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Volume 15, Issue 1: Thema

The Objectivity of the Covenant

Douglas Wilson

Our minds do not work very well outside the established grooves. When anyone begins to suspect that what he has believed for many years may actually be a truncated form of the truth, particularly when the subject concerns the gospel and salvation, the natural temptation is to respond in a decidedly non-Berean fashion. As we know, the Bereans received the apostolic word with great eagerness, searching the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul was saying was actually right (Acts 17:11). They are described as being noble in this, and there are two aspects to that nobility. First, they received the teaching eagerly. They were not sullen about it. But secondly, and just as importantly, they were not foolishly open to various winds of doctrine—they carefully checked what they were hearing against the Scriptures.

When confronted with any scriptural truth that is new, or as in this case, with any that sounds new, misunderstanding can do two things with it. One ignoble option is to roll up into a tight little "orthodox" ball, and call anything outside that ball heresy. This is the misunderstanding of the one who says, "It might be biblical, but that doesn't make it confessional!"
Another option is to misunderstand the new emphasis in just the same way, but with this difference: the misunderstanding is embraced. This fellow says, "It doesn't sound very confessional—it must therefore be biblical!" The former doesn't understand that true confessional faithfulness is the basis of confessional growth. But the latter will pick up any little piece of doctrinal tumbleweed that blows down the road.
As most within the Reformed world know, the issues surrounding the solas of the Reformation as they relate to covenant membership have been controversial of late, and a detailed case for what we are calling the "objectivity of the covenant" has been made elsewhere (see "Reformed" is Not Enough). So the point of this essay is not to establish the case and answer all objections, but rather to briefly outline as winsomely as possible what we have been affirming.
But lest I perpetuate any unnecessary misunderstanding here, let it be said that I gladly affirm every element of traditional Reformed decretal theology, including predestination, election, reprobation, perseverance, and all the stuff in between. And if the Synod of Dordt had come up with a sixth point of Calvinism, I would probably affirm that one too. At the same time, I am saying we have no knowledge of the detailed content of these invisible decrees (Deut. 29:29), and that we are commanded to live before God in terms of the visible covenant. This means, as it has been said, that we are to view election through the lens of the covenant rather than the other way around. Stated another way, it means that there is a difference between decretal election and covenantal election. Decretal election is concerned with the end or telos of the Church—the eschatological Church. Covenantal election includes the Church now, the Church in history. We do not have two elections here; rather, we have election in history with a predestined outcome. When we consider the outcome, we must take into account the decree that settled it. When we consider the process in history, we must take into account the way that God interacts with man in history—which is by means of a covenant.
A covenant is a relationship between persons. That relationship has conditions, stipulations, and promises. Put another way, there is no such thing as a personless or abstract covenant. Put yet another way, a covenant does not consist of a list of names, but is rather a relation between persons (whose names can certainly be formed into a list). But these names are not the covenant any more than the two names on an invitation constitute a marriage. They may accurately describe the parties to the marriage, but they are not the marriage itself.
Now the key to understanding covenants in the Bible is to understand that they can either be broken or kept. This is simply a shorthand way of saying that the persons in covenant relationships may be faithful or unfaithful. God made a covenant with Adam in the garden, and this covenant was broken by Adam. God made another covenant with the last Adam, and this covenant was kept by Him. As individual Christians who are in Christ, our covenantal duty is to keep covenant in Him by faith alone. If we trust in ourselves—whether in the willing or the running—then we are covenant-breakers. If we have faith in Him, we are covenant-keepers. Faith is the sole instrument of covenant keeping, which is another way of saying that faith is the sole instrument of fidelity.
In either case, Christ is the Lord of the covenant. Because this covenant can be kept or broken, it has stipulations contained within it for either eventuality. If we keep faith with Christ, by faith, He pours out covenant blessings upon us. If we break faith with Him, then we are trampling underfoot the blood of the covenant by which we were sanctified, and the punishment we will receive is far worse than what would have been received under the law of Moses (Heb. 10: 28-29). The new covenant is not like the covenant that was made with our fathers at Mount Sinai. As a covenant, it still has blessings and curses, but as a new covenant, the blessings are high blessings, and the curses are high curses.
The church is therefore a covenanted body, organically connected to Christ. As a covenant body in history, it contains organic members who are faithful and organic members who are not. The faithful members persevere to the end only because God has decreed it and given it to them. The unfaithful members are cut out because of unbelief. While they experienced grace, they were not given persevering grace.
Christ is the bridegroom; we are the bride (Eph. 5:23). He is the vine; we are the branches (Jn. 15:1-6). He is the root of the olive tree; we are the branches (Rom. 11: 16). Now in all these scriptural illustrations, we see the possibility of removal from Christ. The spots and blemishes are removed from the bride before the Last Day. Every fruitless branch is taken out of the vine in order to be burned. The branches grafted into the olive tree could be cut out in just the same way the unbelieving Jews had been cut out of it. When we fall away into justification by law, we are falling away from grace (Gal. 5:4). Of course to maintain that we could fall away from the grace of perseverance would be absurd and contradictory. But to say that covenant members cannot fall away from grace at all is to be guilty of trifling with the text in countless places.
This must mean that there is an historic covenant connection to Christ which is genuine and real, and yet not salvific at the Last Day. The fruitless branches had sap flowing through them—the same gracious sap that the fruitful branches received. They tasted the heavenly gift—and in their unbelief they spit it out.
The New Testament is crammed with warnings against apostasy. This is not a hypothetical sin. It is a real sin committed by real covenant members. And yet many contemporary Calvinists persist in saying that while apostasy was a possibility in the old covenant, it has now been rendered impossible in the new. They create a distinction between the covenants at just the point where the New Testament writers explicitly draw parallels. Many Jews fell in the wilderness, and Christians need to take heed lest they fall in exactly the same way. "Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:12-13).
Paul teaches the same thing to the Corinthians. They were starting to put on airs over against the Jews— "We have baptism. We have a sacred supper." Paul goes out of his way to show that the Jews, in this respect, had the same covenant privileges: "Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and did all eat the same spiritual meat; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted" (1 Cor. 10:1-6). Do you drink from Christ? Good for you. Do you eat spiritual meat? Good for you. Do you participate in Christ? Good. Does that mean God cannot be angry with you? Read your Bible again.
Such individuals who fall are covenantally elect because they are true members of the elect Body. But they are not what historic Reformed theology calls (and what I call) "the elect" because God has not foreordained that they will be standing before Him in His grace on the Last Day.
Instead of thinking in terms of the categories of the invisible Church and the visible Church, perhaps we can make better sense of all this if we think of the historical Church and the eschatological Church. The covenant breakers who fall away will never be members of the eschatological Church at the Last Day. The bride that day is without spot or blemish. But what do these covenant breakers fall away from? They fall away from the historical Church, of which they are true members.
What is meant by this phrase true members? Are they true members in every sense? Not at all—if they were, then they would persevere by faith. Think of an unfaithful husband, cheating on his wife. Is he a true husband? Yes and no. He is an untrue husband in that he is breaking his covenant vows. He is false in this sense. But he is a true husband in the sense that he is really married. He is a true husband—he is as truly married as his faithful counterpart. If we were to say that his adultery meant that he was a husband in no sense of the word, then this means he is not really committing adultery.
Now we who are baptized are covenantally members of Christ. What should we do—by faith? We should make our calling and election sure. We should persevere to the end. We should resist sin to the shedding of blood. We should labor to enter that rest. We should keep in memory what was preached, unless we have indeed believed in vain. And all this should be done by faith, in faith, through faith, and unto faith.
But what is this faith like? The scriptural and confessional answer is that faith, by definition, cannot be characterized by infidelity. If only those who persevere in the faith are saved at the last, and if we are saved by the instrumentality of faith alone, then what does this mean? It means that true faith perseveres. In what? The answer is that it perseveres in being very much like itself.

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