Head 2 of the Canons sets forth the Reformed truth that Jesus’ death is an effectual atonement for sin, because it was a substitutionary death and a satisfaction for the sins of the elect only. In harmony with that, the gospel never promises salvation to all who hear the preaching. Rather, in the preaching, though all hearers are commanded to repent and believe, the promise of eternal life is specifically spoken to those who believe. Only the elect can and do believe, for election is the fountain of faith. And since the sacrament of baptism is a sign and seal of the gospel, the promise of baptism is likewise to the elect alone.
The covenant theology in harmony with the Canons is the unconditional covenant of grace governed by election. On the other hand, the teaching of Head 2 rejects the theology of a covenant in which God promises salvation to every baptized child on the condition of faith. This editorial will continue to spell this out and finish the treatment of Head 2.
In the history of this doctrine, covenant theology has usually included the notion of a pact or agreement. This is understandable, since in Scripture a covenant between men can be an agreement, as when Abraham and Abimelech made a covenant in Beersheba (Gen. 21:27–32). With any such agreement come conditions or stipulations that must be fulfilled by both parties. Applying that to God’s covenant with His people, theologians have taught that God makes certain promises of what He will do and then lays down certain stipulations for man to accomplish. These stipulations or conditions are required either in the formation of the covenant or in maintaining it. This is identified as a bilateral (two-sided) covenant.
Several theological problems stand out with this teaching of the covenant as agreement. One is that it makes God, almighty Creator of all, a party to an agreement with man, a mere creature. However, the overarching problem is the inconsistency between God’s covenant and the Reformed doctrine of salvation. Reformed soteriology insists that salvation is all of God, and therefore salvation is never an agreement between God and man, and salvation is not conditioned on what man does, either in the initial work or in maintaining salvation.
So must it be in the covenant. The covenant is all of God, with no dependence on man. When God establishes His covenant with His people, He promises to be their God, and promises that they will be His people. He promises eternal life, and all His promises are sure and unfailing. That is identified as a unilateral (one-sided) covenant. In that unilateral covenant God gives life to His people and they become active. But the covenant is all of God who alone planned it, establishes it, and maintains it.
Klaas Schilder started with a one-sided covenant, and insisted that God then made the covenant two-sided, an agreement. Schilder affirmed that the promise of God could not fail. But to make this fit into the covenant as agreement with conditions, he changed the promise to every baptized child (as he taught) into a promise and a demand. The Canadian Reformed Churches follow this, as is evident from the fact that these churches use an altered Form for administering baptism. The Reformed Baptism Form written in the Netherlands, translated into English, and used historically by the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church, the Netherlands Reformed Congregations, the Heritage Reformed Churches, as well as the Protestant Reformed Churches reads as follows in the third part of the instruction section:
Whereas in all covenants there are contained two parts, therefore are we, by God, though baptism, admonished of and obliged unto new obedience.
The clear implication is that the Form sets forth (in the ‘secondly’) God’s work of establishing His covenant with His people, and now it sets forth what God requires of His redeemed, Spirit-filled covenant people. This is their part, namely, with gratitude, loving God and obeying Him. The covenant does not depend on their keeping this requirement. If the covenant depended on that, it is null and void; not one baptized child or adult will fulfill the requirement. Rather, God having established His covenant, He tells His people what He expects of them in His covenant.
At that point, the Baptism Form of the Canadian Reformed Churches reads:
…since every covenant contains two parts, a promise and an obligation, we are, through baptism, called and obliged by the Lord to a new obedience.
The Federal Vision, which movement develops Schilder’s covenant theology, also turns God’s word to the baptized child into a promise and a demand. Promoters of this covenant theology teach that God establishes His covenant with every baptized child and even grafts each one into Christ, promising salvation in Him. But then, God demands that the child believe and obey for the maintaining of the covenant. Promise and demand. Promise contingent on the child believing.
This is not God’s promise to His covenant people. God’s promise to His people was first announced in Genesis 3:15—the promise of the seed of the woman. In that promise is neither a condition nor a threat, though it speaks of salvation in the way of the destruction of the serpent and his seed. God’s promise is spoken to Abraham: “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee…” (Gen. 17:7). It is entirely promise, no threat and no conditions. And thus it is all through the prophets and even the Lord Himself, who promised, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
This notion of promise and demand, with the demand as a condition that God sets before the covenant child to fulfill, is not the Canons. The Canons explicitly reject the idea of a conditional demand for election and accordingly, for salvation.1 On the contrary, God’s promise to the believer is simply eternal life in Jesus Christ. “He, moreover, seriously promises eternal life, and rest” (III, IV, 8). And the Canons insist that it is impossible that “His promise fail” (V, 8).
That is not to say that God never threatens—He certainly does! The Canons speak of “exhortations [and] threatenings” in the preaching. God warns (with threats) Israel and the church today of the terrible judgments that He will bring on disobedience. There is a fearful divine wrath on those raised in the sphere of the covenant who reject God and His Christ. This was demonstrated previously in connection with the organic understanding of the covenant (SB, Dec. 15, 2019). But these threats are neither the promise of the gospel nor the promise of the covenant that the Baptism Form gives. If God’s word in baptism, His covenant declaration, be a promise and a threat, then one ought not speak of the covenant of grace, but rather of the covenant of grace and wrath.
Again, this is not to deny that God makes demands of His covenant people. He surely does. Though the Canons say little about this, the Heidelberg Catechism introduces the law with the question “Q. 4. What doth the law of God require of us?” And in the exposition of the Ten Commandments, Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day asks, “What doth God require in the ____ commandment?” But that requirement is exactly the “part” that the Baptism Form sets forth—the believer’s response of thankfulness for salvation, for being brought into the covenant. Nowhere do the confessions hint at the notion that this requirement is needed to establish or maintain salvation or the covenant.
Before concluding the treatment of Head 2, we briefly treat a few more articles that bear on the doctrine of the covenant, particularly as to whether it is conditional or unconditional. First, notice Rejection of Errors 4, where the synod rejected the error of those who teach
that the new covenant of grace, which God the Father through the mediation of the death of Christ, made with man…herein consist(s)…in [this] that God having revoked the demand of perfect obedience of the law, regards faith itself and the obedience of faith, although imperfect, as the perfect obedience of the law, and does esteem it worthy of the reward of eternal life through grace.
This article condemns the Remonstrants’ teaching that in the “new covenant” the condition for eternal life is faith and obedience. As this article states, the Remonstrants taught that God accepted faith and the obedience of faith as being worthy of eternal life. This is one way that the Arminians denied justification by faith alone. Over against this, the Canons insist that only the merits of Christ earn eternal life (I, B3; II, B4).
This article also condemns the modern-day error of Federal Vision. This theology is the working out of the error of a conditional covenant. The Federal Vision also denies justification by faith alone by teaching that a believer’s righteousness before God is by faith and the obedience of faith.
Another article of Head 2 that clearly militates against the theology of a conditional covenant is Rejection of Errors 2 which points out the truth that “the testament is of force where death has occurred.” That is to say, because Christ died, God’s covenant is in force. The application to the covenant then is this: If God establishes His covenant with every baptized child, it is “of force” with each of them. Because Christ died, God’s testament or covenant is effectually established, and no one can annul it. This cannot be true in a conditional covenant, for there the covenant relationship depends on the faith of the child. However, a covenant governed by election is completely in harmony with this teaching. God’s covenant with His people is “in force,” grounded in the cross of Christ. It will never fail.
Head 2, Rejection of Errors 6 addresses another error in conditional covenant theology. This article denies the “teaching that God, as far as He is concerned, has been minded of applying to all equally the benefits gained by the death of Christ….” Is not this teaching that Article 6 rejects exactly the consequence of a conditional covenant, where God comes to every child personally and promises to every child salvation, if he/she will believe? If God promises the benefits of Christ’s death to every baptized child, surely He is “minded of applying to all [baptized children] equally the benefits gained in the death of Christ.” The conditional covenant takes this Arminian teaching into the sphere of the covenant.
And finally, we must take notice of the very word “condition.” The Canons use the terms condition or conditional eleven times. Head I explicitly denies that God has determined anything as a “condition of salvation” (10). Nowhere is the term condition used to explain the Reformed doctrine of salvation. In Head 2 the idea of conditions is consistently rejected, several times connected with the Arminian teaching on the covenant, and the term is only used to set forth and condemn the Remonstrants’ teaching.
This is most instructive. The term was a favorite of the Remonstrants. They used it to teach a salvation that was not all of God but dependent on man. Man had to fulfill a condition in order to be saved. Why then use such a term to explain the doctrine of God’s covenant of grace? Oh, yes, some solidly Reformed theologians in the past, including John Calvin, used the term condition in their writings in a legitimate way. This is easily proven. Herman Bavinck made this important observation in connection with the doctrine of the covenant.
In the beginning Reformed theologians spoke freely of “the conditions” of the covenant. But after the nature of the covenant of grace had been more carefully considered and had to be defended against Catholics, Lutherans, and Remonstrants, many of them took exception to the term and avoided it.2
That complements his conviction on the relation between election and the covenant, also fully in harmony with the Canons. Bavinck writes:
So far from election and the covenant of grace forming a contrast of opposites, the election is the basis and guarantee, the heart and core, of the covenant of grace. And it is so indispensably important to cling to this close relationship because the least weakening of it not merely robs one of the true insight into the achieving and application of salvation, but also robs the believers of their only and sure comfort in the practice of their spiritual life.3
1 Head I, Rejection of Errors (B), 5: “…that in the election unto faith this condition is beforehand demanded, namely, that man should use the light of nature aright, be pious, humble, meek, and fit for eternal life, as if on these things election were in any way dependent.” This article does not limit rejection of the error in regard to election only, but applies it to all of salvation by quoting Ephesians 2:3–9, which concludes, “for by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory.”
2 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker) III, 229.
3 Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1956).