Some thoughts relative to the current discussion about the nature of conditions in the covenant of grace: First, we cannot get this right unless we distinguish between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Part of the problem in this discussion is that the covenant of works is either rejected or neglected. I understand the exegetical and historical reasons why that happened and have addressed them at length in print and online. Beginning in the early 1560s in Heidelberg Reformed theologians began articulating explicitly what at least some had been implying prior, that God made a legal covenant with Adam before the fall, which covenant he had the ability to fulfill as the federal representative of all humanity. This formulation was confessed by the Westminster Divines in the mid-17th century in the Westminster Standards (e.g., WCF 7.2, 19.1,6; WLC 30, 97; Savoy Declaration 6, 7, 19, 20). The divines used the expression “covenant of works” 4 times in the confession alone. They set up a strict contrast between the covenants of works and grace. Since, in the modern period, many have abandoned this distinction the table is set for confusion of the principles of works and grace and this is what has happened.
Both the covenants of works and grace offer eternal fellowship with God but they have different instruments or conditions. The condition of the covenant of works was “perfect and personal obedience” (WCF 7.2). Properly speaking, in his perfect actively suffering obedience, Christ has met the condition of the covenant of works for us and has made with us a covenant of grace. The sole instrument (WCF 11.2, Belgic Confession art. 22) of the covenant of grace is true faith in Christ the obedient, righteous Mediator. Please remember that grace is not code for a soft covenant of works. It is a covenant of grace because Christ has met the terms of the covenant of works. He gives his benefits to us freely, through faith alone. “For by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Eph 2:8). The benefits of the covenant of grace (justification, sanctification, and even glorification) are a free gift. See this post for more explanation.
Second there are two great mistakes to avoid in talking about conditions relative to the covenant of grace:
- To confuse conditions with faith (nomism)
- To reject conditions altogether (antinomianism)
There is no need to make either of these mistakes. The nomist puts conditions (e.g., obedience) where only faith can be in the covenant of grace, as the instrument through which we receive Christ and all the benefits of the covenant of grace (salvation). The antinomian rightly rejects that use of conditions but he also rejects the notion of obedience to God’s holy law as a consequent condition or consequent obligation. The nomist, on the other hand, is dissatisfied with obedience as a consequent obligation. He fears that unless our present or future standing with God is contingent upon and received at least partly through our obedience that people will lack sufficient motivation to obey. The confessional Reformed tradition rejects both of these errors. We affirm that sinners are saved by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) and that sinners were saved in order that they might be graciously sanctified by the Holy Spirit, in union and communion with Christ.We affirm that sinners are saved unto good works not by or through them.
Finally, this discussion will be greatly enhanced if we distinguish between is and through. It is the case that believers will be sanctified and will produce fruit as evidence of justification and salvation (Belgic Confession art. 24). That fruit and evidence is logically and morally necessary. No one who is sins impenitently (please read this before commenting below) can expect to see heaven. Please notice that I did not say “no one who sins can expect to see heaven.” In that case no one could expect to see heaven. What is at question is what are the indicators of true faith. One of them is genuine sorrow for sin. We confess:
87. Can they then not be saved who do not turn to God from their unthankful, impenitent life?
By no means, for, as the Scripture says, no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like shall inherit the Kingdom of God (Heidelberg 87)
No one who willfully and impenitently ignores God’s holy moral law, who refuses to acknowledge his sins, who refuses to confess them, and who does seek to be sanctified can rightly be considered a believer. Such a person should be under ecclesiastical discipline. Nevertheless, the internet is not a church court and we as individuals are not authorized to make that judgment.
The logical and moral necessity of penitence for sin does not make our obedience and good works instruments of our salvation.
The truth is that, after the fall, none of us, even with the help of grace, is capable of meeting the conditions of the covenant of works. The gospel is that Christ obeyed as the substitute for wretched, hell-deserving sinners and that, in the covenant of grace, he freely justifies, sanctifies, and saves us. Part of that free salvation is our gradual, gracious conformity to the image of Christ.
Here are the resources:
- The Impenitent Cannot Be Saved
- On The Necessity And Efficacy of Good Works in Salvation (1)
- On The Necessity And Efficacy of Good Works in Salvation (2)
- The Efficacy And Necessity of Good Works In Salvation (3)
- On The Necessity And Efficacy of Good Works in Salvation (4)
- On The Necessity And Efficacy of Good Works in Salvation (5)
- “The Necessity and Efficacy of Good Works in Salvation” in one essay
- Conditions And The Covenant Of Grace (1)
- Conditions And The Covenant Of Grace (2)
- On The Necessity And Efficacy of Good Works in Salvation
- The Reasons Christians Do Good Works
- The Logic Of Fruit as Evidence
- John the Baptist: Produce Fruit Worthy of Repentance
- The Synod of Dort on Election, Conditions of Salvation, and Fruit (1)
- The Synod of Dort on Election, Conditions of Salvation, and Fruit (2)