Covenant and Election: A Brief Introduction to Various Views
In Scripture, there are a wealth of passages that use both the terminology and the concepts of covenant and of election. Particularly within Reformed circles, it has often been a controversial matter between theologians just how these two biblical realities function in relation to one another. This web page is intended, not as a thorough treatment, but as a very brief summary and assessment of the varying views on the subject.
Essentially, there are four major views: 1) denial of unconditional election; 2) "equation" of covenant and unconditional election; 3) the covenant as distinct from election; 4) the covenant as a conditional promise of an unconditional election.
1. Denial of Unconditional Election
The Arminian, Wesleyan, and predominant modern evangelical position is simply that there is no such thing as unconditional election. On this view, God does not choose us so much as we choose Him. The result is that the relationship between covenant and election is not a problem. Those who are presently faithful are the elect and only they are in covenant, and only as long as they are faithful.
The Reformed have always repudiated this denial of unconditional election. God chose Jacob over Esau, not on the basis of Jacob's foreseen good works, or even his foreseen faith, as Paul makes clear in Romans 9:10-13. "You have not chosen Me; rather, I have chosen you," Jesus said (John 15:16). Jesus is not absolutely denying that the disciples did choose to follow Him, but He is pointing out the ultimate cause of their choice. It is only because Jesus first chose them that they were granted the ability to choose Him. Fallen man is not able to love or know God (see e.g. 1 Corinthians 2:14), and thus on his own he suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). It then follows that election (divine choice) is ultimately not dependent upon anything in man, but only in the good pleasure of God, who works all things according to His own will (Ephesians 1:11).
2. "Equation" of covenant and unconditional election
This is the view of the Protestant Reformed, Reformed Baptists, and hyper-Calvinists. We are using the term "equation" somewhat loosely here. This view essentially holds that covenant is the direct historical embodiment of eternal election. The equation has to do with the identity of those who are elect and who are in covenant. On this view, only those who are eternally elect are "really" in covenant. God makes no promises to those who are not elect.
This view is ultimately unsatisfactory in terms of the total biblical evidence. The covenant is the biblical relationship which comprises the visible people of God. It does not refer to an unknowable, invisible group (the eternally elect). Otherwise, the covenant would be of little benefit to anyone, and the sacraments would no longer be truly covenant rites. The covenant involves God's tangible, evident administration of grace. It includes believers and their children, which is why Abraham was called upon to circumcise his whole household in Genesis 17.
Moreover, Hebrews 10:29 makes clear that it is possible to be sanctified within the covenant and yet fall away from that privilege. Further, Paul says that all those who have been baptized have put on Christ, and thereby have access to the covenant promises (Galatians 3:26-29). Such passages show that covenant membership is not limited to the objects of unconditional election.
3. The Covenant as Distinct from Election
In view of the problems with identifying covenant and election (# 2 above), many Reformed have stressed that the two are not the same, either in character or scope. The level of disconnection between the two varies widely among different writers and theologians.
We would say that the covenant is our access to election. The covenant (and its membership) is revealed, and is therefore an object for our knowledge, while the invisible things (e.g. "who are the unconditionally elect?") are secret things which belong to God alone (see Deuteronomy 29:29). Some major proponents of this view in recent years would include Norman Shepherd and Klaas Schilder.
A radical form of the view is occasionally found, however, in which it is suggested that covenant and election are virtually unrelated, or only distantly so. Covenant has little to do with salvation, on this view. If baptism is a promise of salvation at all, it is usually seen as aiming at some period in the future, when the child comes of age and exercises self-conscious, evident faith. Members of the covenant still need a conversion experience in order to be saved, and sometimes this conversion experience is expected to be almost dateable ("I was converted on Dec. 6, 1981"). To the contrary, however, Scripture often speaks of those who were clearly saved from infancy (e.g. Psalm 22:5), and therefore could hardly fit into such a system. Moreover, the new covenant expectation is that all covenant members, young and old, great and small, really will know the Lord (see Jeremiah 31:31-34).
We agree with the less radical form of distinction between covenant and election, in general agreement on that point with Shepherd and Schilder. Such men continue to stress that election is unconditional, but that the covenant is not.
This means that from eternity God chose those who will be eternally His, and that choice was not in any way based upon something He foresaw in them. The covenant, however, requires faith and faithfulness. That is the route in which we may see election realized in our lives (see e.g. 2 Peter 1:10-11 in the light of the preceding verses). Election does not negate the requirements of faith and obedience, but rather undergirds them. It is precisely because God chooses us that He sends us His Spirit whereby we are enabled to believe and obey (see e.g. Ephesians 2:8-10).
4. The Covenant as a Conditional Promise of an Unconditional Election
This is the view which has recently drawn a great deal of fire in certain Reformed circles. The first thing to observe is that this position, in actual content, is not really different from the view we have commended in # 3 above. We think that the controversy has a great deal more to do with terminology (wording) than with substance: many are unwilling to use the language of election in connection with the conditionality of the covenant - even though many of such people are more than happy to speak of virtually all the fruits of election (such as adoption, forgiveness of sins, etc.) in the same context.
As we have noted, the covenant is our only historical access to the knowledge of the identity of the elect, including whether we ourselves are elect. While it is difficult for us to see how unconditional election can be compatible with identifying covenant members as elect, when some of them could conceivably fall away from the faith, we need to see that this is precisely the language of Scripture. The epistles were not written to theoretical constructs or invisible groups, but to real, visible people who belonged to the visible Church. The visible Church, as we have already noted, is the covenant community. And both Peter and Paul are unafraid to address this community as elect:
"[God] chose us in Him [i.e. in Christ] before the foundation of the world" (Ephesians 1:4).
"Peter, the apostle of Jesus Christ, to the elect pilgrims of the dispersion...." (1 Peter 1:1).
"Paul, a chosen apostle. . . to the Church of God which is in Corinth, sanctified in Christ Jesus, chosen saints" (1 Corinthians 1:1-2).
Moreover, this New Testament language stands squarely upon the Old Testament conceptual framework regarding covenant and election. Deuteronomy 7 is addressed to Israel, the covenant people, and it is shot through with the language of unconditional election. The Lord chose Israel, not because they were a great nation (Deut. 7:7), or because they were righteous (cf. Deut. 9:4-6) - neither was true of them. Rather, the Lord chose them because He loved them (7:8). The election was unconditional because it was found in Himself. And yet this "election speech" is directed to the covenant people as a whole. There is no getting around the fact that when God tells Israel, "I chose you," He is saying, "You are elect."
And yet, the covenant people were not automatically "in" without reference to faith and obedience, as is clear in Deuteronomy 7 itself (see verses 9-11). If they abandoned the Lord, they would be cast out (as is witnessed by the story of judgment in the wilderness; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-13). Therefore, the covenant was an expression of election, and yet in such a way that the covenant remained conditional while election remained unconditional.
Neither can it be objected that Deuteronomy 7 is dealing with corporate election, while the New Testament always uses election language to refer to individual election. The passages from the epistles were directed to the people of God. The New Testament does not abstract individual election from corporate election.
All of this is to say that our only knowledge of individual election is by way of corporate election. The Church is in Christ, who is the ultimate Elect One (e.g. Isaiah 42:1; 1 Peter 2:6). Consequently, those who are in the Church are elect. But if they repudiate Christ, they repudiate their election.
It should be noted that this reading of Scripture is not a novelty. It stands squarely within the Reformed tradition, which is evident when we consider the Form for the Baptism of Infants:
For when we are baptized into the Name of the Father, God the Father witnesses and seals unto us that He makes an eternal covenant of grace with us and adopts us for His children and heirs.... Likewise, when we are baptized into the Name of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit assures us by this holy sacrament that He will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ, imparting to us that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins and the daily renewing of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without spot among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.
And again, in the Heidelberg Catechism, we are taught to confess that the Church is "chosen to everlasting life," and this confession of the Church is linked to a confession concerning ourselves: "and that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member thereof" (Lord's Day 21, Q/A 54). The Catechism therefore teaches us to confess that we are elect.
While we grant that the placement of unconditional election within the sphere of a conditional covenant is not easy for us to wrap our minds around, we also maintain that this is precisely the way of Scripture. As people who live in the world, our knowledge of God's ways is mediated to us. We do not live on a direct revelation from God, which comes to us and says, "Tom Smith, you are eternally elect." We live by every Word of Scripture, which comes from the mouth of God, and our living is in the context of the covenant community which God has chosen to eternal life in Christ. That is why promises of salvation and election are always, necessarily, tied to the covenant. That is our only access to those promises. If we refuse to tie together covenant and election, we will lose the benefit of the doctrine of election. It will simply become an abstract piece of theology rather than serve the purpose for which it was revealed: God's glory and our comfort.
It is tragic that many people think it is their duty to be hyper-critical toward those who have chosen to use the language of Scripture, rather than merely the formulations of systematic theology, especially when there is virtually no material difference. Scripture ties election to covenant, Scripture ties covenant to salvation, and Scripture teaches us to think and speak within that framework - a framework that includes glorious promises and solemn warnings. We are once again reminded that we need to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, and not merely those that seem to fit the shape of our theological constructions.
For more on this subject, listen to this presentation: "Baptism and Election," by John Barach.