Monthly Archives: October 2017

On conditions in the covenant of grace

Are there conditions in the covenant of grace, "properly so called"?

The recent faith and works dust up has been reminiscent of last year’s Trinity debate for the amount of heat generated. But slowly a little light may be beginning to dawn.

Brad Mason agrees with Jones et al on the right/possession distinction, even though Mark Jones has written as though he doesn’t. Brad Mason accepts works are necessary for salvation. But he is still unhappy with Piper’s formulation. Why?

Now, I am not interested in debating Piper’s broader covenant theology. As he is a Baptist I am bound to disagree with him somewhere along the line. But I am yet to see any statements from Piper that cannot be understood (easily) in an orthodox fashion.

The key paragraph for me then in Mason’s recent useful post is the following:

It is one thing to say that works are necessary to salvation because faith always includes fruits, God having ordained the one to always accompany the other; it is quite another thing to say that no one will be saved without good works. The distinction may seem minute, but it is quite grand indeed. There is necessity that is not conditionality, and there is conditionality that is not causal.

The issue is that of conditionality. In what sense is it proper to speak of conditions with respect to the covenant of grace? Mason wants to say that works are necessary but not a condition, and that they are certainly not properly speaking a cause of salvation.

This brings the debate quite closely into conversation with the 17th century debate among the Reformed orthodox: In what sense is it proper to speak of conditions with respect to the covenant of grace? I think interrogating the answers of Witsius, Turretin and Owen may shed some light.

I

By way of summary, Owen says: it is possible to speak of conditions in the covenant of grace (though he would rather not), but it is not possible to speak of conditions of the covenant. What does this mean?

First, Witsius: "With respect to us, the covenant of grace has no conditions properly so called."

Witsius defines conditionality as having the "right" to a reward. But the new covenant is a primarily a testamentary covenant (like a will) – it therefore cannot be suspended upon a condition. There is "no condition of the whole covenant". However, the promises of the covenant are so arranged, that one must partake of the smaller things (ie evangelical obedience) before one partakes of the latter (glory).

Turretin agrees with Witsius: the blessings of the covenant are "suspended upon no condition". Any duties required by the covenant are in fact blessings. You can see the similarity with Witsius (whose work was published before Turretin’s I believe). However Turretin does think we should speak of conditions in the covenant. For Turretin, something causal, and even something non-causal, like a duty, can be properly spoken of as a condition. So faith is the instrumental, grace-empowered means of the cause of acceptance of the covenant, by embracing Christ and his benefits, and so the cause of justification. Behind his view lies a view of the covenant of grace that sees it more as a mutual pact than a testamentary will.

So two things are going on here:

  1. there is a different view of the covenant of grace. Is it a last supper/Hebrews style testamentary covenant, or is it a marriage/suzeriegnty-type treaty covenant? Both thinkers agree it is a mixture of both, but they place the emphasis differently.
  2. there is a different definition of "condition". The OED offers two definitions of covenant that might help clarify this:
  • a) "something demanded as a pre-requisite to the granting of something else"
  • b) "in a legal instrument, a provision on which its legal force or effect is made to depend"

Turretin is working with definition a) and Witsius is working with definition b). But here’s the critical point:

  • If Turretin was using definition b) he would agree with Witsius: there is no condition of the covenant of grace, because it does not depend on ("suspended upon") any conditions in us.
  • And if Witsius was forced to use definition a) then he would agree with Turretin that there is conditionality in the covenant of grace, because faith and works are pre-requisites ("one must partake of smaller things") to greater blessings.

This is not to deny that there are some differences between Turretin and Witisus. But it is obvious that much depends on one’s definition of condition. And so Witsius is careful in his denial: there are no conditions in the covenant of grace "properly so called". From memory, both Turretin and Witsius affirm that each others’ views are totally sound.

II

This brings us to Owen, who writes after the continental divines. He declares the whole debate to be "mere strife about words". He concludes that there are "no conditions properly so called of the whole grace of the covenant" but if anyone speaks of duties as "the condition of the covenant, it is not to be contended about, though properly it is not so". Owen’s reluctance to speak of conditions is based on a testamentary understanding of the New Covenant and, I think, a brilliant reading of Hebrews’ use of the new covenant promise in Jer 31-32. He argues that the whole covenant is being set out in these chapters. "If it were otherwise, it could not be proved from thence that this covenant was more excellent than the former." If there are genuine conditions tucked away behind Jeremiah 31-32 then you could not show that the New Covenant offers the spiritual security that the Old Covenant lacked. Hence it is best not to speak of conditions of or in the covenant.

III

It’s relatively easy, and possibly not very persuasive to whip out some Reformed orthodox distinctions. But I hope that thinking about the different ways conditional language might be used with respect to the covenant of grace is clarifying. With respect to Piper, I have certainly seen nothing to suggest that he thinks that the whole grace of the covenant is suspended upon either faith or works.

If anyone is very keen I could try and write a follow up showing how some of this could be grounded in Galatians.

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