Category Archives: Covenant theology

I Recommend

This past week, I shared the following links on social media and I think they’re worth sharing here too:

Federal Vision: What is It?

The faculty of Mid-America Reformed Seminary do a regular podcast and in this edition they tackle a controversy that has some miles on it by now: Federal Vision. If you’d like to get a better handle on the issues at stake, this is a good introduction. Some other resources on Federal Vision:

Joint Federal Vision Statement — from the horse’s mouth, signed by men such as Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart.

For Those Just Tuning In: What Is The Federal Vision? — Scott Clark’s summary of FV and its problems from a confessionally Reformed perspective.

Federal Vision: A Canadian Reformed Pastor’s Perspective — a booklet addressing the claim that FV has a legit Canadian Reformed/Liberated pedigree.

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Deep Time – the god of our Age

Deep time is simply the notion of billions of years. It’s foundational to Darwinian macro-evolution. You can’t have Darwinism without deep time. Jason Lisle explains how this concept is fundamentally religious.

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Online Skeptics have a serious copy-and-paste problem

Atheist trolls seem to love the Skeptic Annotated Bible — perhaps a little too much. The thing that always gets me is: do the trolls really think I’ve never heard their objection before and do they really think we don’t have an answer for that?

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This is a really great explanation of the greatest news the world has ever heard. Why not share it on social media?


We Distinguish: Antecedent/Consequent Conditions

One of the distinctives of Reformed churches is that we hold to what the Bible says about covenant theology; what’s more, we emphasize it.  In the Bible, God makes covenants.  The covenant of grace is a special relationship between God and his people.  Christians live within the context of this covenant relationship.   

One of the thorniest issues in Reformed covenant theology involves conditions.  In particular, are there conditions attached to the covenant of grace?  There are some who answer in the negative.  In particular, Herman Hoeksema and some of his followers have even said that speaking of conditions in the covenant of grace effectively makes one an Arminian.  It’s a complicated issue with a long history in Reformed theology.  An important distinction between types of conditions helps us, however, to untangle it.

Before we get to that distinction, there are two other important distinctions demanding our attention.  Many Reformed theologians have rightly stated that the covenant of grace is one-sided (monopleuric) in its origins, but two-sided (dipleuric) in its operation in created time and space.  The origins of the covenant of grace are solely with God, but its operation in history involves God and human beings.  When we speak from the first perspective, when we speak about God’s eternal decree, there must be no conditions.  That’s because God is sovereign and under no outside compulsion.  However, we have no access to God’s eternal decree.  Instead, we live within the context of the two-sided operation of the covenant of grace in history.  Here we have to reckon with what God says in his Word to us about our calling and responsibility.  This is the sphere in which our discussion proceeds.

A second important distinction has to do with two ways of relating to God within the covenant of grace.  Klaas Schilder, Geerhardus Vos, and others have pointed out how someone can relate to God merely in a legal sense.  Such a person is fully a member of the covenant of grace, has been genuinely addressed by God with his gospel promises, but has yet to embrace those promises through faith.  Once God’s gospel promises are embraced through faith, once a person takes hold of Christ and trusts in him, then he or she is also in a vital, living covenant relationship with God.  On the human side, this vital, living relationship is characterized first of all by true faith.  In what follows, for the sake of simplicity, we’re going to look at covenant conditions in the context of this vital way of relating to God.

So we’re talking about a real relationship with God as we experience it here and now.  A key thing to note from the Bible is that God interacts with people as responsible creatures.  Within the covenant relationship, God calls people to do certain things and not do others.  They are accountable for responding to God’s call.  As one example, consider God’s words to Jacob in Genesis 35.  God extended promises to Jacob, but also says, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply.”  He engaged Jacob as a responsible individual in this covenant relationship and calling him to action as such.

That brings us to the distinction I want to focus on:  between antecedent and consequent conditions.  An antecedent condition is one which comes before one relates to God in a vital living way.  Consequent conditions refer to those which come after one begins relating to God in a vital living way.    

There is one thing to which God calls all covenant members before they can enjoy a vital relationship with him.  In other words, there is one antecedent condition.  It is to believe God’s gospel promises.  The antecedent condition is faith in Christ.  Every covenant member is called to personally receive all the benefits of Christ through trusting in him.  When someone does place their trust in Christ, God declares them righteous.  They are justified and thus can relate to God as children with their heavenly Father.

Once in this vital covenant relationship, covenant members are called to continue trusting in their Saviour, and also to bear the fruits of our union with him.  We are called to sanctification as a consequence of our justification.  The consequent conditions are to continuing faith and what older authors called “evangelical obedience.”  “Evangelical obedience” is obedience to God motivated by the gospel, obedience rendered in response to what gospel has done for us.

Now how do I respond to the charge that such a view of covenant conditions is Arminian?  The Arminians taught that God’s decree of election was based on foreseen faith, an act of man’s free will cooperating with God’s prevenient grace.  This is not that.  I affirm that election is based solely on God’s sovereign good pleasure.  Moreover, I already stated that from God’s eternal perspective, we can’t speak about conditions.  However, in the Bible the theology of the covenant of grace is advanced in terms of our lived experience of it in time and space.  God treats people as responsible creatures.  He brings certain individuals into the covenant of grace and then calls them to a vital relationship with him through faith in Christ.  He subsequently calls them to pursue holiness within that relationship.  There’s nothing Arminian about that.

Further, we also have to think about this in relation to Christ, the Mediator of the covenant of grace.  We need to personally appropriate him and his saving work for there to be a living relationship between us and God.  That happens through faith.  Faith is a gift of God, according to Ephesians 2:8.  Faith comes because the Holy Spirit works regeneration in a sinful heart.  And yet in the Bible we still read of the call for individuals to repent and believe (e.g., Acts 2:38, 16:31).  Does that call mean we deny that faith is a gift of God?  Absolutely not.  We hold to both:  faith is a divine gift and it is a personal responsibility.  People are responsible for not believing.  But ultimately the fulfillment of the antecedent condition is something God works in us.  It isn’t a meritorious action we perform.  

The same can be said for the consequent condition.  In the Bible God calls believers to pursue holiness.  We are responsible for doing that.  Yet the work of sanctification is ultimately Christ in us with his Holy Spirit (Phil.1:6, 2:13, 1 Pet. 2:5).  We depend on his grace to do this. 

In each instance, then, God graciously provides what is needed to fulfill both the antecedent and consequent conditions; yet human responsibility remains.  Can I completely and logically reconcile these two truths?  No, and I don’t feel compelled to.  God teaches both in the Bible and I can just accept that he understands how these things logically connect to one another.  My calling is simply to believe what’s been revealed.

Why does this matter?  A proper understanding of this distinction is a safeguard against two serious problems.  One is automatism – the idea that covenant membership is an automatic one-way ticket to heaven involving no personal responsibility to believe the gospel.  You cannot be in a living, vital relationship with God apart from believing in Jesus Christ.  The other problem is fatalism – the idea that, because God is sovereign, there is nothing I need to do or can do in my relationship with him.  But Scripture is clear:  God is sovereign and you are responsible.  You are responsible to believe in Christ, but then also to repent and live a godly life in response to the free gift of salvation.                   

We’ve been swimming in the deep end and, if you’ve made it this far without drowning, I commend you.  Covenant theology isn’t easy to get right.  It’s easy to construe covenant theology in a way that sounds Arminian – where eternal life ultimately depends on the individual’s choice.  It’s also easy to do it in a way that’s deterministic – where God’s decree and sovereignty eclipses all human activity.  But I believe that if we aim to follow what Scripture teaches, and if we pay attention to sound Reformed theologizing from the past, we can both understand and enjoy the wonders of God’s covenant of grace in our lives.


Mission and Reformed Covenant Theology

I don’t normally review multi-author collections of essays and this isn’t going to be an exception to that. I just want to draw your attention to this volume published in 2020 by P & R and Westminster Seminary Press, A Covenantal Vision for Global Mission. It’s a collection of academic papers that were delivered at a Reformed missions conference in South Africa in 2015. According to the Foreword, the papers “seek to ground the growing interest in the missional character of Christian outreach in the classic biblical and historic Reformed theological understanding of God’s covenantal relationship with mankind.”

The reason I don’t write reviews of multi-author volumes is because they tend to be a mixed bag. This one is no different. Some of the contributions are stellar. Chapter 7, “Christ’s Dominion over Creation and Spiritual Warfare in Mission” by Henk Stoker stands out — it’s a great critique of ideas like territorial spirits and spiritual mapping. Flip Buys contributed two papers that are also worthwhile, “Mission and Gathering God’s New Covenant People” (ch. 4), and “Missions in the Fear of God’ (ch.6). Some of the other contributions are good, some mediocre, and a couple are disappointing. But overall, I do think the book is worth a read if you’ve got an interest in mission and missiology. There’s a lot of thought-provoking missiological reflection related to covenant theology — and I’m not sure anything like it has yet been published in English (in Dutch there is Barend Wielenga’s dissertation Verbond en zending).

I end with a few choice quotes to pique your interest:

“The Reformed faith is missional, or it is not Reformed.” (from A Missions Declaration, p.xi)

“I believe that a revitalization of our understanding of the concepts of the covenant of redemption…and the covenant of grace is vital for developing a Reformed approach to global missions…” (Flip Buys, quoted on pp.14-15)

“When a missionary does not really do his work in the fear of God, converts are trained to depend on him, rather than becoming responsible to Christ.” (Flip Buys, p.142)

“The new-wave thinking concerning territorial spirits and their power over areas takes the focus away from the victory of Christ…” (Henk Stoker, p.157)

“Reformed theology has tended to have the best product, but the worst sales technique, and it is too often pushed by intellectually arrogant representatives.” (Paul Wells, p.291)

“The source and origin of world missions is the pactum salutis, God’s own covenant with himself.” (Kent Hughes, p.307)

“To be Reformed was, and is, to have a missionary heart.” (Kent Hughes, p.315)


Book Review: Children at the Lord’s Table?

NOTEI originally wrote this review in 2009.  However, ten years later, I’ve been hearing more about paedocommunion again.  This book remains a valuable resource for combating this error.

Children at the Lord’s Table?  Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion, Cornelis P. Venema, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009.  Hardcover, 199 pages, $25.00 USD.

Paedocommunion is a word that we’re hearing more often these days, mostly because of its connection with many of the figures associated with the Federal Vision movement.  A few years back, one of those figures pointed out to me that no one has ever really written a book presenting a solid case against admitting children to the Lord’s Supper.  He may have been right then, but I don’t believe he’s right any longer.

Cornelis Venema is well-known as a professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and a United Reformed minister.  In this book, he first outlines the arguments of Tim Gallant and others like him for the practice of paedocommunion.  These arguments are primarily from Scripture, but there are also historical considerations.

In the chapters following, Venema considers these arguments.  He examines the historical evidence and finds it to be inconclusive at best.  He also adds a chapter looking at “Paedocommunion and the Reformed Confessions.”  Several years ago, there was a case in the United Reformed Churches dealing with whether the Three Forms of Unity allow the teaching of paedocommunion.  The answer was negative.  Although Venema does not mention that particular case, he affirms the answer.  However, most important of all is the Scriptural evidence.  Venema examines the relationship between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper and points out that it is not as straightforward as many have made it out to be.  In fact, there is a stronger connection between the Lord’s Supper and the covenant renewal meal in Exodus 24.  Venema also gives an entire chapter to the crucial passage of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, concluding that the Biblical way to the Lord’s Table is through public profession of faith.

In the last chapter, the author also considers the relationship between covenant theology and paedocommunion, especially in view of the Federal Vision movement.  Given these current issues, this is a helpful discussion.  Equally helpful is the appendix dealing with covenant theology and baptism.  Venema correctly outlines the promise and obligations of the covenant.  Like Klaas Schilder, he distinguishes between two different aspects of the covenant of grace.  There’s also a good section on whether the covenant is conditional or unconditional – though  I do think that more explicit reference to union with Christ could have sharpened the argument here.

This is an excellent and timely book dealing with an important issue.  It would be worthwhile to have it on hand in family and church libraries for when questions arise about paedocommunion.  It’s also highly recommended for those who need to have a good understanding of this issue, i.e. pastors and elders.


Book Review: Visual Theology

Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth about God, Tim Challies and Josh Byers, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  Paperback, 155 pages.

I’ve read and reviewed several systematic theologies.  These books were geared towards pastors, theologians, or theological students.  They follow the same basic structure and, because they’re Reformed, they tend to say the same things in mostly the same way.   Visual Theology has “theology” in the title, and it generally steers in the Reformed direction, but that’s where the similarities end.

Visual Theology is decidedly not directed at the ivory tower – though scholars will certainly reap spiritual benefits if they read it.  Instead, it’s for regular people in the pew.  It also recognizes that some of those regular people are more visual in their learning style.  So, Tim Challies delivers clear prose and Josh Byers illumines with effective infographics.  All up, it’s not only a beautiful book, but also pedagogically powerful.

Conventional systematic theologies cover such topics as God, creation, salvation, and the last things.  Visual Theology is different; it has four parts:  grow close to Christ, understand the work of Christ, become like Christ, live for Christ.  It’s Christ-centered and relationally oriented.  It’s theology that, as Challies says, “is about growing in godliness” (p.12).  You can only grow in godliness in a healthy relationship with Christ.  Visual Theology shows why and how.  I found valuable insights new to me (especially in the third section on hating and fighting sin), but also many familiar truths expressed or illustrated freshly.

As I mentioned, generally this book leans Reformed.  For example, the use of creeds is affirmed (p.85); the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sin is quoted (p.94); the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is affirmed (p.27); and justification is properly defined as a declaration of righteousness (p.33).  Commendably, Visual Theology teaches a monergistic view of salvation which includes unconditional election.

By the authors’ own admission, the book “is not a thorough introduction to Christian doctrine” (p.79).  Some readers will detect gaps.  Allowing for the intent of the authors, but also for full disclosure to readers of this review, let me mention two.  Visual Theology is almost completely positive in its presentation of biblical teachings.  That means there’s not much, if anything, in the way of exposure or addressing of errors.  Next, its relational framework is a plus, but it is surprising that the biblical framework for a healthy relationship between God and humanity is missing.  There’s no explicit mention of the covenant of grace.

I have one noteworthy concern:  the authors are Baptists and this becomes evident in the description of baptism:  “The water of baptism represents the washing away of sin, while going into the water and coming back out represents death and new life” (p.27).  The first part of that sentence is true, and the second part can be true, but more needs to be said.  The authors assume immersion of the believer as the norm for baptism.  As one would expect from Baptists, the sprinkling of babies is not even in the picture, nor is the relationship between baptism and the covenant of grace.  However, this is one short paragraph in an otherwise great book and it is far from being a polemic for the Baptist position.  Discerning readers should be able to chew the rest of the meat while spitting out this bone.

This book could be useful as edifying reading for a Sunday afternoon.  Perhaps it could also be used as a textbook for an adult education class.  For those who might use it in an educational setting, there’s also a website with the infographics available as PowerPoint slides and moreVisual Theology is innovative in its approach, almost entirely reliable in its content, and attractive in its presentation.  You’ll find it both enjoyable and edifying!