Geerhardus Vos on Sides, Administrations and Conditionality in the Covenant of Grace

Covenant Theology

One of the most difficult, and yet, at the same time, most important aspects of Covenant Theology is the relationship between the elect and the non-elect in the Covenant of Grace. The multitude of various definitions proposed by theologians concerning the biblical idea of covenant have certainly contributed to this difficulty. One cannot read any portion of the Old Testament without seeing that covenant was always broader than election. Whether it was Adam’s son, Cain, Noah’s son, Ham, Abraham’s son, Ishmael, or Isaac’s son, Esau, there were always non-elect within the covenant. They, of course, incurred covenant curses for rejecting the promise of redemption in Christ; nevertheless, they–like so many Israelites after them–were in covenant with the true and living God. In addition, one barely has to enter into the New Testament epistles without seeing that there are some who “profane the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified (i.e. set apart)” (Heb. 10:29) and who are therefore “covenant breakers” in the New Covenant era. We must not mistake this language for that of saying that they were all in saving fellowship with God in Christ. That, of course, is only and ever true of the elect.

It is on account of the biblical data about God’s covenant dealings with a mixed multitude that Reformed theologians have often distinguished between the internal and external administrations of the Covenant of Grace. One may choose to look at the Covenant of Grace from its eternal aspect–as only including the elect–and, at the same time, see that God has always included non-elect in the historical outworking of the Covenant of Grace. I have sought to explain this in some detail here. This, of course, opens the door for questions concerning covenant conditions as well. Is the Covenant of Grace unconditional or conditional? Does God’s demand for faith and repentance qualify as a condition of the Covenant of Grace? These and many other questions have been dealt with throughout the history of Reformed thought. And so, you can understand my joy in finding a fairly thorough treatment of this subject from both a historical and exegetical approach in Geerhardus Vos’ recently released Reformed Dogmatics.  In vol. 2, ch. 3, Q. 30-32, Vos sought to explain how we are to categorize and understand these very difficult and highly nuanced distinctions when he wrote:

“a)…the concept of covenant can be taken in a twofold sense. It can be a relationship between two parties with reciprocal conditions, thus is an entity in the sphere of law. The covenant in this sense exists even when nothing has yet been done to realize its purpose; it exists as a relationship, as something that ought to be. And the persons or parties who live under such a relationship are in the covenant because they are under the reciprocal conditions. In the sphere of law, everything is considered and regulated in an objective manner. There one does not inquire about inclination or interest toward one or another relationship, but exclusively about the relationship itself.

b) Covenant can, however, also be taken in another sense, as meaning the same as fellowship. Then it does not have in view what should be and is expected and required but what is actually present in the sphere of being. Every covenant in the first sense looks forward and is intended to become a covenant in this second sense, a living fellowship or a fellowship of life. What the first is in law, the second is in actuality. The first remains barren and misses its purpose entirely if it does not move on to the second.

c) The application of this distinction to the concept of the covenant of grace can shed light on many points over which the diverging answers of the theologians have spread darkness. One asks, “Who is in the covenant of grace?” If one has in view the legal side of the matter, that is, if one poses the question, “Who is included and of whom can it be expected that they will live in the covenant?” the answer is, “All who by stipulation or by birth have become members of the covenant”; thus believers and their seed. If one looks at the actual side, one poses the question, “In whom has this legal relationship become a living fellowship?” The answer is, “All who have been regenerated and have faith, at least in principle.” Here, therefore, one has the two sides of the matter that emerged with greater or lesser clarity in the three distinctions discussed above. And one perceives how, according as the emphasis fell more on the one side or the other, the answer to the question, “Who are in the covenant?” had to turn out differently. So it was argued on the one side: all the members of the visible church are in; on the other side: only they who have saving faith are in. Both of these are true, but in a different sense. This will appear further.

d) From this it now appears how one has to judge the concepts “being-outwardly-in,” “being-under-the-administration,” and “being-conditionally-in.” “Being-outwardly-in” contrasts with “being-inwardly-in.” The latter means covenant fellowship and describes this as something inward. “Being-outwardly-in,” however, expresses precisely what is properly meant. The covenant, then, lays claim to the whole of the life of man, even where it has not yet come to real covenant fellowship. To be under the administration of the covenant has to mean that the covenant begins to be realized. Covenant fellowship first occurs for us and engages us as covenant promise and covenant requirement. In Olevianus, the covenant idea is borne entirely by this conception. It has to do with the inward relationship with God, with the essence of the covenant, covenant fellowship. In order that this be realized, the attestations of the covenant of grace come to us. The administration and the essence stand in the closest relationship with each other.

“Being-conditionally-in” the covenant of grace is an improper—better, an incorrect—way of speaking. One is in the covenant or one is not in it. A middle status lying between the two is impossible. But the intention is as follows. Being in covenant relationship is a being conditionally in covenant fellowship. When from man’s side the covenant is appropriated by faith, the covenant emerges in its fullness, as it should do according to its design. So, man is first under and then in it. He is under the promise and the requirement, then he enters into the benefits of the covenant. But he is under the former completely, and he comes into the latter completely. The transition from the one to the other is in a certain sense tied to a condition.

e) One enters into a covenant in two ways: by freely acceding to and accepting its condition, or by being born into it. In the former case, the inclination to live in the covenant is of course to be assumed. Applied to the covenant of grace, this leads us to the conclusion that an adult hitherto standing outside the covenant relationship can only enter it by faith. By his entering into the covenant, he shows that he will live in and according to the covenant, and this he cannot rightly do without faith. It is thus to be assumed that here entrance into covenant relationship and entrance into covenant fellowship coincide. The first exercise of faith leads, of itself, to both. Supposing that acquiescing in the covenant was not sincere, that all faith was lacking, then the covenant relationship would continue to apply, but from the first moment on it would be a violated and broken covenant relationship; and fellowship, the essence of the covenant, would be lacking. In the second case, where one is born into the covenant, the covenant relationship precedes, in the expectation that covenant fellowship will follow later, so far as conscious life is concerned. That it can already be present earlier in the unconscious life of the covenant child is therefore not denied.

f) If one is under the covenant relationship and covenant fellowship, the essence of the covenant, is missing, one is nevertheless treated as a covenant member in the sense that non-observance of the covenant incurs guilt and causes covenant-breaking. This explains how there is covenant-breaking and yet no apostasy of the saints. Note carefully, not merely temporary covenant-breaking is in view—for in believers that is compatible with perseverance—but final covenant-breaking. Everyone who is under the covenant is treated as though he lived in the covenant. It is so with the covenant of works, and is so with the covenant of grace. And therefore, one does not have the right to say that the non-elect are in no way in the covenant. For them there is no true covenant fellowship, but their accountability is determined according to the covenant relationship. This accountability is greater than that which an ordinary person outside the covenant has in relation to the gospel. Being-in-the-covenant may never be diminished to a life under the offer of the gospel. It is more than that.

g) The issue here comes down to finding the connection between this being-in-the-covenant and living in the fellowship of the covenant. It is obvious that there must be a close tie. There cannot be a dualism between these two. By freely entering the covenant, these two must immediately coincide if no discrepancy is to arise. But what if one is born into the covenant? Is then the one possible without the other? We here face the difficulty that the covenant relationship appears powerless to bring covenant fellowship in its wake. We get a covenant that remains unfruitful. A barren, juridical relationship, an “ought to be,” appears to take the place of the glorious realities that mention of the covenant brings to our minds. This is in fact the point where, by means of the covenant idea, the Pelagian error could gain access to Reformed doctrine. If the covenant idea is in fact the all-encompassing expression of life under and in grace, how then can it be that in this form it comes to us first of all as something that “ought to be,” a relationship that still lacks realization?

When in the realm of nature one enters into a commitment with someone else, one has the reasonable expectation that the person will keep to that commitment, that it will not remain an abstract concept, but something that is realized in life and becomes a relationship in life. Consequently, here, too, there is a difficulty. It makes no sense that God enters into a covenant with man unable to help himself, yet in terms of which faith and repentance are expected of him, if absolutely no provision is made to cause the covenant to become reality. But the Lord does not establish a covenant of grace with believers and their seed only in order to obligate them from the heart and increase their responsibility toward the gospel. The covenant relationship must be something more than a bond of obligation.

h) In order to remove these two difficulties, one will have to emphasize that in this covenant of grace, God in fact makes promises that enable the members of His covenant to really live in the covenant, to receive its essence, to make it a reality. God, when He establishes the covenant of grace with a believer, appears as a giving, a gracious and promising God, for He witnesses in the gospel that it is He Himself who has generated faith in the soul, whereby the covenant is sealed and received. He further assures such believers that He is not only their God, but also the God of their seed. And that if they raise up their seed for Him, He will grant the grace of regeneration, whereby the covenant will be perpetuated, and that not only as a bond but also as a real, spiritual covenant fellowship. God has pledged to the members of His covenant His promises of regenerating grace for their seed as well. From their seed, He will call believers to Himself. And therefore, that seed is not merely under a conditional bond, but also under an absolute promise. For those who do not venture to accept this, the covenant concept must more and more lose its spiritual and gracious character. They make it an arid system of obligations, in which all comforting and enlivening power is lacking. Because God has thus established in the parents the covenant with the children, He has also given the promise that He will bestow the operations of His grace in the line of the covenant. He can also work outside that line, and does so frequently. But then it is a free action, not to be explained further for us. It is an establishing of the covenant anew. In accordance with His sovereignty, He can also make exceptions within the sphere of the covenant. However, if experience later shows such exceptions, we may not seize on them to say, “God’s covenant was powerless; His word has failed.” In such a case, we must always follow the rule of Paul in Rom 9:6–8. The presumption is always that the children of the covenant, who are under the covenant bond, will also be led into covenant fellowship. Election is free, but it is not on that account arbitrary. Therefore, we say: of those born under the covenant, not only is it required with double force that they believe and repent, but it is likewise expected and prayed for with a double confidence that they will be regenerated in order to be able to believe and repent.

i) Only in this way do we obtain an organic connection between being-under-the-covenant and being-in-the-covenant, between bond and fellowship. The former is, as it were, the shadow that the latter casts. The covenant relationship into which a child enters already at birth is the image of the covenant fellowship in which it is expected to live later. And on the basis of that expectation or, more accurately, on the basis of the promise of God that entitles us to that expectation, such a child receives baptism as a seal of the covenant. The child is regarded as being in the covenant. As it matures, it is again and again pointed out how it lives under the promises and how the reasonable expectation is that it will live in the covenant. The attestations of the covenant precede the substance of the covenant. These promises and this requirement as they apply to the child are precisely the means appointed by God as the way to be traveled, along which the communion of the covenant, the being “in” in a spiritual sense, is reached. Being-under-the-covenant not only precedes, but it is also instrumental. An impetus proceeds from this that is greater than from the preaching of the word that does not come to someone in this manner, in the way of the covenant.

j) Of the children born under the covenant, as long as they are children and if they die as children, it is to be assumed that they also share, or will have a share, in the spiritual fellowship of the covenant and the salvation coupled with it. On this basis, the Reformed Church assumes the salvation of the children of the covenant who die in infancy. Here, too, there could be exceptions, but one may not for this reason allow himself to be robbed of comfort.

For the children of the covenant who are grown, matters are different. God’s ordinance is such that only by exercising faith can each personally obtain assurance of his share in the benefits of the covenant. If for a long time he remains unconverted and unbelieving, the covenant relationship does not immediately end, and the requirement also does not cease, and the comfort likewise is not removed. But for the person himself, by his unbelief and impenitence, that comfort diminishes with every moment. He must give an account for the expectation cherished in relation to him not having been fulfilled, that he is therefore regarded as a covenant-breaker. This, at least, must be maintained so that the covenant relationship will not be seen as degenerating into a cloak of mistaken passivity.

k) One can ask: how does one come into the fellowship of the covenant? The answer can only be: through regeneration, or through faith and repentance. The former has in view the unconscious basis of fellowship, the latter the conscious enjoyment of fellowship, and here we have to do only provisionally with it. Now, however, an apparent objection arises. How can something be at the same time acquiescing in the covenant and a fulfillment of the conditions of the covenant? So Koelman reasons that the internal covenant is not properly a covenant because it involves no conditions or proposals for man, given that the exercise of the conditions of the covenant is itself his entry into the internal covenant. Whoever believes and repents keeps the covenant. Nothing more is expected by God or promised by man. In other words, a covenant always has in view something still to be done. Here the idea of commitment is simply employed in order to deny fellowship the name of covenant. But Scripture does not speak in this way (Jer 31:31–32). This whole objection is an apparent objection. It immediately collapses as soon as one makes a distinction between the initial assent of faith and the ongoing exercise of faith. Faith is not something that needs to be exercised only for a moment, as a condition for sharing in the benefits of the covenant forever. It is the ongoing activity that unlocks continual access to the good things of the covenant. So, if I say that by faith one enters into the inward fellowship of the covenant, this does not exclude that the continuing act of faith is also covenant-keeping. It all depends on how one views the matter. How else will such as those who were not born into the covenant gain a true agreement to the covenant than by an acquiescing faith? For such persons, therefore, faith is an entering into the covenant relationship and the fellowship of the covenant at the same time.

31. In what sense can unregenerate and unbelieving persons be said to be in the covenant?

a) They are in the covenant with regard to covenant obligation. As members of the covenant, they owe God faith and repentance. If they do not believe and repent, they are judged to be covenant-breakers.

b) They are in the covenant with regard to the covenant promise, made to believers when God establishes His covenant with them. God ordinarily takes the number of His elect from those who are in covenant relationship and from their seed.

c) They are in the covenant with regard to cultivating the covenant. They are continually roused and admonished to live in accordance with the covenant. The church treats them as members of the covenant, and offers them the covenant seals, even stirs them up to use them. They are the guests who are first invited, the children of the kingdom, those to whom the word of God must first be spoken (Matt 8:12; Acts 13:46; Luke 14:16–24).

d) They are in the covenant with regard to the outward work of the covenant, the exercise of the power of the church. The words of God are entrusted to them, as Paul says of the greater part of the unbelieving Jewish church (Rom 3:2).

e) They are in the covenant with regard to common covenant blessing. Koelman: “The members of the covenant, the unregenerate, too, have splendid influences and operations of God’s Spirit … I confess that even the lost experience powerful operations of the Spirit for enlightenment and enabling; the Spirit of the Lord strives in their midst (Gen 6:3) and distributes common gifts (Heb 6:4–5; 1 Cor 12:8).”

32. In what manner can one say that the covenant of grace is conditional?

It has already been observed that the idea of conditionality is not applicable to being in the covenant, to the establishment of the covenant relationship. It can only have in view participating in the covenant fellowship, receiving the covenant benefits. The question therefore becomes, is there something placed upon man as a condition, that he on his side must do, in order to share in the covenant blessing promised from God’s side?

Turretin has discussed this issue extensively and with clarity (Institutes II, XII, 3). He says that one must give attention to four things:

a) A condition can be regarded as something that has meriting power and by its own nature confers a right to the benefits of the covenant, but also as prerequisite and means, as an accompanying disposition in the member of the covenant.

b) A condition can be regarded as to be fulfilled through natural capabilities, or to be fulfilled through supernatural grace.

c) A condition in the covenant can have in view the end of the covenant—salvation—or the way of the covenant—faith and repentance. One can ask, what is the condition in order to gain the end of the covenant? And also, what is the condition in order to attain to the way of the covenant?

d) The covenant can be viewed according to its institution by God, according to its first application in the believer, and according to its completion.

The answer to the question above, according to these points of view, is governed by the opposition between Roman Catholics and Remonstrants on the one side, and the Reformed on the other side. This question was contended over in both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the former it was Junius, for example, in the latter it was Witsius, among others, who maintained that the covenant of grace knows no conditions. By making it conditional, one feared falling back into the Roman Catholic or Remonstrant confusion of law and gospel, something that must be avoided at any cost. We say:

a) The covenant of grace is not conditional in the sense that in it there would be any condition with meriting power. Our faith and repentance never stand in a meriting relationship to the benefit of the covenant. We deny that against Roman Catholics as well as Remonstrants.

b) The covenant of grace is not conditional in the sense that what is required of man would have to be accomplished in his own strength. When the requirement is presented to man, he must always be reminded that he can get the strength for fulfilling it only from God. God Himself, by His grace, fulfills the condition in His elect. What is a condition for all is thus for them also a promise, a gift of the covenant.

c) The covenant of grace is not conditional in its whole scope concerning the covenant benefits. Let us say, for example, that justification is a covenant benefit. Now, this is bound to the covenant as a conditio sine qua non, or however one may wish to characterize it. But now, what about faith itself? Is that, in its turn, again tied to something else? Evidently not, for otherwise we would get an infinite series, and nowhere would there be an absolute beginning where the grace of God intervenes. Therefore, we say that the covenant of grace is conditional with respect to its completion and final benefits, not as concerns its actual beginning. Without sanctification, no one will see the Lord [Heb 12:14].

d) If we look at the foundation of the covenant of grace as it rests in Christ’s suretyship, then it does have conditions for Him, the Mediator, not for the believer, for whom everything is secured in the passive and active obedience of the Mediator. If we consider the initial inclusion of members of the covenant into the fellowship of the covenant, then faith is the condition. If we consider the completion of the covenant, then the condition is not only faith, but also sanctification.

e) When we speak of faith as condition, by that is meant that the exercise of faith is the only way along which one can come to conscious enjoyment of the benefit of the covenant. For our understanding of the covenant, our consciousness of it, everything depends on faith. Whoever does not have faith, so far as his awareness is concerned, in practice stands outside the covenant, and to the degree one has more faith, one stands more firmly in the covenant. This faith as such comes into view here for reasons that will be set forth later in the treatment of faith. Law and gospel are not hereby confused, for one must note that faith, although Scripture itself calls it a work (John 6:29), is not considered a perfect work. The faith that justifies us perfectly and gives us complete access to the treasure of grace in its entirety is as actus, as a work, imperfect through and through. This alone already shows that it does not belong to the law, for the law recognizes only perfect work, in which nothing is lacking. Faith does not at all appear as the legal ground for our justification. That we believe does not make justification any less an act of pure grace. This must be emphatically underscored. Judicially, our faith does nothing for our justification. So far as the judicial aspect is concerned, God could just as well justify us without faith—something that does not eliminate the reasons there still are for the position faith occupies in the matter of justification. But those reasons do not lie within the sphere of law. They lie elsewhere. It is otherwise for work if one is in the covenant of works. Then his work is legally necessary for justification.

f) Now one asks whether faith only appears as a condition, or whether along with faith, repentance must also be mentioned. On this, too, there was debate among Reformed theologians. The correct answer is that in the widest sense repentance may also be posited. There is no true faith without repentance, and where repentance is lacking one cannot be assured on good grounds of his sharing in the benefits of the covenant by faith. But there is, however, a difference between faith and repentance as so-called conditions. In this case, faith functions causaliter, that is, with causality. It is obviously in the nature of faith that it gives us access to the enjoyment of the covenant. It is a receptive organ, one that takes possession. One cannot say that of repentance. No one will be able to make from his repentance an inherent means that brings him into covenant fellowship. It is simply, negatively, a condition-without-which-not. Justification is of course not coextensive with the benefits of the covenant. In the matter of justification, only faith functions. There it is sola fide. But the covenant is broader, so that one may well say: faith plus repentance (whereby, of course, both are not taken as momentary acts, but as ongoing activities).

g) Evidence that in this sense conditions are attached to the covenant of grace:

1.The Scriptures speak in this way: John 3:16, 36; Rom 10:9; Acts 8:37; Mark 16:16; and in many other places.

2.If there were no conditions, there would be no place for threats, for threatening only makes sense to those who reject the conditions; that is to say here, those who do not walk in the God-ordained way of the covenant.

3.If there were no conditions, God alone would be bound by this covenant, and no bond would be placed on man. Thereby the character of the covenant would be lost. All covenants contain two parts.”1

1. Geerhardus Vos Reformed Dogmatics (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013) vol. 2, ch. 3 Q. 30-32

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