The Unconditional Covenant in Contemporary Debate
Prof. David J. Engelsma
One of the gravest threats to the Reformed churches
since the synod of Dordt is the contemporary denial of justification by
faith alone within the reputedly conservative Reformed churches.
This error is very old. Virtually all the Reformation
confessions mention, expose, refute, and condemn it.
What is new about the contemporary form of the
ancient heresy is that it bases itself on the biblical doctrine of the
covenant. The particular view of the covenant, however, that the
present-day denial of justification by faith alone appeals to is that of
a conditional covenant.
That makes the new error very dangerous indeed.
All Reformed and Presbyterian churches recognize the
importance, even centrality, of the covenant of grace in Scripture.
But many Reformed and Presbyterian churches embrace
the doctrine of a conditional covenant. Because the doctrine of a
conditional covenant does, in fact, imply a conditional salvation—
salvation dependent upon the sinner—these churches are hard pressed
to resist the contemporary error of justification by faith and works, if
indeed resistance is even possible for them.
This booklet examines the contemporary heresy of
justification by faith and works in light of its claim that it is
grounded in the truth of the covenant. The booklet rejects the heresy,
and calls all Reformed Christians to reject it, on the basis of the
unconditional covenant of grace.
Originally, the content of this work was an address
on the occasion of the commencement exercises of the Protestant Reformed
Theological Seminary. The speech was then expanded and published as a
series of editorials in the Standard Bearer.
At the request of the Evangelism Committee of the
Trinity Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan, I have
revised and further expanded the series of articles for publication as a
The month in which the booklet is ready for
publication is the anniversary of the sixteenth century Reformation of
the church. In its own way, addressing a false teaching of the present
day, the booklet defends in our day the same gospel of sovereign grace
recovered in that day.
Prof. David J. Engelsma
Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary
The Unconditional Covenant
For many years and from much of conservative Reformed
Christianity, the Protestant Reformed Churches have heard that the issue
whether God’s covenant with the church is conditional or unconditional
is of no fundamental importance. The issue is not fundamental for the
truth of the covenant itself. It is not fundamental to the confessional
Reformed faith. It is certainly not fundamental to the gospel of
salvation by grace alone.
The Reformed and Presbyterian churches criticize the
Protestant Reformed Churches for declaring the unconditionality of the
covenant a confessional matter. The Protestant Reformed Churches did
this in 1951 by adopting a document known as the "Declaration of
Principles." For making this declaration, the Protestant Reformed
Churches are charged with the fault of "extra-confessional binding."
There is something odd about the posture of the
Reformed churches regarding the conditionality or unconditionality of
the covenant. At the same time that many Reformed churches insist that
the issue of the conditionality or unconditionality of the covenant is
of no fundamental importance, they themselves put up the most vigorous
defense of the doctrine of a conditional covenant. They accuse the
doctrine of an unconditional covenant of grave weaknesses, bordering on
Nevertheless, the position of the Reformed churches
has been that there is room for both views. Nothing serious is at stake
in the difference.
At present, this position is used to put pressure on
the Protestant Reformed Churches in ecumenical contacts. Among some of
the reputedly more conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches there
is a strong urge to unite. The Protestant Reformed Churches come up for
consideration. And when it becomes evident that the Protestant Reformed
Churches are committed to the truth of the unconditional covenant of
grace as a doctrine required by the creeds, the other churches lament
that the Protestant Reformed Churches raise illegitimate obstacles to
the unity of the church. The churches profess sadness, not because the
doctrine of an unconditional covenant is wrong, but because the issue,
unconditional or conditional, is not fundamental.
Alarming Development of Covenant Doctrine
At the present time, there is a development of
covenant doctrine that gives the lie to the notion that the issue of
conditional or unconditional covenant is not fundamental. Reformed
theologians are working out the implications of the doctrine of a
conditional covenant. This development of the doctrine of a conditional
covenant is widespread in conservative Reformed and Presbyterian
Such is the development of the doctrine of a
conditional covenant in our day that it overthrows the entire
theological system of salvation by sovereign grace as confessed by the
Reformed faith in the Canons of Dordt and in the Westminster Standards.
The doctrine of a conditional covenant is explained by its advocates as
denying the heart of the gospel of grace, namely, justification by faith
alone on the basis only of the life-long obedience and atoning death of
These are perilous times for Reformed saints.
These are demanding, but also exciting, times for
those who love the Reformed faith. Today, the old Arminianism is
developing into a denial that God knows beforehand what people will
decide. God is not permitted to know beforehand what humans will decide
because this foreknowledge would impinge on men’s freedom. An ignorant
God must react to human decisions as best He can, rolling with the
punches and scrambling to salvage from human history what He can. God
does not know the future, much less decide it. Men decide the future.
This is the "openness of God" movement. The "openness of God" movement
simply carries out to its logical conclusion the basic Arminian
teaching, that God is dependent on the will of the sinner in the matter
This development of the old Arminianism exposes
Arminian theology for what it is: the proclamation of a god dependent on
man, another god than the God of the Bible and of the Christian
religion. In light of this development, the Protestant Reformed Churches
and other true, Reformed churches must renew their resolve faithfully to
proclaim the sovereign God of the Reformed faith. Our God knows the
future because He ordained it. In the crucial matter of salvation, the
wills of sinners are dependent upon the predestinating will of God.
The times are demanding particularly for the
Protestant Reformed Churches also on account of the ongoing development
of the doctrine of a conditional covenant. This development exposes the
grievous error that is inherent in that covenant doctrine. The response
of the Protestant Reformed Churches must be an even more zealous
confession, defense, explanation, and development of the truth of the
unconditional covenant of grace.
The significant contemporary development of covenant
doctrine to which I refer concerns the issue whether the covenant of God
with His people in Jesus Christ is unconditional or conditional. The new
teaching that troubles the Reformed churches, and threatens to carry
them away, is the natural, indeed inevitable, development of the
doctrine that the covenant is conditional. It is necessary, therefore,
that we have the issue of the conditionality or unconditionality of the
covenant clearly in mind. In considering the controversy, we must
remember that the covenant of God with His people is central to the
revelation of God in Scripture and to the redemption that is at the
heart of biblical revelation. No one in the debate questions the
importance of the covenant.
That the covenant is unconditional means that the
establishing, maintaining, and perfecting of that blessed relationship
of love and communion between God and a man do not depend on the sinful
man; that the blessings which the covenant brings to the man do not
depend upon him; and that the final, everlasting salvation enjoyed by
one with whom God makes His covenant does not depend upon that man.
There is no work of the sinner that is a condition he
must fulfil in order to have the covenant, or to enjoy its blessings.
Unconditionality rules out merit, or earning. It also
rules out all effort by the sinner, even though not meritorious, upon
which the covenant and its blessings are supposed to depend, or which
cooperates with God in establishing and maintaining the covenant and in
bestowing the benefits of the covenant. Unconditionality certainly rules
out merit. We do not earn, and thus deserve, the covenant. But
unconditionality also rules out all works that distinguish one man from
another, or that are the reason why the covenant is given to one and not
to another, or that obtain the covenant, which God merely makes
available to one. The reason why all such works are excluded, along with
meritorious works, is that these works, as much as meritorious works,
would make the sinner his own saviour and rob God of the glory of
What difference is there between a rich man’s paying
someone a large sum of money for work he did and a rich man’s giving
someone money because that person somehow pleased and benefited the rich
man? In both cases, the reason for the "gift" of money is in the one to
whom the money is "given."
Similarly, what difference is there between God’s
making His covenant with me because I worked to earn it and God’s making
His covenant with me because there is something in me that appealed to
Him, or because I did something that distinguished me from others?
Neither do we earn the covenant, nor do we get it, or
its blessings, because of anything we are or do, even though what we are
or do does not earn the covenant or the blessings of the covenant.
According to Hebrews 9:15ff., the making of the new
covenant with us is like a man’s willing his estate to someone as an
inheritance: reception depends only on the testator, only on the
covenant-making God. And the divine testator appoints the covenant, its
blessings, and salvation to a person according to His own good pleasure,
not because of anything in the one to whom the will is made out.
Faith as a Gift
The teaching that the covenant is unconditional does
not overlook, or minimize, faith. The doctrine of the unconditional
covenant recognizes full well that faith is necessary for the covenant
and its enjoyment. But the doctrine of the unconditional covenant views
faith as the means by which God establishes His covenant with the elect
sinner and the means by which the elect sinner enjoys the covenant and
its blessings, not as a condition. And the doctrine of the unconditional
covenant confesses that faith is a gift of God to the sinner, like the
covenant itself. By His death on the cross, Christ not only confirmed
the new covenant with His elect people, but also purchased faith for
them. His Holy Spirit then confers faith upon all the elect.
It was the will of God that Christ by the blood of
the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually
redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language all those, and
those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to
Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which,
together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He
purchased for them by His death ... (Canons of Dordt, II/8;
Good Works as Fruits of the Covenant
Likewise, the doctrine of the unconditional covenant
teaches that good works are necessary in the covenant. But they are
fruits of the covenant in the life of the friend and servant of God, not
conditions unto the establishing or maintaining of the covenant. The
power in the child of God to produce good works is not any natural
goodness of his own, but the sanctifying Spirit of Jesus Christ. The
motive of the child of God in performing good works is not to earn or to
obtain a salvation that he does not have, nor to keep a salvation he
might lose. But his motive is thankfulness to God for a salvation
Therefore we do good works, but not to merit by
them (for what can we merit?), nay, we are beholden to God for the
good works we do, and not He to us, since it is He that worketh in us
both to will and to do of His good pleasure. Let us therefore attend
to what is written: When ye shall have done all those things which are
commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants; we have done that
which was our duty to do.... Moreover, though we do good works, we do
not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is
polluted by our flesh, and also punishable.
Genuinely good works are not done "out of self-love
or fear of damnation," but "out of love to God" (Belgic Confession,
Art. 24, "Man’s Sanctification and Good Works").
A Gracious Covenant
"Unconditional" is negative. The positive truth about
the covenant confessed by means of the word "unconditional" is that the
covenant is gracious. An unconditional covenant is a gracious covenant.
This is how the Reformed confessions describe the covenant. The
Canons of Dordt, II, Rejection of Errors/2 calls the covenant "the
new covenant of grace." The Reformed form for the administration of the
Lord’s Supper speaks of our firmly believing that we "belong to this
covenant of grace." The form continues: "Christ confirmed with His death
and shedding of His blood the new and eternal testament, that covenant
of grace and reconciliation."
The covenant is a covenant of grace, or a gracious
covenant, inasmuch as God gives the blessings of the covenant to His
covenant friends out of His own free favor, and only out of free favor.
Also, God establishes and maintains the covenant with a man by His own
saving power—the Holy Spirit—and only by His saving power. The
covenant is not, and cannot be, a covenant of grace if, although it
freely bestows the blessings of salvation, the establishment or
maintenance of the covenant with a man is due to the man’s own
worthiness, or is partially the man’s own accomplishment.
The doctrine of the unconditional, gracious covenant
defends the biblical gospel of unconditional, gracious salvation, which
salvation has its source in unconditional, gracious election. No one can
deny, or does deny, that the covenant aims at the salvation—the
spiritual, everlasting salvation—of men and women and that its
blessings are the forgiveness of sins, holiness, and eternal life. As
salvation is gracious, so is the covenant gracious.
With specific reference to salvation, Ephesians 2:8,
9 teaches: "For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of
yourselves: it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should
With specific reference to the promise of the
covenant and, therefore, to the covenant itself, Romans 4:13-16 teaches
that the promise is not through the law, that is, the works of men, but
"of faith, that it might be by grace."
Opposed to this doctrine of the unconditional
covenant is the teaching that the covenant of God is conditional. This
teaching now prevails in Reformed churches. It is this teaching that
Reformed theologians are currently developing so as to repudiate
justification by faith alone and, thus, the gospel of grace.
The Error of a Conditional Covenant
One of the worst threats to the true church of Christ
in the world since the time of the Reformation is the present
development of covenant doctrine that denies justification by faith
alone. Theologians are working out the implications of the doctrine of a
conditional covenant. They are demonstrating that the doctrine of a
conditional covenant implies conditional justification. The conditions
are faith as a work of man and, therefore, also the good works that
faith performs. Thus is destroyed the whole system of doctrine of
salvation by the sovereign, particular grace of God, contained in the
Reformed and Presbyterian confessions.
This development of covenant doctrine has advocates
in many reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations
in North America. These advocates are prominent men: ministers, ruling
elders, and professors of theology. They are vocal. Unchecked by
discipline, the movement is spreading.
Since the movement is the natural, necessary
development of the doctrine of a conditional covenant, it is necessary
that concerned Reformed Christians know something of the longstanding
controversy in the Reformed churches between the doctrine of an
unconditional covenant and the teaching of a conditional covenant. The
previous chapter sketched the doctrine of the unconditional covenant.
The Conditional Covenant
Opposed to the teaching of the unconditional covenant
is the doctrine of a conditional covenant. This is the doctrine that has
come to prevail in most Reformed and Presbyterian churches today.
Reformed churches and theologians promote this doctrine aggressively.
The last few years have seen a veritable spate of books, articles, and
conferences defending the conditional covenant.
That the covenant is conditional means that the
effectual and lasting establishment of the covenant with a man, a man’s
enjoyment of the saving intention, power, and blessings of the covenant,
and a man’s finally receiving everlasting salvation in and by the
covenant depend on something he himself must do. The covenant depends on
a condition. Traditionally, those who have argued for this covenant
doctrine have identified the condition as faith. The modern defenders of
a conditional covenant agree, but add, as another condition, the good
works that faith performs.
According to the conditional covenant, God on His
part initially establishes His covenant with many more than only those
who are finally saved. He establishes it by a gracious, but conditional,
promise to all. Whether the covenant actually avails to the salvation of
anyone, whether anyone receives the covenant’s blessings, whether the
covenant continues with anyone, whether the covenant has its intended
end in the everlasting salvation of anyone depend squarely upon his
fulfilling the conditions of believing the promise and performing the
good works of faith.
The reference in Reformed circles is especially to
baptized children. The teaching of a conditional covenant maintains that
God makes His covenant with all the children of godly parents alike,
graciously promising His covenant and its salvation to them all. But
promise, covenant, and covenant salvation are conditional. The child
must perform the works of believing and obeying. On this basis, the
promise becomes effectual and the covenant is established in a saving
The "Declaration of Principles"
The Protestant Reformed Churches have formulated and
adopted the doctrine that the covenant of God with His people in Jesus
Christ is unconditional. In 1951, they adopted the doctrinal statement
known as the "Declaration of Principles." Surprisingly, the
"Declaration" does not contain the explicit statement that the covenant
is unconditional, although this was the issue in drawing up the document
and the intent and force of the content of the document. The
"Declaration" declares the covenant to be unconditional by stating that
the covenant promise is unconditionally for the elect children of
This article [Canons of Dordt, II/8] very
clearly teaches: 1. That all the covenant blessings are for the elect
alone. 2. That God’s promise is unconditionally for them only: for God
cannot promise what was not objectively merited by Christ. 3. That the
promise of God bestows the objective right of salvation not upon all
the children that are born under the historical dispensation of the
covenant, that is, not upon all that are baptized, but only upon the
The "Declaration of Principles" goes on to strike a
fatal blow against the teaching that is fundamental to the doctrine of a
conditional covenant, namely, the teaching that faith is a condition:
"Faith is not a prerequisite or condition unto salvation but a gift of
God, and a God-given instrument whereby we appropriate the salvation in
That the covenant of grace is unconditional has been
the stand of the Protestant Reformed Churches from the beginning of
their history, although they did not make the doctrine official church
dogma by synodical decision until 1951. Already in 1927, Herman Hoeksema
wrote a series of articles in the Standard Bearer (later
published as Believers and Their Seed, RFPA, repr. 1997)
explaining and defending the doctrine of the unconditional covenant. The
truth of the unconditional covenant, Hoeksema insisted, is fundamental
to the gospel of grace. Adherence to and development of this doctrine
are fundamental to the existence of the Protestant Reformed Churches. It
was the teaching of a conditional covenant that lay behind the Christian
Reformed Church’s adoption of the doctrine of universal, saving,
resistible grace in the preaching of the gospel--the "well-meant offer
of the gospel"--in the first point of common grace of 1924.
Because the "Declaration of Principles" continues to
draw sharp criticism from Reformed churches and theologians and because
2003 is the fiftieth anniversary of the schism in the Protestant
Reformed Churches over the doctrine of the unconditional covenant, I
want, in passing, to speak a deliberate word in defense of the
First, a denomination of churches has every right,
indeed a solemn duty, to decide doctrinal controversy by binding
synodical decision. The only stipulation is that the churches decide the
controversy on the basis of the Reformed creeds. That the "Declaration"
is synodical appeal to the confessions is plain on the very face of it.
The document is hardly more than an exposition of the "Three Forms of
Unity" and the Reformed form for baptism with regard to the
conditionality or unconditionality of the covenant.
The refusal of Reformed and Presbyterian churches
today to decide doctrinal controversy over creation, eschatology,
marriage, and, of late, justification is not a virtue. This refusal does
not preserve the truth of the Word of God in those churches, nor does it
serve the unity of the churches.
Second, contrary to the repeated charge that the
"Declaration of Principles" adds a new creedal document to the "Three
Forms of Unity"--a fourth confession--the "Declaration" only derives the
truth of the unconditional covenant from the Reformed confessions. The
"Declaration of Principles" applies the theology of the Canons of
Dordt to the doctrine of the covenant.
Third, insofar as the "Declaration" does make
explicit what is implicit in the "Three Forms of Unity, does apply to
the doctrine of the covenant truths that the "Three Forms of Unity"
apply to the gospel of salvation, and does formulate and systematize
concerning the covenant that which is scattered unsystematically
throughout the "Three Forms of Unity," it develops the biblical and
Reformed doctrine of the covenant.
There is legitimate place in the life of Reformed
churches for the development of dogma. Development of dogma is healthy.
The Protestant Reformed Churches do not hesitate to claim that the
Spirit of truth has significantly developed the important doctrine of
the covenant in the theological work of the Protestant Reformed Churches
and in the life of the members of these churches.
Fourth, to the critics who always complain that the
"Declaration" is "extra-confessional binding," I put the question: "What
about the content of the Declaration"? Is the "Declaration" right in its
argument, regardless whether it is "extra-confessional binding"? Is it
right when it contends and claims to demonstrate that the Heidelberg
Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt,
and the Reformed baptism formula teach the unconditional covenant? If
the "Declaration" is wrong about this, show the error. This should not
be difficult. And then demonstrate that the creeds teach a conditional
covenant (the "Declaration of Principles" is included in "The Church
Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches").
Denial of Grace
By the adopted "Declaration," the Protestant Reformed
Churches officially condemn the teaching of a conditional covenant. They
condemn it as nothing less than the denial of the gospel of grace. The
Protestant Reformed Churches charge that the doctrine of a conditional
covenant is the introduction of the Arminian heresy into the theology of
the covenant: conditional salvation; salvation dependent upon the
The Protestant Reformed Churches make this charge
against the doctrine of a conditional covenant even though the
proponents seek to escape the force of the charge by responding that God
must enable the children and others to fulfil the conditions. Even
though it is God who gives men the ability to fulfil the conditions,
the fact remains that, according to the defenders of the conditional
covenant, the covenant with its blessings and salvation depends upon an
act of man. Granted that God gives the power to believe and to perform
good works, the teaching is still that one gets or keeps the covenant,
or renders it effectual, because he believes and because he performs
good works. Man’s faith and obedience are now the cause of the covenant,
not the instrument and fruit.
What makes the charge of the Protestant Reformed
Churches against the conditional covenant even more convincing is that
the conditional covenant teaches that God gives the gracious promise of
the covenant to all alike. The explanation why some enjoy the blessings
of the covenant, and are saved, is not the promise, for the promise is
given to all alike. The explanation is rather that some fulfil the
conditions, without which the promise fails, whereas others do not
fulfil the conditions. The explanation of the realization of the
covenant with a man and of his enjoying the covenant unto life eternal
is not the promising God, but the working man.
The doctrine of a conditional covenant is the
teaching of universal, conditional, resistible, losable grace—universal,
conditional, resistible, losable, saving grace.
The charge of the Protestant Reformed Churches
against the conditional covenant is that it is, in principle, the denial
of all the doctrines of grace. It militates against the entire system of
doctrine contained in the "Three Forms of Unity" and in the
And this is the doctrinal development that is taking
place today. This is the "contemporary debate" regarding the issue
whether the covenant is conditional or unconditional. Prominent
theologians in many of the reputedly conservative Reformed and
Presbyterian churches in North America are attacking the cardinal truths
of salvation by grace alone—all of them—on the basis of the doctrine of
a conditional covenant.
Denial of Justification by Faith Alone
Prominent, influential ministers, professors of
theology, and ruling elders in reputedly conservative Reformed and
Presbyterian churches in North America are openly attacking the cardinal
truths of salvation by grace alone—all of the cardinal truths of
salvation by grace alone—on the basis of the doctrine of a conditional
Central in the contemporary debate is biblical
justification. This is as it should be. Justification, or the
forgiveness of the guilty sinner, is the heart of the gospel of grace.
It is to be expected that enemies of grace will assault the heart. The
doctrine of justification by faith alone is, as Luther taught the
churches of the Reformation, the article of a standing or falling
church. It follows that the churches of the Reformation that now fall do
so by denying the very article in which once in the mercy of Christ they
Justification by the Works of Faith
The distinct, powerful movement now deeply troubling
the true churches of Christ and the saints of God in North America
teaches that justification is by faith and by the good works faith
performs. It appeals to James 2:21 and James 2:25, which teach that
Abraham and Rahab were justified by works and not by faith only. The
movement harmonizes these passages with Paul’s denial in Romans 3 and 4
that we are justified by the deeds of the law by explaining that Paul
and James have two different kinds of works in view. When Paul denies
that we are righteous by good works, he refers exclusively to works done
apart from faith and works intended to merit. James, on the other hand,
affirming justification by good works, refers to the good works that
flow from faith. The truth, therefore, according to this movement, is
that we are in fact righteous before God partly on the basis of our own
good works—our good works that are the fruits of faith.
The righteousness of the guilty sinner, the
righteousness of his justification, the righteousness of his standing
before God in judgment, is, and must be, in part, his own good works!
Insofar as the movement still practices caution in
its teaching of justification by faith and works (and it behooves a
movement that intends to deny justification by faith alone in churches
holding Lord’s Days 23 and 24 of the Heidelberg Catechism and
Articles 21-24 of the Belgic Confession to be as vague,
ambiguous, and slippery, that is, deceptive, as possible, even in our
doctrinally ignorant and apathetic time), the movement is exposed,
unmistakably, by its harmonizing of Paul and James. The movement
immediately raises suspicion by its quick and emphatic appeal to James
in the matter of justification. Every teenage catechumen in a Reformed
church that teaches its youth the essentials of Reformed doctrine knows
that in the great controversy of the Reformation over justification Rome
sat in James 2.
Nevertheless, James 2 is inspired Scripture, not
apocrypha, nor a "right strawy epistle." Appeal to James 2, therefore,
does not in itself expose a teacher, or a movement, as heretical.
Harmonizing Paul and James
What exposes the movement under discussion as
heretical in the article of justification is its harmonizing of James
and Paul by affirming two kinds of works. The orthodox harmonizing of
Romans 3:28 and James 2:20-26 affirms two kinds of justification. As is
evident in the Romans passage itself, justification in Paul is God’s
(legal) reckoning of the obedience of Jesus Christ to the account of the
guilty sinner, the man or woman who in this judgment appears only as one
who is ungodly. Justification in Romans is the forgiveness of sins. This
justification is by means of (not: because of, or on the basis of!)
faith only. The sinner’s own works, whether works before salvation or
after salvation, whether works apart from faith or works produced by
faith, whether works done to merit or works done out of thankfulness,
have nothing whatever to do with his justification, except that all of
them need to be forgiven.
Justification in James 2, by contrast, is the
justified sinner’s exhibition of the truth of his faith and of the
reality of his justification by this true faith alone, both to himself
and to others, by the good works that true faith always performs in
obedience to the command of God. The James passage itself makes plain
that it is speaking of justification in a different sense from that
which justification has in Romans. The passage in James begins this way:
"Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy
faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works" (v.
By insisting that Romans and James both speak of
justification in the same sense, but that they have different kinds of
works in view, the advocates of the movement now disturbing the Reformed
churches "let the cat out of the bag." For them,
justification—justification in the sense of one’s becoming righteous
before God, justification in the sense of the forgiveness of sins—is
partly by and because of the good works of the sinner himself. The
sinner’s righteousness with God is in part his own good works. The
stipulation is that these good works be those that proceed from faith,
not those done apart from faith and in order to merit.
Writing in the Spring 2002 issue of Reformation &
Revival Journal, Norman Shepherd, a leading proponent of the
movement in conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches that
overthrows the system of salvation by grace alone contained in the
"Three Forms of Unity" and in the Westminster Standards, says
this about justification in Romans and James:
As evangelicals we often try to dodge this attack
[of Rome against the Reformation’s confession of justification by
faith alone] by saying that these verses [in James 2] are not talking
about justification by faith in the forensic, soteric sense that Paul
talks about it in Romans and Galatians. The Westminster Confession,
however, does not use this dodge. Instead, the Confession
acknowledges that James is talking about faith and justification in
the same sense that Paul uses these terms when he denies that
justification is by works (p. 80, emphasis added).
This harmonizing of Romans and James commits Shepherd
and his disciples to the doctrine of justification by faith and works.
Shepherd expresses this doctrine as his own in his recent book, The
Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism
(P&R, 2000). With reference to the obedience that God required of Israel
in the Mosaic covenant, obedience consisting of doing God’s
commandments, obedience that Shepherd describes as Israel’s
"obligation," Shepherd writes: "Obedience is simply faithfulness to the
Lord; it is the righteousness of faith (compare Rom. 9:32)" (p. 39,
emphasis added). Later, Shepherd repeats this gross false doctrine: "The
righteousness of faith is the obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5; 16:26), and
is therefore simultaneously covenant privilege and responsibility" (p.
The Obedience of Christ Alone
The truth about the righteousness of faith is that it
is the obedience of Jesus Christ in our stead and on our behalf, and the
obedience of Jesus Christ alone. The truth about the righteousness of
faith is that it is this obedience of Christ imputed to the account of
the guilty sinner through faith alone. The truth about the righteousness
of faith is that it does not consist of any work of the sinner himself,
not his works apart from faith, not his works of faith, and not his
faith itself as a work. The truth about the righteousness of faith is
that as soon as one work of the sinner himself is added to it, be that
work never so small and insignificant, even a weak sigh of sorrow over
sin, the righteousness is no longer the righteousness of faith, but the
sinner’s own righteousness. And both it and he are damned.
"We Heartily Believe ... [the] Doctrine ... in the
There is no excuse for Shepherd. He is a Reformed
minister, bound by Lord’s Days 23 and 24 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
By signing the "Formula of Subscription," he has vowed that he "heartily
believe[s] and [is] persuaded that all the articles and points of
doctrine contained in the ... Catechism of the Reformed Churches ... do
fully agree with the Word of God." There is no excuse for Reformed
people deceived by Shepherd and his allies. They know, or ought to know,
Lord’s Days 23 and 24 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Q. 59. But what doth it profit thee now that thou
believest all this?
A. That I am righteous in Christ, before God, and an heir of eternal
Q. 60. How art thou righteous before God?
A. Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience
accuse me that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of
God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil;
notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere
grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction,
righteousness, and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had
nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that
obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace
such benefit with a believing heart.
Q. 61. Why sayest thou that thou art righteous by faith only?
A. Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my
faith, but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness
of Christ, is my righteousness before God; and that I cannot receive
and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only.
Q. 62. But why cannot our good works be the whole or part of our
righteousness before God?
A. Because that the righteousness which can be approved of before the
tribunal of God must be absolutely perfect, and in all respects
conformable to the divine law; and also, that our best works in this
life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.
Justification by faith alone—heart of the gospel,
article of the standing or falling church, precious comfort of poor
sinners in the daily judgment of this life and regarding the final
judgment to come, grand testimony to the worth of the life and death of
the Saviour, doctrine that glorifies the triune God, who worked out His
own righteousness in the obedience of Jesus Christ and who magnifies His
marvellous mercy in imputing this righteousness to His own for Christ’s
Attacked and denied today in Reformed and
On the basis of a conditional covenant!
Denial of All the Doctrines of Grace
Those developing the doctrine of a conditional
covenant in reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches
today are not content to attack only the truth of justification. This
would be impossible. Justification by faith alone is the heart of the
gospel of salvation by the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Destruction of the heart is the death of the whole body of the truth.
Justification by faith alone is the central element of the Reformed
system of theology as expressed in the "Three Forms of Unity" and in the
Westminster Standards. Denial of justification by faith alone is
necessarily rejection of the entire system of salvation by grace. This
becomes evident in the contemporary development of a conditional
covenant that denies justification by faith alone. Young as the movement
is, it already lays unholy hands on every one of the confessional
doctrines of sovereign grace.
The doctrine of the atonement of Christ is corrupted.
This is necessarily the case. Such is the relation of justification and
the cross that if justification is not God’s saving act imputing to the
believer the obedience of Christ, neither was the cross God’s imputation
to Christ of the disobedience of the elect. Those who are attacking the
confessional teaching of justification by faith alone are also denying
that the death of Christ was satisfaction by the substitute to the
justice of God.
N. T. Wright, who, although not himself Reformed, is
extremely influential with those in the reputedly conservative Reformed
churches attacking justification by faith alone, has stated his
opposition to the creedal doctrine of the death of Christ as
satisfaction. To teach that God punished Jesus Christ in the place of
His guilty people is a "crude theory."
It is therefore true to Paul to speak of the
punishment which all have deserved being enacted, instead, on the
cross. But Paul has here nuanced this view in two ways which distance
it from the cruder theories made familiar in some branches of
theology. First, he is careful to say that on the cross God punished
(not Jesus, but) "sin." ... Second, his argument functions within the
whole matrix of thought according to which the death of Jesus can be
interpreted in this way because he represents Israel and Israel
represents humankind as a whole (N. T. Wright, The Climax of the
Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, Fortress Press,
1991, p. 213).
There is a second way in which the movement within
the Reformed churches attacking justification by faith alone corrupts
the creedal doctrine of the atonement. The movement is teaching
universal atonement. The reader will have noted in the citation from N.
T. Wright that the Anglican theologian, in addition to rejecting the
doctrine of satisfaction, teaches that Christ died for all "humankind."
Earlier, Wright was even clearer in his advocacy of Christ’s death for
all without exception:
God has deliberately given the Torah [Law] to be
the means of concentrating the sin of humankind in one place, namely,
in his people, Israel--in order that it might then be concentrated yet
further, drawn together on to Israel’s representative, the Messiah--in
order that it might there be dealt with once and for all.
This doctrine of the death of Christ somehow dealing
with the sin of all men is, says Wright, "one of Paul’s central themes"
and "the most significant point to be made about Paul and the law in
current debate" (The Climax of the Covenant, p. 196).
The Reformed theologians who are calling the doctrine
of justification by faith alone into question likewise proclaim
universal atonement. Having criticized the "Calvinist" interpretation of
John 3:16 that insists the "saving love of God revealed in the atonement
is only for the elect," Shepherd boldly declares, "The Reformed
evangelist can and must preach to everyone on the basis of John 3:16,
‘Christ died to save you’" (The Call of Grace, pp. 84, 85).
Presbyterian theologian John M. Frame confirms this
analysis of Shepherd’s teaching. In his recent book, The Doctrine of
God, Frame criticizes "some Calvinists" who hesitate to say to all
unbelievers "God loves you, for they think that God loves only the
elect." (These Calvinists are so very few in number that I am surprised
Frame takes up space in criticizing them. No doubt their error is
grievous, a radical departure from the Reformed standards. Nevertheless,
I notice Frame does not so much as refer to a single article in the
creeds that these erring Calvinists violate. Surely the offense of this
handful of Calvinists is not that they stray from the canons of Frame
rather than from the Canons of Dordt?)
Frame announces that the reprobates "experience the
love of God—real love." "On the basis of John 3:16 [and here we move in
the sphere of the doctrine of the atonement of Christ: ‘God so loved the
world, that he gave his only begotten Son’—DJE], we can also say, ‘God
loves you’" to unbelieving reprobates. Especially did God love all
without distinction in Old Testament Israel. By implication, especially
does God love all without distinction in the visible church of the New
In Deuteronomy 7, Moses tells the people of Israel
that God "set his affection on" them (v. 7) and "loved" them (v. 8;
cf. 4:37; 10:15; 23:5; 33:3; Ps. 44:3; Jer. 31:3; Hos. 11:1; Mal.
1:2), even though there have been, are, and will be unbelievers within
Israel. His covenant with them is a "covenant of love" (v. 12). The
prophets tell the people about God’s love in order to motivate their
The force of Frame’s doctrine of the covenant love of
God for all without exception in Israel and in the visible church can be
appreciated only by reading all of the texts he adduces and applying
them to every single Israelite and to every single member of the visible
church. God loved, elected, kept His covenant oath to, redeemed,
blessed, saved, showed His favour to, drew to Himself in lovingkindness,
and called out of Egypt all Israelites without exception. All of this
rich, saving covenant love, God now lavishes on every member of the
visible church without exception. But on Frame’s own admission some
perish, God’s love and Christ’s death notwithstanding.
We cannot refrain: What does this teaching do to the
doctrines of grace? What is left of a certain election unto glory; of an
effectual redemption; of an irresistible, effectual grace; of the
perseverance of saints? What of Paul’s ringing affirmation in Romans 9:6
precisely with regard to the perishing of many Israelites: "Not as
though the word of God hath taken none effect"?
But where did Frame learn this universal covenant
love of God with its death of Christ for all who are born in the sphere
of the covenant? He tells us in a footnote: "Thanks to Norman Shepherd
for suggesting this point to me" (John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God,
P&R, 2002, pp. 418, 419).
The reason for universal atonement in the case of
Shepherd and his supporters is their doctrine of a conditional covenant.
According to them, God makes the covenant with many more than those who
are finally saved in and by it. It may even prove to be their doctrine
that God has established His covenant, conditionally, with all men
without exception. We shall see. The movement is disclosing itself and
developing as we write and read. But the covenant is grounded in and
confirmed by the death of Christ. As the Canons of Dordt teach,
"Christ by the blood of the cross ... confirmed the new covenant"
(II/8). If now, as Shepherd and those who share his doctrine of the
covenant hold, God makes His covenant of grace with many more than only
the elect, Christ must have died for many more than only the elect. And
this is what they are openly teaching.
There is a special instance of the necessary
connection between a universal, conditional covenant and the teaching of
universal atonement in the case of the baptized children of believing
parents. Both the Heidelberg Catechism, in Question and Answer
74, and the Reformed "Form for the Administration of Baptism" affirm
that God’s making of the covenant of grace with someone, and thus his
inclusion in this covenant, which is the meaning of baptism, is based on
the redemption of the cross. If at baptism the covenant is established
with all the children of believers alike, conditionally of course,
Christ must have died for all the physical children alike, those who
eventually perish as well as those who are finally saved. And this is
what the conditional covenant people are openly teaching.
The enemies of justification by faith alone in
reputedly Reformed churches assail election. Especially do they assail
election. The intimate relation between justification by faith alone and
election is evident in Romans 8:33: "Who shall lay any thing to the
charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth." God’s justifying of a
sinner by faith alone, which faith is God’s gift to the sinner, is
purely gracious salvation. It has, and can only have, its source and
explanation in God’s election of that sinner. The justified sinner may
and must know himself, not only forgiven and saved, but also elected in
But if, on the contrary, justification depends
squarely upon the sinner’s own work of faith, as a condition he must
fulfil, and upon the good works the sinner performs by his faith,
election—biblical, creedal election—is an embarrassment.
The teaching about election that prevails among those
presently attacking justification by faith alone is that election must
be buried in oblivion. Election is the great irrelevancy. It is
irrelevant to the covenant. It is irrelevant to evangelism (that is, the
preaching of the gospel). It is irrelevant to the Christian life
(regeneration). It is the main purpose of Norman Shepherd’s The Call
of Grace to cut the covenant, evangelism, and regeneration loose
from election. For all practical purposes, there is no eternal,
sovereign election. Election is buried in the tomb of the first head of
the Canons of Dordt. Not only is election useless, it is highly
dangerous and detrimental. Among other problems it has caused for the
Reformed over the past four hundred years, according to Shepherd, the
doctrine of election is the cause of the failure of Reformed missions to
gather multitudes into the church.
As though election accompanied by an equally eternal,
sovereign reprobation is not the apostle’s explanation in Romans 9-11 of
the saving of only the remnant in Old Testament Israel!
As though Christ’s evangelistic message in John 6 is
not "oriented" to election (see vv. 37, 39)!
As though the Canons of Dordt in heads three
and four do not relate regeneration to election!
At the same time that the doctrine of a sovereign
decree cutting through the sphere of the covenant and controlling
evangelism is consigned to oblivion, the advocates of a conditional
covenant are explaining the outstanding texts on election, for example,
Ephesians 1:4, as teaching a choice of God that depends on the sacrament
of baptism, on men’s faith, and on men’s obedience and that includes
both those who are finally saved and those who will eventually perish.
This is the meaning of their urgent admonition that the Reformed
henceforth view election in the light of the covenant.
This view of election points to yet another assault
on the doctrines of sovereign grace by those advocating a conditional
covenant and denying justification by faith alone. They reject the
doctrine of the perseverance of saints. One can lose his justification.
One can lose his election. One can go lost even though he has been
incorporated into Christ. At the public 2002 Pastors’ Conference at the
Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Monroe, Louisiana, John
Barach, minister in the United Reformed Churches, said:
God gave them [those in the sphere of the covenant
who fall away and perish everlastingly--reprobates] genuine promises
that are just as real, just as dependable, and just as trustworthy as
the promises He gave to people who do persevere to the end. He gave
them real promises of salvation. He united them to Christ in whom
alone there is salvation, and they themselves really rejected it
because they didn’t receive the promises mixed with faith.
Implied in the teaching of justification by faith and
works is the rejection of the Reformed doctrines of sin and total
depravity. If our good works are part of our righteousness with God,
they cannot be defiled with sin, as the Heidelberg Catechism
teaches they are, in Question and Answer 62: "Our best works in this
life are all imperfect and defiled with sin." In the words of the
Catechism, "The righteousness which can be approved of before the
tribunal of God must be absolutely perfect and in all respects
conformable to the divine law." We can expect that the contemporary
defenders of justification by faith and works will deny that the good
works of Christians are "defiled with sin." The alternative is to deny
the perfection of God.
But total depravity itself must go by the board.
Making justification dependent on faith and faith’s works as conditions
requires that the sinner produce faith of himself, by his own free will.
The sinner must do something of himself, not only to earn in the
theology of Rome, but also to make the general promise effectual, keep
himself in the universal covenant, and obtain for himself the offered
salvation in the theology of a conditional covenant. What the sinner
must do of himself is believe, and he must believe with a faith that
Norman Shepherd shows, with perfect clarity, that
this monstrous error is the heart of his covenant doctrine: "These are
the two parts of the covenant: grace and faith, promise and obligation"
(The Call of Grace, p. 63). Faith lines up with obligation; grace
lines up with promise. Faith is not of grace: "grace and faith." Faith
is man’s work--"obligation," a condition. And God’s gracious promise
depends squarely upon the sinner’s work of faith.
"Vilifying the Doctrine of the Reformed Churches"
So far has the opposition to the gospel of salvation
by sovereign grace alone gone in reputedly Reformed circles that Steven
M. Schlissel, for many years a favourite of the United Reformed men,
long-time columnist for Christian Renewal, and prominent
representative of the contemporary movement attacking justification by
faith alone, rails against the Reformed confession of the five great
truths that constitute the essence of the gospel of grace, that is, the
Christian religion: Scripture alone; Christ alone; grace alone; faith
alone; the glory of God alone. Christian Renewal reported that Schlissel
told a large audience commemorating Reformation Day at Redeemer College,
"Christ is the issue in the New Testament, not some abstract doctrine,
or abstract solas [Latin for "only" as in "by faith only"—DJE], but
Christ Himself" (Nov. 12, 2001, p. 9).
Defending his railing against the doctrines of the
gospel of grace, Schlissel savaged the Reformed confession and demeaned
the grand doctrines (for which scores of thousands of my Dutch ancestors
gave their life’s blood): "‘Does the Lord delight in the solas as much
as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the systems of men [sic!].’ ‘Do not trust in
deceptive words and say, "The solas of the Reformation, The solas of the
Reformation, The solas of the Reformation."’ Rather, God says, ‘Change
your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly’ (cf.
Jeremiah 7)" (Christian Renewal, Jan. 28, 2002, pp. 4-6).
Schlissel is guilty of what the "Conclusion" of the
Canons of Dordt calls "violently assailing, or even vilifying, the
doctrine of the Reformed churches."
This wholesale assault on the doctrines of sovereign
grace presents itself as a development of covenant doctrine. The men
responsible like to call their movement one of "covenant consciousness."
And this is what it is.
The consciousness and development of the doctrine of
a conditional covenant.
Back to Rome
The movement in conservative Reformed and
Presbyterian churches that teaches justification by faith and faith’s
works leads back to the Roman Catholic Church. The gospel-truth of
justification by faith alone as the core of the body of doctrines that
teach salvation by the grace of God alone is the fundamental difference
between the true church of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church. For
Protestant theologians and churches to give up justification by faith
alone is to make the eventual return to Rome a certainty, indeed, a
Wright and Rome
Already at this early stage of the development of the
movement, there are clear signals that the end of the movement is Roman
Catholicism. N. T. Wright, whose influence on the movement in
conservative Reformed churches should not be underestimated, makes no
secret of it, that the main implication of the new understanding of
justification is ecumenicity and that this ecumenicity embraces Rome.
Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith impels
the churches, in their current fragmented state, into the ecumenical
task. It cannot be right that the very doctrine which declares that
all who believe in Jesus belong at the same table (Galatians 2) should
be used as a way of saying that some, who define the doctrine of
justification differently, belong at a different table. The doctrine
of justification, in other words, is not merely a doctrine which
Catholic and Protestant might just be able to agree on, as a result of
hard ecumenical endeavour. It is itself the ecumenical doctrine, the
doctrine that rebukes all our petty and often culture-bound church
groupings, and which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong
together in the one family.... The doctrine of justification is in
fact the great ecumenical doctrine (What Saint Paul Really Said:
Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Eerdmans,
1997, p. 158).
The doctrine of justification that Wright has in
mind, however, is not the teaching of the imputation of Christ’s
righteousness to the guilty sinner by means of faith alone, as confessed
by the churches of the Reformation in their creeds.
Shepherd and Rome
The same distinct leaning towards Rome appears in the
defenders of the doctrine of justification by faith and the works of
faith in conservative Reformed circles. Norman Shepherd laments that
there are "unresolved questions" remaining "that are really the legacy
of the Protestant Reformation" (The Call of Grace, p. 4). These
unresolved questions have to do with the doctrine of justification and
include Reformed weaknesses regarding man’s responsibility and the
importance of works.
Ominously, Shepherd states that his doctrine of a
conditional covenant, with its essential element of justification by
faith and faith’s works, offers "hope for a common understanding between
Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism regarding the way of
salvation" (The Call of Grace, p. 59). Although Rome is called to
give up its notion of merit, that false church is not required to repent
of its doctrine of justification by faith and works as denial of the
gospel of grace. Nor is she rebuked for her heretical explanation of
Romans 3, 4 and James 2.
Rome in Their Heart
Even though these defenders of justification by faith
and faith’s works are still in Reformed churches, Rome is in their
heart. Shepherd takes Rome’s side against Luther’s translation of Romans
3:28 by means of the word "alone":
Luther inserted the word "alone" into his
translation of Romans 3:28 to make it read "For we hold that one is
justified by faith alone apart from works of the law." This is the
origin of the dogmatic formula, justification by faith alone. However,
his insertion actually distorts Paul’s meaning ("Justification by
Faith Alone," in Reformation & Revival Journal, Spring 2002, p.
The clear and necessary implication of Shepherd’s
rejection of Luther’s "only," of course, is that one is not justified by
faith alone. Rather, as Rome has always taught, one is justified by
faith and by works of some sort, though not "works of the law."
Shepherd fears, no doubt sincerely, that the
Reformation’s proclamation of justification by faith alone, without any
reference to any works of the justified sinner, risks, if it does not
imply, antinomism (The Call of Grace, pp. 6-9, 61, 62). The
gospel of salvation by grace alone makes men careless and profane! The
way to guard against this antinomian carelessness of life, according to
Shepherd, is by teaching that justification also depends upon the
sinner’s own works, by bringing the sinner’s own obedience to the law
into the doctrine of justification, and by stressing that the covenant
is indeed conditional, depending upon the sinner’s own faith, works of
faith, and perseverance in faith and its works. That is, the way to
promote a holy life is by compromising the gospel of grace.
Do these men not remember that the charge of
carelessness and profanity of life, that is, antinomism, was always
Rome’s slander against the Reformation gospel of grace? Rome raised the
slander especially against the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
(In light of Rome’s foul life, clergy and people, then and today, the
slander is as ludicrous as it is wicked, but this was Rome’s charge,
nevertheless.) Having confessed justification by faith alone (accepting
and confirming Luther’s "alone" in Romans 3:28!) in Questions and
Answers 59-63, the Heidelberg Catechism
confronts Rome’s slander—and Norman Shepherd’s fear—head-on in
Question and Answer 64: "But doth not this doctrine make men careless
and profane? By no means; for it is impossible that those who are
implanted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of
The Catechism does not respond to the charge—and
fear—of antinomism by qualifying, hedging on, pulling back from, or
weakening in any way, that is, denying, the truth of justification by
faith alone. In view of the charge—and real danger—of antinomism, the
Catechism does not speak of "unresolved questions" concerning
justification and good works that are "the legacy of the Protestant
Reformation." The Catechism does not safeguard good works by making them
partly the basis of God’s act of justifying and partly the righteousness
of the justified sinner.
The Catechism’s response to the charge of antinomism
is radically different from that of Norman Shepherd and his fellow
critics of justification by faith alone in conservative Reformed
churches today. The Catechism flatly denies the charge and dismisses the
fear. "By no means!" The doctrine of justification by faith alone does
not make men careless and profane. It has never made one human being
careless and profane. It never will. Careless and profane men have
abused the doctrine to serve their licentious lives. But the doctrine is
The truth of justification by faith alone cannot make
anyone careless and profane. "It is impossible" that it should do so.
Reformed men and women, who do not have Rome’s theology in their hearts,
have this robust confidence concerning the doctrine of justification by
faith alone. Justification by faith alone cannot produce antinomism
because the true faith that alone justifies, as sole instrument of
receiving the imputed righteousness of Christ, is union with Christ.
Union with Christ must produce a holy life of good works in every one
who is united with Christ, as a branch of a living tree must bring forth
These good works are "fruits of thankfulness." In
light of the charge by the foes of justification by faith alone that the
doctrine makes men careless and profane, the Catechism’s description of
the good works of the believer is extraordinarily significant. The
charge, of course, is intended to force the Reformed churches to make
good works the basis, in part, of justification, and part of a sinner’s
righteousness with God.
The Catechism will have nothing of this, antinomism
or no antinomism. The good works of the believer are not conditions
required for justification. They are "fruits" produced by and following
justification. The good works of the believer are not the basis of
justification, nor are they the believer’s righteousness with God. They
are expressions of "thankfulness" for the gift of justification. The
sole basis of justification is Christ’s obedience in His life and death.
The only obedience to the law that constitutes the righteousness of the
elect, believing sinner is the obedience of Christ in his stead.
The charge against the doctrine of justification by
faith alone that it is antinomian exposes those making the charge as
enemies of the gospel of grace. Always the confession of salvation by
grace alone is met with the charge that this doctrine denies man’s
responsibility and leads to carelessness of life.
Having taught that our unrighteousness commends the
righteousness of God, the apostle takes note of the slanderous charge
against him, that he taught "Let us do evil, that good may come" (Rom.
Having taught righteousness by faith alone, apart
from works of obedience to the law, Paul asks, "Do we then make void the
law through faith?" evidently referring to the charge against his
doctrine (Rom. 3:31).
At the end of the great section in Romans in which he
has taught justification by faith alone and its basis in the obedience
of Christ, the apostle confronts the common objection to his teaching of
grace: "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may
abound?" (Rom. 6:1)
It is an unmistakable mark of the true gospel of
grace that it draws the charge of antinomism. The charge itself assures
the church that she is preaching the gospel of grace. If the charge of
antinomism is not levelled against a church’s teaching, the reason is
that the church is not preaching grace.
How many churches today, Reformed in name and formal
confession, are ever charged with doctrinal antinomism?
Who would ever think of charging the
justification-doctrine of Norman Shepherd and his allies with
antinomism? So full is their doctrine of conditions, law, and human
works that it is simply inconceivable that anyone would ever think of
saying, "You make void the law through faith! It is the implication of
your doctrine that justified sinners continue in sin that grace may
A Hindrance to Evangelistic Preaching
Just as the proponents of justification by faith and
faith’s works in conservative Reformed circles today share Rome’s
antipathy to justification by faith alone as a licentious doctrine, so
do they also agree with Rome and Arminianism that the "five points of
Calvinism" make evangelistic preaching impossible. The theology of the
Canons of Dordt is a hindrance, not only to evangelism and missions,
but also to assuring members of the congregation of their salvation.
Norman Shepherd charges that election stands in the
way of bringing the good news to all and sundry. "Because the Calvinist
has an accomplished redemption that is particular in scope though always
effective for the elect, he cannot apply it to particular persons."
Believing limited atonement, the Calvinistic pastor is not even able to
"cultivate a hearty assurance in this or that believer, because he does
not know for certain whether that person is one of the elect."
The result of the theology of Dordt, according to
Shepherd, is the horrendous evil that "Calvinists tend to be more
successful at preaching sin, condemnation, and death than at preaching
the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" (The Call of Grace, pp.
Why these men remain in Reformed and Presbyterian
churches, which have this theology as their official, confessional
understanding of the gospel in the Canons of Dordt and the
Westminster Confession, is a mystery. For my part, the day I was
convinced that the doctrines of grace in the Canons of Dordt
cannot be preached, restrict me to preaching "sin, condemnation, and
death" rather than "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ," and make it
impossible for me to apply the gospel personally to everyone whom I
address, on that day I would renounce the Reformed faith and take my
leave of the Reformed churches. With trumpets blaring, to warn all that
the Reformed faith is a false gospel!
Shepherd’s solution to the problem of the woeful
insufficiency of the "five points of Calvinism" for evangelism and
personal application of the gospel is universal, conditional election;
universal, conditional atonement; and universal, conditional
regeneration. All in the name of a conditional covenant! (The Call of
Grace, pp. 79-105). Never mind that the Canons expressly
reject all of these teachings as grievous false doctrine! The doctrine
of a conditional covenant trumps the Canons of Dordt.
Back into Bondage
The teaching of justification by faith and faith’s
works by these prominent, influential Reformed and Presbyterian
professors and ministers has practical consequences. It leads
impressionable Presbyterian and Reformed souls back to the bondage of
the Roman Catholic Church. That this is no idle fear, but grim reality,
has been testified by one such impressionable former Presbyterian, Scott
Hahn fell away to the Roman Catholic Church, for
which he is now an apologist to other Presbyterians. In his and his
wife’s book recounting their apostasy, Hahn tells the world how Norman
Shepherd encouraged him in his conversion to Rome. By his own studies,
Hahn discovered that the Protestant and Presbyterian doctrine of
justification by faith alone was wrong. "Sola fide [by faith alone—DJE]
was unscriptural!" Hahn continues:
I was so excited about this discovery. I shared it
with some friends, who were amazed at how much sense it [Hahn’s belief
of justification by faith and works—DJE] made. Then one friend
stopped me and asked if I knew who else was teaching this way on
justification. When I responded that I didn’t, he told me that Dr.
Norman Shepherd, a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary ...
was about to undergo a heresy trial for teaching the same view of
justification that I was expounding. So I called Professor Shepherd
and talked with him. He said he was accused of teaching something
contrary to the teachings of Scripture, Luther and Calvin. As I heard
him describe what he was teaching, I thought, Hey, that is what I’m
saying. Now this might not seem like much of a crisis to many, but for
somebody steeped in Protestantism and convinced that Christianity
turned on the hinge of sola fide, it meant the world (Scott and
Kimberly Hahn, Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism,
Ignatius, 1993, p. 31).
Yes, and it meant the souls of Scott and Kimberly
Rejection of justification by faith alone, criticism
of all the doctrines of grace, and a turning toward the Roman Catholic
Church—this is the movement now firmly embedded, and spreading, in
many of the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North
Its basis is the doctrine of a conditional covenant.
Contemporary Development of a Conditional Covenant
What is truly significant about the movement we are
considering is not that there is widespread denial of justification by
faith alone in reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian
churches. Neither is it that those denying justification by faith alone
openly align themselves with the Roman Catholic Church. Such apostasy
from the faith, gross as it is, has occurred before.
The significance of the movement presently corrupting
the gospel of grace in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, in an
open, deliberate manner, is that it presents itself as a consistent
development of the doctrine of a conditional covenant. The movement
attacks the system of doctrine contained in the Canons of Dordt and in
the Westminster Standards--Calvinism--on the basis of a conditional
A New Emphasis on the Covenant
The movement emphasizes the biblical covenant. The
men who spearhead the movement charge both Rome and evangelicalism with
ignoring the covenant in their theology. But Presbyterian and Reformed
churches, they allege, have also failed to do justice to the covenant in
their doctrine of salvation and in their work of evangelism. This
emphasis on the covenant makes the movement attractive to Reformed and
Presbyterian church members, who are generally aware of the importance
of the covenant in Reformed thinking.
The sub-title of Norman Shepherd’s defense of
justification by faith and works, and assault on all the doctrines of
grace, The Call of Grace, is: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and
Evangelism. The content of the book is a reexamination of the entire way
of salvation and of the message and method of evangelism in light of the
biblical doctrine of the covenant. Shepherd exhorts the Reformed
community, "We need to learn to think covenantally" (p. 63).
There very definitely is relation between the
movement now devastating the gospel of grace in conservative Reformed
circles and the "new perspective on Paul" associated with E. P. Sanders,
James D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright. For Wright at any rate, who is the
most influential of these men on evangelical and Reformed theologians,
covenant is the basic truth. Wright justifies his rejection of the
Reformation’s understanding of righteousness in Paul and his own new
understanding of righteousness by appeal to the doctrine of the
covenant: "Though it is unfashionable to use covenantal categories in
interpreting Paul, I believe ... that they are actually central" (The
Climax of the Covenant, p. 203).
Development of a Conditional Covenant
But the doctrine of the covenant that spawns the
teaching of justification by faith and works in reputedly conservative
Reformed churches today is that of a conditional covenant. According to
Norman Shepherd the biblical covenant, which is fundamental to the
entire way of salvation and to the message and method of evangelism, is
conditional. It was conditional in the form it had as the covenant with
We ought to ask whether the covenant that
God made with Abraham really was, in fact, unconditional. Would the
promises be fulfilled irrespective of any response on the part of
Abraham and his children? The biblical record shows that conditions
were, indeed, attached to the fulfillment of the promises made to
These conditions included Abraham’s act of
circumcising himself and his children, Abraham’s believing, and
Abraham’s obedience of life. It is Shepherd’s teaching that "the
promises made to Abraham were fulfilled only as the conditions of the
covenant were met" (The Call of Grace, pp. 13-20).
Also as the new covenant, fulfilled in Jesus Christ,
the covenant is conditional. Although in the new covenant God graciously
promises many blessings, "at the same time, faith, repentance,
obedience, and perseverance are indispensable to the enjoyment of these
blessings. They are conditions..." (The Call of Grace, p. 50).
In view of the fundamental importance of a
conditional covenant for the new Calvinistic doctrine of justification
by faith and works, Presbyterian and Reformed theologians are labouring
mightily to prove that John Calvin and other Reformed fathers taught a
conditional covenant. Noble Reformed scholarship is now forced into the
ignoble service of the lie of self-salvation. This enslaved scholarship
discovers that John Calvin, as a conditional theologian, differed from
Martin Luther in the essential Reformation doctrine of justification by
faith alone. Wonderful to relate, Calvin was open to, if he did not
teach, justification by faith and the works of faith (see Peter A.
Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of
Covenant Theology, Baker, 2001).
Logical Development of a Conditional Covenant
The prominent, powerful movement in reputedly
conservative Reformed churches today rejecting justification by faith
alone and with this doctrine all the doctrines of grace is a movement of
"covenant consciousness." It advertises itself as a development of the
doctrine of a conditional covenant. And, in fact, it is a genuine,
logical, necessary development of the doctrine of a conditional
covenant. For the first time in the history of Reformed Christianity,
defenders of a conditional covenant are themselves acknowledging, indeed
proclaiming, that a universal, conditional (breakable) covenant implies
universal, conditional (losable) justification; universal, conditional
(losable) election; universal, conditional (losable) atonement;
universal, conditional (losable) regeneration; and universal,
conditional (losable) preservation. In a word, the doctrine of a
universal, conditional covenant implies universal, conditional
It does so in at least three ways.
First, the doctrine of a conditional covenant
maintains that faith is a condition. By "condition," it does not mean
what some of the earlier Reformed theologians meant by "condition": a
necessary means by which God bestows His salvation upon the elect
sinner, without which God does not save the elect sinner, and which God
Himself works within the heart of the elect sinner. But the conditional
covenant means by "condition" an act of the sinner himself upon which
the covenant promise, the covenant itself as regards its continuance and
final perfection, if not its establishment, all the covenant blessings,
and the covenant God Himself depend.
In what must be the rankest statement of faith as a
condition ever by a Reformed theologian, Norman Shepherd has written:
Thus, the promises made to Abraham had to be
believed if they were to be fulfilled. We must not discount faith as a
condition to be met for the fulfillment of promise. In fact, Genesis
15:6 says that Abraham’s faith was so significant that it was credited
to him as righteousness! If so, then righteousness was a condition to
be met, and faith met that condition (The Call of Grace, p.
According to Shepherd, faith is the act of the
sinner. Upon it depends the promise of God. As such, the act of
believing is itself the sinner’s righteousness. Not the obedience of
Jesus Christ for Abraham is Abraham’s righteousness by imputation. But
Abraham’s own believing is his righteousness.
The conditional covenant regards faith as a condition
in precisely the sense the Canons of Dordt have in mind when they
reject the error of making faith a condition, not only of election but
also of salvation (I, Rejection of Errors/3, 5; I/10). The conditional
covenant refuses to view faith, with the Belgic Confession, as
"only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness ...
an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits"
The defenders of a conditional covenant are always
speaking of our being and remaining in the covenant, our being
justified, and our being saved, "because of faith," or "on the basis of
faith." In his explanation of Romans 3:24-26, N. T. Wright says,
"Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future
justification will affirm publicly ... on the basis of the entire life (What
Saint Paul Really Said, p. 129; emphasis added). Scripture, however,
only speaks of our being justified "through," that is, "by means of,"
faith, or "out of faith," as instrument, or source (Rom. 3:28; 5:1).
If faith is a condition of the covenant and all its
blessings, including justification, faith is a human work. It is a human
work upon which God’s gracious work depends, regardless of the denial
that this work is meritorious. Faith is a human work that contributes to
one’s salvation, contributes greatly to one’s salvation. Justification,
which like the covenant depends upon the sinner’s faith as a condition,
is by human work—the human work of believing. But if faith itself is
a human work, upon which righteousness with God depends, all of the good
works that flow from faith should also be viewed as conditions of
righteousness and salvation, indeed as part of the sinner’s
righteousness with God. Thus, the contemporary heresy of justification
by faith and the works of faith is really only the natural development
of the doctrine dear to a conditional covenant, namely, that faith is a
In keeping with their view of faith as a condition,
defenders of a conditional covenant are averse to acknowledging faith as
the gracious gift of God--fruit and effect of election (Canons,
I/9); purchased by the death of Christ (Canons, II/7); and
actually "conferred, breathed, and infused into" the elect, both as
regards "the will to believe and the act of believing also" (Canons,
III, IV/14). Norman Shepherd repeatedly insists that the covenant
demands faith. He refuses to say that the covenant gives faith, as
indeed it also gives obedience (Jer. 31:31-34).
Contemporary Development of a Conditional Covenant
The movement in conservative Reformed churches
denying not only justification by faith alone but also all the doctrines
of grace is, as it claims, a development of the doctrine of a
One way the doctrine of a conditional covenant
implies justification by works is its teaching that faith is a condition
upon which the covenant, the covenant blessings, and the covenant God
Himself depend. Faith itself is a human work contributing to covenant
salvation. It is a short, logical, and inevitable step to teach that
also the works of faith are conditions and, therefore, part of the
sinner’s righteousness with God. This was the subject of the previous
Liberating the Covenant from Election
A second way in which the doctrine of a conditional
covenant necessarily implies the denial of the gospel of salvation by
sovereign grace is the conditional covenant’s adamant refusal to have
the covenant determined and controlled by election. Defenders of a
conditional covenant state this refusal in a misleading way: "The
covenant is not to be identified with election." In fact, no theologian
or church has ever been so doctrinally dense as to identify covenant and
election. What they mean, of course, is that election, accompanied by
reprobation, does not determine who they are with whom the covenant is
personally and everlastingly established. Neither does election
determine the recipients of the blessings of the covenant. Nor does
election determine who are saved in and by the covenant.
The accurate—and honest—way of expressing their
position would be, "The covenant with its blessings and salvation is
outside the sovereign control of predestination." Or, "the blessings and
salvation of the covenant are broader, much broader, than election." Or,
"the grace of God in the covenant is universal, whereas the grace of
election is particular."
The question that the liberators of the covenant from
election never answer is, "Whose will then does control and determine
A covenant liberated from election necessarily
extends the covenant grace of God in Christ to many more than those only
who are finally saved by this grace, posits a death of Christ for many
members of the covenant who perish in the end, and allows for the
falling away of many who were once united to Christ by covenant grace.
These implications of the doctrine of a conditional covenant are boldly
proclaimed today as a new orthodoxy for Reformed churches.
That the covenant is determined by election is the
apostle’s teaching in Galatians 3:16, 29:
Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made.
He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one. And to thy
seed, which is Christ.
And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed,
and heirs according to the promise.
God established His covenant by promise with Christ
personally, who is the elect, and in Him with those who are Christ’s,
that is, all those whom the Father gave to Christ in the decree of
election (John 17:6ff.).
On this biblical basis, to the utter confounding of
all the Presbyterians who join in the hue-and-cry that "the covenant is
not to be identified with election" the Westminster Larger Catechism
declares that "the covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second
Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed" (Q. and A. 31). This is
clear. This is decisive. This is the truth. And this is authoritative
for all Presbyterian officebearers.
Christ is the head of the covenant of grace, as the
comparison between Adam and Christ in Romans 5:12ff. implies.
"Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin;
and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned ... Therefore
as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation;
even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto
justification of life" (Rom. 5:12, 18). If Christ is the head of the
covenant, then the establishment of the covenant, the blessings of the
covenant, and the salvation of the covenant are determined by election.
It is precisely the point of the apostle in Romans
9:6ff. that God’s covenant salvation in the Old Testament had its source
in, and was determined by, God’s election. God’s covenant mercy was
particular: "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy" (v. 15). It
was freely bestowed only on the children of the promise, who alone were
counted by God for the seed of Abraham: "The children of the promise are
counted for the seed" (v. 8). And the children of the promise, that is,
those descendants of Abraham to whom alone the promise was given and who
were begotten spiritually by the power of the promise, were determined
by election (vv. 10-18).
Whenever in the history of the church the gospel of
grace has been corrupted, the cause has been fear or hatred of
sovereign, particular, gracious election.
A Universal, Ineffectual Promise
The third way in which the doctrine of a conditional
covenant implies universal, conditional grace, and thus is responsible
for the destruction of the gospel of grace that is underway in
conservative Reformed circles today, is its teaching of a universal,
conditional promise. According to the conditional covenant, God directs
His gracious covenant promise to all baptized persons alike, if not to
all who hear the preaching of the gospel. The meaning is not merely that
all hear the promise. But God on His part promises to every baptized
person alike that He will be his God, that He incorporates him into
Christ and the covenant, and that He will save him.
United Reformed minister John Barach spoke for the
movement and, in reality, for those who hold a conditional covenant when
he said that baptism is God’s promise to every baptized person that he
is an elect (Christian Renewal, Feb. 12, 2001, p. 17; June 2001,
This covenant promise is grace. Given to all, it is
grace to all.
But the gracious covenant promise depends for its
fulfilment upon the condition of faith. Depending as it does upon the
condition of faith, and even upon the works of faith, the gracious
promise of the covenant fails of fulfilment in multitudes of instances.
The source of Norman Shepherd’s total reconstruction,
and complete destruction, of creedal Calvinism, indeed historic
Protestantism, is his covenant doctrine. The heart of his covenant
doctrine is the teaching that the covenant consists of two parts, a
gracious promise and the condition of faith. The gracious promise, made
to many more than only those who are finally saved, is God’s part. The
condition of believing is man’s part. Man’s part is not of grace. And
upon man’s doing his part, God’s part depends.
No one can examine this doctrine in the light of the
Canons of Dordt and come to any other conclusion than that the
doctrine is Arminianism applied to the covenant.
This aspect of the conditional covenant, namely, a
general promise that depends on the condition of faith, the apostle
denies in Romans 9:6ff. The perishing of many Israelites in the Old
Testament and the perishing of many baptized members of the visible
church today do not indicate that "the word of God hath taken none
effect." The word of God is the covenant promise. This promise was not
given to every Israelite. It is not given today to everyone who hears
the gospel, or who is baptized. The covenant word of promise concerns,
and is directed to, "Israel," that is, the true covenant people of God
according to election. Though heard by them, and rejected, the covenant
word of promise does not concern, nor is it directed by God to, those
who are only "of Israel," that is, the reprobate who live in the sphere
of the covenant.
The covenant promise did not fail, though many
physical children of Abraham went lost in unbelief.
The gracious covenant promise is particular and
unconditional. As such, and only as such, it is effectual. It
establishes the covenant. It maintains the covenant. It begets its own
children: "children of the promise." It works faith in its children by
(not: because of) which it can bestow, and the children can embrace,
Christ and all the blessings of the covenant. It bestows the blessings
of the covenant. And it saves every member of the covenant.
The gracious, almighty covenant promise, that is, the
Word of God, does all these things in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The covenant promise depends upon nothing in the
But the covenant people depend upon the covenant
A general, conditional covenant promise, on the other
hand, is ineffectual. It is weak. It is as weak as the sinner upon whom
it depends. It cannot establish the covenant with a man, or, if it does,
it cannot maintain the covenant. It cannot bestow the blessings of the
covenant upon a man, or, if it does, it cannot assure their continuance.
It cannot save the members of the covenant, or, if it does begin to
save, it cannot preserve them in salvation. A gracious covenant promise
that is general and conditional is quite "un-sovereign." Contemporary
defenders of a conditional covenant are making this very clear.
What this doctrine of universal, conditional, losable
grace in the (breakable) covenant does to the assurance of salvation is
dreadful. It destroys all assurance. Are you object of the gracious
promise of God today? No matter; tomorrow, you may be object of His just
curse. Are you in living communion with Christ as a baptized member of
the church today? It means nothing; tomorrow, you may be cut off. Are
you elect today? Never mind; tomorrow, you may be reprobate.
A universal, conditional promise means the loss of
Defense of the Faith
The contemporary movement in reputedly conservative
Reformed and Presbyterian churches denying justification by faith alone
and attacking all the doctrines of grace is logical development of the
theory of a conditional covenant. Therefore, it cannot be opposed, not
effectively, except by the repudiation of a conditional covenant.
There are theologians who are condemning the
movement, although they are few. The silence of most Reformed
theologians and churches—silence in the face of one of the gravest
threats to the gospel of grace since Dordt!—is deafening. But the
theologians who do speak out mostly limit themselves to the error of
denying justification by faith alone. They do not get to the root of the
evil. They cannot. With the rare exception, they are themselves
committed to a conditional covenant.
One of two things will happen.
The theologians and the churches may re-examine their
confession of a conditional covenant. Pray God this is the outcome!
Then, Reformed theologians and churches will at last seriously confront
these questions: Is the covenant conditional, that is, dependent on what
the sinner does? Is the promise of the covenant directed in grace to all
alike, depending for its realization on the sinner? Is the covenant
independent of election? Is the covenant breakable in the sense that God
establishes it with a man by gracious promise so that he has the life
and benefits of the covenant in his heart, but because of unbelief and
disobedience loses the covenant in the end?
If the Reformed churches face these questions, they
will also be led to consider whether the covenant is not a warm, living
relation of love, rather than a cold contract; whether the covenant in
Scripture is not itself the highest good—the very blessedness of
salvation—rather than a mere means to some other end; and whether
Christ is not the head of the covenant of grace.
Or, the outcome of the present development of a
conditional covenant will be that Reformed and Presbyterian churches
succumb to the heretical movement, whether by tolerating the heresy or
There are reasons to fear that this will be the
outcome. For one thing, the reputedly conservative Reformed and
Presbyterian churches refuse to discipline the officebearers who are
publicly promoting the heresy by writing, by lectures, by conference,
and by preaching. An outstanding instance of this refusal to discipline
was the action of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church at its general
assembly in 2003 overturning the discipline of an elder who had taught
justification by faith and works in the public worship services of a
congregation (see New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian
Church, August-September 2003, pp. 20, 21).
Another reason for fearing that the Reformed and
Presbyterian churches will succumb to the heresy of a doctrine of
justification by faith and works rooted in a conditional covenant is
that some of their seminaries are fountainheads of the new departure
from the gospel of grace. One of them has been a fountainhead of this
grievous error for the past thirty or more years. All this while, it has
been pouring pastors who teach the false doctrine of justification by
faith and works into the churches it serves. (See Mark W. Karlberg, "The
Changing of the Guard: Westminister Theological Seminary in
Philadelphia," The Trinity Foundation, 2001.)
It is the peculiar calling and privilege of the
Protestant Reformed Churches at this crucial hour in the history of the
Reformed churches to defend the gospel of sovereign grace by proclaiming
and defending the truth of the unconditional covenant. In the unique
history of these churches, God has led them to a clear understanding and
heartfelt embrace of the unconditional covenant. It may be that some
will now hear the witness of the Protestant Reformed Churches to the
unconditional covenant. Who knows, as Mordecai asked of Esther, whether
they are "come to the kingdom for such a time as this"?
In this witness to the truth of the unconditional
covenant, the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary has an important
role. It prepares ministers of the gospel to resist the contemporary
assault on sovereign grace. It instructs ministers in the truth of the
unconditional covenant. It trains men both to teach the unconditional
covenant and to warn against the doctrine of a conditional covenant. It
sends out pastors who teach believers and their children that God is God
and that salvation is of the Lord in the covenant, as on the mission
If the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian
churches will still not hear this witness and succumb to the heretical
development of a conditional covenant, approving justification by faith
and works, they will thereby be destroyed as Reformed churches and will
take on the mark of the false church according to Article 29 of the
When the churches do succumb, they will be
responsible for the damnation of their own members and the future
generations of their members—all those who trust for righteousness in
their own works, as their churches have taught them.
But even then, the covenant promise of God will not
have failed—not in a single instance. Nor will anyone have lost the
union with Christ that he once enjoyed by virtue of the bond of the
covenant of grace.
The covenant promise of God is never ineffectual
The truth is that even in conservative Reformed
churches not all who are in the sphere of the covenant are covenant
friends of God (Rom. 9:6). They always seek their righteousness in the
works of the law (Rom. 9:32).
Only some are, or ever were, "children of the
promise." They seek, and attain to, "the righteousness which is of
faith" (Rom. 9:30). And this is due solely to divine election (Rom.
The word for this grand truth is grace.
Recommended Reading on the Unconditional Covenant
David J. Engelsma, "The
Covenant of God and the Children of Believers." South Holland,
IL: Evangelism Committee, 5th printing 2000.
Herman Hoeksema and Herman Hanko,
Ready to Give an Answer: A Catechism of Reformed Distinctives.
Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1997.
God’s Everlasting Covenant of Grace. Grand Rapids: Reformed
Free Publishing Association, 1988.
Believers and Their Seed: Children in the Covenant. Preface
by David J. Engelsma. Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing
Association, rev. ed., 1997.
Reformed Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing
Association, 1966, pp. 285-336.