Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine.
Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those:
1. who deny or modify the teaching that “God created man good and after His own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness,”” able to perform “the commandment of life” as the representative of mankind (HC 6, 9; BC 14)
One of the most important moves by those who have spent the last thirty years attempting to revise the Reformed doctrine of justification and Reformed covenant theology is to change our perception of the difference between our state before the fall and after.
Among those who teach the socalled Federal Vision (FV), there is an antipathy to the doctrine of the covenant of works. To be sure, there are ministers who deny the covenant of works but who have nevertheless remained orthodox on the doctrine of justification. There are also men who walk on tightropes who do not fall. It is a happy thing that some survive such a treacherous journey without harm but that does not encourage us to imitate them. As we have already seen, it is impossible to change Reformed covenant theology without affecting the Reformed theology and confession. If the effect of denying the “commandment of life” before the fall is not immediately apparent it becomes apparent in succeeding generations.
Those who reject the covenant of works/life/nature typically do so because they think it is “legalistic,” i.e. they think it is unseemly to speak of God entering into legal relations with Adam before the fall. They assume that if God has a legal relation to Adam he cannot also have a familiar or filial relation. This assumption needs to be queried and rejected. Of course Adam can have both filial and legal relations to God simultaneously. Of course any example to which I appeal now comes from the postlapsarian (after the fall) world, but in principle, there is no reason why such conditions are inherent to a postlapsarian world. Take marriage for example. My marriage is relational, personal, and legal. My good relationship with my wife, our personal interaction, and mutual regard for one another is premised to no small degree on our legal relations. These two facts complement each other and are intertwined.
Others reject the covenant of works because they reject the idea that Adam could have “earned” anything from God. Again, this problem is grounded, at least partly, in misunderstanding. The doctrine of the covenant of works does not teach that, outside of a covenant of works (or “commandment of life”), Adam could have earned anything from God. The question is whether God is free to establish a covenant whereby he promises to reward Adam’s obedience. Reformed theology teaches, and the Reformed churches confess, that God did just that.
That covenant has been described in a variety of ways. It has been described as a covenant of works, which focuses on the condition of the covenant. The prohibition: “you shall not eat...” implied a positive command, just as “you shall not steal” implies a positive command to seek the welfare of our neighbor (Heidelberg Catechism 111). So, Reformed theologians have, since the sixteenth century, spoken of a covenant of works. This language was made confessional in the Westminster Standards. At the time they did so, it was quite uncontroversial. This same aspect of the covenant with Adam is also captured in the phrase used by several sixteenth-century Reformed writers, “the covenant of law.”
The same covenant can also be and has been described as a “covenant of nature.” In this case the focus is on the situation in which the covenant was made. Adam was, to use later language, “in a state of nature.” This is a shorthand way of saying that Adam was created good, righteous, and holy, i.e., without defect. Adam was made able to obey. Adam was not a sinner or sinful until he sinned. The third way of describing the prelapsarian covenant is to speak of the promised reward: life. Here the noun “life” stands not just for bare existence, because Adam already had that, but rather it stands for “consummate existence” or the state of glorification. Adam was sinless, holy, and righteous but he was not glorified. Since the earliest church fathers it has been recognized in Christian theology that Adam was in a probationary state. This state has not always been described as a covenant of works, but this idea of probation is of the essence of Reformed, confessional covenant theology and it is a truly catholic idea. It has been recognized for the whole Christian period, i.e. for the entirety of Christian history, that Adam was the federal representative all humanity and that implicit in the Tree of Life was an offer of glorified existence for him and for us in him.
The FV movement wants to eliminate the fundamental difference between the prelapsarian covenant and the postlapsarian (post-fall) covenant. This is a very serious matter. In the history of Christian theology, the attempt to flatten out the difference between our state and ability and the conditions of glorification before and after the fall has been known as Pelagianism. Pelagius was a British monk who lived about the same time as St Augustine. Pelagius was offended by Augustine’s doctrine of divine sovereignty. He argued that it would lead to bad behavior as it reduced the incentive to good behavior. The whole Western church rejected as heresy Pelagius’ doctrine that we are all just like Adam, even after the fall, and that we only become sinners when we sin. The FV is not exactly Pelagian and they might not even intend to put us on the road toward Pelagianism, but intent is not what matters most here. What matters here is the consequence of what they are saying and asking us to accept.
There are others, who, speaking strictly, are not FV, but who also reject any great difference between the commandment of life and the covenant of grace. They speak of a “so-called covenant of works.” They speak of a “covenant of favor” before the fall and a covenant of grace after the fall. From the perspective of the history of doctrine this way of speaking is most unhelpful. Historically “favor” is a synonym for “grace” and to speak of a “covenant of favor” before the fall is tantamount to saying “a covenant of grace” before the fall. To speak of a “covenant of grace” before and after the fall necessarily flattens out the great difference between Adam’s state (and ours in him) before the fall and after.
The phrase “covenant of favor” as a way of describing the pre-fall relations between God and man is ambiguous. It could possibly mean, “Adam was in a state of divine approval so long as he obeyed.” If that is what is intended by the phrase “covenant of favor,” then all is well. It is, however, a poor choice of words. Do those who speak this way intend to say, “Adam was in a state divine approval so long as he obeyed”? If that is what those writers means, why do they not use one of the older expressions such as “covenant of works,” “covenant of life,” or “covenant of nature”? Those who speak of a “covenant of favor” this way seem to deny the confessional, historic, Reformed covenant theology in favor of one of the modern revisions.
Some writers have been quite plain in following the consequences of this way of speaking. They say that Adam would have been glorified had he persisted in trusting and obeying. He teaches plainly that our Lord Jesus was accepted by the Father and glorified because he trusted and obeyed and we, like Adam and Jesus, will be accepted if we trust and obey. There are great problems here. First, relative to righteousness with God, the Apostle Paul in Romans 5:12–21 did not move from Adam to us. According to Paul, we are connected to Adam as our federal head only relative to sin and death. In other words, it never occurred to Paul to speak as Rev. Shepherd does. Paul did not write as these writers do because he accounted for the consequences of sin. Before the fall, Adam had the ability to keep the law because he was not a sinner. After the fall, neither Adam nor his children have that power. To suggest that we sinners are in the same state as Adam was before the fall is to ignore sin and downplay the great difference between the pre-fall and post-fall condition of man. This was Pelagius’ mistake.
Just as importantly, this way of relating sinners to Adam before the fall omits Christ from the picture. How can an allegedly Christian theology either omit Christ or make him a mere example of how to be justified? At best, this approach does what the nineteenth– and twentieth–century liberals did: it makes Jesus into the first Christian. Our Lord was not a “Christian,” He was and is the Christ.
Finally, speaking of the pre-fall covenant as a “covenant of favor” tends either to eliminate Adam’s legal obligations or it tends to confuse grace and law. To speak of grace and law before the fall and to speak of grace and law after the fall tends to put us on the same footing as Adam. There is nothing Pauline or Reformed about this at all. We sinners are not at all on the same footing as Adam before the fall. The old Puritan rhyme was correct: “In Adam’s fall sinned we all.” After the fall we are dead in sins and trespasses (Ephesians 2:4). Christ obeyed, died, and was raised for the justification of sinners (Romans 5:8; 4:25). Most fundamentally of all, minimizing the difference between Adam and us before and after the fall tends to confuse grace and works. Paul was very clear about this: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6).
These are two competing principles relative to justification. They can never be confused. To say “grace” is to say “gift” as Paul does in Romans 4:4: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due” and Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Before the fall Adam had no need of “gifts” or “grace,” in the sense in which Paul used the word in these verses. Before the fall, Adam was not corrupt or corrupted in any way. Before the fall, he was not wicked. His will was right, his mind clear, and his heart pure. That is why we confess in the Belgic Confession that he had the power to perform “the commandment of life.” After the fall, of course, the commandment of life continues but now we are sinful, corrupt, and vitiated in all our faculties. After the fall we are no longer able to fulfill the commandment of life. We need another to perform that commandment for us; and God graciously sent one, in the fullness of time: Jesus the Christ, the Savior of helpless sinners.
There is a sense in which we confess that Adam had “gifts.” His very existence may be said to have been a gift. All his natural endowments were gifts, and even the image of God, in the narrow sense of the “righteousness and true holiness” in which he was created, was a gift. Thus, in Belgic Confession article 14 we confess that, in the fall, Adam “lost all his gifts which he had received from God, and retained only small remains thereof….”1 That is not what is at issue here. What is at issue is the way God related to us and we to him in the pre-fall state and in the post-fall state. Before the fall God did not relate to his image-bearers, relative to their righteousness, first of all, on the basis of grace but on the basis of law.
One may well ask whether there is any useful way of speaking about grace relative to Adam’s state or the commandment of life covenant before the fall. Yes, God may be said to have made the covenant graciously. Please note the adverb. The adverb “graciously” describes the way God acted in making a covenant at all but it does not characterize the nature of the covenant itself. Adam was not under grace but under law and, because he was created in righteousness and true holiness, he was not a sinner or lawbreaker until he sinned by breaking the law.
It might be helpful to note here that the Westminster Divines might have said that God graciously made the pre-fall covenant, but they did not. Instead, they chose to say that God made the covenant of works by “voluntary condescension” (WCF 7.1). The choice of this language was quite deliberate. It focused attention upon the freedom of the divine will in entering into a pre-fall covenant. God was not obligated to make a covenant with Adam but chose to do. Why did the divines speak so? They used this language and not the alternative expressions because they wanted to avoid the very problem that the FV and others have created by speaking of a gracious covenant or a covenant of favor before the fall.
Synod Schereville likewise chose its words very carefully. The Nine Points use the language of the Belgic Confession (Art. 14), “commandment of life.” Synod did not say, “covenant of works” or even “covenant of life.” Whatever quibbles one might have with the traditional phrases, it is necessary to affirm a strong and clear difference between the condition of glorification before the fall (there was no need for justification before the fall) and the condition and instrument of justification and glorification after the fall. The condition of the covenant before the fall was perfect obedience to God’s law. The instrument of the covenant of grace is faith in our covenant-keeper, Christ.
All this gets back to the basic principle of the prologue: Reformed Christians are not allowed to say one thing under the heading “biblical theology” or “covenant theology” and another under “confessional” theology. What we confess must permeate and inform our reading of redemptive history.
1 Daniel R. Hyde, With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession (Grandville, MI : Reformed Fellowship Inc,
2008), 179 –94.
Dr. R. Scott Clark is an Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California.
THE NINE POINTS OF (URCNA) SYNOD 2007
Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine. Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those:
1. who deny or modify the teaching that “God created man good and after His own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness,” able to perform “the commandment of life” as the representative of mankind (HC 6, 9; BC 14);
2. who, in any way and for any reason, confuse the “commandment of life” given before the fall with the gospel announced after the fall (BC 14, 17, 18; HC 19, 21, 56, 60);
3. who confuse the ground and instrument of acceptance with God before the fall (obedience to the commandment of life) with the ground (Christ who kept the commandment of life) and instrument (faith in Christ) of acceptance with God after the fall;
4. who deny that Christ earned acceptance with God and that all His merits have been imputed to believers (BC 19, 20, 22, 26; HC 11-19, 21, 36-37, 60, 84; CD I.7, RE I.3, RE II.1);
5. who teach that a person can be historically, conditionally elect, regenerated, savingly united to Christ, justified, and adopted by virtue of participation in the outward administration of the covenant of grace but may lose these benefits through lack of covenantal faithfulness (CD, I, V);
6. who teach that all baptized persons are in the covenant of grace in precisely the same way such that there is no distinction between those who have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace by baptism and those who are united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone (HC 21, 60; BC 29);
7. who teach that Spirit-wrought sanctity, human works, or cooperation with grace is any part either of the ground of our righteousness before God or any part of faith, that is, the “instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness” (BC 22-24; HC 21, 60, 86);
8. who define faith, in the act of justification, as being anything more than “leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified” or “a certain knowledge” of and “a hearty trust” in Christ and His obedience and death for the elect (BC 23; HC 21);
9. who teach that there is a separate and final justification grounded partly upon righteousness or sanctity inherent in the Christian (HC 52; BC 37).