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

Introduction
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.

Conclusion
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.

Conditions
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.

Fruits
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.

Conclusion
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.