Continuing our series on the covenant theology of the Westminster Standards (see parts #1, #2), the third element of a covenant, namely conditions, may be the most controversial and perhaps the most confusing. In fact, at least some of the controversy over the conditionality of the covenant of grace is due to the confusion surrounding the meaning and use of the word “condition.”
Theological words and phrases may and do have multiple meanings. For example, the phrase “republication of the covenant of works” may refer to a number of different and quite distinct views. The same may be true of “the two kingdoms” or “covenantal justification.” Consequently, a person may hold to one understanding of republication, of the two kingdoms, and of covenantal justification and reject other understandings of those very same terms. Or a person may reject the terms themselves but keep the concepts and refer to them by different names. For example, a person may reject the term “covenant of works,” but still embrace the theology behind that term and refer to it by “covenant of life” or “Adamic Administration.”
All of this and more is true of the theological term “condition.” Many puritans used it and by it they generally meant whatever is required on our part in the covenant of grace. Although they were careful in their use of the word to avoid legalism, Arminianism and Romanism, they were sometimes still accused of all three. Of the puritans who embraced conditionality, some believed that faith, repentance, and obedience are all conditions, albeit in different senses; while others believed that faith is the only condition of the covenant. Samuel Rutherford, for example, argued that faith is the condition of the covenant while “holiness and sanctification is the condition of the Covenanters.”
There were some puritans who rejected the term “condition” altogether. Tobias Crisp argued that there were no conditions in any sense. Faith, thus, is not a condition or requirement of salvation, it is rather evidence of salvation. William Bridge wrote in 1667 that there were no conditions in the new covenant, which he limited to the elect, because if a requirement on our part is promised then it can’t be a condition. Even faith, therefore, is not a condition because God promises to give faith to his people. ridge did, however, believe that faith, obedience and repentance are required in the covenant as duties.
In light of these disagreements, what do the Westminster Standards say about conditions and the covenant of the grace? Since, antinomianism, which categorically rejected all conditions, was considered to be a grave threat to orthodoxy in mid-17th century England, it is not surprising at all that not only the theology but the term “condition” is found in the Westminster Standards. Westminster Confession of Faith 7.3 says that the Lord requires man to have faith in order to be saved. Similarly, Westminster Larger Catechism 32 says that faith is required as “the condition to interest them [sinners] in him [the Mediator].” Although the Standards speak of repentance and good works as necessary for salvation in a broad sense, they do not employ the word “condition” with respect to either of them. Thus, strictly speaking only faith is the condition of the covenant of grace.
Since a good number of puritans believed that repentance and obedience are also conditions of the covenant, it is noteworthy that the Standards limit the condition to faith. What accounts for this? The Standards were probably so formulated in order to accommodate the views of those who limited the condition of the covenant to faith such as Samuel Rutherford. By affirming that faith is a condition, by not denying that repentance and obedience are conditions, and by expressing the necessity of repentance and obedience, the Westminster divines produced a document that rejected antinomianism on the one hand, and embraced the varied opinions concerning conditionality on the other hand. The Westminster Standards, therefore, are, at least with respect to the topic of covenant conditions, a fine example of a Reformed consensus document.