2007June25, Monday

The PCA BCO and “Covenant Obligations”

Posted in The Church, Theology at 10:31 by Trey Austin

Pastor Grover Gunn of the Covenant Presbytery (PCA) has been participating in the discussions over at the Baylys’ blog that i linked before. In response to my charge of Hyper-Calvinism, he was (thankfully) quick to affirm the *SINCERE* and *WELL-MEANT* offer of the Gospel. Yet, he went further than that (and further than i ever expected, quite frankly) and affirmed that the Covenant of Grace has *CONDITIONS,* and that only those who meet those conditions will receive what the Covenant promises and offers. And what’s more, he and i absolutely agree (and i imagine all of the FVists would as well) that the elect are the only ones who will, by God’s grace, be enabled to meet those conditions. He affirmed that the obligations of the Covenant of Grace are: faith, repentance, and obedienc—even pointing out how the PCA BCO affirms such a view (56-4.j).

I actually gave him a little ribbing about affirming that repentance and obedience are conditions of the Covenant of Grace upon receiving the full, eternal benefits of the Covenant of Grace. I said:

I must say, though, that i’m very glad to hear you speak of Covenant “conditions.” To be fair, though, i must, question your orthodoxy, since you made “repentance and obedience” [another name for the works of believers] a condition to receiving eternal life through the Covenant of *GRACE*. Everyone knows that this isn’t the Covenant of *WORKS*; why make works even *PART* of the condition to receiving the promised inheritance (other than that Scripture says it, i mean)? Perhaps you just work the one into the other (monocovenantalism) and conflate justification and sanctification? No, i won’t do that to you. You’re obviously not saying anything unorthodox, but then, neither are the FVists, in my opinion–and in this, you seem to be in perfect agreement with them. You’ve at least done what many who oppose the FV refuse to do: admit that what God promises in the CoG are contingent upon his fulfillment of the conditions God set down in this Covenant. But since God gives grace to fulfill those conditions, we’re hardly talking about “works salvation.” But then again, maybe you’re trying to go down the road to Rome and bring meriting our own salvation in: start by grace (regeneration) and finish by obligation of works (faith, repentance, and obedience). Surely you’re not saying that the righteousness of Christ imputed to believers isn’t enough to earn eternal life? (Please understand that i’m being purposely ironic in this, since you haven’t said anything fundamentally different than most FVists i have read or heard!)

I didn’t do such a thing out of any animosity at all, but only i a jocular point that he’s saying the very same things that have been taken by many to mean something very unorthodox, but which are not in reality what they are assumed to be by those folks. It seems that he might become subject to the very same accusations that have been made against others with similar views about how the Covenant of Grace has obligations that have to be met.  

In response to what Pastor Gunn said about the BCO’s affirmation of those Covenant obligations and conditions, here is what i posted. Feel free to critique my expression and content as you’d like. My desire is to grown and be sharpened as i seek to sharpen others.

Pastor Gunn wrote: “Regarding your inquiry about my referring to the ‘obligations of the covenant,’ this language is found in the PCA BCO…”

Yes, my dear brother, i know. That’s why, for me, it is all the more enigmatic that FV advocates are being lambasted as though they are redefining something fundamentally about our Covenantal religion, when they, as it seem to me, are simply restating the very things that we have always affirmed as Covenantal Calvinists. The Covenant of Grace isn’t an unconditional Covenant (contrary to what many of the Hyper-Calvinists like PRCers and Clarkians want to claim), and we have, in our BCO, codified that view as binding upon all men in our church courts. In other words, we say very clearly that we believe that the Covenant of Grace has conditions, and if we do not meet those conditions, we will not receive what the Covenant promises.

Now, it seems to me that there are several implications from this. First, the truth of Covenant apostacy is upheld, and not refuted. There are people who are really Covenant members (not just “fake” Covenant members who are later found out to be no Covenant members at all to begin with), who will never meet those Covenant obligations and will never receive what they have been promised in the Covenant. Now, we know, by way of explanation, that the reason why anyone, especially a Covenant member, never does do what God requires is because he wasn’t enabled by God’s grace to do so, but that issue is the eternal and decretal explanation of what happens through man’s moral agency and in time.

Second, it affirms that good works (not perfect obedience) are a condition of receiving eternal life (that which is ultimately promised to all members of the Covenant of Grace). Repentance, unless completely intellectualized, always involves man’s works; and, too, obedience is itself another name for good works. Both of them are enabled by grace in the life of the believing sinner, and so both of them will be incomplete and riddled with many imperfections; and yet, they are both required in order for a person to inherit eternal life through the Lord Jesus Christ. Does this undercut justification by faith alone? Absolutely not! since salvation (i.e., the actual present possession of eternal life) is much larger than justification; justification is one facet of the whole of salvation, which will only be fully realized on the day of resurrection. Justification is by faith alone, and works are no ground or instrument of it; but works are still integral to receiving eternal life, because they are part of the ongoing sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit that will make the believing man or woman progressively more holy, until the last day, when that work is complete, and that formerly sinful and corrupt believing man or woman will then be spotless and holy in fact and not just in the mind of God (which is what the act of justification does). (BTW, as i have stated before, the final verdict of justification on the day of judgment will be an open acknowledgement of that “fact,” and not some other change of status that someone might wrongly assume by the use of the term in the sense of God’s reckonning a person righteous.)

Third, it affirms that the center of the Covenant of Grace is not the question, “How do i get saved?” (as though we’re dealing with a fire insurance policy) but of the question (as my very good friend Pastor Schlissel once said), “What does the Lord require?” (Micah 6:8). Those who, by God’s grace, *ARE* faithful to do what the Lord requires in his Covenant will indeed be ultimately saved, but that isn’t what the Covenant is centrally “about.” The Covenant is about a life lived in fellowship and communion with our Covenant God, who is, as we speak, transforming the world and subduing all of his enemies. He is making a new heaven and earth, and when we enter his Kingdom (which is just the present colony of that new heaven and earth in the old, waning order) and live in loving subjection to the King of all the earth, we will be part of that new heaven and earth; yet, if we enter that Kingdom and commit treason against that Kingdom, we will be cast out of that Kingdom (“into outer darkness”) and have no part in the new heaven and earth. The life that we live is the center of that Covenant Kingdom, and not simply the question of “How can i be saved?”

I say again what i have said before here: I don’t see what all the fuss is about? I don’t consider myself a Federal Visionist, but i do believe that i have alot in common with them–not because i’m secretly a part of their rebellious attempt to take over, but simply because they teach what Reformed Calvinists have always taught (except the Reformed and Presbyterian dalliances with conversionism and revivalism, which have become part of the individualistic Christian ethos in America and around the world).



  1. bentok said,

    A beautiful use of irony to show how his “orthodoxy” looks just like the Federal Visionists’ “heterodoxy.” I also admire the way that you point out that you are not a zealous Federal Visionist, but rather loyal to the historic reformed faith. Especially since this debate seems to be primarily one of status – with the label “Federal Vision” being the object of wrath perhaps more than the actual teachings. It’s wise to avoid the politics of the issue.

  2. I am becoming just as convinced as you, Trey, that this whole debate is relevant to the issue of hyper-calvinism. I was telling a friend yesterday that I hope that if nothing else comes out of this debate but the exposing of hyper-calvinism for what it is, that would be a good thing. Hyper-calvinism is able to sorta hide and pass itself off as historically reformed until theses types of debates arise.

    Blessings in Christ,
    Terry W. West

  3. Andy Dollahite said,


    FWIW, I find your comments around the blogosphere well articulated and seasoned with charity. Many blessings with the little one on the way.

  4. Grover Gunn said,

    I am a pastor in Covenant Presbytery, not Mississippi Valley Presbytery. Please don’t assume that it is impossible to throw out the bathwater without also throwing out the baby. It is possible to disagree with someone on some things without disagreeing with them on all things.

    Grover Gunn

  5. Trey Austin said,

    Pastor Gunn,

    I certainly will correct your presbytery of original jurisdiction, but with regard to the “baby” and the “bathwater,” it seems to me that the very thing in contention is what is what. There are lots of people in the PCA who believe that the very idea of the Covenant having conditions or terms or requirements of any sort (i.e., that there is something for man to *DO*) is the heart of the problem and has introduced the whole “works” principle that is the problem that undermines “sola fide.” You obviously don’t agree with that, but my point is that, for some people, that places you on the side of the FVists (as i myself have been accused many times). Where does the innovative “FV” (the “bathwater”?) stop and historical Reformed Theology (the “baby”?) begin? Well, that just depends on the person to whom you’re speaking at that moment.

  6. Grover Gunn said,

    I appreciate the spirit of your comments, Trey. The purpose of the declarations in the study report is to try to define the bathwater.

    I would be honored if you would consider my sermon on sola fide at http://grovergunn.net/andrew/gal307.pdf starting on page 8 with the mention of the other side of the coin. Also, my sermon at http://grovergunn.net/andrew/rom0201.pdf starting at page 7 where I discuss the difference between judgment according to works and salvation because of works.

    May God bless!

  7. Grover Gunn said,

    The study committee report declarations are an effort to define the “bathwater.”

    Grover Gunn

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