“Great Disputes”: The Conditionality of the Covenant of Grace
April 28, 2016
Obadiah Sedgwick (1599/1600-1658) was one of the most respected and influential of the English Presbyterians of the seventeenth century. He was a leading member of the Westminster Assembly and took a prominent part in its debates. Barbara Donagan comments that Sedgwick was “an original and assiduous member of the Westminster assembly” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). Sedgwick’s covenant theology outlined in detail in his The Bowels of Tender Mercy Sealed in the Everlasting Covenant (London: Printed by Edward Mottershed, for Adoniram Byfield, 1661). One of the many areas where he is very helpful is in discussing the conditionality of the covenant of grace.
In discussing the terms of the covenant of grace Sedgwick frequently used the language of conditionality. He did, however, note that this was an area of “great dispute” (p. 182). In an attempt to minimize controversy he made two important clarifications concerning the way he was using the work “condition.”
First, any condition required in the covenant of grace is “freely worked” by God in the hearts of those whom he has decreed to save.(pp. 126. 182). Therefore, the conditionality of the covenant did not render the salvation of any uncertain.
Second, the fulfilling of any condition did not in itself “merit” anything from God (so, for example, faith is not a work which “earns” salvation from God) but was simply “a means by which we come certainly to enjoy that which God is pleased graciously to give” (pp. 126, 182).
With these two points granted, Sedgwick felt free to say that “every kind of condition is not opposed to grace” (p. 126) and that “the Covenant of grace can admit of a condition…such a condition as is graciously given, and…which will in the nature and use of it exalt all the grace of God” (p. 183).
For Sedgwick, faith was the condition of the covenant of grace: “truly this condition is faith, and no other thing” (p. 183). Thus faith “stands as a necessary means in the way of participation of all our saving good” (p. 291). This faith was itself the gift of God, thereby securing the gracious nature of the covenant, and united the believer with Christ, from whom all the other blessings of the covenant, including justification, flowed (pp. 183, 185).
Faith was defined as nothing other than a “receiving all from Christ, and resting on Christ” (p. 188). Therefore, even though faith is a condition of the covenant, “yet it is such a condition which God himself doth promise to give unto the sinner: As it is a condition on our part so it is a gift on God’s part: we are to have it, but God is to give it according to his promise” (p. 207). Therefore, “the giving of faith is commensurable with the election of God…and indeed is the fruit and effect thereof” (p. 291).
If faith is a condition of the covenant of grace, then what about works? Sedgwick was adamant that the very notion of a covenant of grace was opposed to making good works or personal worthiness the cause of salvation, arguing that “A personal worthiness for any good from God is inconsistent with a Covenant of Grace…for according to that Covenant, all is given, and all is freely given…the worthiness of our works, and the riches of God’s grace, do one destroy and remove the other” (p. 355). Nevertheless, he saw good works in the believer as necessary for salvation. Even though they were not the “cause” of salvation, “no man can be saved without them”, since good works are “the way to the kingdom” (p. 62).
The importance of good works arose from the very nature of God: “his nature is holiness itself, and he will never set up a Covenant, to make us unlike himself” (p. 133). From the nature of God, then, flowed the renovative aspect of the covenant of grace, namely, “to restore his own image in us again, and to repair his own image in us” (p. 133). Nevertheless, it was not proper to speak of holiness, repentance or obedience as “conditions of the covenant” (p. 187). These were fruits of the covenant but were not to be regarded as proper conditions of the covenant itself.
The conditionality of the covenant of grace is indeed an area of “great dispute.” Pitfalls abound on every side. But Sedgwick is a faithful guide. His careful exploration of the conditionality of the covenant of grace is a fruitful model to follow, both in his precise definitions, and in his theological conclusions.