Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: April 1, 2007, p. 304.
The preceding articles in this series have demonstrated that, very early in their history, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands confessed that the covenant of grace is governed by election. Election determines which children of godly parents are the objects of God’s covenant grace, so as to be saved in the covenant. Election determines who the (true, spiritual) children of believers are, those to whom God referred when He said to Abraham, “to be a God . . . to thy seed after thee” (Gen. 17:7) and those whom the Spirit had in mind when He inspired Peter to proclaim on Pentecost, “the promise is . . . to your children, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39).
Election determines with whom God establishes the covenant by the gracious promise. Election determines with whom God maintains His covenant, according to the gracious promise. Election determines with whom God perfects His covenant in the day of Christ, by the power of the gracious promise.
Governed by election, the covenant of grace is a covenant of sovereign grace (which is a tautology).
The Reformed churches in the Netherlands confessed that election governs the covenant in the “[Reformed] Form for the Administration of Baptism,” which dates as early as 1574, and in the Canons of Dordt (1618/1619).
Confessing that the covenant is governed by election, the Reformed churches also confessed, whether explicitly or implicitly (and the Canons of Dordt make it explicit), that the covenant is unconditional— as unconditional as the eternal decree upon which it depends and by which it is ruled.
The confession of the unconditional covenant does not deny demands in the covenant, or the necessity of faith as the means of covenant membership, or the urgency of obedience to the law of God as the only way of covenant life and blessedness, or the reality of the dreadful curse of the covenant upon those who take God’s covenant in their mouth, but refuse to walk with God.
But by the unconditionality of the covenant is meant that the grace, promise, and salvation of the covenant do not depend upon the work or worthiness of the member of the covenant, whether his faith, or his obedience, or his faithfulness. Covenant grace does not depend upon the member’s work for the establishment of the covenant, for the continuance of the covenant, or for the perfection of the covenant.
The grace of the covenant towards humans, particularly children of godly parents, is not wider than the grace of the eternal decree of election.
The grace of the covenant does not depend for its efficacy in a member of the covenant, its continuation with a member of the covenant, or its realization in the everlasting salvation of a member of the covenant upon the member of the covenant himself.
From its beginning in the uniting of the elect sinner to Christ by regeneration to its perfection in the vision of God at the resurrection of the body, the covenant is a covenant of grace. The covenant depends solely upon the grace of God, whose boundless and effectual source is election.
When they confessed that election governs the covenant, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands were simply applying the gospel recovered by the sixteenth century Reformation to the covenant. The gospel of the Reformation was the message of salvation by grace alone, apart from the works of the sinner. With one voice, the Reformation proclaimed that grace originates from, is directed by, and depends upon the eternal decree of election. The Reformation denied that either election or salvation is conditioned by any work of the sinner, including his faith. Therefore, the Reformation confessed that the sinner’s justification is by faith alone, altogether apart from any work.
It belonged to the Reformation gospel that grace is effectual, or irresistible. Grace is as almighty as the divine will of which it is the expression. The grace that has its source in election always accomplishes the salvation of every human toward whom it is directed and in whom it begins to work. Grace is sovereign.
To apply the gospel of the Reformation to the covenant is to confess that election is the fountain of covenant grace, covenant blessings, and covenant salvation. It is, therefore, to confess a covenant of sovereign grace.
Surely, it is right to apply the gospel of the Reformation to the covenant!
Regardless how one conceives the covenant, whether as a cold contract, or as a vague “arrangement,” or as a living, lively bond of fellowship in love, the covenant is a gracious provision of God. It is a gracious provision of God in Jesus Christ, for Christ is head, mediator, and surety of the covenant (Rom. 5:12ff.; Heb. 8:6, 7:22). In the blood of the cross is the covenant established and confirmed (Dan. 9:24-27; Luke 22:20;Heb. 9:11-28). In and by the covenant, God intends to give, and does give, the blessings of salvation that Christ earned by His death. The goal of the covenant—its perfection in the day of Christ—is the resurrection of the body and life everlasting in the new creation. The covenant is the new covenant of grace. It is the new covenant of grace in Christ.
Does not the gospel of the Reformation apply to covenantgrace, covenant blessings,covenant salvation, and thecovenant Christ?
Are the covenant Christ,covenant grace, and covenantsalvation “liberated” from the eternal decree?
And if so, what does account for the covenant Christ, covenantgrace, and covenant salvation? Whence do they originate? Upon what do they depend? By what are they governed?
There is only one answer: the will and work of the member of the covenant. The will of the sinner is preferred to the will of God.
This is the answer of all those Reformed churches and theologians today who deny that election governs the covenant, thus refusing to apply the gospel of the Reformation to the covenant. Instead, they apply the “gospel” of the Roman Catholic Church, the “gospel” rejected by the sixteenth century Reformation, to the covenant. That this is indeed the case becomes evident in the crass teaching of justification by works by the theologians of the federal (covenant) vision, whose fundamental fault is their determination to cut the covenant loose from election.
The Reformed churches of the Netherlands, in the glorious days now long past, when in their youth they went after God in the “love of [their] espousals” (Jer. 2:2), applied the gospel of the Reformation to the covenant. They applied the gospel of the Reformation to the covenant, because (to speak anachronistically) Scripture does. Scripture teaches that election governs the covenant. Scripture teaches that election governs the covenant in Romans 9.Romans 9 is not so much the chapter—the inspired chapter—on predestination as it is the chapter on the close relation of covenant and election. The relation is this: election governs the covenant. Election governs the covenant promise. Election governs covenant grace. Election governs the covenant children. Election governs covenant salvation.
Romans 9 is the answer—theinspired answer—to the covenant problem: In light of God’s covenant promise to Abraham, that He would be the God of Abraham’s seed, how is it to be explained that so many of Abraham’s physical offspring perished in unbelief? This is a problem that grieves godly parents and vexes Reformed theologians to this day: In light of God’s covenant promise to believing parents, that He will be the God of their children, how is it to be explained that some of the children perish in unbelief?
Having acknowledged the perishing of many Israelites in verses 1-5, the apostle is constrained to deny, in verse 6, that “the word of God hath taken none effect.” The “word of God” in verse 6 is the word of covenant promise to father Abraham, “I will be a God to your seed after you” (Gen. 17:7).
The explanation of the perishing of many physical descendants of Abraham, throughout the Old Testament and in the apostle’s own day, is not that God’s covenant promise “hath taken none effect” (v. 6), that is, that the promise failed. But this certainly would be the explanation if God’s covenant promise was the salvation of every one of Abraham’s physical offspring. In this case, God made His promise to every physical child of Abraham without exception. He promised Christ, the blessings of salvation, and eternal life to all of them alike. In making the promise to all, God had a gracious attitude toward all of them alike. He sincerely desired their covenant salvation. At their circumcision, He actually established the covenant of grace with them all. The consequent unbelief, wickedness of life, and everlasting damnation of many of them would then represent the failure of the covenant promise. In the language of the Authorized Version, the word of God has “taken none effect” with regard to many children of Abraham. Specifically, it took none effect with regard to Abraham’s profane grandson, Esau.
It makes absolutely no difference that one objects that the reason why the promise, made to all alike, has failed is that it was a conditional promise, depending for its efficacy and realization upon the works of the children. Then the promise failed because of the failure of the children to perform the condition. But the fact remains that the promise failed. It did not give what it said it would give. It did not do what it said it would do. Quite literally, the covenant promise of God took no effect. In the rough, but understandable, talk of everyday life, the promise did not deliver the goods. God had said to and about these particular children who perish, specifically Esau, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” But to all eternity, He is not their God, and they are not His people. His promise was empty words. It was worse. It was false.
Indeed, recourse to the conditionality of the promise to explain the perishing of many who were once the objects of the gracious covenant promise—as much the objects of the gracious covenant promise as those who are finally saved, according to the defenders of the universal, gracious, but conditional covenant promise—exposes the promise as impotent, utterly impotent. The promise has no power in itself whatever to realize what it promises. It is merely as strong as the children upon whom the promise depends for its efficacy and realization. Whatever power the promise may have is, in fact, that of the children upon whom the promise depends.
No wonder that the word of God’s covenant promise has failed in multitudes of instances!
No wonder that the word of God’s covenant promise failed specifically in the case of Esau!
The marvel is that this conditional, inherently powerless promise saves anyone.
. . . to be continued.