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Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: September 1, 2007, p. 463.

A Preposterous Proposal 


If it is preposterous to suppose that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands at the time of the Reformation would have excluded God’s grace and salvation in the covenant from the gospel of the Reformation as taught especially by Calvin, it is still more preposterous to propose that Calvin himself did this. According to this preposterous proposal, whereas for Calvin the fact that “among those to whom it [the gospel] is preached, it does not gain the same acceptance either constantly or in equal degree . . . serves the decision of God’s eternal election,” in the covenant (Calvin is said to have taught) this fact does not serve the decision of election, but rather serves the decision of the children. Whereas for Calvin “salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s free mercy [in] his eternal election,” in the covenant (Calvin is said to have taught) salvation flows from the fulfillment of a condition on the part of the covenant child. Whereas for Calvin God “does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others,” in the covenant (Calvin is said to have taught) God indiscriminately adopts all the physical children of believers into the hope of salvation, gives His covenant grace to all alike, and denies the hope of salvation to none. Whereas for Calvin predestination is “God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man,” so that “eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others,” in the covenant, with regard to the physical children of godly parents (Calvin is said to have taught), God has not eternally compacted with Himself what is to become of each of them, eternal life for some, eternal damnation for others, but rather has a gracious will of salvation for all of them alike.

In short, whereas for Calvin the grace of God in Jesus Christ is particular, unconditional, and efficacious, in the covenant (Calvin is said to have taught) grace is universal, conditional, and resistible, indeed losable.

This is the proposal of the Presbyterian theologian, Peter A. Lillback, in his book, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Baker, 2001). I can be brief in my criticism here, since I have written a lengthy critique of this book elsewhere (see “The Recent Bondage of John Calvin: A Critique of Peter A. Lillback’s The Binding of God,” Protestant Reformed Theological Journal 35, no. 1 [November, 2001]: 47-58); the interested reader will find the quotations that prove the analysis and criticism that follow in this “review article” in the journal.

Lillback contends, and attempts to demonstrate with many quotations from Calvin’s writings, especially his commentaries, that Calvin taught a bilateral, conditional, and breakable covenant. That is, regarding the children of Abraham and regarding the children of believing parents, Calvin taught that God makes His gracious covenant promise to all the children alike, establishes His covenant of grace with all of them alike, and bestows covenantal “redemptive benefits” upon all the children alike. According to Lillback, Calvin taught that the saving, covenant grace of God in Jesus Christ is universal in the sphere of the covenant, that is, God is gracious to all the physical children of Abraham, Esau as well as Jacob, and to all the physical children of believers, those who finally perish outside the new Jerusalem as well as those who inherit the celestial city.

For Calvin, however, Lillback would have us believe, the covenant is conditional. Whether the promise is realized in the final salvation of a child, whether the covenant bond continues with a child, and whether a child keeps the redemptive benefits bestowed upon him depend upon works the child must do, namely, believe, keep on believing to the end of his life, and obey the demands of the covenant. Covenant grace and salvation are conditional, that is, they depend, not on the electing God, but on the willing and working child. Therefore, they can be lost, and are lost in many cases. Many who were covenant saints in their infancy and childhood fall away to everlasting perdition.

From this presentation of Calvin’s covenant doctrine, Lillback draws the astounding (and slanderous), if logical, conclusion that Calvin, unlike Luther, taught justification by faith and by the works of faith.

This book meets with wide and enthusiastic acclaim in Reformed and Presbyterian circles. It is honored as part of Baker’s prestigious “Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought” series. Its author has since been appointed President of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia.

Lillback’s book is no unbiased piece of scholarship. It is part of a deliberate, massive effort on the part of Reformed Christianity worldwide to bury the eternal election of God, once and for all, in the tombs of the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith (and the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Belgic Confession, and the Westminster Catechisms, and virtually all the other Reformation creeds). The instrument by which this is being accomplished is the doctrine of the covenant. The covenant is divorced from election, so that God’s covenant grace can be universal. The doctrine of the covenant becomes the wedge to dislodge every one of the doctrines of grace, beginning with justification by faith alone.

Now Calvin—Calvin! the Calvin who devoted his life to the teaching that all of God’s grace and saving work in Jesus Christ has its origin in, is governed by, depends upon, and is efficacious because of the eternal decree of election—is compelled to support a doctrine that flatly denies everything he gave his life for. The heart of Lillback’s book is his contention that “Calvin’s use of the covenant was not hampered (sic!) because of his belief in the doctrines of sovereign election and reprobation” (p. 229). In Calvin’s theology, election does not govern the covenant. If it does, this would be a “hampering” of the covenant.

In the use of the word “hampered” is indicated the radical difference between the spirit of John Calvin and the spirit of Lillback and all his multitudes of allies. It is the difference between a humble submission to and trusting reliance on the sovereignly gracious will of God and a suspicious fear of and resentful hostility towards that will. For Lillback, to bring the covenant into close relation with God’s election, above all to allow election to govern the covenant, would be to “hamper” the covenant.

God’s will would “hamper” God’s covenant!

It is not far-fetched to imagine the earnest prayer of such as Peter A. Lillback: “O Lord, keep your eternal decree altogether away from my family, altogether away from my congregation, and altogether away from the universal, visible church over all the world! Be careful, O Lord, not to ‘hamper’ our work in the covenant by your election!”

Rejecting election as governing the covenant, the vast movement of which Dr. Lillback is a prominent member subjects the covenant to the will and work of the members of the covenant, particularly the will and work of the children of godly parents. The covenant is conditional. Drawing the logical implication of this terrifying notion, the movement, at the forefront of which today are the men of the federal vision, teaches justification by faith and works. Having made Calvin a proponent of universal, conditional covenant grace, Lillback must needs declare (or, can now safely declare) that Calvin differed from Luther in teaching justification by faith and by the good works that faith performs.

In other words (and this is what Lillback fully intends, even though he does not mention the names), Calvin was a sixteenth century Norman Shepherd, and the theology of John Calvin was the early version of the theology of the federal vision.


Calvin Resisting the Proposal


Calvin resists this scholarly, audacious, monstrous reconstruction of his confession of the gospel of grace with reference particularly to the covenant.

When he defines predestination, in the final edition of his authoritative Institutes, as God’s eternal decree by which He determined the eternal destiny of “each man,” Calvin includes every child of believing parents. Children of believers are included in the category, “each man.” For Calvin, predestination governs the covenant with respect to God’s being gracious to some children, but not to other children; with respect to God’s willing eternal life for some children, but eternal damnation for other children; and with respect to God’s granting the communion of the covenant, with all its blessings of salvation, to some children, while withholding this union with Christ and the blessings of salvation from other children.

Similarly, when Calvin writes, in the final edition of his authoritative Institutes, that “our salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s free mercy” having its source in “his eternal election,” he includes the salvation of the children of believers. So closely is the covenant related to election that election is the source of the salvation of every one saved in the covenant, particularly every regenerated child of believers.

And when Calvin immediately adds that it is God’s “eternal election, which illumines God’s grace by this contrast: that he does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others,” he includes God’s dealings in the covenant. God’s election governs the covenant in that He does not indiscriminately adopt all the physical children of believers into the hope of salvation, but gives to some children what He denies to other children. Thus, eternal election illumines God’s grace in the covenantby this contrast.

Let Lillback, the federal vision, and all those today who like to portray Calvin as having taught that the covenant is not “hampered” by the eternal decree frankly tell the Reformed public, if they dare, that whenever and wherever Calvin teaches predestination he intends to exclude the covenant, God’s grace in the covenant, and the saving work of God in the covenant from consideration. Why, the ungodly world that has read Calvin would laugh them out of court. In the Reformed world, this now passes for lofty scholarship.

That Calvin certainly held that predestination governs the covenant is evident from the fact that, again and again, when Calvin is defending double predestination, election and reprobation, as the source of God’s grace to some and of His withholding grace from others and as determining the salvation of some and the damnation of others, he appeals to Romans 9:10-13.

And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) It was said unto her, THE ELDER SHALL SERVE THE YOUNGER. As it is written, JACOB HAVE I LOVED, BUT ESAU HAVE I HATED.

But this passage, concerning God’s loving election of Jacob and His rejection of Esau in hatred, is not about God’s grace and saving work on the mission field among the heathen. Rather, the passage concerns God’s dealings with twin grandsons of Abraham, to whom God had made the covenant promise, “I will be the God of your seed.” The passage teaches the extremely close relation of predestination and the covenant. It teaches that predestination governs the covenant. And Calvin appealed to this passage, more than to any other, in grounding his doctrine of the eternal decree.

One instance of such an appeal is found in Calvin’s defense of eternal predestination against his Roman Catholic opponent Pighius. Pighius denied Calvin’s teaching that God’s eternal election is the unconditional source and cause of salvation. Pighius maintained, on the contrary, “the fiction that grace is offered equally to all, but that it is ultimately rendered effectual by the will of man, just as each one is willing to receive it.” Calvin responded: “Now let that memorable passage of Paul (Rom. ix. 10-13) come forth before us. This passage alone should abundantly suffice to put an end to all controversy among the sober-minded and obedient children of God” (“A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God,” in Calvin’s Calvinism, tr. Henry Cole, Eerdmans, 1956, pp. 50, 51, 55).


Calvin on Covenant and Election


But Calvin did more than merely refer to 
Romans 9:10-13 in support of a general teaching that predestination governs God’s salvation of sinners. Gifted interpreter of Holy Scripture that he was, Calvin recognized that the passage teaches that predestination governs the covenant, covenant grace, the objects of grace in the covenant, and covenantsalvation. Thus, he explained the passage to the confounding of Albertus Pighius—and Peter A. Lillback. Having called Pighius’ attention to “that memorable passage of Paul” (Rom. 9:10-13), Calvin continued:

It was, indeed, a very great difficulty, and a formidable obstacle, in the way of the weak when they saw the doctrine of Christ rejected by nearly all these very persons whom God had appointed the heirs of His everlasting covenant. The apostles had all along preached that Jesus was the Messiah of God. But the whole of this nation, to whom the Messiah had been promised, opposed and rejected Him . . . . The apostle, therefore, enters into the battle with the Jews in this manner: he by no means makes the fleshly seed the legitimate children of Abraham, but counts the children of promise alone for the seed. Now he might have counted the seed according to their faith. And that indeed would have been consistent, when, in reference to the promise, he was stating the difference between the genuine and the spurious offspring; and that, indeed, he had before done. But now he ascends higher into the mind of God, and declares that those were the children of promise whom God chose before they were born. In proof of which he cites that promise which was given by the angel to Abraham, “At this time will I come, and Sarah shall have a son (as if the apostle had added, before Isaac was conceived in the womb, he was chosen of God). And not only this (saith the apostle), but when Rebecca also had conceived by one (embrace), even by our father Isaac (for the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of Him that calleth), it was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Rom. ix. 10).

Calvin taught that election governs the covenant.

So does election govern the covenant that election determines which of the children of believing parents are children of the promise and the real seed of Abraham. Accordingly, Calvin added, election determines which children receive “the blessing of God and the covenant of eternal life.” In the case of Jacob and Esau, Calvin wrote, “both the children could not be heirs of the covenant at the same time, which covenant had already, by the secret council (sic) of God, been decreed for the one (“A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God,” pp. 56, 59).

The implication of the apostle’s doctrine inRomans 9:10-13 concerning election’s governing the covenant, Calvin observed, is that “the vain fiction of Pighius concerning universal grace falls to the ground at once” (“A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God,” p. 58). Likewise falls to the ground the vain fiction of the men of the federal vision, as of all who divorce the covenant from election, that grace is universal in the sphere of the covenant, bestowed by God on all the physical offspring of believers alike, but dependent for its “staying-power” and saving effect upon the will and work of the children.

Also in his sermons on Genesis 25-27, preached around 1560, shortly before his death, Calvin brought the eternal decree into the closest relation with the covenant. The relation is that predestination governs the covenant, determining with whom the covenant is established and who are saved in the covenant. Explaining Genesis 25:23, God’s word to Rebekah concerning the violent struggle in her womb, “The elder shall serve the younger,” Calvin preached to his congregation in Geneva:

Albeit God had established his covenant with Abraham, yet notwithstanding he would declare that this was not all, to have made offer of his grace: but that it behooved that he chose according to his liberty, such as he thought good, and that the rest should remain in their cursed state. And therefore Saint Paul allegeth this place to apply it to the secret election of God [in

Rom. 9:10-13

—DJE], through which before the foundation of the world, he chose those as seemed good unto him (John Calvin, Sermons on Election & Reprobation, Old Paths Publications, 1996, pp. 27, 28).

Of great significance in this quotation is the fact that Calvin used Romans 9:6ff., particularly verses 10-13, to explain the history of the covenant in the Old Testament. In theological terms, for Calvin Romans 9:6ff. was the “hermeneutical key” to the understanding of the covenant with Israel in the Old Testament. “They are not all Israel, which are of Israel . . . Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” Election determined who were the real “seed of Abraham” and the true “Israel” with whom God established His covenant. Election governed the covenant. If anyone challenges this reading of Calvin, I am prepared to demonstrate the truth of it with numerous quotations from Calvin’s exposition of the Old Testament prophets.

By no means did Calvin find the truth that election governs the covenant only in Romans 9. He saw the close relation between election and the covenant also in Jeremiah 31:31-34, where God promises to make “a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah.”

Certain is it that the gift of conversion is not common to all men; because this [the “new covenant” promised in

Jeremiah 31:31-34

—DJE] is that one of the two covenants which God promises that He will not make with any but with His own children and His own elect people, concerning whom He has recorded His promise that “He will write His law in their hearts” (Jer. xxxi. 33). Now, a man must be utterly beside himself to assert that this promise is made to all men generally and indiscriminately. God says expressly by Paul, who refers to the prophet Jeremiah, “For this is the covenant that I will make with them. Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers: but I will put My laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts” (Heb. viii. 9, 10). Surely, to apply this promise to those who were worthy of this new covenant, or to such as had prepared themselves by their own merits or endeavors to receive it, must be worse than the grossest ignorance and folly; and the more so, as the Lord is speaking by the prophet to those who had before “stony hearts” (Calvin, “A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God,” pp. 100, 101).

. . . to be continued