Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: April 1, 2007, p. 306.
Prof. William Heyns developed a doctrine of the covenant that is held widely in Reformed circles at the present time. This view is a kind of adaptation of the doctrine of common grace and the well-meant offer of the gospel to the sacrament of baptism and the promises of God made at baptism.
It was Heyns’ contention that all children of believers are objectively in the covenant, possess objectively the promises of the covenant, receive grace in baptism to accept or reject the conditions of the covenant, and enter the covenant subjectively as full heirs of the grace of life only upon fulfillment of the conditions.
In Presbyterian circles, Lewis Bevens Schenck has shown in an excellent book that the Presbyterian view of the place of children in the covenant of grace was sound and biblical in early Presbyterianism, especially, though not exclusively, in America (Lewis Bevens Schenck, The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant: An Historical Study of the Significance of Infant Baptism in the Presbyterian Church in America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940). It is his contention that a correct view of the place of infants in the covenant was altered significantly by New England theology as set forth primarily by Jonathan Edwards, and was adversely influenced by the New England revivals during the time of Edwards and George Whitefield.
But our chief concern is with the line of Reformed theology.
Consequences of a Conditional Covenant
This view of a conditional covenant has had serious consequences. I mention a few of the more serious ones here.
It has led to a serious denigration of the importance of the covenant in the life of the church and the people of God. The covenant, if it is a conditional compact or agreement, is not the heart of the great gift of salvation that Scripture claims that it is, but it is only a means to that salvation. It is the means by which God gives salvation only to those who accept the provisions of the covenant and fulfill the conditions; but it is not itself salvation.
The covenant of grace is, therefore, as far as its central character is concerned, nothing but a general promise to all who are baptized that, if they fulfill the conditions of the covenant, they will be saved. The covenant is reduced to a conditional promise, rather than being the essence of salvation itself.
A very serious consequence is that sovereign election, as it stands related to the covenant, is denied. If the covenant consists of a conditional promise to all, election does not control the covenant and does not determine who are in God’s covenant and who are not. Those who hold to the view of Prof. Heyns insist that election has nothing to do with the covenant and must not be considered in connection with any discussion of the covenant.
But ultimately no one can deny that the covenant is salvation. And the result is that those who hold to a conditional covenant hold also to a conditional salvation. And if they are forced to consider election (as Scripture compels them to do), they are driven to a conditional election. All those baptized are said to be elect. Thus election is conditional and not determinative for salvation.
Such conditionality introduced into the covenant is an introduction of pure Arminianism into the doctrine of the covenant. The sovereignty of God in the work of salvation through Christ is denied and the covenant blessings are made dependent on the will of man, freed to make his choice for or against the covenant by a general grace imparted to him when he was baptized.
One can see at a glance how such a position compels one to deny all the five points of Calvinism. Eternal election as the fountain and cause of faith is discarded. A general atonement as the judicial ground of a general promise becomes a necessity. Total depravity is lost in the wilderness of this general grace given to all. Grace is resistible. Those once heirs of the promise and perhaps themselves elect can lose their salvation and election. Nothing is left. Only Arminianism and salvation by the will of man.
Justification by Faith and Works
An extremely important consequence of the idea of a conditional covenant is the denial of justification by faith alone. This implication of a conditional covenant was popularized by Norman Shepherd (Norman Shepherd,The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism. Philipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2000).
We will not go into this recent development in this connection. The controversy over the doctrine of justification by faith rages fiercely in the church world, and much has been written on it, also in our own Protestant Reformed Churches, in which the connection between a conditional covenant and the heresy of justification by faith and works has been clearly shown. I will make only one comment. If the fundamental doctrine of the covenant as the great and glorious salvation of the elect is made conditional, then all salvation is conditional. If all salvation is conditional, then justification is conditional. Then justification is not any longer by faith alone, but is conditioned on works, particularly the works of obedience. But then, too, the whole heritage of the Protestant Reformation is lost. Then the way is paved to return to Rome’s Pelagianism and idolatry.
The Truth of God’s Covenant
Although the truth of an unconditional covenant has been held by Reformed theologians from the Reformation to today, an unconditional covenant was always difficult to maintain when the covenant is defined in terms of a compact or agreement. We have the fathers of our own denomination to thank for their development of the truth of God’s covenant. This truth of God’s covenant has given the Protestant Reformed Churches their unique place as a separate denomination in the ecclesiastical world.
Herman Hoeksema saw clearly that the theologians who had considered the idea of the covenant as a bond of friendship and fellowship were correct, and that such a conception of the covenant could not be maintained along with the idea of the covenant as an agreement. The latter had to be abandoned.
The total abandonment of the covenant as an agreement was not as difficult as it might seem, for, on the one hand, there was no evidence in Scripture for such a conception of the covenant, and, on the other hand, a closer examination of the covenant of works, which really determined the character of the covenant of grace, revealed that a covenant of works was nowhere taught in sacred Scripture.
A brief summary of the truth of God’s covenant as taught in Scripture would include the following elements.
1) God’s covenant is a bond of fellowship between God and His people in Christ, in which God takes His people into His own triune covenant life and dwells with them in a bond of peace and love as a husband dwells with his wife in the unity of one flesh.
2) God created Adam to live in such fellowship with Him, and God and Adam communed together at the foot of the tree of life. But Adam fell and alienated himself from God. He, as the head of the entire human race, became a covenant breaker. But God maintains His covenant, for He is always faithful. He maintains it with Adam and with all the true human race, the elect chosen eternally in Christ.
3) God was and is always sovereign. Adam had to be moved aside as the figure of Him who was to come, our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the covenant of grace would be fully and perfectly realized with the elect.
That covenant, rooted in eternal election, is solely God’s work. God determined it from all eternity. God establishes it with His elect in the line of continued generations. God maintains it by His sovereign grace and in His own faithfulness. God perfects it in heaven when the tabernacle of God will be with men. The covenant is one-sided, unconditional. The sovereign work of God alone.
This covenant includes in it the elect and their elect seed in the line of generations.
The Calvinism developed by the reformer of Geneva and set down in creedal form in the Canons of Dordrecht as the great biblical truth of the sovereignty of God in the work of salvation is now applied consistently and fully to the truth of the covenant. The two doctrines come together in perfect harmony in the organic unity of the truth of Scripture as confessed by the church.
The view of the covenant as a compact or agreement is such a cold and mechanical doctrine that it has no intrinsic appeal at all. But the biblical truth of the covenant between God and His people in Christ as a unity of friendship and fellowship is warm, pulsing with life, moving the believer to doxologies of praise to the God of our salvation. It inspires every pilgrim in this world to seek the end of life’s journey, the day when the tabernacle of God will be with men and He will dwell with them and be their God and they will be His people. It will be the full realization of God’s covenant when God will wipe away all tears from their eyes and God will be praised forever for the greatness of His love and mercy.