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Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: February 15, 2007, p. 223.

 

The Canons on Covenant and Election (part two)

The Confirming of the Covenant by a “Limited Atonement” 


The second statement in the Canons that explicitly relates covenant and election is Canons, II/8.

For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation: that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever (emphasis added).

The line, “whereby He confirmed the new covenant,” appears in the fundamental article of the second head of the Canons on the death of Christ. It appears in the article in which the Canons affirm that the death of Christ was for those “who were from eternity chosen to salvation,” and for “those only.” This is the article that confesses “limited atonement.”

In this article, immediately following the reference to the electing will of God and immediately preceding the statement that the blood of the cross effectually redeemed the elect, and the elect only, occurs the line, “whereby [that is, by the cross, which was designed by the will of God only for the elect and which effectually redeemed only the elect] He confirmed the new covenant.”

The importance of this line regarding the controversy in the Reformed churches, whether election and covenant are related, specifically whether election governs the covenant, cannot be emphasized too strongly. Regardless that Reformed theologians from Bullinger in the sixteenth century to Schilder and Shepherd in recent times have denied that election governs the covenant and regardless that the overwhelming majority of Reformed theologians and churches today insist on cutting the covenant loose from election, this short line in its context of Canons, II/8 is decisive for the truth that the covenant is governed by election. This line in the Canons establishes the relation of covenant and election as the official, binding doctrine of all churches that subscribe to the Canons of Dordt.

First, generally, Canons, II/8 teaches that the death of Christ for sinners, which was due to and controlled by eternal election, “confirmed the new covenant.” The same “will of God,” that is, election, that determined the death of Christ determined the confirmation of the new covenant by the cross. Regardless how theologians explain the confirmation of the new covenant, all must acknowledge the close relation between election and the covenant. The confirmation of the covenant of grace with believers and their children is due to and depends upon God’s eternal election. For the blood of the cross that confirmed the new covenant has its origin in, and is determined by, “the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect.”

Those who rail against relating covenant and election, usually by the ridiculous and misleading charge that a church or theologian “identifies” covenant and election, are in fact railing against Canons, II/8.

Second, specifically, Canons, II/ 8 teaches that the cross of Christ made the covenant of God firm and sure with all and every one of the covenant people of Christ, and that it did this according to election. The blood of the cross confirmed the covenant in the way described in Canons, II/8. The cross effectually redeemed all and every one of the covenant people of Christ; purchased for all and every one of them faith, as well as all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit; assured that Christ would purge all and every one of them from all sin; and made certain that Christ would preserve all and every one of them to the end, so that all and every one of them will enjoy glory in the presence of Christ forever.

This confirmation of the covenant with Christ’s covenant people was due to, and determined by, election: “It was the will of God[‘s election] that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem…all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation.” The deliberate, explicit relating of covenant and election by the Canons in article eight of the second head establishes that God’s covenant of grace is based on the death of Christ, so that the covenant and its blessings are as limited, or particular, as is the death of Christ itself; that the covenant of grace is made, maintained, and perfected with the elect in Christ alone; that membership in the covenant is determined by election; that the blessings of the covenant (which are certainly not different from the blessings mentioned in Canons, II/8, on anyone’s reckoning), as they were earned for the elect alone, are bestowed upon the elect alone; and that the salvation one begins to enjoy in the covenant cannot be lost.

Those Reformed theologians and churches that extend the gracious covenant promise, the grace of membership in the covenant, and gracious covenant blessings more widely than election, if they take Canons, II/8 at all seriously, are forced to give a radically different interpretation of the phrase, “whereby He confirmed the new covenant.” All that the cross of Christ accomplished was to obtain for God the right to make a new covenant with sinners. God makes this new covenant with all men alike, at least with all men alike who join the visible church by confession of faith and baptism and with all children alike who are born to believing parents.

This new covenant is highly uncertain. Membership in it does not at all assure that one will enjoy glory in the presence of Christ forever. Indeed, enjoyment of the beginning of covenant salvation and covenant blessings does not assure everlasting life and glory. For, according to the Reformed theologians and churches that will not have election govern the covenant, the new covenant is conditional. It depends, not upon God’s election, or even upon Christ’s death, but upon the faith and obedience of the baptized member of the visible church and upon the faith and obedience of the children of believing parents. One can be object of the gracious covenant promise for awhile, but later become object of the covenant curse. One can be member of the covenant, but fall out, and perish. One can begin to enjoy covenant grace, blessings, and salvation, but lose them, and go lost forever. That Christ confirmed the new covenant means nothing more than that His death assures that all those who fulfill the conditions, and fulfill them to the very end of their lives, will be saved.

Some confirmation of the covenant!

It was exactly this heretical doctrine of the covenant that Dordt intended to contradict by the line, “whereby He confirmed the new covenant,” in Canons, II/8. Dordt itself tells us this. It tells us this in the Rejection of Errors section of the second head.

The true doctrine [of the relation of election, cross, and covenant] having been explained, the Synod rejects the errors of those: Error 2: Who teach: That it was not the purpose of the death of Christ that He should confirm the new covenant of grace through His blood, but only that He should acquire for the Father the mere right to establish with man such a covenant as He might please, whether of grace or of works.

Error 3: Who teach that Christ, by His satisfaction, merited neither salvation itself for anyone, nor faith, whereby this satisfaction of Christ unto salvation is effectually appropriated; but that He merited for the Father only the authority or the perfect will to deal again with man, and to prescribe new conditions as He might desire, obedience to which, however, depended on the free will of man, so that it therefore might have come to pass that either none or all should fulfill these conditions (“The Three Forms of Unity,” Mission Committee of the Protestant Reformed Churches, 1999, pp. 57, 58; Schaff does not have an English translation of the Rejection of Errors sections of the Canons).

In light of Canons, II/8, how can Reformed churches and theologians deny that covenant and election are related, so closely related, in fact, that election governs the covenant? Election purposed the cross “whereby He confirmed the new covenant.”

In light of Canons, II/8, how can Reformed churches and theologians extend the grace of the covenant more widely than to the elect? Did a limited atonement, purposed and designed by the decree of election, confirm a covenant with many more than those for whom Christ died and for many more than those whom God had chosen? Is a death of Christ for the elect alone the ground of a covenant of grace with all?

In light of Canons, II/8, how can Reformed churches and theologians make faith and obedience conditions of a covenant supposedly established in grace with many more than the elect children of believers? Faith and obedience were purchased by the blood of the cross for the elect. Christconfers faith and obedience, asgifts, upon those for whom He died.

In light of Canons, II/8, how can Reformed churches and theologians teach that the new covenant is uncertain in the case of everyone with whom it is established, inasmuch as the covenant depends on conditions? The new covenant was “confirmed” by the precious, effectual blood of the Son of God. The new covenant depends on “the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father.”

At the very beginning of the history of the Reformed faith in the Netherlands, the Reformed churches embraced with all their heart, confessed, and made binding a fundamental truth concerning the covenant of grace with believers and their children. The covenant is governed by election. The necessary implication of this truth is that the covenant is unconditional, that is, a covenant of grace. The Reformed churches confessed this relation of covenant and election in two, early, official documents: “The [Reformed] Form for the Administration of Baptism” (1574) and the Canons of the Synod of Dordt (1618/1619).

Reformed officebearers and Reformed churches, therefore, are not at liberty, and never have been at liberty, to teach a doctrine of the covenant that “liberates” the covenant from election.

A denomination of Reformed churches that confess that election governs the covenant is not outside the mainstream of the Dutch Reformed tradition. On the contrary, it is the contemporary representative of the tradition—the confessionaltradition.

. . . to be continued.