The doctrine of God’s everlasting covenant of grace is a uniquely Reformed truth. That uniqueness is not due to discovery, as if the Reformed church was the first to discuss it. That is obviously not the case. The church of God has long recognized the importance of the covenant. The church labeled the two parts of Holy Scripture the Old Testament (or covenant), and the New Testament (or covenant). Theologians have been writing and preaching about the covenant from of old. Yet it is uniquely Reformed in that this doctrine received its due, and was developed, after the great sixteenth-century Reformation.
The all-wise and sovereign God determines when in the history of His church each doctrine will receive much attention and consequently will be set forth clearly. Surely God has many purposes and goals known only to Him for determining when the doctrine of the covenant would be developed. From our vantage point we can see some of the wisdom of waiting with the doctrine of the covenant until after the Reformation.
First, the Reformed doctrine of the covenant ties all of Reformed theology together. Thus it was God’s plan that this crucial doctrine come into its own after most of the other doctrines had been explicitly defined.
Second, God’s covenant of grace is inseparably related to the doctrine of salvation. Even the name (covenant of grace) indicates the tie to the doctrine of salvation by grace. In one of the most striking events in the history of the church, the Reformed church world gathered together in 1618-’19 in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, to set forth the Reformed doctrine of salvation. The Canons of Dordt explain, defend, and affirm salvation by sovereign, particular grace. Thus, the Reformed doctrine of the covenant developed out of the theology expressed in this Reformed creed.
The Protestant Reformed Churches have been convinced, through much study and controversy, that the only doctrine of the covenant that is in harmony with the doctrine of sovereign grace is anunconditional covenant. Throughout its history, theStandard Bearer has persistently proclaimed the twin truths of sovereign, particular grace and the unconditional covenant of grace. In the issues of February 1, 2006 and following, the treatment of the Declaration of Principles was intended to demonstrate that the unconditional covenant is in complete harmony with the Reformed creeds, while the conditional covenant is not. However, more needs to be said about the dangers of the doctrine of a conditional covenant.
The doctrine of a conditional covenant is not so easy to define. This is partly due to the fact that very few proponents of a conditional covenant will offer a clear definition. In addition, it comes as no surprise to anyone that there are variations of thought among those who hold to a conditional covenant. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify a number of central elements of the conditional covenant. Let us recall some of them.
First, the most obvious element is found in its name—the conditional covenant insists that God requires man to fulfill a condition. The covenant is usually described as an agreement between God and man, where God promises to give to man the blessing of eternal life on the condition that man does his part. That ‘part’ is faith—he must believe the promises, and sometimes the condition of works of obedience is explicitly added (or “faithfulness” in the covenant, as it is described by some). Several answers are given to the question: To what is man’s part a condition? This condition might be a prerequisite to entering the covenant. It might be a condition needed to ratify the covenant. It may be merely to obtain the blessing of the covenant. Those who want to maintain a conditional covenant, but also affirm that salvation is all of God, will add that the condition is fulfilled by God’s grace.
Second, a conditional covenant is two-sided, or bilateral. Some hold to a bilateral covenant throughout. Others teach that the covenant begins unilaterally, but becomes bilateral. According to this, God comes to man with the message that God established His covenant with the man. God places man under the obligations of the covenant. At that point, the covenant becomes bilateral, as man is required to believe the promise (the condition) as a prerequisite to receiving the promised blessings. Corresponding to a promise of blessing for obedience is a threat of punishment for failure to meet the condition.
Third, the covenant, as conditional, is presented as the way that God saves. God makes a covenant with many, in order to save some of them. The covenant serves the purpose of bringing salvation to those who fulfill the condition.
Fourth, under a conditional covenant, the promises of the covenant are given to every child of believing parents. The glorious promise of Genesis 17:7 to Abraham and his seed is understood to refer to allAbraham’s physical children and grandchildren, etc. Accordingly, every believer is assured that all his children are in the covenant, and all have the promises from God.
Fifth, most often, the doctrine of a conditional covenant includes the concept of a common, non-saving grace given to every child of believers. Such a grace enables the child to make a decision on whether or not to accept the promises of God.
And finally, the conditional covenant also ordinarilyexcludes sovereign, particular election from any consideration of the covenant. All the children of believers are in the covenant of God, not merely the elect. Election’s only connection to the covenant is that it will serve to explain, after history is ended, who were saved and why, namely, because they were God’s elect.
Many objections can be raised against such a view of the covenant. We limit our criticisms to the following:
First of all, the doctrine of a conditional covenant compromises God’s sovereignty. The mighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, comes to puny man with a proposal and waits on man’s acceptance of it? And if man accepts it, then God will proceed to bestow the blessings? Is that not contrary to all of Scripture and the Reformed confessions, which emphasize God’s sovereignty over all things, but especially in salvation?
The Bible’s clear testimony is that the covenant is God’s and that God sovereignly establishes His covenant. This is God’s Word in Genesis 17:7 —”I will establish my covenant….” God established that covenant with Abraham and his seed. Even though the seed are not yet born and cannot fulfill any conditions, they are included in the covenant. And concerning that “seed,” the Spirit teaches us, “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ” (Gal. 3:16). The “Seed” is Christ and all those in Him, namely, the elect.
To be sure, God demands of His people that they live in loving obedience in this covenant. To His covenant people God speaks: “I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect” (Gen. 17:1). And God shows that those who live in the sphere of the covenant (due to their organic connection, namely, they were born in families of believers), but despise God’s covenant, manifest the fact that they are not God’s covenant people, and He cuts them off from any connection to the covenant (Gen. 17:14).
Nonetheless, the covenant of grace is unilateral throughout. God not only establishes it, He powerfully maintains it. Psalm 89teaches that though the seed of the chosen will transgress the covenant, that is, will sin, will transgress God’s covenant law, yet God promises, “My covenant will I not break” (Ps. 89:34). Thanks be to God, the maintenance of the covenant does not belong to us!
Our second main objection against a doctrine of the conditional covenant is that it is Arminianism applied to the covenant. Reading Arminius himself, one cannot but be struck by the similarity of his theology with the conditional covenant teachings. I do not refer merely to the fact that Arminius made much of conditions, and taught an election conditioned on man’s faith and obedience, though that is significant indeed. But consider what Arminius wrote in response to William Perkins.¹ Against Perkins, who taught that the promise of the gospel relates to the elect alone, but the command to believe pertains to the elect and to the reprobate, Arminius wrote, “I reply, that the promise, as made and proposed by God, relates not to the elect only, but to the wicked, whom you place in opposition to the elect” (p. 327).
In harmony with a universal promise of salvation, Arminius insisted that Christ had made atonement for the sins of every person, otherwise forgiveness could not be offered to everyone. The same implication holds in the doctrine of a conditional covenant. If the promise of salvation is made and given to every baptized child, then the implication is that Christ must have died for each baptized child.
Arminius also taught that God gives a non-saving grace to all those who hear the gospel preached. Wrote Arminius, “[God] determined to give to them faith and repentance by sufficient grace, that is, to bestow upon them those gifts in a manner in which they may be able to receive them, by the strength given them by God, which is necessary for their reception. God has, therefore, ordained, by the decree of Providence, by which external preaching is addressed to those whom God foreknew as persons who would not believe, to give to them…sufficient grace and the strength necessary to their faith and conversion to God.” Arminius distinguishes this “sufficient grace” from “effectual grace,” which God does not give to the reprobate (p. 336).
And, it should be noted, Arminius also taught that man fulfills conditions by God’s grace.
Arminianism applied to the covenant yields a conditional covenant.
More objections could be raised about specific aspects of a conditional covenant, such as the denial of Christ’s Headship as the Mediator of the covenant; the notion that the essence of the covenant is an agreement rather than friendship; and this serious, but often overlooked criticism: the conditional covenant makes the covenant to be merely a means to an end (and thus limited to time), rather than the eternal goal of God, namely, to live forever with His people in perfect covenant friendship.
However, our purpose is not now to give a thorough critique of the concept of a conditional covenant. Rather, it is to set forth some of the consequences of this doctrine. Since the covenant is the heart and soul of Reformed theology, the conditional covenant has many serious implications, both doctrinal and practical. In past editorials, Prof. Engelsma demonstrated clearly that the conditional covenant is the root cause of the latest denial of justification by faith alone.² He went beyond that to demonstrate that the conditional covenant denies all the doctrines of sovereign grace.³
The above demonstrates once again the reality that the truth is one truth. It is a complete whole. Reformed believers speak of the “body of the truth.” Exactly because of this unity, when one aspect of the truth is corrupted, the whole body is affected, and that for evil. Eventually all of the truth is corrupted by an error—witness the spread of the lie in the medieval church, resulting in the false church of Rome.
This article begins a series that intends to set forth other grievous errors that are based on the false doctrine of a conditional covenant. Now it is plain that when false doctrine enters, the other doctrines that will be first affected are those most closely related to the false doctrine itself. This is true also with the conditional covenant. For example, the two sacraments instituted by Christ are also signs and seals of the covenant of grace. If the conditional covenant view is not correct, one would expect that it will eventually affect the doctrine and practice of the sacraments. In fact this is the case. Admitting children to the Lord’s Supper (paedo-communion) and baptismal regeneration are being defended and promoted on the basis of the conditional covenant.
Additionally, all Reformed believers know that marriage is a picture of God’s covenant relationship to His church. Does a conditional covenant affect the teaching and practice of marriage? Indeed it does. The conditional covenant is the theological justification for divorce, not only, but also for remarriage under all circumstances.
These are evil fruits.
Not everyone who holds to the doctrine of a conditional covenant is partaking of these evil fruits. Not yet. Some are battling the errors, even while maintaining a doctrine of a conditional covenant.
They fight an impossible battle. It is like a doctor trying to treat only the symptoms of cancer instead of attacking the root cause.
The point of the articles, therefore, is to help those who reject the evil fruits, but do not yet see the root cause.
¹ “An Examination of the treatise of William Perkins concerning the Order and Mode of Predestination,” The Writing of James Arminius (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids: 1956), trans. W.R. Bagnall, vol. III. This is the source of all the quotations from Arminius.
² “The Unconditional Covenant in Contemporary Debate,” Standard Bearer, Jan. 1-April 1, 2003.
³ “Covenantal Universalism: New Form of an Old Attack on Sovereign Grace,” Standard Bearer, Apr. 15—June, 2004.