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)

21 thoughts on “Problems with PRCA Covenant Theology

  1. Pingback: PRCA post now public | Contrast

  2. Pingback: Problems with PRCA Covenant Theology | The Confessing Baptist

  3. Most excellent post! I’ve been noodling this issue of covenant theology and what differences there are between Baptists and Presbyterians for a while now, greatly helped by Jeff Johnson’s book and the one by Pascal Denault. What I do not understand is how Baptist can appropriate the tablets of testimony (often called, but never in Scripture referred to as, the 10 Commandments) in the exact same way as do the paedobaptists. The fine brothers at 1689federalism have focused well on 1689 chap 7, but I think chapters 19 & 22 need to be closely examined as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Manfred,

      I’m glad those books have been helpful. The brothers at 1689federalism have spent a great deal of time closely examining chapters 19 and 22 as well. See Barcellos’ appendix in the Coxe/Owen volume, as well as his In Defense of the Decalogue and various writings online.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve read so many defenses of Christian Sabbatarianism that I am sick of it. While the moral law of God shines forth through the Decalogue, the Decalogue in and of itself applies to those under the Mosaic covenant. There is no biblical support for a creation ordinance for the Sabbath and one must hold to the Presbyterian theology to claim the Mosaic as part of the Covenant of Grace and, therefore, applicable to the church. We Baptist have been influenced by our Presbyterian brothers far more deeply, I think, than we realize.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Well all know that all Baptists are really converted and that adult baptism means the believer is always a genuine believer, right? Baptists are inconsistent with Reformed theology since they treat baptism as if it saves. Baptism, like circumcision, is only a sign. Esau was circumcised. But was he saved? No. Your entire article misses the point. And furthermore, the Reformed view of the Mosaic covenant is that it is a republishing of the covenant of works, not that it is the covenant of grace.


    1. Hi Charlie,

      You don’t seem to understand particular baptist theology. To answer your rhetorical question: no. Please provide a citation of any particular baptist treating baptism as if it saves. Our confession and our written work, including Gary Crampton’s, agree that baptism is a sign. We just disagree over who should receive the sign. You’re welcome to voice your criticism, but you please don’t do so out of ignorance – it serves no useful purpose.

      You also seem to be quite ignorant regarding republication in the reformed tradition. If you would like to interact with something I have actually said in this article, then feel free to. Otherwise your comments will be deleted for being off-topic.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Pingback: God’s Covenant Unfaithfulness? | Contrast

    1. David Hutchings

      I think you would be better off reading carefully all the PR books before commenting any further regarding them. Save the risk of misrepresenting them.



  6. In some sense, the New Covenant is also breakable, as is abundantly clear from Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-31, especially 10:29 (!) which clearly speaks about a NC breaker. I guess we are justified in trying to find a more precise terminology with respect to this reality, like the one described in Hebrews was never IN the Covenant in a full sense of the word, but was ‘in the sphere of the Covenant”, but the truth is that God did not see fit not to furnish us with very precise terminology and clear cut, systematic categories. The Baptist’s tendency is to identify NC with 100%salvation, which is shattered by the above cited passages in the book of Hebrews. The Federal Visionists on the end of the pole, make the NC unto the Mosaic covenant, a breakable, conditional, national pact. Neither perspective does justice to the whole counsel of God in Scripture. I personally find myself more at home with the position of the PRCA, however, I must admit that the covenant is not identical with salvation.


  7. markmcculley


    Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    My main response to Karlberg is as follows. First, Westminster’s statement about covenant and election is not vague or under-developed, so as to stand in need of further development (by M. Karlberg). It is either true or false. Either the NT covenant of grace was made with Christ and the elect in Him (as Galatians 3 teaches in clear language), or it was made and is made with baptized persons apart from the headship of Jesus Christ. In the latter case, the covenant is uncertain, conditional, and dependent on humans, as is also the promise by which the covenant is made and as is then also salvation itself.

    The issue, as the book of Galatians is concerned to reveal, is whether the covenant of grace and its salvation is universal and conditional or particular and gracious.

    Norman Shepherd and the federal vision, like the “liberated” Reformed theology that Shepherd admittedly is propounding and developing, are the in-your-face development today of the theology of a universal (all baptized persons), conditional covenant, divorced from Christ as head of the covenant. Our day represents the crisis of covenant theology, as 1618-19 represented the crisis of the gospel of grace in the Netherlands.

    Waffling on the issue of the day, as Karlberg does, is in fact surrender of the gospel of an unconditional (particular) covenant of grace.

    Second, the administration of the covenant of grace is wider than election. This is simply to acknowledge that the administration of the gospel, that is, the preached and reading of it, is wider than election. The assertion in the context of the great controversy now raging is either deliberate ambiguity or lack of understanding concerning the issue. More were circumcised than the elect in the OT. More are baptized than the elect in the NT. I am not now referring only to infants of believers. Adults baptized in the apostolic time included reprobates, for example, Annanias and Sapphira, and all those referred to by John’s epistle, “they went out from us but they were not of us.”

    But the covenant in the OT and in the NT was and is with the elect alone, as Westminster clearly confesses on the basis of Galatians 3. Those who go out from us, the believing church, never were of us, never were covenant friends of God with us.

    This is the issue: not how wide is the administration of the covenant, but how wide is the covenant of grace. Does election determine covenant friendship with God and the salvation it bestows? Election! Election! accompanied by reprobation! Always in the history of the church the stone of stumbling and the rock of offense. And always the source and foundation of the confession of grace.

    David J. Engelsma


  8. Hugh McCann

    Brandon, I too have loved much from the PRCA, but in the past two years, there was an article in their theological journal favorable toward Murray’s view of the Adamic covenant – that it was not all of works. Very disappointing, given their strong anti-Shepherd and pro-gospel stuff.

    Kline was ahead of the curve with his article on Murray, Shepherd, and Fuller.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. markmcculley

    “One aspect of justification worthy of highlighting is the connection between advocating a conditional covenant and a denial of justification by faith alone, without works. In the chapter entitled “Paul and James,” Engelsma explains that in “conservative” Reformed and Presbyterian churches the root of the denial of justification by faith alone is “their emphatic teaching of a conditional covenant” (p. 432). Their claim is that proclaiming justification by faith alone will make men “careless and profane,” will lead to “antinomianism” and threaten “a responsible, zealous, holy life” among members of the churches (pp. 432-435). Therefore, in order to combat this “alleged fear,” a conditional covenant must be preached. The conditions of faith and faith’s good works must be met, motivating (scaring) the believer to obedience


  10. markmcculley

    John Murray, The Covenant of Grace— “The continued enjoyment of grace and of the relation established is contingent upon the fulfillment of certain conditions. Grace bestowed implies a subject and reception on the part of that subject. The conditions in view are not conditions of bestowal. They are the reciprocal responses of faith, love and obedience, apart from which the enjoyment of the covenant blessing is inconceivable….the breaking of the covenant is unfaithfulness to a relation constituted and to grace dispensed. By breaking the covenant what is broken is not the condition of bestowal but the condition of consummated fruition.


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