Kingdom Through Covenant: A Review

Below is a review by Harrison Perkins (MDiv) of Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012). He grew up in the south and attended college in Alabama. He began to get more involved in the church in college and there grew in his love for the church and desire to help others understand the riches of the Word of God and the gospel of God’s free grace. He is married and lives in the San Diego area. He is a graduate Westminster Seminary California and a PhD student at Queens University, Belfast.


It is difficult to know what the best way to review such a large book is (778 pages plus bibliography) in way that is useful to readers. There is much ground to cover and it is nearly impossible to do justice to all that the authors argue. The book is much too long to treat point by point. Rather, it seems better to treat this work topically and give a basic overview and response regarding the major issues.

First, there is much to appreciate in this volume for those of us holding to classic Covenant Theology (hereafter CT). This work might well be valuable to have simply as a one-volume commentary on many of the major passages related to CT. Although Reformed CT would not always agree with the exegesis, it can be a useful guide to what many of the issues are in particular texts.

Second, the authors do argue against a separate eschatology for Israel and the church. A wonderful argument is made that the land promises are made to Abraham and his seed, but his true seed are those of his faith (Gal. 3:7). This means that believers, not an ethnic group inherit the land promises. They also argue that there was the promise of expansion beyond the borders of Palestine from the beginning. The land promised to Israel is promised in light of the covenant made at creation. Adam was to tend Eden and fill the earth. The same is true of later land promises: it was meant to fill the earth. These arguments serve well to dispel the Dispensational disjunction between the church and Israel. There is only one people of God.

But what do the authors say about the covenants? Where do they stand in relation to Reformed CT? It is helpful to look at what they say about each major covenant heading. Regarding the covenant of redemption, they do not affirm it by name, but say that it is on the right track (pg. 654–656). They affirm the eternal plan of redemption among the Godhead and also affirm that God in Himself is covenantal, which gives warrant for us to think about all things covenantally.

Regarding the covenant of works, they do not agree with all that CT holds as the covenant of works, but that it is on the right track (pg.610). They do affirm and argue at length for a covenant with Adam (pg. 177–221). What they seem to neglect, however, is that it that covenant was a covenant of works. They affirm, however, the obligations for Adam and that his fulfillment of this covenant arrangement would bring about a further eschatological reality. This shows that there is much that the authors do like about CT’s position on the covenant of works. What they do not seem to like is that it is the covenant of works, i.e. they deny that the other covenants are not also a type of works covenants, as we will see under the covenant of grace section. Thankfully, they do emphasize that Christ did what Adam failed to do and that Christ earned for us redemption. This is an important feature related to CT’s exposition of the covenant of works and covenant of redemption that the authors have affirmed (though I got the impression that they did not fully grasp the issues behind the works covenant between the Father and Son and how that relates to the covenant of works).

Regarding the covenant of grace, they deny that it is legitimate to speak of one covenant. They affirm one “plan of salvation,” but say that we should only speak of the plurality of covenants because the Scripture has a plurality of covenants. There are several reasons why they make this move. First, I am not sure that they understand that in some ways, “one covenant of grace” means one plan of salvation. That is the point of the doctrine. They certainly, however, miss that WCF 7.5-6 speaks of the one covenant administered in diverse ways. CT also speaks of the plurality of covenants, but these covenants are administrations of the one covenant of grace made after the fall (Gn. 3:15). Second, the main reason for dividing the covenant of grace into many pieces is to argue for credobaptism. In many ways, this book is simply a drawn out argument for credobaptism. It becomes clear that the primary reason for posing their hermeneutics under a covenantal scheme is to try and make credobaptism at all plausible for those of us who hold CT. They want to show that there are non-Dispensationalists that hold credobaptism (a claim to be examined below). By not posing one covenant of grace, they leave open the holes they need to make a radical discontinuity between the new covenant and all the others.

Two of the major issues in the concept of the “one plan of salvation” posed in this book are the nature of the covenants and soteriology in regards to the ordo salutis. As far as the nature of the covenants is concerned, the authors deny the distinction that CT traditionally makes between conditional and unconditional (promise) covenants. They say that all the covenants are in some ways conditional and in other ways unconditional. This is the reason they give for the tension between God’s promises and man’s unfaithfulness. God has promised, but He requires a faithful covenant servant. This is the reason they say that the Incarnation was necessary: God had to provide His own faithful covenant servant. However, it seems to me that by denying the distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants, they have made them all conditional. If the unconditional aspects (promises) of a covenant are conditional, then they are not really unconditional. The whole covenant is simply conditional.

This scheme makes all the covenants function the same way. Granted, Wellum and Gentry do a better job of doing justice to redemptive-history in its progress through covenants; they do see the covenants as fulfilling God’s one plan and do acknowledge that later covenants fulfill earlier ones. However, by making all the covenants function the same way (conditionally), they end up posing each covenant as a real potential at fulfilling God’s one plan. If a particular covenant can provide a faithful covenant servant, then it will fulfill God’s promises. It just so happens that this does not happen until the new covenant. This strikes me as Dispensationalism is a covenant suit and tie. The authors have done more to use covenants as the Scripture does, but ultimately they have made each covenant function individually and undermined any attempt at unifying the covenants, which is a major point of Reformed CT.

The other issue is related to soteriology in regards to the ordo salutis. The authors do not seem to pose that OT saints were saved in the same way that NT saints are saved. They state that a flaw of CT is that it poses OT saints as indwelt by the Spirit and united to Christ (pg. 113n74). They do not go as far as classic Dispensationalism and argue that Israelites were saved by keeping the law. However, they do argue for differences in soteriology between the new covenant and the old (this obviously seems to confuse old covenant with OT, but this is a separate issue). They state that OT saints were saved by faith in God’s promises (pg. 684, n.70). They argue that now in the NT the promises of God for salvation are Christologically focused (pg. 685). “In the Old Testament, particularly under the old covenant, the forgiveness of sins is normally granted through the sacrificial system,” (pg.650). This is not the soteriology of Reformed CT, nor is it the biblical soteriology. Christ said no one comes to the Father except through Him (Jn. 14:6) and I do not think that meant only after the NT era began. It was an eternal reality for sinners. When Christ laid down His life for the elect, it was not only the NT elect (Jn. 10). It was the elect from all times. What the authors have posed is a diluted Dispensational soteriology.

More specifically within the covenant of grace, the authors rightly recognize the importance of the Abrahamic covenant, but are mistaken in most of their conclusions about it. They have made it a conditional covenant, just like all the others. This allows them to put it in contrast, rather than continuity, with the new covenant, which is fulfilled by the work of Christ. By setting even the Abrahamic covenant in contrast with the new, they are able to argue that the “genealogical principle” of the Abrahamic covenant is a type of a new covenant reality: the lineage of faith. This forms their argument for the shift in covenantal structure from including infants of believers to not including them. They support this argument by appealing largely to Jeremiah 31:26–40. They put heavy emphasis on the contrast of the new covenant to the old, which they are right to do, but they seem to think that the contrast is mainly about children in the covenant. This places the new covenant in contrast with the whole OT scheme of covenants (which is a Dispensational scheme) but this is not what Jeremiah’s contrast is. He contrasts the new covenant with that made at Sinai (31:32), which is a specific OT administration. Therefore, the authors are mistaken because they miss that the contrast must be between the new covenant and something specific to the Mosaic covenant. The very thing, to which Jeremiah points, is the breakable nature of the covenant at Sinai. The old covenant (Mosaic) was breakable, primarily because it was conditional and rested on the covenant servant to be faithful but the new will be unbreakable (unconditional). It will be fulfilled by God. This not only undermines the authors’ contrast of new covenant with all the OT, but also their denial of the distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants.

More so, the authors have made many of these moves arguing backwards. They know that infants cannot be baptized so they read the OT covenants in a way to support this view rather than listening to the text. They also miss much of the argument of Galatians regarding the AC. Galatians 3:7 poses that the seed of Abraham is those of faith. Paul does not say that this is only true in the NT era. It was always the truth. The same thing is expressed when he argues that the true Jew is the one inwardly (Rom. 2:29). The seed of Abraham was always a spiritual reality. Additionally, Paul calls the Abrahamic covenant the gospel (Gal. 3:8). As hard as the authors work to distance the new covenant and the AC, this runs contrary to Paul’s statements cited here.

Further, the authors argue that the genealogical principle is typological of the principle of faith in the new covenant. They state that the invariable inclusion of all of the physical lineage prefigures the invariable inclusion of all those who have faith. However, this misses much of what happens in the Abrahamic covenant itself regarding the genealogical principle. It should be obvious that not all the physical descendants are true believers (e.g. Esau). This shows that there is certainly a spiritual dimension to the AC, which is the dimension that the NT emphasized most. Some of the physical descendants, however, are also cut off from the covenant (e.g. Ishmael). This shows that whether discussed spiritually or physically, the Abrahamic covenant includes a mixed community in the covenant. Wither way the typology will point forward to a mixed covenant in the church. This runs against the majority of the authors’ arguments for credobaptism in the covenant context.

A few other comments are in order. The major content issues have been addressed, but there are also a few methodological features that should be discussed. First and foremost, the authors do a great job of interacting with Dispensational material. They cite relevant and credible sources and deal fairly with the Dispensational arguments, sometimes at length. The same cannot be said, however, regarding the authors’ interaction with CT. Many times, they do not cite sources for what they claim CT holds. Much of what they claim CT believes, I do not recognize as actual CT. When they do cite sources regarding CT, they are typically shallow or disreputable. Although they cite Michael Horton’s Introducing Covenant Theology (also published as God of Promise) regularly, most of the sources the use for CT are either web searches or Federal Vision writers. The first category is simply not acceptable for academic work. Web pages are helpful for many things, but they are not fit for academic engagement. They authors failed to really wrestle with full-bodied CT, particularly, they did not engage with the primary CT sources at all, even those translated into English. There is no excuse for not including at least one from Witsius, Turretin, Owen, or Hodge in this discussion. They rely on shoddy second hand material, which undermines their attempt at doing any credible academic work on the topic. Regarding the second category, all confessional Reformed CT would have a severe aversion to Federal Vision. To cite Federal Vision authors as representative of orthodox Reformed CT is not only to set up a straw man argument, but is an extreme misrepresentation of the opposing side. If this is an example of being unaware of the controversy, that is totally inexcusable.

Another methodological concern is with Gentry’s exegesis. I should say, it is not with the way he does exegesis per se, but he never makes explicit his exegetical conclusions or the relevance of particular exegesis to the overall topic. The individual chapters on the various covenants hardly ever express a thesis regarding the particular covenant under examination. This makes it difficult to follow the overall argument and frustrating to try and see why he is making the points he is making, Much of the almost 500 pages of exegesis as if it was published simply for the sake of exegesis. A great number of pages does not prove an argument. Conclusions are not only helpful for the reader but necessary for tracing arguments.

In the end, this book is interesting, but it does not really advance the discussion. It is too big and not clear enough for a general audience. On the other hand, academic audiences will see that it has not moved much past a progressive Dispensational position. It rejects a separate future for Israel but still holds a Dispensational-style soteriology and makes the same mistakes regarding what the nature of discontinuity is between the new and old covenants (the major contrast is not about including infants). I enjoyed this book and found much of it helpful. I find, however, claims that this book is “groundbreaking” quite misleading and over stated, unless they refer to the literal effect dropping a book of this size would have on the ground.

The Consensus Of The Divines, Legalism, And The Covenant Of Works

Recently it has been argued that the Westminster Standards (i.e., the Confession of Faith, the Shorter Catechism, and the Larger Catechism), were consensus documents and as such represent a general agreement on certain points but as a consensus document the doctrine of the confession is not intended to be binding at every point. Thus, regarding the doctrine of the covenant of works, it is argued that there were several theologians in the period who did not teach it and thus today, even those who affirm the Westminster Standards are not obligated to believe the covenant of works. It is further argued that there is a fundamental problem in the doctrine of the covenant of works, namely that it is legalistic. As the argument goes, if we combine these two considerations, one can be faithful to the Westminster Standards and deny the covenant of works.

Defining Terms
Let us being with the second part of the argument, that the doctrine of the covenant of works is “legalistic.” The adjective “legalistic” is a little slippery. E.g., Christians confess that the abiding validity of God’s moral law. It is the Antinomians, i.e., to those who reject the abiding validity of the moral law, who hold that it expired with the death of Christ. That the moral law was in force before Sinai, during the Old (Mosaic) Covenant, and remains in effect in the New Covenant is the ecumenical Christian doctrine.

There are good reasons to reject the antinomian position. First, the moral law was not first published at Sinai. The moral law is not purely Mosaic. It is grounded in creation. God gave a law to Adam: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:16–17; ESV). Implied in that commandment is the entire moral law. It required him to love God above all and his neighbor as himself. It prohibited idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, and covetousness. Further, the Sabbath was already instituted in creation (Gen 2:3; Ex 20:8). It was a part of the creational pattern into which he was created.

God’s moral law is a reflection of his nature and it is reflected and embedded in creation. This is what Paul teaches in Romans chapters 1 and 2. Because it is grounded in creation and revealed in nature, the substance of the moral law is known universally and all humans shall be judged by it. Further, that it was republished at Sinai does not make the moral law purely Mosaic. It temporarily took on some Mosaic, typological features (e.g., the land promise), which were fulfilled and that expired with the death of Christ. The civil and ceremonial Israelite laws were added to it but they, with all the types and shadows, expired with the death of Christ. The moral law does not expire. It cannot expire. We know that the moral law continues in force in the New Covenant. Our Lord summarized the moral law for us in Matthew 22:37–40 and the Apostles re-stated it repeatedly. The moral law per se is not Mosaic but grounded in the nature of God. It can no more change than God can change. There will never be a time when it is appropriate to have another God before the Triune God revealed in Scripture. There will never be a time when it is appropriate to commit adultery or to covet. The premise that the moral law is inherently Mosaic and thus fulfilled and expired in Christ is false. Therefore the conclusion that the moral law is no longer valid is also false.

The claim that the covenant of works is legalistic is, in part, a problem of definition. By legalistic we usually mean three things: that our standing before God might be determined by our law keeping or an undue emphasis upon the law in sanctification or the imposition of man-made laws in the Christian life. None of these is true in the doctrine of the covenant of works. The covenant of works holds that God made Adam’s entrance (and ours) into eternal life conditional upon perfect and perpetual obedience to his holy law. It further holds that God made Adam so that he could obey it, if he would, and the he freely, mysteriously, and tragically chose not to obey. In so doing he, as the federal head of all humanity plunged himself and us into sin and death.

The doctrine of the covenant of works is not legalistic because it was instituted before the fall, when Adam had the ability to obey. Before the fall Adam heart, mind, and will were not corrupted by sin. We must distinguish clearly, with a bright line, between life before the fall (ante lapsum) and after the fall (post lapsum). Historically, it was the Pelagians who refused the make this distinction. They taught that Adam was merely a bad example and Jesus was merely a good example. Pelagius and his followers made Jesus into the first Christian. Thus, they had no compunctions about saying that just as Adam might have obeyed so too we now, even after the fall, have the power to obey. This is the great danger of those who (like Norman Shepherd) talk about Adam’s faith and works, Jesus’ faith and works, and our faith and works as if Adam, Jesus, and we are all saved by faith and works. That is a form of Pelagianism. According to the Synod of Dort, the Remonstrants (Arminians) resuscitated the errors of the Pelagians. This is the irony of describing the doctrine of the covenant of works as Pelagian. It is the absolute antithesis of Pelagianism. The criticism rests on a gross misunderstanding of both Pelagianism and the doctrine of the covenant of works. Pelagius more or less ignored the fall thus blurring the line between the pre- and postlapsarian state. The covenant of works unto glory was only said to be effective before the fall.

To say that sinners are able to obey the law unto sufficiently to enter into eternal blessedness is legalism but the doctrine of the covenant of works has never taught such a thing. It is legalistic to say that Christians are under a covenant of works now for their standing with God but the covenant of works has never taught that either. It is legalistic to impose man-made laws upon Christians but doctrine of the covenant of works does not do that. By any reasonable, objective definition of the covenant of works cannot be called legalistic.

We must also get a right definition of grace. In Scripture grace is God’s favor to sinners. It is not conditioned by anything in them or done by them. Adam was not a sinner until he sinned. He was not under a covenant of grace before the fall.

Some (e.g., Barth and others) set up a system a priori whereby, because of the distance between God and man, the only way God is able to relate to humans is by grace. This is not how Scripture speaks. It is not true that we creatures can only relate to God by grace. The list of things God cannot do is relatively short. He must be and he cannot contradict himself. There is nothing contrary to the divine nature to establish a covenant of works with a righteous man able to meet the terms of the covenant. God is free to establish a covenant whereby we relate to him on the basis of works or obedience to the law. What is there about the revelation of the law in the garden that suggests that Adam was under grace and not under law? If no one has ever been under law, why does Paul say in Romans 2:12, 3:19; 6:14–15 that we are not under law but under grace? Was Jesus in a covenant of grace? Neither the orthodox Reformed theologians have not taught such a thing nor do the Reformed churches confess it. Rather, Paul says Jesus was born “under the law” to redeem those “under the law” (Gal 4:4). Jesus earned our place with God by his perfect, righteous obedience. It is an error even to hint that Jesus’ obedience was accepted by grace because it implies that it was not inherently, worthy, that it was condignly meritorious. Paul says, “so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). Christ became obedient even unto death on a cross (Phil 2:8). He learned obedience (Heb 5:8). The churches confess that Christ merited eternal life.

It is argued by some that we creatures can only and ever relate to God on the basis of grace. It is not clear, however, on what biblical basis one would defend such a position. This seems to be something that its adherents know a priori rather than something they have deduced from Scripture. As we will see in the next installment of this series, that is not the view taken by the Westminster Divines. Indeed, they not only did not characterize the relation between Adam and God before the fall as gracious but they even refrained from characterizing God’s act of establishing the covenant of works as gracious. Instead, they used the expression “voluntary condescension” (WCF 7.1). In other words, the Westminster Divines chose to emphasize God’s freedom in entering into the covenant of works, his condescension (stooping down) to make the covenant of works but they did not call it a gracious covenant or a covenant of grace.

Common Mistakes
There are other (sometimes) unstated reasons why some persist in characterizing the covenant of works as legalistic. First, they do not distinguish sufficiently, clearly or consistently between the Adam’s state before the fall and after. It is one thing to say that Adam was under the law for his standing before God before the fall, when he was perfectly righteous and able to obey the law. It is another to say that he was under the covenant of works for his standing before God, as if he could actually, potentially keep it, after the fall. Yes, the law continued to demand perfect, perpetual righteousness but Scripture repeatedly denies that we sinners can keep it satisfactorily. The only human who kept it perfectly after the fall is Jesus, the God-Man, who came as the Last Adam (1 Cor 15:45; Rom 5:12–21) and who sustained the probationary test of the covenant of works during his whole life as the substitute of all the elect. We who believe are not under a covenant of works but a covenant of grace. We do not seek to present ourselves on the basis of our obedience or even on the basis of our Spirit-wrought sanctity but only on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness for us. Remember, Jesus was born without sin and never sinned. He was not born a sinner. Our sins were imputed (credited) to him (and in that sense he is said to have “become sin” [2 Cor 5:21] but never sinned (Heb 4:15). He was born under the law (Gal 4:4) not for himself, not to qualify himself, but for us—to be our Substitute and Mediator.

Second, it seems that some are troubled by the very notion that anyone (even Jesus?), under any circumstances (even before the fall) should present himself to God on the basis of obedience to or performance of the law. The early orthodox Scottish Reformed theologian Robert Rollock was not troubled by the notion that Adam was to present himself to God on the basis of his works. He went so far as to say that the covenant of works with Adam, before the fall, was not founded on grace but upon nature, because God made Adam so that he could keep it. Rollock spoke thus because he wanted to distinguish very clearly between works and grace.

The Westminster Divines spoke of voluntary condescension instead of grace  for good reason. They knew that Paul regularly contrasts grace and works as two distinct principles. Romans 11:6 is very clear: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” The principle controlling the covenant under which Adam was placed, before the fall, was not grace (divine favor conditioned upon the obedience of another) but works, i.e., his perfect, personal obedience. It was this principle that was expressed repeatedly to the Israelite: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the law” (Deut 27:26). “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am Yahweh” (Lev 18:5). These are the passages quoted by the Apostle Paul to prove to the Galatian Judaizers, who were legalists in every sense of the word, that they could not possibly meet the standard they had set for others.

God is gracious to sinners. We might even say that God was gracious to enter into a covenant with righteous Adam (even though the Westminster Divines wisely decided not to speak this way) but we dare not allow the principle of grace to wipe out the principle of law nor ought we to mix the two, so as to make the covenant of works gracious or the covenant of grace legal or we shall find ourselves quite at variance with the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture and in a mess. A legal covenant of grace is an oxymoron as is a gracious covenant of works and neither is good news for sinners. Both tend toward the Pelagianizing error of confusing the pre- and postlapsarian conditions.

The charge of legalism against the covenant of works is one of those allegations that seems persuasive at first because we all know that legalism is bad and that grace is good. It is almost instinctive to react to the charge by asserting the graciousness of the covenant of works. That is a trap, however, into which we ought not step. We need not do so long as we remember that grace and works are two different principles and that Adam was in a covenant of works for us before the fall and that Jesus, as the Last Adam, fulfilled the covenant of works after the fall as our substitute so that we sinners redeemed sola gratia, sola fide might be in a covenant of grace.

Five Reasons To Read The Standards Correctly
It has been argued that the orthodox Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works is legalistic. It has also been argued that since the Reformed confessions, e.g., the Westminster Standards, were intended to be consensus documents therefore those who subscribe them are to respect their teaching in general but are not bound by particular assertions.

Such an approach to the confessions is untenable for five reasons. First, such an approach does not work when applied to analogous documents, e.g., a mortgage. During the purchase of a house, the buyer signs a great number of documents. Each page of the large mortgage agreements is signed or initialed by the buyer. Each time the buyer signs a document he is, in essence, promising to repay the loan and signalling that he understands the consequences if he does not. Imagine trying to say to the loan officer, “Well, I agree with page 21 but I do not agree with page 37. When the buyer signs the loan papers he is agreeing to the entire thing. If the buyer cannot abide an article in the agreement, he must negotiate that at the time of purchase. A signature is not a general agreement with reservations as to particulars.

Reformed Christians also sign binding documents in the church. In the modern American Presbyterian system typically only those who hold special offices (e.g., Minister or Teaching Elder, ruling elder, and perhaps the deacons) are said to be bound to the teaching of the confessional standards. In Reformed churches with European Reformed roots, the entire congregation is said to be bound to the confessional standards. Traditionally, at some point in the ordination process, a minister may actually sign his name to a piece of paper indicating his agreement with the confessional standards. This is why we use the word subscribe, because one’s name is written below the confessional standards.

Second, Signatories to the Reformed confessions indicate thereby that they agree with what the documents say. If a candidate for ministry (or perhaps a lay member) has a reservation about a word, a phrase, or a clause in a confessional document, he makes that reservation known to the body at the time of his examination and his reservation is adjudicated.

Third, Even if one is only agreeing to the “system of doctrine” contained in the confessional documents, that system is composed of particulars. Some of those particulars may not be essential. E.g., in Recovering the Reformed Confession (2008). I argued that the original Reformed understanding of church-state relations was not essential to the Reformed faith, that revising that understanding did not change the essence of Reformed confession. In contrast, were we to change the doctrine of Scripture, God, man, Christ, salvation, the church, or sacraments, that would be a substantial change. Ultimately it is up to one’s ecclesiastical body to judge whether a reservation about a word, phrase, clause or article in a confessional document is essential to the document. It can be proved that the doctrine of the covenant of works is essential to the Westminster Standards.

Fourth, for what it’s worth, the Reformed confessions were not drafted to be selectively subscribed. They were originally subscribed quia, i.e., because they are biblical. Since the 18th century, however, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have frequently adopted a more selective approach to subscription. This selective approach may be relatively conservative or it may be relatively liberal but selective it is. This approach is known as the quatenus (or insofar as) approach. In this form of adherence, the subscriber is said to hold the confessional documents “insofar as” the are biblical. The assumption is that there is some daylight between what the confessions say and what Scripture teaches. It is sometimes assumed that it is up to the individual to draw that line. The notion that one adheres to the Westminster Standards generally but rejects the doctrine of the covenant of works in particular is a consequence of this approach.

Fifth, the revisionist approach being advocated relative to the covenant of works reflects the view that the Reformed confessions are mini-systematic theologies. This is not correct. The Reformed and Presbyterian confessional standards are ecclesiastical documents. A systematic theology, however worthy, is not an ecclesiastical document. The Reformed and Presbyterian churches do not publish systematic theologies. They publish binding ecclesiastical interpretations of God’s Word on those issues deemed by the churches to be essential to the faith and life of the churches. In other words, the confessional standards do not address every possible issue. Where they do speak, however, they are to be regarded as authoritative, ecclesiastical, public interpretations of God’s Word. One may dissent from any number of things in a theologian’s systematic theology. The same is not true of the Reformed confessional standards. Of course they are normed by God’s Word (sola scriptura). Should a minister or member conclude that a word, clause, phrase, or article of the standards are contrary to Scripture, he should bring that case to the churches for their judgment. After that he must decide whether he can live with the judgment of the churches. There is a place for this even under the quia approach to subscription. The form of subscription adopted by the Synod of Dort (1619) provided that a minister whose views changed after ordination should approach his classis (presbytery) and make his views known so that the church might decide whether that change is material to the confession.

It is true that he Reformed confessional standards are consensus documents and for that reason, when we subscribe them, we profess adherence to all that they teach, unless we have brought our reservations before the church to be judged. In other words, it is quite backwards to conclude that because the standards are consensus documents therefore we are not bound the particulars of their teaching. It is precisely because they are consensus documents that we are bound to their particulars. The churches do not speak to everything. Where they do speak it is to be regarded as the considered view of the churches and the public, binding, agreed, authoritative understanding of God’s Word on that issue.

The Westminster Standards Confess The Covenant Of Works
Few doctrines in the Westminster Standards are taught as clearly and repeatedly as the doctrine of the covenant of works. For clarity the relevant phrase is highlighted in italics. In Westminster Confession 7.2, Presbyterians confess: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” This very language reappears in WCF 19.1 “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.” Again, in WCF 19.6 “Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works…” and “…although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works…”. The same doctrine, in slightly different language, appears in Westminster Shorter Catechism 12:

What special act of providence did God exercise toward man in the estate wherein he was created?

A. When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.

The phrase covenant of life was the committee’s way of articulating the intended outcome of the covenant of works. It is not a different doctrine. The doctrine occurs again in number 16:

Did all mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression?

A. The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.

The divines used it again in Larger Catechism number 20:

What was the providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created?

A. The providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created, was the placing him in paradise, appointing him to dress it, giving him liberty to eat of the fruit of the earth; putting the creatures under his dominion, and ordaining marriage for his help; affording him communion with himself; instituting the Sabbath; entering into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience, of which the tree of life was a pledge; and forbidding to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.

and 22:

Did all mankind fall in that first transgression?
A. The covenant being made with Adam as a public person, not for himself only, but for his posterity, all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him in that first transgression

and 30:

Doth God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?

A. God doth not leave all men to perish in the estate of sin and misery, into which they fell by the breach of the first covenant, commonly called the covenant of works; but of his mere love and mercy delivereth his elect out of it, and bringeth them into an estate of salvation by the second covenant, commonly called the covenant of grace

and 97:

What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?

A. Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience

The Westminster Divines taught the doctrine of the covenant of works (or the covenant of life) no fewer than 10 times. Sometimes it is necessarily implied but usually it is expressed explicitly. It is difficult to imagine what else they might have done to try to communicate to us that they believed the covenant of works and that they intended for us to believe it. How many times was it necessary for them to say it? Contrast the relative indifference in some quarters to the covenant of works with the passion some evidence for the doctrine of creation “in the space of six days,” which the divines used twice.

It is nigh unto impossible to imagine how the doctrine of the covenant of works is not essential to the Westminster Standards. It functions to account for the way God related to us before the fall, to explain at least one major function of the law after the fall, and to explain the difference between works and grace. In short, it is essential to our understanding of the history of creation, redemption, and the application of redemption (ordo salutis). Subscribing the Westminster Standards while seeking to omit the covenant of works is like saying that one likes beef, but one likes neither steak nor hamburger.

Further, the doctrine of a prelapsarian covenant covenant of works was widely taught and held well before the Westminster Assembly. That God entered into a probationary covenant of works with Adam before the fall was taught by second century fathers. That Adam was in a covenant of works before the fall was taught by Augustine. It was taught by Ursinus in 1561 and it became almost universally taught by Reformed theologians in the late 16 century and through the 17th century. It became so essential to the Reformed understanding of the creation, redemption, and the application of redemption to the elect that Wilhemus a Brakel (1635–1711) said that those who denied it failed to understand the covenant of grace. He said that in part because it was the Remonstrants (Arminians) among others who rejected the doctrine of the covenant of works and their denial, as Witsius noted, was part of their corruption of the gospel whereby they made the covenant with Adam gracious and the covenant of grace legal, as if that were possible. Pace to those who continue to believe and assert that the covenant of works was a British peculiarity, it was also taught by the Dutch, the Germans, the French, the Swiss, the English, the Scots, and the Irish. It may be implied in the 1561 Belgic Confession’s phrase “commandment of life” (art. 14) but it was confessed unequivocally by the Westminster Divines in the 1640s. For more on the history of Reformed covenant theology see the essay “Christ and Covenant: Federal Theology in Orthodoxy,” in Herman Selderhuis, ed., Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (Leiden: Brill, 2013).  Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, repr. 2008). See also the bibliography here.

In Reformed and Presbyterian theology and in the Presbyterian confessional standards, the doctrine of the covenant of works is not a second blessing reserved for a few illuminati. It is not a mere antiquity that we have outgrown nor is it some option on a menu of doctrines. When ministers, teaching elders, and ruling elders subscribe the confessional standards in Presbyterian Churches surely they are endorsing a doctrine confessed 10 times. If they are persuaded by arguments against that doctrine they ought to bring those arguments to their ecclesiastical assemblies for review.

Further Research

Here are libraries of posts and original source quotations on the Covenant of Grace, the Covenant of WorksCovenant Theology, and Recovering the Reformed Confession. For a more detailed discussion of the role of confessions in the life of the church see Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).

The Synod Of Dort On Election, Conditions Of Salvation, And Fruit

The Reformed churches have endured discussions and disagreements about salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come) before. Beginning in the late 16th century a Reformed minister in Amsterdam began offering significant revisions of the Reformed understanding of Scripture. Early on critics accused him of corrupting the faith but he was allied by marriage with some powerful families and therefore was protected. When a teaching position opened up at the most prestigious university in the land he was nominated to fill the post. Despite misgivings by faculty members and others he was appointed and almost immediately there was controversy. He was accused of replacing orthodox textbooks with unorthodox ones. He was accused of denying the Reformation doctrine of salvation. He denied the charges and always, throughout the controversy, played the victim—a rhetorical stance which has become standard for his followers since. Over the years it became clear that this revisionist was not merely trimming the edges of Reformed theology but advocating a revolution. His movement not only placed the churches in jeopardy but threatened to become a cause of civil war. Within a year after his death, his followers published a five-point summary of what he had been teaching, four points of which conceded what had been charged against him. The fifth point, on perseverance, was deliberately obscure and finally, in 1618, 9 years after his death, an international synod met to address the crisis and to stem the spread of the movement he had unleashed. Of course we are talking about Jacobus Arminius (d. 1609) and the Remonstrant movement he created, Arminianism.

One of the theological motives of the Remonstrants, which is not always fully appreciated, was that they had concluded that the Reformation doctrine of salvation (e.g., definitive justification and consequent progressive sanctification) would never produce the sort of godliness and good works they thought ought to mark the life of the Christian. Thus, they created a system whereby good works are not merely the fruit and evidence of salvation but an antecedent condition thereof. That is, where the orthodox Reformed had faith as the “sole instrument” or antecedent condition of justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come (salvation), the Remonstrants had faith and works.

In the Remonstrant theology even election was said to be conditional. The Remonstrants taught that God had determined to save those who “shall believe on this his son Jesus, and shall persevere.” Salvation, they taught, was conditioned upon foreseen faith (fides praevisa) and upon our cooperation with grace. They used the word grace, as moralists usually do, but the clear effect of their revision was to take the Reformed churches back to the medieval system of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace or salvation by grace and works. Indeed, their doctrine of the election was worse than some taught by the medievals since Gottschalk (d. c. 867), Thomas (d. 1274), and e.g., Thomas Bradwardine (d. 1349) had taught unconditional election before the Reformation. The Remonstrants turned the gracious Reformation doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide on its head. Note carefully how vociferously and with what terms the Synod rejected the Remonstrant theology:

We reject the errors of those who teach hat Christ by His satisfaction merited neither salvation itself for any one, nor faith, whereby this satisfaction of Christ unto salvation is effectually appropriated; but that He merited for the Father only the authority or the perfect will to deal again with man, and to prescribe new conditions as He might desire, obedience to which, however, depended on the free will of man, so that it therefore might have come to pass that either none or all should fulfill these conditions. For these adjudge too contemptuously the death of Christ, in no way acknowledge that most important fruit or benefit thereby gained, and bring again out of hell the Pelagian error (Rejection of Errors 2.3).

The Reformed churches of the Netherlands, France (in absentia), Great Britain, the Palatinate, Geneva, Bremen, Zürich, and elsewhere with one voice rejected these revisions in the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618–19). These canons (or rulings) of the Synod are helpful in the current discussions about sanctification, conditions in the covenant of grace, good works, and salvation. The Canons are organized under 5 “heads of doctrine,” corresponding to the Five Points of the Remonstrance.

The term “conditio” occurs about 10 times in the Canons. It occurs first in Canons 1.9 and that use tells us a good bit about the concerns of the orthodox about the Remonstrant theology.

This election was not founded upon foreseen faith and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition on which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc. Therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to the testimony of the apostle: “He chose us [not because we were, but]…that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love” (Eph 1:4).

One of the most fundamental things that the Reformed needed to re-assert was the total inability of fallen man and the radical, free favor (grace) of God, in Christ, toward helpless sinners. The Remonstrant revision had it that we are not as sinful as Augustine and the Reformation had said. They posited some ability to cooperate with grace. Indeed, arguably, they collapsed grace into nature. By nature, even after the fall, we had sufficient ability to do our part. In this scheme, grace becomes a helper but not the marvelous, sovereign free favor earned for us by Christ and given unconditionally to sinners. According to the Synod, there are no conditions that we must meet in order to warrant God’s favor in salvation. Rather, by contrast, the Reformed taught that election is the “fons (the source) of all salvation (fons omnis salutaris). Notice that the divines singled out not only “foreseen faith” but also “the obedience of faith, sanctity, or other good quality and disposition.” The Remonstrant position had the effect of moving the ground of our salvation from Christ’s righteousness for us (pro nobis) back to qualities intrinsic to us. According to the Remonstrants we are saved partly on the basis of things done by us and wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace. Such a system raises the question: how much must one do, in cooperation with grace, in order to be saved? That such a question necessarily arises tells us that we are no longer living in the house of the Reformation and that we are not talking about “grace alone” and “faith alone” but grace plus works. The Remonstrants turned the covenant of grace into a covenant of works (E.g., Rejection of Errors 2.2).

We know that the orthodox Reformed concern was the reception of eternal life because the Canons themselves say so. That is why the Reformed churches re-asserted that “faith, sanctity, and the remaining saving goods, and then eternal life itself flows from (profluunt) and is the effect of ” God’s sovereign, unconditional election. We are not elect because we are sanctified or obedient or because of foreseen faith but but we are being graciously, gradually sanctified by God because of God’s unconditional electing grace in Christ.

This was the doctrine of art. 10 also. The “cause” of our election is only (solum) God’s good pleasure (Dei beneplacitum). Salvation is not the outcome of our sanctification and good works. Rather, our sanctification and the consequent good works are the result of our salvation. The Remonstrants had set up “possible human qualities and actions” as a “condition of salvation” (salutis conditionem). The Reformed taught that God unconditionally, freely elected out of the “common multitude of sinners” (communi peccatorum multitudine) some to salvation. Their proofs? Romans 9:11–13 and Acts 13:48. Jacob believed and was saved because he was unconditionally elect. The Reformed make salvation a benefit freely given to sinners in the covenant of grace.

According to Canons 1.12, God’s free, sovereign decree of election comes to expression in history “in due time” in various ways. In other words, our experience varies. Even though our salvation is as sure as God’s free grace and election our subjective experience of assurance varies. It is interesting then to note how the divines spoke of the “infallible fruits of election” (fructus electionis infallibiles). According to the divines (and contrary to the popular caricature of Reformed theology and piety) we are never to ask “Am I elect?” Rather, the divines would have us ask, “Do I believe? Is there some evidence of true faith?” God’s grace produces observable effects. We are not to rest in but we are to observe the effects of election: true faith in Christ (vera in Christum fides), a filial fear of God—not a servile fear. Believers are in a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works. We respect (timor) our holy God but we do not fear him as if we are under judgment. Christ has endured that judgment for us. Because we have been saved and are being saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone we have a genuine sorrow (dolor) for sin, a hungering and thirsting for our own actual righteousness. Our sanctification and good works are the fruits of God’s gracious election and salvation, which he bestows unconditionally upon his people.

The divines were aware of the Remonstrant doctrine that there are different kinds of election: “general and indefinite” (general et indefinitam) and “singular and definite” (singularem et definitam). We have faced the exact same threat in our time in the self-described “Federal Vision” theology, which posits two kinds of election, eternal and conditional. The Reformed approach to assurance is to start with the objective, Christ’s work for us, which is credited to us and received by us through faith alone (sola fide). We observe the fruits of God’s grace and give thanks to him for them. We rest in Christ and his promises (gospel) but we recognize that he is working in us, however slowly that almost imperceptibly that work may sometimes seem to us. We do not have to choose between the objective and the subjective. We embrace them both. Neither do we need to become de facto sacerdotalists by turning baptism into magic so that our only answer to doubt is “I am baptized” (and ergo necessarily saved ex opere operato). No, baptism itself is not salvation but a sacrament of our salvation, i.e., a sign and seal of what is true of those who believe. Baptism is not the “sole instrument” (Belgic Confession art. 22) of our salvation. Faith is is the alone instrument of our salvation (sola fide).

The divines also, however, rejected as an error the notion that there is an election unto faith (electio ad fidem) or unto justifying faith (ad fidem justificantem) but which nevertheless leaves one “without a preemptory election to salvation (absque electione peremptoria ad salutem; rejection of errors 1.2). The Remonstrants were trying to set up a system where our salvation is in stages. We are justified now but not yet saved, which is the second stage. Here was their opportunity to make room for our good works and cooperation with grace co-instruments of our salvation. According to the Reformed churches, however, under such a construction, “the doctrine of election is corrupted” and the “golden chain of our salvation is dissolved” (auream hanc salutis catenam dissolvens). To that end they re-asserted the ordo salutis (order of salvation) by quoting Romans 8:30. “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (ESV). This fact should give us pause when we encounter those contemporary writers who wish to “move beyond” what they dismiss as “ordo salutis thinking.” There is an order to the application of redemption. It is the elect who are given new life, who come to faith, who through faith are justified, united to Christ, adopted,  saved, and glorified. Our salvation is not contingent upon our performance, even if that performance is qualified as “cooperation with grace.” Any such construction necessarily turns the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.

One consequence of abandoning the biblical and Reformed order of the application of redemption is our current confusion over the nature of salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come), conditions in the covenant of grace, and the role of good works. This confusion is not new. There was confusion in the 1590s and in the early 17th century leading up to the Synod of Dort. The Remonstrants were not satisfied with the Reformation doctrines. They wanted our cooperation with grace and our good works to be more than the fruit and evidence of our justification and our sanctification, more than those necessary accompaniments to true faith and sanctification. In response the the Synod made not only our sanctification and good works but our new life and our faith to be fruit and evidence of our unconditional election. In so doing, they effectively re-contextualized the whole debate. Where the Remonstrants, who denied the pre-lapsarisan covenant of works, had put believers in a covenant of works for salvation, the Reformed churches re-asserted that believers are in a covenant of grace for salvation. As a result of the Synod’s reassertion of the Reformation against the Remonstrants, the question concerning good works was no longer, “How much must I do to warrant salvation?” but “How should I respond in gratitude for God’s unconditional favor to me in Christ?”

The Fifth Article Of The Remonstrance
Now we want to consider the fifth article of the 1610 Remonstrance, on perseverance. It was vague and confusing and must be read carefully, word by word, phrase by phrase, and clause by clause. It began with promising language, by speaking of those who are “incorporated into Christ by a true faith,” who have “thereby become partakers….” This sort of language was very familiar to the Reformed and created a false impression that the Remonstrants were more sympathetic to the Reformed cause than they really were. As I always say: keep reading. According to the Remonstrants, we are partakers of Christ’s “life-giving Spirit….” This is a subtle move since the truth is that it is the Spirit who has sovereignly and unconditionally made us alive (regenerated us), given us true faith, and who, through the sole instrument of faith, united us to Christ. We are already partakers of Christ’s life-giving Spirit.

The second sentence of 5 could expresses the underlying Perfectionism of the Remonstrants. B. B. Warfield saw this connection and identified two sources for the Perfectionism he encountered in the 19th century: Mysticism and the Remonstrants. According to the Remonstrants, those so united to the Spirit have “full power” to “win the victory.” This language may be interpreted more or less favorably but it is not exactly that of Heidelberg Catechism 56, which speaks of “the sinful nature with which I have to struggle all my life long…” nor of Heidelberg 60, which testifies that even as a Christian, in union with Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit nevertheless “that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil….” One document is full of the spirit of Paul, Augustine, and Martin Luther and the other is not.

The Remonstrants always find a way to put the believer “on the hook” for his final salvation. Grace is never really free. It is never really amazing. As with Rome, grace is reduced to a helper. The Remonstrants wrote of “the assisting grace of the Holy Spirit” and that Jesus Christ “assists” us poor sinners “if only” we are “ready for the conflict and desire his help, and are not inactive….” Here the true nature of the Remonstrant doctrine of perseverance emerges: God helps those who help themselves by cooperating with his “assisting grace.” This is quite another picture of salvation. Here God has not parted the Red Sea and led us through, by the hand, as it were (Jer 31:32; Ex 14:16). Rather, according to the Remonstrants, God has covenanted to co-act with those who do what lies within them (facientibus quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam). The Remonstrants turned Reformed theology into the Pelagian covenant theology of the Franciscan theologian Gabriel Biel (c. 1420–95). Those who meet these antecedent conditions—the Remonstrants turned the covenant of grace into a covenant of works—cannot be plucked out of Christ’s hands. If we only read the first few lines and then let our eyes slip down to quotation of John 10:28 we might get entirely the wrong impression. Once, however, we read the words in between the picture becomes much clearer. The Remonstrants re-contextualized John 10:28 and the evangelical (in the original, sixteenth-century sense of the word), Protestant, Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.

Then comes the last part of the article, in which the Remonstrants feigned modesty and uncertainty about whether it was possible for one, who had been regenerated, “through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace….” Whether that might be true, the offered, “must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scriptures before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our minds.” In light of history we may say with confidence that the Remonstrants made up their minds quickly.

Synod Reasserts The Reformation Doctrine
Of course, the Synod was having none of it. They categorically rejected this doctrine as Pelagianizing, to whom or to which heresy they referred no fewer than 8 times. Remember, what is at stake here is the salvation of the elect. What is the nature of salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come)? Is it by “assisting grace” and sufficient cooperation with the same or by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide)? In the Rejection of Errors under the Fifth Head of Doctrine (on perseverance) Synod explicitly labelled the Remonstrant doctrine “Pelagianism:”

We reject the error of those who teach: That God does indeed provide the believer with sufficient powers to persevere ( sufficientibus ad perseverandum viribus), and is ever ready to preserve these in him if he will perform his office (si officium faciat); but that, though all things which are necessary to persevere in faith and which God will use to preserve faith are furnished to us, even then it ever depends on the pleasure of the will (pendere semper a voluntatis arbitrio) whether it will persevere or not. For this idea contains manifest Pelagianism (manifestum Pelagianismum), and while it would make men free, it make them robbers of God’s honor, contrary to the consensus (consensum) of evangelical doctrine (evangelicæ doctrinæ), which takes from man all cause of boasting, and ascribes all the praise for this favor to the grace of God alone (soli divinæ gratiæ); and contrary to the apostle, who declares that it is God who “will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:8).

This paragraph alone makes clear that, for the Reformed Churches of Great Britain, France (in absentia), Geneva, Zürich, the Palatinate, Bremen, and the Netherlands the Reformation was at stake. Under the guise of promoting greater sanctity, the Remonstrants were attempting to lead the Reformed Churches back to medieval moralism: salvation by grace and cooperation with grace. That scheme they could only say that our cooperation with grace was tantamount to the doctrine of salvation by works condemned by the Apostle Paul: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom 11:6; ESV).

Where the Remonstrants posited salvation by assisting grace and sufficient cooperation with grace by those who are willing , the Reformed taught that it is by God’s grace alone that we persevere. We are justified by grace alone. We are sanctified by grace alone. We are saved by grace alone. One ground of their insistence upon grace was their stout Pauline, Augustinian, and Protestant assessment of the human condition. The Remonstrants downplayed the effects of the fall. The Reformed understood Scripture to teach that, by nature, we are desperately wicked (Jer 17:9), dead in sins and trespasses (Rom 1–3; Eph 2:1–4). The Remonstrants had collapsed grace into nature. As far as they were concerned, God had endowed us with all we need, if only we will exercise our free will to “do what lies within us,” as the Franciscans had put it. Just as the entire confessional Reformation rejected the Franciscan covenant as Pelagian, so also the Reformed rejected the Remonstrant doctrine of perseverance as its latest manifestation.

Whereas the Remonstrants implied the possibility of perfect sanctification in this life (Perfectionism), the Synod rejected it. Though we are “though not altogether from the body of sin and from the infirmities of the flesh, so long as they continue in this world” (5.1). As long as we are in this life all our good works shall be spotted with sin. This is a cause of humiliation that causes us to turn Christ and by his grace to put to death the old man and to be made alive in the new. We press forward toward heaven, where perfection rests (5.2). The Synod rejected the over-realized eschatology of the Remonstrants.

Left to “what lies within” us, to cooperation with assisting grace, we would be lost. Instead, the churches declared, “God is faithful, who having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end” (5.3). Where the Remonstrants said “we can,” the Reformed said, “But God.” The Remonstrants gave us law but the Reformed preached the gospel of free grace in Christ to helpless sinners.

Because of our struggle with sin in this life. Sometimes we are not always “so influenced and actuated” by the Spirit as ought to be. That is why we sometimes “sinfully deviate from the guidance of divine grace.” That is why we do not always experience the presence of God (5.11) and the strong sense of assurance that is ours by right. Sin and the struggle against sin are both real. That is why we confess that it is the “power of God who confirms and preserves true believers in a state of grace…” (5.4). It is by the “righteous permission of God” that we, like David, Peter, and other believers “actually fall into these evils…” (5.4). Such sins are truly offensive. They grieve the Spirit. They interrupt the exercise of faith. They wound the conscience and we may even, for a time, lose the sense of God’s presence (Ps 51:11). In such cases we have not fallen from grace. We have not lost our salvation but we have given ourselves great cause to lament our fallen state, our actual sins, and to repent of them and to seek, by grace alone, to mortify them. Whatever our experience may tell us, the Gospel tells us (5.10) that God never abandons his people. He never permits “them to be totally deserted, and to plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.” (5.5,6). Even in sanctification (mortification and vivification), the Christian life is still a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works. Assurance is restored to believers as their property under the gospel (5.9).

In order to produce sanctity among believers, the Remonstrants sought implicitly to put Christians back under the law, under a covenant of works, for salvation. In contrast, as the Reformed churches understood that it is by grace we are saved, through faith (Eph 2:8–10) unto good works appointed by God for us. God’s grace produces in us a desire to be conformed to Christ (5.13). It is not by the law that we are sanctified, though those who are being sanctified seek earnestly to bring their lives into conformity to God’s holy law. Rather, Synod said:

And as it hath pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so he preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of his Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, as well as by the use of the Sacraments (5.14).

The ground of the Christian life, of perseverance is the gospel of God’s free (to us) favor earned for us by Christ and received through faith alone. By his grace he strengthens us. By hearing his Word, by meditating on the gospel, we are drawn back to Christ. By meditating on the law—the threatenings of what happens to those who do not believe—we are driven back to Christ’s righteousness for us but we are not placed under a covenant of works. It is impossible for believers, those for whom Christ died, to be placed back under works for salvation.

As the churches said (5.15), this doctrine will not be received favorably by all. The Socinians rejected it for the same reason as the Remonstrants. Both were essentially rationalists—thus explaining why so many Remonstrants became Socinians after Dort—and wanted to remove the gospel mystery of sanctification and perseverance. To those who know the greatness of their sin and misery and how utterly dependent they are on Christ for salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come) the doctrine of perseverance by grace alone, through faith alone is a great consolation. It is explains our experience. It is a roadmap. It teaches us what to expect and how to understand our experience. Sinners sin but believers repent and seek to be conformed to Christ. We shall not reach perfection in this life but Christ was perfect for us. We shall be perfected after this life or at Christ’s return, whichever happens first. In the ordinary providence of God we shall endure periods of doubt and struggle but God has promised not to abandon us, whatever our experience may suggest. Christ has met the conditions of the covenant of works for us. We, who believe, are in a covenant of grace: All that he did is credited to us and God has graciously worked in us true faith, the sole instrument of our salvation. The Spirit has united us to Christ and is even now sanctifying us in Christ’s image and he shall glorify us.

Three Things Dispensational Apologists Should Stop Saying

There are varieties of Dispensationalism, e.g., classic (Darby, Scofield), modified (Chafer, Ryrie), and progressive (Bock, Blaising). To be sure there are varieties of covenant theology, e.g., classic e.g., that taught in the classical period that taught the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis), the covenant of works (foedus operum), and the covenant of grace (foedus gratiae) and revised (which omits the covenant of works and/or the covenant of redemption). Nevertheless, despite the significant differences between revised and classic covenant theology, they are united in their conviction that the history of redemption is united by a single, typological, covenant of grace progressively revealed in the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis 3:15 and ratified by Christ’s obedience and death.

For a century, beginning in the 1870s, American evangelicalism was heavily influenced by Dispensationalism. Advanced through Dispensationalist prophecy conferences, Bible Colleges, seminaries and perhaps most of all, through the Scofield Bible (1909), it became the dominant paradigm for the interpretation of redemptive history among those influenced by revivalism and fundamentalism, which is to say most evangelicals in the period. Dispensationalism appeared to be at the peak of its influence in the 1970s with the publication of Hal Lindsey’s, The Late, Great Planet Earth (1970),  John Walvoord’s Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis (1976; rev. 1990), and the Ryrie Study Bible (1976) seemed to signal that the influence of Dispensationalism, especially the modified Dispensationalism was only continuing to grow.

In retrospect, however, it appears that 1970s were not a staging ground for further growth but the zenith of Dispensationalism. Its influence began to wane through the 1980s. In 1990 Bock and Blaising  published Progressive Dispensationalism, which signaled a movement away from the Dispensationalism of not only of Scofield but also of Chafer, Ryrie, and Walvoord. There are bastions of modified Dispensationalism, however, that are continue to hold the fort but they seem to feel beleaguered not  without and within.

I. Covenant Theology Began in the 1640s?
Perhaps in reaction, some defenders of modified Dispensationalism are prone to make certain exaggerated historical and theological claims as part of their defense. One of them is that covenant theology arose in the 1640s (or 1670s).

C. Fred Lincoln made this claim in a series of articles published in Bibliotheca Sacra beginning in 1943. His work has been further reduced to the bald claim, as one pastor puts it on his website: “Covenant theology is a system developed by two men, Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669) and Hermann Witsius (1636-1708).” I have heard this claim repeatedly.

However comforting such a narrative might be to Dispensationalists it is demonstrably false. Covenant theology did mature in the 17th century but the very system of a prelapsarian (pre-fall) covenant of works and a postlapsarian covenant of grace, which allegedly arose in the 1640s, existed explicitly as early as 1561 and implicitly much earlier than that. In the transitional period from 1561 until 1600 one sees multiple writers doing explicitly what some Dispensational apologists claim did not exist until the 1640s.

Further, there is good evidence to think that the roots of the explicit covenant theology of the early 1560s were in in the magisterial Reformers as they worked out an account of redemptive history from the 1520s. forward By the early 17th century the Reformed themselves believed that the roots of their covenant theology were in Oecolampadius (1520s). Certainly Zwingli and Bullinger were working out a covenant theology in response to the Anabaptists. The latter published a treatise on the covenant of grace in 1534. Ursinus taught the covenant of works or a covenant of nature in 1561. Caspar Olevianus published a series of treatises on covenant theology in the 1560s, 70s, and 80s culminating in his work, On The Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect (1585). Arguably, Olevianus taught a legal, prelapsarian covenant between God and Adam which was substantially identical to that found in Ursinus and later in Rollock and Perkins. He also taught something very much like the pre-temporal covenant of redemption. See Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant for a survey of his theology.

Long before the Reformed developments in the late 16th century there had been covenant theologies current in the medieval and patristic periods. Much of what the Reformed argued in their account of the substantial unity of salvation was influenced by those earlier responses, e.g., to the Albigensians in the 13th century and to the Gnostics and Marcionites in the 2nd century. Among the second-century writers Barnabas, Irenaeus, and Justin were clearly proponents of a covenantal explanation of redemptive history, which the Reformed would repeat in the 16th century against the Anabaptists. In short, the evidence that a developed covenant theology pre-existed the mid-17th century is overwhelming and claims that Reformed covenant theology arose as a system in mid-17th century are not tenable.

Part 2: Is Reformed covenant theology a “replacement theology”?


R. Scott Clark, “Christ and Covenant: Federal Theology in Orthodoxy,” in Herman Selderhuis, ed., Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

R. Scott Clark, A Brief History of Covenant Theology.

Here’s the syllabus for my course on the history of covenant theology (with a bibliography).

II. Covenant Theology Is Replacement Theology
Our English word canard is actually a French word for duck (the noun, not the verb). Used figuratively in both French and English it signals “an unfounded rumor or story” (Oxford American Dictionary). In this brief three-part series I am addressing three canards, i.e., three unfounded claims that Dispensational apologists make about Reformed theology. This series should interest those more irenic Dispensationalists who seek to build bridges between the Reformed and Dispensationalists. It should also interest those who, though they have been raised in Dispensational congregations, are investigating Reformed theology or who are in transition between Dispensationalism and Reformed theology, piety, and practice. In part 1 we looked at the claim by some Dispensationalists that covenant theology arose in the mid-17th century.

The second thing that Dispensational apologists should stop saying that Reformed theology is a “replacement” or “supersessionist” theology. According to this criticism Reformed theology is supposed to teach that whereas the Jews were God’s visible people under the Old Testament, under the New Testament, they have been replaced or superseded (hence supersessionism) by the New Testament Church. This is a gross mischaracterization of Reformed theology and it begs the question, i.e., it assumes what it must prove.

The charge is loaded with a premise that we do not accept: that “Israel” and “the church” are two distinct or parallel things. As we understand redemptive history the church has always been. There was a church, of sorts, even before the fall. The garden was a temple, a holy place, which Adam as prophet, priest, and king was to rule, guard, and administer. He failed. There was a church after the fall, beginning with Adam, then Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, etc.

This is not some theory that the Reformed impose upon Scripture. The doctrine that the church has always been is a biblical idea. According to Deuteronomy 4:10, when Israel was gathered at the foot of Sinai (Horeb) they were gathered, before the face of Yahweh (‏לִפְנֵ֨י יְהוָ֣ה) as the covenant assembly (‏קהל). The Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which was highly influential upon the vocabulary of the Greek NT uses the expression “on the day of the assembly” (τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῆς ἐκκλησίας). The noun that the LXX uses there and in Deuteronomy 9:10, 18:16. In Deuteronomy 23:3 (LXX) the same noun is used for the “assembly (‏ (קהלof the Lord” (ἐκκλησίαν κυρίου). Deuteronomy 31:30 speaks of the “assembly of Israel” (ἐκκλησίας Ισραηλ). This is the noun which, in the New Testament, is translated “church.” When our Lord says, in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church” he uses this noun (ἐκκλησίαν). In v. 17, when he says “tell it to the church” (ἐκκλησίᾳ), he is saying, “tell it to the covenant assembly.” It is the very same idea, the very same sort of assembly in view in Deuteronomy 4, 9, 18 (as surveyed above) that is being invoked in Matthew 16. Here is a longer, more detailed explanation of the biblical doctrine of the church as the Christ-confessing covenant community. The Biblical understanding would be clearer if we used the same terms in both cases. We could speak of the church gathered at Sinai etc or Jesus building his covenant assembly.

In the Reformed understanding, the church gradually became predominantly and distinctively Jewish with the institution of the sacrament of circumcision, as Paul says in Rom 4:–12. Abraham believed before he was circumcised, i.e., while he was a Gentile and he believed after he was circumcised, when he became a Jew. So it is with the history of redemption. God had his people under Noah and Abraham but, in the providence of God, the focus of redemption gradually narrowed, like a funnel, through redemptive history as it became focused for about a millennium, temporarily, on national Israel. From Israel would come the Savior of the world. So, for a time the church was predominantly Jewish. In no way do we diminish the importance of this administration of the church or the outward administration of the covenant of grace under national Israel. We agree with Paul who wrote, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Rom 9:4–5; ESV). In Ephesians 2:12 Paul says that to national Israel was given “the covenant of promise” (διαθηκῶν τῆς ἐπαγγελίας). They had the highest privilege.

The very notion of a “replacement” or “succession” assumes that God is no longer saving Jews. This is contrary to Paul’s teaching in Romans 11:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace (Rom 11:1–5; ESV).

Paul appealed to himself as a proof that God was still honoring his promise and still saving his people, his elect, from among the descendants of Abraham. Further, it is held by many faithful Reformed theologians, on the basis of Romans 11, that there will a future, great conversion of Jews to new life and true faith in Jesus as the Messiah. That would be a glorious thing indeed.

We must also remember, however, that Paul also says that, in Christ, the dividing wall erected by the 613 commandments (of the Mosaic law) has been broken down. It’s worth quoting at length:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph 2:11–22; ESV).

According to Paul, though there was a temporary dividing wall, under Moses and David (for about 1,000 years). That dividing wall has been demolished by the death of Christ. Now, for those who are in Christ there is only “one man,” as it were. Peace has been made. Reconciliation has been accomplished. Even under the Mosaic and Davidic administrations of the covenant of grace (the church) there were some Gentiles grafted in to the body as a foreshadow of the future ingathering of the Gentiles. Remember Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5)? He was a Gentile but he was received by the prophet as a member of the covenant community. Rahab is another case (Matt 1:5; Heb 11:31).  In the NT we see that the Old, Mosaic covenant (2 Cor 3:14) was fulfilled and cancelled (Col 2:14) by the death of Christ. In the New Testament the nations, Gentiles, would be called to faith in Jesus the Messiah just as the Jews had been (Isa 52:10, 15; 60:3). Indeed, the actual inclusion of Gentiles into covenant communities (into the church) created a crisis that had to be resolved by a formal assembly (Acts 15). Paul had to address the problem repeatedly (e.g., in Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians to name but a few).

Now, in Christ, there is no longer any distinction between Jew or Gentile (See Rom 10:12; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). The wall, erected in the temporary national covenant with Israel, has been destroyed never to be rebuilt. God is saving all his elect, Jew and Gentile alike (See Rom 11) and shall continue to do so until Christ returns. Reformed theologians and the Reformed churches have always believed this. The very category “replacement” is alien to Reformed theology. Like all Christians we pray for the conversion of Jews and Gentiles by the sovereign, gracious work of the Holy Spirit. With Paul, we pray for the conversion of Israel to saving faith in the ascended and glorified Messiah Jesus of Nazareth.

We reject the idea that there are two peoples, an earthly and a spiritual people. God’s spiritual promises were temporarily administered through an earthly national people but, as Paul says in Galatians 3:17, the Mosaic covenant was 430 years after Abraham and the Mosaic covenant did not change the Abrahamic. Agreeing with Paul in Galatians is hardly “replacement theology” or of “supersessionism.”

If Dispensationalists are genuinely interested understanding Reformed theology and it representing it accurately to others, they must stop saying that Reformed theology teaches “replacement theology.”

Here are some resources on the so-called “replacement theology.”

III. Reformed Covenant Theology Allegorizes?

“For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6b)

It was widely held in the early church that 2 Corinthians 3:6 intended to distinguish between the literal sense of the text of Scripture and its figurative sense. The literal sense is that sense the text had in its original context, to its original readers (or hearers). The figurative sense referred to metaphorical or symbolic truth contained in the text, which might take a variety of shapes. There was never any doubt, even by that most prolific scholar of the figurative senses Origen (c. 184–c.254), that the literal sense is always present and most basic. What varied, however, was the degree to which a writer was interested in one category or the other. Thus, whereas Origen was much more interested in the figurative (theological and moral) senses, John Chyrsostom (347–407) was much more interested in the literal sense.

Over time, the figurative sense developed. Initially it was said to contain the doctrinal (allegorical) and the moral (tropological). Eventually, by the 7th century writers were speaking of a third sub-category of figurative meaning, the eschatological (analogical). Together, these 4 senses came to be known as the quadriga. The development of the three sub-categories of the figurative sense was not arbitrary. It was driven by two impulses. First, there was a correlation with 1 Corinthians 13:13, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Faith refers to the doctrinal sense (allegory) or what is to be believed (credenda), hope refers to what the text teaches about heaven (eschatology) or what is to hoped (speranda), and love to what is to be done (agenda). Each of these correlated to a cardinal, basic, pivotal (cardo = hinge) Christian virtue: faith (fides), hope (spes), and charity (or love; caritas). The medievals developed a song to help students remember how to keep the senses distinct:

Litera gesta docet, (The letter teaches of deeds)
quid credas allegoria; (allegory of what is believed)
moralis quid agas; (morality of what is done)
quo tenda anagogia. (anagoge of things to come)

Sometimes one is given the impression that users of the quadriga sought to find every sense in every text. This is not likely. In his commentary on Job (Moralia in Job), Gregory the Great (c. 540–604) wrote,

Let it be known that we survey some passages with a literal interpretation. Other passages we examine by means of allegory in a figurative interpretation. Still others we study through the exclusive use of moral comparisons. Finally, some passages we investigate with greater care through the combined use of all three ways. Thus, we first lay a foundation of literal meaning. Then, through the figurative sense, we raise the structure of the mind into a citadel of faith. Finally, through the moral interpretation, we clothe our building with an additional shading.

The second driver of the expansion of the figurative sense was the influence of the spirit/matter dualism of middle and neo-Platonism. In this scheme the material is less real and less significant than the spiritual. To the degree this bias influenced Christians, it is not surprising that they (e.g., Origen) came to see the literal sense of the text as superficial and the spiritual (or figurative) senses of the text as more significant. Thus, for Origen, the literal narrative about the ark in Genesis 6–9 was undoubtedly true (contra critics like Celsus) but the literal sense was obvious. What was less obvious, what required more skill, more insight was the figurative (spiritual) senses of the narrative, particularly the theological (or allegorical) sense of the narrative. Origen was most interested in the theological sense of the ark because it suited his apologetic program. For Origen, Celsus and the critics missed the point of the ark by focusing on its size and the number of animals on board. We see analogous use of Scripture by apologists today in the way some make us of “every thought captive” (2 Cor 10:5). In context Paul does not mean to teach immediately what that text is often used to say. If there is a connection, it is via the theological implication of the text.

By the fourth century, under Origen’s considerable influence—Origen was not condemned until 553—it became fairly commonplace for interpreters to assign multiple senses to an important term such as Jerusalem.

Literal = the actual city
Allegorical = Christ’s church
Tropological = Human souls
Anagogical = The heavenly city

In this approach, Jesus did not get into a boat to teach (Luke 5:3) for practical reasons but in order to send a symbolic message about the centrality of the visible institutional church. The boat was said to represent the visible church. Again, we recoil against such a reading (or we should) because it is arbitrary, because it ignores the context and the grammar but one can see how, under the influence of Platonic dualism and the ordinary pastoral need to try to impress God’s people with the significance of the narrative, or to apply the text, or even to maintain the congregation’s interest in a sermon—it is not as if evangelical pastors do not allegorize in precisely this way every Sunday across the globe for precisely these reasons—such an approach would have been attractive. Again, this approach, however misguided it might seem to us, it is not as if Paul did not invoke allegory (in some sense) in Galatians 4 in his explanation of the flow of redemptive history. Add a little Platonic dualism to one’s hermeneutic and voilà and the text becomes, in the tropological sense, about the journey of the soul to God. We would be less than honest if we did not recognize at least a little popular contemporary evangelical preaching and teaching in the very approach that many have been taught to condemn.

By the 13th century Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74) recognized the excess to which the quadriga had been taken and attempted to rein it in by leading a sort of back to the Bible movement wherein the spiritual senses were said to be embedded in the text itself, rather than derived outside the text and imposed upon it but he continued to read the text in ways that the Reformation would ultimately find unsatisfying and arbitrary.

In The Reformation the Protestants not only affirmed the primacy of the literal sense but they rejected the quadriga as an abuse of Scripture. This is not to say that they did not themselves find “spiritual” or figurative senses from time to time but that they were so committed to the notion that the text has one intended sense that rhetorically and in practice were highly critical of the quadrigal system. When the text was intended by the divine and human authors to be taken figuratively, they sought to do so. When the text was intended (as in the case of Luke 5:3) to be taken as a straightforward historical narrative), they did so. They certainly made theological and moral applications of the text but that was a rather different thing than finding multiple senses in the text.

I offer this narrative to help our Dispensationalist friends understand why it is so wrongheaded for them to continue to criticize Reformed covenant theology for “allegorizing.” What the Dispensationalist critic typically means by this criticism is not that the Reformed are guilty of looking for the doctrinal sense of the text, as the fathers and medievals did, but rather that the Reformed have reached a different conclusion than the Dispensationalist. In my experience with Dispensationalists there is not a great awareness of the history of hermeneutics, the quadriga, or even of what the allegorical sense really was. “Allegory” is used a synonym for figurative or even as a synonym for typology. In the classic and modified dispensational schemes, the promises made to national Israel are central to the unfolding of redemptive history. By contrast, in classic Reformed covenant theology, Christ is said to be at the center of the unfolding history of redemption. According to some Dispensationalist critics, any scheme which fails to read the divine promises to be chiefly about national Israel (e.g., in a millennial kingdom including the institution of the memorial Levitical sacrifices) is said to be guilty of “allegorizing.”

This charge is false. The reality is that Reformed interpreters are committed to the original, intended literal sense of Scripture. Historically, however, we have recognized that Scripture intends to use a variety of forms of speech and genres and we interpret Scripture in light of the human and divine authorship of Scripture. We let the clearer interpret the less clear. The prophecies of Daniel and Ezekiel are manifestly less clear insofar as symbolic language is inherently less clear than didactic and narrative discourse. We let the newer teach us how to interpret the older. Thus, when Jesus said, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25, 26; ESV) and Luke adds, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27; ESV) and further that when Christ “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45; ESV) it was to see that the central message is, as Luke writes, “that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46, 47; ESV). In other words, it is not “allegorizing” to see all of Scripture chiefly pointing to Christ as the fulfillment of divine promises but rather it is the intended sense of Scripture understood as Jesus and the Apostles would have it. That this is so seems abundantly clear to those who are not burdened with the a priori that God’s plan for national Israel and its restoration must be at the center of redemptive history and therefore the hermeneutical key to Scripture. As we understand the literal sense of Scripture, Jesus said, “Abraham saw my day and rejoiced” (John 8:56). Abraham literally believed in Jesus. Contra Dispensationalism, the “content” of faith has not changed throughout redemptive history. Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David all believed in Jesus. That is the literal, intended message of Hebrews 11 and Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 1:20, “all the promises of God are amen in Christ Jesus.” Paul literally teaches in Ephesians 2 that Christ figuratively tore down the dividing wall that separated Jew and Gentile and that all those who believe in Christ form one, new covenant, man.

Scripture uses “types” (τύπος) and shadows (σκιὰ). Paul says that Adam was a “type” of Jesus (Rom 5:14). Paul teaches that the 613 Mosaic laws were a “shadow” of Christ (Col 2:16–17). Hebrews 10:1 says exactly the same thing in exactly the same terms. They were anticipations of the reality. They prefigured the coming of Christ. Heaven is a reality. Arguably, in John and Hebrews, it is the reality. After all, the true bread comes from heaven (John 6:32). On this see Geerhardus Vos, “True and Truth in the Johannine Writings” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation).

Hebrews 8:5 says that the Levitical priests serve at a copy and shadow (ὑποδείγματι καὶ σκιᾷ) of the reality, i.e., of the heavenly temple, where Christ is now. In other words, unless we are to accuse Hebrews of Platonism, which charge is nothing but rationalism, then we must say that the earthly temple was only and ever intentionally an illustration of something else. Thus, it is not allegorizing to recognize, as the fathers and the Reformed did, that when Jesus said “destroy this temple, and in thee days I will raise it up” (John 2:19) he was speaking figuratively, he was saying that he is the temple. He was saying that he is the fulfillment of the temple. This is not Reformed allegorizing. It is the patent teaching of God’s Word: “But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21). The true sense of Jesus’ words is a figure of speech. It is on the basis of our union with Christ that believers become corporately and individually, figuratively, the temple of God (1 Cor 3:16, 17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16). The dividing wall having been broken down by Christ’s death, Jewish and Gentile Christians are being made into one figurative temple (Eph 2:21). The Spirit of God and of Shekinah glory rests upon us corporately (1 Pet 4:14).

As Hebrews says, he is our high priest (Heb 2:17; 3:1; 4:15, 15; 5:5, 10, 6:20; 7:26; 8:1, 3; 9:11). That is why Jesus “once for all” (ἐφάπαξ) offered himself up as the sacrifice for sin (Heb 7:27). He entered “once for all” into the holy of holies (Heb 9:12). He appeared “once for all” to put away sin by his sacrifice (Heb 9:26). Believers have been sanctified by his “once for all” offering (Heb 10:10). There were literal sacrifices, priests, and temples but they prefigured the literal reality of Jesus’ perfect, active suffering obedience, which he accomplished for all his elect (Jew and Gentile) and which has been graciously imputed to all who believe by grace alone. His literal obedience made him figuratively the “lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36). He is the lamb who was led before its shearer (Acts 8:32). He is our Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:19; Rev 5:6).

In short, as Hebrews teaches, Moses and the entire typological system, worked for (i.e., pointed to and was fulfilled by) Jesus:

Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house. For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope (Heb 3:1–6; ESV).

Jesus is the literal Son, the literal heir, and the literal owner of God’s figurative house. Moses was a worker, a servant in that house. The whole Israelite arrangement was never anything but a type and shadow of the reality to come: Christ. That is not allegorizing. That is the way holy Scripture itself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, inerrant in every syllable, intends to be interpreted. Fidelity to Scripture requires that we distinguish properly between the literal and the figurative, that we recognize literary devices, that we recognize what is a type and what is a fulfillment. Fidelity to Scripture requires that we not only see where Scripture explicitly finds a fulfillment but that we learn from Scripture how to interpret Scripture. J. Dwight Pentecost was wrong (Things to Come, 17). The rabbis did not have the right hermeneutic but the wrong conclusions. Their system meant that Jesus could not be the Savior because he did not meet their expectations. The question we might ask, in light of the clear, repeated, and abundant testimony of Scripture is whether the hermeneutic of our Dispensationalist friends is more like that the Pharisees than it is like that of Jesus and the Apostles?

Further Reading
My understanding of the history of the quadriga is influenced by a number of sources beginning with the work of Beryl Smalley (e.g., The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, 1940). The Song of the Exegete is taken from Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), s.v., “Quadriga.”

The Logic Of Fruit As Evidence

The Patristic Period
One of the earliest concerns of the Christian church, beginning with the apostles and intensifying through the patristic and medieval periods, was that those who profess the Christian faith should live in a way befitting their profession of faith. In the apostolic and patristic periods our theologians were often writing within a hostile culture to converts from paganism. There was much that Christians could not control: what the pagans thought of them (e.g., they drown babies, they were cannibals, they were a burial cult etc). The Greco-Roman pagans seemed determined to try to force the Christians to conform outwardly to Greco-Roman piety. They were happy to add Jesus to the pantheon but they (and the non-Christian Jews) were greatly troubled by his crucifixion and they could not tolerate the notion that he had claimed (and the Christians confessed) that he is the only way to God. There offended too by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as unreasonable and others were critical of the claim that Jesus was born of a Virgin. Occasionally, in the patristic periods, there were even sporadic outbreaks of government-sponsored persecution intended either deal with the problem of the Christians. Those pogroms failed and the Christians persisted. One thing the Christians could control, one claim the Christians could make was that their behavior was exemplary. Those who investigated the Christians from the outside reported (e.g., Pliny the Younger c. 112 AD) that the Christians covenanted among themselves not make false oaths, not to steal, not to desire the belongings of others etc. They recited the Ten Commandments in their services. As part of their apologetic (i.e., defense of the faith) Justin Martyr and Tertullian repeatedly challenged the pagans to find anything wrong with the way Christians behaved. Christians, they argued, were good citizens and could sustain any trial to which the pagans might put them. They repeatedly begged the authorities to leave the Christians alone so they could pursue their lives peacefully.

The Medieval Period
Beginning in the late Patristic period and continuing through the medieval period, however, the high Christian doctrine of the moral and apologetic necessity of good behavior morphed into something else: part of the ground and instrument of the Christian’s standing before God, part of the ground and reason of their final salvation from the wrath to come. By the high middle ages (e.g., as reflected the teaching of Anselm. Bernard of Clairvaux. and Thomas Aquinas) it was widely held, though never formally confessed by the church, that salvation is by sanctification and that sanctification is by grace and free cooperation with grace. The mainstream doctrine became that Christians needed to accumulate merit and that was that free will, i.e., the un-coerced act of the will was essential merit. Behind this lay a set of philosophical assumptions that were received more or less uncritically, chief among which was the notion that God can only say “righteous” or “sanctified” if the Christians is actually, inherently, intrinsically righteous and sanctified. Particularly in the West and entire doctrine of salvation (soteriology) was established to explain how that was and what one must do to be saved (sanctified and therefore justified and finally delivered from the wrath to come).

The became that Christians are infused with a sort of medicine (a metaphor frequently used for grace) which produces new life (there is nothing new about sovereign, prevenient grace) with which the Christian must cooperate toward the formation of a kind of merit that has intrinsic worth. The medieval theologians called this “condign merit.” They recognized, however, in different ways that our cooperation with grace is imperfect or that our good works are still imperfect (different writers put it differently) and therefore God must impute perfection to our best efforts. They called this congruent merit. There was a widespread conviction that the only way to promote sanctity (holiness) and obedience among Christians is to suspend their final standing before God (salvation) upon their cooperation with grace. Good works were not evidence of a right standing with God and salvation but essential to the ground and instrument of our justification and salvation. Where at least some of the Fathers had spoken of justification and salvation by grace through faith in something like the way the Protestants would later do, the medievals defined faith rather differently. They defined faith as sanctification. They taught that faith is a virtue, that it has intrinsic power, and that it is “formed” in us through sanctification, i.e., by grace and cooperation with grace. Where Paul had written, “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6) the medievals (e.g., Thomas) taught “faith formed by love.” They spoke of the “theological virtues” of 1 Corinthians 13: faith, hope, and love. Faith was thought to be the gift of God but it does not given to us fully developed. We must nurture it and since love (caritas from which we get charity) is the greatest virtue, we must develop it by our free cooperation with grace toward the formation of faith. Thus, for the medieval theologians, faith is not so much trusting in Christ and looking to Christ but rather a measurement of the degree of love formed within us, a measurement of our actual sanctity and inherent righteousness.

This prevailing medieval doctrine of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace, however, left the Christian in a state of suspension. Assurance was regarded as ordinarily impossible for the ordinary Christian and undesirable. Indeed, the notion of that one might have certainty that one was saved and would be saved from the wrath to come was regarded as presumption, as arrogance and that was an indication that one was not sufficiently sanctified. Christians were intended in a state of uncertainty. In at least one Saxon Augustinian monk that crisis created by the medieval system would produce a revolution in Western theology, piety, and practice.

The Reformation
When Luther rebelled against the medieval doctrine of justification and salvation by sanctification he re-defined justification as God’s unconditional declaration of justification (righteousness) on the ground of Christ’s condign merit imputed to believers and that received through faith alone (sola fide). Faith in justification and salvation was redefined as the sole instrument through which Christians receive God’s grace and Christ’s righteousness. This is why the sola of sola fide was so important. Love was said to be the fruit and evidence of justification and salvation. Grace was also redefined. Luther and the Protestants found that the medievals had departed from the biblical definition of grace as God’s free favor toward sinners and had turned it into a medicine. They found that some of the Fathers and many of the medievals had downplayed the effects of sin so as to be able to teach our ability to cooperate freely with grace. They recaptured St Paul’s and St Augustine’s doctrine of sin and its deadly consequences.

Where the medievals had come to teach that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection made it possible for Christian to do his part, if he would, Luther and the Protestants declared that the gospel is that Christ had accomplished salvation once-for-all and that he freely distributes it to all who believe, that faith is a free gift of grace, and that even though we are never fully, inherently sanctified or righteous in this life nevertheless we are already fully justified before God and saved from the wrath to come. We are simultaneously righteous even though we remain actually sinners (simul iustus et peccator). That was something that virtually no medieval theologian could say and it was flatly contrary to what became formal Romanist dogma in the mid-16th century.

What of sanctification? Whereas the medievals made sanctification the instrument of our justification and salvation Luther and the Protestants taught that our actual, progressive sanctification is the necessary consequence of our justification and our salvation from the wrath to come. Like the Fathers and the medievals they believed and taught the moral necessity of holiness and obedience to God’s moral law (the ten commandments) but unlike the medievals they taught Christian obedience to the law is the fruit of our justification and evidence of our salvation. There were those, particularly in the 1550s, who dissented from the Protestant consensus. One theologian (Osiander) taught that God accepts us on the basis of our union with the indwelling Christ. Another tried to wedge in the medieval doctrine, by teaching that good works were more than evidence but this revision was universally rejected. The overwhelming consensus among Reformed theologians by the mid-16th century was that sanctification is the necessary consequence of our justification and the evidence of our salvation.

Protestants On Obedience As Fruit And Evidence
Where Rome (e.g., Trent), the Socinians, and Richard Baxter made good works the antecedent condition of our salvation (the law of works), i.e., they played the same role as faith, the Protestants made good works the necessary consequence of our salvation. According to the moralists, we do good works in order to be saved. According to the Protestants, we do good works because we have been saved. One says, in effect, that we are saved from the flood (judgment) partly through faith and partly through our good works. The other says we obey out of gratitude, in union and communion with the risen Christ, because we have been saved, as it were, from the flood. This is the best understanding of Ephesians 2:8–10. Our salvation and the faith by which we receive it, it’s all God’s gift.

Martin Luther
It was Luther who gave us the adjective antinomian, those who reject the abiding validity of God’s holy moral law as the norm for the Christian. Almost as soon as Luther and the Protestants had recovered the gospel of free salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), resting in and receiving Christ and all his benefits, a movement arose that rejected the abiding validity of the moral law. Luther defended not only the first use of the moral law (whereby we learn the greatness of our sin and misery) but also the third use whereby the moral law norms the Christian life. We keep the law not in order to be saved but because we have been saved.

Good works, he taught, are the a necessary consequence of our justification and salvation:

We conclude with Paul that we are justified solely by faith in Christ, without the Law and works. But after a man is justified by faith, now possesses Christ by faith, and knows that He is his righteousness and life, he will certainly not be idle but, like a sound tree, will bear good fruit (Matt. 7:17). For the believer has the Holy Spirit; and where He is, He does not permit a man to be idle but drives him to all the exercises of devotion, to the love of God, to patience in affliction, to prayer, to thanksgiving, and to the practice of love toward all men.1

He was not finished. In the very next paragraph Luther wrote

Therefore we, too, say that faith without works is worthless and useless. The papists and the fanatics take this to mean that faith without works does not justify, or that if faith does not have works, it is of no avail, no matter how true it is. That is false. But faith without works—that is, a fantastic idea and mere vanity and a dream of the heart—is a false faith and does not justify.2

For Luther, as for all the confessional Protestants following him, good works do not make faith what it is but neither can one claim to have true faith without them any more than a tree can be said to be good without fruit. The fruit demonstrates what the tree is. The fruit is evidence that the tree is alive.

This, of course, never satisfies the moralist. He will have good works as part of faith both in justification and for our final entrance into glory:

On the other hand, the weak, who are not malicious or slanderous but good, are offended when they hear that the Law and good works do not have to be done for justification. One must go to their aid and explain to them how it is that works do not justify, how works should be done, and how they should not be done. They should be done as fruits of righteousness, not in order to bring righteousness into being. Having been made righteous, we must do them; but it is not the other way around: that when we are unrighteous, we become righteous by doing them. The tree produces fruit; the fruit does not produce the tree.3

This metaphor of good works as fruit was widely adopted by Protestant writers. It became a standard feature of Reformed theologians in the British Isles and across Europe. It was so widely accepted that it became a the way that the Reformed churches spoke about good works in their confessions.

The Reformed Confessions And Theologians
Perhaps the locus classicus (the most typical place) is Belgic Confession article 24:

These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification— for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.

The charge made by Rome and the Anabaptists, among others, was that the evangelical doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide would make Christians cold and careless about their sanctification. The Reformed churches refuted that charge by arguing that the same grace by which we have been given new life also produces faith and it is “impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful.” True faith is God’s gift. It unites us to the risen and ascended Christ who, by his Spirit, works in us conformity to himself and to his moral will. This is how we understand “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Rome, remember, turned “faith working through love” into “faith formed by love” (on this see part 1). In response, Calvin wrote on Galatians 5:6, “When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle.”

In the 1559 edition of the Institutes Calvin wrote at length on the relationship between the grace of justification and the grace of sanctification.

But, since the question concerns only righteousness and sanctification, let us dwell upon these. Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces [1 Cor. 1:13]. Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness.4

Notice that, for Calvin, we are not justified “without” works but we are not justified “through” them. They are concomitant to our justification and our salvation but they are not the instrument (“through”) of our salvation. This is the difference between through and is. He continued in the next section to give a series of biblical quotations and allusions proving that “no one can put sharper spurs to them than those derived from the end of our redemption and calling” (3.16.2). In other words, contra the moralists, guilt, grace, and gratitude (lived in union and communion with Christ) is enough to empower and enable the Christian life of sanctification and the fruit of good works. He asked rhetorically, “Could we be aroused to love by any livelier argument than that of John’s: that “we love one another as God has loved us”? (ibid). God’s gracious for our present tribulation produces fruit: “Let us always remember that this promise, like all others, would not bear fruit for us if the free covenant of his mercy had not gone before, upon which the whole assurance of our salvation depended” (3.18.7).

In the Second Helvetic Confession (published 1566) the Swiss Reformed confessed:

The same apostle calls faith efficacious and active through love (Gal. 5:6). It also quiets the conscience and opens a free access to God, so that we may draw near to him with confidence and may obtain from him what is useful and necessary. The same faith keeps us in the service we owe to God and our neighbor, strengthens our patience in adversity, fashions and makes a true confession, and in a word brings forth good fruit of all kinds, and good works (ch. 16).

We obey because God has graciously redeemed us. The very same grace and faith that saves also produces the fruit of good works, the evidence of our salvation.

For we teach that truly good works grow out of a living faith by the Holy Spirit and are done by the faithful according to the will or rule of God’s Word. Now the apostle Peter says: “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control,” etc.(II Peter 1:5 ff.). But we have said above that the law of God, which is his will, prescribes for us the pattern of good works. And the apostle says: “This is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from immorality…that no man transgress, and wrong his brother in business” (I Thess. 4:3 ff.).

We are not antinomian but we use the law the way it was intended to be used: as the norm of our new life, not the instrument or ground of our salvation.

The Westminster Confession could not have been clearer about the relationship between faith and fruits:

2. These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life (chapter 16).

Our good works do not justify us. They do not sanctify us. They do not save us but they are the “fruit and evidences” of a true and lively faith. Christ saved us by his obedience, death, and resurrection. The Spirit sanctifies by his grace. Our good works are the fruit of God’s gracious for us and in us.

The logic is this: God graciously works in us new life and faith. Through that faith we apprehend Christ and all his benefits for our salvation. Through that faith the Spirit works union and communion with Christ in which we are sanctified and out of that faith, union, and communion are produced the fruit of our new life and sanctification in Christ. Fruit is a metaphor. As the Belgic Confession has it, good trees produce good fruit. The fruit is evidence of the life in the tree. So, the Spirit produces new life, faith, union with Christ, justification and sanctification in the sinner. Our good works are the fruit of the Spirit’s work in us and evidence of the salvation that we have by grace alone, through faith alone.


1. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 26 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 154–155. I am indebted to John Fonville for his help with this post.

2. Luther’s Works, 26.155.

3. Luther’s Works, 26.169.

4. Calvin, Institutes (Battles edition), 3.16.1.


What Is The Substance Of The Covenant Of Grace?

For most of 2,000 years the Christian church was universally agreed that there is one way of salvation, that the history of redemption was essentially unified. In the post-apostolic church this consensus began to develop very early in the 2nd century in response to the challenge of various heretical movements and most particularly the Gnostics, who sharply distinguished between the “god” of the Old Testament and the God of the New. Indeed the orthodox Christians reacted so strongly they began describing all of Scripture as law. The Old Testament was the “old law” and the New was the “new law.” This is not to say that there was no recognition of diversity in the history of redemption, there was, but the emphasis was strongly on the unity of salvation between the old and the new.

The Reformation inherited and continued to value the fundamental unity of salvation history in Scripture even as they described that unity in different terms. Thus, Adolf von Harnack’s quip that Luther was the first theologian to understand Marcion was most certainly false. The Protestant hermeneutical and theological distinction between law and gospel did not reintroduce the Marcionite juxtaposition of the OT “god” v. the NT God. The Reformed churches, partly in response to what appeared to them to be a movement back toward Marcion by the Anabaptists, developed a reading of redemptive history that explained the unity and diversity of Scripture in terms of the covenants that God had made before history and in history. Again, this was not new. The 2nd and 3rd century fathers, in response to the Gnostics and other dualists (e.g., Marcion) had done the very same thing. In the 5th century, Augustine would appeal to the covenant God made a covenant with Adam before the fall as if it were a given. The medieval church had also referred regularly, although not always happily for the gospel, to a sort of covenant theology.

In modern period of church history and particularly since the mid-19th century, however, the widespread and long-held conviction about the fundamental unity of salvation has been challenged and especially in the US. The 19th century saw a number of movements that emphasized the discontinuity between the old and the new. Chief among those was Dispensationalism but there were other movements too that stressed discontinuity. Nineteenth-century American evangelicalism looks a great deal like early sixteenth-century Anabaptist radicalism. For more on this see the essay “Magic and Noise: Being Reformed In Sister’s America.”

Since then there have been broader social and cultural changes that have made it more difficult for American evangelicals, who remain deeply influenced by those 19th-century changes in American Christianity, to appreciate and value the unity of redemption. Americans under 40 and certainly those under 30 have grown up in a culture, in a time, in which the one of the reigning philosophical assumptions is that the “many” are more important than the “one.” Those who lean toward “the many” emphasize diversity, that which distinguishes one thing from another. They’re all about the individual, the particular. They are suspicious of attempts to link one thing to another. It seems artificial. They don’t want to be pigeonholed. Having been raised in the wake of the Reagan prosperity, they assume a higher standard of living than their predecessors. They expect “options.” This preference for the particular is so powerful that they sometimes have difficulty making choices because it means picking one thing and bypassing another and that requires them to give up an option.

By contrast, those over fifty were probably raised in a culture where the emphasis cultural assumption favored “the one” or that which unifies over that which distinguishes. That generation had fewer choices and lower expect ions about personal autonomy. They were shaped by an ethos formed by the first half of the twentieth century which had seen not one but two world wars, the second of which was followed by the Cold War. Their economic assumptions were more influenced by those who had experienced the Great Depression. In that period America was not yet fully urbanized and suburbanized. They had more experience with rural cultures and unity was considered a virtue rather than a disguised form of oppression.

For these historical, cultural, and social reasons, Reformed Christians in America (and perhaps elsewhere in the west) face genuine obstacles as they try to explain the historic Reformed doctrine of the “substance of the covenant of grace.” There are other obstacles. Many evangelicals are unfamiliar with even the notion of a covenant of grace. Most of them and not a few Reformed folk think that the doctrine of predestination (that, from eternity, God has elected some to salvation and allowed others to remain in their fallen state) is the sum of Reformed theology.

It was not so from the beginning of Reformed theology. The Reformed writers assumed the ancient Christian view that there is one way of salvation. In the 1530s Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) wrote a treatise defending the essential unity of the covenant of grace in the Old and New Testaments against the Anabaptists. In the 1580s, Caspar Olevianus (1536–85) published On Substance of the Covenant of Grace, in which opened with a discussion of Jeremiah 31 and continuing to elaborate on the essential unity of the covenant grace while accounting for the progress of revelation and redemption in Scripture. Herman Witsius (1636–1708), in his great work surveying the Biblical teaching on the unfolding history of redemption and revelation, The Economy of the Covenants (1677), followed Bullinger, Olevianus, and the mainstream of Reformed theology to that point and in the next post we’ll begin looking at his account of the unity of the covenant of grace “as to its substance.”

As mentioned above, Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), in On the Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect (1585) began his explanation of covenant theology with an appeal to Jeremiah 31. This is interesting because, in our setting, which is largely dominated by Baptist assumptions about the nature of redemptive history, revelation, and hermeneutics, Jeremiah 31 is often assumed to be a proof text for the Baptist view that the new covenant is new relative to everything that went before it. If, however, we read Jeremiah 31 in its own context, as prophetic literature and interpret it the way the New Testament does, we come to a quite different reading. According to Jeremiah 31 itself and according to its NT interpretation, the contrast is between the new covenant and the Mosaic or old covenant.

Olevianus, then, began with Jeremiah 31 because he saw in it a re-statement of an even older promise. He wrote:

God promised through the prophet Jeremiah [31:31,2] that he himself would make a new covenant with us, not like that covenant that he came to regret with the fathers, when he led them from the land of Egypt. Because they made the covenant void. But this was to be the covenant:

‘I will put my law in your midst, and I will write my law in your heart and I will be your God and you will be my people.’

Because, he shall have been propitiated, he would no more remember our iniquities and our sins (Jeremiah 31; Hebrews 8). Likewise, this covenant promised to us knowledge of the true God that also embraces the free forgiveness of sins in Christ and also that he might beget from himself the renewal of man to the image of God.*

There are several interesting features about this section (1.1.1) of De substantia. One is that he understood implicitly there to be a distinction of kind between the Mosaic/Old covenant and the new. The Mosaic could be made “void” (irritum) but the new covenant, being more basic to God’s plan for redemptive than the Mosaic/Old covenant, cannot.

The next question is what Olevianus (and the rest of the Reformed mainstream) regarded as the substance of the covenant of grace? Before we answer that we must be sure to understand his categories and distinctions. Olevianus was a trained humanist as well as a theologian. He learned Aristotle at university and particularly the Organon. As part of his education he learned the traditional Christian appropriation of the distinction between the substance of a thing, i.e., its essence, and its accidents or external appearance.

We make this distinction all the time. If you have a smart phone you probably have some sort of cover. The cover is not the phone. It is accidental to the phone. The same is true of your computer. The outer shell that houses your computer isn’t actually the computer. Things like the motherboard, those are the computer. Reformed people distinguish every sabbath between the “elements of worship” i.e., Word (including the sacraments) and prayer (including our sung responses to God’s Word) and the circumstances of worship (time, language, and place). It is not the time, place, or language that makes worship what it is. It is the right administration of the Word and the right use of prayer that are essential to worship. The substance of a thing is what makes it what it is, the thing without which it doesn’t exist. The accidents or circumstances are the administration of the covenant of grace.

The Reformed understand that there has always been different ways of relating to the one covenant of grace at the same time. The OT prophets and the Apostle Paul clearly distinguished between those who had only external, outward relation to the covenant of grace and those who had an outward and an internal or inward or spiritual relation to the covenant of grace. In other words, it is possible to participate in the administration of the covenant of grace and not actually benefit from its substance of essence. As I’ve shown elsewhere (see the linked article above on the new covenant), in that respect, according to Hebrews, it is quite possible to participate in the administration of the New Covenant and yet trample under foot its essence—to one’s own destruction.

How did the Olevianus and others define the substance or essence of the covenant of grace? “I will put my law in your midst, and I will write my law in your heart and I will be your God and you will be my people.” Embedded in this prophetic articulation of the covenant of grace is essentially or substantially the same promise he had made to Adam, after the fall (Gen 3), to Noah (Gen 6), and to Abraham (Gen 17). Embedded in that re-articulation is the ancient promise to send a redeemer who would turn away the wrath we earned and to earn righteousness for all his people. This, Olevianus would go on to say is the first benefit of the covenant of grace: “free forgiveness of sins in Christ,” i.e., unconditional acceptance with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

The second benefit is also articulated in Jeremiah 31, “that he might beget of himself, the renewal of man to the image of God.” This is progressive sanctification, a Spirit-wrought grace that follows logically, necessarily from the first benefit, justification. When Olevianus said “renewal” (renovatio), he was thinking of the progressive, spiritual, and moral renewal of the believer, by the Spirit, who works through the use of the holy sacraments (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 65) in which believers, by grace, gradually put to death the old man and are made alive in the new (HC Q. 88–90).

At first glance, the phrase “substance of the covenant” might seem nebulous but it isn’t. It’s the most practical thing: free acceptance with God and being gradually conformed to Christ’s image. Nothing is more concrete or practical than that. When our theologians, whether Olevianus in the 16th century or Witsius in the 17th century, wrote about the “substance of the covenant” they were writing about the same way God has always saved and sanctified his people whether under Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David or Christ. There is a unified covenant of grace.

Might we say that the substance of the covenant of grace is not a formula but a person, Christ. I considered writing that. It is certainly true but there is a reason why writers such as Olevianus and Witsius did not immediately give that answer to the question, “what is the substance of the covenant of grace?” The reason is that when the covenant of grace grace was first articulated, it promised Christ but he was promised to us in words. In other words, to say simply “Christ” is to neglect the means by which he is offered and also to flatten out the textures of the history of redemption.

In De substantia 1.1.2, Olevianus linked the promised benefits of the new covenant to the administration of that promise in the history of redemption. His starting point was God’s simplicity. He is one. Because he is one he does not change and because he does not change, he cannot lie. He does not contradict himself. Therefore we must distinguish between the substance of the covenant of grace and its administration. When, through Moses, God said, “this is my covenant in your flesh” he was not saying that everyone who was circumcised had (ex opere operato) the substance of the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace is twofold (dupliciter). It has two aspects. In the first instance there is the substance of the covenant itself and in the second there is its administration.

There is no covenant of grace without administration. Perhaps the most persistent error in the history of Reformed covenant theology has been conflate the administration with its substance or to collapse the administration of the covenant of grace into its substance. If we say that anyone who participates in the administration has the substance, then we are sacerdotalists. We’ve turned the covenant of grace into magic. This is the error of the Romanists and the Federal Visionists. If we allow the substance to swallow up the administration, then we lose the administration. This is what Baptists do with the new covenant. They divorce it from the history of redemption. Galatians and Hebrews 6:4 and 10:29, however, are all about not confusing the the administration of the covenant of grace with its substance. The Galatian Judaizers thought that, since they had participated in the administration, they necessarily had the substance. Some in the congregation of Christian Jews, to whom Hebrews was written, participated in the administration of the new covenant but did not mix that participation with faith and thus fell under anathema. The writer accused them of falling away and of trampling underfoot the Son of God and of profaning the blood of the covenant. The administration of the covenant of grace is real. It matters. God uses the process of the administration of the covenant of grace to bring his elect to faith.

Only the elect, however, have the substance of the covenant of grace. They have it through the administration but only they have it. Those who only participate in the outward administration, in the visible assembly, never have it even though they may seem to be believers. That is why they are called “hypocrites.” There are false brothers and sisters and it is quite shocking when they do fall away.

The substance of the covenant of grace was promised through a typological and shadowy administration under Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. When Deuteronomy 30:6 said, “God will circumcise your heart and that of your children” and “my covenant will be in your flesh” he was binding together the substance of the covenant of grace with its administration. This is why the Reformed confessions and churches have distinguished them while refusing to separate them. The substance is ordinarily only found in the midst of the administration. This is why we confess what we do about the necessity of the visible church in Belgic Confession chapter 28 that, ordinarily (i.e., by divine ordination and in the ordinary providence of God) “there is no salvation apart from it….”

Yet, it is undeniably true that though many heard to preaching of the law and the gospel only 8 persons were saved in the ark, that of those circumcised under Abraham and Moses, as Olevianus wrote, “not all of their hearts were circumcised.” Yet, salvation was, he wrote, “offered” to them in the administration of the covenant of grace. Those who did not receive Christ and his benefits (justification and sanctification), “personally, maliciously, rejected the gracious offer of the covenant….”

That is why he wrote that the essence of the covenant of grace is “a sworn oath promised by God” of free, unconditional acceptance with God and of his ongoing, gracious work in the justified by the Holy Spirit, through the means of grace, gradually, progressively to conform believers to Christ. That substance, that promise, that oath, however, was administered through “the testimony or call of the Royal word” that calls us out of darkness, (“of which darkness one is convicted by the law partly natural and partly written”) and through that efficacious call, which is administered outwardly and visibly, the elect are given grace to receive “the Son of God offered in the gospel with the double benefit truly, free righteousness…and renewal to the image of God or the spirit of holiness for sharing in the heavenly inheritance.

So, it is true that Christ is the substance of the covenant of grace but he is not presented to us, as it were nakedly, apart from the administration of the covenant of grace or apart from the history of redemption, through types and shadows. It is Christ who is offered in the gospel, whether in types or in the reality of the New Covenant, but he is always offered in the visible covenant assembly and it is in the administration, i.e., in the church where we live out our new life in Christ. Another way to put this is to say that it is possible to have the forms and the words without Christ but it is not ordinarily possible to have Christ without the forms and the words.

On The Necessity And Efficacy Of Good Works In Salvation

There is no question among orthodox, i.e., confessional, Reformed folk whether good works are necessary as a consequence, evidence, and a fruit of justification and sanctification by grace alone, through faith alone. There is no question whether God’s moral law, whether summarized in the decalogue, in the gospels, or in the epistles is the norm for the Christian life. Anyone who denies this third use of the law is an antinomian and that error is condemned by both the confessional Reformed and Lutheran churches. There is no question whether there is a distinction between justification, that gracious declaration by God that sinners, united to Christ by the Spirit, through faith alone are reckoned righteous on the basis of Christ’s perfect, whole obedience and righteousness imputed, and sanctification, the ongoing work of the Spirit in believers gradually and graciously conforming them to the image of Christ. On the relations between justification and salvation there is general agreement in the Reformed tradition that they are inseparable but distinct, salvation being a broader category that includes both justification and sanctification. Nevertheless, the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably and so the reader must pay attention to the way the term salvation is being used in any particular context. Finally, generally sanctification and good works are related but distinct. Sanctification describes the process of our conformity to Christ, the dying (mortification) of the old man and the making alive (vivification) of the new by the Spirit in us and good works are a consequence of that gracious work in us.

Recently two related claims have been made about the role of works in salvation. One writer claims “a proper understanding of the necessity of works demands the recognition that works are, in a sense that must be carefully defined and circumscribed, efficacious unto salvation.”

The Confessions
This is, to say the least, an arresting expression. Should we accept it? Let’s try to find a baseline. Do the Reformed Churches speak this way? The expression “unto salvation” does occur in the Westminster Confession (1648). In 1.6 it distinguishes between the general knowledge of God, which all image bearers have and that which is “sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.” In 3.6, on God’s eternal decree, we confess:

6. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

When we speak of God’s effectual call (as distinct from the general, outward call), we say that the elect are called “unto faith” by the Spirit, who uses the ordinary means of grace. Here we see the (logical) order of salvation. It is the elect who are effectually called, it is they were are justified, it is the justified who are adopted, sanctified, and kept by God’s sovereign power “through faith, unto salvation.” It describes the application of redemption by the Spirit as being “saved.” Here we see how salvation is a broader concept that includes justification along with other benefits conferred freely upon the elect in time and space. The instrument of salvation here is faith. That’s the meaning of the word “through.” We receive Christ and all his benefits through faith alone. This is one reason I’ve been trying to make the case that faith alone is the instrument of justification and salvation (emphasis added).

The expression “unto salvation” also occurs in the Larger and Shorter catechisms (1648). The Larger Catechism reiterates the doctrine of WCF 1 regarding the knowledge of God “unto salvation.” Q/A 79 teaches that believers are “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (emphasis added). Q/A elaborates upon this teaching. The Spirit graciously enables believers to persevere and believers are those who “truly believe in Christ” and who “endeavor to walk in all good conscience before him.” The Larger Catechism here distinguishes between “is” and “because” or “through.” Believers do obey. That is the case but that obedience is never said to be the ground or instrument of their salvation. Q/A 155 specifically addresses this issue:

Q. 155. How is the word made effectual to salvation?

A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; or building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.

The Holy Spirit, as he always has, operates powerfully through the Word. Through the Word he creates new life, confers faith, unites them to Christ, sanctifies, “through faith unto salvation” (emphasis added). Again, the divines did not speak of works as the ground or instrument of salvation. Faith is the instrument of salvation. This is the explicit and repeated doctrine of the Westminster Divines and of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches.

The Westminster Standards would have us think and say that we are justified and saved through faith alone. There is prima facie evidence in Scripture for speaking this way. When the Israelites were against it, when the Egyptian armies were descending upon them at the Red Sea, how did God save them from death and destruction? How were their good works “efficacious unto salvation” at the Red Sea? To ask the question is to answer it. Of course the Israelites were completely helpless and the same sovereign Lord who became incarnate, who obeyed for us, by whose righteousness we are saved is he who stretched out his powerful right hand, parted the waters, and led them through on dry ground. It is he who destroyed Pharaoh and his armies in the Red Sea. This episode is so paradigmatic for the biblical way of considering salvation that when our Lord pronounces the gospel prologue to the Ten Commandments, he says, “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2; revised from the ESV). The Lord saved Israel from destruction despite their sin and rebellion.

According to Jeremiah 31 and the NT Scriptures, the new covenant is new relative to Moses, not Abraham. In the new covenant, however, salvation remains the process of deliverance from the destruction to come, pictured by the Red Sea and the judgments upon Egypt. God is saving those whom he has freely justified for Christ’s sake alone, through faith alone. Those whom he is saving will do good works, not according to their own subjective imaginations but as measured by God’s holy, objective standard: his moral law (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 114). Those good works are the fruit of the Spirit’s work in them. They are enabled by the Holy Spirit. They are evidence that, indeed, the one who professes faith really is a believer. The ground of the believer’s confidence, however, is the righteousness and sacrifice of the Lamb of God imputed to him. The instrument through which God is saving him is faith. As important and necessary as good works are, they are not confessed by the Reformed churches to be “efficacious unto salvation.” After all, just as God graciously delivered us from Egypt, how much more has he graciously delivered us from sin and death? Paul’s question is rhetorical: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously (χαρίσεται) give us all things”? (Romans 8:32 ESV) Salvation is given to us sinners freely, graciously. It was earned for us by Christ. Yes, we must respond appropriately. Scripture and our confessions and theologians are clear about this but we must resist the temptation to re-institute the old medieval and Romanist carrot and stick. No, our faith, our confession, our understanding of Scripture says that it is guilt, grace, and gratitude.

The Theologians: Turretin
In the first part we looked briefly at some biblical texts and the Reformed confessions to consider whether we should think and speak of the “efficacy of works” in salvation. This post considers the claim that the Reformed tradition widely taught that works are “necessary unto salvation.” Francis Turretin (1623–87) was a Genevan Reformed theologian of Italian descent. His family immigrated to Geneva in the 16th century and Turretin became one of the leading defenders of Reformed orthodoxy in the mid-to late 17th century. His Institutes of Elenctic Theology published in the 1670s and 80s is an important witness to the way the orthodox Reformed looked at a variety of issues. It should be remembered that his Institutes were not a systematic theology but rather a response to controversial issues confronting the Reformed in the period, so his treatment of issues is largely determined by his purpose.

Turretin addresses the nature of sanctification and good works in the seventeenth topic, in 5 questions. Like Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (1274) and Ursinus’ Summa Doctrinae(1585 et seq), Turretin used a catechetical (question and answer) method of instruction. The first question concerns the definition of sanctification. His initial response is instructive:

As Christ was made to us of God righteousness and sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30)—not dividedly, but conjointly; not confusedly, but distinctly—so the benefit of sanctification immediately follows justification as inseparably connected with it, but yet really distinct from it [emphasis added].

NB: Turretin kept justification and sanctification together but distinguished them logically and ordered them logically. It is the justified who are progressively sanctified. This was hie starting point in discussing sanctification. Contrary to the way the relations between justification and sanctification have been described in some quarters since the mid-70s, Turretin reflects the typical Reformed way of relating them: they are united, logically distinct, and logically ordered. It is the last part that seems to have stumped so many in recent years. Turretin was Reformed. He was committed to “ordo salutisthinking.” As this revisionist account of the ordo salutis (the [logical] order of salvation) has been as if it were the Reformed view, it is become more difficult for its adherents to read and understand the history of Reformed theology. Understood on their own terms, in view of their own concerns, the classic 16th and 17th century writers cannot be interpreted to have taught the view that seeks to deny any logical order between the twin benefits of justification and sanctification. More on this question in the next post.

From this starting point, which he inherited from Calvin, Olevianus, Perkins, and virtually the entire Reformed tradition before him, he moved on to defining sanctification as a “real and internal renovation of man by which God delivers the man planted in Christ by faith and justified (by the ministry of the word and the efficacy of the Spirit) more and more from his native depravity and transforms him into his own image” (emphasis added; 17.1.2). His first account of sanctification is that it follows from justification. His second is to say that it is what we call progressive sanctification (not definitive) and that it is the result of union with Christ and that union is, as he wrote, “by faith.” In other words, in contrast to the revisionist doctrine of union with Christ offered to us in the last 40 years and advocated by a society of young advocates today, Turretin agreed with, e.g., Calvin and Olevianus that there is a duplex gratia (twofold grace) or duplex beneficium (double benefit) but that fact doesn’t obliterate order nor does it replace faith as the instrument of union with regeneration. His language here is virtually identical to that used by Calvin and Olevianus a century prior. As we interpret Turretin teaching regarding sanctification and good works, then, we must do so in the proper context.

In the next section (3) he elaborated on the progressive nature of sanctification as the gradual, gracious renewal of human nature from the corruption resulting from sin and the extent of sanctification. Note that he did not take the language “to those who are sanctified” to refer to a definitive act but to a progressive, inherent reality. He even described it as the “infusion and practice of holiness.” He could do so because he has already established that justification is a definitive, forensic act by God, a declaration of the imputation of Christ’s (alien to us, proper to him) righteousness, received through faith alone, in Christ alone by faith (resting and receiving) alone. He describes sanctification in traditional (patristic, medieval, Protestant) realistic rather than forensic terms boldly on the basis of this clear distinction. In case anyone missed the order he repeats:

This [progressive sanctification] follows justification and is begun here in this life by regeneration and promoted by the exercise of holiness and of good works, until it shall be consummated in the other by glory. In this sense it is now taken passively, inasmuch as it is wrought by God in us; then actively, inasmuch as it ought to be done by God, God performing this work in us and by us.

The discussion that follows elaborated on these basic themes and distinctions. Justification is forensic (a legal declaration). Sanctification is realistic (it is actually transforming us), the progressive renewal of human nature, in a state of grace, in union with Christ, into the image of Christ. Against Rome and anyone else who would conflate justification and sanctification he devoted 5 sections or articles to distinguishing justification from sanctification. In 17.1.11.He addressed specifically the “chain of salvation:”

Although Paul does to make express mention of sanctification in the chain of salvation [Rom 8:28–30], it does not follow that it is included in the word justification, as if it were identical with it. Fit is far more fitly included wither under calling (which is the beginning of sanctification) or, what we think is truer, under glorification (which is its consummation and complement—as sanctification is the beginning of glory (Rom. 3;2; 2 Cor. 3:18).

Just as stoutly as he distinguished and ordered them, he also kept justification and sanctification united (17.1.15). “They should never be torn asunder.” He speaks of them as “two benefits” (duo ista beneficia) idem and in 17.1.16). Again, this language has roots in Luther’s 1518/19 sermons on “Duplex Iustitia” (Twofold Righteousness), Triplex Iustitia (Threefold Righteousness), Calvin’s use of duplex gratia (twofold grace) and Olevianus’ duplex beneficium (twofold benefit).

For Turretin, as for Calvin and the earlier Reformed writers, faith is instrumental not only in justification but also sanctification:

For the very faith by which we are justified demands this. For as it is the instrument of justification b receiving the righteousness of Christ, so it is the root and principle of sanctification, while it purges the heart and works through love (Gal. 5;6).

We are justified in order that we might be gradually, graciously, passively, and actively sanctified.

In question two he rejected the doctrine of perfectionism, i.e., the teaching that Christians can “live without sin” in this life. He attributes correctly this doctrine to the Pelagians and connects it to “the Romanists and Socinians.” For Turretin as a Protestant Augustinian, the resolution of this problem lies in a proper understanding of God’s holiness, of the nature of his requirements, and the nature of human depravity after the fall.

In the third question (17.3.2) he addresses the question of the necessity of good works, which “pertain to sanctification.” In 17.3.2 he distinguishes between the orthodox view and the antinomians, who deny the necessity of good works in salvation and the moralists (Rome, Socinians) who make them meritorious and “a causality” of salvation. He clearly taught the necessity of “bona opera” (good works) “ad salutem,” which may be translated “toward salvation.” What sort of necessity was it and what did he mean by the prepositional phrase ad salutem? “Are they required as the means and the way (medium et via) for possessing salvation? This we hold” (17.3.3).

The next section is most interesting because it illumines why he felt compelled to speak this way. He mentioned the “interimistic formula” which was a reference to a series of political and religious Interims, during the Schmalkaldic Wars, in the mid-late 1540s which promulgated the language that “good works are necessary to salvation.” Melanchthon had used that language in the 1530s, in his Loci Communes (Common Places), which made it possible for it to be used during the Interims but by the 1550s George Major had elaborated on it to say that good works were necessary “to retain salvation.”1The Interims were political creatures that used deliberately ambiguous language that was capable of being interpreted in multiple senses simultaneously. As Turretin observed, for this reason some Reformed theologians rejected it.

Turretin wanted to retain it, however, and to interpret it carefully in so doing. For Turretin, good works are necessary but they “contribute nothing to the acquiring (acquirendam) of salvation.” At the same time he affirmed that they are necessary “to obtaining” (obtinendam) salvation. So, he distinguished between acquiring and obtaining. Why? Because he wanted a strong response to the Romanist charge that the doctrine of justification sola gratiasola fide leads to licentiousness.

The third question in locus (topic) 17 concerns the necessity of good works. What is the nature of the necessity of good works? As a good teacher, Turretin typically tells us what he going to tell us, i.e., he summarizes briefly what he is about to say and then explains in more detail. In his summaries he stressed the “absolute necessity” of good works (17.3.6) on three grounds: the command, i.e., God’s moral will revealed in Scripture, the nature of the thing itself, and the condition of the believer (17.3.5). Christians are “debtors”—here we hear echoes of Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 2 “third, how we ought to be thankful for such redemption.” When he considers the state or condition of the believer he turns to the covenant of grace (foedus gratiae; 17.3.6). There are two parts to the covenant of grace: God’s free promise of redemption and the consequent conditions, obligations, or stipulation of obedience (obedientiae stipulatione) on our part (17.3.7).  For more on how Reformed folk speak about conditions in the covenant of grace, without turning it into a covenant of works, listen to Heidelcast episodes 46 and 47. He reminded the reader that the covenant of grace is God’s promise to be our God. His moral will (vult) is that we should, in turn, take up the consequent obligation as his people. These obligations are part of the way God administers the covenant of grace, and as we participate in the that administration, we become participants (particeps) in the benefits (beneficia) and the goods (bonorum) of the covenant of grace. At the same time, he conditions this talk of obligation by noting that it is God himself who executes (exequatur) these things in the believer. In other words, even as he used very strong language about the moral necessity of sanctification in and good works by the believer, in response to grace, he was careful not to turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.

The first part of the covenant of grace is God’s gracious promise, which he reminded the reader, “flows” (fluit) from each of the three persons of the holy Trinity (S. S. Triadis personis; 17.3.8). We may think of the Father as he who adopts us, the Son as our Redeemer, and the Spirit as the comforter and sanctifier. From this threefold grace follows a “threefold necessity (necessitas triplex) of worship and obedience” in order that we might live (i.e., conduct ourselves) as “worthily (digne) as sons of God, members of Christ, and as temples of the Holy Spirit” (17.3.8). It is in the nature of grace that its recipients, having been regenerated and united to Christ, should (necessarily) be gradually and graciously conformed to his image, that we should die to sin (mortification) and be made alive to Christ (vivification).

Turretin turned to the “Word of God or the gospel, which is proposed for believing (credendum) and the rule of faith and life” as proof of the necessity of good works (17.3.9). Christian doctrine, he argued, is not mere theory (merè theoretica). It is also practical. That was his definition of theology: partly theoretical, partly practical, i.e., doctrine and its out working or consequences. “Theoretical” in this usage did not refer to a hypothetical possibility but to the basis for action. One must know what one is doing before he does it. This, he wrote, is why it is called the “mystery of piety.” Doctrine is affective and transformative. He briefly summarized a series of passages (which he typically did, which I omit for brevity but please do not imagine that he was not working carefully with Scripture). In Christ, the God’s law has become “the Law of the Spirit and Life” (Rom 8:2), which liberates us from the “law of sin and death” (a Lege peccati et mortis). Christians are not justified by, through, or out of the law or obedience to the law but in Christ we are not without but we are under the law as debtors (tamen ex leges, sed subleges Christo). True religion is not “mere profession of the truth” (meram veritatis professionem). Here he cited Romans 2:28, 29; James 1:27.

Citing Romans 6:18 he argued that redemption from the curse of the law and the tyranny of the Devil (17.3.10) does not mean liberation from the moral law as the rule of the Christian life. No, God’s grace strengthens our obligation to it, not as the ground or instrument of salvation but as the natural course of the Christian life. “Grace” he wrote, “requires the same” (Idem exigit Gratia). We desire all the more to obey now that we are no longer under law (for justification) but under grace.

We have received all of Christ’s benefits (e.g., eternal election, present justification, future glory) “to promote the work of sanctification” (17.3.11). Good works are the “effects” (effecta) of eternal election, “the fruit and seal (fructa et sigilla) of present grace” and the “seed” (semina) of future glory. Here he quoted Bernard’s famous treatise On Grace and Free Choice, in which Bernard distinguished between effect and cause. Sanctification is the effect “but not the cause of reigning.” Again he cites and summarizes a series of biblical passages. As earlier, Turretin wrote of the “highest and indispensable consequent necessity of good works toward glory and so much that without them to one cannot obtain it” (17.3.12).1

Good works are the consequence of justification, they are constitutive of sanctification, and they are antecedent and the ordained path to glorification (17.3.14). In other words, good works necessarily occur before glory. They are the divinely ordained experience of eternal life begun in this life. They are, he wrote, “the medium to the end.” As soon as he used the expression “medium” (means) he cautioned that this language may not be used to “confuse the Law and the Gospel” (non confundimus ideo Legem & Evangelium) or to suggest that justification is not gracious or through faith alone (per solum fidem). Good works are not required for “living on the basis of the law, but that we might live through the gospel” (17.3.15). Life is not given to us “on account of good works but as the effects which testify that life has been given to us.”2 Believers do not good works out of compulsion but rather we do them “spontaneously and voluntarily” (sponte sponte etἐκουσίως; 17.3.16). The necessity is one of “means and debt.”

The question is what he intended to communicate by the noun “medium.” The answer is found in his usage and context. He used the term in the context of an unequivocal, explicit distinction between works and grace, law and gospel. He distinguished between an antecedent necessity and a consequent necessity. He described faith as the instrument of justification and salvation. Medium was his way of signaling the integral relation between sanctification and good works. Justification necessarily produces sanctification and that results in good works to the glory of God and the edification of our neighbor (17.3.13). Good works are a means in the sense that without them we neither glorify God nor edify our neighbor.

For Turretin, the necessity is a natural, logical, moral consequence of the covenant of grace. It is a strong necessity. He is even willing to say that it is necessary for obtaining (as distinct from acquiring) salvation but he did not describe or use evangelical obedience or good works as the ground or instrument of our salvation. Sanctification and the resulting evangelical obedience simply are the way things are. The logical distinct here was between is (to be) and because (ground) or through (instrument). Good trees produce good fruit. That fruit does not make the tree good but it is the case that good trees produce good fruit and no fruitless tree may be considered a good or fruit bearing tree.

The Theologians: Witsius
Now we turn our attention to Herman Witsius (1636–1708). Born in West Friesland, Herman’s father was a (ruling) elder and his maternal grandfather was a Reformed minister. He studied theology Arabic and Syrian at Utrecht and theology under Gijbertus Voetius (1589–76), Johannes Hoornbeek (1617–66), and Samuel Maresius (1599–1673). He was a full-time minister from about 1656 until 1675. During part of his ministry he served with Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635–1711) before he was called to Franecker to teach theology. He was justly well regarded not only in the Netherlands but also in the British Isles. In 1695 he was appointed by the Dutch Parliament to represent the Dutch Republic at the coronation of James II and to serve as chaplain to the Dutch Embassy in London. His covenant theology mediated between the Voetians and the Cocceians. Here is an entire site devoted to Witsius.3

Witsius is an outstanding guide to this difficult topic in part because he waded through many of the same questions that we are facing in our time. In 1696 Witsius wrote a treatise to try to mediate the dispute between the nomists and the antinomians in Britain: Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain. It was translated by Thomas Bell and published in Glasgow in 1807. I’m using the wonderful Logos version, which is indexed by chapters and subsections and allows me to search the text. There is also a version on Google Books.

Witsius surveys a wide range of issues, e.g., in order to illustrate and press home Christ’s role as federal representative, sin bearer and substitute some had used unhappy expressions concerning Christ’s relations to sin. Witsius, in typical fashion, patiently explained why Christian folk ought not speak that way about Christ while, at the same time affirming the Protestant doctrine of the joyous exchange (e.g., pp. 33–45): our sin for Christ’s righteousness. Witsius was a gospel man.

His sketch of the doctrine of union with Christ is clear and concise:

Doubtless they are united to him,

1. In the eternal decree of God, which, however, includes nothing, except that their actual union shall take place; as was already demonstrated.

II. By an union of eternal consent, wherein Christ was constituted by the Father the head of all those who were to be saved, and that he should represent their persons; hence it was, that Christ obeying the commandment of the Father, and suffering for them, they are reckoned in the judgment of God to have obeyed and suffered in him. All these things, however, do not hinder, but that considered in themselves, before their regeneration, they are far from God and Christ, according to that their present state.

III. By a true and a real union, (but which is only passive on their part,) they are united to Christ when his Spirit first takes possession of them, and infuses into them a principle of new life: the beginning of which life can be from nothing else but from union with the Spirit of Christ; who is to the soul, but in a far more excellent manner, in respect of spiritual life, what the soul is to the body in respect of animal and human life. As therefore the union of soul and body is in order of nature prior to the life of man; so also the union of the Spirit of Christ and the soul is prior to the life of a Christian. Further, since faith is an act flowing from the principle of spiritual life, it is plain, that in a sound sense, it may be said, an elect person is truly and really united to Christ before actual faith.

IV. But the mutual union, (which, on the part of an elect person, is likewise active and operative), whereby the soul draws near to Christ, joins itself to him, applies, and in a becoming and proper manner closes with him without any distraction, is made by faith only. And this is followed in order by the other benefits of the covenant of grace, justification, peace, adoption, sealing, perseverance, &c. Which if they be arranged in that manner and order, I know not whether any controversy concerning this affair can remain among the brethren.4

Here we see Witsius affirming different aspects of union, decretal, federal, in regeneration, and finally and distinctly what he called “mutual union” which is “by faith only.” The reader should notice that, in contrast to some of the idiosyncratic modern accounts of union, Witsius did not juxtapose union with Christ to the order of salvation (i.e., the ordo salutis, the logical order of the application of redemption to the elect by the Spirit). The benefits of the covenant of grace are received simultaneous, through faith, but there is a logical order. He also taught explicitly justification sola gratiasola fide on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone.

He also affirmed clearly the covenant of works before the fall as distinct from the covenant of grace after the fall. He affirmed the Mosaic covenant as both an administration of the covenant of grace and and a pedagogical “repetition” of the covenant of works:

The same doctrine Moses repeated in his ministry. For he also inculcated the same precepts upon which the covenant of works had been built: he both repeated the same solemn saying, He who doeth these things shall live in them, Lev. 18:5 and also added another, Cursed be he who shall not perform the words of this law in doing them, Deut. 27:26. That this is the curse of the law, as it stands opposed to the covenant of grace, Paul teacheth, Gal. 3:10. which, however, is not so to be understood, as if God had intended, by the ministry of Moses, to make a new covenant of works with Israel, with a view to obtain righteousness and salvation by such a covenant. But that repetition of the covenant of works was designed to convince the Israelites of their sin and misery, to drive them out of themselves, to teach them the necessity of a satisfaction, and to compel them to cleave to Christ: and thus it was subservient to the covenant of grace, Rom. 10:4 5

In chapter 8, he touches on the question animating this series. What are the relations between salvation (deliverance from sin and judgment) and works?

…for though Paul taught, that works contribute nothing to justification, or to procure a man’s title to salvation; yet he always taught, that they were not only useful, but also necessary to salvation, and that it is impossible, that sanctification should be separated from justification. James treads in the same path, and teaches that it is necessary that he who is justified by faith, should also be justified by works: that is, perform these works which are the evidences and effects of righteousness, and by which it is demonstrated not only before men, but also before God, that he is righteous: according to that of John, “He who doeth righteousness is righteous,” 1 John 3:7. Indeed there is a double justification: one of a man sinful in himself, whereby he is absolved from sin, and declared to have a title to eternal life, on account of Christ’s righteousness apprehended by faith, which Paul inculcated: another of a man, righteous already, sanctified by the Spirit of Christ, and who is declared to be such, by his words and actions. James teaches, that this is so necessary, and so connected with the former, that he is deceived who boasts of that and is destitute of this.6

As we saw in Turretin, for Witsius, works “contribute nothing to justification” nor do they “procure…title” to salvation. This is equivalent to Turretin’s rejection of the doctrine that good works “acquire” salvation. What role do they play in salvation? In what sense are they necessary? It is interesting that Witsius’ first response to the question is to write of “evidences and effects of righteousness.” He wrote of a “double justification.” Notice, however, that he distinguished between two senses of justification. In the first sense it refers to the once-for-all judicial declaration that a sinner is righteous before God on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (which he discussed at length earlier) and in the second sense it refers to the vindicationof the sinner’s claim to faith. Sanctification and good works are necessary as evidence of the claim to faith.

Believers, united to Christ by the Spirit, have the principle of new life in them. That principle manifests itself in

Now it cannot receive him for justification, except at the same time, it receive him for sanctification: nor receive him as a Priest, to expiate sin, unless it also receive him as a King, to whom it may submit, in order to obedience. Hence it follows, that that act of faith, whereby we receive Christ for righteousness, cannot be exercised, without either a previous, or at least a concomitant repentance, and a purpose of a new life.7

Believers repent. Reformed folk have differed in their rhetoric but there is agreement in substance among the Reformed that it is not possible for one to be a believer and to be impenitent, to be without “a purpose of a new life.” We are justified through faith alone but true faith is always accompanied by repentance and its fruits.

One of the aspects of the antinomian-neonomian controversy, in seventeenth-century Britain, which has resurfaced in our time is the question whether God sees the sins of believers. Witsius answered yes and no:

He sees also the sins of believers, as the sins of believers, inasmuch as they are committed by them: for whatever is true, God sees that it is true. But at the same time, he does not see the sins of believers as the sins of believers, inasmuch as they are no more theirs, but Christ’s, to whom they were imputed, and who hath now satisfied for them.16

In his sovereign providence God sees all. With respect to our justification, however, we must say that God does not see our sins. As We are no longer under condemnation. This does not mean that believers will not face God’s Fatherly displeasure or chastisement. On this see the series on the warning passages in Scripture.

Remember that the Westminster Divines were much agitated by the problem of antinomianism. Mid-century England had been torn by civil war, which always brings with it an existentialist (live now for tomorrow you may die) sort of war-time ethos. Add to that the theological and ethical instability produced by the rise of both neonomian and antinomianism reactions to the Reformation and it’s easy to see why they were so concerned. In chapter 15 of the Animadversions Witsius surveys and summarizes the main arguments of the antinomians. In chapter 16, which we’re considering in this post, he responds. He begins by saying that he shares the major concern of the antinomians, that the “that men may be called off from all presumption upon their own righteousness, and trained up to the exercise of generous piety, which flows from the pure fountain of Divine love.” At the same time he rejected their tendency or the consequence of some of their arguments “to take from good works all that fruit and utility, so frequently assigned them in scripture. Free justification is so to be consulted, that nothing be derogated from the benefit of sanctification.”17

Like Turretin (see parts 2 and 3), Witsius distinguished between “a right to life” and the “possession of life.” We have a right to eternal life only on the basis of “obedience of Christ” imputed and received through faith alone. When we’re thinking and speaking about justification and righteousness before God, “the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded.” Nevertheless, those good works, “which the Spirit of Christ worketh in us, and by us, contribute something” to the possession of eternal life.18 Again, the question is how? In what way?

He appealed to John 6:27:

Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you (ESV).19

and to Philippians 2:12b:

work out your own salvation with fear and trembling

and 1Corinthians 15:58:

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

In no case, he argued, was Scripture speaking of justification. He knew this a priori because justification is not by works or even through works. These passages clearly teach the moral necessity of good works, ergo they must be about sanctification.20

He rejected the argument that since Christ is the way of life that “the practice of Christian piety therefore not the way to life.”21 He appealed to the frequent biblical teaching concerning “the way of righteousness” and “the good way,” the “way of peace,” and “the way of life and salvation .” He appealed to Proverbs 6:23: “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life” (ESV). He asked rhetorical whether the “narrow way” to which Christ referred (Matt 7:14) is nothing but “the strict practice of Christian religion? which is called the way of salvation, Acts. 16:17.”22

One of the more interesting arguments he confronted is that which said that it is inconsistent with the Christian faith to do something “in order that” one might live. His first response was an appeal to analogy. We live because we eat and we eat to live. These are not inconsistent. In the same way we ought to “act in a holy manner…because we are quickened by the Spirit of God” and at the same time “we must also act in the same manner, that life may be preserved in us, may increase, and at last terminate in an uninterrupted and eternal life.” As a proof of this principle he quoted Deuteronomy 30:19, 20 and concluded “Truly these speeches are not legal, but evangelical.”15

He spent a couple of paragraphs defending the proposition that it is godly and right for a Christian to have a certain self interest, namely salvation. He moved on to explain that, contra the antinomians, sanctification is an evidence of justification. The problem he was confronting was (and remains) the very real problem of the inconsistency and incompleteness of our sanctification. How can one ever find any evidence of justification in our sanctification? Ought not one look only to the promises of God in Christ?

Witsius responded by turning to the witness of the Holy Spirit to the believer that he does indeed belong to Christ.16 This is not an extra-canonical or extraordinary revelation. Rather, he argued,

For the Spirit of God so beareth witness, that he witnesseth together with our spirit, in exciting it to bear a true testimony, and in confirming its testimony, and convincing the conscience of its truth. My conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, Rom. 9:1. and thus indeed, even the witnessing of the Divine Spirit is not altogether separated from the observation of the signs of grace. And it often happens, that the Spirit of God so embraces his elect with these allurements of his most beneficent love, that while they enjoy those spiritual and ineffable delights, which earthly souls neither receive nor taste, they are no less persuaded of their election and justification, than if they saw their names engraven on the very hands of God.9

He wanted the believer to find this sense of God’s presence and assurance in the use of what we call “the means of grace” (i.e., the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer).

The formation of virtue, by the Spirit, in the believer also contributes to his assurance. We endeavor to “make our calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10). As we strive toward this, we develop what he called “a consciousness of Christian virtues” which contributes to “an assurance of their election and [effectual, inward] vocation….” Like Turretin he too quoted Bernard’s On Grace and Free Will, which, mutatis mutandis illustrates the deep connection between Reformed spirituality and aspects of medieval theology and piety. That is, having been justified by grace alone, through faith alone, on the ground of Christ’s righteousness imputed alone, we are now free to borrow language about progressive sanctification from the earlier tradition.10

The Christian has a duty not to be presumptuous—not to say to himself, “I prayed the prayer, I walked the aisle. I’m good.” What is in question is whether the one who professes faith actually believes. Thus, Witsius reminded the reader of Paul’s command (2Cor 13:5) to “test himself to see whether he be in the faith and whether Jesus Christ be in him.” In Scripture, “the heirs of present grace and future glory are described by their qualities and virtues” and “by the exercise of these.” It is entirely natural (i.e., logical, not “unspiritual”) to look for the consequences and effects of justification, i.e., sanctification11

He was insistent that we should not set the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit against the external evidence, if you will, of justification and true faith in sanctification and good works.12 It is true that no Christian achieves perfection in this life and that our sanctification or our inherent righteous “can, by no means have place before him in order to justification.”13

But when, through the righteousness of Christ apprehended by faith, the believer’s person is made acceptable to God, then his virtues, which he obtained by sanctifying grace, and the exercise of virtues flowing from the same grace, are likewise acceptable to God: and what blemishes of ours cleave to them, these are covered with the most perfect righteousness and holiness of Christ.14

Finally, in this chapter, Witisus, following Charnock, argued that God delights in the holiness that is produced in believers, just as he delights in his own holiness. “Hence it follows,” he reasoned, “”that they who diligently apply themselves to the exercise of Christian holiness, are as acceptable to him, as they are odious who obey their lusts.”15 It is not that we are acceptable to God for righteousness (justification) but that, in Christ, not only our persons are accepted but also even our imperfect sanctity.

As we saw in Turretin, Witsius made a distinction between the way we obtain the legal right to appear before God as righteous—That is by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed alone—and the way we take possession of life itself. We, the justified, live the Christian life united to Christ and in communion with him. The Spirit who united us to Christ is at work in us gradually conforming us to his image. Thus, it is the case that we that we realize the outworking of justification, by grace alone, through faith alone, in sanctification and good works. He distinguished between the cause or a ground, the instrument, and the outworking or the consequences. As he described sanctification and good works as possession, he was describe an effect or consequence of justification. Once more: it is the distinction between because, through, and is.

It is the case that believers will be sanctified. When he wrote that good works “contribute something” to the possession of life was he thinking in instrumental terms? No. He was responding to those who denied the value of good works. They denied the utility and profit of good works. Thus,, Witsius set out the opposite view. Sanctification and good works are useful, they are profitable. Even though he used strong language he never made the the instrument of salvation even as he made them part of the process of salvation. For Witsius, as for Turretin, It is the case that believers will do good works. He was quite impatient with those who profess faith but have no evidence of faith in sanctification and good works. He was impatient with the impenitent and with those who scorn obedience.


1. “…summam esse et indispensabilem bonorum operum ad gloriam assequendam necessitatem, et tantam ut sine illis obtineri nequeat Heb. 12. 14. Apo. 21. 27.”

2. “Quia bona opera requiruntur non ad vivendum ex Lege, sed quia vivimus per Evangelium, non ut causae propter quas nobis datur vita, sed ut effecta quae testantur vitam esse nobis datam.”

3. Some of this biographical material is drawn from a biography of Witsius written by my friend Joel Beeke. The page is no longer online, however.

4. Herman Witsius, Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain, trans. Thomas Bell (Glasgow: W. Lang, 1807), 67–69.

5. Witsius, Animadversions, 87.

6. Witsius, Animadversions, 97–99.

7. Witsius, Animadversions, 120.

8. Witsius, Animadversions, 123.

9. Witsius, Animadversions, 161.

10. Witsius, Animadversions, 161–62.

11. The English text I’m following does not, of course, quote the ESV but I’m using it here in the interests of clarity.

12. Witsius, Animadversions, 162.

13. Ibid.

14. Witsius, Animadversions, 163.

15. Witsius, Animadversions, 163–164.

16. Witsius, Animadversions, 168-69.

17. Witsius, Animadversions, 169–170.

18. Witsius, Animadversions, 170–171.

19. Witsius, Animadversions, 171–72.

20. Witsius, Animadversions, 174–75.

21. Witsius, Animadversions, 175.

22. Witsius, Animadversions, 176.

23. Witsius, Animadversions, 178.

El Israel De Dios

por R. Scott Clark, 2001.

Hay mucho más concerniente a los “tiempos del fin” o últimas cosas (Escatología) de lo que nosotros decimos que realmente sucede en los últimos días. Nuestra escatología depende estrechamente de nuestra visión de lo que Dios está haciendo en la historia.

En el centro del debate está la cuestión del “Israel de Dios” (Gálatas 6:16). Por supuesto, esta no es una cuestión nueva. Durante el ministerio terrenal del Señor y después de su resurrección y antes de su ascensión, los discípulos le preguntaron repetidas veces, “Señor, ¿restaurarás el reino a Israel en este tiempo?” (Hechos 1:6).

En efecto, había una extendida creencia rabínica y popular de que el Mesías debía de ser un personaje político-militar poderoso de fuerza y destreza Davídica — “David hirió a sus diez miles” (1 Samuel 18:7). Juan 6:14-15 dice,

Aquellos hombres entonces, viendo la señal que Jesús había hecho, dijeron: “Éste verdaderamente es el profeta que había de venir al mundo.” Pero entendiendo Jesús que iban a venir para apoderarse de él y hacerle rey, volvió a retirarse al monte él solo.”

No se trataba, como algunos lo entienden, de que no fuera el tiempo, sino más bien de que un reino terrenal era contrario a sus propósitos. De nuevo, al final de su vida, durante su entrada triunfal, no vino a establecer un reino terrenal sino a cumplir las profecías, “No temas, Oh Hija de Sión; mira, he aquí tu rey viene, sentado sobre un pollino hijo de asna” (Juan 12:15; Isaías 40:9; Zacarías 9:9).

Jesús les había enseñado a los discípulos y a otros que él no había venido a establecer un reino terrenal como ellos esperaban, sino que había venido a traer salvación del pecado. Al final, cuando “los hombres de Israel” no pudieron tolerar más su rechazo a someterse a la escatología de ellos, su plan para la historia, le crucificaron. Las Escrituras dicen,

De esta manera también los principales sacerdotes, escarneciéndole con los escribas y los fariseos y los ancianos, decían: “A otros salvó, a sí mismo no se puede salvar; si es el Rey de Israel, descienda ahora de la cruz, y creeremos en él.” (Mateo 27:41-42).

Es también triste el hecho de que muchos cristianos estén de acuerdo con los principales sacerdotes y los maestros de la ley. El Dispensacionalismo ha sostenido por mucho tiempo que los fariseos tenían el método correcto de interpretar la Biblia, sólo que llegaron a conclusiones equivocadas.

El Dispensacionalismo-Premilenialismo cree que Dios le hizo la promesa a Abraham (Génesis capítulos 15 y 17) de que le daría un pueblo terrenal y nacional de manera que, según el Dispensacionalismo, siempre ha sido la intención de Dios tener tal pueblo, y si los Judíos rechazaron la primera oferta (¡o Jesús rechazó sus términos!) habrá de haber un reino, Judío, Palestino, en el milenio.

De acuerdo con el Dispensacionalismo, Dios estaba tan comprometido con la creación de ese pueblo terrenal y nacional que esta fue la principal razón de la encarnación, nacimiento y ministerio de Cristo. Si ellos hubieran aceptado su oferta de un reino terrenal, Jesús no hubiera muerto. En este esquema, la muerte salvadora de Jesús en la cruz es un feliz sub-producto del plan de Dios para un Israel nacional.

Es también un artículo de fe entre muchos Premilenialistas el que la creación de un estado Israelí moderno, en Palestina en 1948, sea una confirmación providencial de su reclamo de que los Judíos son el pueblo terrenal y nacional de Dios, y más aún, que Dios continua obrando en la historia en dos trayectorias diferentes, con un pueblo Judío terrenal y con un pueblo Cristiano espiritual.

Esta manera de proceder, de todas formas, está cargada de dificultades. En primer lugar, esta forma de leer los sucesos contemporáneos es muy incierta. ¿Quién de entre nosotros sabe de forma certera el sentido exacto de la providencia? Si un ser querido tiene cáncer, ¿deberíamos especular sobre qué pecado lo causó? Nuestro Señor nos advirtió contra el intentar interpretar la providencia (Juan 9). Si no podemos ni tan sólo intuir el significado de providencias relativamente pequeñas, ¿cómo vamos a interpretar el sentido de providencias mayores? ¿Quién dice que deberíamos centrarnos en un estado israelí? ¿No debiéramos más bien centrarnos en la difícil situación que viven los cristianos palestinos, quienes han sufrido mucho en manos de Judíos y Musulmanes, y en especial desde la formación del Israel moderno?

Aunque resulte emocionante pensar que Dios pueda estar haciendo algo espectacular en nuestros días, da temor pensar que nuestra codicia de emociones no es mejor que el clamor de aquellos israelitas que dijeron, “danos a Barrabás”. Bien pudiera ser que la locura de los últimos tiempos que estamos presenciando, primero a finales de los 70, y de nuevo durante la guerra del Golfo y de nuevo en estos últimos años, sea realmente una búsqueda de certeza. Así como las últimas generaciones apartaron sus ojos de la predicación del evangelio y la administración de los sacramentos, en favor de los avivamientos, nuestra generación parece inclinarse por encontrar confirmación para su fe en el ser testigos presenciales del final de la historia. El hecho es que los cristianos a menudo han pensado la misma cosa, y han estado equivocados.

Recuerda que después del Monte de la Transfiguración (Mateo 17:1) donde Moisés y Elías aparecieron ante su Señor, los discípulos salpicaron a Jesús con preguntas sobre un reino Mesiánico terrenal, sobre si Elías aún había de venir. Jesús les respondió diciendo,

“A la verdad, Elías viene primero, y restaurará todas las cosas. Mas os digo que Elías ya vino, y no le conocieron, sino que hicieron con él todo lo que quisieron; así también el Hijo del Hombre padecerá de ellos. Entonces los discípulos comprendieron que les había hablado de Juan el Bautista.” (Mateo 17:11-13).

Jesús siempre tiene la intención de predicar la llegada del Reino (“…el reino de Dios se ha acercado; arrepentíos, y creed en el evangelio. Marcos 1:15), morir por los pecadores, y gobernar su reino desde donde ahora está, a la derecha del Padre (Hechos 2:36).

Más tarde, en Mateo 19:27-30, después de haber oído las enseñanzas de Jesús sobre la verdadera naturaleza del Reino, Pedro preguntó de nuevo la pregunta del Reino, “He aquí, nosotros lo hemos dejado todo, y te hemos seguido; ¿qué, pues, tendremos?”, a lo cual Jesús respondió,

“De cierto os digo que en la regeneración, cuando el Hijo del Hombre se siente en el trono de su gloria, vosotros que me habéis seguido también os sentaréis sobre doce tronos, para juzgar a las doce tribus de Israel. Y cualquiera que haya dejado casas, o hermanos, o hermanas, o padre, o madre, o mujer, o hijos, o tierras, por mi nombre, recibirá cien veces más, y heredará la vida eterna. Pero muchos primeros serán postreros, y postreros, primeros.”

Nuestros hermanos Premilenialistas interpretan esto como promesa de un reino Judío terrenal, pero Jesús entendió el Reino de una forma bastante diferente. Las parábolas que vienen a continuación precisamente enseñan que Dios no está estableciendo un reino Judío terrenal, sino más bien que “el último será primero, y el primero será último” y que

“el Hijo del Hombre será entregado a los principales sacerdotes y a los escribas, y le condenarán a muerte; y le entregarán a los gentiles para que le escarnezcan, le azoten, y le crucifiquen; mas al tercer día resucitará.” (Mateo 20:18).

Jesús fue incluso aún más claro con la madre de Santiago y Juan, que andaba buscando trabajo para sus hijos: “Ordena que en tu reino se sienten estos dos hijos míos, el uno a tu derecha, y el otro a tu izquierda.” (Mateo 20:21). Él la reprendió diciéndole que no sólo no iba a establecer un reino terrenal, sino que además iba a sufrir y morir y que ellos iban a sufrir y morir por causa de él, porque “el Hijo del Hombre no vino para ser servido, sino para servir, y para dar su vida en rescate por muchos.” (Mateo 20:28).

Por lo tanto, no podemos estar de acuerdo con el argumento del Dispensacionalista Clarence Larkin, cuando interpreta las palabras de Jesús,

“No os toca a vosotros saber los tiempos o las sazones, que el Padre puso en su sola potestad; pero recibiréis poder, cuando haya venido sobre vosotros el Espíritu Santo, y me seréis testigos en Jerusalén, en toda Judea, en Samaria, y hasta lo último de la tierra.” (Hechos 1:7-8).

no como una reprensión hacia los discípulos por haber estado buscando un reino terrenal, sino tan sólo como una advertencia a seguir esperando el reino en la tierra.

Mas bien, Jesús no vino para formar en la tierra un reino Judío ahora o más tarde, sino que su intención fue tan sólo redimir a todo su pueblo por medio de su muerte en la cruz, y gobernar a las naciones con vara de hierro en su ascensión hasta su regreso en juicio.

Mi argumento es que el propósito principal de Dios en la historia ha sido siempre el de glorificarse a sí mismo por medio de la redención de un pueblo formado por gentes de todos los tiempos, lugares y de todas las razas, cuya gracia Él ha administrado desde la caída, en la historia en una iglesia visible e institucional, representados por Adán, Noé, Abraham, Moisés, David y ahora Cristo.

Por lo tanto la premisa de que la intención de Dios ha sido la de establecer una nación Judía permanente o milenial es justo al contrario. Nuestros hermanos Dispensacionalistas confunden lo que es temporal con lo que es permanente, y lo permanente con lo temporal.

La Palabra de Dios nos enseña que Jesús es el verdadero Israel de Dios, que su encarnación, obediencia, muerte y resurrección no fue un sub-producto del rechazo de Israel a la oferta de un reino terrenal, sino el cumplimiento del que fue el plan de Dios desde toda la eternidad. Esto es lo que Jesús les dijo a los discípulos en el camino a Emaús. Uno de ellos dijo, “nosotros esperábamos que él era el que había de redimir a Israel.” En respuesta nuestro Señor les dijo,

“¡Oh insensatos, y tardos de corazón para creer todo lo que los profetas han dicho! ¿No era necesario que el Cristo padeciera estas cosas, y que entrara en su gloria? Y comenzando desde Moisés, y siguiendo por todos los profetas, les declaraba en todas las Escrituras lo que de él decían.” (Lucas 24:25-27).

El apóstol Pablo resumió esta misma enseñanza cuando les dijo a los corintios que no importa cuántas promesas Dios os haya hecho, “todas son Sí en Cristo” (2 Corintios 1:20).

Definición de Pacto
No podemos comprender lo que Dios está haciendo en la historia si no entendemos uno de los conceptos más importantes de las Escrituras: pacto. Esta es una palabra muy frecuente en la Biblia (294 veces). El pacto describe la forma en que Dios se relaciona con sus criaturas. Es un juramento que compromete a ambas partes y en el cual hay condiciones, bendiciones por la obediencia y maldiciones por la desobediencia así como señales y sellos del juramento.

Ley y Evangelio: Pacto de Obras y Gracia
Dios hizo el primer pacto en la historia humana, un pacto de obras, con el primer hombre en el paraíso. La bendición prometida a cambio de mantener el pacto fue que Adán y toda la humanidad entrarían en la gloria (“come… y vive para siempre,” Gen 3:22); la maldición por romper el pacto era la muerte (“de cierto morirás,” Gen 2:17). La condición del pacto es que Adán se abstuviera de comer del árbol del conocimiento del bien y del mal (Gen 2:17). Las señales del pacto fueron el árbol del conocimiento del bien y del mal y el árbol de la vida (Gen 2:9).

Como ya sabes Adán falló en la prueba, y como Pablo dice “el pecado entró en el mundo por un hombre, y por el pecado la muerte, así la muerte pasó a todos los hombres, por cuanto todos pecaron.” (Romanos 5:12). Todos nosotros hemos nacido bajo este pacto de obras.

El segundo pacto de la historia fue también hecho por nuestro Dios con nuestro padre Adán. Este pacto, sin embargo, no fue un pacto de Ley; más bien fue un pacto de Evangelio. Este es un juramento que compromete a ambas partes y en el cual hay condiciones, bendiciones por la obediencia y maldiciones por la desobediencia así como señales y sellos del juramento.

En el pacto de gracia, Dios prometió bajo juramento la venida de un Salvador (“la simiente de la mujer”) quien heriría en la cabeza a la simiente de la serpiente cuando la serpiente hiriera su talón (Gen 3:14-16).

La bendición de este pacto es la vida eterna (el árbol de la vida) y la maldición por romper el pacto continúa siendo la muerte. El Evangelio de este pacto es que hay un Salvador que guardará los términos del pacto de obras y que los pecadores se beneficiarán de ello.

Hay tres cosas que han de ser dichas sobre las condiciones relativas al pacto de gracia:

1. En cuanto a la causa de nuestra justificación, el pacto de la gracia es incondicional. Dios no acepta pecadores por otra razón que no sea la justicia de Cristo imputada sobre ellos por gracia.

2. En cuanto al instrumento de nuestra justificación, la fe salvadora, regalo de Dios (Efesios 2:8-10), es la única condición del pacto. La fe es pasiva (la recibimos de Dios) y orientada hacia Cristo. Esto es lo que los Reformadores Protestantes querían decir con sola fide.

3. En cuanto a la administración del pacto de la gracia, podemos decir que las condiciones del pacto son aquellos medios por los cuales Dios habitualmente hace pasar a los pecadores de muerte a vida, o sea, la predicación del Santo Evangelio, y aquellos medios de gracia por los cuales Él confirma sus promesas y fortalece nuestra fe: los santos sacramentos. La obediencia cristiana no es ni base ni instrumento de nuestra justificación ante Dios, sino el fruto y la demostración de la obra de Cristo por y en nosotros.

En la historia de la salvación, este mismo pacto del Evangelio que Dios hizo con Adán fue renovado con Abraham, pero la promesa se volvió a establecer, “Yo seré vuestro Dios, y el de vuestros hijos.” La señal del pacto en Génesis 15 fue el cortar los animales y como condición permaneció la fe. Por esta razón las Escrituras dicen, “Y Abraham creyó a Jehová, y le fue contado por justicia.” (Gen 15:6).

En Génesis 17:10-14 la circuncisión viene a ser la señal de iniciación al pacto de la gracia. El pacto y la señal están tan íntimamente relacionados que el Señor llama a la señal de la circuncisión “mi pacto”.

El pacto de obras no desapareció sin más de la historia de la salvación. Más bien vemos que el pacto de obras se repite a lo largo de las Escrituras, cada vez que la Ley es leída y Dios reclama a los pecadores una justicia perfecta, p.e. “Maldito todo aquel que no permaneciere en todas las cosas escritas en el libro de la ley, para hacerlas.” (Gal 3:10). Cuando Jesús dijo al joven rico, “haz esto, y vivirás” (Lucas 10:28) él estaba repitiendo el pacto de obras.

De igual manera el pacto de la gracia es repetido a lo largo de la historia de la redención, siempre que Dios dice, “Yo seré vuestro Dios, y vosotros seréis my pueblo” Él está repitiendo la promesa hecha a Adán. Dios repitió esta promesa del evangelio a Noé, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Moisés, finalmente la cumplió en Cristo y luego nos la repite a nosotros a través de los Apóstoles, como vemos en Hechos 2:39.

Estos dos pactos unifican toda la Escritura. Todos los seres humanos están muertos en sus delitos y pecados y todos aquellos que son salvos están en el pacto de la gracia.

El Antiguo Pacto (Mosaico)
Muchos creyentes en la Biblia asumen que cada suceso que tuvo lugar en la historia de la salvación antes de la encarnación y muerte de Cristo pertenece al Antiguo Testamento, y muchos de ellos asumen que desde la encarnación, las Escrituras del Antiguo Pacto ya no se aplican ni hablan a los Cristianos. De hecho, algunos Dispensacionalistas incluso consideran que algunos libros del Nuevo Testamento no se aplican a los Cristianos de hoy, porque fueron escritos para aquellos que son Judíos de etnia. Hace apenas unos años, oí decir a un pastor Dispensacionalista en Navidades que “el problema de los Evangelios es que el Evangelio no se encuentra en los Evangelios.”

Las Escrituras mismas, de todos modos, refutan tales ideas. El apóstol Pablo en 2 Corintios 3:12-18 define el “Antiguo Pacto” como Moisés lo hizo, en un sentido general en los libros de Moisés y particularmente en las leyes Mosaicas (vv. 14-15). En Hebreos 7:22, Jesús es la garantía de un pacto mejor que el que fue dado a los Israelitas. Más adelante, en 8:6-13 al contrastar el Nuevo Pacto con el Antiguo, restringe el Pacto Antiguo a la época Mosaica de la historia de la salvación. Hace de nuevo la misma distinción en 9:15-20. Luego, estrictamente hablando, el Viejo Pacto describe el pacto que Dios hizo con Israel en Sinaí. Por lo tanto, no todo lo que ocurrió en la historia de la salvación, antes de la encarnación, pertenece al Pacto Antiguo. Esto es importante, porque el Viejo Pacto es descrito en el Nuevo Testamento como “inferior” (Hebreos 8:7), “obsoleto”, “viejo” (8:13) y que su gloria está “desapareciendo”.

En este sentido, otro factor importante a tener en cuenta sobre el Pacto Antiguo es que fue temporal y típico de forma intencionada. Colosenses 2:17 describe las leyes ceremoniales mosaicas (Viejo Pacto) como “sombras” de las cosas que habían de venir. Hebreos 8:5 describe el Templo terreno como “tipo y sombra” del templo celestial. La ley Mosaica en sí misma, fue tan sólo una “sombra” del cumplimiento que vino con Cristo.

El Nuevo Pacto
Con la muerte de Cristo, su resurrección y ascensión la promesa que Dios hizo a Adán y repitió a Abraham permanece, pero las circunstancias han cambiado. Nosotros, quienes vivimos a este lado de la cruz, vemos las cosas de diferente manera porque vivimos en los días del cumplimiento. En términos bíblicos, vivimos en los “últimos días” (2 Pedro 3:3; Santiago 5:3; Hebreos 1:2; Hechos 2:17).

Todo el propósito del Antiguo Pacto fue el de dirigir la atención hacia arriba, hacia realidades celestiales (Ex 25:9; Hechos 7:44; Heb 8:5) y hacia adelante en la historia hacia el sacrificio de Jesús en la cruz. Las viejas señales, la Pascua y la circuncisión, así como los demás sacrificios sangrientos y ceremonias han sido substituidos. Aunque aún vivimos en una relación de pacto con Dios, y las imágenes sangrientas de Cristo han sido reemplazadas por señales no sangrientas (recuerdos) y sellos.

Así como Dios hizo un pacto con Abraham, Él prometió que más tarde vendría un Nuevo Pacto (Jer 31:31). Dios hizo este Nuevo Pacto en la sangre del Señor Jesucristo (Lucas 22:20). El Señor Jesús de forma específica y consciente estableció “el Nuevo Pacto”. El apóstol Pablo dijo de sí que él era “un siervo del Nuevo Pacto” (2 Cor 3:6). ¿Cómo puede ser si no hay sino un solo Pacto de la Gracia? El Nuevo Pacto es nuevo si lo comparamos con Moisés, pero no si lo comparamos con Abraham.

Este es el tema de Gálatas 3:1-29; 4:21-31, y 2 Corintios 3:7-18 donde Pablo dice que la gloria del Viejo Pacto estaba desapareciendo, pero que la gloria del Nuevo Pacto es permanente. El mensaje de los capítulos 3 al 10 de Hebreos es que el Viejo Pacto (bajo Moisés) fue preparatorio del Nuevo Pacto. El tema fundamental de Hebreos 11 es que Abraham tuvo una fe del Nuevo Pacto, esto es, anticipó una ciudad celestial y la redención que tenemos en Cristo (Hebreos 11:10).

Israel Definido
A Jacob Yo He Amado

Hubo pues un Israel antes del Pacto Antiguo. Israel fue el nombre dado a Jacob. Esta es la primera vez que la palabra “Israel” aparece en las Escrituras, como conclusión a la historia de la lucha de Jacob (Gen 32:21-30).

Después de haber pasado la noche luchando con un hombre anónimo, y “cuando el hombre vio que no podía con él” (v.25), Jacob le pidió una bendición. A cambio, el luchador le puso a Jacob el nuevo nombre de Israel, el cual él definió como “luchas con Dios y con los hombres.”

Así pues, en la historia de la salvación, todos aquellos que provienen del patriarca Jacob son, en un amplio sentido, “Israel”. Tan sólo dos capítulos después el término “Israel” es usado para describir el lugar y nombre de los hijos de Abraham, Isaac y Jacob (34:7). En Padam Aram, Dios de nuevo le bendice y le llama a Jacob “Israel” (35:9-10) y repite la promesa hecha a Abraham de ser Dios para Abraham y para sus hijos.

Todo esto parece apoyar la idea de que Israel significa “aquellos que físicamente descienden de Jacob.” A excepción de que Jacob no es el principio de la historia. Antes de que hubiera un Israel ya hubo un Abraham y su milagroso hijo, Isaac (Rom 9), y antes de Abraham, dice Jesús, “YO SOY” (Juan 8:58). Fue a Abraham a quien Dios prometió “Yo seré tu Dios, y tú serás mi pueblo.” En efecto, Jesús les enseñó a los Judíos en Juan 8 que fue él quien hizo la promesa a Abraham (Juan 8:56). Recuerda también que el primer cumplimiento de esa promesa no vino por “voluntad de varón”, sino por el poder soberano de Dios al permitirle a Sara concebir en su anciana edad. Todos estos son factores importantes a recordar cuando nos acerquemos a la respuesta de Pablo a la pregunta ¿Quién es el Israel de Dios?

Israel, Mi Hijo

En el Éxodo de Egipto Dios constituyó a los hijos de Jacob colectivamente como su “hijo”.

“Jehová ha dicho así: Israel es mi hijo, mi primogénito. Ya te he dicho que dejes ir a mi hijo, para que me sirva, mas no has querido dejarlo ir; he aquí yo voy a matar a tu hijo, tu primogénito.” (Ex 4:23).

Esta no es una declaración casual, sino una descripción deliberada del pueblo nacional. Los hijos de Jacob no son el Hijo de Dios por naturaleza, sino por adopción. Moisés niega que hubiera ninguna cualidad inherente en Israel que hiciera a los hijos de Jacob merecedores de ser llamados el pueblo de Dios.

“No por ser vosotros más que todos los pueblos os ha querido Jehová y os ha escogido, pues vosotros erais el más insignificante de todos los pueblos; si no por cuanto Jehová os amó, y quiso guardar el juramento que juró a vuestros padres, os ha sacado Jehová con mano poderosa, y os ha rescatado de servidumbre, de la mano de Faraón rey de Egipto.” (Dt 7:7-8)

De acuerdo con este pasaje hay dos razones por las cuales Dios escogió a Israel, Su amor inmerecido y la promesa hecha a Abraham.

Israel Extraviado
Israel, sin embargo, no era hijo natural de Dios. Esto se vio claramente en el desierto, en Canaán y finalmente en la expulsión cuando Dios cambió el nombre de su “hijo” Israel por “Lo-ammi, no mi pueblo” (Oseas 1:9-10).

Dios desheredó a su “hijo” adoptado, temporal y nacional, Israel, como pueblo nacional precisamente, porque jamás fue la intención de Dios tener un pueblo terrenal permanente. Tras el cautiverio, ellos ya habían cumplido ampliamente su papel en la historia de la salvación. Como señal de este hecho, el Espíritu-Gloria partió del templo. Esto sucedió porque su principal función fue la de servir como modelo y sombra del hijo natural de Dios, Jesús el Mesías (Hebreos 10:1-4).

Jesús, el Israel de Dios
La tesis de este ensayo es que Jesús es el verdadero Israel de Dios y que todo aquel que esté unido a él, sólo por gracia, sólo por medio de la fe, viene a ser por virtud de esa unión el verdadero Israel de Dios. Esto significa que es erróneo buscar, esperar, anhelar o desear una reconstitución de un Israel nacional en el futuro. La Iglesia del Nuevo Pacto no es algo que Dios instituyó hasta que Él pudiera volver a crear un pueblo nacional en Palestina, sino que más bien Dios sólo tuvo un pueblo nacional temporalmente (desde Moisés hasta Cristo) como preludio y avance de la creación del Nuevo Pacto en el cual las distinciones étnicas que hubo bajo Moisés fueron completadas y abolidas (Efesios 2:11-22; Colosenses 2:8-3:11).

Mateo 2:15
En el texto Hebreo la expresión “fuera de Egipto” ocurre más de 140 veces. Esta es una evidencia más de la existencia de un Israel nacional. Cuando Dios dio la Ley dijo, “Yo soy Yahvéh tu Dios quien te sacó de la tierra de Egipto.” Eran un pueblo redimido que pertenecía a su Salvador.

Esto es aún más significativo cuando Mateo 2:15 cita Oseas 11:1. La Escritura dice,

Y él, despertando, tomó de noche al niño y a su madre, y se fue a Egipto, y estuvo allá hasta la muerte de Herodes; para que se cumpliese lo que dijo el Señor por medio del profeta, cuando dijo: “De Egipto llamé a mi Hijo.”

Herodes estaba a punto de descargar su rabia sangrienta contra los primogénitos de los Judíos. La interpretación inspirada que Mateo hace de las Escrituras Hebreas debe regular nuestra interpretación de las Escrituras, y según la interpretación de Mateo nuestro Señor Jesús es el verdadero Israel de Dios, no el pueblo temporal y nacional de Israel. En efecto, no es nada exagerado decir que la única razón por la cual Dios orquestó el primer Éxodo fue para poder orquestar el segundo Éxodo y que así pudiéramos conocer que Jesús es el verdadero Hijo de Dios y que todos los cristianos son el Israel de Dios sin considerar su etnia.

Dado que Jesús es el verdadero Israel de Dios, por eso en su infancia y de hecho en toda su vida, recapituló la historia del Israel nacional. Todo aquello que el Israel nacional rebelde no haría, Jesús lo hizo: Él amó a Dios con todo su corazón, su alma, su mente y sus fuerzas y a su prójimo como a sí mismo (Mateo 22:37-40).

Gálatas 3:16
De forma similar, el apóstol Pablo argumenta muy claramente que las promesas hechas a Abraham tienen su cumplimiento en Cristo. Gálatas 3:16 dice,

“Ahora bien, a Abraham fueron hechas las promesas, y a su simiente. No dice: Y a las simientes, como si hablase de muchos, sino como de uno: Y a tu simiente, la cual es Cristo.”

Pablo explica lo que quiere decir. Las promesas hechas a Abraham fueron promesas del evangelio del Nuevo Testamento. Fueron dadas antes de Moisés y fueron cumplidas en Cristo. Jesús es el verdadero hijo de Abraham, él es “la simiente” prometida a Abraham.

El propósito de la Ley dada a Moisés fue el enseñar al Israel nacional y a nosotros la seriedad de nuestro pecado y nuestra miseria (Gálatas 3:22). La Ley administrada a través de Moisés no cambió fundamentalmente la promesa del evangelio dada a Abraham (3:17-20). El Nuevo Pacto no es si no el cumplimiento y la renovación del Pacto con Abraham, y el Pacto con Abraham no fue más que el cumplimiento y la renovación del pacto de Gracia hecho con Adán después de la caída.

Jesús, el Salvador de Israel

Hechos 13:23
Parte de la confusión que conlleva el tema del plan de Dios en la historia, y por lo tanto parte de la razón por la cual los cristianos están tan confundidos sobre el plan de Dios para el futuro de su pueblo, viene porque muchos no comprenden qué vino a hacer Jesús por el Israel nacional. Jesús no vino a establecer un reino Judío terrenal y nacional, sino que vino a ser su Salvador y el Salvador de todo el Pueblo de Dios, fueran judíos o gentiles.

Nuestro Señor, antes de su encarnación, se identificó a sí mismo con Israel a través del profeta Isaías (43:3) como “el Santo de Israel”, su “Salvador.” Este es el mismo asunto que el apóstol Pedro trató en su gran sermón de Pentecostés, que David no es el Rey, ya que está muerto. Jesús, puesto que vive, es el Rey y fue sobre Jesús que David profetizó (Hechos 2:19-34).

Más tarde, en otro sermón, Pedro dijo que Dios había ahora “exaltado” a Jesús “a su propia mano derecha como Príncipe y Salvador, para que pudiera darle a Israel arrepentimiento y perdón de pecados.”

Los Hijos de Abraham

Con todo este trasfondo, ahora estamos en situación de responder a las preguntas, “¿Quiénes son los hijos de Abraham?” y “¿Quién es el Israel de Dios?” Jesús dijo,

“Cuando hayáis levantado al Hijo del Hombre, entonces conoceréis que yo soy, y que nada hago por mí mismo, sino que según me enseñó el Padre, así hablo. Porque el que me envió, conmigo está; no me ha dejado solo el Padre, porque yo hago siempre lo que le agrada.” (Juan 8:28-29).

Él continuó diciendo que “Si vosotros permaneciereis en mi palabra, seréis verdaderamente mis discípulos; y conoceréis la verdad, y la verdad os hará libres.” (vv.31-32) a lo que ellos responden señalando que ellos son descendencia física de Abraham (v.33).

A esto Jesús responde, “Si fueseis hijos de Abraham, las obras de Abraham haríais” (v.39). Esta es pues la definición que el Señor hace de un hijo de Abraham, un Judío, o Israel: Quien hace las cosas que Abraham hizo. ¿Y qué hizo Abraham? Según Jesús, “Abraham vuestro padre se gozó de que había de ver mi día; y lo vio, y se gozó” (v.56). Según Jesús el Mesías, un Judío, un verdadero Israelita es aquel que tiene fe salvadora en el Señor Jesús ya sea antes o después de su encarnación. Esta es solo otra forma de decir que Jesús es “el camino, la verdad y la vida” y que “nadie viene al Padre” sino por él (Juan 14:6). Este versículo también se aplica a Abraham, Isaac y Jacob así como a cualquiera.

Luego, no debiera sorprendernos encontrar básicamente la misma enseñanza en la teología del Apóstol Pablo. En Romanos 4, Pablo dice que uno es justificado de la misma manera que Abraham fue justificado, solo por gracia, y solo a través de la fe en Jesús (Romanos 4:3-8).

¿Y qué de los Gentiles? Pablo pregunta, “¿Cuándo fue Abraham justificado? ¿Bajo qué circunstancias? ¿Antes o después de ser circuncidado? ¡No fue después, sino antes!” (Romanos 4:11).

“…para que fuese padre de todos los creyentes no circuncidados, a fin de que también a ellos la fe les sea contada por justicia; y padre de la circuncisión, para los que no solamente son de la circuncisión, sino que también siguen las pisadas de la fe que tuvo nuestro padre Abraham antes de ser circuncidado.” (Romanos 4:11-12).

Por lo tanto estas dos preguntas están íntimamente relacionadas. La Justicia ante Dios “viene por fe” (Romanos 4:16), no por guardar la Ley, ni por ser física o étnicamente Judío,

“para que sea por gracia, a fin de que la promesa sea firme para toda su descendencia; no solamente para la que es de la ley, sino también para la que es de la fe de Abraham, el cual es padre de todos nosotros” (Romanos 4:16)

Esto es así porque, como dijo en Romanos capítulo 2,

“es judío el que lo es en lo interior, y la circuncisión es la del corazón, en espíritu, no en letra; la alabanza del cual no viene de los hombres, sino de Dios” (Romanos 2:29).

Cristo no vino para reinstalar y fijar la Teocracia Mosaica o a establecer un reino terrenal Judío milenial, sino a salvar pecadores Judíos y Gentiles y a hacerles, solo por gracia, solo a través de la fe, y solo en Cristo, hijos de Abraham.

La Pared Intermedia Derribada (Efesios 2:11-22)

El movimiento de la historia de la redención se da en este orden. El pueblo de Dios fue un pueblo internacional desde Adán hasta Moisés. Bajo Moisés el pueblo de Dios fue temporalmente una nación. Dios instituyó unas leyes especiales, civiles y ceremoniales, para separar a su pueblo nacional de los paganos gentiles. En Efesios 2:14 el Apóstol Pablo describe estas leyes civiles y ceremoniales como la “pared intermedia” entre Judíos y Gentiles. Por causa de esa pared intermedia los Gentiles, considerados como pueblo, estaban “sin Cristo, alejados de la ciudadanía de Israel y ajenos a los pactos de la promesa, sin esperanza y sin Dios en el mundo” (2:12).

Ahora, sin embargo, por causa de la muerte de Cristo, Pablo les asegura a los cristianos gentiles que “vosotros que en otro tiempo estabais lejos, habéis sido hechos cercanos por la sangre de Cristo” (V.13). ¿Cómo? A través de su muerte, Cristo ha destruido la pared intermedia, ha rasgado el velo del templo, ha destruido y restaurado el templo en tres días mediante su resurrección (Juan 2:19),

“aboliendo en su carne las enemistades, la ley de los mandamientos expresados en ordenanzas, para crear en sí mismo de los dos un solo y nuevo hombre, haciendo la paz, y mediante la cruz reconciliar con Dios a ambos en un solo cuerpo, matando en ella las enemistades” (Efesios 2:15-16).

Ahora, por virtud de nuestra unión con Cristo, tanto los cristianos Judíos como los Gentiles son “conciudadanos de los santos, y miembros de la familia de Dios” (Efesios 2:19); “Porque nosotros somos la circuncisión, los que en espíritu servimos a Dios y nos gloriamos en Cristo Jesús, no teniendo confianza en la carne” (Filipenses 3:3). ¿Por qué? Porque “…nuestra ciudadanía está en los cielos” (Filipenses 3:20). ¿Cómo es pues que el Premilenialismo, teniendo dos pueblos de Dios paralelos, no reconstruye esa pared intermedia de separación que Jesús destruyó con su muerte?

No Todo Israel es Israel (Romanos 9)
Uno de los lugares más claros en las Escrituras en cuanto a este tema es Romanos 9. El contexto de este pasaje es la misma pregunta que estamos tratando ahora, ¿qué sucede con Israel? ¿Quién es el Israel de Dios? ¿Ha abandonado Dios su promesa con Abraham? La respuesta de Pablo es que un Judío es quien lo es interiormente, quien ama al Salvador de Abraham. Puesto que Cristo fue circuncidado (Colosenses 2:11-12) por nosotros en la cruz, la circuncisión es moral y espiritualmente indiferente.

“No que la palabra de Dios haya fallado” (Romanos 9:6). La razón por la cual solo algunos Judíos hayan creído en Jesús como el Mesías es por que “no todo Israel es Israel. No por el hecho de ser descendientes de Abraham son todos sus hijos.” Más bien los hijos de Abraham son contados “a través de Isaac” (9:7). Esto quiere decir que “no son los hijos naturales los que son de Dios, sino los hijos de la promesa” (v.8). ¿Cómo nació Isaac? Por el soberano poder de Dios. ¿Cómo nacen los Cristianos? Por el soberano poder de Dios. Cada cristiano es un “Isaac” en cierto sentido. ¿Por qué es así? Por que

“-pues no habían aún nacido, ni habían hecho aún ni bien ni mal, para que el propósito de Dios conforme a la elección permaneciese, no por las obras sino por el que llama-, se le dijo: El mayor servirá al menor. Como está escrito: A Jacob amé, mas a Esaú aborrecí.” (Malaquías 1:2; Romanos 9:11-13).

¿Cómo puede ser esto? Esto es porque Dios “Tendré misericordia del que yo tenga misericordia, y me compadeceré del que yo me compadezca” (Rom 9:15).

“Así que no depende del que quiere, ni del que corre, sino de Dios que tiene misericordia. Porque la Escritura dice a Faraón: Para esto mismo te he levantado, para mostrar en ti mi poder, y para que mi nombre sea anunciado por toda la tierra. De manera que de quien quiere, tiene misericordia, y al que quiere endurecer, endurece”. (Rom 9:16-18).

¿Es Dios injusto? De acuerdo con el apóstol Pablo, como criaturas, no tenemos “derechos” delante de Dios. Dios es el alfarero, nosotros el barro, pero los Cristianos son barro redimido, objetos de misericordia, preparados de antemano para la gloria. Debemos evaluar nuestra condición teniendo como telón de fondo la paciencia de Dios con esos objetos de ira preparados para destrucción (Romanos 9:22-23). Estas vasijas preparadas para la gloria son tomadas tanto de entre los Judíos como de entre los Gentiles (Romanos 9:24). Esto es lo que él prometió en Oseas. Él ha hecho de aquellos que fueran una vez “Lo-ammi”, “no mi pueblo”, o sea los Gentiles, que ahora fuesen “hijos del Dios vivo” (Oseas 2:23; 1:10; Romanos 9:25-26).

La razón por la cual los Gentiles, que estaban sin la Ley, hayan “obtenido justicia”, y que Israel que sí la adquirió por Ley no la tenga, es porque la justificación no es por las obras, sino por gracia (Romanos 9:32). Ellos se tropezaron con Jesús, la piedra de tropiezo. Él no encajó con sus planes nacionalistas, y digo yo, que tampoco encaja él con los planes nacionalistas/Sionistas del Premilenialismo.

No es que Pablo no quiera que los Judíos no sean salvos, sino que les dice esto porque quiere que los Judíos también se salven. La única manera de que un descendiente físico de Abraham, Isaac y Jacob sea un verdadero Israelita es unirse al verdadero Israel de Dios, a Jesús, por medio de la fe. “Porque no hay diferencia entre judío y griego, pues el mismo que es Señor de todos, es rico para con todos los que le invocan; porque todo aquel que invocare el nombre del Señor, será salvo” (Romanos 10:12-13). “No todos los Israelitas han aceptado el Evangelio.”

¿Ha rechazado Dios a su pueblo? No, los escogidos son su pueblo, y todos los escogidos serán salvos. Hay también Judíos creyentes. Pablo se pone a él mismo como ejemplo (Romanos 11:1). Él es parte del remanente escogido que no ha doblado su rodilla ante Baal. “Así también aun en este tiempo ha quedado un remanente escogido por gracia. Y si por gracia, ya no es por obras; de otra manera la gracia ya no es gracia” (Romanos 11:5-6). Lo que Israel buscó ansiadamente no lo obtuvo, pero los escogidos sí. Los demás fueron endurecidos.

La elección de Dios de unos y la reprobación de otros son dos hechos de la historia de la redención que Pablo saca a la luz con la pregunta “¿Quién es el Israel de Dios?”. Y de nuevo enseña: La salvación es solo por gracia, solo por medio de la fe, y solo en Cristo; y “Lo que buscaba Israel, no lo ha alcanzado; pero los escogidos sí lo han alcanzado, y los demás fueron endurecidos…” (Rom 11:7).

¿Ha acabado Dios de salvar Judíos? De ninguna manera. La salvación ha venido a los Gentiles para “provocar a Israel a celos” (Rom 11:11). Los Gentiles, por el favor inmerecido de Dios, han sido injertados al Israel de Dios. Y “ha acontecido a Israel endurecimiento en parte, hasta que haya entrado la plenitud de los gentiles; y luego todo Israel será salvo” (Romanos 11:25-26).

Los Cristianos son el Israel de Dios en Cristo: Gálatas 6:16
Dado este trasfondo, no debiera sorprendernos nada el hecho de que los apóstoles llamaran a ambos, Judíos y Gentiles, “el Israel de Dios.” Este es el lenguaje de Pablo refiriéndose a la congregación mezclada de Galacia.

1 Pedro 2:9-10
El apóstol Pedro usa el mismo tipo de lenguaje para describir las congregaciones de mayoría gentil en Asia Menor, a quienes escribe diciendo, “vosotros que en otro tiempo no erais pueblo, pero que ahora sois pueblo de Dios; que en otro tiempo no habíais alcanzado misericordia, pero ahora habéis alcanzado misericordia.”

Hebreos 8:8-10
Según el escritor a los Hebreos, aquellos que invocaren el nombre de Cristo son “la Casa de Israel.” Cualquiera que haya creído en Cristo es un heredero de las promesas del Nuevo Pacto.

¿Ama a los Judíos el Dios de Abraham, Isaac y Jacob? Sí. ¿Tiene un plan para los Judíos? Sí, el mismo plan que prometió a Adán, la simiente de la mujer, el mismo plan que prometió a Abraham, “la Simiente.” Esa simiente es una: Cristo. Él es el Santo de Israel, él es el Israel de Dios. Él hizo lo que Adán no. Él hizo lo que un Israel terco no quisiera ni pudiera haber hecho. Él sirvió al Señor con todo su corazón, alma, mente y fuerzas.

Muchos de los Judíos, de todas formas, no estaban buscando un Salvador. Buscaban un rey. Jesús es Rey, pero ganó su trono mediante su obediencia y muerte, y eso no es lo que ellos querían. Ellos querían gloria, poder y un reino teocrático, político, y físico en esta tierra. Jesús ha establecido su reino, a través de la predicación del Evangelio y la administración de los sacramentos. Este reino puede que no sea tan emocionante como gobernar desde Jerusalén durante una era dorada en la tierra, pueda que no venda tantos libros ni llene tantas butacas en los cines, pero el mundo nunca ha encontrado al Jesús de las Escrituras muy interesante. Por eso él es piedra de tropiezo para los Judíos Sionistas y locura para los Griegos. Para los Cristianos, sin embargo, él es el Cristo, “poder de Dios, y sabiduría de Dios” (1 Corintios 1:24).

Escatología últimas cosas final de los tiempos Israel Jerusalén dejados atrás rapto últimos días últimas cosas historia de la salvación pacto Judíos Gentiles Mesías anticristo escatología últimas cosas final de los tiempos pacto historia de la salvación historia de la salvación

Traducción al español: David Barceló, abril 2002.

HT566 History Of Covenant Theology

Course Description

An introduction to Reformed federal or covenant theology. The course surveys the historical-theological development of covenant theology, its exegetical foundations, and systematic-theological consequences. Fall Semester. 2 Credits.

Course Goals

—Academic Goal:

To enable the student to understand and discuss intelligently the background, development, and nature of Reformed covenant theology.

—Pastoral Goal:

To help the student gain a critical appreciation for the development of Reformed covenant theology in the periods of early, high, and late Reformed orthodoxy.

Required Reading

Primary Texts

  1. Heinrich Bullinger, A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God (1534) in C. S. McCoy and J. W. Baker, Fountainhead of Federalism (Louisville: WJKP, 1991), 99–138. (Populi)
  2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. F. L. Battles, ed. J. T. McNeill, 2 vols (Philadelphia, 1961), 1.15 (all); 2.1 (all); 2.6–7 (all); 2.10–12 (all); 3.1–3 (all); 3.11, 14, 17, 4.14–15; 4.17.1–13, 4.17.31–33, 4.17.41–44; (Note: The Instiutes are cited as book.chapter.section. Where are there are only two numers they refer to book and chapter).
  3. Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pp.2–39, 97–106, 324–440.
  4. ——, Large and Small Catechisms in Bierma et al eds. Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism, pp. 137–223.
  5. Caspar Olevianus, An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, trans. Lyle Bierma, Classic Reformed Theology Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).
  6. Robert Rollock, Some Questions and Answers About God’s Covenant in Aaron C. Denlinger, “Robert Rollock’s Catechism on God’s Covenants,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 20 (2009): 105–129 (Populi)
  7. William Ames, Marrow of Theology, pp. 110–64, 202–13, 278–300.
  8. J. Wollebius, Compendium of Christian Theology in Reformed Dogmatics, trans. John W, Beards (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 54–58, 64–129.
  9. Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (all)
  10. Johannes Cocceius, Summary of the Covenant and Testament of God [all]
  11. Samuel Rutherford, The Covenant of Life Opened, 1.1–11, 1.13–16, 2.5–12 (in the bookstore).
  12. Turretin, Institutes of the Elenctic Theology, 1.568–89; 2.169–269. (Populi)
  13. Herman Witsius, Economy of the Covenants 1.41–324.
  14. John Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1999), all.
  15. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 2.117–129, 354–77. (Populi)
  16. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: 2: God and Creation, 563–80 and 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, 193–232. (Populi)
  17. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. G. W. Bromiley, 13 vols (Edinburgh: 1936–), 4:1:1–78. (Populi)

Required Secondary Reading

  1. R. Scott Clark, “Christ and Covenant: Federal Theology in Reformed in Orthodoxy,” in Herman Selderhuis, ed. Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (Populi)
  2. ——, “Baptism and the Benefits of Christ: The Double Mode of Communion in the Covenant of Grace,” The Confessional Presbyterian Journal 2 (2006): 3–19.
  3. —, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ (2005; Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), chapters, 5–7.
  4. Willem van Asselt, “The Doctrine of Abrogations in the Federal Theology of Johannes Cocceius,” Calvin Theological Journal 29 (1994): 101–16.
  5. J. Mark Beach, “The Doctrine of the Pactum Salutis in the Covenant Theology of Herman Witsius,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 13 (2002): 101–42.
  6. Richard A. Muller, The Covenant of Works and the Stability of Divine Law in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Orthodoxy: A Study in the Theology of Herman Witsius and Wilhelmus a Brakel,” Calvin Theological Journal 29 (1994): 75–101 (Populi)

Recommended Primary Sources

  1. William Ames, A Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism, trans. Todd M. Rester, Classic Reformed Theology Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Press, 2008).
  2. Robert Rollock, A Treatise of Our Effectual Calling in Select Works of Robert Rollock, 1.29–60, 160–177, 194–238.
  3. John Ball, A Treatise on the Covenant of Grace
  4. Nehemiah Coxe (Baptist), Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ (A Discourse of the Covenants that God Made with Men Before the Law. Wherein the Covenant of Circumcision is more largely handled and the invalidity of the plea for paedobaptism taken from thence discovered and John Owen, An Expositon of Hebrews 8:6–13 whrein the nature and differences between the Old and New covenants is covered), eds. Ronald D. Miller, James M. Renihan, and Francisco Orozco (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005).
  5. Thomas Boston, A View of the Covenant of Grace (reprint edition; Lewis, UK: Focus Christian Ministries Trust, 1990).

Recommended Secondary Reading

  1. Andrew A. Woolsey, Unity and Continuity in Covenantal Thought: A Study in the Reformed Tradition to the Westminster Assembly.
  2. Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition.
  3. Mark Beach, Christ and the Covenant: Francis Turretin’s Federal Theology as a Defense of the Doctrine of Grace.
  4. Brian Lee, Johannes Cocceius and the Exegetical Roots of Federal Theology.
  5. Aaron Denlinger, Omnes in Adam ex pacto Dei: Ambrogio Catarino’s Doctrine of Covenantal Solidarity and Its Influence on Post-Reformation Reformed Theologians (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010).
  6. ——, “Calvin’s Understanding of Adam’s Relationship to Humankind: Recent Assertions of the Reformer’s ‘Federalism’ Evaluated,” Calvin Theological Journal 44 (2009): 226–250.
  7. Michael G. Brown, “Christ and the Condition: Samuel Petto c. 1624–1711″ on the Mosaic Covenant,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 20 (2009): 131–57.
  8. ——“Christ and the Condition: The Covenant Theology of Samuel Petto (c. 1624-1711)” M. A. Thesis Westminster Seminary California (2009).
  9. Brannan Ellis, “Christ our Righteousness: Petrus van Mastricht’s (1630-1706) High Orthodox Doctrine of Justification in its pre-Enlightenment Context”, M.A. Thesis Westminster Seminary California (2006).
  10. J. V. Fesko, “Calvin and Witsius on the Mosaic Covenant” in The Law is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant, ed. Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko, and David VanDrunen (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2009), 25–43
  11. D. G. Hart, “Princeton and the Law: Enlightened and Reformed,” in The Law is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant, ed. Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko, and David VanDrunen (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2009), 44–75.
  12. Brenton C. Ferry, “Works in the Mosaic Covenant: a Reformed Taxonomy,” in The Law is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant, ed. Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko, and David VanDrunen (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2009), 76–108.
  13. J. Mark Beach, “Calvin and the Dual Aspect of Covenant Membership: Galatians 3:15–22—and Other Key Texts,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 20 (2009): 49–73.
  14. ——, “The Promise of the Covenant and the Enigma of Unbelief: Reflections on Covenant Promise with a Selection from Samuel Volbeda’s “Catechetics,” Offering a Critique of William Heyns’ Doctrine of the Covenant and the Apostasy of Covenant Youth, in Mid-America Journal of Theology 15 (2004): 125–63.
  15. Richard A. Muller, “Divine Covenants Absolute and Condiitonal: John Cameron and the Early Orthodox Development of Reformed Covenant Theology,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 17 (2006): 11–56.
  16. G. Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. R. B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1975), 234–67.
  17. R. Scott Clark and Joel R. Beeke, “Ursinus, Oxford, and the Westminster Divines,” inThe Westminster Confession into the 21st Century: Essays in Remembrance of the 350th Anniversary of the Publication of the Westminster Confession of Faith, 3 vols (Ross-Shire, UK: Mentor, 2003), 2.1–32.
  18. Rowland Ward, God and Adam: Reformed Theology and the Creation Covenant(Wantirna, Australia: New Melbourne Press, 2003).
  19. John von Rohr, The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought.
  20. John Girardeau, The Federal Theology: Its Import and Regulative Influence (reprint, Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press, 1994)
  21. Jeong Koo Jeon, Covenant Theology and Justification By Faith.
  22. ——Calvin and the Federal Vision
  23. ——Covenant Theology: John Murray’s and Meredith G. Kline’s Response to the Historical Development of Federal Theology in Reformed Thought
  24. Guy Prentiss Waters, “The Theology of Norman Shepherd: A Study in Development, 1963–2006,” in The Hope Fulfilled: Essays in Honor of O. Palmer Robertson, ed. Robert L. Penny (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008), 206–31.
  25. Anthony Selvaggio, “Unity or Disunity? Covenant Theology from Calvin to Westminster,” in Anthony T. Selvaggio, ed., The Faith Once Delivered: Celebrating the Legacy of Reformed Systematic Theology and the Westminster Assembly (Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne Spear). (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 217–45.
  26. P. Y. DeJong, The Covenant Ida in New England Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1945).
  27. Willem J. Van Asselt, The Federal Theology of Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669), trans. Raymond J. Blacketer, Studies in the History of Christian Thought (Leiden: Brill, 2001).
  28. Philip G. Ryken, Thomas Boston as Preacher of the Fourfold State (Carlisle, UK: Rutherford House, 1999).
  29. Carol A. Williams, “The Decree of Redemption is in Effect a Covenant: David Dickson and the Covenant of Redemption” (PhD Dissertation, Calvin Theological Seminary, 2005).

Course Structure

Each class session will involve lecture and discussion.

Course Requirements:

1. Complete the assigned reading 40%

2. Attend class 10%

3. Research paper (limit 2500 words) 50%. Due by 10:00AM on the last Friday at the semester. Email your paper as a Word (or Pages) document to rsclark at wscal dot edu Name the file: lastnamefirstname.doc (or .pages). It is not possible to submit a paper without a thesis sentence and pass this course.

Standards and Manner:

Read On the Writing of Essays, even if you’ve read it before. Your mark for the paper will be reduced by one full letter for each day an assignment is late. A paper submitted after 10 AM on the last day of classes is late. No exceptions. No excuses.

Start your paper now. If you wait until late in the semester your hard drive will crash, your cat will get leukemia, or something equally dreadful will happen and you will come to me to ask for an extension and I will say “NO!” Be a Calvinist. Plan for trouble and hardship in this life.

Comparative papers are more difficult than papers with one subject because a comparative paper requires investigation of two bodies of secondary literature (assuming they both exist). Thus a paper comparing Luther and Calvin will be about twice as difficult as a paper focusing only on Calvin or Luther. Therefore, they are not encouraged.

Papers must be grounded in primary sources. This means that there must be primary sources for any topic you wish to cover. If there are not primary sources at hand to support your research you should find another topic. Do not count on inter-library loan. Those resources may not arrive in time for you to meet the deadline.

Electronic sources found on sites such as Google Books are appropriate insofar as the original text is a published primary source or secondary text. Other appropriate electronic sources are the DLCP database (available through the WSC library page) or EEBO or the Post-Reformation Digital Library other such reputable primary source sites.

Cheating and Plagiarism

Don’t even think about it. Cheating and plagiarism are a serious infractions of the law of God and punishable by a measures determined by the faculty up to and including expulsion from the seminary. Cheating is presenting someone else’s work during an exam as your own. Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work as your own in a paper. Please acknowledge all sources with appropriate footnotes. See the Student Handbook for a complete statement on plagiarism.

Assertion of Intellectual Property Rights

The instructor holds the copyright to all course lectures and original course materials. This copyright extends to student notes and summaries that substantially reflect the lectures or original course materials. Course lectures and materials are made available for the personal use of students only and may not be recorded or otherwise distributed (including the publication of student notes or summaries on social media) in any way for commercial or non-commercial purposes without the express written permission of the instructor.

How Should We View The Warning Passages?

The Background to the Current Discussion
There is concern by some in the Reformed community that there is too much emphasis on grace, in the doctrine of sanctification, and not enough emphasis on obedience and even godly fear. The question has arisen how this matter should be addressed. What language should we use when speaking about the imperative to sanctity in the Christian life? What role does the law have in our sanctification?

There can be no question that God’s Word teaches the moral necessity of sanctification (holiness) for believers in Christ. Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Throughout her entire history the Christian church has taught the moral necessity of believers to strive for holiness, conformity to Christ.

In order to push believers toward holiness the medieval church (600–1500 AD) even came to teach that we are justified (accepted by God) to the degree we are holy and we are holy by grace and cooperation with grace. That unofficial consensus became dogma at the Council of Trent in 1547. It remains the dogma (the official teaching) of the Roman communion today. It was also the teaching of the first-generation Anabaptists in the 1520s and 30s and it became the teaching of some of those groups that were influenced by the Anabaptists and of some wings of the “holiness” movements—even though they were ostensibly Protestant—in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In each case, however, whether in the medieval church, the Roman communion, or in the “holiness” churches, that system has always failed to produce the desired results. There is a reason for this failure: sanctification requires great effort, indeed it requires the ultimate commitment: death to self but it is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Under the Roman system, sanctification became a work. They made our works a part of the instrument (faith) and ground (righteousness) of justification (acceptance with God). That’s why the Reformers accused Rome of contradicting the clear teaching of the apostle Paul:

God counts righteousness apart from works (Rom 4:6)

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Rom 11:6)

…a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal 2:16)

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal 3:10)

In Reformed terms the medieval system turned the covenant of grace (“the seed of the woman shall”) into a covenant of works (“do this and live” – Luke 10:28). Further, by all measures the medieval system failed to produce the desired results. The Fifth Lateran Council, on the cusp of the Reformation, declared that the Western Church (session 9, 1514) recognized that the church had been corrupted by the sale of ecclesiastical office (simony) and other forms of immorality. When, before the Reformation, in 1510, Luther visited Rome, the moral corruption of the “holy city” was so great he was disgusted and is said to have repeated the German axiom, “If there’s a hell, Rome is built on it.”

The Reformation offered a biblical alternative but, at the Council of Trent, the Roman communion “doubled down” and “went all in” (as the gamblers say) on the system of justification through sanctification and that by grace and cooperation with grace (works). In the Roman system sanctification is not Spirit-wrought. It is enabled by infused grace but is contingent upon our (free) willing and doing. In this Rome and the Remonstrants (the original Arminians) are one. God has done his part, as it were, and now it is up to us.

This is why the medieval church and Rome following her turned to threats and fear as a motivation to sanctity. Jesus was represented to the clergy and laity as an ominous, holy, fearsome judge instead of the one gracious Savior and Mediator between God and man. Not surprisingly the church gradually turned to substitute mediators, to an ever growing (and changing) collection of dead, glorified Christians (saints) who were now said to be able to hear and answer prayers. The greatest of these, of course, was (and is) said to be the mother of our Lord Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Ironically, the medieval church (and implicitly the modern Roman communion), while they affirmed God’s holiness and the necessity of our holiness for acceptance with God, recognized that we sinners do not ordinarily achieve the necessary holiness for acceptance with God. To address this problem some theologians taught that God imputes perfection to our best efforts even though those efforts (sanctity) were inherently imperfect. In the modern period Vatican II embraced a version of this view.

The Reformation repudiated the use of fear and threats of purgatory as an inducement for Christians to become more sanctified. The Reformed Churches embraced with their whole hearts the doctrine of free acceptance with God on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness. They taught consistently that sanctity is a necessary and natural result of true faith and union with the risen Christ. They also taught that the moral law of God as summarized in the Ten Commandments and expressed in the NT is the objective standard for Christian morality. They all agreed that antinomianism, denying the abiding validity of the substance of the Ten Commandments, is a denial of the ethical teaching of God’s Word.

The Use of the Law By The Westminster Divines Against The English Antinomians

Against the antinomians that troubled the church during the English Civil War, the Reformed confessed:

The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.

They recognized, however, that the moral law, whether expressed typologically under Moses or in the NT by our Lord himself or by the apostles did not, of itself, have power to produce sanctity. They knew this because they had learned early on from Martin Luther that God’s Word has two kinds of speech for sinners, law and gospel, or bad news and good. Calvin’s colleague and successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, wrote:

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558).

The great English Reformed theologian, William Perkins, wrote about preaching:

The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect, stimulates and stirs it up. But it provides no remedy for it. However the gospel not only teaches us what is to be done, it also has the power of the Holy Spirit joined to it….A statement of the law indicates the need for a perfect inherent righteousness, of eternal life given through the works of the law, of the sins which are contrary to the law and of the curse that is due them…. By contrast, a statement of the gospel speaks of Christ and his benefits, and of faith being fruitful in good works (The Art of Prophesying, 1592, repr. Banner of Truth Trust, 1996, 54–55).

The Reformed knew that humans are so sinful and the law is so holy that the law can only direct, guide, and convict. It can never generate holiness. Only Christ, working by his Spirit, through true faith, works out the principle of new life in the Christian by his grace and gospel.

The Reformed theologians and churches expressed this distinction between law and gospel in terms of two kinds of covenants, the covenant of works (law) that says, “do this and live” and the covenant of grace (gospel) that says, “the Seed of the woman shall crush his head” or “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”

Zacharias Ursinus, the principle author of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) explained the relations this way:

What distinguishes law and gospel? A: The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake (Larger Catechism, Q. 36).

The Reformed always grounded their understanding of sanctity and the process of growing in godliness in the covenant of grace, not in the covenant of works. This is why the Heidelberg Catechism was organized in three part: Guilt (law), Grace (Gospel), and Gratitude (sanctification). The Christian life always flows out of sanctity. It is normed by the law but it is empowered by grace and by the announcement of the good news in the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of gospel sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

In contrast to the Romanist approach to promoting sanctity through fear, the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 52 teaches:

52. What comfort is it to you, that Christ “shall come to judge the living and the dead”?

That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head, I look for the selfsame One, who before offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me, to come as Judge from heaven, who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall take me with all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory.

For the believer, for whom all debts have been paid, to whom the perfect (condign) merits of Christ have been imputed, the final judgment is no source of fear or terror but a source of comfort. Righteousness has been accomplished. The covenant of works has been fulfilled. The fruit of sanctification is the natural, necessary consequence of our free acceptance with God. The Spirit is at work in us. In the words of the Belgic Confession,

These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification—for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.

We “do good works” but we “do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment.”  (Belgic Confession Art 24). As Protestants we are free from having to pretend that we are or ever shall be completely sanctified in this life.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that there are warning passages in Scripture, in the NT, that were spoken to the NT church. Those warning passages are God’s Word and we ignore them at our peril.

Westminster Confession 19:6–7 speaks directly to the proper use of the law in motivating believers to great holiness and obedience. The first part of section 6 addressed one of the burdens of this brief series, namely, the problem of using the law without putting believers back under the covenant of works. Thus they confessed (and we with them)

Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others

The divines recognized that it is indeed possible to misuse the law and by such an abuse, well intentioned though it be, to place believers under the covenant of works. This happens when we use the law not as the divinely established norm which in the pedagogical use drives unbelieving sinners to Christ the Savior and in the normative use establishes the moral boundaries for the Christian life (and even then, says Heidelberg Q/A 115, “that we may more and more know our sinful nature”—so there is a pedagogical function of the law here too) but when we express the law conditionally to Christians: “God will approve of you if you, in your own person, do x.”

Consider, e.g., the language of Hebrews 12:14 and the “holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” This is not expressed as a conditional, “if you are holy, then you will see the Lord.” There is an imperative: “Seek peace and holiness.” It is a fact that without holiness no one will see the Lord but if we express this truth as a condition that the believer who is united to Christ, sola gratia, sola fide must meet then how much holiness is enough? Well, of course, God’s holiness is infinite and therefore our holiness must be infinite. Whose holiness, in this life, is infinite? No one’s holiness meets this test. The consequences of the syllogism are hard to miss:

  1. God demands perfect holiness as a condition of seeing him
  2. My holiness is not perfect
  3. Ergo, I will not see him

The next move we are likely to make is to offer some concession: “Well, of course God doesn’t expect your holiness to be perfect actually. He’s prepared to accept your best efforts.”

Now we have regressed entirely to the medieval doctrine of congruent merit, from which the Reformation delivered us. The problem, of course, is that all the evidence in Scripture tells us that God does expect perfect holiness. No one who has read the book of Leviticus could come away thinking that God is satisfied with less than perfection.

The solution for this problem is to recognize the difference between “if…then” and “do…because.” The medieval and Romanist schemes set up deadly conditionals: obey in order to gain (or keep) favor. The Protestants set up grace-wrought consequences. We Protestants seek to obey, in the grace of Christ, in union with Christ, because we’ve been redeemed and because we’ve been given new life.

So, because we’ve been redeemed, we should affirm the Westminster Confession (19.6) and confess the abiding validity of God’s moral law: as a rule of life informing [believers] of the will of God, and their duty,” because, by God’s intention,  “it directs and binds them to walk accordingly.”

It has another function, which we observed in part 1 in the Heidelberg Catechism. The older writers sometimes used the word “elenctic” to describe this use of the law. It’s an adjective that was derived from the Greek word used in 2Tim 4:2 that means “to convict.” This is essentially the same function it plays in the pedagogical use of the law, sometimes described as the first use of the law, as God uses it to drive unbelievers to Christ. It convicts us of the unbelief that remains within us and drives us back to Christ and thence to sanctity by

discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience.

This was standard Reformed doctrine. This was the teaching of Luther, Calvin, Beza, and the Reformed writers between them and the Assembly.

The Westminster Confession was written during a time of considerable social upheaval—a civil war will do that. There was no little theological upheaval as well. The modern Baptist movement was developing and it challenged the status quo on the sacraments. There were quietist movements and extreme rigorists and antinomians (and perceived antinomians). To drive home the point, the divines confessed (and we with them say),

[The moral law] is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof: although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. So as, a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and, not under grace. [emphasis added]

This was nothing more than an elaboration of what they had already said. There are pedagogical and normative aspects to what we (following Philipp Melanchthon a century prior) called “the third use of the law.” The fear that one should experience is the fear of being found outside of the free grace of God and the perfect righteousness of Christ imputed.

According to the churches, the moral law does threaten us but not as if we were still under the curse. We are not. For anyone to suggest or imply that believers, united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, in his perfect righteousness, may be placed again under the curse is nigh unto blasphemy. It undermines the finished work of Christ. It is this very error that we reject in Romanism, which really does place believers back under the curse of the law. “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the law” (Gal 3:10).  Who of us has done everything? None of us. Ergo, were that the condition of acceptance with God we are all necessarily cursed. That is why Paul hastens to remind us three verses later, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”

The divines explained that the use of the threatenings in the life of the believer is to remind him of that from which he has been delivered. The threatenings of the law, the reminders of curse, encourage us to obedience by reminding us of that from which we’ve been delivered and by illustrating for us how much God desires godliness but they do not do so by placing us in a state of jeopardy. This distinction in the function of the threats and curses is as essential for their right use as the distinction between law and gospel.

Finally, WCF 19. 7 concludes with a defense of the third use of the law:

Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely, and cheerfully, which the will of God, revealed in the law, requireth to be done.

We should observe how carefully the divines distinguished between law and gospel, in covenantal terms, by distinguishing between the covenants of works and grace. Their use of the law as the norm and teacher was always in the interests of driving sinners to see their need of a Savior and to seek godliness by seeking God’s favor in the face of Christ and with the help of his Spirit, who operates (works upon) the human will to make it “sweetly comply” with God’s fixed moral requirements. The key word here is “enabling.” The Spirit, through the “due use of ordinary means” (WCF 1.7) gradually brings our wills into conformity with his own.

A Look At Some Warning Passages
There are passages in the NT that might be described as “warning passages.” The first passage that might come to mind is the stern warning in Hebrews 4 to those Jewish and Gentile Christians who were tempted to turn back to Judaism, to embrace the Mosaic ceremonies, or even to abandon Christ altogether. To such the pastor (preached and) wrote,:

Let us fear therefore, while the promise still stands, let anyone of you should seem to have come short of it.

If we stopped in Hebrews 4:1 we might construe this passages as an exhortation to godliness or obedience as a condition of obtaining the promise but that would be a mistake. The pastor continues:

For indeed we have had good news preached unto us, even as also they: but the word of hearing did not profit them, because it was not united by faith with those who heard it.

The danger here is that of unbelief. The Israelites heard the gospel preached to them and they failed to enter the rest of salvation. That same danger exists today. The message must be received with faith! And, Pastor Paul hastens to add in Ephesians 2, that faith is a gift of God.

Hebrews 10 contains perhaps one of the strongest “warning” passages in the NT. Verses 26–27:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.

There could hardly be a more frightening passage in all the NT. It seems to seek to drive us to holiness by using the threat of final judgment. Once again, however, if we expand the context, the picture changes considerably. Consider the passage just above this “warning” passage:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

In vv. 19–25 the preacher to the Hebrew Christians begins with assurance, the confidence, the certain Gospel promise that all those who have trusted Jesus have free and full access to the heavenly holy of holies, where Jesus is, through the finished work and righteousness of Christ.

It is in view of the gospel, therefore, that they (and we with them) are to conduct their Christian lives. One of the consequences of faith in Christ is gathering together, on the Sabbath, in holy assembly for public worship.  Because some were being tempted to go back to Moses, back to the types and shadows, they were absenting themselves from Christian worship (perhaps in favor of the Synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath?).

It is in such a context that the preacher warns about the danger of being impenitent, i.e., of sinning without repentance. The sin here is apostasy from Christ and his gospel. In other words, we cannot simply fill in the blank with any sin, under any circumstance, and then shake our finger at others and say, “Stop doing x or you’ll lose your acceptance with God.”

That isn’t what this warning passage says or implies. So much is made clear by the verses following. He reminds these NT believers of what happened under Moses to those who apostatized. He writes:

How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?  For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Who is in such jeopardy? It is they who, having been initiated into the covenant community (in chapter 6 he writes of being “enlightened” perhaps a metaphorical reference to baptism), who have “tasted of the powers of the age to come” and who now have walked away from their profession of faith.

To be clear, neither Hebrews nor the rest of Holy Scripture, knows anything about the foolish Federal Vision doctrine of a union with Christ created by baptism and preserved by grace and cooperation with grace. This has more do with Romanismt sacerdotalism than it has with Scripture, which never teaches that circumcision or baptism has the power to create a real or even temporary union with Christ. Indeed, the Apostle Paul positively rejected the Judaizing attempt to confer more power on circumcision than it had. See the books of Galatians and Colossians.

The Federal Visionists make this error because they reject the biblical teaching that there are two ways of being in the one covenant of grace: internally and externally (Rom 2:28). I’ve written on the question of “Baptism and the Benefits of Christ” in an essay available free and online at the Confessional Presbyterian.

The short of it is that there are those in the visible covenant community, in the church, who have only an external relation to the covenant of grace and to Christ. They profess faith but they but they lack the new life that the Spirit alone gives.

We may rightly call them apostates who profess faith and who turn their backs on Christ. They were in the visible covenant community. They did receive signs. They did profess faith but, as John says, “they went out from us because they were not of us” (1John 2:19). They were never united to Christ.

Such apostates (as defined above) should be in fear of the holy wrath of God. Jesus has poured out the most holy blood of the covenant, not in bowls or on doorposts, but on the cross and the Angel of Death has passed over all those who by faith alone are covered by that righteous and holy blood. All those, however, whether in the visible assembly of the church or outside of it, who are not covered by Christ’s righteousness are in grave danger.

True believers, however, united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone ( sola gratia, sola fide) are in no such jeopardy. The Christian is simul iustus et peccator (at the same time sinner and righteous). As Paul teaches in Romans 7–8, we sin, we repent of it, we confess it humbly before God, we seek and accept his forgiveness in Christ. As he teaches in Romans 6 we seek to put to death that sin by strength of the Spirit of Christ dwelling within us.

The preacher to the Hebrews knows nothing of a true believer who may fall away. He does, however, know of those who have made profession of faith, who have a merely external relationship to the covenant of grace (Rom 2:28), who are not actually united to Christ by faith. These are two distinct classes of people who co-exist within the administration of the one covenant of grace.

One who has made a profession but who is not actually a believer cannot be placed back under the covenant of works because he has never left it. He is still under a covenant of works, an obligation to produce “perfect and personal obedience” (WCF 7.1). A profession of faith that does not flow from Spirit-wrought new life is false. Such a person remains under obligation to produce the perfect righteousness demanded by the law. A believer, however, has already met that demand by virtue of Christ’s perfect righteousness imputed.

The Warnings In Hebrews 12
Hebrews 12 gives us a pattern for relating the gospel, the third use of the law (the normative use), and warnings. The pastor begins the chapter by urging believers to set aside “every weight and sin” (v. 1). To motivate us to persevere in the struggle toward sanctity he reminds us that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” We do not need to understand exactly who these witnesses are to understand how they function. He also points to Christ, who persevered through death, who was raised and is ascended. He grounds our struggle with sin in Christ the “perfecter and author of our faith” (v.2).

He reminds us that our Lord resisted sin to the shedding of blood (v.4), whether in the Garden of Gethsemane or on the cross. The contrast with our own spiritual sloth is clear.

This battle with sin he calls “the discipline of the Lord” (v.5). We’re not to interpret such Fatherly discipline as a sign of God’s disfavor (as if the only sign of his Fatherly care is earthly prosperity) but rather as a sign of God’s love for us in Christ (vv.5–11). Just as we have earthly fathers who disciplined us because they love us (ordinarily), for our good (that was certainly true in my case) so it is even more true that the Father sometimes chastises us in order to drive us to see our sins, to see our need for Christ and to seek to die to sin and live to Christ. Sometimes the Lord may even withdraw from us a sense of his presence. During such chastisements we continue to trust the Lord, to wait, and to make use of those means he has appointed for our spiritual growth: the preaching of the gospel, the holy sacraments, and prayer.

In vv. 18–24, the pastor reminds us of God’s awesome holiness. This reminder is intended to create in us a sense of due reverence for our Holy God—one that is sorely needed in our day—Notice, however, that Hebrews 12:18–21 says that “we have not come” to the gloomy, frightening Old Covenant mountain. He reminds us that, instead, in the New Covenant, by faith, come to

Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. and to innumerable angels in festal gathering….

This is a much more optimistic, encouraging picture.

God is no less holy, however. As he says, we have come to

God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

The person at the top of the mountain, as it were, is he who gave his life for us, our Mediator.

There is jeopardy associated with the new covenant mountain. We who hear, who profess faith, may not “refuse him who is speaking” (v. 25). Now that we are in the period of fulfillment the jeopardy of unbelief is even greater—”much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.” The next “voice” (v. 26) will not just shake a mountain but will rattle the entire world!

We who believe should be grateful for “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (v. 28). As the redeemed we want to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

If we look at other warning passages in the NT we find the same pattern repeatedly. 1Peter warns not that believers may fall away if they are not sufficiently sanctified. That would be to put believers back under the covenant of works, which is impossible. Rather, Peter warns them, e.g., that if they were to be in trouble with the civil authorities let it be for being a Christians rather than being an idiot (breaking the civil law). He reminds them of the impending return of Jesus in the final flood, as it were, to set all things right. We should therefore be prepared to suffer patiently in view of that reality.

Jude warns about false teachers and other false Christians, who profess faith but who are really hypocrites. They present a danger to the congregation. We do not know who is and is not elect. We may not be presumptuous. God works through instruments. Therefore we must be on guard lest such wolves enter congregations and do irreparable damage. This is why we have the process of church discipline (Matt 18).

Our Lord himself made use of warnings and promises of reward but how should we understand them? Consider his teaching in Matthew 6:2–4:

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Clearly he intends for us to do one thing (give to the needy) and not to do another (do so in an ostentatious way). Did he, however, set up a conditional reward structure whereby if we give appropriately we will have a reward (whatever that is) but if we fail to meet the condition we will not?

No, that’s not what the Lord says. Such a reading is an example, mentioned earlier in the series, of setting up false conditions and imposing them on the text. Our Lord is contrasting two different attitudes and intentions. The ostentatious giver has no love for the needy. His desire is recognition. When he gives ostentatiously he gains recognition and thus has his reward, such as it is. By contrast, the secret giver does so out of gratitude for God’s gift to him in Christ. He has another secret reward: Jesus the gift. He does not have the gift because he gave but he gave in secret because he already had the gift. There is no “if…then” condition for acceptance with God here. This is a classic case of an “is” (“this is the case”) that some would turn on its head to make it into an “if.”

When we turn Jesus’ words into conditions for acceptance with God we miss his point. In context he’s describing the antithesis between belief and unbelief, between true faith, which produces fruit, and hypocrisy, which produces dead works. Jesus is describing true faith and prescribing behavior that flows from it. The warning here is to make sure that we have true faith, that we believe, to make sure that we are not hypocrites. That’s a salutary warning.

There are warning passages in the NT but they must be read in their context. They must be read the way they are intended to be read. Isolated and collated they can be formed into an intimidating and unduly frightening list of conditions to be fulfilled for acceptance with God. The passages of this class, however, were never intended to be understood or used this way.

The key to unlocking the warning passages is the distinction between the covenants of works and grace. This is not a formula for making the passages go away. It is the biblical way of reading these passages in context and applying them fruitfully toward conformity to Christ.

Now I have an exhortation for preachers: Brothers, it is well for us to desire sanctity for in our people. As we do, however, we must be careful to make this foundational, biblical distinction. We will will help our congregations a great deal by taking a few moments regularly to explain it to them and to illustrate it by treating the NT warning passages with that distinction in mind. When we preachers fail to do this we unintentionally place our people back under the covenant of works, which can never produce in them the sanctity we all earnestly hope and pray to see.

The God who redeemed us is also sanctifying us by his Spirit, working in us a love for his holy law and bringing us into conformity to Christ. By virtue of the power of the Spirit, with which we are endued, we must struggle against sin, more and more recognizing God’s holiness and bringing our desires into conformity to his. In this life we will only make a beginning, even if only inchoate but let us make that beginning. “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2Cor 7:1).

The Conclusions of Synod Utrecht (1905)

[as published in J. L. Schaver, The Polity of the Churches, 3rd edn (Chicago: Church Polity Press, 1947), 2.34–37]

A. Infra- or Supralapsarianism

In regard to the first point, infra- or supralapsarianism, Synod declares:

that our Confessional Standards admittedly follow the infralapsarian presentation in respect to the doctrine of election, but that it is evident both from the wording of Chapter I, Article 7, of the Canons of Dort and from the deliberations of the Synod of Dort, that this is in no wise  intended to exclude or condemn the supralapsarian presentation;

that it is hence not permitted to present the supralapsarian view as the doctrine of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, but neither, to molest anyone who personally holds the supralapsarian view inasmuch as the Synod of Dort has made no pronouncement  upon this disputed point.

Furthermore, Synod adds the warning that such profound doctrines, which are far beyond the understanding of the common people, should be discussed as little as possible from the pulpit, and that one should adhere in the preaching of the Word and in catechetical  instruction to the presentation offered in our Confessional Standards.

B. Eternal Justification

In regard to the second point, eternal justification, Synod declares:

that the term itself does not occur in the Confessional Standards but that it is not for this reason to be disapproved, any more than we would be justified in disapproving the term Covenant of Works and similar terms which have been adopted through theological usage;

that it is incorrect to say that our Confessional Standards know only of  a justification by and through faith, since both Gods’ Word (Rom. 4:25) and our Confession (Article XX) speak explicitly of an objective justification sealed by the resurrection of Christ, which in point of time precedes the subjective justification;

that, moreover, as far as the matter itself is concerned, all our churches sincerely believe and confess that Christ from eternity in the Counsel of Peace undertook to be the Surety of His people; taking their guilt upon Himself as also that afterward He by His suffering and death on Calvary actually paid the ransom for us, reconciling us to God while were yet enemies; but that on the basis of God’s Word and in harmony with our Confession it must be maintained with equal firmness that we personally become partakers of this benefit only by a  sincere faith.

Wherefore Synod earnestly warns against any view that would do violence either to Christ’s eternal suretyship for his elect, or to the requirement of a sincere faith to be justified before God in the tribunal of conscience.

C. Immediate Regeneration

In regard to the third point, immediate regeneration, Synod declares:

that this term may be used in a good sense, insofar as our churches have, over against the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches, always professed that regeneration is not effected through the Word or Sacraments as such, but through the Almighty and regenerating operation of the Holy Spirit;

that this regenerating operation of the Holy Spirit, however, should not be in such a way divorced from the preaching of the Word as if these two were separate from each other. for though the Confession teaches that we should have no doubt concerning the salvation of our
children dying in infancy despite the fact that they have not heard the preaching of the Gospel, and though our Confessional Standards nowhere express themselves about the manner in which such regeneration takes place in these and other children, it is, on the other  hand, no less certain that the Gospel is a power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth, and that in the case of adults the regenerating operation of the Holy Spirit accompanies the preaching of the Gospel.

Even though Synod does not dispute that God is able also apart from the preaching of the Word as, for instance, in the pagan world to regenerate those whom He will, yet Synod judges that on the basis of the Word of God we are not able to make any declaration in respect to the the question whether this actually occurs, and that, therefore, we should adhere to the rule which the revealed Word offers us, and we should leave the hidden things to our God.

D. Presumptive Regeneration

And finally, in regard to the fourth point, presumptive regeneration, Synod

that according to the Confession of our churches the seed of the covenant, by virtue of the promise of God, must be held to be regenerated and sanctified in Christ, until upon growing up they should manifest the contrary in their way of life or doctrine;

that it is, however, less correct to say that baptism is administered to the children of  believers on the ground of their presumed regeneration, since the ground of baptism is found in the command and promise of God;

that furthermore, the judgment of charity with which the Church regards the seed of  the covenant as regenerated, does not at all imply that each child is actually born again, seeing that God’s Word teaches that they are not all Israel that are of Israel, and of Isaac it is said, “In him shall thy seed be called” (Rom. 9:6–7), so that it is imperative in the preaching constantly to urge earnest self-examination, since only he  that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.

Moreover, Synod in agreement with our Confession maintains that “the  sacraments are not empty or meaningless signs, so as to deceive us, but visible signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing, by means of which God works in us by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Article 33), and that more particularly baptism is called “the washing of regeneration” and “the washing away of sins” because God would “assure us by this divine pledge and sign that we are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are outwardly washed with water”; wherefore our Church in the prayer after baptism “thanks and praises God that He has forgiven us and our children all their sins, through the blood of His beloved son Jesus Christ, and received us through His Holy Spirit as members of His only begotten Son, and so adopted us to be  His children, and sealed and confirmed the same unto us by holy baptism”; so that our Confessional Standards clearly teach that the sacrament of baptism signifies and seals the washing away of our sins by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ, that is, the justification and renewal by the Holy Spirit as benefits which God has bestowed upon our seed.

Synod is of the opinion that the representation that every elect child is on that account already in fact regenerated even before baptism can be proved neither on Scriptural nor on confessional grounds, seeing that God fulfills his promise sovereignly in His own time, whether before, during, or after baptism. It is hence, imperative to be circumspect in one’s utterances on this matter, so as not to desire to be wise beyond that which God has revealed.

The Conclusions of the Synod of Utrecht, the Netherlands, were adopted there in 1905. In 1908 our agreement with these Conclusions was declared (Acts 1908. Article 58, pp. 81ff.). They are published in Supplement XII of the Acts of that year. For their official translation see Acts 1942, pp. 79, 352–54. [Editor’s note: The Conclusions of Utrecht were re-affirmed by the CRCNA in 1962 but were “set aside,” in 1968.

More Resources on Covenant Theology

R. Scott Clark, “Baptism and the Benefits of Christ”

—— ed. Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry

——Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace.

——Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant.

Michael Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology

——Covenant and Eschatology.

——Lord and Servant

——Covenant and Salvation

——People and Place

Kim Riddlebarger on the New Perspective

Geerhardus Vos on the History of Covenant Theology

Mike Horton on Covenant and Justification

Rick Phillips on the Federal Vision

RCUSReport on Norman Shepherd

The Church as Covenant Community

The Israel of God

El Israel de Dios