I'm currently reading a very good book by Greg Nichols entitled Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God's Covenants. I came to a particular section which I thought would be very helpful to my Hardshell friends who automatically discard the notions of conditions, necessities, etc. as Arminianism. The fact of the matter is that these terms are a most necessary addition to an explanation of how God saves sinners which the author correctly understands. I cannot help but comment on his comments and how they relate to the heretical system I used to teach and the light God has since granted.
"Good men speak of the covenant of grace as conditional to avoid errors and dangers."
Yes, such as the dangers which we see in Hardshellism in which it is affirmed that faith, repentance, personal holiness, and anything else subjective are not required for eternal salvation. It is the failure of Hardshells to recognize the need for retaining such terms as necessities, conditions, requirements, etc. when discussing soteriology that they falsely accuse Calvinism as being the same as Arminianism, in which these terms are frequently associated with works and free-will. Seeing the latter as an error, they then make an error of their own by rebelling to the opposite extreme, discarding any and all notions of conditions, and creating a theological system I think more fatal than the one against which it rebelled. This truth was observed by Elder Thomas Mann who concluded that in rebelling to one error, the Hardshells who first invented this notion ended up overstating their case, and fell into another error, whereas the truth actually lies somewhere in the middle. I agree completely.
"Further, when we say that the covenant of grace is unconditional in essence, we must take care to avoid fatalism. A fatalistic mentality would say, if God will certainly apply redemption to his elect, then why pray, why preach, why parent? Rather, we affirm, preach, pray, and parent, because God uses means. Unconditional in essence doesn't equal absolute, without means, in fulfillment!"
I saw this fatalistic mentality all throughout the years I was among my Hardshell brethren. Not only “why pray, why preach, why parent”, but why believe and why repent? For these are conditions are they not? And so we would immediately flee from the idea that responsibility can be mentioned in the same breath as eternal salvation so that we may remain do-nothings with respect to our own salvation and that of others.
Nichols makes an essential distinction when he remarks that unconditional in essence does not equate to unconditional in fulfillment! Amen! Here in my opinion is the key to unravelling the whole conditional vs unconditional controversy. Here me, my Hardshell friends! Election is unconditional, agreed? Yet election is not the summation of what’s called eternal salvation, so we err if we affirm that salvation is unconditional simply because election is. Men were unconditionally elected unto salvation, but as God works out the matter of salvation in history means and conditions are employed to accomplish it both FOR those and IN those whom He unconditionally elected! When I was excluded by my former friends one of the things which began to be circulated was that “Kevin does not understand that salvation is unconditional”. Oh no, Kevin understands it just fine. It is you who does not understand the distinction between the decree of salvation and its administration.
"We stand committed to teach unconditional election, even if men abuse the doctrine. The covenant of grace reflects and rests on this unconditional decree. Did God decree in eternity to require faith and repentance for initial salvation and perseverance in faith for final salvation? The answer is, yes. Does that make his decree conditional? The answer is, no, because God also decrees to supply all he requires, and that not for anything done by his elect. So also is his covenant of grace."
Faith and repentance belong not in the category of election, which we agree is unconditional, but in the administration of salvation in time, where things are required of men in order to be saved. These requirements are unconditional in the sense that they are not accomplished by works and free-will, but are conditional in the sense that they must be obtained by the elect somehow. The matter is solved in the teaching that what God requires of His elect he freely gives them. Unfortunately, this is rejected by my Hardshell friends who have so sliced and diced the scriptures that they are left with the sad conclusion that the fulfillment of conditions are not to the praise and glory of God but rather merited by so-called regenerated men, to the praise of their works and free-will as they temporally save themselves (Acts 2:40).
Perhaps the most helpful thing is to understand this fact. A condition is not necessarily the same thing as an efficient cause, meaning that all accusations that Calvinists are “adding” to the grace of God and blood of Christ are totally baseless. By a condition we simply mean that something has to be in place for some transaction to occur. I could say that a garden hose is a condition for my flowers to become wet, yet the life-giving source is in the water itself, whereas the hose is merely the means through which it is conveyed. I could say that a new heart is a requirement for a transplant, meaning only that the heart must be put safely in place before the surgery can be called complete. It is the same thing in the administration of salvation. The birth of Christ was a necessity which needed to be met in order to the redemption of the family of God. Those who crucified our Lord were the means by which He was placed on the cross (Acts 2:23). When it comes to God’s dealings with the sinner himself, faith is a necessity in regeneration. We are regenerated by grace not at the expense of it but through it (Eph. 2:8). The sinner meets the condition by God’s gift of faith unto him in regeneration, and this new birth cannot be considered as complete until it is there, just like we would not consider heart surgery complete until a heart has been put in place. The same holds true with final salvation, as it too is through faith (1 Peter 1:5; Heb. 10:39). And when the scriptures look back from the perspective of those who have achieved it, it gives the impression that they met the requirements in their life. "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth...their works do follow them." (Rev. 14:13). Good works did in fact follow! Why? Because God did effectually work in them the will and doing of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). The tree being made good, it does in fact bear fruit!
There most definitely are conditions to salvation when the term is used properly as Nichols does. It is , I think, because of my Hardshell friends' previous agenda against anything that gives an appearance of Arminianism that they fail to understand this or give it any consideration.