Vic Reasoner, “An Arminian Covenant Theology”

, posted by SEA

Too many Arminians have pushed their tray through the theological cafeteria, accepting a helping of whatever sounded good. Before we accept all the popular theology of the celebrity teachers, we had better determine upon what presuppositions their teaching is based. A proper understanding of covenants will help us sort out some of the confusion.

The concept of covenant permeates the Hebrew understanding of their relationship with God. Yahweh, the self-existent God, initiates and keeps covenant with man. He is motivated by a steadfast love called hesed, which is translated “loving kindness” or “mercy.”

That the transcendent God would condescend to enter into partnership with his own creation is indeed cause for worship. He is not dependent upon us for anything nor do we have anything to offer him which he has not first given us. Yet he desires to cut a covenant with mankind and enter into a personal relationship with his creation.

Because God’s nature is covenantal, we who are created in his image also make covenants. The Hebrew word berith is used over 280 times in the Old Testament to describe treaties, alliances, or leagues between men. It is used to describe a constitution between a ruler and his subjects. And it is used of a relationship between God and his people.

The basic pattern for a covenant, whether secular or sacred, contained: a preamble, in which the initiator is identified; a historical prologue describing previous relations between the parties; stipulations and demands which were to be read publicly at regular intervals; swearing of an oath with blessings and curses; the designation of witnesses and successors.

The Greek word diatheke occurs thirty-three times in the New Testament. In the KJV it is translated “covenant” twenty times and “testament” thirteen times. A diatheke was a will that distributed the property after the owner’s death. It was completely one-sided; the terms were controlled by the initiator. The ordinary Greek word for covenant was syntheke, but since the prefix syn means “together with,” it was not used in the New Testament lest it suggest an equality of partners.

Therefore, we cannot negotiate a covenant with God. It is always God who makes covenant with someone; never that God and someone make a covenant. He is the initiator and we either accept or reject his terms. To accept the terms of the covenant involves an unconditional surrender on our part. But we must not only pledge our faith, we must keep faith since the very nature of a covenant is relational. The Church is comprised of those who express their faith through obedience to the covenant. While it is contrary to God’s nature to break covenant with us, the history of man’s relationship with God is one of broken covenants.

The Jews seemed to think that for God to condemn a Jew would be a violation of his promises to them and that God would then be unfaithful. This thinking was based on the false assumption that God’s covenants are unconditional. Paul declared that God is faithful, even if every man is unfaithful (Romans 3:3-4). But will God maintain covenant with covenant breakers?

The very nature of a covenant implies mutual obligations. We are not discussing a blank check or an outright grant, with no strings attached. Stipulations are inherent within a covenant. Watson defined the essence of a covenant as mutual stipulations between two parties. “It could not be a covenant unless there were terms, something required, as well as something promised or given, duties to be performed, as well as blessings to be received.” Not only are there blessings promised for those who keep covenant, whoever breaks covenant has brought a curse upon himself. Therefore, scripture warns that it is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it (Eccl 5:5).

John Wesley wrote that the grand covenant, “is a covenant between God and man, established in the hands of a Mediator, ‘who tasted death for every man,’ and thereby purchased it for all the children of men. The tenor of it (so often mentioned already) is this: ‘Whosoever believeth unto the end, so as to show his faith by his works, I the Lord will reward that soul eternally. But whosoever will not believe, and consequently dieth in his sins, I will punish him with everlasting destruction.'”

Wesley continued by raising the question “whether this covenant between God and man be unconditional or conditional.” Wesley then went back to the covenant made with Abraham. While the covenant was everlasting, Wesley demonstrated it was conditional. The terms of a covenant are everlasting, but a covenant is also conditional in the sense that both parties must maintain their eternal agreement.

Wesley also said that the covenant with Abraham was “a gospel covenant; the condition the same, namely, faith, which the Apostle observes was ‘imputed unto him for righteousness.’ The inseparable fruit of this faith was obedience; for by faith he left his country, and offered his son. The benefits were the same; for God promised ‘I will be thy God, and the God of thy seed after thee:’ And he can promise no more to any creature; for this includes all blessings, temporal and eternal. The Mediator is the same; for it was in his Seed, that is, in Christ, (Gen 22:18; Gal 3:16,) that all nations were to be blessed; on which very account the Apostle says, ‘The gospel was preached unto Abraham.’ (Gal 3:8.) Now, the same promise that was made to him, the same covenant that was made with him, was made ‘with his children after him.’ (Gen17:7; Gal 3:7.) And upon that account it is called ‘an everlasting covenant.'” Therefore, it was both an everlasting covenant and a conditional covenant.

Later Wesley demonstrated that the Davidic Covenant was conditional and concluded that, even when not explicitly stated, conditions are implied in all covenants. This has been the historic Wesleyan-Arminian understanding of covenants. Joseph Benson wrote,

The performance of the promises to the natural seed of Abraham, is, in the original covenant, tacitly made to depend on their faith and obedience (Gen 18:19), and that it is explicitly made to depend on that condition in the renewal of the covenant (Deut 28:1-14). Besides, on that occasion, God expressly threatened to expel the natural seed from Canaan, and scatter them among the heathen, if they became unbelieving and disobedient (Lev 26:33; Deut 28:64). The rejection, therefore, and expulsion of the Jews from Canaan, for their unbelief, being a fulfilling of the threatenings of the covenant, established the faithfulness of God, instead of destroying it…. God’s promises, like his threatenings, were all conditional.

Adam Clarke wrote,

We must ever maintain that God is true, and that if, in any case, his promise appear to fail, it is because the condition on which it was given has not been complied with. . . . Should any man say that the promise of God had failed toward him, let him examine his heart and his ways, and he will find that he has departed out of that way in which alone God could, consistently with his holiness and truth, fulfil the promise.

God is faithful to his Word, but his Word contains both promises and warnings. The unfaithfulness of the Jews broke the covenant (see 9:6-14), but did not nullify the faithfulness of God to his Word and his promises to Abraham. In his Theological Dictionary, Richard Watson wrote that there are really only two covenants: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Watson taught that after Adam broke the covenant of works, God gave Abraham a covenant of grace. While the Mosaic dispensation was also a covenant of works, it was given to demonstrate man’s sinfulness and was a foreshadowing of something better. Like the covenant with Adam, the covenant with Moses was broken by Israel and ended by God. The new covenant, argued Watson, was really the substance of the Abrahamic covenant. The new covenant was new

because, after man had broken the covenant of works, it was pure grace or favor in the Almighty to enter into a new covenant with him; and, because by the covenant there is conveyed that grace which enables man to comply with the terms of it…. But, although there are mutual stipulations, the covenant retains its character of a covenant of grace, and must be regarded as having its source purely in the grace of God. For the very circumstances which rendered the new covenant necessary, take away the possibility of there being any merit upon our part: the faith by which the covenant is accepted is the gift of God; and all the good works by which Christians continue to keep the covenant, originate in that change of character which is the fruit of the operation of his Spirit.

More recently Clarence Bence wrote, “We must believe, then, that God’s promises are given conditionally, and are kept to the degree that humans respond in faith to what he has declared.” The fact that covenants are conditional should influence our understanding of three controversial questions.

1. Can individual salvation be lost?

Louis Berkhof writes that there are two parts in all covenants. Yet as a Calvinist, he wants to avoid making the covenant of grace conditional. Recognizing that there is a sense in which the covenant is conditional, he attempts to reconcile his dilemma by saying that God himself fulfills the condition by giving faith to the elect.

Berkhof also says that while the covenant is an eternal and inviolable covenant, which God never nullified, it is possible for those who are in the covenant to break it. This constitutes him a covenant breaker and that break may be not merely a temporary break, but a final break. However, since there is no falling away of the saints, Berkhof has to conclude that these members of the covenant were unregenerate. Thus, they are unregenerate or unconverted because they are not elect, for if they were regenerate they would not have finally broken covenant.

Yet Hebrews 10:26-29 describes those who have been sanctified by the blood of the covenant and at some later point in time they broke faith and ultimately land in hell. Wesley wrote, “It is undeniably plain,

  1. That the person mentioned here was once sanctified by the blood of the covenant.
  2. That he afterwards, by known, willful sin, trod under foot the Son of God. And,
  3. That he hereby incurred a sorer punishment than death, namely, death everlasting.

Therefore, those who are sanctified by the blood of the covenant may yet so fall as to perish everlastingly.”

Wesley also cited such passages as Ezekiel 18:24; 1 Timothy 1:18-19; Romans 11:17-22; John 15:1-6; 2 Peter 2:20-21; Hebrews 6:4-6, and 10:38. He concluded, “I believe a saint may fall away; that one who is holy or righteous in the judgment of God himself may nevertheless so fall from God as to perish everlastingly.”

2. Is the marriage covenant indissolvable?

Marriage is called a covenant in Proverbs 2:17 and Malachi 2:14. God has predetermined the terms of the agreement and it is “until death do us part.” God hates divorce, but allows it when there has been unfaithfulness to the marriage vows. The verb used in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, apoluo, implies that the marriage is dissolved. There is a play on words here. Just as these two people “cut a covenant” of marriage, so their divorce cuts off that covenant.

While the marriage union must involve mutual consent; the dissolution of a marriage does not. If one party of the covenant breaks faith, the union is broken and the innocent party cannot maintain the vows of marriage by himself.

God is always the innocent party in cases where salvation is lost. In cases of broken union between two humans neither may be perfect, but the one who commits any act of sexual immorality, which Jesus terms fornication, has broken the covenant and is also guilty of adultery. While the unmarried may also commit fornication, they cannot commit adultery since they have no covenant to break.

Ironically, many Calvinists recognize the conditional nature of the marriage covenant, while many Arminians claim it is unconditional! Ray Sutton, a Calvinist, wrote that if a marriage is a covenant then it comes under the same covenantal principles of the God-to-man covenant. Just as the God-to-man covenant can die, so can the marriage covenant.

On the other hand, E. E. Shelhamer, an old Free Methodist, argued that the marriage tie was indissoluble and therefore the innocent party will have to suffer the penalty of living alone during the lifetime of the other party.

At least Charles Ryrie is consistent — even if consistently wrong. Ryrie believes that “the gift of salvation once received is possessed forever and cannot be lost.” Ryrie also believes that marriage is permanent, “with no exceptions.”

I write with deep concern that I will be misunderstood as advocating divorce. In an age of careless vows and no-fault divorce, those who take the oath of marriage need to be warned that implicit in the covenant is a self-inflicted curse which accepts in advance the judgment of God for breaking covenant. Yet after nearly 25 years as a pastor, my concern is that the church all too often punishes the innocent party, forcing them to maintain their half of a contract which has been broken and therefore in no longer binding.

3. Are the Jews unconditionally elect?

Zechariah declared in 11:10-14 that God would revoke his covenant with Israel. Wesley commented that what the prophet did typically, Christ did really. In his Notes, Wesley explained that the Jews who would not receive the Lord became reprobate, “For they no longer continued to be the people of God.” Their titles and privileges were transferred to both Jews and Gentiles who embraced Christianity [Rom 8:33]. Therefore, the Gospel and the covenant with Abraham are essentially the same.

Joseph Benson explained that through their infidelity the Jews forfeited their right to be counted as the seed of Abraham and that by imitating his faith the gentiles were now received as God’s children. Wilber Dayton wrote, “God is vindicated of the charge of breaking faith with the Jews in making Christianity the fulfillment of His promises to them.”

This understanding is in direct contradiction to dispensationalism, as expressed in John MacArthur’s declaration that to teach the church has replaced Israel in God’s plan of redemption “assumes God’s faithlessness in keeping His unconditional promise to Israel…. But He has not (and because of His holy nature He could not) reneged on that promise.” MacArthur, of course, assumes that God’s promises are unconditional.

In his evaluation of dispensationalism, the first theological flaw named by Ray Dunning is that “it is based upon a Calvinistic view of covenant with Israel that is unconditional and cannot be broken. This leads to an eternal distinction between Israel and the Church.”

While a consistent Wesleyan-Arminian cannot hold the basic assumptions of dispensationalism, popular holiness preachers have so sold their movement on an alien eschatology that to hold the historic Wesleyan position is to be considered suspect.

Ironically, it is a Calvinist, Gary DeMar, who rejects dispensationalism on the basis that covenants are conditional. DeMar rejects the notion that the promises of land to Israel are still in effect. According to Leviticus 18:24-30, remaining in the land was conditional.

If Israel did not obey, God said He would spew them out (v 28). But did not God promise to give the land to Abraham and his descendants “forever” (Gen 13:15)? Of course he did. Jesus addresses this in Matthew 5:3-10. In fact, all the OT promises are fulfilled in the NT in the person and work of Christ.

But there remains a conditional side to the promises. Jesus states, without reservation or equivocation, that “‘the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it.’ … And when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them” (Matt 21:45). Anyone who claims to interpret the Bible literally cannot easily dismiss these passages. God is interpreting the OT promises for us! It’s His word over against that of C. I. Scofield.

DeMar, the Calvinist, concludes, “If the promises to Israel are unconditional, then no matter what Israel does, she still inherits all the promises…. There can be no “spewing out,” no kingdom “taken away,” and no coming to “remove your lampstand” (Rev 2:5). While neither DeMar nor I would deny the prophecy of Romans 11:26, that all Israel will be saved, what we would deny is that she will be saved under different terms or revert back to the old covenant. Instead, they will be grafted into the Church (v 24).

DeMar’s exegesis leaves me with only two unanswered questions. If committed Calvinists recognize that Israel, God’s elect, broke covenant, how can they teach with any consistency that the saintswill persevere? And why would any Wesleyan-Arminian adopt the prophetic conclusions of dispensationalism, when they are based on a false view of covenants?

Since covenants are, by nature, conditional, let us pray for grace to keep them. Let us keep covenant with God, the Church, and our family.

[This article was taken from The Fundamental Wesleyan Society website. It originally appeared in the society’s Arminian Magazine 18.2 (Fall 2000).]