Calvin: The Offer Is Common But Faith Is Not

Let us remember, on the other hand, that while life is promised universally to all who believe in Christ, still faith is not common to all. For Christ is made known and held out to the view of all, but the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith. Here, too, is displayed a wonderful effect of faith; for by it we receive Christ such as he is given to us by the Father—that is, as having freed us from the condemnation of eternal death, and made us heirs of eternal life, because, by the sacrifice of his death, he has atoned for our sins, that nothing may prevent God from acknowledging us as his sons. Since, therefore, faith embraces Christ, with the efficacy of his death and the fruit of his resurrection, we need not wonder if by it we obtain likewise the life of Christ.

—John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 125.

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  1. In my opinion, because the offer is common, but faith is not, this is why we need to be cautious about the ‘three-covenant’ views of some (Covenant of Redemption, Covenant of Works, Covenant of Grace). In classical Reformed Theology, the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace were one and the same, for substance. In the classical view, the Covenant of Redemption is the covenant between the Father and the Son from all eternity, and the Covenant of Grace is the ratifying of that Covenant of Redemption with the sinner himself, in the day of his effectual calling. Thus, in the classical view (that of Jonathan Edwards), the Covenant of Grace is simply the application of the Covenant of Redemption to the sinner, by the work of the Holy Spirit under the preaching of Law and Gospel.

    In contrast, today we see a three covenant view in which the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace are being portrayed as two radically different covenants. Under this scheme, *all* the members of the Visible Church are *in* the Covenant of Grace, including all the baptized infants. And – according to this scheme – if the children then continue in this covenant relationship, without specifically relinquishing their interest in the Covenant of Grace (which supposedly they are already IN), then they are to be presumed IN the Covenant of Redemption.

    And thus – according to this scheme – the minister is *not* to preach to the children as though they are lost or unconverted. Because, according to this [defective] theology, the child is already in the Covenant of Grace, and therefore, cannot be considered to be unconverted. And so, the covenant children are *never* told they must be born again.

    The sad result of this kind of theology is that the churches are soon filled with professors with only a mere historical faith, and in time, the lifestyle grows more and more worldly, until apostasy (Unitarianism, for one) begin to make inroads into the Church.

    We mustn’t forget that our Lord and Saviour told a man ‘Ye must be born again’ (including him), and yet that man was circumcised, and a lifelong member of the Church of his day! He was circumcised, he had continued under the covenant, and yet, he was not born again!

    So also covenant children today can be *under* the covenant, not born again, and yet, give nominal adherence to Christ’s being the Saviour, without a real change of heart. And under the modern scheme of the three-covenant system, increasingly, covenant children growing up with mere historical faith are being told that they can go to sleep, all is well…

    If covenant children are not born again – and commonly, they are not – they are lost. They are on the way to a lost and terrible eternity in hell.

    Al Hembd

  2. Al,
    What you say is sadly often true, but where that is the case, it’s due to faulty theology, piety and practice. Baptized children are participants in the administration of the covenant, but are not participants in its substance until they are born again, united to Christ by faith. This is why they must wait until they confess faith for themselves before participating in the Lord’s Supper. Being in the administration of the covenant is a tremendous privilege: blessed with godly parents who train and pray for them, godly church members who also assist in their training by example and instruction and prayers, but all this is to bring them to their own confession of faith! It is a sad misapplication of infant baptism to see it as an excuse for presumption and to separate it from the call to faith, the alone instrument of our justification.

    • Well said! I knew Dr Joel Beeke’s father John Beeke quite well. He was an elder for a long time in the Netherlands Reformed Congregations. He used to read Thomas Boston’s Fourfold State all the way through once a year.

      He stated that the baptized children are *under* the covenant, but not in the covenant, until they are ingrafted by the new birth. I grant there are some who are savingly wrought on in the womb. Such as rare, however. Most seem to be converted later, often in their teens or early twenties. I have known some converted in their sixties.

      If a child is converted in the work, he will have the marks of the life of grace. He will know the life of the Psalms. He will be longing for God’s presence, he will longing for personal communion with Christ. He will know what it is to miss Christ, Song of Solomon 3 and 5. He will know what it is to have Christ’s special visitations, that bring secret joy, strength, but also the broken heart. He will know what it is when the Lord says, ‘I will leave in them a poor and afflicted people, who trust in the Name of the LORD, who look to One outside themselves, because they know their own emptiness.

      And they will be a people who pursue the LORD in the way of His commandments. How little of that is known today. I sadly meet many who boast themselves to be valiant Christians, who are scandalously negligent in the keeping of Christ’s commandments.

      Sound experimental preaching is very much needed in our day.


      P.S. Are you a Biblical counselor? Is that what you do for a living? I certainly know people in need of such services.

  3. Sorry for the typographical errors. “Such as rare, however” = ‘Such *are* rare’. “If a child is converted in the work” = ‘If a child is converted in the womb.’

  4. Al et al

    I have benefited from this exchange – thank you

    1. Without diminishing Adam or Abraham, Albert’s direct link of ‘that Covenant of Redemption with the sinner himself, in the day of his effectual calling’ is powerful. What nevertheless is the precise nature of the ‘ratification’? I take it to have more of God’s ratification during Abraham’s deep sleep about it, than Abraham’s ratification by the obedience of circumcision (or our obedience of baptism).

    2. Perhaps you can help me further. Agreeing fully that the CR and CG are ‘homousios’, are these two not then very different from the concepts and distinction of the invisible and visible church?

    3. I for one have always found the historic language of ‘administration of’ versus ‘substance of’ the covenant to be rather clunky and potentially confusing. I think ‘in’ versus ‘under’ is neater, though ‘under’ might also be more clearly rendered as ‘within earshot of’.

    4. Clarity here would then help when we come to the warnings in Hebrews. Those who say that ‘tasting the heavenly gift’ means CR/CG can then be distinguished from those who say it implies to those within earshot of the CR/CG. If the warning is to those within CR/CG then it is hypothetical. If the warning is to those within earshot of the CR/CG, and thinking themselves as members of the visible church to be born again, then it is a warning against complacency and for re-examination, and possibly also a warning to their preachers to preach the gospel more clearly! (There is however a third interpretation of this passage)

    • If this is of any help, Thomas Boston viewed the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace as identical – as simply being two aspects of the same covenant. Accordingly, in his Fourfold State, he only speaks of the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace.

      This definition flows out of the language of the Westminster Standards themselves. The Westminster Divines framed the covenants entirely under the two-covenant scheme.

      Today, both the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Netherlands Reformed Congregations use the same two-covenant scheme.

      • Albert, thank you kindly

        If we now move to the CoW, would you say that Sinai is a republication of Eden?

        Then, when grace and law meet at conversion under the Cross, are we, following Augustine/Boston’s 4 states, returned to Adam’s ‘posse peccare, posse non peccare’ (PP,PNP)?

        But that PP,PNP presumably can only be read in the light of Phil 2 v13 where God wills and works in us (or alternatively where He holds back His hand and we, sifted by Satan, plunge again into our sinfulness – Luther’s donkey – though God still working all things for our good

        Now a sensitive question – when preaching the Law in its Normative use, how does one avoid downplaying Phil 2 v13 and reintroducing the seemingly logical idea of a personal autonomous will in the Christian that is free to obey or not?

        This issue has long troubled me.

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