Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: November 15, 2007, p. 83.


Lillback’s Logic 

There are two other considerations that refute Presbyterian theologian Peter A. Lillback’s learned “liberation” of the covenant from election in the theology of John Calvin, in his book The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Baker, 2001). There is, first, the implication that Lillback himself draws from Calvin’s supposed doctrine of a covenant of universal, but conditional, grace. The implication is that Calvin, unlike Luther, taught justification by faith and works.

Lillback’s logic, in contrast to his theology, is sound. If the covenant, divorced from election, is conditional, justification—the outstanding benefit of the covenant—is partly by works, namely, the conditions that the sinner performs. If Calvin taught a conditional covenant, that is, a covenant divorced from election, he taught justification by faith and works. This logic is ironclad.

But the force of this ironclad logic also works the other way. If Calvin, like Luther, in fact taught justification by faith alone, Calvin did not teach a conditional covenant, but a covenant governed by election.

Thus, Lillback’s own logic demolishes his thesis that Calvin taught a conditional covenant. For it is incontrovertible that Calvin was one with Luther—perfectly one with Luther—in teaching justification by faith alone. Hear Calvin on justification in the final, authoritative, 1559 edition of hisInstitutes, where the exact subject in view is the issue whether justification is by faith and the good works faith performs, or by faith alone, altogether apart from any and all works of the justified sinner.

But a great part of mankind imagine that righteousness is composed of faith and works. Let us also, to begin with, show that faith righteousness so differs from works righteousness that when one is established the other has to be overthrown…. Farewell, then, to the dream of those who think up a righteousness flowing together out of faith and works. The Sophists [Roman Catholic theologians], who make game and sport in their corrupting of Scripture and their empty caviling, think they have a subtle evasion. For they explain “works” as meaning those which men not yet reborn do only according to the letter by the effort of their own free will, apart from Christ’s grace. But they deny that these refer to spiritual works. For, according to them, man is justified by both faith and works provided they are not his own works but the gifts of Christ and the fruits of regeneration. For they say that Paul so spoke for no other reason than to convince the Jews, who were relying upon their own strength, that they were foolish to arrogate righteousness to themselves, since the Spirit of Christ alone bestows it upon us not through any effort arising from our own nature. Still they do not observe that in the contrast between the righteousness of the law and of the gospel, which Paul elsewhere introduces, all works are excluded, whatever title may grace them,

Gal. 3:11-12

…. Moreover, we shall see afterward, in its proper place, that the benefits of Christ—sanctification and righteousness—are different. From this it follows that not even spiritual works come into account when the power of justifying is ascribed to faith (John Calvin, Institutes, ed. John T. McNeill, tr. Ford Lewis Battles, Westminster Press, 1960, 3.11.13, 14).

Calvin taught justification by faith alone, apart from any and all works of the sinner. Therefore, by Lillback’s own logic, Calvin must have taught a covenant that is unconditional, because governed by gracious election.

Lillback is hoist with his own petard.

Westminster against the Preposterous Proposal

The second consideration that weighs against President Lillback’s presentation of Calvin as having taught a covenant of universal, conditional grace and, therefore, as having taught justification by faith and the works of faith is that there is not a hint of this teaching in the Reformation creeds. So heavy and pervasive was the influence of Calvin on the writing of the Reformation creeds that, if Calvin did indeed teach what Lillback asserts he taught, the creeds would certainly contain this doctrine.

However, nothing of this supposed teaching of Calvin, concerning a covenant of universal, conditional grace, implying justification by faith and works in the covenant, is found in the Reformation creeds.

Rather, the creeds teach the very opposite.

I limit myself to the Westminster Standards, which are the official confessions of Presbyterian Lillback.

Why, if for Calvin the covenant is not governed (or, in Lillback’s term, “hampered”) by election, does the Westminster Larger Catechism answer the question, “With whom was the covenant of grace made?” as it does: “The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed”? (Q. & A. 31)

Why, if Calvin in accordance with his supposed doctrine of a conditional covenant taught justification by faith and works, does the Westminster Confession of Faith define justification as it does?

Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone: not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith: which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God (WCF, 11.1).

And why, if Calvin was so determined not to allow election to “hamper” the work of salvation in the covenant, does the Westminster Confession of Faith deliberately locate the source of covenantal justification (I remind the reader that Westminster grounds the blessings of salvation, specifically justification, in the covenant of grace, which Westminster has treated in chapter 7) in God’s eternal election? “God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect” (WCF, 11.4).

In view of the influence of Calvin on the Westminster Standards, the answer is plain: Calvin did not teach the doctrines Lillback ascribes to him; Calvin taught the opposite.

“Dung…[and] Rubbish”

What accounts then for the many quotations Lillback has diligently compiled especially from Calvin’s commentaries that seemingly teach a conditional, breakable covenant with all the children alike of godly parents, that is, a covenant that is not governed by election?

It must freely be acknowledged that Lillback has found such statements in Calvin’s voluminous writings.

About some, even many, of these statements of Calvin seemingly teaching a conditional covenant, two observations blunt the force that Lillback ascribes to them. First, the fact that Calvin taught a “mutual” covenant does not imply that he taught the “conditional” covenant of Dr. Lillback, the men of the federal vision, and the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”).

The covenant of grace is mutual in the sense that it is a bond of fellowship between God in Christ and the elect church.

The covenant is also emphatically mutual in the sense that there are two parts in the covenant, God’s part, which is His redemption and renewal of us, and our part, which is our solemn calling, or duty, to love, reverence, trust, and obey God. Our part in the covenant is the demand of the covenant upon us (which God also graciously works in us).

This truth of mutuality differs radically from the notion of conditionality that holds that the realization of the covenant promise supposedly made to all alike, the continuation of the covenant supposedly made with all alike, and the perfection of covenant salvation supposedly begun with all alike depend upon the faith and obedience of the children.

The second observation that renders Lillback’s use of many of Calvin’s statements suspect is that the word “condition” did not always have the same meaning for Calvin that it does in the covenant theology of Dr. Lillback and the men of the federal vision. For Lillback and the federal vision, “condition” means a work of the member of the covenant upon which the covenant depends. Often, Calvin used the word “condition” to express that a certain act is the necessary way in which God would realize His covenant, or that a certain activity is the necessary way in which the member of the covenant, by the grace of God, abides in and enjoys the covenant.

This being said, there remain quotations of Calvin that Lillback can point to as supporting the doctrine of a conditional, breakable covenant. These statements contradict other statements of Calvin affirming that the covenant is unconditional and unbreakable. More importantly, these statements contradict the massive, overwhelming testimony of Calvin’s theology as a whole. But Lillback has found statements in Calvin’s writings that support the doctrine of a conditional, breakable covenant. This cannot be denied.

About these statements, two further observations are in order. Both were the observations of the Reformers Luther and Calvin regarding similar efforts of enemies of the gospel of grace to find support for their heresies in the writings of the church fathers. When Pighius appealed to statements in the early church fathers contradicting Calvin’s teaching on predestination, Calvin responded as follows:

Since the authority of the ancient Church is, with much hatred, cast in my teeth, it will perhaps be worth our while to consider at the commencement how unjustly the truth of Christ is smothered under this enmity, the ground of which is, in one sense, false, and in another frivolous. This accusation, however, such as it is, I would rather wipe off with the words of Augustine than with my own; for the Pelagians of old annoyed him with the same accusation, saying, that he had all other writers of the Church against him. In his reply he remarks that before the heresy of Pelagius, the fathers of the primitive Church did not deliver their opinions so deeply and accurately upon predestination, which reply, indeed, is the truth. And he adds: “What need is there for us to search the works of those writers, who, before the heresy of Pelagius arose, found no necessity for devoting themselves to this question, so difficult of solution? Had such necessity arisen, and had they been compelled to reply to the enemies of predestination, they would doubtless have done so.” This remark of Augustine is a prudent one, and a wise one. For if the enemies of the grace of God had not worried Augustine himself, he never would have devoted so much labour (as he himself confesses) to the discussion of God’s election (John Calvin, “A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God,” in Calvin’s Calvinism, tr. Henry Cole, Eerdmans, 1956, pp. 36, 37).

What Augustine said to the Pelagians, and Calvin to Pighius, applies to Lillback’s quotations from Calvin supporting a conditional, breakable covenant. Calvin did not confront the erroneous doctrine of a covenant of universal, conditional, resistible (saving) grace. The doctrine of the “liberated” Reformed, of the men of the federal vision, and of Peter Lillback simply was not an issue in Calvin’s day. Men were not employing the doctrine of the covenant to destroy and bury predestination. The fact is that Calvin did not concentrate on, develop, or systematize the doctrine of the covenant. This would be the task of a later age. To “cast in the teeth” of contemporary defenders of the gospel of sovereign grace in the covenant statements by Calvin to the contrary is, as Calvin put it, “frivolous.”

The other observation about Lillback’s quotations of Calvin in support of a conditional, breakable covenant is that made by Luther concerning Erasmus’ collection of statements by various biblical scholars in favor of free will. “They have defiled the gold with dung,” charged Luther. And then he turned on Erasmus: “But the gold should not be equated with the dung and thrown away with it, as you are doing. The gold must be reclaimed from their hands, the pure Scripture must be separated from their own rotten rubbish” (Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, tr. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, James Clarke, 1957, p. 85).

Lillback must learn to distinguish the dung and rubbish in Calvin from the gold and “pure Scripture.” Then, he must “reclaim” and deliver to the Reformed community the gold and pure Scripture in Calvin, discarding the dung and rubbish.

… to be continued.