Covenant Theology and Calvinism’s Hidden Gospel

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By: Brenda Nickel

Some Christians see no problem in attending a Reformed church not realizing that in doing so, they run the risk of connecting with some aspect of Covenant theology.  This system of theology, primarily found in Reformed circles, is based on three speculative covenants not found in the pages of scripture. These additional covenants that reformed scholars insist are present in the Bible must be inferred by extracting meaning from the context that isn’t actually there. The apprehending of these deeper and hidden meanings is known as spiritualizing or allegorizing the text.  A friend of mine was once told in a Bible study she was attending, by a person who apparently spiritualized scripture, that if she interpreted passages literally she’d miss the whole point of the Bible!

Spiritualizing the Word

Consequently, spiritualizing scripture allows one to use God’s Word to teach most anything. This method of interpretation lets Reformed theology teach the church existed in the OT rather than having begun in the NT on the day of Pentecost. The reformed believe so strongly in sovereign election, they define the “church” as the body of all the elect in history. Of course there’s some disagreement as to when this “church” precisely began because this significant event can’t be found in OT scriptures.  Therefore, reformed scholars debate whether this “OT church” began with Adam or with Abraham.

Once the “church” is placed in the OT, the reformed then reason the nation of Israel, who received the Abrahamic promises and the Mosaic Law, did so representatively for this supposed “OT church.”  Since this “OT church” is thought to have received the Mosaic Law, it is also assumed the Law is still operative in part for the “church” today.  Not only did this “OT church” receive the Law, it also received the Abrahamic promises for a coming kingdom.  When Jesus offered the kingdom to the nation of Israel, the reformed also believe He was really offering it to the “church.”  Apparently this “church” didn’t reject the offer of the kingdom, but the unbelieving Jews did. Since Israel rejected their Messiah, God depopulated this “OT church” of Jews to repopulate the “NT church” primarily with Gentiles. Thus, the Gentiles superseded the Jews in the Reformed way of thinking, and the promised kingdom was in fact given to the “church,” but in a spiritual sense.  Of course the tribulation must occur before the kingdom comes, so the Reformed say the tribulation either took place in 70 A. D. or has been an ongoing reality since then, rejecting a literal tribulation in the future.

Covenant Theology

Most people hear the term “Covenant theology” and think, “I believe there are covenants in the Bible and so yes, I guess I do believe in covenant theology!” Without realizing, they are entertaining a whole different belief system than that presented in the Bible. The three extra covenants of Covenant theology, not found in scripture, are called “inferred” or “implied” covenants.  However, the six major biblical covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Land, Davidic, and New Covenants) can be clearly located on the pages of scripture with chapter and verse.  Once these false “implicit” covenants undergird the true “explicit” covenants, they become the foundation upon which Reformed theology is built.

The first of these “implied” covenants was supposedly made before time began and is called the “Covenant of Redemption.”  In this presumed covenant, the Father is said to have chosen the elect, the Son agreed to die for the elect, and the Holy Spirit agreed to enable the elect to come to faith.  This Covenant of Redemption is also known by its nickname, “the eternal decree of God.”  Again, there is debate in reformed circles about these “eternal decrees” because they can’t be found in scripture in black and white.  Amazingly, those in the Reformed tradition not only guess what God decided in eternity past, but also guess the order He decided them!  They speculate about which order God decreed to create man, permit the fall, predestine the elect, apply the atonement of Christ, and redeem and sanctify the elect. The apostle Paul warns not to make these kinds of presumptions saying, “‘Do not go beyond what is written.’ Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other” (1 Cor 4:6). Nowhere in the Bible is the Covenant of Redemption or the Order of Divine Decrees spelled out.  Calvinists are merely philosophizing about theology, and then presenting it as truth.

Things become a little more interesting when the second of these covenants, the “Covenant of Works,” is considered. Does the reader know that God supposedly entered into a covenant with Adam promising him salvation for obedience? The Reformed say God must have made this covenant because Hosea 6:7 “proves” Adam broke a covenant with God, “7But they like men have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me.” In the newer Bible translations, the word “men” is translated “Adam” making it read “like Adam they transgressed the covenant.” Misunderstanding the context of the passage they ask the question, “When did God enter into a covenant with Adam that he broke?” They focus our attention on the interpretation of the verse, diverting our attention away from the major problem; obedience in exchange for salvation!  Ask yourself if God has ever required works for salvation?  Of course the answer is no!  God requires faith and blood sacrifice for sinners to be reconciled with Him.  Keep this “obedience for salvation” motif in the back of your mind to see the clever interplay between Calvinism and Covenant theology.

Since Adam was unable to offer “obedience for salvation” after falling into sin, Reformed theology teaches the second Adam, Jesus Christ, promised to procure this obedience in a third covenant not found in scripture; the “Covenant of Grace.”  Covenant theology teaches that Christ’s active obedience to the Law supplies the necessary requirement for the elect’s salvation.  Think this through for a moment. Can Law-keeping obedience meet the requirement for salvation?  While Jesus’ obedience to the Law revealed His perfection as Messiah that qualified Him to be the perfect Lamb of God sacrificed for our sins, this obedience doesn’t contribute to salvation in any way. Salvation is found through trusting Christ and His death, burial and resurrection.  Of course this Law-keeping obedience is couched in terms of righteousness.  However the righteousness of God spoken of in Romans 3:21 says it is apart from the law, 21But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets.” The Bible never teaches that Law observance, neither ours nor Christ’s, saves.

Shockingly, many in the Reformed camp erroneously claim Christ’s life of active obedience is as salvific in contributing to our salvation as His death.  Nowhere does the Bible tell us to place faith in the righteousness of Christ.  Faith is placed in the cross of Christ.  Notice the following quote by 19th century reformed theologian A. A. Hodge, where he states that Jesus’ obedience is as essential to salvation as His death.

“The Scriptures teach us plainly that Christ’s obedience was as truly vicarious as was his suffering, and that he reconciled us to the Father by the one as well as by the other.” 1

Consider this quote by John Calvin where he brazenly states the ground of pardon from God is based on Jesus’ whole life of obedience.   The Bible says our whole ground of pardon is based on Jesus’ death and shed blood.

“[W]hen it is asked how Christ, by abolishing sin, removed the enmity between God and us, and purchased a righteousness which made him favourable and kind to us, it may be answered generally, that he accomplished this by the whole course of his obedience…… And indeed he elsewhere extends the ground of pardon which exempts from the curse of the law to the whole life of Christ…. In short, from the moment when he assumed the form of a servant, he began, in order to redeem us, to pay the price of deliverance… “2

Postulating that Christ’s Law-keeping obedience is somehow necessary for salvation, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith says the following;

“They are not justified because God reckons as their righteousness either their faith, their believing, or any other act of evangelical obedience. They are justified wholly and solely because God imputes to them Christ’s righteousness. He imputes to them Christ’s active obedience to the whole law and His passive obedience in death.”3

Once the Law-keeping obedience of Christ is placed on the same footing as the cross, it becomes necessary to trust this righteousness for salvation. Watch how the clever trick of Covenant theology is played out within its gospel of Calvinism.

Calvinism is often shortened to the acronym TULIP which helps people remember its teachings.  It says that God sovereignly chooses, dies for, and equips the elect to be saved.  Most people understand Calvinism’s last point, the Perseverance of the Saints, (“P” of TULIP), to mean the elect will persevere in faith and never abandon Christ.  Those in Calvinism for any length of time know that’s not completely accurate.  It quickly becomes clear that since the elect have received the Law-keeping righteousness of Christ, they are expected not only to persevere in faith, but also to persevere in obedience.  At this point, faith subtly shifts away from the cross and toward works.  This shift is called Lordship salvation by detractors.

Lordship salvation, masquerading as repentance and good deeds, is lauded by its proponents but once unmasked it is exposed as a gospel of works.  According to Calvinism, the elect are equipped to make Jesus Christ the absolute sovereign Lord of their lives to prove their salvation. There is little room for disobedience. Obedience not only proves their election, but demonstrates that both the obedience of the Second Adam has been credited to their account and the demands of the “Covenant of Works” have been met.  Thus Calvinism’s “perseverance of the saints” dovetails perfectly with Covenant theology to hide a complicated and well-disguised “obedience for salvation” scenario that God presumably promised to Adam.

Add to this that reformed theology teaches the elect who believe have no carnal nature, but only the one new nature of Christ.   No wonder the Calvinist feels condemned when disobedient.  Every sin or infraction is met with mental threats of non-election and therefore no salvation, which explains the massive lack of assurance within reformed circles. This fear drives them to search the scriptures diligently to check and recheck that their understanding of election is true. Everything hinges on the correct understanding of election. Sadly, every scripture that should bring them comfort has been reinterpreted according to Calvinism causing uncertainty instead. Their scholarship tells them Calvinism is rational, while their hearts agonize in fear.

Both Covenant theology and Calvinism are explained in the most scholastically erudite terms, making both seem logical, reasonable and plausible.  However, God warns Christians not to leave the thinking to scholars.  We are advised to search the scriptures daily, as the Bereans did, to scrutinize whether the things taught line up with scripture (Acts 17:11).  We are instructed to study to show ourselves approved as workmen who need not be ashamed (2 Tim 2:15).  We are cautioned not to trust the wisdom of the world (1 Cor 1-2).  We are told to, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ”(Col 2:8).  We are cautioned that “Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30).  We are forewarned, “…lest any man should beguile you with enticing words” (Col 2:4).

Christians are warned, “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Eph 4:14). False teachers easily gain a following (Gal 4:17) telling those with itching ears what they want to hear (2 Tim 4:3).  In the process, 3…through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you” (2 Pet 2:3). We are forbidden from adding to the words of scripture lest we be rebuked (Pro 30:5-6) or worse yet, cursed (Rev 22:18).  Covenant theology clearly adds non-existent covenants to the Bible that change both the nature of God and the gospel.

Paul twice condemned any gospel that is different from the one he preached (Gal 1:8-9), as well as gospels that depend on works rather than the cross.  He warns us in Colossians not to be moved away from the hope of the gospel he preached (Col 1:23). Reformed theology’s “Calvinism” and “Covenant of Works” are two such gospels that meld into a single hidden gospel that should be denounced by the church today. Instead, this system of theology is validated as “historic, orthodox Christianity” and has therefore taken countless in the church captive to its ideology since it’s generally regarded as “safe.” We need to be vigilant, keeping watch over the true gospel of Christ so that we offer a life saving message to the lost, and walk in the freedom of the Spirit offered to believers.  It is the enemy of our souls who wants our eyes on works and law righteousness, rather than on the cross.


1 –, Citing; Archibald Alexander HodgeThe Atonement, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1953, pp. 248, 249.

2 –, Citing; John CalvinCalvin’s Institutes, vol.2, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962, p. 437.

3 –, The Baptist Confession of Faith,” with slight revisions by Charles Spurgeon, Chapter 11, Justification, paragraph 1.


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