Unconditional: Ames and the Covenant of Grace

Born in 1576 in a town 70 miles northeast of London, William Ames grew up in a Puritan household.  After his parents died before he was fully grown, his uncle looked after him and helped him gain entrance into Cambridge which at that time was a Puritan stronghold. Cambridge was allowed to choose twelve preachers per year ungoverned by the bishop. Non-conformists were mainly chosen; hence, at Cambridge, Ames was exposed to many of the great Puritan preachers and teachers. The chief of them was William Perkins who became Ames’ influential tutor and friend.[1]  However, Ames was not a puppet of his mentor. For example, while still a supralapsarian like Perkins, Ames notably moved his discussion of predestination to the “soteriology” section of his work, whereas Perkins famously put predestination front and center in his Golden Chain of Salvation.[2] For this, some scholars have termed Ames a soft supralapsarian.

While Cambridge chose twelve of its own preachers, the state church did interfere in the choosing of professors. When the school’s heads invited the freshly graduated Ames to become a fellow at Christ’s College, Archbishop Bancroft intervened.  Denied the lectern for his strong nonconformist beliefs, Ames accepted the pulpit. Before long, however, he was hounded even there for his beliefs regarding the purity of worship. Facing imprisonment or worse, Ames fled to Holland in 1610. Once there, Ames wasted no time picking up his pen in defense of Calvinism against the rising threat of Arminianism in the Netherlands and did battle with the leading proponents of the Remonstrant party, Jan Uitenbogaert, Simon Episcopius, and Nicolaas Grevinchoven. In fact, Ames became renowned for his polemical ability. One theologian cried about him, “Other theologians have slain their thousands, Ames his ten thousands!”[3]

Though he was a refugee in a foreign country and could not be an official delegate to the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619), the Reformed churches in the Netherlands ensured that the man who had so gallantly defended the orthodox faith would have a place in that august assembly. They made him the private secretary to the president of the Synod, Johannes Bogerman, and paid him a daily stipend for his work.[4] A few years after the great synod, Ames was given a teaching position at the University of Franeker where he wrote much against the Roman Catholic goliath, Bellarmine. In 1632, he left the lecturn to return to the pulpit again, this time willingly, taking a call to a church of Englishmen in Rotterdam. There he wrote his most famous work, The Marrow of Theology, a course of concise teachings for sons of merchants who had donated money enabling poor youths to enter the ministry.[5]

The Marrow noticeably stands out on the book shelf for its size. With a title including, The Essence of Theology, it is surprisingly over 350 pages—not something a modern publisher would likely commission for today’s youth! But the lengthy book should not give anyone pause; it reads wonderfully for anyone with an interest in spiritual matters. 

Opening the Marrow, the first thing one encounters is the chart at the beginning of the book, an indication of the Ramist influence upon Ames. Ramus was a French Reformed philosopher who thought that Aristotle and his categories needed to be overthrown in the methodology of instruction for the church. He also believed the church needed to emphasize practical and accessible instruction without losing sound doctrine explained with careful logic.[6] Part of the method Ramus put forward to accomplish this was a dialectical way of explaining a topic. Every topic was to be divided into two. Each of the two divisions would then lead to another topic of two parts. A chart resembling a backwards tournament bracket resulted. Ames, following the Ramist method, provides such a chart and follows the chart’s outline through the book. Ramism took hold at Cambridge in the 1570’s.[7] Perkins was a Ramist, and Ames learned it while he was a student at Cambridge. He became an avid follower of the method, also sharing Ramus’ desire to teach God’s people in a clear, doctrinal, accessible way that had practical impact on their life with God.

 The Marrow would become immensely popular in the Netherlands, England, and America for over 150 years. Ames’ theology was profound, orthodox, and concise. Particularly, his doctrine of the covenant was well-regarded; in fact, it was and is the marrow of Ames’ Marrow of Theology

Ames speaks of the covenant in chapters 10, 25, 32, 38, and 39.  His understanding of the covenant reflected in these chapters is important. Eusden says, “No previous thinker in the Calvinist-Puritan tradition analyzed the covenant of grace with an acuteness comparable to that of the Franeker professor.”[8]

Ames viewed the entire application of Christ’s redeeming work to his people in terms of God’s establishing His covenant of grace with them. The chapter in which he most thoroughly speaks of the covenant of grace is titled, “The Application of Christ.” Redemption applied is the application of covenant to God’s people. That covenant of grace is for Ames not an agreement where God and man have made a contract with one another. A legal transactional relationship is reserved for the covenant of works, but there is nothing of transaction to be found in the covenant of grace according to Ames. Eusden says that in Ames’ theology, the covenant of grace is…

“…where the culminating fulness of God’s relation to men is known….The whole weight of the Bible is against any final consideration of God as party to a bargain with men. God is fundamentally a promiser and performer, regardless of what man does—and it is this action of God which Ames makes central in his covenant theology.”[9]

Ames himself says,

“…in the former [covenant of works] there was an agreement of two parties, God and man, but in the new only God covenants. For man being dead in sin has no ability to make a spiritual covenant with God. But if two parties are necessary in the strict sense…then God is a part assuming and constituting, and man is a party assumed.”

Ames defined the covenant as a promise that God would take us to Himself in Christ. “It is called a covenant because it is a firm promise….”[10] This promise God alone makes, and God alone ensures is kept.

In Ames’ theology, this covenant of grace is one covenant from the fall of Adam to the return of Christ, “…the free, saving covenant of God has been one and the same from the beginning… .”[11] It develops over time, especially seen in that the covenant in the New Testament has many differences from the covenant in the Old Testament. Nonetheless, the covenant of grace in the New Testament “is not new in essence but in form.”[12]

Ames taught that the covenant of works was made with all men in Adam, but the covenant of grace was reserved for the elect in Christ. “The old was extended to all men, but the new belongs in a special way only to certain men. Although from a human point of view it is offered indiscriminately, by its nature it belongs and with special propriety is directed to those whom God intended….”[13]

Ames believed the covenant of grace was not merely a means to an end, so that the covenant fell away once God’s people arrived in heaven, but rather as a bond with God it was an eternal reality that never ended. “The present covenant is everlasting, both in its own duration, since it admits of no end or change in substance, and in its application, for the grace of this covenant continues forever with those who are once truly in it.”

This covenant of grace is unconditional, the opposite of the covenant of works which was conditional. “The old required perfect obedience to works to be performed by man of his own strength prior to the carrying out of the promise, which would then be in the form of a reward. But the present covenant requires no properly called or prior condition, but only a following or intermediate condition (and that to be given by grace as a means to grace), which is the proper nature of faith.”[14]

Ames believed children of believers are included in this unconditional covenant. “The children of those believers who are in the church are to be counted with the believers as members of the church, 1 Cor. 7:14, Your children are holy. For they are partakers with their parents of the same covenant and profession.”[15] Ames also believed that baptism applied to infants was a wonderful testimony to the unconditional nature of the covenant. “The sign and seal were given to the children of believers before they could do anything or assent to anything. [Baptism] is rather a profound symbol of the very heart of the unconditional covenant of grace.”[16]

According to Eusden, this unconditional covenant is the central and most important point in Ames’ theology. “Ames sees the unconditional covenant of grace as perhaps the single most important biblical teaching.” As one of the first in the Reformed tradition to make the covenant,  and the unconditional covenant, so central and important in his theology, Ames stands as an important figure in the history of covenant theology. 

Ames’ Marrow had a tremendous impact in the Netherlands, England, and the American colonies for the next 150 years. The Marrow, along with Ames’ other works, were sent by the shipload from the Netherlands and England to the American colonies. There were not many books in the new world, and Ames’ work filled the void, becoming the main influence on generations of puritan theologians and ministers. “In early American theological and intellectual history, William Ames was without peer.”[17] “It was said that anyone who had a Bible and Ames’ work will be an able theologian of the Word of God.”[18] His work on the unconditional covenant was the groundwork for further development of that glorious doctrine in England, the Netherlands, and America.[19]


Cory Griess is a minister in the Protestant Reformed Churches in America having served two congregations; he has written many articles for the denomination’s Standard Bearer Magazine and Protesant Reformed Theological Journal, and published Preparing for Dating and Marriage with its Reformed Free Publishing Association. Currently in training to become professor of practical theology and New Testament studies in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary, Griess lives with his wife and seven covenant children in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Related Links

Podcast: "Foundations of Covenant Theology"

"William Ames: Saving Faith and Theology" by Ryan McGraw

"William Ames on Singing Imprecatory Psalms" by Danny Hyde

Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives, edited by Guy Waters, J. Nicholas Reid, and John Muether

Backdrop for a Glorious Gospel: The Covenant of Works according to William Strong by Thomas Parr


Notes

[1] John D. Eusden, “Introduction,” in William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, trans. John Dykstra Eusden (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1968), 4..

[2] Ames, Marrow, chapter 25.

[3] Eusden, “Introduction,” in, Marrow, 7.

[4] Herman C. Hanko, Portraits of Faithful Saints, First edition (Grandville, Mich: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1999), 313.

[5] Ames, Marrow, 67.  Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language defines “marrow” as, 1. An Oleaginous substance contained in the cavities of animal bones; 2. The essence: The best part; 3. In the Scottish dialect, a companion; fellow; associate; match.

[6] J. Van Vliet, “The Moral Theology of William Ames,” accessed 10/14/21,  The Moral Theology of William Ames | Reformed /Theology at A Puritan's Mind (apuritansmind.com/)

[7]  Herbert W. Schneider, A History of American Philosophy, 1st Edition (Motilal Banarsidass, 1969), 6.

[8] Eusden, “Introduction,” in Marrow, 52.

[9] Eusden, “Introduction,” in Marrow, 53.

[10] Ames, Marrow, 150.

[11] Ames, Marrow, 202.

[12] Ames, Marrow, 206.

[13] Ames, Marrow, 151.

[14] Ames, Marrow, 151.

[15] Ames, Marrow, 179-180.

[16] Eusden, “introduction,” in, Marrow, 57.

[17] Eusden, “Introduction,” in Marrow, 11.

[18] Matthew C. McMahon, “Theological Book Reviews-The Marrow of Theology,” accessed 10/14/21, Theological Book Reviews – The Marrow of Theology | Reformed Theology at A Puritan's Mind (apuritansmind.com).

[19] Eusden, “Introduction,” in, Marrow, 53.