The Five Points of Calvinism and Covenant Theology


CalvinismIn recent years, there has been a recovery of the five points of Calvinism among many evangelicals, but there has not been a concomitant revival of the covenant theology of seventeenth century Puritanism as the rich soil in which Calvinistic soteriology grows. This post will not attempt to thoroughly defend every doctrine mentioned, but to show the connection between Calvinism and the theological covenants of covenant theology. The Synod of Dordt listed the five points of Calvinism, not in their contemporary order of “TULIP,” but in the order of “ULTIP,” which is the order I’ll be using here.

1. Unconditional Election. The eternal decree of unconditional election is the foundation of covenant theology and the doctrine of salvation. God chooses to save sinners not because of any foreseen goodness or conditions in them, but merely because of His good pleasure to redeem a people for Himself to bring Him glory. Speaking of unconditional divine election, Paul writes, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). There are no conditions in God’s choosing individuals for salvation. God’s choice is based entirely upon His sovereign will: “He has mercy on whomever He wills and He hardens whomever He wills” (Romans 9:18).

2. Limited Atonement. Limited atonement might be better termed “particular redemption” or “definite atonement.” It means that Christ’s death is absolutely effective to save, purchasing every life blessing for His chosen people, including new birth, faith, repentance, justification, adoption, as well as an enduring holy life (Rom 8:31-39). Hebrews 9:12 tells us that Christ accomplished salvation for His people, “by means of His own blood, thus securing eternal redemption.” Notice Christ’s blood “secures” redemption. It doesn’t just make redemption possible, but actually secures redemption. His blood secures “eternal” redemption, not temporary redemption. And it secures “redemption.” That is, the blood of Christ actually redeems and doesn’t merely make a provision for redemption. Since only a limited number of people are redeemed, we must conclude that Christ died only to save His chosen people. And this is in fact what the Scriptures teach. Matthew 1:21 says, “He will save His people from their sins.” In John 10:15, Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” In John 17:9, Jesus says, “I am not praying for the world, but for those whom you have given me.” Christ’s priestly work of atonement and prayer is limited to the elect alone.

So, what does this have to do with covenant theology? Covenant theology views “limited atonement” as rooted in the eternal “covenant of redemption” between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect. In this eternal covenant (an aspect of the eternal decree), the Father appointed the Son to enter into this world, to fulfill the law of God, to die for His chosen people, and to rise from the dead. The Son agreed to accomplish the Father’s will (John 17:4).  A covenant is “an agreement between two or more persons;” therefore, it is proper to view this agreement between the Father and the Son covenantally. Based on this eternal covenant, or agreement, between the Father and the Son, the Son came into the world, kept the law of God and accomplished the redemption of the elect in time (2 Timothy 1:9-10). The whole of Isaiah 53 is about Christ’s temporal obedience to this eternal covenant of redemption, and Isaiah 54:10 explicitly calls it the “covenant of peace.”

3. Total Depravity. Total Depravity refers to the fact that human beings are born depraved in mind, heart, and will. Sinners are not as depraved as they can possibly be, but they are truly depraved in every aspect of their persons. The result of total depravity is that no natural person will ever seek God, embrace the gospel, or do any absolute good whatsoever. Romans 3:10-11 explains total depravity: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Similarly, Isaiah 64:7 says, “There is no one who calls upon your name, no one who rouses himself to take hold of you.” Therefore, no human being can do anything toward his own salvation. Natural men are completely lost and without hope in themselves. They will not choose Christ. They will not come to Him.

In terms of covenant theology, the “total depravity” of fallen humanity is the result of Adam’s violation of the “covenant of works.” In the beginning, God created Adam as a bearer of the divine image and as a covenantal representative (federal head) of all humanity. As God’s image, Adam was created to love and enjoy God. God lovingly wrote His good law on Adam’s heart, which taught Adam how to love to God and others (Romans 2:14). God promised eternal life to Adam for obedience (Genesis 3:22), but He also threatened eternal death to Adam and his posterity for disobedience (Genesis 2:17). Because Adam disobeyed God by failing to love God and by breaking His law, God cursed Adam and all who descend from him by natural generation with eternal death. Paul writes, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). The curse of death means that Adam’s natural descendants inherit totally depraved natures that have no desire for the true God and no desire to come to Him for salvation and life. “In Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Therefore, because of Adam’s failure in the “covenant of works,” all humanity is cursed with “total depravity.”

4. Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints. These two aspects of the five points of Calvinism go together.

“Irresistible grace,” or “effective/effectual grace” as it is sometimes called, means that God effectively brings His chosen people to salvation. Without such effective saving grace, even God’s chosen people would resist salvation to their deaths because they all inherited fallen and depraved natures from Adam.

“Perseverance of the saints” means that God effectively causes His chosen people to remain saved and live holy lives.

Irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints are logically necessary in light of the fallen natures of human beings. Because human beings are totally depraved and because they are totally unable to do anything to bring themselves to God, the only way for them to be saved and remain saved is for God to provide a powerful, conquering kind of grace that overcomes all natural human resistance to first and final salvation.

The Scriptures frequently link “irresistible grace” and “perseverance of the saints.” Jesus said, “And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39) and “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40). Also, Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father who has given them to me is greater than all and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).

In covenant theology, the doctrines of irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints are blessings of the “covenant of grace.” God made the covenant of grace with His elect people to save them from their sins. All the blessings of the covenant of grace are the purchase of Christ’s work in the covenant of redemption. In the covenant of redemption, Christ accomplished redemption. In the covenant of grace, the Holy Spirit applies the redemption Christ accomplished.

And what are the blessings of the covenant of grace? Jeremiah 31:31-34 is quoted in Hebrews 8:10-12, and it teaches that God irresistibly draws his people to Himself: “I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God and they will be my people” (Hebrews 8:10). Notice that God is the one who acts to convert the hearts of His people. He says “I will” do these things. In the covenant of grace, God irresistibly draws His people to salvation.

The covenant of grace also provides the blessing of perseverance. Hebrews says, “They shall not teach each one his neighbor and each one his brother saying, ‘know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:11-12). God preserves all members of the covenant of grace in the knowledge of Himself. He also forgives their sins.

Therefore, the covenant of grace provides the blessings of irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints to those God chose for salvation from the foundation of the world.

In closing, the Bible’s covenant theology demonstrates that the five points of Calvinism are not a narrow teaching of the Bible, limited to certain proof texts or to an aspect of systematic theology. The five points of Calvinism are deeply rooted in the very superstructure of the Bible, which means that the whole of Scripture is about the glorious doctrines of God’s sovereign redeeming grace.

For more information on the covenant or federal theology of 17th century Baptists, see Covenant Theology, edited by Earl Blackburn, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology by Pascal Denault, and Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ by Nehemiah Coxe and John Owen.

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5 Responses to “The Five Points of Calvinism and Covenant Theology”

  1. How does Gen 3:22 get interpreted as a promise of eternal life to Adam? This is a post-Fall observation by YHWH that man will NOT be allowed to eat of the tree of life.

    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      I’ve found the following words by Matt Perman helpful:

      “God promised eternal life to perfect obedience

      As we mentioned above and will see more clearly below from the Scriptures, there are two aspects to what the Scriptures mean by eternal life: confirmation in a right standing with God and a title to the enjoyment of His heavenly glory. Adam lacked these things in the Garden, and thus lacked eternal life. But the covenant of works set before him the legitimate possibility of obtaining eternal life if he obeyed. Before examining the Scriptural evidence for this, however, some clarifications need to be emphasized to avoid misunderstanding.

      First, to say that Adam did not possess eternal life in the Garden is not to say that he was subject to death as originally created. Death is presented as a curse in Genesis 3:19, and thus could not have been a part of Adam’s natural mode of existence before the fall. So even though Adam’s original state of existence in the Garden did not include eternal life, neither did it include death. Nonetheless, Adam was able to become subject to death by sinning. Consequently, in his pre-fallen life Adam had was immortal (not subject to death) with a corruptible immortality (one that could be lost), but not an incorruptible immortality (one that cannot be lost).

      Second, to say that Adam was promised a greater blessing of God’s glory in the covenant than he had in his original state is not to say that he did not live in paradise and glory before the fall, but is simply to say that he did not exist in a state of fullness of glory–that is, his estate was earth and not also heaven.

      Third, to say that Adam did not possess a confirmed right standing with God as originally created is not to say that Adam possessed no right standing with God as originally created. Rather, Adam was created right with God but not eternally secured in a right standing with God.

      The tree of life symbolized a reward of eternal life for obedience

      That eternal life in this sense of a confirmed standing with God and a title to heavenly glory was promised to Adam upon the condition that he obey is revealed by several factors. First, the presence of the tree of life reveals that, had Adam passed his probation successfully, he would have been given eternal life. God explicitly says in Genesis 3:22 that if Adam were to eat of the tree of life he would “live forever.” Surely God is not stating that there is some magical quality of that tree to confer eternal life. Rather, it seems best to conclude that the tree would have “been the sacramental means for communicating” eternal life under certain circumstances (Vos, 28).[10]

      What circumstances would those be? In light of the fact that Adam was in a state of testing, that death was the threatened punishment for disobedience, and that eating of the tree would grant Adam to “live forever,” it seems that obedience would have been the event in which Adam would have been granted access to the tree of life–the tree through which those who eat it “live forever.”

      This becomes especially evident when we realize that Adam did not eat of the tree of life during the probation (Genesis 3:22)–even though there was no recorded prohibition concerning that tree. Further, as Vos points out, “after the fall God attributes to man the inclination of snatching the fruit against the divine purpose. But this very desire implies the understanding that it somehow was the specific life-sacrament for the time after the probation” (Vos, 28).

      Thus, it seems best to conclude that “the use of the tree was reserved for the future” (Vos, 28)–i.e., for after a successful completion of the probationary period. In other words, since Adam did not eat of the tree while in the probationary period and since he was denied access to the tree upon his fall, access to the tree (and thus eternal life) would only be given to him upon a successful completion of the probationary period (i.e., a course of perfect obedience).

      Consequently, we see that Adam did not yet possess eternal life during his probation (since he had not yet partook of the tree that “conferred” such life) but would have gained eternal life upon completion of a course of perfect obedience (because then he would have had access to the tree of life). Thus, the tree of life shows that perfect obedience for Adam would have resulted in eternal life.

      But how do we know that the life that the tree would confer would include both aspects of eternal life as we are defining it—namely, the confirmation in right standing with God that gives one a title to heavenly glory? For God says that eating of the tree of life would mean that one would “live forever.” That sounds like the reward symbolized by the tree was only confirmation in right standing with God and not also a title to heavenly glory. So how can we say that the tree symbolized not only confirmation in right standing with God but also a title to heavenly glory?

      My answer is that it follows from the very nature of a probation and a reward. As Francis Turretin argues, “the state of the way ought to differ from the state of native country: the place of contest and trial, and the place of reward and wages. Now the earthly paradise was the place of trial and the life enjoyed in it, the state of the way. Thus another place ought to be assigned to the state of residence, in which the reward was promised (which could be [n]one other than heaven)…I pass over the argument that if Adam had persevered in obedience, it would have been impossible for him and all his posterity to remain perpetually upon the earth.”[11]

      The threat of death implies the reward of life

      Second, the threat of death for disobedience implies the promise of life for obedience. As Louis Berkhof states, “When the Lord says, ‘for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,’ his statement clearly implies that, if Adam refrains from eating, he will not die, but will be raised above the possibility of death.”

      Furthermore, as Berkhof continues, “The implied promise certainly cannot mean that, in the case of obedience, Adam would be permitted to live on in the usual way, that is, to continue the ordinary natural life, for that life was his already in virtue of his creation, and therefore could not be held out as a reward for obedience. The implied promise evidently was that of life raised to its highest development of perennial bliss and glory.”[12]

      In the same vein, Turretin argues that if the punishment for disobedience was hell, surely the promise for obedience would be heavenly glory, not just earthly life, for “Would God take delight in aggravating punishments and lessening rewards; threatening spiritual, eternal and infernal punishments [as we have already seen he did], and bestowing only earthly promises? (Turretin, 584).

      These arguments become especially convincing when we remind ourselves of the nature of God—namely, that God delights more in giving good things than in punishing bad things (Lamentations 3:33; Ezekiel 33:11). Thus, if God threatened eternal punishment to disobedience, surely he would not only reward obedience but also reward it in a manner far beyond the proportion with which he would have punished disobedience. As Turretin asked, “Would God take delight in aggravating punishments and lessening rewards” (Vol. I, 584)? Thus, since condemnation involves not only confirmation in unrighteousness but also “trans-worldly” punishment, so also the eternal life given to Adam on the basis of his obedience would have involved “trans-worldly” glory of beauty for beyond what he had access to in the Garden. And it almost goes without saying that since the punishment for disobedience would last forever, so also the reward for obedience would last forever.”

    • Lamar Carnes

      New Covenant doctrine and theology supercedes and interprets all O.T. doctrine and theology. New is New! Old is out! Mosaic law is laid aside and is gone so states the Epistles. There are continuity and discontinuity in the covenants of the O.T., and we cannot flat line everything as the Presbyterians do! It would pay the Baptists and Evangelicals to embrace the Doctrines of Grace but reject the Covenant Theology of Presbyterianism totally since een though there is much Bible truth in it, there is also a very lot of speculation, theory, and forced views put into the word of God that just isn’t there. Even John Murray and Charles Hodge admitted that much of their thoughts were only theory and speculation with no Biblical verses to sustain them, especially on the Child covenant deal and baby baptism but yet they said they would teach it anyway! Dispensational Scofield type is also another system which fails the test of Biblical hermeneutics based on New Covenant theology. It has holes all the way through it doing some of the ame things Presbyterians do in terms of how to arrive at their conclusions even though different. Neither has a solid verse or verses in Context whichsustains their systems. That is easy to prove. Space and time here will not allow but I would recommend the works of John Reisinger and Blake White along with others on this subject. It is time to REFORM our systems which are only carry overs from Romanism specifically within Presbyterianism and just plain added words to the Scripture which are not there in Dispensationalist teachings of Darby and Scofield. Even the understanding of the terms used concerning Abramham’s SEED isn’t taught properly for there are 4 distinct seeds mentioned and using the term Israel improperly comes from not understanding the the 4 seeds. All of this is fully about being IN CHRIST alone! Not one thing to do with Abraham’s physical seed other than the Messiah was to be born physically as the God/Man through and in the promised physical seed which was a redeemed chain from Abe’s time to Christ actually birth! New Covenant Theology is the most dedicated system fafithful to the actual Greek and English wording for systematic study of the word of God.


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