Whereas in times past, most churches were silent, if not ignorant, about the covenant of grace, it is different today. Regardless that covenant and kingdom are undoubtedly the most prominent truths in the Bible, only the Reformed churches have confessed the covenant with any enthusiasm and taught it at any length and with any depth. Even these churches lost interest, probably because they allowed themselves to become attracted to the emotional, individualistic, semi-Pelagian religion of much of “evangelicalism” and of the charismatic religion. A church that teaches the members that salvation is a matter of our accepting God will be little interested in a theology that teaches that salvation is the matter of God accepting sinful humans. A “gospel” whose only interest is the salvation of the soul of the individual will have no place for the message of the salvation of the body of Christ — the covenant community, the church of which Jesus is the covenant-head (Eph. 5; Gal. 3) — which does not ignore the soul of the individual elect.
In the past, only a few Reformed denominations emphasised the covenant, mostly churches in North America and in the Netherlands.
Today, things are different. The biblical truth of God’s covenant is on the foreground, not only in Reformed churches, but also in prominent, popular evangelical circles throughout Europe and North America — and elsewhere. Even leading modernist, apostate theologians, who still have influence in many churches, for example, J. D. G. Dunn, promote the covenant as the fundamental reality of the Christian religion as taught in the Bible.
This revival of interest in the covenant concerns soundly Reformed churches, not merely in that it underscores the importance of the doctrine of the covenant, but especially because the resurgence of interest in the covenant universally promotes a false doctrine of the covenant. The Reformed church that is sound in doctrine must guard its precious inheritance of the orthodox covenant doctrine. It ought also to witness to this fundamental truth of the gospel of Scripture against the heresies.
The first contemporary movement concerning the covenant to which Reformed believers must pay close attention calls itself the “federal vision”. The name itself indicates that this theological movement centres on the covenant, for “federal” means covenant. This movement, with its covenant theology, is especially dangerous to sound churches and their members because it is found in the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches and seminaries in North America. Its origin is a Dutch Reformed theologian, Klaas Schilder, theologian in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (liberated).
The “federal vision” teaches that God makes His covenant of grace with every baptised person, especially every baptised child of believing parents. He makes the covenant by means of baptism. The effect of the baptism of every person is that every person is united to Jesus Christ in a saving union. Every person, especially every baptised child, is born again, justified, and given the spiritual ability (the Holy Spirit) to believe on Jesus, to persevere to the end, and to be saved everlastingly.
This, however, does not assure the salvation of anyone. It is possible that the baptized and saved child refuses to believe. In this case, he loses his covenant salvation and has his union with Christ dissolved, so that he perishes eternally.
The explanation is that the covenant is conditional. The establishment of the covenant is purely gracious. But the continuation and perfection of the covenant are conditional. They depend upon the baptized child — upon his fulfilment of the conditions of faith and lifelong obedience.
The leading proponent of this covenant theology is the North American theologian, Norman Shepherd, for many years professor of theology at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, the unofficial seminary of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Shepherd is, and confesses himself to be, the faithful disciple of Klaas Schilder.
The advocates of the “federal vision” themselves acknowledge their close relation to the covenant movement that is known as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). This is the second contemporary covenant theology of which Reformed believers ought to be aware. I ignore the founders of this movement, for example, James Dunn, because they are all modernist, unbelieving scholars. There is, however, a reputedly “evangelical” scholar who is influential in promoting this movement in Great Britain, North America, and other parts of the world, very likely including Singapore. He is the acclaimed N. T. Wright. Like his modernist cohorts, Wright emphasises the covenant of grace as the doctrine that controls and explains the entire message of the gospel in Scripture. He has written that “covenantal categories…are…central [in Paul]”.
What the covenant actually is, in the thinking of Wright, is difficult, almost impossible, to determine. Never does he define the covenant that is central. He leaves the impression that it is a certain gracious relationship of God with humanity in which there is a (conditional) salvation of sorts. Characteristic of this covenant (=salvation) in the theology of Wright are the following. First, one receives this covenant (=salvation) by gracious promise. But one continues in the covenant by fulfilling the conditions of believing and obeying the law. Covenantal salvation, therefore, can be lost. Second, the justification that, according to Romans and Galatians, is fundamental to the covenant and its salvation is merely God’s recognition that someone belongs to the covenant. It is not the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. Faith is not the means of this imputation. Rather, it is the identification of a member of the covenant. Faith is merely a “badge”, a “marker”, of membership in the church. Justification is only the “declaration” of membership in the church. Openly and brazenly, the NPP denies justification by faith alone, faith being the means of the verdict of God declaring the sinner righteous, the heart of the Christian gospel and the message of the 16th Reformation of the church. Denying justification by faith as taught by the apostle in Romans 3-5 and as confessed by the Reformation of the 16th century, Wright and the NPP also deny the five points of Calvinism as confessed in the Canons of Dordt and in the Westminster Standards. By its heretical doctrine of justification, the NPP is committed to ecumenical oneness with the Roman Catholic Church, which union with Rome it advocates enthusiastically.
A third characteristic of the theology of Wright and the NPP is its conception of covenant salvation as, ultimately, an earthly kingdom of universal peace. Like its outrightly modernist form of covenant theology (that of Dunn and Sanders), the hope of the theology of N. T. Wright is an earthly utopia. This is not lacking in the theology of the federal vision of Norman Shepherd.
Doctrinally, both the federal vision and the NPP err by teaching a conditional covenant. This takes form in the heresy of justification by faith and by works. Both covenant theologies explicitly deny justification by faith alone, without the works of the justified. Thus is lost, or denied, the entire gospel of grace, from election to the preservation of saints. Both the federal vision and the NPP openly and boldly deny and reject the “five points of Calvinism” as confessed in the Canons of Dordt, that is, the gospel of salvation by grace.
Against the contemporary theologies of the covenant, which threaten evangelical and Reformed Christianity in our day, it is the calling of sound Reformed churches to intensify their embrace of, and to witness to, the following concerning the covenant of grace. First, rather than a conditional agreement, or arrangement, the covenant is communion with God, established and maintained by grace alone, that is, unconditionally (Gen. 17:7; Gal. 3). Churches whose doctrine of the covenant views the covenant as conditional are vulnerable to the heresies of the federal vision and of the NPP, if their doctrine is not, in fact, essentially the same as that of these heresies.
Second, justification, which is fundamental to the covenant, and the enjoyment of the covenant, is by faith alone, without works. And this justification is the imputation to the believing sinner of the obedience of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3 & 4).
Third, the blessedness, the salvation, of the covenant is not earthly, but heavenly, not material, but spiritual: union with God in Christ. The perfection of this covenant-bliss will be the resurrection of the body and life everlasting in the new creation. There the celebration will be, not, “Thanks, O God, for beginning the salvation, which I myself maintained and perfected”, but, “Thanks, O God, for gracious salvation from beginning to end, grounded upon a justification by faith alone, without any work of mine” (Rev. 5:8-14).
 For the full account and criticism of the “federal vision,” see my Federal Vision: Heresy at the Root (Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2012).
 N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
 For a more thorough examination of the theology of Wright, see my “The New Perspective on Paul,” in Gospel Truth of Justification (Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2017), 26-44.
Written by: Prof. David J. Engelsma