Interaction with URCNA Report on FV (11): Covenant, Election and Salvation (a)

As I continue my interaction with the URCNA FV report I’m going to skip ahead a few pages to get to the heart of the matter—the evaluation of FV emphases (3.D), the first of which addresses the themes of covenant, election and salvation (3.D.1)

Here the Report alleges that FV folk teach that “when God covenants with His people (believers and their children), He graciously elects them to a true and saving communion with Himself. . . . With respect to the doctrine of justification, this means that all covenant members enjoy all gospel benefits, including justification, by virtue of their membership in Christ and His Church.”

It strikes me that this statement either (a) fails to recognize important FV nuances and distinctions or (b) chooses to regard these nuances and distinctions as equivocation (of a seemingly deliberate malicious variety).

I’m willing to concede that FV writers occasionally lack clarity and thereby increase the potential for confusion. But I must admit simultaneously that I have yet to hear someone talk about election, covenant and salvation so coherently that my mind is completely put at ease. Don’t these issues necessarily transport us to a realm where our intellects are often unsatisfied? That’s the conclusion the Canons of Dort reaches in 1:18 and I’m happy to endorse it.

Part of the burden of FV writers is to stress that though not everyone in the covenant is (decretally, eternally or eschatologically) elect, everyone in the covenant must believe the promise that, in the words of the historic Reformed baptismal form, “the Holy Spirit will dwell in us and make us living members of Christ, imparting to us what we have in Christ, namely, the cleansing from our sins and the daily renewal of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without blemish among the assembly of God’s elect in life eternal.”

Moreover, FV writers want us rightly to understand the character of ‘promise’ in this baptismal form. The language of promise leads some to think of salvation as primarily future or eschatological, i.e., we ultimately saved “on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor.5:5). That’s certainly very Pauline and therefore very appropriate. But ‘promise’ here has especially the sense of a present declaration of Christ’s work which must be embraced by faith. So what corresponds to promise, in this understanding, is not fulfilment (a fulfilled promise ceases to be a promise), but faith. The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 7, for example, teaches that we must believe all that promised us in the gospel—summarized in the articles of the Christian faith (the Apostles’ Creed)—and this refers not to future redemptive acts, but to the present presentation of past redemptive acts.

With this understanding we can make sense of what the Heidelberg Catechism says when it teaches that God promises us that He “graciously grants us forgiveness of sins” (Answer 66), that we have received forgiveness of sins from God, are renewed by the Holy Spirit and sanctified to be members of Christ (Answer 70), that we are “truly cleansed from our sins” (Answer 73). This is the content of the promise which must be believed again and again.

There's a wonderful essay about all of this by Cornelis Trimp, entitled, “The Promise of the Covenant” in a festschrift for Jelle Faber entitled, Unity and Diversity. Interestingly, Trimp in this essay faults Klaas Schilder for failing to recognize this in his monograph, Looze Kalk.

The point is that we must preach the promise to the baptized congregation: “Your sins are forgiven.” If some refuse to believe the “promise,” the validity of the promise remains, though its saving power is lost.

So we can say that all covenant members enjoy all the gospel benefits insofar as all covenant members are promised justification, sanctification and inclusion among the eschatologically elect. But the promise here, however, is not a prediction awaiting fulfilment, but a declaration summoning faith.

Where can you read more about this? In John Barach’s essay, “Covenant and Election” in The Federal Vision. More to follow on this point.

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