The Unconditional Covenant
in Contemporary Debate

David J. Engelsma

Elements of the Chapter
Chapter 2

The Error of a Conditional Covenant

One of the worst threats to the true church of Christ in the world since the time of the Reformation is the present development of covenant doctrine that denies justification by faith alone. Theologians are working out the implications of the doctrine of a conditional covenant. They are demonstrating that the doctrine of a conditional covenant implies conditional justification. The conditions are faith as a work of man and, therefore, also the good works that faith performs. Thus is destroyed the whole system of doctrine of salvation by the sovereign, particular grace of God, contained in the Reformed and Presbyterian confessions.

This development of covenant doctrine has advocates in many reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in North America. These advocates are prominent men: ministers, ruling elders, and professors of theology. They are vocal. Unchecked by discipline, the movement is spreading.

Since the movement is the natural, necessary development of the doctrine of a conditional covenant, it is necessary that concerned Reformed Christians know something of the longstanding controversy in the Reformed churches between the doctrine of an unconditional covenant and the teaching of a conditional covenant. The previous chapter sketched the doctrine of the unconditional covenant.  

The Conditional Covenant

Opposed to the teaching of the unconditional covenant is the doctrine of a conditional covenant. This is the doctrine that has come to prevail in most Reformed and Presbyterian churches today. Reformed churches and theologians promote this doctrine aggressively. The last few years have seen a veritable spate of books, articles, and conferences defending the conditional covenant.

That the covenant is conditional means that the effectual and lasting establishment of the covenant with a man, a man’s enjoyment of the saving intention, power, and blessings of the covenant, and a man’s finally receiving everlasting salvation in and by the covenant depend on something he himself must do. The covenant depends on a condition. Traditionally, those who have argued for this covenant doctrine have identified the condition as faith. The modern defenders of a conditional covenant agree, but add, as another condition, the good works that faith performs.

According to the conditional covenant, God on His part initially establishes His covenant with many more than only those who are finally saved. He establishes it by a gracious, but conditional, promise to all. Whether the covenant actually avails to the salvation of anyone, whether anyone receives the covenant’s blessings, whether the covenant continues with anyone, whether the covenant has its intended end in the everlasting salvation of anyone depend squarely upon his fulfilling the conditions of believing the promise and performing the good works of faith.

The reference in Reformed circles is especially to baptized children. The teaching of a conditional covenant maintains that God makes His covenant with all the children of godly parents alike, graciously promising His covenant and its salvation to them all. But promise, covenant, and covenant salvation are conditional. The child must perform the works of believing and obeying. On this basis, the promise becomes effectual and the covenant is established in a saving way.

The "Declaration of Principles"

The Protestant Reformed Churches have formulated and adopted the doctrine that the covenant of God with His people in Jesus Christ is unconditional. In 1951, they adopted the doctrinal statement known as the "Declaration of Principles." Surprisingly, the "Declaration" does not contain the explicit statement that the covenant is unconditional, although this was the issue in drawing up the document and the intent and force of the content of the document. The "Declaration" declares the covenant to be unconditional by stating that the covenant promise is unconditionally for the elect children of believers only.

This article [Canons of Dordt, II/8] very clearly teaches: 1. That all the covenant blessings are for the elect alone. 2. That God’s promise is unconditionally for them only: for God cannot promise what was not objectively merited by Christ. 3. That the promise of God bestows the objective right of salvation not upon all the children that are born under the historical dispensation of the covenant, that is, not upon all that are baptized, but only upon the spiritual seed.

The "Declaration of Principles" goes on to strike a fatal blow against the teaching that is fundamental to the doctrine of a conditional covenant, namely, the teaching that faith is a condition: "Faith is not a prerequisite or condition unto salvation but a gift of God, and a God-given instrument whereby we appropriate the salvation in Christ."

That the covenant of grace is unconditional has been the stand of the Protestant Reformed Churches from the beginning of their history, although they did not make the doctrine official church dogma by synodical decision until 1951. Already in 1927, Herman Hoeksema wrote a series of articles in the Standard Bearer (later published as Believers and Their Seed, RFPA, repr. 1997) explaining and defending the doctrine of the unconditional covenant. The truth of the unconditional covenant, Hoeksema insisted, is fundamental to the gospel of grace. Adherence to and development of this doctrine are fundamental to the existence of the Protestant Reformed Churches. It was the teaching of a conditional covenant that lay behind the Christian Reformed Church’s adoption of the doctrine of universal, saving, resistible grace in the preaching of the gospel--the "well-meant offer of the gospel"--in the first point of common grace of 1924.

Because the "Declaration of Principles" continues to draw sharp criticism from Reformed churches and theologians and because 2003 is the fiftieth anniversary of the schism in the Protestant Reformed Churches over the doctrine of the unconditional covenant, I want, in passing, to speak a deliberate word in defense of the "Declaration."

First, a denomination of churches has every right, indeed a solemn duty, to decide doctrinal controversy by binding synodical decision. The only stipulation is that the churches decide the controversy on the basis of the Reformed creeds. That the "Declaration" is synodical appeal to the confessions is plain on the very face of it. The document is hardly more than an exposition of the "Three Forms of Unity" and the Reformed form for baptism with regard to the conditionality or unconditionality of the covenant.

The refusal of Reformed and Presbyterian churches today to decide doctrinal controversy over creation, eschatology, marriage, and, of late, justification is not a virtue. This refusal does not preserve the truth of the Word of God in those churches, nor does it serve the unity of the churches.

Second, contrary to the repeated charge that the "Declaration of Principles" adds a new creedal document to the "Three Forms of Unity"--a fourth confession--the "Declaration" only derives the truth of the unconditional covenant from the Reformed confessions. The "Declaration of Principles" applies the theology of the Canons of Dordt to the doctrine of the covenant.

Third, insofar as the "Declaration" does make explicit what is implicit in the "Three Forms of Unity, does apply to the doctrine of the covenant truths that the "Three Forms of Unity" apply to the gospel of salvation, and does formulate and systematize concerning the covenant that which is scattered unsystematically throughout the "Three Forms of Unity," it develops the biblical and Reformed doctrine of the covenant.

There is legitimate place in the life of Reformed churches for the development of dogma. Development of dogma is healthy. The Protestant Reformed Churches do not hesitate to claim that the Spirit of truth has significantly developed the important doctrine of the covenant in the theological work of the Protestant Reformed Churches and in the life of the members of these churches.

Fourth, to the critics who always complain that the "Declaration" is "extra-confessional binding," I put the question: "What about the content of the Declaration"? Is the "Declaration" right in its argument, regardless whether it is "extra-confessional binding"? Is it right when it contends and claims to demonstrate that the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt, and the Reformed baptism formula teach the unconditional covenant? If the "Declaration" is wrong about this, show the error. This should not be difficult. And then demonstrate that the creeds teach a conditional covenant (the "Declaration of Principles" is included in "The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches").

Denial of Grace

By the adopted "Declaration," the Protestant Reformed Churches officially condemn the teaching of a conditional covenant. They condemn it as nothing less than the denial of the gospel of grace. The Protestant Reformed Churches charge that the doctrine of a conditional covenant is the introduction of the Arminian heresy into the theology of the covenant: conditional salvation; salvation dependent upon the sinner.

The Protestant Reformed Churches make this charge against the doctrine of a conditional covenant even though the proponents seek to escape the force of the charge by responding that God must enable the children and others to fulfill the conditions. Even though it is God who gives men the ability to fulfill the conditions, the fact remains that, according to the defenders of the conditional covenant, the covenant with its blessings and salvation depends upon an act of man. Granted that God gives the power to believe and to perform good works, the teaching is still that one gets or keeps the covenant, or renders it effectual, because he believes and because he performs good works. Man’s faith and obedience are now the cause of the covenant, not the instrument and fruit.

What makes the charge of the Protestant Reformed Churches against the conditional covenant even more convincing is that the conditional covenant teaches that God gives the gracious promise of the covenant to all alike. The explanation why some enjoy the blessings of the covenant, and are saved, is not the promise, for the promise is given to all alike. The explanation is rather that some fulfill the conditions, without which the promise fails, whereas others do not fulfill the conditions. The explanation of the realization of the covenant with a man and of his enjoying the covenant unto life eternal is not the promising God, but the working man.

The doctrine of a conditional covenant is the teaching of universal, conditional, resistible, losable grace -- universal, conditional, resistible, losable, saving grace.

The charge of the Protestant Reformed Churches against the conditional covenant is that it is, in principle, the denial of all the doctrines of grace. It militates against the entire system of doctrine contained in the "Three Forms of Unity" and in the Westminster Standards.

And this is the doctrinal development that is taking place today. This is the "contemporary debate" regarding the issue whether the covenant is conditional or unconditional. Prominent theologians in many of the reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America are attacking the cardinal truths of salvation by grace alone -- all of them -- on the basis of the doctrine of a conditional covenant.

Booklet Table of Contents

  1. The Unconditional Covenant
  2. The Error of the Conditional Covenant
  3. Denial of Justification by Faith Alone
  4. Denial of All the Doctrines of Grace
  5. Back to Rome
  6. Contemporary Development of a Conditional Covenant
  7. Contemporary Development of a Conditional Covenant (concluded)
  8. Defense of the Faith
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