April 27, 2008

John Flavel's (1630–1691) Reply to Baptist Hyper-Calvinism from Vindiciæ Legis et Fœderis

A Reply to Baptist Hypercalvinism
an excerpt from
Vindiciæ Legis et Fœderis

By: John Flavel


Come we next to consider that opinion of yours, which led you into these other gross mistakes and absurdities, and that is this, that the covenant of grace is absolute; and whatever covenant is not so, but hath any condition upon our part, must needs for that reason be a covenant of works. See page 229. It is observable (say you) that as the covenants mentioned Gen. 2. Exod. 20. &c were all conditional, and therefore legal covenants, requiring strict and perfect obedience, as the condition propounded, in order to the enjoyment of the mercies contained in them, which are all therefore done away in Christ; so on the other hand we see, that the covenant God made with Abraham, Gen. 12.2,3 and Gen. 17.2,3 and Gen. 22.16-18 was wholly free and absolute, and therefore purely evangelical, &c. We will review these things anon, and see if you truly represent the matter; but in order to it, let me tell you,

First, What we mean by a gospel-condition. Secondly, Prove that there are such in the gospel-covenant. Thirdly, Shew you the absurdity of your opinion against it.

(1.) What we mean by a condition in the gospel-covenant. By a condition of the covenant, we do not mean in the strictest rigid sense of the word, such a restipulation to God from man of perfect obedience in his own person, at all times, so as the least failure therein forfeits all the mercies of the covenant; that is rather the condition of Adam's covenant of works, than of the evangelical covenant: nor do we assert any meritorious condition, that in the nature of an impulsive cause shall bring man into the covenant and its privileges, or continue him in when brought in. This we renounce as well as you: but our question is about such a condition as is neither in the nature of an act perfect in every degree, nor meritorious in the least of the benefit conferred, nor yet done in our own strength. But plainly and briefly, our question is, Whether there be not something as an act required of us in point of duty, to a blessing consequent by virtue of a promise? Such a thing, whatever it be, hath the nature of a condition, inasmuch as it is antecedent to the benefit of the promise; and the mercy or benefit granted, is suspended until it be performed. The question is not, whether there be any intrinsical worth or value in the thing so required, to oblige the disposer to make or perform the grant or promise, but merely that it be antecedent to the enjoyment of the benefit; and that the disposer of the benefit do suspend the benefit until it be performed? Thus an act or duty of ours, which has nothing at all of merit in it, or answerable value to the benefit it relates to, may be in a proper sense a condition of the said benefit. "For what is a condition in the true notion of it, but (1) the suspension of a grant until something future be done?" "Or, (2) as others to the same purpose, The adding of words to a grant, for the future, of a suspending quality, according to which the disposer will have the benefit he disposeth to be regulated?" This properly is a condition, though there be nothing of equivalent value or merit in the thing required.

And such your brethren, in their narrative, page 14 do acknowledge faith to be, when they assert none can be actually reconciled, justified, or adopted, till they are really, implanted into Jesus Christ by faith; and so, by virtue of this their union with him, have these fundamental benefits actually conveyed unto them; which contains the proper notion of the condition we contend for.

And such a condition of salvation we assert faith to be in the new covenant grant; that is to say, the grant of salvation by God in the gospel-covenant is suspended from all men, till they believe, and is due by promise, not merit, to them as soon as they do truly believe. The notes or signs of a condition given by civilians, or moralists, are such as these, If, if not, unless, but if, except, only, and the like. When these are added in the promise of a blessing or benefit for the future, they make that promise conditional; and your grammar (according to which you must speak, if you speak properly and strictly) will tell you, that Si, sin, modo, dum, dummodo, are all conditional particles; and it is evident, that these conditional particles are frequently inserted in the grants of the blessings and privileges of the New Testament. As for example; Mark 11.23, ει δυνασαι πιςευσαι, "If thou canst believe." Acts 8.37, ει πιστεύεις εξ όλης της καρδίας, "If thou believest with thy whole heart thou mayest," &c. Rom. 10.9, οτι εαν, "That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth, and believe with thy heart," &c. "thou shall be saved." Matt. 18.3, εαν μη, "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." Mark 5.36, μονον, "Only believe." Mark 11.26, ει δε υμεις ουκ αφιετε, "But if ye forgive not," &c. with multitudes more, which are all conditional particles inserted in the grants of benefits.

(2.) Having shewn you what the nature of a condition is, I shall, I hope, make it plain to you, that faith is such a condition in the gospel-grant of our salvation; for we find the benefit suspended till this act of faith be performed; John 3.36, "He that believeth on the Son, hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son, shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him" And most plainly, Rom. 10.9, having shewn before what the condition of legal righteousness was, he tells us there what the gospel-condition of salvation is; "The righteousness which is of faith, speaketh on this wise; That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thy heart, that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." I ask you, sir, whether it be possible to put words into a frame more lively expressive of a condition than these are? Do but compare Mark 16.16, "He that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved; but he that believeth not, shall be damned:" Do but compare, I say, that scripture-phrase with the words of Jacob's sons, which all allow to be conditional, Gen. 43.4,5, "If thou wilt send our brother with us, we will go down; but if thou wilt not send him, we will not go down;" and judge whether the one be not as conditional as the other: more particularly,

If we cannot be justified or saved till we believe, then faith is the condition on which those consequent benefits are suspended.

But we cannot be justified or saved till we believe; Ergo.

The sequel of the major is evident; for, as we said before, a condition is the suspension of a grant till something future be done. The minor is plain in scripture; Rom. 4.24, "Now it was not written for his sake alone, that righteousness was imputed to him; but for our sakes also, to whom it shall be imputed if we believe." οις μέλλει λογιζεσθαι, Quibus futurim est ut imputetur, to whom it shall come to pass, that it shall be imputed, if we believe: And Acts 10.43, "Whosoever believeth on him, shall receive remission of sins." John 3.36, "He that believeth not, shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him;" with multitudes more. Now, sir, lay seriously before your eyes such scriptures as these, that promise salvation to believers, and threaten damnation to all unbelievers, as Mark 16.16 doth, and then give a plain and clear answer to this question; either the positive part of that text promises salvation absolutely to men, whether they believe or believe not, and consequently unbelievers shall be saved as well as believers; and the negative part threatens damnation absolutely to sinners, as sinners; and consequently all sinners shall be damned, whether they believe or not: or else, if you allow neither to be absolute, but that none can be saved till they believe, nor any damned when they do believe; is not that a conditional promise and threatening?

If God's covenant with Abraham, Gen. 12.2,3 and that Gen. 17.2,3 were (as you say) pure gospel-covenants of grace, and yet in both some things are required as duties on Abraham's part, to make him partaker of the benefits of the promises; then the covenant of grace is not absolute, but conditional.

But so it was in both these covenants; Ergo.

The minor only requires proof; for which let us have recourse to the places, and see whether it be so or not.

(1.) For the first you instance in as a pure gospel-covenant made with Abraham, Gen. 12.2,3. I must confess, as you dismember the text, p.229, by choosing out the second and third verses, and leaving out the first, which was the trial of Abraham's obedience, in forsaking his native country, and his father's house; I say, give me but this liberty to separate and disjoin one part of a covenant from the other, and it is easy to make any conditional covenant in the world to become absolute; for take but the duty required, from the promise that is made, and that which was a conditional, presently becomes an absolute grant. Suppose, sir, that Abraham had refused to leave his dear native country, and dearest relations, as many do; think you that the promised mercies had been his? I must plainly tell you, you assume a strange liberty in this matter, and make a great deal bolder with the scriptures than you ought: and the very same usage the other scriptures hath.

(2.) For when you cite your second covenant with Abraham, you only cite Gen. 17.2,3 and then call it an absolute gospel-covenant; when indeed you make it so, by leaving out the first verse, which contains the condition or duty required on Abraham's part; for thus run the three first verses, "And when Abraham was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abraham, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk thou before me, and be thou perfect, and I will make my covenant between me and thee," &c. Here an upright conversation before God is required of him, at God's entrance into this covenant with him; but that is, and must be omitted, and cut off, to make the covenant look absolute, I am really grieved to see the scriptures thus dealt with to serve a design!

Argument III.

If all the promises of the gospel be absolute and unconditional, requiring no restipulation from man, then they cannot properly and truly belong to the new covenant.

But they do properly and truly belong to the new covenant; therefore they are not all absolute and unconditional.

The sequel of the major is only liable to doubt or denial, namely, That the absoluteness of all the promises of the New Testament cuts off their relation to a covenant; but that it doth so, no man can deny, that understands the difference between a covenant and an absolute promise. A covenant is a mutual compact or agreement betwixt parties, in which they bind each other to the performance of what they respectively promise; so that there can be no other proper covenant where there is not a restipulation or re-obligation of one part, as well as a promise on the other; but an absolute promise binds only one party and leaves the other wholly free and unobliged to any thing in order to the enjoyment of the good promised. So then, if all the New Testament promises be unconditional and absolute, they are not part of a covenant, nor must that word be applied to them; they are absolute promises, binding no man to whom they are made to any duty, in order to the enjoyment of the mercies promised: But those persons that are under these absolute promises, must and shall enjoy the mercies of pardon and salvation, whether they repent or repent not, believe or believe not, obey or obey not. Now to what licentiousness this doctrine leads men, is obvious to every eye. Yet this absoluteness of the covenant (as you improperly call it) is by you asserted, p. 229, 230. There is (say you) no condition at all, it is wholly free and absolute, as the covenant with Abraham, Gen. 12.2,3. Gen. 17.2,3. Thank you, sir, for making them so; for by cutting off the first verses, where the duty required on Abraham's part is contained, you make them what God never intended them to be. And the same foul play is in Deut. 30, where you separate the plain condition contained in verses 1,2, from the promise, verse 6. Or if the condition, verses 1,2 be not plain enough, but you will make it part of the promise, I hope that after, in verse 10 is too plain to be denied. As to the other texts, more anon; mean time see how you destroy the nature of a covenant.

Objection. But say you, page 233. To impose new conditions, though never so mild, is a new covenant of works with some mercy, but not a covenant of grace, properly so called.

Solution. It is true, if those works or acts of ours, which God requires, be understood of meritorious works in our own strength and power to perform, it destroys the free grace of the covenant; but this we utterly reject, and speak only of faith wrought in us by the Spirit of God, which receives all from God, and gives the entire glory to God; Eph. 2.5,8.

Objection. But you will say, If faith be the condition, and that faith be not of ourselves, then both the promise and the condition are on God's part (if you will call faith a condition) and so still on our part the covenant is absolute.

Solution. This is a mistake, and the mistake in this leads you into all the rest; though faith (which we call the condition on our part) be the gift of God, and the power of believing be derived from God, yet the act of believing is properly our act, though the power by which we believe be of God; else it would follow, when we act any grace, as faith, repentance, or obedience, that God believes, repents, and obeys in us, and it is not we, but God that doth all these. This, I hope, you will not dare to assert; they are truly our works, though wrought in God's strength? Isa. 26.12. "Lord, thou hast wrought all our works in us;" i.e., though they be our works, yet they are wrought in us by thy grace or strength.

As for Dr. Owen, it is plain from the place you cite in the doctrine of justification, p. 156, he only excludes conditions, as we do, in respect of the dignity of the act, as is more plain in his treatise of redemption, p. 103,104, in which he allows conditions in both the covenants, and makes this the difference, That the Old required them, but the New effects them in all the fœderates.

I know no orthodox divine in the world, that presumes to thrust in any work of man's into the covenant of grace, as a condition, which, in the Arminian sense, he may or may not perform, according to the power and pleasure of his own free will, without the preventing or determining grace of God; which preventing grace is contained in those promises, Ezek. 36.25-27, &c. Nor yet that there is any meritorious worth, either of condignity or congruity in the Popish sense, in the very justifying act of faith, for the which God justifies and saves us. But we say, That though God, in the way of preventing grace, works faith in us, and when it is so wrought, we need his assisting grace to act it, yet neither his assisting nor preventing grace makes the act of faith no more to be our act; it is we that believe still though in God's strength, and that upon our believing, or not believing, we have or have not the benefits of God's promises; which is the very proper notion of a condition.

Argument IV.

If all the promises of the new covenant be absolute and unconditional, having no respect nor relation, to any grace wrought in us, nor duty done by us, then the trial of our interest in Christ, by marks and signs of grace, is not our duty, nor can we take comfort in sanctification, as an evidence of our justification.

But it is a Christian's duty to try his interest in Christ by marks and signs; and he may take comfort in sanctification, as an evidence of justification. Ergo.

The sequel of the major is undeniably clear: so that can never be a sign or evidence of an interest in Christ, which that interest may be without; yea, and as Dr. Crispe asserts, according to his Antinomian principles, 'Christ is ours (saith he) before we have gracious qualifications; every true mark and sign must be inseparable from that it signifies.' Now, if the works of the Spirit in us be not so, but an interest in Christ may be where these are not, then they are no proper marks or signs; and if they are not, it cannot be our duty to make use of them as such, and consequently if we should, they can yield us no comfort.

The minor is plain in scripture; 1 John 2.3, "Hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments." The meaning is, we perceive and discern ourselves to be sincere believers, and consequently that Christ is our propitiation, when obedience to his commands is become habitual and easy to us; So 1 John 3.19, "Hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him;" i.e., by our sincere cordial love to Christ and his members, as verse 18, this shall demonstrate to us, that we are the children of truth; and again, 1 John 3.15, "We know that we are passed from death to life; because we love the brethren:" With multitudes more to the same purpose, which plainly teach Christians to fetch the evidences of their justification out of their sanctification, and to prove their interest in Christ, by the works of his Spirit found in their own hearts.

And this is not only a Christian's liberty, but his commanded duty to bring his interest in Christ to this touchstone and test; 2 Cor. 13.5, "Examine yourselves, prove yourselves," &c. 2 Pet. 1.10, "Give all diligence to make your calling and election sure," i.e., your election by your calling. No man can make his election sure a priori, nor can any make it surer than it is in se; therefore it is only capable of being made sure to us a posteriori; arguing from the work of sanctification in us, to God's eternal choice of us.

And as the saints in all ages have taken this course, so they have taken great and lawful comfort in the use of these marks and signs of grace; 2 Kings 20.3.; 2 Cor. 1.12.

I am sensible how vehemently the Antinomian party, Dr. Crispe, Mr. Eyre, and some others, do oppugn [oppose] this truth, representing it as legal and impracticable (for they are for the absolute and unconditional nature of the new covenant, as well as you); but by your espousing their principle, you have even run Anabaptism into Antinomianism; and must, by this principle of yours, renounce all marks and trials of an interest in Christ, by any work of the Spirit wrought in us. You must only stick to the immediate sealings of the Spirit; which, if such a thing be at all, it is but rare and extraordinary.

I will not deny but there may be an immediate testimony of the Spirit; but sure I am his mediate testimony by his graces in us, is his usual way of sealing believers. We do not affirm any of these his works to be meritorious causes of our justification; or that, considered abstractly from the Spirit, they can of themselves seal, or evidence our interest in Christ. Neither do we affirm, that any of them are complete and perfect works; but this we say, that they being true and sincere, though imperfect graces, they are our usual and standing evidences, to make out our interest in Christ by. And I hope you, and the whole Antinomian party, will find it hard, yea, and impossible, to remove the saints from that comfortable and scriptural way of examining their interest in Christ, by the graces of his Spirit in them; as the saints, who are gone to heaven before them, have done in all generations.

Argument V.

If the covenant of grace be altogether absolute and unconditional, requiring nothing to be done on our part, to entitle us [to come into possession of the right] to its benefits; then it cannot be man's duty in entering covenant with God, to deliberate the terms, count the cost, or give his consent by word or writing, explicitly to the terms of this covenant.

But it is man's duty in entering Covenant with God, to deliberate the terms, and count the cost; Luke 14.26-34. and explicitly to give his consent thereunto, either by word or writing: Ergo.

The sequel of the major is self-evident: For where there are no terms or conditions required on our part, there can be none to deliberate, or give our consent to; and so a man may be in a covenant without his own consent.

The minor is undeniable in the text cited: If you say, These are duties, but not conditions; I reply, they are such duties, without the performance of which we can have no benefit by Christ and the new covenant, Luke 14.33. And such duties have the true suspending nature of conditions in them. If you say they are only subsequent duties, but not antecedent or concomitant acts, the 28th verse directly opposes you: Let him first sit down and count the cost. And for those overt-acts, whereby we explicitly declare our consent to the terms of the covenant, at our first entering into the bond of it, I hope you will not say, that it is a legal covenant too; Isa. 44.3,4, "I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my Spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine off-spring; and they shall spring up as among the grass, as willows by the water-courses; One shall say, I am the Lord's, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob; and another shall subscribe with his hand unto the Lord," &c. A plain allusion to soldiers, when they list themselves under a captain, or general.

What remains now to reply to these arguments, but either that the places by me cited and argued upon, do not intend the new covenant, under which we are; or that this new covenant hath its conditions, and is not altogether absolute, as you have asserted it to be.
John Flavel, "Vindiciæ Legis et Fœderis: Or, A Reply to Mr. Philip Cary's Solemn Call," in The Whole Works of the Rev. Mr. John Flavel (London: Printed for J. Mathews, 1799), 6:348–355.

John Flavel, "Vindiciæ Legis et Fœderis: Or, A Reply to Mr. Philip Cary's Solemn Call," in The Whole Works of the Rev. Mr. John Flavel (London: Printed for W. Baynes and Son, 1820), 348–356.


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