Verbond en Bevinding ( Covenant and Experience) - Dr. J.G. Woelderink Translated by G. Zekveld

Dated: February 11, 2013

"The following is part of the Chapter "The Covenant" from Dr. J.G. Woelderink's book "Verbond en Bevinding" (Covenant and Experience), pages 36-46. It seems to me we should take note of Dr. Woelderink's observatons concerning the covenant of works and covenant of grace." Gilbert Zekveld



It is the glory of Reformed Protestantism that from the very beginning it sensed the great significance of the doctrine of the Covenant for the life of faith, and gave it a special place in the total scope of its considerations. The doctrine of the Covenant as seen by Reformed Protestantism is not just more or less a locus among loci; rather, it is the system that encompasses the whole relationship between the Lord and His Church. This understanding finds particular emphasis in the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism. The extensive significance of the doctrine of the Covenant is so important because it shows the essence of the Christian religion as distinct from religion in general. It is therefore impossible to adhere to the principles of Reformed Protestantism and develop them more fully without a true understanding of what is included in the Covenant idea.

Some Initial Remarks

It is with deliberate intent that I gave my subject the title of "The Covenant", for I have difficulty with the title "Covenant of Grace." I will state twofold reason for this:

a. Referring to a Covenant of Grace seems to imply a contrast with the Covenant of Works. It is true that from the beginning Reformed Protestantism has seen the God to man relationship as a covenant relationship also in the state of man's innocence. Ursinus speaks of this relationship between God and man in paradise as a foedus naturale. However, after a short time this was seen slightly different, and became gradually expressed by the term "foedus operum" which seems to have been first used by Polanus in 1598. 1). Ere half a Century elapsed, covenant of works became the generally accepted term. The fact that the development of the covenant idea was so soon neglected was caused mainly, as I see it, by the distinction made between covenant of grace, and covenant of works. The emphasis is no longer on the covenant as such, but moved into a work-grace dichotomy, and the exposition of the doctrine of the covenant of grace is now in danger of elapsing in a disguised treatment of justification, not by works, but by grace only. Thereby the idea of covenant slipped more and more into the background. At the same time I cannot deny that the Church in the 18th Century, under the influence of humanism moved the object of faith with its various exercises into the Iimelight, and thereby delivered the deathblow to the doctrine of the covenant. In a previous century a noble attempt was made by Dr. A. Kuyper to return to the faith of the fathers 2); but apart from his influence in the G.K.N. (Secession Church (1834) and the Doleance (1886, united in 1892), the doctrine of the covenant has not regained its place of honor in Reformed Protestantism. It must be said that because of hostility against Kuyper and the spiritual direction taken in the G.K.N., many see the safe-keeping of pure religion endangered, and have almost removed the word "covenant'' from their theological dictionary. It is their purpose to glory in free grace, but they do not understand that without the covenant idea, grace becomes arbitrary and the foundation of faith is undermined.

b. My second objection is likewise based on the association: covenant of grace/covenant of works. The problem arises as soon as we speak of a covenant of GRACE. Not now because of the historic development of this distinction. In my opinion, the idea that the covenant of works was gradually developed as an entity by itself is unscriptural, and in conflict with the covenant idea itself. Inherent to the idea of covenant of works is the notion that God promised eternal life to man on the condition of total obedience. But when we realize that man as creature is bound to complete obedience to the will of God and when Jesus on the strength of this, says, ''So likewise you, when you have done all these things which you are commanded say, "We are unprofitable servants, we have done what it was our duty to do" (Luke 17: 10), we feel that immediately difficulties arise. If we then venture with Rev. v.d. Berg in his well-known dissertation to solve the difficulty by making a comparison, we really do nothing but make things worse. He writes, "An earthly father can demand obedience without offering wages, under threat of punishment. But setting aside this primordial right, he can out of pity for the child, relinquish his authority and come to an agreement with the child. In this case it will amount to a covenant." 3) This comparison is the usual interpretation of the covenant of works, but it confronts us with the absurd fact that the Lord waves His primordial right; and now we have lost even the basic idea of covenant. The above view is based on the contrast that paul makes between "not of works, but by grace", and the awful error that justification by works, so strongly condemned by the apostle, is now given a place in the covenant before the fall. The desire and attempt to be justified by works, especially with Paul, is the revelation of sin, the mark of fallen humanity in its refusal to submit to God's judgment. In this traditional view of the covenant of works, this pre-eminently sinfull inclination is given a place in the state of man's innocence in paradise; yes, this inclination is seen as God's demand to man 4). It is generally supposed by accepting the covenant of works, that the tree of life is seal and sign of the promise of eternal life given to man. But let us realize for a moment what it means that this promise was given upon the condition of obedience. Man had no assurance that he would persevere. What then was the comfort and strength he could derive from God's promise and the sealing of that promise, when it fully depended upon the question whether man would persevere? This is something the Remonstrants have been accused of, i.e. their teaching that they did away with the comfort of God's gracious promises by making these promises conditional, and as such uncertain. These contra-Remonstrants now commit the same error in their theory of the covenant of works. There is yet another aspect in which the errors of the Remonstrants receive a place of honor in the covenant of works, and that concerns the doctrine of free will. The question of free will has had an important place in the conflict about Predestination right from the beginning. It was always the intention of the Remonstrants to bring this question to the foreground. It was their purpose to change course, and make a philosophic-psychologic problem of this essential theological question, which took them into an altogether different area. Our fathers did not always saw this clearly and were enveloped in the question of free will more than was necessary for the pending questions, in a way not always conducive to a healthy development of spiritual life. Dr. Korff in his lecture on Predestination, has said in fact the same, when at the general pastors conference in 1931 he reduced the doctrine of Election to a question of free will. 5). One must not be surprised that those who reject the Remonstrant interpretation of free will in man's salvation, gave this idea a place in the covenant of works. The meaning of the covenant now was that Adam was given an opportunity to gain salvation, which he could accept or reject in virtue of free will 6). I can understand that Dr. Korff points to this with certain satisfaction, although his view that Infralapsarianism teaches that election came after the fall, is wholly incorrect. My objections against the traditional idea of the covenant of works are in a summary as follows: by making the covenant conditional in the sense that the Remonstrants did this with respect to the covenant of grace, we limit the essence of the covenant, and deprive the covenant and the promises of all certainty. Making the appropriation of the covenant to a question of the will, is violating the nature of faith, for faith is more than a function of the will.

The Essence of the Covenant

In order to come to a right understanding of the Scriptural meaning of the covenant we must go back to the covenant established with Abram. It is not incorrect, and it has been a mighty concept that the Christian Church in the light of this marvelous occurrence, saw the relationship between God and man before and immediately after the fall as covenantal; but Scripture itself does not speak here of a covenant that was established. The reason for this is clear I believe. Only in Abram God's Church enters history as called out of the world, separated from the world, elected to be God's own possession. We know that the essence of electing and calling grace was not wanting in the life of Enoch, neither in that of Noah. But before this it was never seen as clear as in the life of Abram, and never again was there so clear an expression of it as in the life of this friend of God. We must know this in order to understand the nature of the covenant that God established with His Church. When the Lord established the covenant with Abram it became clear that the covenant relation between the Lord and His people is another than the relationship that exists between the Lord and man, in virtue of his natural existence. God established His covenant with Abram, to the exclusion of other people that lived at that time. There is undoubtedly also a relationship between the others and the Lord, since He is Creator of all. Whether there still remained something of this original knowledge among man, or whether they were altogether pagan, and lost this knowledge we do not know; they were nevertheless as creatures in a one-sided relationship to God. Abram was related to the Lord in this sense also. Beside and above the fact that Abram was creature and the Lord his Creator, is another relationship not emanating from the Creator-creature relationship, but one that is fruit of free grace: God's Sovereign election. This relationship is expressed in the word covenant. "I will establish my covenant between me and thee" (Gen.17: 7).

Scripture emphasizes this particular character of the covenant relationship in many ways. In the Old Testament, for instance, it is repeatedly compared with the bridegroom-bride relationship, also in that of husband to wife. These relationships are special, in that they are far more than the every day relationship of one human being to another. The same is true of the father-child relationship which is commonly used in the New-Testament, and is also of a special nature. This particular form reflected in these human relationships, teaches the meaning of that relationship in a touching way. The covenant of God with His people is no other than communion, established with His own, where he says to them: "My people!'' and by this they enter into communion with God and answer by faith: my God! Our father which art in heaven! 7) The covenant may not be seen as temporal in nature. It is not merely as is said so often: a means by which the Lord gathers His Church. It is no means, but rather: it is its aim and object 8) The administration of the covenant, even in the new dispensation, is undoubtedly of an earthly, and therewith passing character; and so is the Church in this world; but the covenant is eternal in essence. The covenant relationship between God and His people is not of a passing nature, it is more than a form in which religion reveals itself - it is eternal; "Since we have an eternal covenant with God", (Form for Baptism). The relationship in which the Lord places Himself to His people, shall again and again awaken their wonder and admiration. Is it not a marvelous matter, that the Creator of heaven and earth condescends to meet the creature, and that a bond of love and friendship is established between both, of such an intimate character, that there is no other mutual relationship between man that can express the fullness of this relationship between God and man? Had the Lord God not emphatically declared, and moreover, sealed this in His Word, we could not believe it. Had this idea proceeded from man, it would have to be marked as pure pride, expression of the greatest sin: the will to be as God. Is it right, when we see the covenant-relationship between God and man in the latter's state of innocence in paradise, to think of a covenant without the import that belongs to the essence of God's covenant with Abraham? It seems to me in this respect, that I have to reject the opinion of my esteemed teacher, Prof. Visser. If I understand him aright, he returns in some way to the opinion of a foedus naturale, because he sees in the covenant of works a definition of the relationship between God and man in virtue of creation. 9) It is true, prof. Visser leaves the pure moral relationship between God and man intact, in undefiled purity; culminating in everlasting life, and a blessed communion with God. However, it is exactly here that I have difficulties. That the creature owes obedience to the Creator in all things is in accordance with the existing relationship between both; but that man in virtue of showing obedience should have a right to communion with God, is not a true deduction. Man is and remains an unprofitable servant, even in the state of innocence when he lived without sin. Communion between God and man is always a gift of God's Sovereign goodness, even before the fall. Therefore we must see the covenant (of works), which God established with Adam in the state of innocence as rising above the Creator-creature relationship. "More than mere obedience was required of Adam; the covenant demands faith! Scripture sees the fall of man into disobedience as fruit of unbelief". (Italics mine. Tr.).

In the covenant, even in the state of innocence before the fall, the Almighty descends to our level and enters into communion with man, only in virtue of His Sovereign good pleasure. This descending of the Lord must be seen as a wonder of His unfathomable goodness. That man was not fallen and without sin, does not diminish the greatness of this marvel in any way. This is how it pleased the High and Exalted God. This is the only reason, that before and after the fall, man should believe this marvel of grace, and believing, praise God and give Him the glory.


Translated by Rev. G. Zekveld May 2001