Letters Responding to the Series of Editorials, “The Unconditional Covenant in Contemporary Debate” (Standard Bearer, Jan. 1 – April 1, 2003)
I was reading your series [on the unconditional covenant] in the Standard Bearer. It has been truly surprising to me how quickly the rejection of the gospel of grace has spread in my Presbyterian circles. I now understand that this has been a debate in Dutch circles for the past century. The work that you and your Protestant Reformed colleagues have conducted in that time, I hope will be useful to counter the various assaults presently underway against the gospel of grace.
I am writing to say “Amen” to (and to thank you for) your continuing work on the conditional covenant heresy. You have helped me much, especially in seeing how Romans 9:6ff. teaches that the promise to Abraham’s seed was not to, or intended for, all the seed (something classic Reformed theology always taught). I especially appreciate how you relate Romans 9:6ff. to the children of believers. All the children of believers are not necessarily elect. The issue is God’s election of grace, His sovereign decree. To me, Reformed teaching on baptism too often did not make clear what you make clear: the elect and the elect alone are saved, as with Isaac and Jacob, in contrast to Ishmael and Esau.
You talk about how so much of the church is going apostate on justification by faith alone, and you connect this to the fact that they believe in a conditional covenant, rather than an unconditional covenant of promise. Amen. But if grace alone and faith alone are to be consistently understood and taught, we must continually hearken back to the apostolic gospel. Because of your openness to and love of Luther, you may be open to reading the following section of a book by my favorite Lutheran scholar, Gerhard Forde. The section is on the Christian life. It bases the Christian life on justification. The section is pages 395-469 of volume 2 of Christian Dogmatics (ed. Braaten and Jenson).
We too have appreciated the work of Gerhard O. Forde. See the very favorable and lengthy comment on his book, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Eerdmans, 1997) in the editorial, “Where are the Theologians of the Cross?” in the Standard Bearer 74, no. 13 (April 1, 1998): 292-295.
I have been reading your articles on the conditional covenant. Thank you for that outstanding piece of work.
I express my gratitude for the series of articles on the vital issue of the unconditional covenant. These perversions within professing “Reformed” circles are alarming indeed. When men teach that “the righteousness of the guilty sinner, the righteousness of his justification, the righteousness of his standing before God in judgment, is and must be in part his own good works” (SB, Feb. 1, 2003, p. 197), one immediately sees how this teaching is supported by the false reading in modern Bible versions at Revelation 19:8, “the marriage of the lamb,” where the completed number of the elect appear before God in heaven as Christ’s bride. Modern versions all add a word for “works” or “deeds” or “acts” thus: “for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (ESV) and “for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints” (NKJV). All modern versions agree in stating here that when the saints appear before God they are dressed in the linen of their own works righteousness (which Scripture dismisses as filthy rags! [Isaiah 64:6]). It is easy to see how this perverse addition to Scripture lends support as a “proof text” to the idea which is being peddled today. Of course, the concept of works, or acts, or deeds, inRevelation 19:8 has no Greek manuscript support (not even B or Aleph) whatsoever. It is a deliberate doctrinal addition. In Revelation 19:8, the “righteousnesses of the saints” are, for each and every saint, nothing but the imputed righteousness of Christ, the only righteousness that we can have before God. The essential doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ is thus written out at a stroke from the modern versions. The door is opened for the “faith as a work and meritorious works of faith” teaching. The saints are told that they can appear before the all holy God in the rages they earned for themselves on earth. How wicked!
I am glad I know I shall appear in Christ’s robe placed over me by grace unmerited alone. I should be terrified to think of appearing in the nakedness of anything I have done. One sees again how all aspects of our faith are interwoven, and defense of accurate texts and translation is defense of our doctrinal truths. All stand or fall together. Thanks again to the Protestant Reformed Churches for their insights and faithfulness to our covenant God.
My wife and I have benefited greatly from, and been greatly edified by, your series on the unconditional covenant. The heresy of which you speak is alive and well in Reformed circles today. I have lost a good friend over this issue. Some months ago, I was asked to read a tract that a friend was writing regarding salvation. In reading it, I noted that parts of it read as an Arminian tract, emphasizing that one had to “do” something to be saved. My pointing this out was not appreciated. It was not until I read your articles that I realized what the problem was: he was teaching a conditional salvation.
But I am getting questions that approach the issue of the relation of faith and the covenant from the standpoint of faith. The argument goes as follows: One is commanded to believe. Therefore, faith must be something one himself does. If faith is something that one does himself, faith is a work.
I have examined the confessions, both the Belgic and the Westminster, and it seems that they teach that faith is something one does. Article 22 of the Belgic Confession says that faith “embraces” and “appropriates” Christ. These words are being used to prove that man has to “do” something to be saved. Do these words show that man does something in salvation? Or does the present understanding of these terms reflect the product of the creeping in of Arminian influences upon present-day Reformed thought? Is there some other way of understanding the words “embrace” and “appropriate”?
Lee Carl Finley
East Sparta, OH
You have found the heart of the issue in the present controversy over the false doctrine of justification by faith and by the works of faith—the gravest threat to the gospel of grace in Reformed churches since Dordt. Because faith is an activity of the regenerated sinner and because as such it is called for by the gospel, the enemies of grace make their last ditch stand in defense of self-salvation by turning faith into a human work and a condition and by suspending salvation upon the sinner’s work of believing.
Fundamentally, this was the issue at Dordt in 1618/1619. Therefore, the Canons of Dordt expressly and repeatedly deny that faith is a condition either unto election or unto salvation (I/9, 10; I, Rejection of Errors/3, 5).
The present-day error of making faith a condition unto the covenant and its blessings is only a variation of the Arminian heresy condemned at Dordt as another gospel. The teaching of a conditional covenant, which is not new, imports the Arminian heresy into the covenant. What is taking place today, and is new, is the development of the doctrine of a conditional covenant by Reformed and Presbyterian theologians into the heresy of justification by works—the work of faith as a condition and the good works that faith performs. The development is natural and inevitable. If faith is a condition man must perform in order to become member of the covenant, or remain member of the covenant, or receive the blessings of the covenant, man is justified by his own work, namely, faith. And then there can be no objection to adding other works as man’s righteousness with God, especially the good works that faith performs.
The refutation of the argument that appeals to faith’s being an activity of the elect, regenerated sinner is briefly this: Faith is certainly an activity of the child of God, but it is not a work of the sinner upon which God, the covenant, and salvation depend. First, faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8). It is gift as the bequest and benefit of election (Acts 13:48). It is gift as earned for the elect by the death of Christ (Canons, II/8). It is gift as bestowed upon and worked into the elect, redeemed sinner by the Spirit of Christ both as regards the power to believe and as regards the actual believing (Canons, III, IV/14).
Second, rather than being a condition unto the covenant and salvation, faith is the means by which God incorporates the elect sinner into His covenant and gives him Christ and salvation and, in dependence upon this gracious work of God, the means by which the regenerated sinner consciously and willingly embraces and appropriates Christ and salvation.
Third, as the activity of the elect sinner, faith is not on his part the doing of a work alongside or along with the work of God in Christ, but the utter renunciation of all human work, including believing as a human work, and a relying on the work of God in Christ alone. It is of the essence of faith to renounce every work, and all working of the sinner himself, including repenting and believing, as earning, contributing to, conditioning, or making effectual the saving work of God in Christ, whether the saving work of God in Christ is viewed as justification, membership in the covenant, or the blessings of the covenant.
Fourth, as regards faith’s being a work—a mighty deed—it is not the work of the sinner at all, but exclusively the work of God in the sinner: “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6:29).
The way to combat the devilishly clever lie that goes about to strip God of His glory in salvation by making faith a work of man conditioning the covenant and salvation is not by denying, or even playing down, that faith is an activity of the sinner—embracing, appropriating, etc.—or by denying that the gospel commands us to believe. But the way to combat the error is by maintaining that God gives the elect faith as part of his promised salvation and as a blessing of the covenant of grace. Also, when God works faith in His own—active faith—they believe, not as a matter of fulfilling a condition or doing a work upon which God’s work depends—crassest arrogance and grossest unbelief!— but as a matter of renouncing all their works and trusting the work of God in Christ alone.
Biblical faith does not challenge and compromise grace, but rather reveals, confirms, and seals grace.
Although written against the Roman Catholic error, before the time of the Arminian controversy and Dordt, Question and Answer 61 of the Heidelberg Catechism exposes both the Arminian heresy and the present-day heresy of justification by faith and works on the basis of a conditional covenant.
Why do you say that you are righteous by faith only?
Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God, and that I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only.
The reason why the Catechism here, although addressing the false doctrine of Rome, speaks to the Arminian heresy and to the present-day heresy of justification by faith and works on the basis of a conditional covenant is that these last two teachings are essentially the Roman Catholic error of man’s salvation of himself, but in subtle guise.
I am currently reading Prof. J. Kamphuis’ book on the “Liberation,” titled Een Ewig Verbond. In it, he emphasizes that the battle for the covenant in the Netherlands was born out of the practical issues of preaching and catechizing (big question: How must I view the congregation?). It seems to me that he thereby implies that true covenantal preaching cannot be done from an unconditional covenant view, since this presumably leaves no place for the obligations of the covenant: repent and believe. Have you also written on this?
Slabbert Le Cornu
Potchefstroom, South Africa
In a series of six editorials titled, “An ‘Election’ Theology of Covenant,” appearing in volume 67 of the Standard Bearer (March 15 – Sept. 1, 1991), I addressed the issues raised by the “Liberated” and by Prof. Kamphuis in particular. In these articles I responded to Prof. Kamphuis’ book, which has been published in English translation as An Everlasting Covenant (Launceston [TAS], Australia: Publication Organization of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, 1985).
A critique of a book espousing a similar covenant theology and making the same charges against the doctrine of an unconditional covenant, Covenant and Election, by Dr. J. Van Genderen (Neerlandia, Alberta, Canada: Inheritance Publications, 1995) appeared in the June 1, 1996 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol. 72, no. 17, pp. 393-397) under the title, “‘Liberating’ the Covenant from Election.”
The charge against the unconditional covenant by its foes is that it tends to carelessness, lack of repentance and faith, the loss of a life of good works, and license. Does this sound familiar to you? Is this not the charge that the foes of gracious salvation have raised against salvation by grace alone and justification by faith alone in every age and in every place?
I would be disappointed if foes of the unconditional covenant, that is, a covenant that depends upon the grace of God alone, did not raise this charge against it. If my doctrine of the covenant did not draw such charges as that it tended to licentiousness (a slanderous report, as Paul declares in Romans 3:8), I would reexamine my covenant doctrine to see what was wrong with it.