THE CONCEPTS OF CONDITIONALITY AND APOSTASY IN RELATION TO THE COVENANT - Dennis A. Bratcher
Last Updated: February 8, 2013
The Covenantal Context of Apostasy
The preceding chapters have shown that it is orthodox Reformed teaching to affirm that the covenant relation has conditions and that one can apostatize from that relation. The covenant is established solely as an evidence of the favor or grace of God to man. But within that established relation there is a mutuality or reciprocity, a dynamic that functions in such a way that we are summoned to choose between good and evil at every turn. This chapter shall more explicitly develop how Scripture itself speaks of the covenantal context of apostasy. I shall begin with Deut 29:29 as setting forth the epistemological and ethical framework for understanding God's ways with His people. There shall then be the setting forth of the pattern seen in the various covenants of Scripture, and also how other portions of Scripture comment on those covenants. Proceeding from this discussion of the covenant pattern shall be a discussion of the nature of faith. After this the warnings and examples as set forth in Scripture shall be presented. Finally, the relation of church discipline to apostasy shall be set forth.
Deuteronomy 29-30 presents the renewal of the covenant. 29:1 speaks of the fact that this covenant is "in addition to the covenant he had made with them in Horeb" (NIV). After recounting to the Israelites the grace and power of God revealed in their liberation from Egypt God warns them:
Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do. All of you are standing today in the presence of the Lord your God . . . . You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the Lord your God, a covenant the Lord is making with you this day and, sealing with an oath, to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God but also with those who are not here today (29:9-15).
The covenant is made with all the people, even those who are not there (e.g. the unborn children). All are comprehended in the covenant. On the basis of this gracious work of the Lord they are warned of the need to resist the temptation to worship and serve other gods (29:16-18). For
When such a person hears the words of this oath, he invokes a blessing on himself and therefore thinks, "I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way." This will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry land. The Lord will never be willing to forgive him; his wrath and zeal will burn against that man. All the curses written in this book will fall upon him, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven. The Lord will single him out from all the tribes of Israel for disaster, according to all the curses of the covenant written in this Book of the Law (29:19-21).
The passage begins with the individual. Upon that person shall the curses be visited. But apostasy rapidly moves out and others join in. This leads to God's wrath on all the people and throughout the land. When it is asked "Why has the Lord done this to the land? Why this fierce, burning anger?" it shall be answered:
It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went off and worshipped other gods and bowed down to them, gods they did not know, gods he had not given them (29:25-27).
Verse 29 functions as the epistemological starting point for understanding how Israel, chosen by the Lord to be His very own, could forsake the covenant graciously given her. The verse states:
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this Law.
The people of Israel were not given an insight into God's secret purposes. They knew they were the elect, but they also knew that they could not say: "I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way." It is the things that are revealed, all the words of this law, that are the concern of the people of God They acknowledge that God has His purposes in bringing before them the blessings and cursings of the covenant. Those whom He will bring into the full realization of the covenant know that this is so. Those whom He will not shall cause the curses of the covenant to justly fall upon them. Thus there is constantly set before the people the fact of two paths: one, by way of love and obedience, will see the blessings of the covenant; the other, by way of turning away and disobedience, will see destruction.
Throughout Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, this pattern, with varying nuances, is revealed in the covenants. From Adam to Noah, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Moses, to David to the New Covenant proclaimed by Jeremiah and established in the Last Adam, Jesus Christ, the basic pattern is there. The Lord God in condescension and favor brings man, his image-bearer into a relation by which union and communion is to be realized.
Genesis 1-2 briefly enumerates the principles of the covenant relation. In 1:27 we see the creation of man, male and female, in the divine image. Related to this is the command that man is to rule over the rest of creation as vice-regent of the Lord. Adam is given positive and negative commands--the law of God. The negative command is accented because of the uniqueness of the situation. By Adam's obedience or disobedience there would come a fuller, deeper knowledge of the contrast between good and evil. (1)
Adam fails the probation, not by being deceived as Eve, but by consciously rejecting the law of God and choosing his own way (cf. I Tim 2:13-14). But again, the grace of God is manifested. Though all receive some curse, yet Adam and Eve are also told of the blessing to come. The seed of the woman shall crush the head of the serpent. There will be ultimate victory although it is far off.
In Genesis 6 there is revealed the widespread apostasy of the sons of God as they marry those outside the covenant community. But again God's grace is revealed in keeping Noah obedient by faith. Though God plans utterly to destroy all flesh yet he will preserve Noah and his family in an ark. A covenant is established. There is a promise made and a demand. Noah is to build, gather the animals and enter the ark. Without the ark Noah would be destroyed and so too the animals. His obedience earned him nothing. All he would have upon the completion of the flood would be wholly owing to God's grace.
The covenant revealed in chapter 9 adds no new features. It simply accents the faithfulness of God to His Word, a feature which is true in all covenants. Also by its emphasis on all life it is shown that grace does not wait for the decision of man. Just as non-sentient creatures receive this unearned favor of God, so too do the infants of covenant members.
Genesis 12, 15 and 17 reveal the covenant with Abram/Abraham. The Lord God calls Abram to leave his country and people and go to a land he would show him (12:1). The Lord makes a promise that He will make of him a great nation and all peoples will bless him (12:2-3). The Lord confirms this promise to him in spite of adverse circumstances (12:7, 8, 17-20). Genesis 15 puts the emphasis on the sureness of the promise, s of God to Abram and the necessity that Abram believe God. Chapter 17 is the fullest delineation of the covenant between the Lord and Abraham. When the Lord greets Abram He says,"I am God almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and I will greatly increase your numbers" (verses 1-2). There is the graciousness shown in the fact that it is God Almighty who condescends to establish covenant with Abram. From this there is then presented the demand of the covenant and the promise. The demand of the promise is centered in the necessity that every male, in order to receive the blessings of the covenant, must be circumcised. To fail to be circumcised means being cut off from the covenant, and therefore from the promises of the covenant.
In Genesis 22 there is the account of the testing of Abraham and his faith. Abraham has seen that God is faithful and fulfilled the chief promise of the covenant: an heir to continue the generations of Abraham. At the last moment God intervenes and stops the imminent demise of Isaac. Abraham, because he believed God, obeyed the demands of the Lord. God because He is faithful to His word keeps and realizes the promises of the covenant.
Genesis 24 contains the account of the arrangements that had to be made in order to get Isaac a wife. Verses 6-9 contain the key concept:
"Make sure that you do not take my son back there," Abraham said. "The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father's household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, 'To your offspring I will give this land'--he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there.
The promise relative to Isaac has been fulfilled: Abraham has a son. But this heir must continue the line established by God with Abraham. In order to do that it is necessary that Isaac have a wife from Abraham's relatives, not from the Canaanites. For Abraham realizes that if there is intermarriage between his sons and a daughter of Canaan it will lead to a dilution of the covenant relation.
And throughout the book of Genesis there is this constant tension between believing the promises of God and wanting to do things in one's own way. The situation with Isaac in regards to Jacob and Esau is the supreme example. Isaac failed to heed the word of the Lord concerning' Jacob. He only looked upon the fact that Esau was the literal firstborn and must be the one to get the blessing. But God, through the sin-tainted zeal of Rebekah and Jacob, does realize His sovereign purpose. Rebekah and Jacob showed their faith in that they clung to God's promise. But they were not content to wait for the Lord to bring Isaac to repentance.
The covenant with Israel is closely related to the Abrahamic. Moses writes in Exodus 2:24 that "God heard their [the Israelites in Egypt] groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob" (cp. 3:6, 15, 16). And in 6:2-5, 8 the point is further set forth:
God also said to Moses, "I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they lived as aliens. Moreover, I have heard the groanings of the Israelites . . . . and I have remembered my covenant . . . . And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord.
Further confirmation of the tie between the two covenant administrations is found in Exodus 12:43-51. Regulations concerning whom is allowed to the Passover are enumerated. Foreigners or aliens may partake of the Passover only if the males of the household have been circumcised. "The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you" (verse 49). This is directly related to Genesis 17:10-14. As there were conditions necessary to remaining a member of God's covenant community centering around Abraham, the same principle continues with Moses.
Much of the revelation given concerning the period from Moses to David is taken up with reminding the Israelites to remember the grace and goodness of the Lord, the covenant God, in redeeming them from Egypt. They were given a detailed ethical code whereby they might glorify and serve the Lord always (cp. Deut 4:39-40; 6:1-3, 10-25).
The covenant with David is premised on the grace, and power God has revealed in setting aside the nation of Israel for Himself (cp. II Sam 7:22-24). Promise is made that "You shall never fail to have a man to sit before me on the throne of Israel." But there is also the demand or condition that if your sons are careful in all that they do to walk before me as you have done" (I Kings 8:25). Though the sons of David do remain on the throne, many of them are apostate and they lead the people into that apostasy. Finally the sons of David lead the people into exile. As it is written:
[Zedekiah] became stiff-necked and hardened his heart and would not turn to the Lord, the God of Israel. Furthermore, all the leaders of the priests and the people became more and more unfaithful, following all the detestable practices of the nations and defiling the temple of the Lord, which he had consecrated in Jerusalem (II Chr 36:13-14).
God is always faithful to His word, to every word that proceeds forth from him. This is further seen in the book of Psalms.
The Psalms contain a number of references to the covenant, both as to its promises and its demands. Psalm 25 is very instructive, particularly verses 8-15. In verse 10 the psalmist notes that: "All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of the covenant." And in verse 14 we read "The Lord confides in those who fear him, he makes his covenant known to them." There is promise and there is demand. Psalm 44 is a plaint to God to show His favor to them again. He speaks of the fact that the Lord has rejected and humbled them (cf., 44:9). But the psalmist complains that "All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant." They had not forsaken Him, as far as they understood their own hearts. And so, they could not understand why the Lord seemed to be asleep during their times of deep distress. They laid claim on the promises of the covenant out of the obedience which faith had wrought in them.
Psalm 50 records God's speech to Israel. He there addresses those who would rest content in a perfunctory worship of the Lord. He speaks of them as "my consecrated ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice." And yet He is not pleased with their sacrifice because it does not proceed from thankfulness. It does not reveal, as it ought, their trust in the Lord for all blessings. But to the wicked He says: "What right have you to recite my laws or take my covenant upon your lips?" These openly broke the covenant and yet wanted the blessings of being with the people of god. But God reminds them at the end:
Consider this, you who forget God, or I will tear you to pieces, with none to rescue: He who sacrifices thank offerings honors me, and he prepares the way so that I may show him the salvation of God (50:22-23).
Psalm 103:17-18 summarizes well the thrust of this thesis:
But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord's love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children's children-with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.
It is in the way of reverence and obedience to the Word of God that we remain under the Lord's eternal love. He has compassion on His children. He gives them so many wonderful and gracious blessings. And in gratitude for these blessings they obey His words of love and life.
This same pattern is seen also in the New Covenant established in the blood of Christ. One example is that found in 2 Tim 2:17-19. Paul writes to Timothy:
Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. Nevertheless, God's solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: "The Lord knows those who are his," and, "Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness."
God's promise that He will keep His people is present and also, if you claim to be a child of God, you must flee from wickedness.
Central to understanding the covenantal ways of God is gaining an understanding of the nature of faith. To go into a thorough investigation of the nature of faith is beyond the scope of this chapter. But an adequate summary of the doctrine is given in the Westminster Standards. The Westminster Confession of Faith (hereafter WCF) in chapter XI takes up the topic of justification. The first section describes how a person is justified. In the act of justification we have the obedience and satisfaction of Christ imputed to us by faith. This faith is a gift of God. In the second section the WCF goes on to speak further of this faith. It says:
Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love (Free Church of Scotland 1973, 19).
Faith is the alone instrument of justification, but that faith always co-exists. with all the other saving graces. In fact this faith works by love but does not draw its power from love or any of the other saving graces.
Confirmation of this view is seen in the writings of Turretin published some thirty years later. Under the Sixteenth Topic: Justification, Question VIII, Turretin makes two pronouncements on the relation between faith and justification and the other saving graces. In paragraph VI he writes:
3. The question is not, Whether solitary faith, that is, separated from the other virtues, justifies, which we grant could not easily be the case, since it is not even true and living faith, but whether it alone concurs to the act of justification, which we assert: as the eye alone sees, but not when torn out of the body. Thus the article alone does not determine the subject, but the predicate, that is, faith only does not justify, but faith justifies alone: the coexistence of love in him who is justified is not denied, but its coefficiency or cooperation in justification. 4. The question is not, whether the faith which justifies works by love, because otherwise it would not be living but dead; but whether by which it justifies, or in the act itself of justification it is to be considered under such a relation which we deny (Turretin 1980, 543).
In paragraph XIV Turretin further expounds on this matter:
Although the whole force of justifying on the part of man is in faith, as to the act of apprehension, so that other virtues contribute nothing to it with faith; it does not follow that faith can justify when they are absent as well as when they are present, yea, even when the opposite vices are present; because it is one thing to justify without virtues, that is separated from them which we deny, Another for it to justify alone, but not separated from them. As it does not follow, the hand alone writes, the eye alone sees; therefore, as such when torn from the head and the other members as in the body; the sole force of respiration is in the lungs; the lungs can respire torn out from the liver and other viscera, equally as well as when connected with them, which everyone sees to be absurd. There are hundreds of things of this kind, which have a certain proper efficacy and effect, which still, when separated from their adjuncts, lose all their power. Natural potencies are connected as to existence, but disjoined as to operation. Light and heat in the sun are most closely connected together, but still the light alone illuminates, the heat alone warms. Although, therefore, the other virtues do not justify with faith, still faith cannot justify in their absence, much less the opposite vices being present; because faith cannot be true, unless in connection with the virtues, which if they do not contribute as to justification, still contribute to the existence and life of faith, which the presence of vices would destroy (Turretin 1980, 546).
The WCF, XIV:2 in speaking concerning "Saving Faith" states that:
By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word; for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace (Free Church of Scotland 1973, 22).
Faith hears and heeds all of Scripture. Not only the promises of God, but also the admonitions to obey and the warnings to desist from sin are faith's object. Further emphasis is placed on the "principal" or central purpose of faith to be the instrument whereby Christ, who is all our righteousness, is accepted, received and rested upon. It is not just Christ as our righteousness, but also Christ as our sanctification and Christ as the guarantor and giver of eternal life. In our union with Christ, brought to fruition by grace through faith, we receive all we will need to glorify God and enjoy Him forever."
The same perspective is seen in the Larger Catechism, Questions 70-73 (hereafter WLC). Questions 70 and 71 concern "What is justification?" and "How is justification an act of God's free grace?" In both, faith is set forth as the alone means of receiving Christ's righteousness and as the gift of God. Question 72 goes on specifically to state "What is justifying faith?" This is especially illuminating if it is paralleled with Question 76 "What is repentance unto Life?"
Question 72: What is justifying faith?
Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assents to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth for the pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.
Question 76: What is repentance unto Life?
Repentance unto life is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, whereby out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, and upon the apprehension of God's mercy to such as are penitent, he so grieves for and hates his sins, as that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavoring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience.
Thus faith, repentance, and new obedience are all three brought together. Faith alone concurs to the reception of justification. Yet repentance and obedience, saving graces, co-exist with faith.
Thus the significance of Question 73 can be more fully assessed. The question asked concerns: "How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?" The answer is:
Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, not as if the grace of faith, or any act there of, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness.
The answer points out that faith is always accompanied by other saving graces. When faith receives and applies Christ, love, joy, peace, hope, etc. -- all saving graces, and fruit of the Spirit -- are, in varying degrees, present. As is stated in Question 75 concerning, "What is sanctification?"
Sanctification is a work of God's grace, whereby they whom God hath, before the foundation of the world, chosen to be holy, are in time, through the powerful operation of his Spirit applying the death and resurrection of Christ unto them, renewed in their whole man after the image of God; having the seeds of repentance unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts, and those graces so stirred up, increased, and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life.
Here is further evidence of the way in which the Westminster Standards interrelate and weave "justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him" (i.e., with Christ; WLC Question 69).
Further, a similar point is made in WLC Question 153.
What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us by reason of the transgression of the law?
. . . he requireth of us repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates the benefits of his mediation.
The "outward means" are "the word, sacraments [Baptism and the Lord's Supper] and prayer" (WLC Question 154). Again the triad of repentance, faith and obedience is set forth. The instrumental value of faith is neither undermined nor overthrown. It is simply shown that faith always exists with all the other saving graces freely given to us in our union with Christ.
The same perspective is compactly stated in the Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 85-88.
Warnings and examples of the reality of apostasy are found throughout Scripture. Particular examples are those of Cain, Ishmael and Esau. Consider also the way in which Scripture describes the generation who left Egypt with Moses (Cf. Acts 7:39-43; I Cor 10:1-12; Heb 3:7-4:11 and Jude 5). In the New Testament there are the warnings of Jesus to his fellow Israelites of their being shut out of the kingdom (cf. Matt. 6:24; 10:32; 11:20-24; 21:33-46; 22:1-14; 23). Paul warns his readers of the eternal woe that will fall upon those who "continue in sin that grace may abound" (Rom 6:1-2; cf. Gal 5:19-21; 6:7-8; Eph 5:3-7).
Perhaps one of the strongest examples given in the New Testament is that of Demas in II Tim 4:10. Though he is commended by Paul in Col 4:14 and Philemon 24, here he is spoken of as having deserted Paul. But the desertion is grounded in the fact that "he loved the world." His love was no longer focused on Christ and serving Him but on the things of this world. Here the warnings of the Apostle John are clearly echoed:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world, the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does -- comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever (I John 2:15-17).
Throughout these two passages the Greek word agapao is used. Thus the continuity in thought must be fully appreciated. Even if the Demas of Colossians and Philemon is not the same here the point is not to be obscured. The covenant has promises and demands. The demands are presented on the backdrop and are grounded in the promise of God that He will be faithful to all He has spoken.
This too is why the warnings of the Book of Hebrews are so awesome and startling. We are warned to
. . . pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment [often terminal], how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation (Heb 2:1-3; cp. 12:25-29).
So too are such passages as 6:4-6, 12; 10: 19-39. The warnings placed before us in these passages must be seen in terms of the covenant, not the decree.
These are true and real warnings to all of us because the Lord God administers His covenant with His promises and His demands. This is seen particularly in Revelation 2-3. Here is presented the grace of God that opens each letter to the seven churches. But coupled with this is a demand, and in some cases a warning too. All are called upon to overcome.
The relation of church discipline to apostasy may be discussed briefly. Discipline exists in order to disciple the covenant people. As the Word is faithfully preached and the elders keep careful watch over the flock the faithful will be nourished and strengthened according to their faith. Those who do not desire this discipleship will begin to manifest their inner man. They shall be hardened in unbelief and disobedience. It is the duty of the elders to see that the Word and the Sacraments are faithfully administered. The chapter on Church Censures (WCF XXX) in section 3 states:
Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offense, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honor of Christ, and 'the holy profession of the gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the church, if they should suffer his covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.
This is related to WCF XXIX:8 which states:
Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament; yet, they receive not the thing signified thereby; but, by their unworthy coming thereunto, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with him, so are they unworthy of the Lord's table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto.
This is a part of the discipline that devolves upon the elders of the church (cp., WLC #173; also Heidelberg Catechism, Questions 81-85). It must be appreciated that the references to "wicked," "ungodly," "ignorant" have more in view than simply drunkenness, licentiousness, lying, lack of formal education, etc. Involved with these are also the beliefs, the theological beliefs that a person confesses. Thus those who deny the Trinity, the perfect substitutionary sacrifice and atonement of Christ, the fact that the Bible is, without equivocation, the Word of God written, who sunder the unity of the theology of the sacraments from Old to New Covenant etc., ought to be forbidden from participating at the celebration of the Lord's Supper. (2) It is the duty of the office-bearers to prevent the seals of the covenant from being corrupted.
Not that this is to be done capriciously or without the proper adjudications of the facts of the case. The sin(s) involved would be those of which the accused refuses to repent. It must be emphasized that all of this must be done in accord with Scripture and in a spirit of love and desire to see the accused return to the ways of the Lord and obediently hearing His voice. The attitude and earnest desire of the church must reflect that revealed concerning the Lord in His struggle with unrepentant Israel. In Ezekiel 18:30-32 it is written:
Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; the sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!
In summary, there are people who do apostatize from the covenant that was sealed to them in their baptism. But this apostatizing must not be construed or set forth in such a way as to undermine the truth of God's foreordination. Those who forsake the covenant and persevere in that path of unbelief and disobedience are those whom God has decreed to reprobate. Those who remain in the covenant though assaulted by many temptations, and many times yielding themselves to those temptations, do remain and persevere by virtue of their election in Christ and the power of the Spirit.
Two purposes have guided the study and structure of this thesis. The first is to determine, theologically, and in what manner, the covenant relation has conditions. This is accomplished by seeing that the Lord God sovereignly establishes His covenant. He alone is the one who brings the covenant into existence. This, being graciously accomplished, the Lord continues to administer the covenant in a dipleuric or two-sided manner. Within the covenant relation there are mutual ties of love and faithfulness between the parties or partners of the covenant. Man, created in the image and likeness of God, is called to freely, spontaneously continue in union and communion with the Lord.
The first purpose having been accomplished, the second, concerning apostasy, could then be presented. Because the covenant is administered dipleurically, and man is called upon to choose between good and evil, listening obediently to the voice of the Lord or that of the Devil, it is the case that some will hear the voice of their Father who is in heaven, and others will hear the voice of their father the devil. But this truth must be formulated in such a way as not to undermine the truths of eternal election and reprobation according to the good pleasure of God. Those who do not repent of their unbelief and disobedience will receive the wrath and anger of God (cp. Romans 2:8), to be condemned on account of their sins (cp. Canons of Dordt lst Head of Doctrine, Article 15).
By setting forth the views of Van Til on the significance of history, common grace, metatheology, a context may be set for seeing the Reformed doctrine of the covenant as not being strictly identical with God's decree. There is also the realization that faith plays a part in theological method. (3) There will be mystery. But only for us, not for God. There will be the perennial problem of resolving the tensions created by our formulations of various aspects in the relation between God's sovereign foreordination and the "freedom" of man.
Pierre Marcel calls attention to a further problem that attends the stress given above on conditions and apostasy. He writes:
In stressing the significance of the covenant as a means to an end we must beware of unduly exaggerating God's demands and the resulting human obligations. We ought, on the contrary, to stress the promise of the effective operation of the grace of God in the hearts of the children of the covenant. If we insist exclusively on the responsibilities of the covenant, if we exaggerate them even, and if we fail to give preeminence to the fact that, in the covenant, God gives what He demands of us, or, in other words, that His promises cover all His demands, we are in danger of falling into the snare of Arminianism (Marcel 1953, 114 note 1).
We are exposed to dangers on every side. All aspects of the problem, the multitude of biblical texts and their contexts, must be related the one to the other. Throughout we must beware of letting any one aspect or portion dominate or subjugate others.
The Holy Scriptures, which alone make us wise unto salvation, must be placed at the center and in control of all theological thought and life. It will be the case that as our thoughts are brought more and more captive to Christ that theological thought and method will be radically overhauled and deepened. There is always the danger of being subtly influenced more by the spirit of this age than the Spirit of God. As this is brought into fruition there will be a further explication of the covenant structure of Scripture.
In closing, three passages of Scripture may be cited as setting forth the covenantal nature of our relation to the Lord, and the obligations we are called upon to fulfill. In Leviticus 26:9-13 Moses tells the people as they obey the word of God given to them at Sinai, that:
I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you . . . . I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.
Paul, the second Moses, (4) writes in II Corinthians 6:16-18:
What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." "Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you." "I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty."
While there are differences between the Old and the New yet the discontinuity is set forth on the backdrop of the continuity. Finally, the passage written by John in Revelation 21:1-8 speaks to us today:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away; and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a, bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. -There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.
He said to me: "It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, , the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars--their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death."
1.) Cp. Murray 1977 II:51-53.
2.) This view is more often found in Dutch Reformed theology. Though cp. Murray 1982 IV:271-272. His focus is more on the office-bearers who "subscribe" to the Standards. But the same ought to hold true of all the members.
3.) For what appears to be a different approach see Knudsen 1978.
4.) For an exposition of this idea cf. Jones 1974.