The Dangers of Meditation

The practice of meditation – more specifically eastern meditation like Zen – is growing popularity. It is primarily touted as a harmless means of relaxation and as a tool for achieving greater cognitive power. However, the practice is not without it’s dangers:

Since the 1970s, meditation has become increasingly popular in the West and is promoted as a way to reduce stress, bring about relaxation, and even manage depression. It’s now being used in classrooms, prisons, and hospitals. Here in Australia, meditation groups and teachers have popped up like mushrooms: hundreds head off to the free (donation only) ten-day Vipassana courses, or sit and meditate with groups such as the Brahma Kumaris or Sahaja Yoga. There is a general assumption and belief that meditation is a secular technique and is good for everyone.

The most common types of meditation taught include sitting still and concentrating on the breath, silently repeating a sound (mantra) or visualizing an image. What is often overlooked is that these Eastern meditation techniques were never meant to be methods to reduce stress and bring about relaxation. They are essentially spiritual tools, designed to apparently “cleanse” the mind of impurities and disturbances so as to attain so-called enlightenment

Can Meditation Be Bad for You?
by Mary Garden
Published in the Humanist, September/October 2007

In the article, author Mary Garden recalls how a fellow meditation devotee committed suicide and explains why it was related to the meditation. In addition to noting regular depression among many long-term practicers of meditation, Garden explains the debilitating effect it can have on the mind:

Arthur Chappell, a former devotee of Guru Maharaj (also known as Prem Rawat), points out that meditation starves the mind of stimulus (sensory deprivation) and he wonders whether desensitizing the mind to stimuli may actually “affect one’s ability to react properly with the level of fear, love, and other emotions required in any given social situation.” Chappell says minds can atrophy–just like limbs do–if they aren’t used for a wide range of purposes:

        Many meditation practitioners have complained of difficulty doing simple arithmetic and remembering names of close friends after prolonged meditation. The effect is rather like that of Newspeak’s obliteration of the English language in George Orwell’s


This is the complete opposite of biblical meditation – that is, meditating upon Scripture – where the goal is to exercise your mind by intellectually contemplating the truths of Scripture. Lots of interesting stuff about the dangerous of eastern meditation out there, but I don’t have time (or interest) to dig into it too much. If anyone has decent resources, feel free to share.

Science as an Aid to Interpreting Scripture

Last year I came across a blog post from George P. Wood titled Science as an Aid to Interpreting Scripture. Wood is the executive editor of the Assemblies of God magazine Enrichment. The post is a response to geocentrists – give it a read first to understand the context. Here’s a summary:

I find it odd that anyone would stake the inerrancy and authority of Scripture on a particular scientific theory, especially a disproved scientific theory. Actually, I find it blasphemous, as it makes God out to be an incompetent astronomer. But I also find the authors’ error instructive. So let’s consider their argument.

Stated as a syllogism, the geocentrists’ argument looks something like this:

  1. Geocentricity is a biblical doctrine.
  2. Whatever the Bible teaches is true.
  3. Therefore, geocentricity is true.

This is a deductive argument. If its conclusion follows logically from its premises, then it is valid. If its premises are true, then it is also sound.

Clearly, the geocentrists’ argument is valid. The question, then, is whether the argument is also sound. Since Premise 2 is true, the question must be whether Premise 1 is true. In support of Premise 1, Bouw cites Psalm 93:1 (KJV), “the world also is established, that it cannot be moved”; 1 Chronicles 16:30 (KJV), “the world also shall be stable, that it not be moved”; and Psalm 96:10 (KJV), “the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved.” These are not the only Scriptures he cites, but they are representative.

Quoting Scripture is not enough to prove Premise 1, however. For example, I could quote Proverbs 14:30 (KJV) to prove that envy is the cause of osteoporosis: “envy [is] the rottenness to the bones.”[1]In fact, however, “Osteoporosis occurs when the creation of new bone doesn’t keep up with the removal of old bone.” Envy has nothing to do with it.[2] The proverb writer is not speaking literally here, but figuratively. This is an important point.

…I don’t see why science itself can’t be used as a tool of interpretation. If we know, from medical science, that envy is not the cause of osteoporosis, why can’t we know, from astronomy, that Sun does not revolve around Earth? And if we know that, interpret the Bible accordingly?

…good science—as opposed to “junk science” or “the latest scientific study”—can correct bad interpretations of Scripture, can’t it? Can’t it be an aid to interpretation of Scripture? I see no reason why not.

There is some good interaction in the comments section of his post, and I added a few thoughts there as well. I find this to be a wonderful example of the dangers of exactly what Wood is arguing for. He is using “good science” to determine the literary form of Scripture. Anything in Scripture that is contrary to “good science” must be metaphorical.

Science and Truth

The first and primary problem is that Wood has a poor understanding of science. We cannot “know” anything from science. All scientists admit that science does not “prove” anything. They admit that it may only disprove a theory. But they throw out the idea that we can ever know truth and settle for a continual progression “towards truth” that never reaches it’s destiny. Scientific philosopher Karl Popper explained:

First, although in science we do our best to find the truth, we are conscious of the fact that we can never be sure whether we have got it. We have learnt in the past, from many disappointments, that we must not expect finality. And we have learnt not to be disappointed any longer if our scientific theories are overthrown…

Thus we can say that in our search for truth, we have replaced scientific certainty by scientific progress…

But this view of scientific method . . . means that in science there is no ‘knowledge’, in the sense in which Plato and Aristotle understood the word, in the sense which implies finality; in science, we never have sufficient reason for the belief that we have attained the truth. What we usually call ‘scientific knowledge’ is, as a rule, not knowledge in this sense, but rather information regarding the various competing hypotheses and the way in which they have stood up to various tests; it is, using the language of Plato and Aristotle, information concerning the latest, and the best tested, scientific ‘opinion’. This view means, furthermore, that we have no proofs in science

Karl Popper and the Emperor’s Clothes

So, to answer Wood’s question “why can’t we know, from astronomy, that the Sun does not revolve around the Earth?”: because we cannot know anything from astronomy. We can hold it as useful opinion that the Sun does not revolve around the Earth, but we cannot know that. Gordon Clark, in a discussion of archaeology, noted:

To test any Scriptural historical account by means of any theory of archaeology is to test that which cannot be false by means of that which cannot be true. It is the height of absurdity… Scientifically, we do not know if the Bible is true, and we never will. That, of course, does not derogate from the truth or authority of Scripture, for two reasons: Scripture is self-authenticating; and science cannot prove anything true.
Archaeology and the Bible, see also The Biblical View of Science

Good Science

Furthermore, Wood claims we need to interpret Scripture based upon “good science” as opposed to “the latest scientific study”. But what is good science other than the latest scientific study? He, like most people, have a ridiculously high and inaccurate trust in the institution of science. In an excellent article in The New Atlantis titled The Folly of Scientism, Austin L. Hughes discusses the inherent problem in defining what good science is:

the “institutional” theories, which identify science with the social institution of science and its practitioners. The institutional approach may be useful to historians of science, as it allows them to accept the various definitions of fields used by the scientists they study. But some philosophers go so far as to use “institutional factors” as the criteria of good science. Ladyman, Ross, and Spurrett, for instance, say that they “demarcate good science — around lines which are inevitably fuzzy near the boundary — by reference to institutional factors, not to directly epistemological ones.” By this criterion, we would differentiate good science from bad science simply by asking which proposals agencies like the National Science Foundation deem worthy of funding, or which papers peer-review committees deem worthy of publication.

The problems with this definition of science are myriad. First, it is essentially circular: science simply is what scientists do. Second, the high confidence in funding and peer-review panels should seem misplaced to anyone who has served on these panels and witnessed the extent to which preconceived notions, personal vendettas, and the like can torpedo even the best proposals. Moreover, simplistically defining science by its institutions is complicated by the ample history of scientific institutions that have been notoriously unreliable. Consider the decades during which Soviet biology was dominated by the ideologically motivated theories of the geneticist Trofim Lysenko, who rejected Mendelian genetics as inconsistent with Marxism and insisted that acquired characteristics could be inherited. An observer who distinguishes good science from bad science “by reference to institutional factors” alone would have difficulty seeing the difference between the unproductive and corrupt genetics in the Soviet Union and the fruitful research of Watson and Crick in 1950s Cambridge. Can we be certain that there are not sub-disciplines of science in which even today most scientists accept without question theories that will in the future be shown to be as preposterous as Lysenkoism? Many working scientists can surely think of at least one candidate — that is, a theory widely accepted in their field that is almost certainly false, even preposterous.

Confronted with such examples, defenders of the institutional approach will often point to the supposedly self-correcting nature of science. Ladyman, Ross, and Spurrett assert that “although scientific progress is far from smooth and linear, it never simply oscillates or goes backwards. Every scientific development influences future science, and it never repeats itself.” Alas, in the thirty or so years I have been watching, I have observed quite a few scientific sub-fields (such as behavioral ecology) oscillating happily and showing every sign of continuing to do so for the foreseeable future. The history of science provides examples of the eventual discarding of erroneous theories. But we should not be overly confident that such self-correction will inevitably occur, nor that the institutional mechanisms of science will be so robust as to preclude the occurrence of long dark ages in which false theories hold sway.

The fundamental problem raised by the identification of “good science” with “institutional science” is that it assumes the practitioners of science to be inherently exempt, at least in the long term, from the corrupting influences that affect all other human practices and institutions.

The Folly of Scientism


As a wonderful example of how these principles apply to Wood’s scenario, consider osteoporosis. Wood said

 I could quote Proverbs 14:30 (KJV) to prove that envy is the cause of osteoporosis: “envy [is] the rottenness to the bones.”[1]In fact, however, “Osteoporosis occurs when the creation of new bone doesn’t keep up with the removal of old bone.” Envy has nothing to do with it.[2]The proverb writer is not speaking literally here, but figuratively. This is an important point.

First of all, Wood doesn’t acknowledge the difference between a description and an explanation. What he quoted is a description of osteoporosis, not an explanation of its causes (which is what he’s trying to refute). Gordon Clark has a great discussion of this problem as it relates to gravity:

Gravity is used chiefly to explain why planets “fall toward” or revolve about the Sun instead of continuing in a straight line according to the first law of motion. But now that the law of gravitation has been worked out with the mathematical precision of inverse squares, do we find explained quod erat demonstrandum?

The difficulty may be illustrated with a still simpler example. If we ask a person why a stone, when dropped, falls to the ground, and he replies, “Oh, that is because of gravity,” has he explained anything at all?… The general law of gravitation is that any two particles attract each other in proportion to the product of their masses and inversely as the square of the distance…

The questions have been asked, Why does a stone fall? What makes it fall? What makes it fall faster? The usual answer is, the law of gravitation. This law as applied to freely falling bodies is that the body falls with an acceleration of thirty-two feet per second per second. Now, to substitute the law itself for its name, the question, Why does a stone fall? is answered by saying that it falls because it falls with an acceleration of thirty-two feet per second per second. But how does a statement of the rate of the fall explain what makes the stone drop in the first place? And how does the rate, ever so carefully measured, explain what makes the stone fall constantly faster? Does it not become clear upon reflection that the law of gravitation is not an explanation? It explains neither the fall of the stone nor the revolution of the planets.

The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God, Gordon H. Clark

Second, apparently Wood has not kept up with his PubMed reading. Clearly, if he wants to be consistent in his theory, he needs to buy a Logos PubMed packaged add-on so that pastors can consult the 22 million medical papers (aside from all the other fields of science) that are so necessary to properly interpret God’s Word. And if they don’t stay up to date with “good science”, then they could end up preaching false doctrine. While it may have been true previously that the author of Proverbs was speaking metaphorically, it is now true, according to good science, that he was speaking literally:

Negative emotions can intensify a variety of health threats. We provide a broad framework relating negative emotions to a range of diseases whose onset and course may be influenced by the immune system; inflammation has been linked to a spectrum of conditions associated with aging, including cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, frailty and functional decline, and periodontal disease. Production of proinflammatory cytokines that influence these and other conditions can be directly stimulated by negative emotions and stressful experiences. Additionally, negative emotions also contribute to prolonged infection and delayed wound healing, processes that fuel sustained proinflammatory cytokine production. Accordingly, we argue that distress-related immune dysregulation may be one core mechanism behind a large and diverse set of health risks associated with negative emotions. Resources such as close personal relationships that diminish negative emotions enhance health in part through their positive impact on immune and endocrine regulation.

Emotions, morbidity, and mortality: new perspectives from psychoneuroimmunology. Kiecolt-Glaser JK, McGuire L, Robles TF, Glaser R.
Department of Psychiatry The Ohio State University College of Medicine, 1670 Upham Drive, Columbus, Ohio 43210, USA.

Psychonueroimmunology is the study of the soul’s (psyche) affect upon the body.

The empirical evidence in the field of psychoneuroimmunology (Ader, R., 1981) has shown that immune activity, as well as some psychological parameters, can be modified by classical conditioning processes. This young discipline is providing scientific facts of the interrelations between emotions, stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain and the immune system. Proinflammatory cytokines play a key role in cardiovascular disease, arthritis, Type II diabetes, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, periodontal disease and some cancers [5]. Negative emotions like depression and anxiety enhance the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, leukocytosis and increased natural killer cell cytotoxicity, as do psychological stressors [6].

Psychosomatic Medicine, Psychoneuroimmunology and Psychedelics


Here we explore connections between religion/spirituality (R/S) and endocrine functions involved in the stress response (i.e., stress hormones). While many neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, and hormones are involved in the stress response, we restrict our discussion to glucocorticoids (cortisol), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and epinephrine (adrenaline). These chemical messengers are thought to mediate the relationship between psychosocial stressors and immune function, and may help to explain how R/S influences immune functions…

As more research emerges on how the immune system affects the brain and influences sickness behaviors, there has also been a tremendous expansion of information on how the brain modulates immune functions through the action of stress hormones. Recent studies indicate a complex circular relationship that involves psychological states influencing endocrine functions, which in turn affect immune functions, which feed back to affect endocrine functions, with both influencing psychological states (see Irwin and Miller 2007)…

As noted above, cortisol increases in response to psychological or physical stressors, and is often viewed as a primary mechanism by which psychological stress gets inside the body to cause disease (G. E. Miller, Chen, and Zhou 2007). Cortisol has many physiological effects aimed at either maintaining homeostasis or regaining it after a stressful experience. These effects include increasing blood glucose, increasing retention of sodium and water, increasing excretion of potassium, increasing sensitivity of vascular system to epinephrine and norepinephrine, anti-inflammatory effects (reducing histamine release and stabilizing lysosomes), increasing vigilance and cognitive performance, and increasing memory of short-term emotional events (called “flash-bulb memories,” designed to remember what to avoid). Many of these functions serve to incrase arousal, focus attention, enhance fear memory and learning, and mobilize energy (glucose) for confronting short-term threats. While in the short term these effects of cortisol are highly adaptive, over the long-term (as in chronic stress or depression) these effects can result in numerous problems: elevated blood pressure, accelerated atherosclerosis, insulin resistance, osteoporosis, slower wound healing, cognitive impairments due to damage to hippocampal regions of the brain, and especially, impaired immunity (McEwen 1998; Graham et al. 2006).

Handbook of Religion and Health, Second Edition, Harold G. Koenig, Dana E. King, Verna Benner Carson; p. 420-421

(See also: Psychotropic Drugs & Biblical Counseling for more on psychoneuroimmunology from a Biblical perspective.)

The Bible and Science

Given all of the above, what should our approach be to the relationship between the Bible and science? John Byl offers some helpful thoughts in his book “God and Cosmos: A Christian View of Time, Space, and the Universe”

One possible approach is that of concordism, which strives to reinterpret the Bible so as to bring it into harmony with modern cosmology… [Wood’s approach]

Others, convinced that such concordist interpretations are invalid, may adopt more drastic methods. Perhaps the Bible, written in a prescientific age, is in error when it addresses scientific matters. Perhaps the Bible is concerned only with theological matters. A view that has recently become quite popular is that of complementarianism, which sees cosmology and theology as totally independent, each dealing with different matters: they give complementary descriptions of the same reality…

An alternative approach is to adapt cosmology to the Bible, or at least, to the traditional reading of the Bible as it has been accepted by the vast majority of Christians throughout the ages.

He notes the plethora of scientific theories of the universe.

In short, a major problem in reconciling science and Scripture is what we can refer to as the problem of scientific knowledge: we have no justifiably valid criteria for finding true theories… science in general – and cosmology in particular – is plagued by the lack of definite, objective criteria that might allow us to easily separate true theories from false ones. It is at this crucial point that we must often be guided by extra-scientific factors.

And finally, he addresses the problem with concordism:

But what would constitute a valid proof of the correctness of any item of extra-biblical knowledge? Since the sixteenth century, with the advancement of scientific investigation, various aspects of the traditional interpretation of Scripture have been challenged: for example, its apparent geocentricity, the account of Noah’s flood, biblical chronology, the story of Adam and Eve, and the existence of heaven and spiritual beings. Some Christians have held on to the literal reading of Scripture, denying that the ne w scientific ideas had been adequately demonstrated. Most, however, felt the need to modify their reading of Scripture, at least to somedegree.

At first the troublesome portions of Scripture were merely reinter- preted so as to be reconciled with modern learning. Elastic methods of interpretation were advocated. To take just one typical example of this concordist school, consider Davis Young, a Christian geologist, who writes:

We need not twist or misinterpret the facts in order to get agreement between the Bible and science. Christians m u st realize that the Scrip- tures donot require us to believe in six twenty-four-hour days of creation. There is legitimate internal biblical evidence to indicate that the days of creation may have been indefinite periods of time. Moreover, the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 need not be taken in a rigidly literal fashion . . . It is not entirely clear that the Bible is talking about a geo- graphically universal flood . . . There is considerable room for legitimate variation of interpretation of the creation and the flood.‘

The obvious difficulty with such a flexible approach to Scripture is the danger of merely reading out of it what we put in. Scripture is reduced to a mirror of human thoughts rather than a source of divine light. The inadequacies of concordism have been stressed by none other than Young himself in a more recent work, where he repudiates his earlier concordistic position:

All the variations of the concordist theme give us a Bible that is constantly held hostage to the latest scientific theorizing. Texts are twisted, pulled, poked, stretched, and prodded to ‘agree’ with scientific conclusions, so that concordism today undermines honest, Christian exegesis.‘

In short, concordism is inconsistent with an epistemology that stresses the supremacy of God’s Word. It is crucial that we adopt a hermeneutic that is not unduly influenced by human theorizing. If we are to listen to God’s Word with an open ear, then we must strive to interpret the text objectively, applying sound hermeneutical principles. The most direct, natural interpretation is thus generally to be preferred, unless internal scriptural evidence indicates otherwise.

Goodwin vs. Gillespie: An Old Testament Debate for Church Polity

There is an interesting read over at the Reformed Forum. Jonathan Brack recounts a debate that took place at the Westminster Assembly between congregationalists and presbyterians.

 for Goodwin, ecclesiastical and civil are one and the same in the Old Testament. To this, Lord Say added that on these grounds,

It ware much better to find out those places that established a ground for this ruling elder in the New Testament wher this constitution was.[14]

What Goodwin and Lord Say failed to recognize was that this was the exact point being debated. If one were to cut loose the Old Testament ground for elder rule, then one were to cut loose the very ground for Presbyterianism, not to mention baptism.

To this Mr. Vines pressed Goodwin and Lord Say on the exact same hermeneutical point made by Gillespie two days earlier,

For that we must not looke to the state of the Jewish church, is only a warrantableness for the analogy of the Old Testament & New, granted. The brother that spake last said before we must cut loose the argument of Jewish church; [for] but how shall we prove pedo-Baptism?

Richard Vines saw the inconsistency in hermeneutical method being deployed by the Congregationalists. If we were to cut loose the Old Testament ground for church polity, then what is to stop us from the Anabaptist tenet of cutting loose our progeny as well?

Problems with PRCA Covenant Theology

I cut my teeth in reformed theology, and covenant theology, on writings from the Trinity Foundation. TF taught me well the unconditional nature of the covenant of grace. The writings of the PRCA and David Engelsma in particular are often referenced in Trinity Foundation writings in support of this view. However, the PRCA position has some problems I’d like to address.

Unconditional Covenant

In their book “Not Reformed At All”‘ John Robbins and Sean Gerety quote David Engelsma (PRCA) in response to Doug Wilson’s conditional, “objective” covenant:

The significant contemporary development of covenant doctrine to which I refer concerns the issue whether the covenant of God with His people in Jesus Christ is unconditional or conditional. The new teaching that troubles the Reformed churches, and threatens to carry them away, is the natural, indeed inevitable, development of the doctrine that the covenant is conditional. It is necessary, therefore, that we have the issue of the conditionality or unconditionality of the covenant clearly in mind. In considering the controversy, we must remember that the covenant of God with His people is central to the revelation of God in Scripture and to the redemption that is at the heart of biblical revelation. No one in the debate questions the importance of the covenant.

That the covenant is unconditional means that the establishing, maintaining, and perfecting of that blessed relationship of love and communion between God and a man do not depend on the sinful man; that the blessings which the covenant brings to the man do not depend upon him; and that the final, everlasting salvation enjoyed by one with whom God makes His covenant does not depend upon that man.

There is no work of the sinner that is a condition he must fulfill in order to have the covenant, or to enjoy its blessings.

Unconditionality rules out merit, or earning. It also rules out all effort by the sinner, even though not meritorious, upon which the covenant and its blessings are supposed to depend, or which cooperates with God in establishing and maintaining the covenant and in bestowing the benefits of the covenant. Unconditionality certainly rules out merit. We do not earn, and thus deserve, the covenant. But unconditionality also rules out all works that distinguish one man from another, or that are the reason why the covenant is given to one and not to another, or that obtain the covenant, which God merely makes available to one. The reason why all such works are excluded, along with meritorious works, is that these works, as much as meritorious works, would make the sinner his own savior and rob God of the glory of salvation.

…Such is the development of the doctrine of a conditional covenant in our day that it overthrows the entire theological system of salvation by sovereign grace as confessed by the Reformed faith in the Canons of Dordt and in the Westminster Standards. The doctrine of a conditional covenant is explained by its advocates as denying the heart of the gospel of grace, namely, justification by faith alone on the basis only of the life-long obedience and atoning death of Jesus Christ.

The Unconditional Covenant in Contemporary Debate

The PRCA has many wonderful things to say in support of the unconditional nature of the covenant of grace. But this faces opposition not just from contemporaries but from the history of the reformed tradition as well. The difficulty is that anyone who supports an unconditional covenant of grace must deal with the Mosaic Covenant, (Paedobaptists teach that the Mosaic Covenant is an administration of the covenant of grace) which is clearly conditional. (Jeffrey D. Johnson categorizes and analyzes these offered solutions into 6 categories in his book The Fatal Flaw in the Theology Behind Infant Baptism.)

John Robbins likewise recognized the Mosaic Covenant was crucial to rightly understanding the Covenant of Grace. In response to Norm Shepherd, he said:

Shepherd denies that Leviticus 18:5, Romans 10:3-10, and Galatians 3:10-13 teach a “works/merit principle.”…Shepherd denies that there is any works-merit principle taught in Scripture. When Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5, Shepherd says, he is not saying that Moses taught this principle, but that he was “quoting Scripture according to the sense which his opponents understand it,” that is, Paul’s opponents misunderstood what Moses was saying, and Paul is quoting their misunderstanding.

How then does the PRCA deal with the difficult problem of the conditionality of the Mosaic Covenant (we’ll deal with Robbins in a later post)?

Well, in this regard they follow Shepherd:

the Sinaitic covenant was a form, or administration, of the covenant of grace… in the current controversy over the covenant occasioned by the Federal Vision, there is an erroneous doctrine of the Sinaitic covenant, or Old Testament covenant with Israel. Following the lead of the Presbyterian theologian Meredith Kline, Presbyterian and Reformed theologians are teaching that, in part, the Sinaitic covenant was a covenant of works, in fact a renewal of the covenant of works supposedly established by God with Adam in Paradise.

…The error of Kline’s covenant theology with regard to the Sinaitic covenant—the “old covenant,” of Jeremiah 31:31-34 and of Hebrews 8—is that it introduces, be it in restricted part and stipulated aspect, the notions of salvation by works and of merit into a form, or administration, of the one covenant of grace. This is fatal to the gospel of salvation by grace.

…The covenant theology of Merdith Kline and his disciples is a warning to Reformed theology and churches that to introduce a “covenant of works,” that is, merit on the part of a mere humans, into covenant theology anywhere in the system is inevitably to produce a covenant theology of works and merit with regard to the covenant of grace in Jesus Christ. Kline’s doctrine of a meritorious covenant of works with Adam led him to teach a reinstated covenant of works and merit with regard both to the Sinaitic covenant and to the Abrahamic covenant. But the Sinaitic covenant and the covenant with Abraham were the Old Testament administrations of the New Testament covenant of grace with the church in Jesus Christ. If they were, even in part, a covenant of works, so also is the covenant of grace in Christ.

Reformed theologians must take to heart and make their own the exclamation of Martin Luther: “Away with that profane, impious word, ‘merit.’” Save, of course, as was also the meaning of the great Reformer, with regard to the ministry of Jesus Christ.

…the covenant with Adam was not a covenant of works, in which Adam could have merited anything, much less eternal life with God

[emphasis mine] Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, November 2012, p.59

They defer to Bavinck to explain the Mosaic Covenant (and sound very similar to Shepherd’s argument that Paul is addressing a misinterpretation of the Mosaic Covenant):

The law of Moses, accordingly, is not antithetical to grace but subservient to it and was also thus understood and praised in every age by Israel’s pious men and women. But detached from the covenant of grace, it indeed became a letter that kills, a ministry of condemnation…It is from that perspective that Paul views especially the Old Testament dispensation of the covenant of grace…(Gal. 3:23f.; 4:1f.).

Bavinck concluded his treatment of the covenant with Israel in the Old Testament by declaring that “the law was subservient to the covenant of grace; it was not a covenant of works in disguise.”

ibid, 61

So the PRCA retains the (conditional) Mosaic Covenant as an administration of the (unconditional) covenant of grace by denying a works principle in any covenant, including the prelapsarian covenant with Adam.

We maintain also… that the destiny of Adam and the human race from the outset was much higher than Adam’s paradisiacal state. However, God never intended that destiny to be attained by the obedience of Adam, nor was such a destiny ever within the potential of Adam the first.

ibid, 65

See also A Critique of the Covenant of Works in Contemporary Controversy. Rejection of the covenant of works is unbiblical. I will not defend the reformed consensus on the covenant of works here, but will assume its truth for sake of brevity (see Guy Waters on Leviticus 18:5 and Murray on Lev. 18:5 – Why Did John Murray Reject the Covenant of Works? as well as my podcast interview with Guy Waters). Adam’s entrance into eschatological rest was a reward offered to him upon condition of his perfect obedience to the law. There is no faith apart from works without a law/gospel distinction. And there is no law/gospel distinction without a covenant of works. As Robbins alluded to above, Lev 18:5, Gal 3:12, and Rom 10:5 are central texts that cannot be correctly interpreted if the covenant of works is rejected. (For more on this, see my posts under the “Covenant of Works” category).

Thus the PRCA provide no biblical reconciliation between their Unconditional Covenant and the Mosaic Covenant.

(The PRCA’s unique definition of a covenant with God is also problematic, but I won’t address that here.)

Baptism of the Reprobate

This brings us to the second problem with the PRCA’s covenant theology: baptism.

Engelsma has a helpful essay titled The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers, the purpose of which is to reconcile an unconditional covenant of grace with covenantal baptism. He notes:

The Reformed “Form for the Administration of Baptism” assures the believing parents and the congregation that “our young children… are again received unto grace in Christ…” It insists, with powerful, decisive appeal to the unity of the covenant in both old and new dispensations, that “infants are to be baptized as heirs of the kingdom of God and of His covenant.” And in the prayer of thanksgiving it puts on Reformed lips the words of praise, joy, and comfort, “Thou has forgiven us, and our children, all our sins, through the blood of Thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, and received us through Thy Holy Spirit as members of Thine only begotten ….” In the vow at baptism, the parents confess that they believe that, “although our children are conceived and born in sin, and are therefore subject to all miseries, yea, condemnation itself; yet that they are sanctified in Christ, and therefore, as members of His church, ought to be baptized.”

Our question, what this means, is occasioned by the incontestable fact that not all of the children of believers are saved.

This is no small dilemma. It strikes at the heart of the unconditional covenant of grace.

Engelsma outlines 3 possible solutions. First,

because of their privileged position in a Christian home and in the environment of the church these children are more likely to be converted than the children of unbelievers…

This viewpoint must be rejected. First, it does not do justice to the language of the Bible or of the Reformed creeds. God does not merely put the children of believers in a more advantageous position, so as to make it likelier that they will be saved; but He establishes His covenant with them, so as to be their God…the Reformed church regards them, and must regard them, as those “sanctified in Christ.”

Second, Engelsma rejects the view that places faith as a condition of the covenant

All the children of believers without exception are in the covenant in this sense,…the actual realization of the covenant with them personally depend upon their believing in Christ and thus taking hold of the covenant when they grow up…

[T]his view conflicts with cardinal doctrines of the Word of God, doctrines which are precious to every Reformed man and woman. For one thing, the promise and covenant grace of God now depend upon the work and will of the sinful child. The covenant and its salvation are conditional, dependent upon the faith of the child. But this stands in diametrical opposition to the teaching of Scripture, with specific reference to this very matter of the salvation of the children of believers: “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (Rom. 9:16). Also, the Reformed faith has creedally rejected the notion that faith is a condition unto salvation: In 1/9,10 the Canons of Dordt deny that faith is a “prerequisite, cause or condition” upon which election and salvation depend, asserting rather that “men are chosen to faith” (cf. also I/Rejection of Errors, 3; III, IV/14; III, IV/Rejection of Errors, 6).
For another thing, this explanation of the inclusion of the children in the covenant definitely implies that Christ’s death for some persons fails to secure their redemption. At baptism God promises to all the children that He will give them His covenant and its blessings on the basis that Christ washed them all in His blood. But the fact is that some of these children perish. Thus is denied the doctrine of limited, efficacious atonement, at least within the sphere of the covenant. As regards the children of believers, there is universal atonement

Yet another objectionable element in this view is its teaching that the promise of God fails in many cases. God promises salvation to every baptized child of believing parents, but many of them do not receive salvation. The word and promise of God have failed in all these cases. They have failed because the children have refused to fulfill the condition of faith; but the fact remains that they have failed.

The basic objection to this covenant-view — and it is a deadly serious objection — is that it conflicts with the Reformed gospel of salvation by sovereign grace…

I agree.


Although all our children are in the sphere of the covenant and therefore receive the sign of the covenant and are reared as covenant members, the covenant of God, the relationship of friendship in Jesus Christ, is established with the elect children only.

This is the PRCA solution. Baptism is meant for the elect because only they are in covenant with God. The linchpin of this solution is Romans 9

Paul’s difficulty is exactly our problem. By promise, God includes our children in His covenant of salvation; but not all of our children are saved. Scripture’s solution of the apostle’s difficulty solves our problem as well. The children of believers to whom God graciously promises membership in the covenant are not all the physical offspring of believers. They are rather the “children of God” among our offspring. And the children of God are those who are chosen in Christ. These are the ones whom God counts for the seed when he says, “I will be the God of your seed.” These, and these only, are “the children of the promise.” To them, and to them only, is the promise given. In every one of them is the promise effectual to work faith in Jesus Christ.

Engelsma is echoing Herman Hoeksema who previously said:

Summarizing all this now, we come to the following conclusion. God has a people in this world which is called Israel, which bears the name of the children of God. That people exists organically and develops in the line of the generations of believers. It must be called by the name of God’s people. They with their children are called the church, the congregation of Jesus Christ, God’s covenant people, Israel.

…let no one draw the conclusion from this that all who are in the sphere of this church as it exists historically are also actually spiritual children of the promise. There is an Israel according to the flesh and an Israel according to the Spirit. And they are not all Israel who are of Israel. There is an elect kernel, and there is a reprobate shell. And God will be merciful to whom He will be merciful also within the sphere of the historical covenant in the world.

…Understood in this sense, we do not object in the least to speak of an external and an internal covenant of grace. If only the organic idea is maintained.

Believers and Their Seed, Chapter 8: A Two-Fold Seed

Hoeksema was attempting to explain the meaning of their Baptism Form, which says that the baptized child is sanctified in Christ – which he argues must be taken subjectively in reference to the actual infant being baptized. The problem, of course, is that if the child is reprobate, they could not have been sanctified in Christ. Furthermore, since they deny a conditional covenant, they cannot say the child is merely “covenantally” sanctified.

He appeals to the teaching of Romans 9 to solve the problem (that apparently plagued Dutch churches and caused considerable conflict and confusion):

Apply this now to the Baptism Form, and every difficulty simply falls away. The Baptism Form is one of the most beautiful documents transmitted to us by our fathers. Only, keep in mind that in this Form the congregation is conceived of organically, and that the whole is called by the name of the elect kernel. This is the reason why that Form is so definite and so clear. This is the reason why the believing congregation, if she again understands that Form correctly, can so heartily confess her faith, speak her vows, and send up her thanksgiving to the throne of grace according to the language of that Form for the Administration of Baptism.

By “organically” Hoeksema has in mind the concept of botany. Referring to Isaiah 5:1-7 and Romans 11:17-24, Hoeksema explains how God’s covenant is like a plant.

Think, for example, of our well-known tomato plant. You have there an organism, growing out of one root. The entire organism is called by the name of the fruit-bearing plant. As such it is fertilized; as such it receives rain and sunshine. But when presently the organism of that plant has developed, then you discover that there are nevertheless two kinds of branches shooting forth on that one plant. There are the fruit-bearing branches; but there, between them, you also find suckers, which indeed draw their life-sap out of the plant, but which never bear any fruit…
…that entire people must be addressed, treated, comforted, and admonished as the Israel of God. And yet, at the same time, you may never forget that not all is Israel that is called Israel. There are branches which never bear fruit, which bring forth wild fruit, and which are presently cut off.

…It is one vine. And that vine is, according to its proper essence, or core, the object of God’s grace and favor. But that same vine is, from the viewpoint of the branches which bring forth no fruit or which bring forth wild fruit, corrupt fruit, the object of God’s fierce anger and wrath.

Believers and Their Seed, Chapter 9: The Organic Principle in Scripture

So God’s covenant exists on the earth as an organic entity: an elect kernel and a reprobate shell. Since we cannot know who the elect are, we baptize all those in the sphere of the covenant, though they are not actually in covenant. Engelsma explains:

God realizes His covenant in the line of generations. He gathers His church from age to age from the children of believers. As the Puritans were fond of saying, “God casts the line of election in the loins of godly parents.” For the sake of the elect children, all are baptized…Viewing their children as God’s covenant children, believers must approach them as elect children in their teaching and discipline, even though there may indeed be reprobate and unregenerated children among them. Election determines the approach. All the children must receive the instruction that the regenerated must have and will profit from. By means of this rearing in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, the covenant promise will work the fruit of conversion in the elect children.

For the sake of the elect, all children are baptized and considered covenant children. Since some of the children might be elect, and might thereby profit from being baptized and considered in covenant, they are all, reprobate and elect, baptized. Of course all of this is the result of inferences drawn from the Abrahamic Covenant and circumcision’s parallel to baptism. However, it is precisely this covenant that throws a wrench into the rigorous logic of the PRCA.


The linchpin text for this entire view is Romans 9, of which Hoeksema notes:

that God accomplishes His good pleasure, according to the counsel of His sovereign election and reprobation, the apostle proves from the Old Testament Scriptures. He points, first of all, to Isaac, who was chosen as the child of the promise. Although Abraham had more sons, the Word of God’s promise was, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called.” It was plain that not the children of the flesh, but the children of the promise were counted for the seed. No man is able of himself to beget children of the promise, spiritual children of the covenant…

And therefore also the Lord God chose His own children out of those fleshly children of Abraham. He formed them and called them to be living children of God. And now the Word of promise did not pertain to all the children of Abraham, but only to the seed of election. The Lord maintained His sovereign good pleasure also within the sphere of the seed of Abraham according to the flesh. “In Isaac shall thy seed be called,” (vss. 7-9).

Believers and Their Seed, Chapter 8: A Two-Fold Seed

According to the PRCA reading of Romans 9 as quoted here and above, verses 7-8 teach that Ishmael is a reprobate child of the flesh, not an elect child of promise like Isaac. Re-read the above quote, then re-read the previous quotes from Hoeksema and Engelsma on Romans 9. “[The elect], and these only, are ‘the children of the promise.'” Ishmael, per Paul in Romans 9, was not a child of promise. Therefore, if Paul is teaching about election to salvation in these verses by way of a internal/external or kernel/husk view of the Covenant of Grace, then he is teaching that Ishmael was reprobate.

Make sure you grasp this point. In Genesis 21:12, God says to Abraham “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named” in contrast to Ishmael. Thus, in this context, whatever “through Isaac shall your offspring be named” means, God chose Isaac and not Ismhael for that. I’m not sure of any other way of interpreting that verse.

Paul quotes that verse and argues from it that not all of Abraham’s offspring are his children. This means that Isaac, and not Ishmael, was a child of Abraham (whatever that may mean). Paul draws the conclusion that not the children of the flesh of Abraham (Ishmael) are the children of God, but the children of the promise (Isaac) are counted as Abraham’s offspring.

How can we possibly draw any other conclusion from these verses than that Ishmael is a child of the flesh and Isaac is a child of the promise (whatever that may mean)?

Again, Paul describes Ishmael in exactly the same way in Galatians 4. “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants…” (ESV)

I don’t see any way of coming to any other conclusion than that Paul says Ishmael was a child of the flesh, not of the promise. Therefore, if as Engelsma said “Paul’s difficulty is exactly our problem. By promise, God includes our children in His covenant of salvation; but not all of our children are saved. Scripture’s solution of the apostle’s difficulty solves our problem as well.” then Ishmael was reprobate.

This is a problem because Ishmael not only receives the covenant sign, but he does so after God says the covenant will not be established with him – that he is not a child of promise. According to the PRCA view, the only reason Abraham should circumcise his offspring is that they might be elect and therefore the promise might be to them. But God very clearly told Abraham that this was not the case with Ishmael, and yet he was still circumcised. He did not even remain within the “sphere of the covenant” but was sent off to another land. This cannot be accounted for consistently by the PRCA view.

This is a forceful strike two.

(Note, for an alternative, more accurate reading of Romans 9, see They are not all Israel, who are of Israel)

Covenant Breakers

Furthermore, the PRCA’s commitment to both an overarching covenant of grace consisting of numerous covenantal dispensations or administrations and to the concept of an unconditional covenant cannot account for the clear teaching of covenant breaking.

They cannot ignore this teaching, so they deal with it as best they can: covenant breaking is only really covenant breaking from man’s perspective.

There are some who have sought to harmonize the teaching of Scripture concerning the unbreakableness of God’s covenant with those passages of Scripture that speak of the sin of covenant breaking by teaching a conditional covenant. According to these people all of the children born to believing parents are in the covenant, possess the promise of the covenant, and receive covenant grace. But through their own sin, they fall out of the covenant, relinquish the promise of the covenant, and frustrate the operations of Gods covenant grace.

This teaching of a conditional covenant, however, has serious difficulties, and raises more problems than it resolves. The teaching of a conditional covenant ought to go against the grain of every truly Reformed man or woman. It is a teaching that involves a denial of God’s sovereignty, at least in the salvation of the children of the covenant. It is a denial of the preservation of the saints, of the irresistibility of grace, and of the total depravity of the children of believers. This is not a teaching that harmonizes the unbreakableness of God’s covenant with covenant breaking, but throws out the window the unbreakableness of God’s everlasting covenant.

Covenant breaking is the sin of someone within the sphere of the covenant. It is the sin of one who has been born into the covenant, born to believing, covenant parents.

…Does this at all contradict the teaching of the unbreakableness of God’s covenant? Does this destroy the everlasting character of the covenant of grace? Does this in any way imply that these people were ever actually genuine members of God’s covenant? Not at all. Scripture describes the sin of these people from their point of view.

Covenant Breaking

But is this true? Is Jeremiah 31:31-33 written from a human, covenant-breaker’s perspective? No. It is written from God’s perspective. God says Israel broke His covenant, not that they appeared to break His covenant.

The PRCA cannot account for covenant breaking as described in the Bible. Strike three. I sympathize with their attempt to be logically consistent, but covenant breaking cannot be dismissed as simply an accommodation to human perspective.

Hoeksema attempted to soften the blow by saying that covenant breaking is really the same as law breaking (since the opposite is covenant keeping – ie law keeping), and does not mean the covenant bond was severed. But the real solution to this logical roadblock was on the tips of his fingers:

Finally, let me point out that in the New Testament the expression is not found. I pointed out earlier that the Old Testament usage of this terminology stands connected undoubtedly with the fact that at Sinai the law was imposed upon the promise. But in the new dispensation we are not under the law, but under grace. Only once is the expression “covenant breakers” found in the New Testament, in Romans 1:31. But there the expression has nothing to do with the covenant of grace between God and His people, but rather with man-to-man relationships.

About Covenant Breakers in the New Dispensation

But because of his commitment to the one covenant of grace under multiple administrations view, he was unable to draw the obvious conclusion: the old covenant was breakable (and broken) while the new is not. Robbins saw the obvious:

This new covenant (not the covenant made with Moses, and explained in greater detail in the New Testament), this Covenant of Grace, is personal (“I will put”; “all shall know me”); individual (I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts); and absolutely effective (I will be their God and they shall be my people; None of them shall teach his neighbor….for all shall know me); and “not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt.” The Mosaic covenant was public, corporate, and ineffective (“because they did not continue in my covenant”). By this efficacious, sovereign Covenant of Grace, believers are justified and made sons of God:

The Biblical Covenant of Grace

The Promise

Much of the development of PRCA’s covenant theology has been in opposition to a conditional covenant view that has plagued Dutch churches and is analogous to the Federal Vision. E. Calvin Beisner (OPC) has spent a great deal of time understanding and combating the Federal Vision. In response to FV’s claim that, simply stated “The children of believers are saved” Beisner recognized, like the PRCA, that “the promise” of Genesis 17 is only to the elect. However, Beisner recognized that the necessary implication is that physical heritage is irrelevant to the promise of salvation. The promise is not made to the children of believers. The promise is made to the spiritual seed of Abraham (believers), period.

[God] has not promised the salvation of any children of believers or baptized persons simply because they are children of believers or baptized persons… [Thus] it is possible for any or even all children of believers, or baptized persons, to be damned…

[C]onsider God’s promise to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants [seed] after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants [seed] after you.” Does this imply that every physical descendant of Abraham–or even every one of his own direct, first-generation offspring–would be saved, that none of them would go to hell, all would go to heaven? Certainly not. As Paul explained in Romans 9:6-8… Likewise he wrote in Galatians 4:22-31… Notice that: “it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise.”…

Haven’t we heard some similar phrases somewhere else? Yes! In John 1:10-13, John tells us that the incarnate Word, Jesus, “was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world”–those who had no special relationship to Abraham–did not know Him. He came to His own”–that is, to the Jews, the children of Abraham according to the flesh, “and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them”–whether those of the world, or those of Abraham according to the flesh–“as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

(Evangelizing Our Children)

The promise is to believers, not to believers and their seed. Beisner recognized this has implications for how Acts 2:39 has traditionally been understood by paedobaptists.

What then are we to make of those precious passages with which we began? What of Peter’s statement, “The promise is for you and your children”? What of Paul’s that the child of even just one believing parent is “holy”? What of his promise to the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household”? What of God’s promise to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants [seed] after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants [seed] after you”? Perhaps we need to look at them a little more carefully…

Consider first Peter’s comment in Acts 2:39. Thus far we have quoted only part of it. The whole of it is, “the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” Are those who insist that here is a promise of the salvation of the children of believers as quick to say that here is a promise of salvation “for all who are far off”? Those are not simply the children of believers; those include all men everywhere in the world. But does God promise salvation to all men everywhere in the world. Certainly not. Neither, then, does He promise salvation to all the children of believers. What does He promise, then, to all the children of believers and to all people everywhere? Look at verse 38–and I’m going to use my own very literal translation here to make clear the grammatical cause-and-effect relationship that is clear in the Greek but ordinarily gets obscured in English translations: “Y’all repent for the remission of y’all’s sins, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and y’all will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”… The promise is conditional: If you repent and believe in Jesus Christ, you’ll be forgiven. That promise does indeed apply to each and every child of each and every believer; and it also applies to each and every other person who ever lived or ever will live.

(For more on this, see A Presbyterian (Finally) Gets Acts 2:39 Right)


If the PRCA were willing to abandon their commitment to the one substance multiple administrations view, all 4 of their problems would be resolved and they would retain the biblical teaching of the unconditional covenant of grace by identifying the covenant of grace with the new covenant exclusively.

First, as just explained, it removes the problem of covenant breaking. Scripture never says the New Covenant is or can be broken (though both the Abrahamic and Mosaic can).

Second, it solves the irreconcilable difficulty of Ishmael. The covenant of circumcision is not the covenant of grace. Being circumcised was not a sign or seal or promise that the individual is sanctified in Christ. Ishmael was circumcised because he was the offspring of Abraham, not because he might be elect and therefore the promise of salvation might apply to him. The Abrahamic Covenant is not the New Covenant and circumcision is not baptism.

But what are we to make of Romans 9 if the organic principle of an elect kernel and reprobate shell is rejected? Well, it’s not rejected. It’s refined. There are two Israels. One of the flesh, the other of the promise. Both are considered the people of God, but are so constituted on a different covenantal basis. Israel according to the flesh is constituted a people on the basis of the Mosaic Covenant – typical of the true Israel of God, constituted on the basis of the New Covenant. And both of these covenants and people flow out of the Abrahamic Covenant, as Galatians 4:21-31 says. Hoeksema was right. There is a two-fold seed. But he was wrong that the children of the flesh were outside of any covenant with God.

Romans 9 would then be Paul applying a typological interpretation of the Old Testament, rather than just correcting a misreading of the Old Testament. When God says he will establish His covenant with Isaac instead of Ishmael, He is not commenting one way or the other on Ishmael’s salvation. He is simply saying that the Messiah will be born through the line of Isaac, not Ishmael. Paul uses this principle of sovereign election and applies it to individual salvation. Consider these words from PRCA commentator Robert C. Harbach (which, btw, contradicts Hoeksema and Engelsma’s reading of Romans 9:7-8 – demonstrating another inconsistency in the system):

The meaning rather is, a wish that Ishmael, who is not destined to be the means of transmitting the blessings of the covenant to its future generations, nevertheless may be in the covenant and share its blessings… Abraham desired nothing less than eternal salvation for his son Ishmael

[emphasis mine] -Studies in the Book of Genesis (17:18)

Ishmael, usually, by the majority, but not by all, of the commentators is regarded as reprobate. But inasmuch as we do not hold with the opinion that God’s grace and blessing are general and common, we can not so regard him. For scripture teaches that God’s goodness is always particular, and that this being true, we may not make the false distinction that some blessings are temporal and for all, while others are eternal and only for the elect. That distinction does not hold…

Since this is all true, then Ishmael must be, not reprobate, but elect… The blessing here referred to is principally the same as that given to Isaac (25:11; 26:3, 12, 24), and to Samson (Jud. 13:24), the blessing according to election…

…Both of these men, then, must have been in the covenant, although, as for Ishmael, the covenant line did not proceed from him in his generations, but in Isaac and his generations (v. 21)… Ishmael is not, therefore, excluded from the covenant and its blessings: but he is not the transmitter of the seed through whom Christ would come.


I agree in part with Harbach – the account in Genesis 17 and 21 refer to whom the promised seed will proceed through. When God says He will establish His covenant with Isaac instead of Ishmael, He is not commenting on the salvation of either because He is not talking about the covenant of grace, but the covenant of circumcision. Thus, again, Paul uses the example of God sovereignly choosing through whom the promised seed will come in the covenant of circumcision and applies it to the question of individual salvation.

This interpretation has the added benefit of answering Arminians who argue that the Old Testament contexts of the election quotes Paul uses refer to “election to service” rather than individual salvation.

In predetermining how salvation would be accomplished, the primary object of predestination was Jesus Christ himself. But in order to bring his saving work to pass, it was necessary for God secondarily to foreordain all the essential means of accomplishing this. This referes mostly to the selection (election) of certain nations and individuals to be used as instruments for bringing Christ into the world and then for beginning the process of applying the saving results of his redemptive work to the world. This is predestination to service, not to salvation…

Much of the biblical data about predestination and election (e.g., Rom. 9) refers to this utilitarian predestination, which is part of God’s eternal purpose regarding how salvation would be accomplished, not how it would be applied to individuals.

– Jack W. Cottrell, Perspectives on Election, p. 115-116

John Piper summarizes and interacts with this view in his commentary on Romans 9:

The clarifying question that must now be posed is this: If, as we have seen (p53), God’s purpose is to perform his act of election freely without being determined by any human distinctives, what act of election is intended in Rom9:11—13—an election which determines the eternal destiny of individuals, or an election which merely assigns to individuals and nations the roles they are to play in history? The question is contextually appropriate and theologically explosive.18 On one side, those who find in Rom 9:6-13 individual and eternal predestination are accused of importing a “modern problem” (of determinism and indeterminism) into the text, and of failing to grasp the corporateness of the election discussed. 19 On the other side, one sees in the text a clear statement of “double predestination” of individuals to salvation or condemnation and claims that “the history of exegesis of Rom 9 could be described as the history of attempts to escape this clear observation” (Maier, Mensch und freier Wille, 356)…

J. Munck (Christ and Israel, 42) argues that “Rom 9:6-13 is therefore speaking neither of individuals and their selection for salvation, nor of the spiritual Israel, the Christian church. It speaks rather of the patriarchs, who without exception became founders of peoples.”

The list of modern scholars on the other side is just as impressive… On the larger context (including Rom 9:16) Henry Alford (II, 408f) writes, “I must protest against all endeavors to make it appear that no inference lies from this passage as to the salvation of individuals. It is most true that the immediate subject is the national rejection of Jews: but we must consent to hold our reason in abeyance if we do not recognize the inference that the sovereign power and free election here proved to belong to God extend to every exercise of his mercy – whether temporal or spiritual… whether national or individual.”…

The basic argument against seeing individual, eternal predestination in Rom 9:6-13 is that the two Old Testament references on which Paul builds his case do not in their Old Testament contexts refer to individuals or to eternal destiny, but rather to nations and historical tasks. The argument carries a good deal of force, especially when treated (as it usually is) without reference to the logical development of Paul’s argument in Rom 9:1-13…

By this election of Isaac instead of Ishmael God shows that physical descent from Abraham does not guarantee that one will be a beneficiary of the covenant made with Abraham and his seed… But, the interpretation continues, the covenant blessings for which Isaac is freely chosen (before his birth) and from which Ishmael is excluded (in spite of descendancy from Abraham) do not include individual eternal salvation. One cannot legitimately infer from Rom 9:7-9 that Ishmael and his descendants are eternally lost nor that Isaac and his descendants are eternally saved. What God freely and sovereignly determined is the particular descendant (Isaac) whose line will inherit the blessings of the covenant: multiplying exceedingly, fathering many nations, inhabiting the promised land and having God as their God (Gen 17:2-8). This benefit, not eternal salvation, is what is not based on physical descent from Abraham, but on God’s unconditional election…

A plausible case can be made for the position that “Paul is no longer concerned with two persons [Jacob and Esau] who have been raised to the level of types” (Kaesemann, Romans, 264)… But… the decisive flaw in the collectivist/historical position is not its failure to agree with Kaesemann’s contention. It’s decisive flaw is its failure to ask how the flow of Paul’s argument from 9:1-5 on through the chapter affects the application of the principle Paul has established in Rom 9:6b-13. The principle established is that God’s promised blessings are never enjoyed on the basis of what a person is by birth or by works, but only on the basis of God’s sovereign, free predestination (Rom 9:11,12)… We may grant, for the sake of argument, that in the demonstration of this principle of God’s freedom in election Paul uses Old Testament texts that do not relate explicitly to eternal salvation… [But] the solution which Rom 9:6-13 develops in respons to this problem [9:1-5], must address the issue of individual, eternal salvation…

[W]hether Paul sees the election of Isaac (Rom 9:7b) as the election of an individual to salvation or as the election of his posterity for a historical task, the principle of unconditional election is immediately applied by Paul to the present concern, namely, who in reality does constitute true, spiritual “Israel” (9:6b), whose salvation is guaranteed by God’s word?

– John Piper, The Justification of God, p. 56-73

It would therefore be eisegesis to read Romans 9 and conclude that Paul is making a statement about distinctions between being in covenant and being in the sphere of the covenant. Nowhere does Paul ever say this. Paul is making distinctions between national Israel, to whom belong the covenants (they are/were actually in covenant with God), and true, spiritual Israel, to whom belong the ultimate fulfillment of those previous covenants: the new covenant/covenant of grace. They are not all [spiritual] Israel (the church) who are descended from Israel (the nation).

Olive Tree

This line of thinking resolves the necessary contradiction regarding Ishmael that the PRCA’s view brings. Furthermore, it does better justice to the texts in question, particularly Romans 11. Yes, Romans 11 is clearly using an “organic” analogy. But is Romans 11:16-21 painting a picture of the new covenant church? Is Romans 11 teaching that there is an elect kernel within the reprobate shell of the new covenant church? No. Again, Hoeksema does not account for the redemptive historical context of these passages. He reads them like a systematic text, rather than being sensitive to biblical theology (though he comes close when he recognizes that “at the moment when the apostle penned that ninth chapter of Romans, Israel as a nation had even been rejected.“). John Owen does a much better job of explaining Romans 11:

3. In process of time, God was pleased to confine this church, as unto the ordinary visible dispensation of his grace, unto the person and posterity of Abraham. Upon this restriction of the church covenant and promise, the Jews of old managed a plea in their own justification against the doctrine of the Lord Christ and his apostles. “We are the children, the seed of Abraham,” was their continual cry; on the account whereof they presumed that all the promises belonged unto them, and upon the matter unto them alone. And this their persuasion hath cast them, as we shall see, upon a woful and fatal mistake. Two privileges did God grant unto Abraham, upon his separation to a special interest in the old promise and covenant: —

First, That according to the flesh he should be the father of the Messiah, the promised seed; who was the very life of the covenant, the fountain and cause of all the blessings contained in it. That this privilege was temporary, having a limited season, time, and end, appointed unto it, the very nature of the thing itself doth demonstrate; for upon this actual exhibition in the flesh, it was to cease. In pursuit hereof were his posterity separated from the rest of the world, and preserved a peculiar people, that through them the promised Seed might be brought forth in the fullness of time, and be of them according unto the flesh, Romans 9:5.

Secondly, Together with this, he had also another privilege granted unto him, namely, that his faith, whereby he was personally interested in the covenant, should be the pattern of the faith of the church in all generations; and that none should ever come to be a member of it, or a sharer in its blessings, but by the same faith that he had fixed on the Seed that was in the promise, to be brought forth from him into the world. On the account of this privilege, he became the father of all them that do believe: for “they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham,” Galatians 3:7, Romans 4:11: as also “heir of the world,” Romans 4:13, in that all that should believe throughout the world, being thereby implanted into the covenant made with him, should become his “spiritual children.”

4. Answerably unto this twofold end of the separation of Abraham, there was a double seed allotted unto him; — a seed according to the flesh, separated to the bringing forth of the Messiah according unto the flesh; and a seed according to the promise, that is, such as by faith should have interest in the promise, or all the elect of God…

5. And herein lay the great mistake of the Jews of old, wherein they are followed by their posterity unto this day…

It is true, they were the children of Abraham according to the flesh: but on that account they can have no other privilege than Abraham had in the flesh himself; and this was, as we have showed, that he should he set apart as a special channel, through whose loins God would derive the promised Seed into the world. In like manner were they separated to be a peculiar people, as his posterity, from amongst whom He should be so brought forth.

That this separation and privilege was to cease when the end of it was accomplished and the Messiah exhibited, the very nature of the thing declares; for to what purpose should it be continued when that was fully effected whereunto it was designed? But they would extend this privilege, and mix it with the other, contending that, because they were the children of Abraham according to the flesh, the whole blessing and covenant of Abraham belonged unto them…

It is true, the former carnal privilege of Abraham and his posterity expiring, on the grounds before mentioned, the ordinances of worship which were suited thereunto did necessarily cease also. And this cast the Jews into great perplexities, and proved the last trial that God made of them; for whereas both these, — namely, the carnal and spiritual privileges of Abraham’s covenant, — had been carried on together in a mixed way for many generations, coming now to be separated, and a trial to be made (Malachi 3) who of the Jews had interest in both, who in one only, those who had only the carnal privilege, of being children of Abraham according to the flesh, contended for a share on that single account in the other also, — that is, in all the promises annexed unto the covenant. But the foundation of their plea was taken away, and the church, unto which the promises belong, remained with them that were heirs of Abraham’s faith only…

7. It remains, then, that the church founded in the covenant, and unto which all the promises did and do belong, abode at the coming of Christ, and doth abide ever since, in and among those who are the children of Abraham by faith. The old church was not taken away, and a new one set up, but the same church was continued, only in those who by faith inherited the promises. Great alterations, indeed, were then made in the outward state and condition of the church; as, —
(1.) The carnal privilege of the Jews, in their separation to bring forth the Messiah, then failed; and therewith their claim on that account to be the children of Abraham.
(2.) The ordinances of worship suited unto that privilege expired and came to an end.
(3.) New ordinances of worship were appointed, suited unto the new light and grace then granted unto the church.
(4.) The Gentiles came in to the faith of Abraham together with the Jews, to be fellow-heirs with them in his blessing. But none of these, nor all of them together, made any such alteration in the church but that it was still one and the same. The olive-tree was the same, only some branches were broken off, and others planted in; the Jews fell, and the Gentiles came in their room.

– John Owen, The Oneness of the Church

Owen says the olive tree refers to the fact that before Christ came, the carnal and spiritual seed of Abraham “had been carried on together in a mixed way for many generations”, but the breaking off of the unbelieving branches shows that this mixed state was “coming now to be separated”. The “elect kernel in a reprobate shell” that Hoeksema refers to has reference to the Old Testament context of the church (believing saints), and not to the present situation. Today, the only way to be of the “people of God” is by faith, because the former means of being considered a people of God (Abraham’s carnal seed) has now ceased and the branches were cut off (a one time event, not a continual pruning taking place even today). Romans 11:16-21 does not teach that children of believers are grafted in to the olive tree at birth and are later cut off. Rather, the passage teaches that the only way to be of the tree is by faith.


Finally, for a better explanation of Hoeksema’s appeal to Isaiah Isaiah 5:1-7, see two sermons from Samuel Renihan: Why Did God Exile Israel? and Why Did God Destroy Israel?


The Protestant Reformed Church in America’s commitment to both an overarching covenant of grace with multiple administrations and an unconditional covenant of grace leads them to several lethal problems.

  1. The PRCA attempts to resolve the conflict that arises when one believes the conditional Mosaic Covenant is an administration of the Covenant of Grace by denying that human merit exists in any covenant, including the prelapsarian covenant of works with Adam. This denies the law gospel distinction essential for a proper understanding of the gospel and is unbiblical.
  2. Their attempt to explain why reprobate children are baptized, based upon their reading of Romans 9:6-13, cannot consistently account for the case of Ishmael.
  3. Their covenant theology cannot account for the biblical reality of covenant breakers.
  4. Their restriction of “the promise” of Gen. 17 to the elect requires them to conclude that the promise is to believers, not to believers and their seed.

It is neither a biblical nor consistent system. Their commitment to the unconditional nature of the covenant of grace is to be commended, but it is much better accounted for by the covenant theology of the 17th century particular baptists who identified the covenant of grace with the new covenant exclusively (and taught that Abraham and all other OT saints were members of the new covenant as it worked as a promise in the OT). To learn more about this view, visit

See also:

  1. The Olive Tree
  2. They are not all Israel, who are of Israel
  3. A Presbyterian (Finally) Gets Acts 2:39 Right (E. Calvin Beisner affirming that the promise is only to the elect, not to all children)
  4. Hebrews 10 & John 15 (vineyard discussion)
  5. Calvin vs 1689 Federalism on Old vs New
  6. New Covenant Union as Mystical Union in Owen (addresses the conditionality of the covenant of grace in the context of union)