The doctrine of God’s covenant of grace with His people must be fully in harmony with the Canons of Dordt. Of course, it is true that in a Reformed church the doctrine of the covenant must be in harmony with all the Reformed confessions. But the covenant must explicitly conform to the Canons because the Canons set forth the Reformed doctrine of salvation. And the covenant is salvation, for God saves His people in order to bring them into the covenant relationship of love and friendship.
The soteriology or salvation theology of the Canons is, in a word, unconditional salvation. The Canons start by teaching unconditional election, but this unconditionality governs every aspect of salvation. Nine articles of the Canons specifically reject conditions, including a condition in the covenant. The question begs to be answered: would God eternally plan and in time accomplish a salvation for the elect only, a salvation that is completely unconditional, all of God with nothing dependent on men, but then eternally plan a covenant that is conditional, a covenant given to many more than the elect, as a way for salvation to be conferred, and that by man fulfilling conditions? Salvation all of God, but a covenant that is bilateral, an agreement worked out between God and man? It cannot be!
Recall the unconditional nature of the whole of salvation. Predestination, both election and reprobation, is unconditional. Election is not conditioned on man’s believing, or on any other possible condition. Rather, election (the one and only election, which is unto salvation in Christ) is determined by the sovereign, eternal good pleasure of God (I, 9-11). Neither is reprobation conditional, but the reprobate are decreed by the “sovereign, most just, irreprehensible, and unchangeable good pleasure” of God (I, 15).
The atonement is not conditional. Christ died for the elect, that is, for those only who are given Him by the Father, and the saving benefits of His death are conferred on the elect by the Holy Spirit. Head II gives absolutely no conditions to the enjoyment of these benefits that are given to the elect alone.
The Canons’ doctrine of total depravity excludes conditions. All men are born dead in sin, have no free will, and therefore no ability to will or desire salvation, let alone fill a condition unto salvation.
In the Canons, the doctrine of God’s sovereign, particular, saving grace leaves no room for conditions. And, it should be noted that the Canons allow for only one kind of grace, namely the irresistible grace that effectually works life, faith, and even the act of believing in each and every elect sinner.
Finally, the glorious, comforting doctrine of the perseverance of the saints unto eternal glory is not conditioned on any activity of man, contrary to the teaching of the Remonstrants. Rather, through faith in Jesus Christ God sovereignly preserves every elect and gives also the assurance of eternal life.
The Canons’ doctrine of salvation is Reformed, following the “solas” of the Reformation: salvation is through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, and for the glory of God alone.
Any theology of the covenant that will be accounted Reformed must be in harmony with the Canons, which is to say, within the boundaries establish by the Canons.
The theology of a conditional covenant is not. In fact, some aspects of the conditional covenant are obviously outside the boundaries of the Canons. The very term, conditional covenant, indicates a difference with the Canons, which condemns conditions throughout. Though Reformed men have tried to maintain that the conditions in their conditional covenant doctrine are not the same as the Arminian conditions, these efforts fail. Their theology is not consistent with the Canons’ unconditional salvation.
First, the conditional covenant minimizes election by excluding it from any consideration of the doctrine of the covenant, except as an after-explanation of who are actually saved in the end. The Canons rightly give election the primary position in salvation. After defending unconditional election unto salvation, the Canons insist that election is the fountain of every saving good, “from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects” (I, 9). Election is preached “for the glory of God’s most holy name, and for enlivening and comforting His people” (I, 14). Election governs all of salvation—those for whom Christ died (II, 8); those in whom God works life and faith (III/IV, 10-14); and those whom He preserves unto glory (V, 6-9).
By contrast, the conditional covenant insists that the covenant and election not be brought together. Election, say they, is eternal; the covenant is in time. Election is God’s secret counsel; in the covenant God publicly declares promises to believers and all their baptized children. In no way is the covenant to be explained by, much less governed by, election.
However, this is not the Reformed way. Whenever salvation is discussed, as it is with the covenant, the Reformed theologian not only includes election, he rejoices in election and stresses that election is determinative. This is the theology not only of Herman Hoeksema, but also of such Reformed giants as Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper, all of whom built on John Calvin’s theology. With Calvin, if a teaching is not consistent with election and reprobation, it cannot stand. The conditional covenant is a departure from that Reformed emphasis on election, namely, that election is determinative.
The conditional covenant teaching of the Federal Vision further perverts the doctrine of election. It identifies all baptized children as elect, but then makes their salvation dependent on the child fulfilling the condition of faith and covenant faithfulness. This doctrine of “election” is a far cry from the election taught by the Canons—an unchangeable election unto salvation.
Further, the conditional covenant insists that God’s promise is given to each child “objectively.” Among those supposedly receiving this promise of salvation are reprobate children, as Esau was. This contradicts the Canons’ clear teaching that not to all but only to believers does God promise salvation (II, 5; III/IV, 8).
The conditional covenant, by teaching that the promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life is for every baptized child also contradicts the Canons’ testimony that Christ died only for the elect, and His saving benefits are only for the elect. This kind of “hypothetical” atonement is Arminian. They insist that Christ died for all, but the benefits of the atonement are only for those who believe.
The conditional covenant rejects the teaching that Christ is Head of God’s covenant of grace. In Head I, Article 7, the Canons explicitly teach that Christ is both Mediator and Head of the elect, and then connect His work with the covenant: “Christ by the blood of the cross …confirmed the new covenant” and “effectually redeem[ed]…those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation.”
The theology of a conditional covenant is not consistent with the Canons. On the contrary, this theology is consistent with Arminianism and its conditional salvation. This is even true with regard to the central doctrine of justification. The Federal Vision, taking the conditional covenant to its logical end, denies justification by faith alone without works, just as the Remonstrants in the Netherlands, whose pernicious errors the Canons rejected. A theology that denies justification by faith alone cannot be considered Reformed.
On the other hand, the theology of the covenant that is unconditional and governed by election is completely consistent with the Canons. In this doctrine of the covenant, election—sovereign, gracious, particular, unconditional election—is not minimized but given its rightful place. Election is the foundation of salvation, namely, God’s eternal good pleasure. It is eternal, as the covenant is eternal. Election is in Christ, just as the covenant is with Christ as Mediator and Head, and with all those chosen in Christ. Just as the Canons demonstrate that Christ died for the elect alone, so also in the Reformed doctrine of the covenant, Christ died for the elect only, which is to say, Christ died for each and every one with whom God establishes His covenant. Accordingly, perfect salvation, truly earned for each member of the covenant, is promised to each elect child at baptism. To the reprobate baptized child, whom God has eternally decreed not to save, God promises nothing.
In the unconditional covenant theology, God’s grace is only given to the elect. With the Canons, it rejects a common grace that enables the baptized child to respond to God’s word of promise. Rather, grace—the only grace there is—sovereign, particular, irresistible grace, is only to the elect. This grace saves the totally depraved, elect, redeemed sinner born into the covenant. And that same grace will preserve that elect child, not because he fills any condition. Rather, in spite of the child’s continued depravity and inclination to every evil, God will save to the end by His grace through faith in Christ.
This is a beautiful, comforting covenant theology. Like the Canons, it gives all glory to God. For as salvation is all of God, so the covenant is all of God—eternally determined and established in Christ; realized in the blood of the cross; established with the elect in time; maintained by God for all eternity. Because it is all of God, this covenant gives complete assurance to the believer that he will eternally be a member of the covenant, that God will forever be his Friend, and he will live with God eternally.
The believer rejoices that his life with God is secure. He lives out of Christ in that covenant. He is not a stock and a block, but he actively loves God and seeks His face. He lives in thankful obedience. He knows the blessing of eternal life, and longs for the eternal perfection in glory.
That is another aspect of the unconditional covenant that deserves to be highlighted—eternity. The conditional covenant is only a means to an end. It is an “arrangement” in which God gives salvation, and after the people are saved, there is no need for the covenant any longer.
That is not the teaching of the unconditional covenant. Rather, the covenant is the goal of God. God saves His people from sin and death and thereby brings them into covenant friendship. We glory that the covenant cannot be broken because it is a relationship of friendship between God and His people in Christ. Just as the union of God and human flesh in Christ is an eternal union, so our covenant relationship with God is eternal.
This is the joy and anticipation for us and all God’s covenant people, blessed life with God—knowing Him more and more; growing in love for Him as we know Him better; living with God in an eternally increasing joy in Him. And in all this, from the lives and mouths of God covenant people, the praises of God will continuously increase eternally—eternally!—for the glory of the covenant God. And that is the goal of all God’s work. His eternal glory in Jesus Christ.