Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: January 15, 2007, p. 177.

Covenant and Election in the Canons

Contrary to the accepted wisdom in the Reformed churches, the Canons of Dordt do not leave it an open question whether election governs the covenant. It is not an open question, therefore, about which Reformed theologians and churches may debate until the world ends, whether God graciously establishes His covenant with all the children of believers alike, conditionally, or whether He establishes the covenant of graceunconditionally with the elect children.

Although they mention the covenant only rarely, and although the doctrine of the covenant is certainly not a major theme in the creed, the Canons of Dordt (1618/1619) are conclusive, that God’s eternal decree of election governs the covenant of grace with believers and their children.

The Canons of Dordt are the second authoritative document, with the “Form for the Administration of Baptism,” that has bound upon the Reformed churches from their earliest beginnings a doctrine of the covenant that has the covenant governed by, and serving, election.

Election and Covenant Grace

The Canons teach that election governs the covenant inasmuch as they confess that election is the sole fountain of God’s (saving) grace and the only determiner of those who are the objects of this grace.

Canons, I/9 teaches that election is the source of God’s grace in Jesus Christ and of all His saving works: “Therefore election is the fountain of every saving good; from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects” (this and the following quotations of the Canons are taken from Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3, Baker, 1966, unless otherwise noted).

Now the covenant is a “covenant of grace.” The work of God in the covenant is a work of gracious salvation. The very establishment of the covenant with someone is gracious on God’s part. But this grace and this saving work, according to the Canons, have their fountain in God’s election. It is true that the Canons do not specify that election is the fountain of God’s grace and saving work in the covenant. Why should they? Wherever God’s grace in Jesus Christ is directed towards men, wherever God’s grace is communicated to men, and wherever God’s saving work is found in men, whether on the mission field or in the family of believers, the fountain is election.

Are we to suppose that, whereas God’s grace and saving work on the mission field are due to and governed by election, in the covenant there is a different source? Do the enemies of the truth that election governs the covenant really suppose, and want us to suppose, that the Canons’ clear, emphatic teaching that election is the fountain of God’s grace and saving work in Christexcludes God’s grace and saving work in the covenant? And if it is indeed the case that God’s eternal decree is not the fountain of the grace and saving work of God in the covenant among the physical offspring of godly parents, what, pray tell, is the source of grace and salvation in the covenant?

According to the Canons of Dordt, binding document for the churches in the Dutch Reformed tradition (the glorious tradition that has made more of the covenant of grace than any other), covenant and election are tightly linked. Election governs the covenant.

“Out of the common mass” of the Offspring of Believers

In closest connection with the teaching of the Canons that the grace and saving work of God, in the covenant as on the mission field, are due to election, Canons, I/10 makes election the determiner of the objects of the grace and saving work of God: “Gracious election…doth…consist herein… that He [God] was pleased out of the common mass of sinners to adopt some certain persons as a peculiar people to Himself.”

In proof and demonstration of this assertion, Canons, I/10 immediately quotes Romans 9:11-13: “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil,” etc., “it was said [namely, to Rebecca] the elder shall serve the younger; as it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” This passage proves that election determines the objects of the grace of God in the sphere of the covenant, for Jacob and Esau were not heathens on the mission field, but twin sons of godly parents. In determining which of the two (as yet unborn) sons of Isaac and Rebecca would be the object of God’s grace and saving work—Jacob—election determined the object of God’s covenant grace and covenant salvation. As a discriminating decree, the same decree—as reprobation—determined which of the physical offspring of Isaac and Rebecca— Esau—would not be the object of God’s covenant grace and saving work, but the object of His covenant wrath and curse.

According to Canons, I/10, God is not gracious to “the common mass of sinners” born to godly parents. God is not pleased to adopt all of the children born to godly parents. Not all the physical children alike are “a peculiar people to himself,” even though all are baptized. Which of the children of godly parents are the objects of God’s covenant grace, are adopted as His children, and become His peculiar people is determined by election.

According to the Canons of Dordt, authoritative creed of many Reformed churches everywhere in the world, the eternal decree of election is so closely related to the covenant that election determines who are, and who are not, the covenant children of God.

In addition to the clear, forceful testimony of the Canons everywhere to the truth that the Mediator, His death, the regenerating Spirit, the promise of the gospel, grace, blessings, and salvation have their origin in and are governed by God’s eternal election of grace, which testimony applies to the covenant with believers and their children, if the covenant has anything to do with the Mediator, His death, the regenerating Spirit, the promise of the gospel, grace, blessings, and salvation (which, of course, it does), there are two specific statements in the Canons that relate covenant and election, and relate them in such a way that election governs the covenant.

Election and the Salvation of Covenant Infants 

The first is Canons, I/17:

Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with the parents are comprehended, godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy.

With explicit reference to the covenant of grace, with explicit reference to the infant children of believers, and with explicit reference to the salvation of these infant children of believers in the covenant of grace, the Canons explicitly declare that the covenant of grace is related to election: “election and [covenant] salvation.” Still more, the Canons explicitly teach that the relation between election and covenant salvation is this, that election governs the covenant: the salvation of infant children of believers is due to the election of these infant children. Believing parents have no reason to doubt of the “election and salvation” of these children, that is, the parents may believe the salvation of these infant children, because of God’s election of these children.

In light of Canons, I/17, it is nothing less than astounding that Reformed churches and theologians, who have the Canons as their creed, deny that election governs the covenant, insist that this denial is in harmony with the Reformed confessions, and condemn those churches that teach the relation of election and covenant as outside the stream of the Reformed tradition.

I note in passing that the election that governs the grace and saving work of God in the covenant, according to Canons, I/17, is not the conditional, changeable decision of God in history of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”) theologian Benne Holwerda and of the men of the federal vision. But it is the eternal, unconditional, and unchangeable decision of Canons, I/ 7: “Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He hath, out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen,” etc.

It is true that Canons, I/17 refers specifically to those children of believing parents who die in infancy. The fact remains that, concerning these children, election governs the grace and salvation of God in the covenant. Those Reformed theologians and churches that deny the relation of covenant and election oppose the teaching of Canons, I/17.

And the teaching of Canons, I/ 17 regarding the salvation of a certain category of covenant children, namely, those who die in infancy, implies that God’s salvation of the other covenant children, namely, all those who grow up to believe in Christ and walk in God’s ways, is likewise governed by, and due to, election.

… to be continued.