A new form of covenant theology takes hold in many of the reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America. In accordance with its fundamental teaching, this doctrine should be called “covenantal universalism.” In the April 15, 2004 issue of the Standard Bearer, I showed that covenantal universalism is a bold attack upon all the truths of the gospel of sovereign grace. The attack consists of denying that grace is sovereign in the sphere of the covenant.
Covenantal universalism denies that eternal, sovereign predestination—election and reprobation—applies to the children of godly parents in the sphere of the covenant. In the sphere of the covenant, all the children are elect, including those who eventually perish in unbelief.
Covenantal universalism rejects the doctrine of limited atonement as regards the generations of believers. Christ died for all the physical, baptized children of believers. Indeed, He died for all who receive the sacrament of baptism, those who finally are damned, as well as those who finally are glorified.
Covenantal universalism teaches that grace is resistible in baptized children. Many children in whom God begins the work of salvation, uniting them to Christ, resist this grace and go lost.
Covenantal universalism emphatically repudiates the perseverance of covenant saints in covenant holiness. Many who once were truly engrafted into Christ and enjoyed the spiritual blessings of the covenant are cut off from Christ, forfeit the blessings of salvation, and perish everlastingly.
In the sphere of the covenant, grace is universal, resistible, and losable.
Those who teach this covenant theology claim to maintain the doctrines of grace, the “five points of Calvinism.” But the doctrines of grace do not apply to the covenant.
Evidently, there is contradiction in the saving work of God. Outside the covenant, on the mission field, God saves by sovereign grace. Within the covenant, grace is powerless. Outside the covenant, grace depends upon the will of God alone. Within the covenant, grace is dependent upon the will of the baptized child. Outside the covenant, grace is efficacious. Within the covenant, grace can successfully be resisted. Outside the covenant, grace is particular. Within the sphere of the covenant, grace is universal.
The attempt of these teachers to distinguish covenant grace from the grace of God confessed as particular and sovereign by the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith is futile. The grace of God in the sphere of the covenant is saving grace, grace that has its origin in election, the grace of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, grace that applies the atonement of the cross of Christ, grace that has eternal life in heaven as its purpose. And according to covenantal universalism this grace is not particular and sovereign, but universal and resistible.
Despite the loud protestations of those who teach covenantal universalism that they are orthodox, it becomes plain that they nurse a latent hostility to the Reformed confessions, especially the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith. They are forced to be cautious, because they are Reformed officebearers, who have sworn to be faithful to the creeds. Nevertheless, they like to stress the inadequacy of the creeds. They present themselves as innovators. They are men who have discovered new truths for the modern Reformed church.
Not only have they discovered new truths. They have also created a new way of teaching spiritual truth. They are critical of Reformed theologians of the past for their emphasis on propositional truth, for their concern with theological system, for their zeal for doctrinal purity and soundness. All of this is condemned as “scholastic.” The men of the “federal vision,” as they call their movement, herald a new way of religious thinking and teaching. Theirs is a “biblical” and “covenantal” way of thinking and teaching.
This, of course, is a thinly veiled attack on the systematic theology of the Reformed confessions.
The proof is in the pudding. The message produced by this new, fresh, exciting “biblical” and “covenantal” method of theology is in violent conflict with the Reformed confessions, beginning with the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Not long ago, one of these men gave vent to the attitude that lives in their hearts toward the system of doctrine contained in the Canons of Dordt and in the Westminster Confession of Faith. He publicly railed against the “solas” of the Reformation. The “solas” of the Reformation are the grand, essential truths of the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ: “by faith alone”; “by grace alone”; “Christ alone”; and “to the glory of God alone.”
Development of an Older Doctrine of the Covenant
Even though covenantal universalism attacks the Reformed confession at its very heart—the sovereignty of God in His grace—most of the reputedly Reformed and Presbyterian churches are open to it. They are wide open to it. They permit the teaching. They tolerate the teachers. Criticism is muted, so oblique that no one could take offense at it, or non-existent. When faithful church members take the heretics and their heresy to the assemblies, the ecclesiastical assemblies exonerate the false teachers. The churches are unwilling or unable to condemn covenantal universalism and to root it out.
The reason is that covenantal universalism is a development of an older doctrine of the covenant, which all these churches have embraced for many years.
The older doctrine of the covenant that the men of the “federal vision” are developing taught that God makes His covenant with all the children of believing parents alike, by promising salvation to them all at their baptism. In this important respect, the covenant is universal. The older doctrine added that the covenant is conditional. It depends for its realization, that is, for its continuation with the individual child and for its actual saving of any child, upon the child’s faith and covenant-obedience.
This doctrine of a universal, conditional covenant was taught by Klaas Schilder and the “liberated” Reformed Churches.
The men who are teaching covenantal universalism openly acknowledge that their covenant doctrine is essentially that of Klaas Schilder and the “liberated” Reformed. Especially when they come under fire, they defend themselves by appealing to the doctrine of the covenant of the “liberated” Reformed. “We are not introducing novelties. Our theology is the covenant doctrine of Schilder and the ‘liberated’ Reformed.”
Covenantal universalism, with its radical denial of the entire gospel of sovereign grace, is a development of the doctrine of the covenant that the Protestant Reformed Churches rejected in their great internal struggle in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Necessary Development of the Older Doctrine
The teachings about the covenant and its grace by Shepherd, Barach, Wilkins, Wilson, and the others are legitimate, natural, and inevitable, indeed necessary, development of that older doctrine of the conditional covenant. That older doctrine made the covenant and the covenant promise universal—to all the physical children of godly parents alike. But the covenant promise is grace. Its origin is the favorable attitude of God toward those to whom He makes the promise; it is gracious in its very nature and content; it purposes grace and salvation for those to whom God makes it. Therefore, the older covenant doctrine made grace universal in the sphere of the covenant.
The new development of this older doctrine draws the implications: all the children are united to Christ; all receive the saving benefits of the covenant; all are saved—temporarily.
The older doctrine made grace and salvation, in the covenant, conditional. The universal, gracious covenant and covenant promise depend upon the faith and obedience of the child. Faith and obedience, even though they may not merit, are the ground, or basis, of salvation in the covenant. They are a certain worthiness of the sinner to be saved.
The new development of this older doctrine draws the implication. Justification in the covenant depends on faith as a man’s own work of obedience and on the good works faith performs. In the covenant, justification is by faith and works.
The older doctrine taught that the covenant promise can fail of giving the salvation it promises to someone. It taught that the covenant itself, established with someone personally by promise at his baptism, can be broken, so that the covenant is with him no longer. The result is that he perishes. Failing to fulfill the conditions of the covenant, a child breaks the covenant in the sense that he nullifies the covenant made with him by promise and renders the promise of God to him void.
Covenantal universalism draws the implication and teaches the falling away of those who once enjoyed union with Christ, the blessings of salvation, and saving grace.
The older doctrine of the covenant strongly opposed any control over the covenant, the covenant promise, and covenant salvation by the eternal decree of election. How Schilder and the “liberated” Reformed cried out, “The covenant is not identical with election.” What they meant was: “Election does not control the covenant. Election does not determine to whom God makes the covenant promise. Election does not determine with whom God establishes the covenant. Election does not determine whom God saves in and by the covenant.”
In the covenant doctrine of the “liberated” Reformed, there always lurked enmity against God’s election as eternal, sovereign decree. Sometimes that enmity surfaced. Already in the 1940s, Prof. Benne Holwerda was teaching that election in Scripture, including such passages as Ephesians 1:4, does not refer to an eternal decree, but to a temporal, conditional election in the history of the covenant. A John Barach is merely echoing Benne Holwerda some sixty years later, as Barach himself has observed.
The new form of the older doctrine seizes upon this separation of covenant grace and covenant salvation from the eternal decree of election and runs with it. Universal grace in the sphere of the covenant completely swallows up election as a divine decree. The election permitted to exist in the sphere of the covenant is ruled by universal grace and by the will of the member of the covenant. All the baptized are elect originally. Thus election is determined by universal grace. Many lose their election, however, and become reprobates by failing to fulfill the conditions. Thus election is determined by the will of the members of the covenant.
In short, the older doctrine of a gracious covenant and covenant promise for all, dependent for their efficacy on conditions that the children must fulfill, was implicitly a message of universal, resistible grace.
The new covenant theology is making this explicit. It repudiates outright every one of the doctrines of sovereign grace and openly substitutes the teachings of universal, conditional, resistible grace.
This is the reason why the churches are powerless to combat covenantal universalism. They are committed to the conditional covenant. Sounder theologians oppose the new developments, especially the gross heresies of justification by faith and faith’s works and the falling away of saints. But they cannot, or will not, get at the root of the heresies. They themselves hold the error from which these heresies spring: universal grace in the sphere of the covenant, conditioned by the faith and obedience of the covenant member.
In the early 1950s, the Protestant Reformed Churches battled almost to the death—their death—on behalf of the gospel of salvation by sovereign grace in the sphere of the covenant. They battled for sovereign grace by contending against the doctrine of a conditional covenant.
Not one Reformed or Presbyterian denomination came to their defense. Not one Reformed or Presbyterian theologian stood with them.
Now the Reformed and Presbyterian churches are troubled by the full-blown covenantal universalism that has developed from the doctrine of a conditional covenant. Inasmuch as the truth of justification by faith alone is jeopardized, they themselves must see that their very existence as true churches of Christ is in danger. The entire sixteenth century Reformation was one with Luther in warning that the truth of gracious justification, apart from any and all works of the sinner, is the “article of a standing and a falling church.”
In the face of this danger, one of the gravest since Dordt, will the churches at last consider that the only safeguard of the gospel of salvation by sovereign grace is the doctrine of the unconditional covenant of grace with Christ as head of the covenant and with the elect in Him?
The issue is stark.
The loss of the gospel of sovereign grace.
Or, covenantal particularism.