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Our Rejection of Conditions (1): What Conditional Theology Is

Our Rejection of Conditions (1): What Conditional Theology Is

By Martyn McGeown.


One of the hallmarks of the theology of the Protestant Reformed churches and her sisters is our rejection of conditions, whether in election, or in salvation. Or to express it differently, our churches teach that the whole of salvation—from eternal election to everlasting glorification—is the work of God’s grace. The sinner who is the object of salvation (the one who is saved) is not the doer of salvation, that is, he does not save himself, he does not contribute to his salvation, and no part of God’s salvation depends on any activity that he performs, either by or without the grace of God. Of course, once God begins to save a sinner, he makes that sinner active and conscious, but the sinner’s activity, even his conscious activity (believing, repenting, etc.) is always only the fruit of God’s activity, or God’s saving work by the Spirit of Christ in him.

In God’s accomplishment of the salvation of his elect God has ordained a certain, logical order in which he, by the Holy Spirit working in rational moral creatures, applies the benefits of salvation secured on the cross. In the past, Reformed theologians spoke of “conditions,” by which they meant necessary means and temporal sequences. These necessary means or temporal sequences (sometimes called “conditions”) are necessary not because God depends on man for the fulfillment of salvation, so that man’s salvation is contingent on them, but because God ordained salvation to be so. God’s eternal counsel makes them necessary, so that, for example, God has determined that faith precedes justification, that repentance precedes the forgiveness of sins, and that prayer precedes his giving—and our receiving—of certain blessings. This is how the eternal God deals with time-bound sinners: we live in time; therefore, we experience our salvation in time and in temporal sequences.

Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck writes “In the beginning, Reformed theologians spoke freely of ‘the conditions’ of the covenant. But after the nature of the covenant of grace had been more carefully considered and had to be defended against Catholics, Lutherans, and Remonstrants, many of them took exception to the term and avoided it” (Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt; trans. John Vriend [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006] 3:229).

Contrary to the Reformed teaching of unconditional election, the Arminians teach conditional election, that is, that God chooses his people based upon their foreseen faith and perseverance. Canons I:9 opposes this idea: “This election was not founded upon foreseen faith, and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition on which it depended.”

Contrary to the Reformed teaching of unconditional regeneration, that is, that God grants the new birth to elect sinners without their cooperation, contribution, or consent, the Arminians teach conditional regeneration. The Reformed faith teaches, “All in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated” (Canons 3-4.12). Contrary to this, the Arminians claimed, “[God’s] grace [of regeneration], in order of working, does not precede the working of the [sinner’s] will; that is, God does not efficiently help the will of man unto conversion until the will of man moves and determines to do this” (Canons 3-4.R.9). In other words, God will grant the new birth if man first believes and accepts Jesus Christ, which, of course, denies that unregenerate man is dead in sin, and which posits that man has a freewill before regeneration, and presupposes resistible grace, which false teachings the Reformed reject.

Contrary to the Reformed teaching of unconditional preservation, the Arminians teach conditional preservation, that is, that God will supply his grace and Holy Spirit to sinners to persevere if they desire it, seek it, use it, and cooperate with it. “Though all things which are necessary to persevere in faith and which God will use to preserve faith are made use of, it even then ever depends on the pleasure of the will whether it will persevere or not” (Canons V:R:2). Contrary to this, the Reformed teach that God works in his people in such a manner that they do persevere, and that they must, notwithstanding many stumbles and falls along the way, enter the everlasting glory prepared for them. “God is faithful, who, having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end” (Canons V:3). That God uses means (even necessary means) to accomplish this, does not make God’s preservation of his elect conditional.

The Protestant Reformed Churches and her sisters also confess the unconditionality of the covenant. The covenant of grace, which is God’s relationship of friendship and communion with his people in Jesus Christ, so that he is their God and they are his people, is unconditional. Quite simply, this means that God—and not man—determines everything about the covenant. It is God’s covenant, which he establishes, which he confirms, and which he maintains. This also means that God’s covenant is governed by election, that is, God has chosen the members of his covenant. The covenant is not made with anyone except the elect so that only the elect are in the covenant. The reprobate, who are and remain unbelieving and impenitent, are not, and never shall be, in God’s covenant. This is true also of the reprobate who for a time are part of the Christian community and church. Cain, although a child of Adam and Eve and a brother of Abel (who were elect children of God), was not in the covenant, but he was of that wicked one (1 John 3:12). Nor were many others, such as Esau, Absalom, Adonijah, and Judas Iscariot. “They are not all Israel [that is, truly in God’s covenant], which are of Israel [in the covenant community or in the sphere of the covenant]” (Rom. 9:6).

The Protestant Reformed Churches suffered a painful schism in the 1950s over the unconditionality of the covenant. Some taught, contrary to what had been the teaching of the churches until that point, that God promises salvation to all the members of the visible church—especially to all the baptized members, to all the children of believers—on condition of their faith. The infamous statement, “God promises to everyone of you that, if you believe, you shall be saved,” was condemned not because it taught that faith (believing) is necessary, but because it taught a general, conditional promise (“to everyone of you”), the fulfillment of which depends on the activity of believing (“if you believe”). “If you believe, you shall be saved” is true (see Rom. 10:9); “God promises to everyone of you that, if you believe, you will be saved” is false.

Around that time “The Declaration of Principles,” which summarizes the teachings of the creeds on the covenant, was adopted by the Protestant Reformed Churches. The aforementioned document states, “God’s promise is unconditionally for [the elect] only: for God cannot promise what was not objectively merited by Christ” (II.B.2). “Faith is not a prerequisite or condition unto salvation, but a gift of God, and a God-given instrument whereby we appropriate the salvation in Christ” (II.C.). “We repudiate the teaching that the promise of the covenant is conditional and for all that are baptized” (III.A.1.a). “We maintain that God surely and infallibly fulfills his promise to the elect” (III.B.1). The same document teaches, “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” (III.A.B.2). (See The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches [Grandville, MI: the PRCA, 2005], 410-431).

Conditional theology, as it is rejected by the Protestant Reformed Churches, has these elements, any one of which is a mark of conditional theology. First, salvation and the promises of salvation are severed from election, so that God promises salvation to more than the elect. In practice, this means that God promises to save all the baptized children of believers if they believe and obey. Second, salvation and the promise of salvation cannot be realized unless man does something, that is, performs some activity (faith, repentance, good works, obedience, etc) which is a condition on which salvation depends. Third, and necessarily so, God’s promise with respect to many in the covenant community fails. God promises certain blessings to certain people who, because they do not fulfill the conditions, whatever those conditions might be, do not receive the promised blessings. That is exactly the point in Romans 9:6: “Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel.”

The Declaration of Principles states about “the sure promise of God which he realizes in us” that, because we are “rational and moral creatures,” he causes us “to bring forth fruits of thankfulness” (which it would be impossible for us not to bring forth) and he “confronts us with the obligation of love, to walk in a new and holy life, and constantly to watch unto prayer” (III.B.2). Those fruits of thankfulness are not conditions, but are part of the promised salvation that God works in us. If we were not rational, moral creatures, then God would realize his promise of salvation without our activity; yet, our activity which God works in us—he works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13)—is never a condition that we fulfill on which God’s salvation of us depends. Our activity of believing, repenting, obeying, and persevering is always and only the fruit of God’s gracious work in us.

Having explained the error of conditional theology, we need to be clear as to what a condition is and to what it is not. To that subject we turn next time, God willing.

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