Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
Baptism is the sign of God’s covenant. So those who have a wrong view of God’s covenant will have a wrong view of the sign of the covenant. For example, those who baptize infants while viewing the covenant to be conditional will view baptism to be a sign of aresistible grace that is given to every child that is baptized. On the other hand, those who rightly maintain that the covenant is an unconditional bond of friendship will teach that baptism is a sign of irresistible grace, which is given only to the elect.
Not all who hold to a conditional covenant, however, teach the same thing. For example, some speak of conditions to enter the covenant, and some speak of conditions to remain in the covenant. Some maintain that children of believers are really in the covenant, while others say that they are not. So while speaking of the error of a conditional covenant and its effect on the doctrine of baptism, we will need to keep these distinctions in mind.
A Conditional Covenant: A Covenant of Resistible Grace
For quite some time there have been many who have maintained that God’s covenant is a conditional agreement between God and man. God, they say, gives a gracious covenant promise to everyone who hears the preaching, telling them all, head for head, that He wants to save them, and that He promises to give them all the blessings of the covenant, provided that they first fulfill the condition and believe on Him.
This grace, then, is resistible grace. In other words, a conditional covenant is a covenant of resistible grace. This is an extremely important point that must be clearly understood.
The error of a conditional covenant is really nothing other than the same old Arminian error that was condemned by the Synod of Dordt (1618-19). But to get the old error of Arminianism into Reformed and Presbyterian churches it needed to be camouflaged. And, over the years, there have been many who have used the doctrine of a conditional covenant for this very purpose.
A conditional covenant is essentially Arminianism, and the error of Arminianism is essentially the same as that of Roman Catholicism. Last time we considered the error of the Roman Catholics and of the Lutherans, who teach that grace is inseparably connected with the sacrament, so that everyone who receives the sacrament receives also the grace signified by it. It is really this same false teaching that is today being maintained by many others who hold to a conditional covenant. A conditional covenant with all baptized children means that grace is inseparably connected with the sacrament, so that all who receive the sign receive also this grace.
But the grace spoken of here is resistible grace—not irresistible saving grace. Resistible grace is said to be inseparably joined to baptism, so that one who receives the sign receives a dose of resistible grace.
The Romish View of Resistible Grace
As has just been said, resistible grace is the false teaching not only of the Arminians, but also of the Roman Catholics before them. For some fifteen hundred years the Romish church has been teaching resistible grace. And the view of grace to which they have held is much the same as that held today by others who hold to a conditional covenant.
John Calvin, in his commentary on Jeremiah 32:39, 40, summarizes the Romish view of grace. Calvin, when commenting on this text, showed how this text teaches that God’s covenant promise is a promise of efficacious, irresistible grace. Then he took the opportunity to show how this was directly contrary to the view of grace held by the papists (i.e., the followers of the pope).
But when God claims entirely for Himself whatever good there is in us, the Papists concede to Him only the half, and imagine a two-fold grace of God, a grace going before and a grace following. What do the Papists mean, or what do they understand by this grace going before? Even that God inspires us with good and pious feelings, so that if we wish we may be free to follow what is right; for, as I have said, the Papists confess that we are under the tyranny of the devil, and slaves to him, and that there is no right will in men, except through the prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit. But, as I have already said, they talk vainly of the grace of the Spirit, and say that it is an influence by which God enables us to follow that which is right, if we have a will to do so. Thus, then, the grace of God, according to them, leaves men in suspense, so that they are free either to receive or to reject the grace of God. Afterwards, they join the subsequent grace, which, in their view, is a reward; for if I assent to God, that is, if I suffer myself to be ruled by His Spirit, and embrace the grace offered to me, God will then reward me with another grace to confirm me in my right purpose. And thus they confess that perseverance is in part the gift of God; but they always imagine it a cooperating grace.¹
Let us take note of this Romish view of a twofold, resistible grace. First, they speak of a grace of God given to a man before he fulfills a condition, and another grace of God given to him after he does so. The first grace enables the man to fulfill the condition. This grace is resistible. If the person resists it, he will perish. If, however, he makes good use of this grace and repents and believes, then he will obtain the right to receive from God another gift of grace. Yet this second gift of grace is also resistible. It is, as Calvin says, a cooperating grace, which man must not resist.
So the result is that man’s initial fulfillment of the condition and his perseverance in fulfilling the condition are only <ithe gift of God, and thus these gifts are resistible. Partial gifts are resistible; complete gifts are irresistible.
Now there are many conditional covenant advocates, who say they are Reformed, who speak of a similar twofold grace of God. The first grace enables the person to fulfill the condition of the covenant. Some say this condition is faith and nothing else, while others say this condition is faith plus the good works that proceed from faith. In either case, the grace that is given is not grace that actually produces the act of believing and obeying. This a man must produce himself. The grace simply enables him to do so. He, then, must not resist this grace. If he does, then he perishes. If he does not, then God gives him a second gift of grace.
This second gift of grace is then also said by many to be resistible.² If a man fulfills the initial condition, then God, they say, will give him the grace to persevere in obedience. But, they go on to say, man must not resist this grace. If he does, then he perishes. If he does not, then he will eventually go to heaven.
Resistible grace—that is the grace that goes with a conditional covenant.
Powerful Proof that the Grace of God’s Covenant is Irresistible (Jeremiah 32:39, 40)
The passage in Jeremiah, on which Calvin’s comments above are found, is a very strong one on God’s unconditional covenant, and clearly shows that the grace of God’s covenant is irresistible. It is perhaps not quoted by us nearly as often as some other passages on God’s covenant. But it should be one of which we are all well aware, seeing as it manifests clearly the irresistible grace of God’s everlasting covenant. It reads as follows:
And I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for the good of them, and of their children after them:
And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me.
When God establishes His covenant with someone, He does not give him merely some power to enable him to perform some activity. Rather, He gives him a new heart.³ That is what he needs. That is what he has to have if he is going to turn from his sin and return to God. For the problem the unbeliever has is not merely that he commits sinful deeds. His problem is that his very nature is sinful, his very heart is dead. He is completely unable to do what God requires of him. He cannot perform a good work any more than a corpse could that is lying in the grave. What he needs is not merely a little strength. He needs to be resurrected. And that is what God does when He makes His covenant with him. He raises him from the dead.
This gracious gift of a new heart, this spiritual resurrection from the dead, is unmistakably irresistible. A dead man cannot accept or reject any gift. It is only when God gives a person a new heart, placing His fear within that heart, that the person comes to life, fears God, and turns to Him, longing to commune with Him. This is what we find in the text when it says, “I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me.” One who does not have this new heart does not have God’s fear in his heart, and if he does not have God’s fear in his heart, he will never obey Him. He will always depart from him. Yet God irresistibly gives His people a new heart and thus causes them to walk in His statutes and do them.
The text also clearly proves that to be in God’s covenant today is to be in that covenant forever. One in the covenant is not a recipient of resistible grace. If he were, then it would be possible for him to resist it and to fall out of the covenant. But this passage clearly states that those in God’s covenant will never depart from Him. Take note of this. God promises His people not only that He will never depart from them, but also that He will make sure that they never depart from Him.
Irresistible grace—that is the promise of God’s everlasting covenant. But resistible grace is taught by the papists, the Arminians, and many others who hold to a conditional covenant. And when this view of God’s grace is then taken by them and applied to the sacrament of holy baptism, the sacrament becomes a sign ofresistible grace. It is to this subject, Lord willing, that I will turn next time.
Jeremiah 32:39, translated from the Latin and edited by Rev. John Owen.
² Some will say it is irresistible, but many others will hold it to be resistible.
³The passage actually speaks of God’s people receiving “one heart.” But the one heart spoken of here is the same as the new heart spoken of in the parallel passage ofEzekiel 36:26. All God’s people receive one new heart. The Word of God and the fear of God are said to be irresistibly placed by God in this heart.