The Covenant of Works, The Covenant of Grace; What Are They? The evangelical Calvinists Respond

As evangelical Calvinists we stand within an alternative stream from classical Calvinism, or Federal/Covenantal theology; the type of Calvinism that stands as orthodoxy for Calvinists today in most parts of North America and the Western world in general. The blurb on the back of our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church makes this distinction clear when it states:

In this exciting volume new and emerging voices join senior Reformed scholars in presenting a coherent and impassioned articulation of Calvinism for today’s world. Evangelical Calvinism represents a mood within current Reformed theology. The various contributors are in different ways articulating that mood, of which their very diversity is a significant element. In attempting to outline features of an Evangelical Calvinism a number of the contributors compare and contrast this approach with that of the Federal Calvinism that is currently dominant in North American Reformed theology, challenging the assumption that Federal Calvinism is the only possible expression of orthodox Reformed theology. This book does not, however, represent the arrival of a “new-Calvinism” or even a “neo-Calvinism,” if by those terms are meant a novel reading of the Reformed faith. An Evangelical Calvinism highlights a Calvinistic tradition that has developed particularly within Scotland, but is not unique to the Scots. The editors have picked up the baton passed on by John Calvin, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and others, in order to offer the family of Reformed theologies a reinvigorated theological and spiritual ethos. This volume promises to set the agenda for Reformed-Calvinist discussion for some time to come.

A question rarely, if ever addressed online in the theological blogosphere, and other online social media outlets, is a description of what Covenant theology actually entails. Many, if acquainted at all with Reformed theology, have heard of the Covenant of Works, Covenant of Grace, and Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis); but I’m not really sure how many of these same people actually understand what that framework entails—maybe they do, and just don’t talk about it much.

In an effort to highlight the lineaments of Federal theology I thought it might be instructive to hear how Lyle Bierma describes it in one of its seminal formulator’s theology, Caspar Olevianus. So we will hear from Bierma on Olevianus, and then we will offer a word of rejoinder to this theology from Thomas Torrance’s theology summarized for us by Paul Molnar; and then further, a word contra Federal theology from Karl Barth as described by Rinse Reeling Brouwer. Here is Bierma:

When did God make such a pledge? [Referring to the ‘Covenant of Grace’] We will be looking at this question in some detail in Chapter IV, but it should be mentioned here that for Olevianus this covenant of grace or gospel of forgiveness and life was proclaimed to the Old Testament fathers from the beginning; to Adam after the fall (“The seed of the woman shall crush [Satan’s] head”); to Abraham and his descendents (“In your seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed”); to the remnant of Israel in Jeremiah 31 (“I will put my laws in their minds . . . and will remember their sins no more”); and still to hearers of the Word today. To be sure, this oath or testament was not confirmed until the suffering and death of Christ. Christ was still the only way to Seligkeit, since it was only through His sacrifices that the blessing promised to Abraham could be applied to us and the forgiveness and renewal promised through Jeremiah made possible. Nevertheless, even before ratification it was still a covenant — a declaration of God’s will awaiting its final fulfillment.

In some contexts, however, Olevianus understands the covenant of grace in a broader sense than as God’s unilateral promise of reconciliation ratified in Jesus Christ. He employs some of the same terms as before — Bund, Gnadenbund, foedus, foedus gratiae, and foedus gratuitum — but this time to mean a bilateral commitment between God and believers. The covenant so understood is more than a promise of reconciliation; it is the  realization of that promise — reconciliation itself — through a mutual coming to terms. Not only does God bind Himself to us in a pledge that He will be our Father; we also bind ourselves to Him in a pledge of acceptance of His paternal beneficence. Not only does God promise that He will blot out all memory of our sins; we in turn promise that we will walk uprightly before Him. The covenant in this sense includes both God’s promissio and our repromissio.

This semantical shift from a unilateral to a bilateral promise is most clearly seen in two passages in Olevanius’s writings where he compares the covenant of grace to a human Bund. In Vester Grundt, as we have seen, he portrays the covenant strictly as a divine pledge. While we were yet sinners, God bound Himself to us with an oath and a promise that through His Son He would repair the broken relationship. It was expected, of course, that we accept the Son (whether promised or already sent) in faith, but Olevianus here does not treat this response as part of the covenant. The emphasis is on what God would do because of what we could not do.

In a similar passage in the Expositio, however, Olevianus not only identifies the covenant with reconciliation itself but describes it as a mutual agreement (mutuus assensus) between the estranged parties. Here God binds Himself not to us “who were yet sinners” but to us “who repent and believe,” to us who in turn are bound to Him in faith and worship. This “covenant of grace or union between God and us” is not established at just one point in history; it is ratified personally with each believer. Christ the Bridegroom enters into “covenant or fellowship” with the Church His Bride by the ministry of the Word and sacraments and through the Holy Spirit seals the promises of reconciliation in the hearts of the faithful. But this is also a covenant into which we enter, a “covenant of faith.” As full partners in the arrangement we become not merely God’s children but His Bundgesnossen, His confoederati.

When he discusses the covenant of grace in this broader sense, i.e., as a bilateral commitment between God and us, Olevianus does not hesitate t use the term conditio [conditional]. We see already in the establishment of the covenant with Abraham that the covenant of grace has not one but two parts: not merely God’s promissio [promise] to be the God of Abraham and his seed, but that promise on the condition (qua conditione) of Abraham’s (and our) repromissio [repromising] to walk before Him and be perfect. Simply put, God’s covenantal blessings are contingent upon our faith and obedience. It is to those who repent, believe, and are baptized that He reconciles Himself and binds Himself in covenant.[1]

What we see in Olevianus’s theology, according to Bierma, is a schema of salvation that is contingent upon the elect’s doing their part, as it were. In other words, what binds salvation together in the Federal scheme is not only the act of God, but the act of the elect; an act that is ensured to be acted upon by the absolute decree (absolutum decretum). The ground of salvation involves, then, God’s act and humanity’s response; the objective (or de jure) side is God’s, the subjective (or de facto) side is the elect’s—a quid pro quo framework for understanding salvation. What this inevitability leads to, especially when getting into issues of assurance of salvation, is for the elect to turn inward to themselves as the subjective side of salvation is contingent upon their ‘faith and obedience.’

Thomas F. Torrance, patron saint of evangelical Calvinists like me, rightly objects to this type of juridical and transactional and/or bilateral understanding of salvation. Paul Molnar, TF Torrance scholar par excellence, describes Torrance’s rejection of Federal theology this way and for these reasons:

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian Torrance between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton’” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in theScots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66.[2]

And here is how Brouwer describes Barth’s feeling on Federal theology, with particular reference to another founder of Federal theology, Johannes Cocceius. Brouwer writes of Barth:

Barth writes ‘For the rest you shall enjoy Heppe’ s Locus xiii only with caution. He has left too much room for the leaven of federal theology. It was not good, when the foedus naturae was also called a foedus operum’. In Barth’ s eyes, the notion of a relationship between God and Adam as two contractual partners in which man promises to fulfil the law and God promises him life eternal in return, is a Pelagian one that should not even be applied to the homo paradisiacus. Therefore,

one has to speak of the foedus naturae in such a way that one has nothing to be ashamed of when one speaks of the foedus gratiae later on, and, conversely, that one does not have to go to the historians of religion, but rather in such a way that one can say the same things in a more detailed and powerful way in the new context of the foedus gratiae, which is determined by the contrast between sin and grace. For there is re vera only one covenant, as there is only one God. The fact that Cocceius and his followers could not and would not say this is where we should not follow them – not in the older form, and even less in the modern form.

 In this way paragraph ends as it began: the demarcation of sound theology from federal theology in its Cocceian shape is as sharp as it was before. Nevertheless, the attentive reader will notice that the category of the covenant itself is ‘rescued’ for Barth’ s own dogmatic thinking.[3]

For Barth, as for Torrance, as for me, the problem with Federal theology is that it assumes upon various wills of God at work at various levels determined by the absolute decree. The primary theological problem with this, as the stuff we read from Torrance highlights, is that it ruptures the person and work of God in Christ from Christ; i.e. it sees Jesus, the eternal Logos, as merely an instrument, not necessarily related to the Father, who carries out the will of God on behalf of the elect in fulfilling the conditions of the covenant of works ratifying the covenant of grace. Yet, even in this establishment of the Federal framework, salvation is still not accomplished for the elect; it is contingent upon the faith and obedience of those who will receive salvation, which finally brings to completion the loop of salvation in the Federal schema.

These are serious issues, that require sober reflection; more so than we will be able to do in a little blog post. At the very least I am hopeful that what we have sketched from various angles will be sufficient to underscore what’s at stake in these types of depth theological issues, and how indeed theology, like Federal theology offers, can impact someone’s Christian spirituality if in fact said theology is grasped and internalized; i.e. it is understood beyond academic reflection, and understood existentially as it impacts the psychology and well being of human beings coram Deo.


[1] Lyle D. Bierma, German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus, 64-68.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity,  181-2 fn. 165.

[3] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 112-13.


On Becoming Theologically Numb and Blogging: Describing the Disorder Known as ‘Virtual-Glaze’

I, like many of you, have been blogging consistently for many years (me since the Spring of 2005), and it has many benefits. But, as we all know, blogging also has some dangers associated with it. One of those dangers can become what I might call a virtual-glaze. I would define the disorder ‘virtual-glaze’ as the disposition that begins to occur as a sentient agent engages in massive amounts of exposure to the virtual on-line world; in particular, in the case I am glazedsketching here, virtual-glaze happens to bloggers when said bloggers engage with various theological and biblical topics over sustained periods of time, via corresponding, arguing, and debating with others relative to fine points of theological nuance and biblical exegesis. The net result, of being deluged by large amounts of theological encounters, can be a glazed and thus desensitized feeling towards the reality of the very positions a blogger might be continuously arguing for. So this kind of virtual-glazing can begin to put a person into a dispassionate (which I think is a terrible thing!), pandering kind of posture wherein the reality of their theological and biblical position no longer has contact with real life. In short, virtual-glazing places the blogger into an absolute kind of suspension to all things (even if they can argue their position with air-tight ease and sophistication), such that the vigor, the zeal that initially propelled them to argue for their position in the first place loses its edge, and more importantly loses its real life impact in their personal life and daily Christian spirituality.

Let me try and make what I am getting at more concrete. I can remember when the LORD radically grabbed my life in profound ways while in Las Vegas, Nevada in and around 1995 (what happened in Vegas, fortunately, did not stay in Vegas for me!); I was a very luke-warm to nominal Christian at that point (and had been in that state at that point for a few years or so). Through various experiences (which I have talked about before), the LORD just showed me how real he was, and how unreal the world was. My life hung on every page of Scripture from that day forward. What I believed had such an acute implication for me, one way or the other, that my sanity, it seemed hung in the balances. Whether or not God was Triune or not, massive import for me. Whether Jesus was the God-man or just a man had palpable feeling for me; and I knew that if God was not Triune, if he had not revealed Himself that way in His dearly beloved Son, thus as the God-Man in Christ, my life would effectively be over—these things mattered to me! And because I didn’t have the depth or sophistication at that point, because I didn’t have the exposure I now have (through formal training, blogging, and personal fellowship with other Christians), if there was even a twinge of uncertainty as to who God is, or who he had/has revealed Himself to be in Christ, my life, my sanity seemed to be over (which I will have to elaborate on further some at some other time).

Obviously, what I am describing above reflects the deep and painful growing pains of an inchoate depth growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ; and so there is some immaturity involved with the above description, that some maturation (relatively speaking) can go along ways in curing (at least the existential angst I was experiencing for that long season of life). But I highlight the above to underscore my description of what I have called virtual-glaze. Yes, by way of degree, there should be at least some semblance of security in regard to the reality of who God is, and who God is for me (for us). But what I think can get easily lost by way of large amounts of virtual theological exposure is the sense of urgency that was attendant to my early growing pain days that started back in 1995; the sense of need, and reality that if God is not who he has claimed himself to be in Christ, that our sanity, and capacity to know God and subsequently minister to others could all be lost. I think blogging has the capacity of making this reality, who God is, into a kind of game. It has the capacity to remove everything we are discussing over and over again into an abstract legoland hodgepodge of our own making, and always keeping what we are talking about at least an arms-length distance from our real life selves in this real life world with real life relationships in tact.

I think if our sanity, our being is not always hanging in the balances (in regard to this kind of sense of urgency) in regard to knowing and loving God, and others, then we may well have succumbed to the disorder known as virtual-glaze.

The Sin of Blogging

Theo-blogging is the ultimate form, in theological writing, of Instant Gratification (versus Delayed Gratification). Thus, based on the Seven Deadly Sins, it could probably be argued that theo-blogging represents a form of sloth or acedia. Unless of course said theo (or biblio) blogger can somehow balance their blogging with things more in line with the Apostle Paul’s concept of Redeeming The Time! In other words, theological blogging can be something that satisfies the rush that comes from writing something that others might praise you for; or more innocent, it can be something that simply satisfies the writer’s sense of pride when he or she accomplishes a written composition (no matter how obtuse it might actually be). I am simply asserting (self-critically, somewhat); that all of us who blog should be thoughtful and prudent about it. It is okay to relax (which is another use of the blog), but when relaxing becomes a lifestyle it becomes at least sloth, if not acedia.

Some Dangers Associated With Theo-blogging

1) I know more than you do . . .

2) I know something different and thus better than you . . .

3) I’ve read more than you . . .

4) I can argue better than you . . .

There’s certainly more dangers to blogging. But in general, these seem to be almost inherent turns built into the reality of this medium itself; at least, ironically, in the realm of theo-blogging. I mention these, because at one point or another I’m sure that I’ve exemplified all of them to one degree or another to my shame. I think blogs are made for certain kinds of personalities. Blogs are made for people who like to read, write, and argue (in general). I actually think all of the above are great virtues, but like with anything if they aren’t, of course, motivated and shaped by a love of Christ, then we know what Paul has to say about that (cf. I Cor. 13).

The LORD has used blogging in my life, over-all, I believe, for the good! I’ve met amazing people, been exposed to different books and authors, and have the frequent opportunity to argue ideas (even if it’s really not arguing but counter-asserting 😉 ). So while theoblogging has some inherent dangers (given the medium itself, it’s flat), I think the positives actually out-weigh the negatives. Those four points I mention above, are emphasizing the negative side and potential of blogging; but I think, if we blog as unto the Lord, those can be mitigated and even altogether vanquished. I need to continue to make sure my speech is always seasoned with grace. Just some thoughts.