedience of the sinner.
This covenant doctrine does not differ essentially from the teaching that faith and obedience merit salvation. A condition of the covenant upon which universal grace depends for its saving efficacy is, in fact, what Turretin called an “impulsive cause to obtain the benefits of the covenant.” Turretin lumped condition in the sense of “impulsive cause” with condition in the sense of “meritorious cause” and condemned them both.
If the condition [of the covenant] is taken … for the meritorious and impulsive cause and for a natural condition, the covenant of grace is rightly denied to be conditioned. It is wholly gratuitous, depending upon the sole good will (eudokia) of God and upon no merit of man. Nor can the right to life be founded upon any action of ours, but on the righteousness of Christ alone (Institutes, vol. 2, p. 185).
From this conditional doctrine of the covenant proceeds the denial of all the doctrines of grace. Those who love, and are determined to defend, the gospel of sovereign grace must repudiate this doctrine of the covenant.
Particular Covenant Grace
There is one, and only one, doctrine of the covenant that magnifies and safeguards the sovereign grace of God in His work of salvation in the sphere of the covenant. This is the teaching that the grace of God in the sphere of the covenant, as everywhere else, is particular. God’s gracious covenant and covenant grace are for the elect alone.
But the gospel of particular grace is offensive. It is offensive, not only to the ungodly world and to all the churches whose gospel is that of man’s willing and running, but also today to many who profess the Reformed faith. The ungodly world hates the message that Jesus Christ is the only way to God and the only way of salvation. The non-Reformed churches insist that God must love all, that Christ must have died for all, and that all must at least have an equal chance at salvation. And now professing Reformed churches oppose particular grace in the sphere of the covenant.
Nevertheless, as B. B. Warfield observed in his The Plan of Salvation, particularism has always been the hallmark of Calvinism.
Why should this particularism be lost in the sphere of the covenant?
Established with the elect alone, the gracious covenant, with its grace and blessings, is unconditional. It does not depend for its maintenance, continuance, or fulfillment upon the faith and works of the member of the covenant. Christ merited the covenant, the blessings of the covenant, and salvation in the covenant, for every member of the covenant. Christ also merited faith and its works for the members of the covenant. And Christ in His person and work on behalf of the covenant is a gracious gift of God.
The covenant depends only upon the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The covenant is unconditional.
To be sure, the bond of faith is the means of union with Christ and personal incorporation into the covenant. Certainly, faith is the necessary means of the covenant blessing of justification, as well as of the other blessings of the covenant. Emphatically, faith and obedience on our part are demands of the covenant; God calls us to believe and obey, giving us what He calls for. Beyond all doubt, covenant life is mutuality. God loves us and gives Himself to us in Jesus Christ; we love God, who first loved us, and devote ourselves to Him in a holy life. The covenant does, indeed, contain two parts. God’s part is that He saves us, including the sanctifying work of the Spirit within us that enables and empowers us to do our part. Our part is obedience and service.
But faith and obedience are not conditions of the covenant. The faith and obedience of the member of the covenant are not the basis of the covenant. They are not the reason why the covenant is continued with someone. They are not the ground of the blessings of the covenant, especially justification, or of final salvation in the covenant.
Nor are the faith and obedience of the members of the covenant works that make a universal covenant grace effectual unto salvation for some, whereas that covenant grace is not effectual in the case of others, who all share it alike.
“With Whom was the Covenant of Grace Made?”
Reformed churches and people, struggling with covenantal universalism’s denial of sovereign grace in the sphere of the covenant, must seriously consider the doctrine of an unconditional covenant of particular grace. This is the doctrine confessed by the Protestant Reformed Churches.
The covenant of grace is no agreement, or contract, or bargain, dependent on conditions to be fulfilled by the two bargaining parties, God and every sinner who hears the gospel, or who is born to believing parents. Nor is the covenant a conditional promise of God to all who are baptized.
The covenant is the living, spiritual relationship of love and fellowship between the triune God and His chosen people in Christ. In this relationship, God is our God and saves us, and we are His people and serve Him by His grace. Genesis 17:7, Revelation 21:3, and many other passages define the covenant as fellowship in a phrase that amounts to the “covenant formula”: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” This is confirmed by the two great earthly symbols of the covenant: the father/child relation and marriage (Ex. 4:22, 23; Eph. 5:22-33).
God has established His covenant with Christ as head of the covenant of grace. This is the teaching of Romans 5:12-21. The passage compares Adam and Christ as two federal (covenant) heads. Adam was head of the covenant of creation before the fall, so that his act of disobedience rendered all whom he represented guilty. Similarly, Christ is head of the covenant of grace, so that His obedience constituted all whom He represents righteous.
Since God has established His covenant with Christ, He establishes it with all those humans, but only those humans, who are Christ’s by eternal, sovereign, gracious election. This is the teaching of Galatians 3:16, 29. God established the covenant by promise with Abraham’s “seed.” This “seed … is Christ.” Those people, therefore, who are “heirs according to the promise,” that is, objects and heirs of the covenant promise, are those, and those only, who are “Christ’s.”
That God has established His covenant with Christ, as head of the covenant, and with the elect in Him is explicit, official doctrine for all Presbyterians subscribing the Westminster Standards. Question 31 of the Larger Catechism asks: “With whom was the covenant of grace made?” The answer is: “The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.”
This binds all Presbyterians to a rejection of covenantal universalism and to a defense of covenantal particularism.
The Canons of Dordt likewise teach that Christ is head of the covenant of grace, so that the gracious covenant is made with the elect only and the grace of the covenant is bestowed upon the elect only. The Canons teach Christ’s headship of the covenant in II/8, where Christ’s death for the elect alone is presented as His confirmation of the new covenant with the elect: “Christ by the blood of the cross … confirmed the new covenant.” In articles 2-5 of the rejection of errors section of the second head, the Canons condemn as Arminian heresy the notion that Christ’s death merely enabled God to establish a conditional covenant with all. The conditions of the universal covenant of Arminianism, we note, are “faith … and the obedience of faith,” just as is the teaching of the advocates of covenantal universalism today (Canons, II, Rejection of Errors/4).
Children of the Promise
As regards the children of believers, the promise of God to be the God of our children refers to the elect children, not all the physical children without exception. This is the teaching of the Holy Spirit in Romans 9:6ff. The fact that many of Abraham’s offspring perished in unbelief does not prove that the word of God’s promise took “none effect.” For the word of promise referred only to some of Abraham’s physical offspring, those who are “the children of the promise.” And that which distinguished them, and set them apart, is God’s eternal election. “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.”
With the elect children of godly parents, God establishes the covenant personally in their hearts by the Holy Spirit, usually early in childhood. Them, He unites to Christ. To them, He gives the blessings that are theirs in Christ their head. In them, He works faith and obedience. So far is it from being true that faith and obedience are covenant conditions that, in fact, they are covenant gifts. “This shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel … I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts” (Jer. 31:33).
The other children receive the sign of the covenant, hear the promise of the covenant; receive covenant instruction; and are commanded by God Himself to believe and obey. When they, like Esau, despise the covenant and leave the covenant community, they very really transgress the covenant and apostatize from Christ. This is the charge against them of Hebrews 10:29: “[They tread] under foot the Son of God, and [count] the blood of the covenant, wherewith [they were] sanctified, an unholy thing.” But they never were Christ’s. They never were united to Christ by a true faith. They never were “children of the promise.” They always were “children of the flesh”—wholly and exclusively “children of the flesh.” Romans 9:6ff. clearly teaches that “they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” Only some of Abraham’s physical children were counted for the covenant seed. Only some of our children are counted for the seed.
When some children of believers, or some who joined the church as adults, reject Christ and forsake the church, the word of God in I John 2:19 applies: “They went out from us, but they were not of us.” They were certainly “of us” in their former profession, in their outward behavior, in their membership in the visible, instituted church, and even in their blood. But they were not “of us” as regards union with Christ, spiritual life, true faith, and membership in the “general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven” (Heb. 12:23).
The preachers of covenantal universalism love to appeal to Hebrews 10:19ff. in support of their terrifying, God-dishonoring doctrine that baptized children and others who were truly united to Christ and once possessed the saving benefits of the covenant can fall away into perdition. But also this passage distinguishes two kinds of church members. Some apostatize, to be sure. This is the warning of verse 29, quoted above.
But there are other members who abide in Christ, continue in the faith, persevere in holiness, and remain in the church. These members “are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (v. 39). The faithful are not “of them,” that is, of those who fall away. Rather, the faithful are “of them that believe.” The implication is that those who fall away, regardless that they were baptized and outwardly resembled the believers, never were among those who believed. Hebrews 10:29 and the similar passage in Hebrews 6 describe the apostates according to their outward position as members of the visible church and covenant community, according to their earlier profession, and according to their real guilt. It does not describe those who fall away according to a work of grace in their hearts uniting them to Christ.
One can contemptuously trample underfoot the Son of God, even though he was never united to Him. One can profane the blood of Christ, even though the blood of Christ was never shed for him, or sprinkled upon his soul. One can despise the Spirit of grace, even though he never personally was the object of grace, or received it. One can break the covenant of God, even though that covenant was never established with him individually by promise and by the Spirit’s uniting him to Jesus Christ.
One can commit all this horrendous iniquity by coming into close contact with Christ and the covenant in the gospel and the sacraments, and refusing to believe. This is the extreme wickedness of the carnal seed—the “children of the flesh”—in the sphere of the covenant.
“Israel” / “of Israel”
According to the doctrine of the unconditional covenant, the membership of the visible church, the members of the covenant community, and the physical children of godly parents are distinguished and differentiated by eternal, sovereign predestination, election and reprobation. This is the teaching of Romans 9. This chapter is not mainly about predestination, even though it is the classic passage on predestination in the Bible. Rather, it is the explanation of the covenant problem, specifically the Old Testament covenant problem. The problem was this: How could so many children of Abraham perish in unbelief and disobedience in view of Jehovah’s covenant promise to Abraham, “I will be the God of your seed”? Indeed, in view of this promise how could even one child of Abraham perish?
The explanation is that there was a twofold seed of Abraham: “children of the flesh” and “children of the promise.” God counted only the children of the promise for the seed of Abraham in His covenant promise. And that which accounts for the children of the promise is God’s eternal, sovereign, gracious election: “the purpose of God according to election.”
Not all the physical children alike of godly parents are in covenant relation with God, whether by gracious promise or by a work of grace in their hearts that unites them to Christ. Some are merely in the sphere of the covenant.
Against this distinction between being in the covenant and being in the sphere of the covenant, the theologians of covenantal universalism object, just as the “liberated” Reformed objected before them. In reality, their objection is against Paul and the Holy Spirit, for the apostle makes exactly this distinction inRomans 9:6: “They are not all Israel, which are of Israel.” Some physical children of Abraham were “Israel.” They were elect in Christ, redeemed, objects of the promise, united to Christ by the Holy Spirit, and covenant friends of God.
The others were merely “of Israel.” They were part of the manifestation of Israel in history. In every possible physical, earthly way they were related to Israel. They were flesh-and-blood offspring of Israel. Formally, they lived the life of Israel, at least for a while. But they were not Israel. They never were Israel. They were not elect, redeemed, objects of the promise, united to Christ, and covenant friends of God. And the reason they were not Israel was not that they failed to fulfill the conditions, whereas Israel did fulfill the conditions. If that were the case, covenant salvation would have been by works. But the reason was God’s reprobation of them, whereas He elected Israel.
The sovereign God makes the same distinction between two kinds of physical children of godly parents today.
Covenant/sphere of the covenant!
There is only one alternative to this explanation of the covenant problem. That is the teaching that the gracious promise comes to all alike conditionally, but some fail to fulfill the conditions. In this case, the word of promise is of none effect in many. Or, to put it in the language preferred by covenantal universalism, all alike are conditionally united to Christ, but some fail to perform the conditions, and fall away. In this case, covenant grace is resistible in many.
This is the denial of sovereign grace—in the sphere of the covenant.
Then, as regards His saving work in the sphere of the covenant, it cannot be said of God, “Of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever” (Rom. 11:36). Rather, we must say, “Of him and of those who fulfill the conditions; through him and through those who fulfill the conditions; and to him and to those who fulfill the conditions, are all things, in the sphere of the covenant: to him and to those who fulfill the conditions be the glory of covenant salvation forever.”
As covenantal universalism robs God of His glory in the covenant, so it strips every member of the covenant of assurance. All alike are united to Christ, and all alike can fall away into perdition. So I must live, according to this God-dishonoring, soul-destroying covenant theology: “I am united to Christ by faith today; I may fall away to hell tomorrow.”
In the conditional covenant, the prevailing mood is terror.
The unconditional covenant of particular grace has a different message. To every one united to Christ by faith—every one who believes the gospel from the heart—it promises, unconditionally, that He who has begun the good work in him will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6).
In the unconditional covenant of grace—particular grace—we have assurance.