An Important Distinction Between Kinds And Functions Of Conditions

conditionsWhen we use the word “condition,” the first sense that probably comes to mind, in English usage, is the first definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary: “convention, stipulation, proviso.” There is another sense to the word, however, as it was used by our theologians that might be hidden to us because we might not appreciate its roots and background. That is the sense “mode of being, state, posture, nature” (which is the second major definition given by the OED). Our theologians used the Latin noun conditio in both senses just as we use condition. Sometimes they used it in both senses in proximity to each other and so do we. Thus, some clarification is in order. I have tried to express the distinction this way: 1) On the basis of or through; 2) Is. In the contemporary discussion about the necessity of sanctification in salvation this distinction has not always been observed or perhaps, in some quarters, it is rejected. In either case we should recover it so that we may have both a vigorous, biblical, evangelical (in the best sense), Protestant, confessional doctrine of salvation (justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come).

When our writers spoke of antecedent and consequent conditions they were making this distinction between stipulation that must be fulfilled and a consequent state or mode of being. In the 16th century, however, as our writers were working out our covenant theology, they spoke of stipulations in the first sense and “re-stipulations” in the second. In the late 17th century, Herman Witsius distinguished between antecedent (prior) and consequent conditions. The antecedent condition of the covenant of works was the perfect obedience of a federal head. Adam was the federal representative or substitute of all humanity and he was charged with obeying on our behalf. He did not. Christ is the Last Adam, who obeyed on behalf of all the elect. We receive the benefit of Christ’s satisfaction of the antecedent condition of the covenant of works (obedience) by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). Those who are thus united to Christ by the Spirit, sola fide, necessarily produce the fruit of of their salvation in good works as evidence of their salvation. This fruit is said to be a consequent condition but here condition has a different meaning. It has the sense of “state” or “mode of being.” It is the case that believers, renewed by the Spirit, are being sanctified and shall produce good works but they do not serve the same function as the good works did in the covenant of works nor do they serve the same function as faith does in the covenant of grace. Rather, they are a logically and morally necessary consequence of God’s grace.

Here are two examples of the two sense of conditio in Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology (1679). In 14.10.14 he wrote

XIV. But that such a substitution may be made legitimately and without any appearance of injustice, various conditions (variae conditiones) are required in the surety, all of which are found perfectly in Christ. (1) A common nature that sin may be punished in the same nature which is guilty (Heb. 2:14). (2) The consent of the will that spontaneously and willingly (without compulsion) he should take that burden upon himself: “Lo, I come to do thy will” (Heb. 10:9). (3) Power and dominion over his own life so that he may rightfully determine respecting it: “No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (Jn. 10:18). (4) The power of bearing all the punishment due to us and of taking it away as much from himself as from us. Otherwise, if he could himself be held by death, he could free no one from it. That Christ, God-man (theanthrōpō), possesses this power, no one can doubt. (5) Holiness and immaculate purity, that being polluted by no sin, he might not have to offer sacrifice for himself, but only for us (Heb. 7:25–27). (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, 3 vol. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 2.421.)

In this instance “condition” refers partly to a state of being but principally to things that God the Son incarnate must do, acts he must perform in the satisfaction of justice as the representative of the elect, whom the Father gave to the Son from all eternity (pactum salutis). This is what Witsius called an “antecedent condition,”which met for us. In the covenant of grace this covenant is met by us, as it were, through faith alone in the person and finished work of Christ alone. Thus, we also speak of faith as the “sole instrument” of our salvation (Belgic Confession art. 22).

Turretin, however, also used the word “condition” to refer to a state of being. In 14.9.13 he wrote,

Now this similitude is made to consist of various particulars by the apostle: (1) in the name because he was called Melchizedek, king of Salem, which the apostle interprets to mean “king of righteousness” and “king of peace” (Heb. 7:2). Both of these properly belong to Christ, who is “Jehovah our righteousness” and the “Prince of Peace.” (2) In origin because Melchizedek is described to us by Moses as without father (apatōr), without mother (amētōr) and without descent (agenealogētos, v. 3), not absolutely and simply, as if he were positively such (which the common condition of men (communis hominem… conditio), from the race of whom it was before said he had sprung, rejects); but relatively, in respect of the Mosaic description (ibid, 2.409.)

Even though, in this passage, Turretin was not speaking of consequent conditions, this passage illustrates the second sense of condition as a “state of being,” which we also saw passage quoted above .

There are two senses to the word condition in Reformed (covenant) theology. Sometimes they were used under the same topics in both senses. It was expected that the reader would discern the distinction but given that, in the confessional Reformed world, we are still recovering classical Reformed theology after about a century of overlooking and ignoring other key aspects (e.g., the pactum salutis, the covenant of works) it should not surprise us that it we need also to re-learn this distinction too.

If we bear this distinction in mind we may safely teach a clear doctrine of salvation without accidentally turning the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.


  1. In “necessity of sanctification for salvation”, isn’t the type of condition defined by the preposition used? Sanctification isn’t a necessity for salvation, it isn’t a condition of the first kind. It is a necessity IN salvation, which makes it a condition of the second kind..

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