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Our Rejection of Conditions (2): A Survey of Creeds and Literature

Our Rejection of Conditions (2): A Survey of Creeds and Literature

by Martyn McGeown. Previous article in the series: Our Rejection of Conditions (1): What Conditional Theology Is.


Instinctively, we all think that we know what a condition is, but a precise definition is elusive. The word “condition” is from the Latin condicere which means to “say with” or “to agree upon.” At its most basic a condition reflects a relationship of necessity between two or more things. In English we often express such a relationship of necessity with words such as “only if,” “provided that,” “except that,” “without,” “only after,” “always before,” and the like. We might call such expressions “conditional” as far as the grammar is concerned (or “conditions in the formal sense”), even if the word “condition” is not used. As we shall see in a later blog post, God willing, such language is frequently used in Holy Scripture, so that we cannot simply ignore it or try to explain it away.

A search of the Three Forms of Unity for the word “condition” yields the following results: the Heidelberg Catechism does not contain the word “condition;” the Belgic Confession uses the word twice, but only with the meaning of a circumstance or a state of being (see Articles 28 and 36; someone might be in a good or bad condition); and the Canons use the word “condition” only to reject the ideas behind it, ideas proposed by the Arminians. Let us, then, briefly survey the Canons.

Canons 1:9 rejects “[any] good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition on which [eternal election] depended.” Canons I:10 rejects the idea that God has chosen anything in man “as a condition of salvation.” Canons I:R2, 3, 4, 5, and 7 reject “conditional election” (I:R:2); they reject “faith…as well as its incomplete obedience, as a condition of salvation” (I:R:3); they reject the teaching that “in the election unto faith this condition is beforehand demanded, namely, that man should [...]” (I:R:4); they reject the teaching that “faith, the obedience of faith, holiness, godliness, and perseverance are not fruits of the unchangeable election unto glory, but are conditions required beforehand” (I:R:5); and they reject the teaching that the certainty of election “depends upon a changeable and uncertain condition” (I:R:7).

Furthermore, Canons II:R:3 rejects the teaching that “[God prescribes] new conditions as he might desire, obedience to which, however, depended on the freewill of man, so that it might have come to pass that either none or all should fulfill these conditions.” Finally, Canons V:R:1 rejects the teaching that “perseverance is… a condition of the new covenant, which … man before his decisive election and justification must fulfill through his freewill;” instead, the same article teaches that perseverance is “a fruit of election” and “a gift of God gained by the death of Christ.”

From the Canons we learn a few things about the kind of conditions that Reformed theologians reject. First, the Reformed reject that in salvation anything could be a prerequisite, that is, something in man, something that man has, or something that man is, or something that man does—not something that God gives—that is required beforehand. Second, the Canons contrast conditions with “fountain” (see Canons I:9), “fruit” (Canons I:R:5 and Canons V:R:1), and “gift” (Canons V:R:1). So, important aspects of a condition include something that man must produce, in contrast to what God gives, something which is required before God will give to man the gift of salvation, so that it is something of man on which his salvation depends.

So far our review of the Three Forms of Unity.

It is striking that, although the Protestant Reformed Churches in their history have always rejected the theology of conditions, a precise definition of “condition” in Protestant Reformed literature is difficult to find. One could search through the many volumes of the Standard Bearer, but that would be very time-consuming. Later, I will quote from some SB articles from the 1950’s when the debate about conditions raged in the Protestant Reformed Churches. One could also look in some of the books published by the Reformed Free Publishing Association (RFPA) where conditional theology is discussed and refuted.

One such place is Voice of Our Fathers by Homer C. Hoeksema, where in his comments on Canons I:9 he writes, “A condition is a prerequisite (something required beforehand) which one must fulfill or comply with in order to receive something or to have something done unto him” (Voice of Our Fathers [Grand Rapids, MI: RFPA, 1980], 179).

David. J. Engelsma, one of the most prolific authors of the RFPA, has written often about the theology of the conditional covenant. In one work he writes about Herman Bavinck: “Bavinck denies, absolutely, that the covenant is conditional in the proper sense of the term ‘condition.’” Engelsma then identifies the meaning of the term which he rejects, namely, “a decision or work of a member of the covenant upon which the covenant and its salvation depend” or the idea that “the member of the covenant must make a decision or perform a work that is decisive for the maintenance of the covenant” so that “by performing a demand a member of the covenant makes himself to differ from others who, like himself, are objects of the covenant grace of God” (Covenant and Election in the Reformed Tradition [Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2011], 170, my italics).

Here, too, the important aspects of a condition are, first, it is something that has its source in man, although sometimes it is performed with the help of God’s grace; second, that it is something on which the reception of salvation depends; and, third, it makes man’s activity decisive because God’s grace is supposedly wider than election, so that one person can make himself differ from another. Implied in such conditional theology is resistible grace.

Elsewhere Engelsma writes that a condition is “a deed of the child [i.e., a child born in the church] upon which the covenant depends” and contrasts this with the Reformed teaching about the role of faith in justification: ”Faith is the means, or instrument, by which God gives and the elect believer receives righteousness and all salvation. Faith is not a human work that makes one worthy of salvation, or upon which one’s righteousness and salvation depend” (Federal Vision: Heresy at the Root [Jenision, MI: RFPA, 2012], 101, my italics).

Later he writes, “To teach that faith is the condition of a gracious covenant established with many more than the elect is to teach that faith is a work of the children upon which the covenant depends and by which some distinguish themselves from others” (ibid, 112, Engelsma’s italics) and “Faith is a demand upon the child, and upon the child’s compliance with this demand everything depends. Faith is a condition in this sense” (ibid, 113, Engelsma’s italics).

Writing about Norman Shepherd, one of the fathers of the heresy of the federal vision, Engelsma adds, “For Shepherd, faith is not part of grace, as it is in Romans 4:16, Ephesians 2:8, and the third and fourth heads of the Canons. Nor is it part of the promise, as is the teaching of Westminster Larger Catechism, question and answer 32. But it is an entirely separate element of the covenant. Faith is not God’s grace, neither is it included in God’s gracious promise. Rather, it is man’s obligation, man’s work, man’s effort, man’s willing and running. And upon this second element, which is not part of grace, does the grace of God depend from beginning to end” (ibid, 113, my italics).

Contrasting the use of the word “condition” by orthodox theologians of the past with that of modern federal vision proponents, Engelsma writes, “The federal vision does not mean by condition the necessary means by which God certainly realizes his covenant with the elect. The federal vision does not refer to faith as the necessary means of covenant salvation that God promises to the elect in Christ, and to them alone, and that he works in them by his sovereign Holy Spirit. Not at all! The federal vision and the conditional covenant doctrine that the federal vision is developing mean by condition a work of the child upon which the covenant and its salvation depend and a work of some children by which they distinguish themselves from others, who are as much the objects of the gracious promise and as much the recipients of covenant grace as themselves (ibid, 113-114, my italics).

In fact, orthodox theologians have used the word “condition” to denote a necessary means. The Presbyterian Westminster Larger Catechism is a case in point: “How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant? A. The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a mediator, and life and salvation by him; and, requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him, promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith, and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation” (Q&A 32). When the Westminster Larger Catechism calls faith a “condition,” it simply refers to the necessary means of salvation; and, in fact, the same answer reminds us that God promises to his elect the Holy Spirit who works that faith in their hearts so that they believe.

Herman C. Hanko, another prolific author, explains the development of the word “condition” in Reformed writings: “If one studies the history of the covenant both in English and in continental thought, one will discover that the idea of a conditional covenant was often, though not always, maintained. However, those who were Reformed in their approach to this doctrine, i.e., those who proceeded from the truths of the five points of Calvinism, especially the truth of sovereign and double predestination, when speaking of a conditional covenant, used the word ‘condition’ in an altogether different sense from which it is commonly used in our day. They meant by ‘condition’ ‘way’ or ‘means’ by which God realizes His covenant sovereignly. They wished to emphasize by the use of this term the fact that faith is the God-given and God-ordained way or means by which the covenant is realized and maintained. God establishes and maintains His own covenant and does so by imparting faith to His people according to the decree of predestination so that faith becomes the means of the realization of that covenant. Used in this way, we can hardly have any objection to the term” (God’s Everlasting Covenant of Grace [Grand Rapids, MI: RFPA, 1988], 192, my italics). Hanko then warns the reader against using the term today: “The problem is, however, that this term has taken on quite a different meaning in today’s discussion of the covenant” (ibid, 192).

Elsewhere, Hanko writes, “The PRC are aware of the fact that the use of the word ‘condition’ has not always been Arminian. As was shown at the time of the controversy in the early 1950s, many ministers, including the leaders of the denomination, had used the word repeatedly. The word was often used in the past as a way of making God’s work of salvation a particular and not a general work. The condition defined the objects of salvation. ‘If one believes, he will be saved.’ That is, only believers will be saved. No one else can or ever will inherit salvation. And, in connection with the use of the term as a limiting clause, a condition also expressed the way in which God saved. When God says in His Word, If you believe, you will be saved, God not only limits salvation to believers, but He also defines faith as the way in which salvation is given. For salvation is by grace, and through faith. That use of the term was frequent and legitimate. But gradually the word itself was abandoned. This was done for two reasons. One reason was that the term ‘condition’ is not once found in all the Reformed confessions—except as a term used by the Arminians. The other reason was that the term had taken on so many Arminian connotations that its very use conjured up in the mind of the listener Arminian thoughts” (For Thy Truth’s Sake: A Doctrinal History of the Protestant Reformed Churches [Grandville, MI: RFPA, 2000], 358).

Another important book in this connection is Ready to Give An Answer: A Catechism of Reformed Distinctives by Herman Hoeksema and Herman Hanko of which Section III, 4, is titled “The Question of Conditions.” This book was written to explain both the controversy in 1924 over common grace and the controversy in 1953 over the conditional covenant. A dictionary definition is cited: “1. [A condition is] something established or agreed upon as a requisite to the doing or taking effect of something else; a stipulation or provision; hence, an agreement determining one or more such prerequisite. 2. That which exists as an occasion of something else; a prerequisite” (Ready to Give An Answer: A Catechism of Reformed Distinctives [Grandville, MI: RFPA, 1997], 189).

The book then explains conditions when applied to salvation, “When faith is made a condition, the meaning is that salvation will not be granted to anyone unless he fulfills the condition of faith. Man must first believe for salvation to be given to him” (ibid, 189). But, asks this Catechism, can condition not simply refer to “necessary means”? The answer is astute: “Yes, but when the term ‘condition’ is applied to the work of salvation in connection with a general promise, it can no longer refer to ‘means’” (ibid, 190, my italics). The issue is, as always, the general promise: we reject a general promise, but we do not reject the necessary means of faith or the necessity of the sinner’s believing!

Later, the role of faith is clearly defined: “Faith is the means which God uses to save his people” (ibid, 192). “Faith is the God-given gift which unites us to Christ and by which the life of Christ comes to us, so that all the blessings of salvation are given us by Christ” (ibid, 193). In answer to the question, “Why then cannot faith be a condition to salvation?” we read, “Faith is one of the blessings of salvation, included in salvation, and part of salvation” (ibid, 193).

In another question, “Why then does Scripture speak of faith as the way to salvation?” we receive this insightful answer: “Scripture does this because it is God’s purpose to give us the blessings of salvation in such a way that we consciously experience them. God works faith in our hearts by which we come to Christ, embrace him as our only Savior, and find in him all our salvation. In this way we are given the conscious experience of salvation” (ibid, 193).

In reference to the Philippian jailor of Acts 16:30-31 we read, “When that command of the gospel comes through the preaching, God so works by his Spirit in the hearts of his people that they believe in Christ, receive him as their Savior, and receive, by faith, the blessings of salvation” (ibid, 193, my italics). As to responsibility this Catechism affirms, “Elect believers are responsible before God for believing and walking in love and obedience. But they are enabled to do this by God’s grace” (ibid, 194).

We notice again the elements of conditional theology that the Protestant Reformed Churches and her sisters reject. First, grace is wider than election or the promise is general and for more than the elect; second, man is able to—and, therefore, must—do something (believe, obey, persevere, etc.) on which the covenant depends; and, third, the “something” (believing, repenting, obeying, persevering, etc.) that a man does is not given to him by grace or included in God’s promise, but is his contribution to salvation. Faith is not—and cannot be—a condition because it is the God-given and God-worked means by which God makes us partakers of salvation, and it is part of salvation itself. And in that sense—necessary means—the older Reformed writers used the term “condition.” Because of its ambiguity, many modern Reformed writers avoid the term, and because of its erroneous nature, we reject both the term and the theology behind it.

The Heidelberg Catechism teaches, not that God promises to save any and all of the children of believers if they believe (which is the teaching of conditional theology), but “redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them” (A74, my italics), so that they believe, and through faith they are saved. If God promises to give the Holy Spirit to work faith in his people, their believing (which is the fruit of God’s promise and the work of the Holy Spirit in them) is not a condition. Instead, faith is God’s gift to his elect people, and the necessary means or instrument by which they appropriate to themselves, and thus enjoy, the salvation purchased for them by Christ and decreed for them in election.

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