Conversations in Reformed biblical theology

covenant theology (2)

Covenant, election and salvation

Is the covenant between God and man to be identified with election unto eternal salvation? Is it to be construed rather as something only very loosely related to salvation? Or is it to be viewed in yet a different manner? This issue has been answered in many ways by different Reformed thinkers over the centuries.

In Scripture, God is unafraid to call His covenant people His "elect." This does not mean that covenant and election (in the sense usually understood) are identical. Rather, because Christ is the preeminent Elect One, all those in Him are addressed by God as His chosen ones. This address is historical and not identical with the eternal decree of predestination to eternal glory. Thus, even though the apostles wrote to churches which doubtless contained members who were not chosen to eternal glory, nonetheless they identified their readers as the elect of God, because they really were a part of the body of the Elect One. This does not lead to false confidence, because these same writers, in the same epistles, provided warnings regarding the necessity of persevering in faith (e.g. 1 Cor 9.24-27). Ultimate benefit, arriving at the final goal of eternal glory, will only come about by way of one route: persevering faith granted and renewed by preserving grace.

To whom does the covenant of grace belong? Closely related and intertwined with the issue of the relationship between covenant and election is the question of who really belongs to the covenant, and to what degree. Numerous writers argue that according to Scripture and early Reformed theology, the covenant embraces a visible community. (Hence, this question relates too to that of the Church.)

In Scripture, there is a much more marked connection between God and an identifiable community than is frequently made today. God associates His name with even wicked people in a remarkable fashion. For example, in 2 Chronicles 36.15-16, we are told that God “had compassion on His people,” but that “they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against His people, till there was no remedy” (NKJV). Even though Judah in this instance was under divine wrath, they were identified as God’s. His name was upon them by virtue of His covenant.

Nor is this a situation unique to the Old Testament, as is sometimes suggested. Peter says that false teachers will “deny the Lord who bought them” (2 Peter 2.1), implying some kind of redemptive connection between Jesus and teachers who stray from the truth. Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul employs the wilderness generation of Israel, which fell under divine judgment, as “types” (Greek tupoi - a word which refers to something which sets a pattern) for the present people of God (1 Cor 10.6, 11), who are therefore to take the warning to heart, not to imitate them. Just as Israel was baptized into Moses, ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink - and in fact partook of Christ (1 Cor 10.4) - and yet perished, so the present people of God are to take heed lest they fall (1 Cor 10.12).


Disclaimer: inclusion of material in the bibliography implies neither endorsement of all views expressed in the material, nor that the author of the material endorses (or, if deceased, would have endorsed) the views of this web site. The criterion for inclusion of material in this list is genuine helpfulness to the discussion, not uniformity of viewpoint.

John Barach: “Covenant and Election.” (In The Federal Vision; Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, eds. Monroe, LA:  Athanasius Press, 2004, pp. 15-44.) A pastoral reflection upon how Scripture addresses the people of God, and a plea to do our preaching and theologizing in imitation of that pattern.

John Calvin, “Special and Common Election.” An excerpt.

Tim Gallant: “Covenant and Election:  A Brief Introduction to Various Views.” A very succinct overview to issues under discussion.

Thomas Goodwin:  “The Covenant Seed: That the Children of Believing Parents Are Included in the Covenant.” An argument from a well-known Puritan regarding the status of believers’ children.

Peter A. Lillback: The Binding of God:  Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.) A highly important study in the original sources, tracing the genesis and shape of early covenant theology.  The section on Zwingli is particularly pertinent to the question of the relationship between covenant and election.

Rich Lusk: “Covenant and Election FAQs.” Responses to various frequent objections or questions raised by the relationship between covenant and election.

Dr. J. Van Genderen: Covenant and Election. (C. Pronk, trans.  Neerlandia, AB: Inheritance, 1995.) Argues that covenant and election are related but not to be identified.


What then of Esau if he had died as an infant? Would your judgment place him among the elect? Yes. Then does election remain sure? It does. And rejection remains also. But listen. If Esau had died an infant he would doubtless have been elect. For if he had died then there would have been the seal of election, for the Lord would not have rejected him eternally. But since he lived and was of the non-elect, he so lived that we see in the fruit of his unfaith that he was rejected by the Lord.

- Ulrich Zwingli, Refutation of the Tricks of the Anabaptists 1527

But he makes a special covenant with Isaac, which rises above the world and this frail life: not for the sake of cutting Ishmael off from the hope of eternal life, but in order to teach him that salvation is to be sought from the race of Isaac, where it really dwells.

- John Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis at 17.20