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Covenant Theology 

It was with true joy that I received the complimentary copy of the Standard Bearer. Its pages were my companion that very evening and provided a source of interest and edification. I certainly appreciated the articles concerning various aspects of our joint heritage, the Afscheiding….I am well aware of your conviction concerning the nature of the covenant of grace and its being unconditional. Furthermore, you are aware of the URC and CanRC courtship and their (CanRC) emphasis on the covenant being conditional. I am wondering what your reaction is to an attempt to hold to a carefully qualified distinction between the covenant being unconditional in a meritorious sense and conditional in an instrumental sense—the immediate qualification being that the instrumental conditions are set upon and fulfilled by Christ on behalf of the elect….(I)n my own developing covenant theology (and the PRC has been helpful to that development) this distinction accompanies a legal/vital distinction in relationship to covenant participation….I deeply appreciate your magazine and labors.

Blessings in Christ,

(Rev.) Greg Lubbers, Pastor,

Covenant URC Byron Center (MI, USA)


The issue you raise in the question concerning “a carefully qualified distinction between the covenant being unconditional in a meritorious sense and conditional in an instrumental sense” is fundamental to the gospel of (covenant) salvation by grace alone. It is also timely in view of the theology of Norman Shepherd, as set forth in his The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism (P&R, 2000), and the men of the “federal vision,” as propounded in their The Federal Vision (Athanasius Press, 2004).

Not one of the “Three Forms of Unity,” which are the creeds of the United Reformed Churches and of the Canadian Reformed Churches, teaches conditional salvation or a conditional covenant. The Canons of Dordt, which is a creed of the United Reformed Churches and of the Canadian Reformed Churches, expressly denies that faith is a condition either of election or of salvation.

This election was not founded upon foreseen faith, and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition on which it depended… (Canons, I/9). 

The good pleasure of God is the sole cause of this gracious election; which doth not consist herein that God, foreseeing all possible qualities of human actions, elected certain of these as a condition of salvation… (Canons, I/10). 

The Synod rejects the errors of those…who teach that Christ, by His satisfaction, merited neither salvation itself for anyone, nor faith, whereby this satisfaction of Christ unto salvation is effectually appropriated; but that He merited for the Father only the authority or the perfect will to deal again with man, and to prescribe new conditions as He might desire… (Canons, II, Rejection of Errors/3).

The context of the Canons’ rejection of “conditions” in the third article of the Rejection of Errors section of the second head is the covenant of grace (see Canons, II, Rejection of Errors/2, 4). Here, therefore, the Canons explicitly apply their denial that faith is a condition of salvation to the covenant of grace.

Herman Bavinck noted the reluctance of Reformed theologians to use the term “‘the conditions’ of the covenant.”

In the beginning Reformed theologians spoke freely of “the conditions” of the covenant. But after the nature of the covenant of grace had been more carefully considered and had to be defended against [Roman] Catholics, Lutherans, and Remonstrants, many of them took exception to the term and avoided it (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, Baker, 2006, 229).

Nevertheless, orthodox Reformed theologians have spoken of faith as the “condition” in the covenant. By this, they meant that faith is the necessary “means and instrument” of covenant communion with Christ and of covenant salvation. Francis Turretin carefully defined his reference to faith as the “condition” in the covenant: “Faith has the relation of a condition in this covenant…as it is the means and instrument of our union with Christ (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, P&R, 1994, 187, emphasis added).

Other Reformed theologians spoke of faith as a “condition” in the covenant intending nothing more, or other, than that faith is a demand of God upon His covenant friends in the covenant of grace, as their part in the covenant. Invariably, these theologians added that God Himself gives this faith. Turretin remarked that this was really an “improper” use of the term “condition” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, 189).

The Westminster Standards refer to faith as “the condition” in the covenant of grace in the sense of faith’s being the instrument by which the elect sinner receives and is interested in the mediator of the covenant.

How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant? The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him… (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. & A. 32).

This orthodox use of the term “condition,” with reference strictly to the means of covenant communion and salvation, always appeared in the context of the teaching that God establishes the covenant only with the elect, that the covenant promise is to the elect alone, and that God bestows the salvation of the covenant exclusively upon the elect. Turretin is representative:

By the latter [the “evangelical” covenant of grace in Christ—DJE], he [God] promises to the believer safety in Christ and on account of Christ…[This covenant] was entered into with the elect in Christ after the fall (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, 174). 

But the common and received opinion among the Reformed is different. They hold to a particularity of the covenant (no less than of saving grace) that although what is extended to many may be called general (especially under the New Testament, the distinction of nations being taken away), still it never was universal with each and all, but particular only with the true elect members of Christ (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, 207).

The particularity of the covenant, the covenant promise, and the covenant blessings of salvation, with, to, and upon the elect in Christ alone, is confessional with Presbyterians: “With whom was the covenant of grace made? The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. & A. 31). This perfectly lucid statement, with its biblical basis in Galatians 3:16(to which the article appeals), is simply conclusive against that doctrine of the covenant that has God making the covenant, conditionally, with all baptized persons, elect and reprobate alike, altogether apart from Christ.

In the very answer in which it describes faith as a “condition” in the covenant, the Westminster Larger Catechism immediately adds that the elect in Christ are the exclusive object of the covenant promise and expressly states that faith is a gift of God in the elect.

God…promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation (Q. and A. 32).

Also the Westminster Confession of Faith explicitly limits the promise of the covenant of grace to the elect and expressly states that faith is a gift to the elect: “promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe” (7.3).

In a Reformed theology that freely, boldly, and joyfully confessed that election governs the covenant and that expressly stated that faith is a “condition” in the sense of “means,” or “instrument,” there was no danger of viewing faith as a work of the sinner upon which the covenant, the covenant promise, and covenant salvation depend.

Radically different is the use of “condition” in the theology of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”), the Canadian Reformed Churches, Norman Shepherd, and the men of the “federal vision.”

No matter that, when pressed by defenders of the creedal Reformed doctrine of salvation by particular, sovereign grace, they resort to crying up their “condition” of the covenant as “means”!

In their covenant theology, “condition,” that is, faith as they conceive it, does not function as the “means” of covenant communion and covenant salvation. That is, “condition” does not function in their theology exclusively as means, or even primarily as means. Rather, for them faith is the condition of the covenant in the sense that faith, as the act and work of the sinner (whether with or without the help of God—it makes no difference), is the explanation why some remain in the covenant, whereas others as truly in the covenant as those who remain fall out; is the cause why the covenant promise is effectual unto salvation in some, in distinction from others to whom God made the promise as really as He did to those who permit themselves to be saved by the promise; and accounts for the fact that the covenant, which God (according to them) has made with all the baptized children of believers alike, continues with some, whereas it is annulled with respect to others.

In the covenant theology of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”), the Canadian Reformed Churches, Norman Shepherd, and the men of the “federal vision,” faith functions as a “condition” in the sense that it makes effective unto everlasting salvation a covenant grace that God supposedly extends to and bestows upon many more than the elect—upon many more than are saved by this grace. Covenant grace in itself is powerless, and resistible; the child’s faith makes it effective. In the covenant theology of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”), the Canadian Reformed Churches, Norman Shepherd, and the men of the “federal vision,” the covenant, covenant grace, the covenant promise, and covenant salvation depend upon faith.

This is heresy.

This is the heresy that Scripture condemns and warns against throughout: salvation dependent upon the sinner! divine grace dependent upon the will and work of man!

It makes absolutely no difference that those who teach this covenant doctrine deny that the “condition” is meritorious. Between the meritorious conditions of Roman Catholic theology and the nonmeritorious conditions of the covenant theology of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”), the Canadian Reformed Churches, Norman Shepherd, and the men of the “federal vision,” there is no essential difference: both make the grace of God in Jesus Christ dependent upon the sinner. And both make the grace of God dependent upon the sinner for the same reason: they refuse to confess that grace has its source in, and is determined by, that is, depends upon, God’s eternal decree of unconditional election.

Scripture never teaches that grace, union with Christ, justification, and salvation depend upon faith. It teaches that grace and salvation are by means of faith, or out of faith, inasmuch as faith unites the elect sinner with Christ. “Therefore it [covenant salvation] is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed” (Rom. 4:16).

The conditional covenant doctrine of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”) and the Canadian Reformed Churches is, in principle, a denial of the gospel of salvation by sovereign grace, as defended by Dordt, with specific reference to salvation in the covenant. The men of the “federal [covenant] vision” are only developing the doctrine of a conditional covenant, as indeed they themselves openly acknowledge. This development is the open denial of justification by faith alone and, with this fundamental truth, all of the “five points of Calvinism” confessed by Dordt. I demonstrate this in my book, The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers: Sovereign Grace in the Covenant (RFPA, 2005).

I urge you, all others who may be interested in this vitally important issue of the conditionality or unconditionality of the covenant of grace, and the entire community of Presbyterian and Reformed churches (now being tested by the “federal vision” concerning their love of the gospel of grace) to read the Protestant Reformed Churches’ decision on the issue, already some fifty years ago: a “Declaration of Principles.” The “Declaration” is found in The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005).

—Prof. David J. Engelsma