Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: May 15, 2007. p. 370.

Covenant and Election in Romans 9 (cont.) 

The conditionality of the covenant promise, and therefore the inherent weakness of the covenant promise, is not the solution to the covenant problem that the apostle gives in 
Romans 9. This is the solution offered today by the majority of Reformed and Presbyterian churches and theologians. This is the solution offered with a vengeance by the proponents of the covenant doctrine known as the federal vision. In their covenant doctrine, they reviseRomans 9:6. Reflecting on the unbelief and damnation of some baptized children of godly parents, the men of the federal vision explain: “The word of God has taken none effect in all these children, for the word of God’s covenant promise is conditional.”

The solution given by Paul inRomans 9inspired Romans 9—is radically different: “not as though the word of God hath taken none effect” (v. 6)! Not as though the covenant promise, “I will be the God of your seed,” failed! Not as though the covenant promise failed with regard to even one child included in the seed to whom and about whom God made the promise! Not as though the covenant promise failed specifically in the case of Esau! Not as though a gracious promise to all the children without exception failed in the case of many because they did not perform the condition upon which the gracious promise depended!

Two Kinds of Children

The apostle’s solution to the covenant problem—a pressing problem because the truth of the word of God is at stake and with it the veracity of the promising God—is a clear, sharp distinction between physical offspring of father Abraham who are truly “Israel” and physical offspring of Abraham who are only “of Israel”: “For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (v. 6).

There are offspring of Abraham who are mere physical progeny of the patriarch, for example, Esau. They are the “seed of Abraham” in the sense that they are of his body begotten, sharing his blood. But this does not make them those children of Abraham to whom God referred when He promised Abraham, “I will be the God of your children.” “Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children” (v. 7). “They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God” (v. 8).

In distinction from those offspring of Abraham who are only descended from him by physical generation, there is another, distinct group of people descended from Abraham. The apostle calls them the “children of the promise” (v. 8). To them, in distinction from the others, the covenant promise, “I will be the God of you and of your seed,” referred. To them, in distinction from the others, God gave the covenant promise, “I will be your God.” In them, in distinction from the others, the covenant promise worked (for the covenant promise is not empty words, but spiritual power and reality), making them God’s covenant people by the gift of faith.

Only these “children of the promise are counted for the seed” (v. 8). When God promised to be the God and Savior of Abraham and Abraham’s seed, in Genesis 17:7, God “counted,” or “reckoned,” only some of Abraham’s offspring as the seed. He never regarded all of Abraham’s physical descendants as the seed concerning whom and to whom He made His covenant promise. God had in mind only some of Abraham’s physical offspring, “the children of the promise.” Therefore, only theseare the (true, spiritual) children of Abraham and the children of God. Those whom God counts for the seed are the seed. The others, those who are merely “the children of the flesh,” are not counted by God for the covenant seed of Abraham.

Accordingly, the covenant promise to believing parents, “I will be the God of you and of your children (and grandchildren) after you,” does not count all the physical descendants of this couple as their true, spiritual, and therefore real children. But the covenant promise makes distinction among the physical offspring. The promise refers, not to all the physical offspring without exception, but to some only. Only these children of the promise are counted by God as the believers’ seed.

The Discriminating Promise

The apostle proves that the covenant promise makes distinction among the physical descendants of believing parents and that it is the promise that makes a child a covenant child from several clear examples in the Old Testament. Whereas Abraham had a number of physical offspring (Ishmael and the children of Keturah) in addition to Isaac, God made plain to Abraham, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called” (v. 7). The covenant promise referred, not to all Abraham’s physical offspring without exception, but to Isaac. Not all the physical offspring of Abraham, but Isaac was the seed of 
Genesis 17:7 (not, of course, apart from Christ, who is the seed of Abraham, according to Galatians 3:16). The child produced by the power of the promise was Abraham’s seed, and he only: “This is the word of promise, ‘At this time will I come, and Sarah shall have a son'” (v. 9).

Likewise, God’s word of promise distinguished Jacob as the covenant child of Isaac and Rebecca, rather than his twin brother, Esau: “‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated'” (vss. 12, 13).

It was the company of these children of the promise among Abraham’s descendants who were God’s “Israel” throughout the time of the Old Testament, no matter that they were usually the minority of Israelites, indeed the “very small remnant” (Is. 1:9). The rest, although the large majority, were merely “of Israel” (v. 6). “Israel” was God’s covenant people; those who were merely “of Israel” were in the sphere of the covenant. Or, to use the distinction often made in the Reformed tradition, God made His covenant with “Israel”; those who were merely “of Israel” were under the administration of the covenant.

God’s covenant promise, the “word of God” of verse 6, did not fail, even though multitudes of Abraham’s physical descendants perished in unbelief and disobedience. For the promising God never had all the physical offspring of Abraham in mind. The promise was discriminating: “In Isaac shall thy seed be called,” and “The elder shall serve the younger.” God counted the covenant seed, exclusive object of the promise, as those who are Christ’s (Gal. 3:29). God’s covenant promise took effect in every one of those on behalf of whom and to whom God made the promise: They believed, were justified, obeyed, repented when they sinned, persevered to the end, and inherited eternal life.

“Jacob Have I Loved”

The great question then is, who or what accounts for the distinction between being “Israel” and being merely “of Israel,” between being “children of the flesh” and “children of the promise”? That is, who or what governs the covenant—its gracious promise, its gracious basis in the death of Christ, its gracious blessings, and its gracious salvation?

To this question, emphatically tothis question, concerning the source and governing of thecovenant promise andcovenant salvation, the answer of the apostle in Romans 9inspired Romans 9—is election, not the performance or non-performance of a condition by the children. The answer of the apostle is election as eternal, unchangeable decree, not some fickle decision of God in time according as He sees children doing good or evil. God made the covenant promise to Jacob, in distinction from Esau, because He loved Jacob, in distinction from Esau, before the children were born or had done any good or evil (vss. 10-13). Some of Abraham’s offspring were children of the promise, in distinction from the others, because “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” (v. 15).

Indeed, the others, who were also physical offspring of Abraham, were excluded from the covenant of grace and its gracious salvation on the basis of the death of Christ, by God’s eternal decree of reprobation: “and whom he will he hardeneth” (v. 18).

That the apostle is indeed teaching that election governs the covenant is proved by the objection to his doctrine, “Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?” (v. 19) To a doctrine of the covenant that teaches that all the children alike are the objects of God’s gracious promise, that all alike are in the covenant by divine grace, but that continuing in the covenant and being saved depend upon the works of the children, no one ever objects with the words, “Why doth he yet find fault?”

To this objection, the apostle does not reply, as do the defenders of the conditional covenant (which is to say, most of Reformed Christendom in our day) and especially the men of the federal vision, “My dear objector, you completely misunderstand my teaching. God does not determine which of the children of believers are included among His covenant people and which are not. God’s gracious promise does not discriminate, certainly not among children of believers. The covenant of grace is not closely related to election; much less is it governed by election. Everything depends on the child, don’t you see? If he fulfills the condition, he stays in the covenant and is saved. If he refuses to fulfill the condition, he falls out of the covenant and perishes. Your objection concerning the covenant, ‘Why doth he yet find fault?’ makes no sense.”

This is a popular reply in Reformed and Presbyterian circles to the indignant objection to the apostle’s covenant doctrine in Romans 9. It sends the objector away pacified. It also sends him away believing that the word of God has indeed taken none effect in the case of many children of believing parents and that covenant salvation is indeed of him who wills and runs (see v. 16).

What is the response of the apostle?

“Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?” (vss. 20, 21)

Scripture teaches that the gospel of salvation by grace alone applies to the covenant. In the covenant, salvation is of God who shows mercy—sovereign, discriminatingmercy (v. 16).

The gospel of Holy Scripture proclaims that election governs the covenant.

For this reason, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, early on, established in their official, binding documents, particularly the “Form for the Administration of Baptism” and the Canons of Dordt, that election governs the covenant.

In this doctrine, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands were guided by John Calvin.

. . . to be continued.