Bavinck on Sovereign, Covenant Grace (+BOOK SALE!)
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This is an extract from chapter 11 of Covenant and Election in the Reformed Tradition, by David J. Engelsma, pages 163-167, published by the Reformed Free Publishing Association. This passage is offered as a commentary to a previous blog post published in April 5, 2021 titled Herman Bavinck on God's Covenant of Grace.
Bavinck on Sovereign, Covenant Grace
Election governs the covenant; the covenant is God’s execution in history of his elective will of salvation in eternity. “Election only and without qualification states who are elect and will infallibly obtain salvation; the covenant of grace describes the road by which these elect people will attain their destiny.”2 “The elect . . . [are] gathered into one under Christ as their head in the way of the covenant.”3
Basic to this conception of the relation of election and covenant is the recognition of Jesus Christ as head of the covenant of grace, as Adam was head of the covenant of creation. For Bavinck, Jesus Christ is “head of the covenant of grace,” as well as “its mediator.”4 This means that “the covenant of grace has been made with Christ.”5 In and through Christ, the head of the covenant, the covenant “reaches out also to his own.”6 “His own” are all those whom the Father has given to Jesus in the decree of election (John 6:37, 39; John 10:29; John 17:2, 6, 9, 11, 24).
In support of his teaching that God has made his covenant with Christ, as head of the covenant, and in him with his own, Bavinck appeals to Galatians 3:29: “If ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed.”7 This text depends on Galatians 3:16, which teaches that God made the promise of the covenant to Abraham’s seed, Jesus Christ.
Of course, election and covenant are different. Bavinck does not identify them. No Reformed theologian has ever identified them. When opponents of Bavinck’s teaching that election and covenant are closely related, as a fountain to its stream, charge those who confess this close relation with identifying covenant and election, what they really intend to deny, and to root out of the Reformed churches, is the teaching that election governs the covenant.
Invariably, an examination of the mantra “covenant and election are not identical” will show that those who sound the mantra mean “election does not govern the covenant.” Election is the divine decree in eternity appointing Jesus Christ as head of the church and, in Christ, choosing a certain number of persons to redemption as the body of Christ. The covenant is God’s structured bond of union and communion with Christ and his people in history, in which living relationship God works out the salvation of the church and its members.
The difference that Bavinck emphasizes is that, whereas in election the members of the church are passive, in the covenant the Spirit of Christ makes the elect members of the church active. This activity includes that they “consciously and voluntarily consent to this covenant.”8
This is what Bavinck means by the covenant’s becoming “bilateral.”9 He does not mean that a covenant that was originally established unilaterally, by God alone, now becomes dependent for its maintenance and perfection upon the will and work of the member of the covenant. This is indeed what many Reformed theologians mean by their teaching that the covenant is unilateral (onesided) in its establishment but bilateral (two-sided) in its maintenance. This is to teach that, whereas the beginning of the covenant with a human is sovereign grace, the maintenance and perfection of the covenant are a cooperative effort of God and men. This is to teach that, whereas the establishment of the covenant depends solely upon God, the maintenance and perfection of the covenant depend upon the sinner. This is to teach that, whereas the beginning of the covenant and its salvation is God’s work, in the end the covenant and its salvation are the work of man himself.
Bavinck will have none of this. “The doctrine of the covenant maintains God’s sovereignty in the entire work of salvation . . . Into that entire work of salvation, from beginning to end, nothing is introduced that derives from humans. It is God’s work totally and exclusively; it is pure grace and undeserved salvation . . . This doctrine of the covenant . . . purely and fully maintains God’s sovereignty in the work of salvation.”10
God not only unilaterally establishes the covenant, but he also unilaterally maintains the covenant: “The covenant of grace . . . is indeed unilateral: it proceeds from God; he has designed and defined it. He maintains and implements it. It is a work of the triune God and is totally completed among the three Persons themselves.”11
When Bavinck speaks of the covenant’s becoming bilateral (after its unilateral establishment with a person), he means that once God establishes his covenant with a child, a woman, or a man, that person becomes active by the grace of the covenant and is commanded to be active. Bavinck tells us that this is what he means by the bilateral character of the established covenant:
It [the covenant] is destined to become bilateral, to be consciously and voluntarily accepted and kept by humans in the power of God . . . The covenant of grace does not deaden human beings or treat them as inanimate objects . . . It does not kill their will but frees them from sin.12
By the covenant’s bilateral character, Bavinck has in mind what orthodox Reformed theologians have taught as the mutuality of the covenant. The covenant is a bond of mutual love and fellowship between God in Christ and God’s covenant friends. It is like the marriage of the Christian man and the Christian woman.
By the covenant’s bilateral character, Bavinck has in mind what the Reformed baptism form teaches when it declares that the covenant of grace, unilaterally established, maintained, and perfected by the triune God, contains “two parts.” Members of the covenant have a part in the covenant. Our part is “new obedience, namely, that we cleave to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”13
By the covenant’s bilateral character, Bavinck has in mind exactly what the Protestant Reformed Churches declare about the covenant of grace in their Declaration of Principles (concerning the covenant):
The sure promise of God which He realizes in us as rational and moral creatures not only makes it impossible that we should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness but also confronts us with the obligation of love, to walk in a new and holy life, and constantly to watch unto prayer.14
That the covenant friends of God undertake their side of the bilateral covenant, that they actively enter into the mutuality of the covenant (as a loved and loving wife in a good marriage), that they do their part, that they carry out their obligation in the covenant to love their covenant God—this is due to the sovereign grace of the covenant working in them.
Bavinck thinks so. “Into that entire work of [covenant] salvation, from beginning to end, nothing is introduced that derives from humans. It is God’s work totally and exclusively.”15 “The covenant of grace . . . re-creates the whole person and, having renewed it by grace, prompts it, freely and independently, with soul, mind, and body, to love God and to dedicate itself to him.”16
Covenant and election are different in important respects. They are not different in respect of sovereign grace. Covenant grace is as sovereign as is the grace of election. They are the one, saving grace of the triune God in Jesus Christ. And the grace of God in Jesus Christ is sovereign.
Neither are covenant and election different, in the judgment of Herman Bavinck, with regard to their extent. That is, for Bavinck the grace of election and the grace of the covenant are coterminous. The grace of the covenant is not wider than election. The covenant grace of God is for the elect and for the elect only. Bavinck expresses this fundamental harmony of election and covenant in these words: “The two [election and covenant] are not so different that election is particular while the covenant of grace is universal.”17
2. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), 229.
3. Ibid., 232.
4. Ibid., 229.
7. Ibid., 224.
9. Ibid., 230.
10. Ibid., 228–29.
11. Ibid., 230; emphasis added.
13. Form for the Administration of Baptism, in Confessions and Church
14. Declaration of Principles, in ibid., 426. See also the appendix in Covenant
15. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:229.
16. Ibid., 230.
17. Ibid., 229.
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