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Conditional and Unconditional Covenants

Question
I have heard it taught in Reformed circles that the Noahic, Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were unconditional, and that the Adamic and Mosaic covenants were conditional. Is this right?
Answer
The outline of the conditionality/unconditionality of the covenants that you have presented is the one that has characterized traditional Reformed thinking and teaching. However, this is an area in which I differ from our Reformed predecessors. At Third Millennium we teach that all the covenants were conditional.

One way to make this point is to appeal to the other traditional Reformed teaching that there is one covenant of grace under various administrations. If there is only one covenant, it does not make sense to say that this covenant switches back and forth between being conditional and unconditional. Since subsequent administrations assume and build on the terms of preceding administrations, the conditions of the earlier covenants also apply to the latter covenants.

Also, Scripture demonstrates that each of the covenant administrations really is conditional. Perhaps the easiest way to see this is to notice that none of the covenant administrations actually bestows its blessings upon everyone under that covenant administration:

Adamic: All mankind is under the Adamic covenant, but not all mankind is saved - some people go to hell. This could not happen if the Adamic promised salvation unconditionally. If one blessing of the Adamic covenant is redemption, and that administration is unconditional, then all people must be saved.

Noahic: All mankind is under the Noahic covenant, but not all mankind is saved. The Noahic covenant administration assumes all prior covenant stipulations, blessings, curses, etc., specifically of the Adamic covenant. Therefore, it also offers redemption/salvation as a blessing. Since not all people are saved, it must be conditional. Further, there are actual stipulations and curses listed in the institution of the Noahic covenant, namely that the one who sheds man's blood must die. Not shedding man's blood is an explicit condition of receiving the covenant blessings.

Abrahamic: Again, if the covenant is unconditional, then everyone under it must be saved. But clearly not all who are bound in the Abrahamic covenant have been, are, or will be saved. For example, many ancient Israelites perished in their sins. Moreover, explicit covenant conditions are listed in the institution and confirmation of the Abrahamic covenant. In Genesis 17:1-2, the covenant condition is: walk before God and be blameless. In Genesis 17:14, we also learn that one who is not circumcised falls under the covenant curse because he has broken the covenant. One cannot break an unconditional covenant; to break a covenant is to violate its conditons.

Mosaic: No one to my knowledge has argued that this covenant was not conditional. In any event, its conditions are clearly detailed in the books of the Law, and chapters such as Leviticus 26 clearly indicate the conditional nature of its blessings and curses. And of course, many under this covenant have not received its blessings (e.g. the first generation of Israelites that left Egypt and perished in the wilderness).

Davidic: 2 Chronicles 6:16 records that the promise made to David included an explicit condition: "if only your sons take heed to their way, to walk in my law as you have walked before me."

Finally, the culmination of all the covenant administrations is the administration under Christ. Christ himself had to die to fulfill the terms of the covenant, making his administration undoubtedly conditional. None of this is to say that we may earn salvation on our own; no matter which covenant administration we look at, we cannot keep its terms. Thus, we always rely on God's grace and forgiveness in order to receive his covenant blessings. There is no blessing we can claim if we reject him; and if we receive him we also receive his blessings only because Christ has fulfilled the conditions on our behalf.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.