Previous article in this series: March 15, 2007, p. 268.
The essence of a conditional covenant is that it is an agreement or an arrangement between God and man in which God comes to man with a promise and a demand (or a threat). God promises to give to man salvation from sin and eternal life. At the same time, God demands fulfillment of certain conditions to the obtaining of the promise. Most often, the condition is said to be faith; not infrequently, obedience is added.
It could be noted that the biblical doctrine of an unconditionalcovenant also maintains that God comes with promises and demands, though not with threats. Repent and believe in Jesus Christ—that is the command of the preaching. Obey my law— that is God’s unchanging demand. And the heart of the preaching of the gospel is a promise of salvation. These commands and this promise come to those who are in the covenant as well, although the promise is particular, that is, to the believer (Canons II, Art. 5; III/IV, Art. 8). Indeed, God demands obedience of His covenant people as a part of the thankfulness that God requires of His own.
It is quite another matter to maintain that God demands faith and/or obedience as conditions, that is, as prerequisites to receiving eternal life. That is not biblical, and thus it is not Reformed. The biblical, Reformed teaching is that faith and obedience are thefruits of election (Canons I, Arts. 9, 12). These gifts from God are part of the saving work of the Spirit in the believer.
As every Reformed believer knows, baptism is inseparably tied to God’s covenant of grace. In the New Testament (or covenant) baptism is a sign and seal of God’s covenant, as circumcision was in the Old Testament. It is administered to the children of believers, because God establishes His covenant with believers and their children in their generations, as He promised Abraham—”I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” (Gen. 17:7). Peter affirmed the same on Pentecost to the New Testament church with this assurance: “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39).
The Reformed confessions thus insist that children of believers be baptized because children of believers are included in the church and covenant of God (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. 27; Belgic Confession, Art. 34; Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 28). No Reformed man denies that.
Then the divisive problem arises. It arises in connection with the covenant of grace and the place of children in the covenant. The problem, simply put, is this: To whom are the promises of salvation given?
The unconditional covenant maintains: The promises of salvation are for the elect only, both in the preaching, and in the sacraments.
The conditional covenant teaches: The promises of salvation are given to every baptized child. God, through the minister, speaks the words: I promise you, Jason, salvation. I make my covenant with you, Marie. I promise that you have redemption from sin by the blood of Christ. I promise that the Holy Spirit will dwell in you and sanctify you.
Those who maintain that the covenant is conditional insist that each and every child of believers, in the baptism ceremony, has these promises signified and sealed to him. As these children grow up, parents give them assurance—God has promised you salvation, my child. You are God’s child. Believe His promises spoken to you personally.
The doctrine of a conditional covenant admits that until the child does believe the promises, he does not have the full possession of what God promises. He has the written promise sealed by God, but if the child does not claim the blessings, he ends up with nothing. It is something like a starving man who has a genuine meal ticket to a costly smorgasbord, and thus has the right to the finest food available. But if the man does not present the ticket and claim the food, he will starve to death.
According to this view of the covenant, if the baptized child believes God’s promise and walks in obedience, he will receive the gift of eternal life. If he tears up the “ticket” and throws it away, he is a covenant breaker, and he loses all. But until and unless that happens, in and through baptism, God claims each of those children. “You are mine,” He promises.
In this connection, the proponents of such a covenant understand the Heidelberg Catechism to be speaking of allchildren of believers, when it answers the question, in Lord’s Day 27, “Are infants also to be baptized?”
Yes; for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult; they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the Christian church, and be distinguished from the children of unbelievers as was done in the old covenant or testament by circumcision, instead of which baptism is instituted in the new covenant.
The question naturally arises, Are all the baptized children saved, then, since they are all claimed by God and all have these promises, even the promise of forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ? The answer given is, None are saved unless and until they believe these promises. And when the further objection is raised, But how can you say that these baptized children are not all saved if they all have the promise of forgiveness, then the answer is: These children have these promises objectively, but not subjectively.
That, however, is an impossible solution. The difference between having the blessing of salvation objectively and having it subjectively is an artificial distinction, a manmade distinction with no basis in the Bible or in the confessions. That paper barrier would not hold back the theological consequences of making all baptized children to be true covenant children and true church members, and possessing all the promises of salvation.
Over time, this barrier began to come apart. Ironically, a factor in this is that some who held to a conditional covenant began to see that the covenant is more than an agreement, more than a mere arrangement. The biblical evidence is too compelling. God’s covenant is a relationship of love, as surely as a father in this life loves his children. The covenant involves friendship, even as Abraham was called the friend of God.
Surely we can and do rejoice that the old notions of the covenant as a cold agreement are being discarded. Promoters of the conditional covenant are acknowledging that the covenant of grace is a relationship of love and friendship. That would be cause for great joy but for one thing—they will not abandon the conditional nature of the covenant. They continue to insist that each baptized child has all the promises of the covenant of love and friendship. That makes matters even worse.
Consider the implications of insisting that every baptized child has the promises sealed to him personally in baptism. If the covenant is a relationship of friendship, is each baptized child a friend of God? If the covenant relationship is likened to a family, where God becomes the Father of the covenant people for Jesus’ sake, is every baptized child adopted by God? Each child is claimed by God. Does God then also adopt each one?
The principle began to work through. Today, theologians in the Reformed camp maintain the astonishing position that, indeed, Esau and Judas Iscariot were, by virtue of their place in the covenant, friends of God!!
One stands aghast! Would to God they could see that the reprobate child in the covenant, like Esau, is not loved by God, not loved less, but hated (Rom. 9:13). That in fact God’s wrath is on the Esaus in the sphere of the covenant from his birth, an even fiercer wrath than is on the reprobate child outside the sphere of the covenant. That there is no love, no favor, and no good inclination at all toward the Esaus in the sphere of the covenant. Surely God gives no promise, “You, Esau, are my child. You, Judas, have the promise of redemption.” No doubt these truths are dreadful to contemplate. It makes a believing parent shudder to think about it. But it is the plain teaching of Scripture. Concerning two sons born to believing Isaac and Rebecca, God reveals that eternally He loved the one, and hated the other.
If only the promoters of a conditional covenant would apply the clear teaching of Romans 9, and of the rest of Scripture, to the doctrine of the covenant. That is to say, if only they allowed the sovereign decree of divine election to govern the doctrine of God’s covenant of grace.
But it is too late for that. The conditional covenant has gone far beyond what its defenders would allow fifty years ago. It is producing evil fruit that Dr. Klaas Schilder never dreamed of.
It is a standard teaching of the conditional covenant, taking the language of the Heidelberg Catechism, that every baptized child becomes a member of the church. Not merely in the outward sense, but a true member of the church of Christ. From this it necessarily follows that:
Since the church is the family of God, every baptized child is adopted by God.
Since the church is the body of Christ, each baptized child is grafted into Christ, and partaker of His life.
Since the church is the temple of God, each baptized child is a living stone of that church, and the Spirit lives within.
Norman Shepherd, one of the patriarchs of the current heretical teaching of covenantal universalism (also known as Federal Vision), wrote this concerning baptism. “This covenant sign and seal marks his conversion and his entrance into the church as the body of Christ. From the perspective of the covenant, he is united to Christ when he is baptized.”* Shepherd, though espousing heresy, was being a bit careful. He was (albeit somewhat vaguely) referring to the baptism of a person converted in evangelism. His followers have thrown caution to the wind. They use even stronger language to describe the baptism of infants, as we shall see.
Since, all along in the conditional covenant, baptism was the main assurance for the child, his personal sign and seal of God’s promises to him, baptism now becomes the instrument that accomplishes these miraculous things. For, do not the confessions teach us that baptism is not an empty sign? It is a sacrament! Suddenly, the Reformed confessions become a tool of the heretics and they quote, among other things, the Belgic Confession, Article 33—”[Sacraments] are visible signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing, by means whereof God worketh in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore the signs are not in vain or insignificant, so as to deceive us….” (Confer also the Westminster Confession, Chapter 28, and the Longer and Shorter Catechisms.) The confessions do indeed stress that the sacraments are means of faith, sealing the powerful work of the Spirit. Start reading these confessional statements on what baptism signifies and seals as though they apply to every baptized child, as the conditional covenant teaches. The result is the heresies that are propounded by the covenant universalists.
Ultimately, these modern-day heretics employ the conditional covenant to build another road back to Rome. Baptism regenerates.
. . . to be continued.
* The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism, p. 94.