The theology of God’s eternal covenant of grace is a uniquely Reformed doctrine, that is, a product of the Reformation. It is true that theologians prior to the Reformation referred to the covenant, even as early as Augustine in the early 400s. From that time to the Reformation the covenant was incidentally included in discussions on salvation or man’s relationship to God. But the significant development of the doctrine began with the Reformation. Swiss theologians Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, faced with the serious errors of the Anabaptists, began developing the doctrine of the covenant to explain the place of children of believers in the church. John Calvin and other Reformers did the same. Further development of the doctrine came from the writings of Zacharius Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus. Subsequently, their influence carried into the Netherlands, where the Heidelberg Catechism was faithfully preached in the Reformed churches. The doctrine of the covenant found a place in the teaching and writings of the Reformed men there, and a number of these men are considered covenant theologians. Various Presbyterian theologians likewise concentrated on the covenant. So much so, that the divines of the Westminster Assembly (1647) included in its Confession a separate chapter “On God’s Covenant with Man,” followed by the chapter “Of Christ the Mediator.”
The covenant is a Reformed doctrine.
The Canons of Dordt are the Reformed creedal presentation on the doctrine of salvation. The Arminianism that was infiltrating the Reformed churches was, at bottom, a rejection of the theology of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and, indeed, the Reformation. Everything from justification by faith alone, to the bondage of fallen man’s will, to the eternal security of the believer, was being denied. The ‘great Synod’ came together to condemn these errors. In so doing, the Synod not only reaffirmed the doctrines of the Reformation, it also developed them. The theology of Dordt is the Reformed doctrine of salvation, clearly and thoroughly expressed.
In 2018-19, the Standard Bearer has been commemorating the 400th anniversary of the great Synod of Dordrecht. Our desire is to continue, in a meaningful way, celebrating the doctrinal advances of Dordt. Accordingly, this editorial is the start of a discussion of these two distinctively Reformed doctrines—God’s everlasting covenant of grace and salvation by sovereign grace.
The burden of the editorials will not be simply to bring out what Dordt teaches about the covenant. Such a discussion would be largely setting forth what Dordt taught by implication. The Canons did not focus on the covenant as a separate doctrine, because the core of the Arminian error was salvation and grace, not the covenant. But there is more to this.
The confessions are the fruit of the Spirit of Christ guiding the church in every age “into all truth” (John 16:13) as Jesus promised. God sovereignly directed also the errors that the church faced through the ages, and through conflict and much study of the Bible the Spirit lead the church to set down the truth in creeds. The Spirit’s work in the early 1600s focused on the doctrines of sovereign grace. The errors of Arminianism forced the church to study and set forth these doctrines. The truth of the covenant, on the other hand, was not developed to the point that the church was ready or able to set forth this doctrine in confessional form. As noted earlier, there was some development between Dordt (1619) and Westminster (1647) so that the Westminster Standards treated the covenant, but even that was without defining or developing the doctrine completely.
At the same time, though the Synod of Dordt did not focus explicitly on the covenant, it was keenly aware of the doctrine. The word “covenant” is found in the Canons eight times in six different articles. In addition, the Canons use language of the covenant such as Mediator, adoption, and children and heirs of God. Most of the direct references to the covenant are in the rejection of errors sections. That indicates that the Arminians had been teaching false doctrine about the covenant, or wrongly using the covenant to introduce their errors. We will have opportunity to examine some of these references, D.V.
The burden of these editorials will be to demonstrate the unity and the harmony between the doctrines of grace defined by Dordt, on the one hand, and the Reformed doctrine of the covenant, on the other.
That these two Reformed doctrines must be in harmony should be self-evident simply from the fact that both are Reformed doctrines. “Reformed” means to be “formed back to the Bible.” The Bible is the source and standard of all Reformed teaching. The Bible is truth. And all God’s truth is one, just as God is one. It necessarily follows that all the truth of God is in harmony with itself. No part of Reformed doctrine will contradict another part, any more than one passage of the Bible ever contradicts another.
In addition, these two doctrines are intricately related, for both the doctrine of the covenant and the doctrines of grace involve the one truth of salvation. Salvation is the subject of the Canons, directly. Reformed believers recognize that the covenant is related to salvation, though different theologians will express the specific relation differently. Some propose that the covenant is an arrangement that God makes in order to provide a way for the blessings of salvation to be imparted to man. This presents the covenant as a means to an end—the covenant imparts salvation. While we take issue with that proposed relation, it should be noted that it does relate the covenant to salvation. And it should follow then that the covenant itself, in form and as God works it out, ought to be in harmony with the salvation to which it leads (as some maintain).
Our view of the relation is different, namely, that the covenant is the goal of God in the work of salvation. The covenant is not merely the means unto salvation. It is rather that God saves His people in order to bring them into His covenant. God saves His people, adopts them as His children, and assures them that He is their God and they are His people. And that is exactly the relationship described in Revelation 21, which will abide eternally: “And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Rev. 21:3).
The point is, the covenant, being the goal of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, will be in harmony with the saving work itself.
Finally, the unity and harmony between covenant and salvation is due to the fact that both are in harmony with God’s own being. The Canons make that point in connection with the very foundation of salvation, namely, the doctrine of election. In Head I, Article 11, the Canons state:
And as God Himself is most wise, unchangeable, omniscient, and omnipotent, so the election made by Him can neither be interrupted nor changed, recalled or annulled; neither can the elect be cast away, nor their number diminished.
The thrust of that article is that both God’s decree of election and God’s working out (execution) of that decree are in harmony with God’s own being. Since God is most wise, unchangeable, omniscient, and omnipotent, it follows that election cannot be interrupted or changed, cannot be recalled or annulled, that the elect cannot be cast away, nor their number diminished. The article need not even prove that, it is so obvious.
We maintain that the same can be said of God’s covenant. God’s decree of the covenant of grace and God’s working out of that decree must be in harmony with God’s own being. Much can be said about the very nature of the covenant itself, that it is in harmony with the life of love and fellowship within God’s own triune life. But we will limit ourselves at this time to the language of Article 11. Read the article again, with the word “covenant” substituted for “election.”
And as God himself is most wise, unchangeable, omniscient and omnipotent, so the covenant made by him can neither be interrupted nor changed, recalled or annulled; neither can the elect [or covenant members] be cast away, nor their number diminished.
All this leads to the conclusion that whatever is set forth as the Reformed doctrine of the covenant must be in harmony with the doctrines of grace taught in the Canons.
That presents a problem, for there are many variations of Reformed, covenant theology espoused. Which is consistent with the doctrines of sovereign grace? The doctrines of grace are founded on and governed by the truth of election. It is our contention that the only covenant doctrine in harmony with Dordt is the doctrine founded on election, which is to say, the covenant theology that is governed by election. In our examination of the harmony of the covenant and Dordt, we must begin with election.
1 We point out just one notable teaching of the Westminster Standards on the covenant. The Larger Catechism asks “With whom was the covenant of grace made? A. The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him and all the elect as his seed.”
2 I, 17; II 8, errors 2, 4, 5; V, error 1.