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.