Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 9, Number 3, January 14 to January 20, 2007

Outline of the Covenant of Grace
Testimony to Sublapsarianism

By James Henley Thornwell

James Henley Thornwell (1812-1862) was a distinguished Southern Presbyterian pastor and educator. He served in the pulpit ministry on three separate occasions and twice as a professor in the College of South Carolina. In 1851, he was called to serve as President of that institution. From 1855 until his death at the age of 49 he held the chair of theology in the Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. His Collected Writings, 1871-1882, edited by John B. Adger and John L. Giradeau, have been republished in their entirety by The Banner of Truth Trust of Great Britain.


In the original distribution of the topics embraced in Theology they were reduced to three heads:

1. Those essential principles of moral government which are involved in the relations of a rational, responsible creature to its Creator and Ruler. These lie at the basis of all religion. There can be neither duty, sin, holiness nor worship without them. Under this head we consider man as he was created, and only in those aspects which belong to his nature as rational and moral, the product of supreme intelligence and righteousness. Here we discuss the question of his original endowments, his knowledge, righteousness and holiness; all that is implied in the notion of his being created in the image of God; the moral law; the nature of moral government, its responsibilities, promises and threatenings.

2. The second head includes the dispensation under which man was placed after his creation, commonly called the Covenant of Works. This dispensation involved the purpose on the part of God to bring man into closer relations with Himself. His natural position was that of a servant — God designs to make him a son. In his natural estate, his will was mutable; his obedience was contingent; he was liable to fall — God designed to establish him in holiness for ever. The means through which this was to be done was a limited probation of the whole race in the person of one man — in other words, the justification of all through one. This purpose introduced several important modifications of moral government. The limitation of probation as to time introduces the idea of justification; the limitation as to persons introduces the idea of federal representation; and both together necessitate indefectibility of holiness. This dispensation had a threatening as well as a promise. Hence, to understand it fully, we must know the state to which its breach reduces us, that being the legal state in which the race now exists. Hence, we were led to a full consideration of Sin, its nature, its consequences, its origin in us.

3. The third great department of Theology is that which relates to redemption, and that is the topic on which we are to enter now. The scheme of redemption, otherwise called the Covenant of Grace, is the answer which God gives to the question, How shall a sinner be justified and established in holiness for ever? as the Covenant of Works was an answer to the question, How shall a moral creature be justified and confirmed? They are both evolutions of the same purpose, the same grace in God. The difference in the provisions is owing to a difference in the condition of the persons affected. The principle on which these provisions are granted is precisely the same — federal representation. But man's different state introduces three peculiarities in its application: (1.) It gives occasion for the exercise of sovereignty on the part of God in discriminating among the members of the human family. All need not be represented. There is a positive desert of punishment which may be respected and ought to be respected. Some must die that it may be clearly seen that all were ruined. (2.) In the next place, man's guilt requires a new element in righteousness — satisfaction to the justice of God. The penalty of the law must be borne, and borne as a matter of obedience. (3.) Man's nature now requires a change in its whole inward state. Hence, the doctrine of sanctification is introduced. The federal Head must be one who is competent to these exigencies in His person, and in the offices which He undertakes to discharge.

According to this analysis the doctrine of Redemption involves the discussion of the following topics:

1. The persons embraced in the Divine purpose; that is, the doctrine of Election. This may also be placed last, as Calvin has done. If we look at the thing in the order of the Divine purpose, it is first; if in the order of execution, it is last. One advantage of making it first is to show its regulative influence upon the atonement. It is not an afterthought to save atonement from being a failure.

2. The nature of a sinner's justification; what is required in it; and upon what grounds it is possible.

3. The nature of sanctification, or the whole of that internal work by which holiness is produced and perfected in the heart.

4. The federal Headship of Christ, including the conditions to His becoming such; the qualifications necessary for the office; the duties He discharges in it; the work which He actually performed; His birth, His life, His death, His resurrection and ascension — that is, Christ in His person, His offices, and in both estates of humiliation and exaltation.

5. The bond of union, the tie betwixt us and Christ, involving the office of the Holy Spirit in the application of redemption, and the specific acts on our parts responsive to that office; effectual calling and faith.

6. The means: the Church, the ministry, the ordinances.

7. The actual result of all in the different periods of the soul's history; the Christian's life now, his condition hereafter.

8. The state of those not embraced in the Covenant of Grace.

This is an outline of the great and glorious topics which fall under the scheme of redemption in their logical relations and dependence.


1. The distinction between these two parties has been represented as very unimportant, as a mere difference in their mode of viewing the same things. But the question concerning the order of the Divine decrees involves something more than a question of logical method. It is really a question of the highest moral significance. The order of a thing very frequently determines its righteousness and justice. Conviction and hanging are parts of the same process, but it is something more than a question of arrangement whether a man shall be hung before he is convicted.

2. It is admitted that the decrees, as they exist in the Divine mind, are not conditioned this would be to limit the absolute freedom of the Divine will. But the things which those decrees relate to are conditioned, and these conditions are regarded in the decrees. The things sustain relations to each other of cause and effect, of antecedent and consequent, of means and end; they are subordinate or coordinate, and all those relations are contemplated and embraced in the decree. The determinations of God in regard to them are determinations about things so and so connected.

3. There are three general opinions as to the order of Divine decrees, founded on the condition in which man, in the purpose of election and reprobation, was contemplated as being.

(1.) There are those who maintain that the end being to glorify God's grace and justice, the destination to death and life was the first thing in the Divine mind, and creation and the fall were only means ordained for the execution of this purpose. Man is viewed as neither fallen nor created, but simply as capable of being and as fallible — simply as an instrument that may be made and adapted to the purpose. This is the Supralapsarian hypothesis. It is so called because in fixing the object of election it ascends beyond creation and the fall.

(2.) Others maintain that election and reprobation are conditioned upon creation and the fall — that is, that the purpose of salvation and grace contemplates man as lost and ruined, and proposes to deliver him out of this state. This is the Sublapsarian hypothesis, so called because in fixing the object of predestination it presupposes creation and the fall.

(3.) Others think that the decree contemplates man not only as created and fallen, but as redeemed by Christ, and as actually believing in Him and persevering in grace.

This scheme we shall discount for the present, and consider only the two first.

4. The state of the question betwixt the Supra- and Sublapsarians is compendiously expressed by Turrettin. It is not whether creation and the fall enter into the Divine decree — that is confessed on all hands; but, whether they stand related to salvation and damnation as means to an end — whether in the order of thought God first conceived the purpose of life or death, and then the purpose of giving being and fallibility.

Again, it is not the question whether in predestination sin is taken into the account, for even Supralapsarians admit that sin must precede condemnation; but the question is, whether sin is in the Divine thought antecedent to condemnation, the real ground of it, or only a providential means of executing the decree of reprobation formed irrespective of it.

The question, further, is not whether sin is the impulsive cause of predestination. All parties are agreed that the distinction in the final states of men must be referred to the sovereign pleasure of God; but the question is, whether sin must not be presupposed as a quality in the objects of predestination; whether it is not a state or condition in them, without which predestination could not exist; whether sin must not be presupposed in order that a being may be capable either of election or reprobation.

That the Sublapsarians are right in their answers to these questions is apparent from several considerations:

(1.) The general impression made by the other scheme is extremely revolting to our moral nature and to our conceptions of the goodness and mercy of God. It represents the universe as a vast clock of complicated machinery, wound up and set to going for no other purpose but to strike throughout Eternity the dismal sounds — Damnation and Glory! To these ends the hands point upon the dial-plate of creation and Providence, and for these ends alone God has stepped forth from the depths of His own immensity to create, to order and to people worlds.

(2.) The Supralapsarians proceed upon a hypothesis altogether groundless: What is last in execution is first in intention. This is true only of things that stand related directly as means and end. The man who constructs a particular kind of plough has first in view the effect to be produced on the soil. But in a coordinate series it does not hold. All men were not made for the last man. Now, the works of God are manifold — each has its independent sphere; and they are all connected by their common relation to the Divine glory. Creation is one work, Redemption another.

(3.) That the creation and fall are not means, but antecedent conditions, is plain from the nature of the case. Sin is not in order to damnation, but damnation in order to sin.

(4.) The decree of Election and Reprobation is unmeaning without the presupposition of sin. It is an act without an object.

5. The true order of the Decrees is — (l.) Creation; (2.) The Fall; (3.) Election; (4.) Redemption; (5.) Vocation.

The New School order is — (1.) Creation; (2.) Fall; (3.) Redemption; (4.) Election; (5.) Vocation.


1. The Helvetic Confession, Chapter X. Here the objects of election are said to be, "Sanctos; quos vult salvos facere in Christo."

2. The Gallic Confession, Section XII. The language is very explicit: Credimus ex hac corruptione et damnatione universali, in qua omnes homines natura sunt submersi, Deum alios quidem eripere, quos videlicet œterno et immutabili suo consilio sola sua bonitate et misericordia, nullo que operum ipsorum respectu, in Jesu Christo elegit; alios vero in ea corraptione et damnatione relinquere, in quibus nimirum juste suo tempore damnandis justitiam suam demonstret, sicut in aliis divitias misericordiœ suœ declarat.

3. The Anglican Confession, Article XVII. They are chosen in Christ and to be delivered from the curse of the Fall.

4. The Scotch Confession, Section 8. The election is in Christ, and to grace and fraternity with Christ.

5. The Confession of Dort, Article XVI.

6. The Synod of Dort, Canons VI. to XI.


Predestination, though sometimes used in a wide sense as synonymous with decrees in general, is, for the most part, restricted to the special decree concerning the final destiny of men and angels. In this aspect it is subdivided according to the nature of the destiny into Election and Reprobation. Election secures the everlasting happiness, and Reprobation the everlasting misery of its objects. Leaving angels out of view, we may resume the Scripture doctrine of Predestination in relation to man under the following heads:

1. Man is viewed in the decree as a fallen being. It is a purpose which contemplates him under the character and in the condition of a lost sinner. He could not be capable of election to life nor of reprobation to death unless he were in a state which justly exposes him to the Divine displeasure and to death. That cannot be found which is not lost, and that cannot be saved which is in no danger. An election to salvation or to deliverance from guilt and misery as necessarily presupposes guilt and misery in its objects as healing implies a disease or cooling implies heat. The opposite theory, which makes the decree respect man not as fallen nor even as existing, but only as capable of both, makes the decree terminate upon an object which in relation to it is a nonentity. It makes the decree involve a palpable contradiction — a purpose to save what in the light of the decree is not lost, and is therefore not saveable.

Besides, that the Supralapsarians have no object corresponding to the nature of the decree, their system is liable to other and insurmountable objections:

(1.) It correlates things as means and end which actually sustain no such relations. Creation and the permission of the fall are made simply means for the execution of the purpose of election and reprobation. They have taken place because of that purpose. The truth is, these are coordinate and not subordinate works of God, and have their distinct and separate place in the Divine plan as manifestations of the Divine glory. All God's works are correlated to each as means for the expression of Himself. They all contain some letters and syllables of His great Name, and it is because of this relation to His glory that they all enter into the Divine decree.

(2.) The Supralapsarians, by their arbitrary reduction of creation and the fall to the category of means, really make sin the consequence of damnation and not its ground. Man is not condemned because he sins, but sins that he may be condemned.

(3.) Providence is the explicit manifestation of God's plan and counsels. Now in Providence we recognize the fact of creation, therefore we say that God decreed to create; the fact of the fall, therefore that God decreed to permit the fall; the fact of redemption, therefore that God decreed to redeem. In Providence these are connected not as means and end, but as successive developments, or rather as furnishing the occasions and conditions of successive developments of the Divine perfections. Creation glorified God in its sphere; the moral administration under which the fall occurred glorified Him in still another aspect of His being; and the fall furnished the occasion upon which a still more illustrious exhibition might be made. Here is a plan, a progressive plan, a plan in which each part prepares the way for something beyond, but in which each part has its own special and independent significancy.

(4.) The only support of this theory is a logical crotchet which will not bear examination. What is last in the execution is first in the intention. The maxim applies only to things connected as means and ends, but is not applicable to a coordinate series, or to a series in which the preceding is only a condition, but not the cause — a sine qua non, but not the ground — of the next.

(5.) The hypothesis is contrary to the Scriptures. They uniformly represent calling as the expression of election — the first articulate proof of it. But calling is from a state of sin and misery. Therefore, election must refer to the same condition. Historically, too, the doctrine has been developed in the Church from the experience of grace, and so connects itself necessarily with the transition from darkness to light. In so many words, we are said to be chosen out of the world.

(6.) The most matured Confessions of Faith represent election as presupposing sin and misery. The Gallican, the English, the Belgic, the Synod of Dort, may all be quoted.

This, then, is the first point. Man is contemplated in the decree of predestination as a fallen being.

2. The decree respecting man thus conditioned is absolutely sovereign. It is grounded exclusively in the good pleasure of God's will. It is not arbitrary and without reasons, but the reasons are all drawn from God Himself and not from the creature. He chooses one and passes by another, not because one is better or worse than another, but because such is His sovereign will. Here we encounter the Arminians, who make election depend upon faith, and reprobation upon impenitence among men — that is, men are chosen to life or ordained to death under the formal consideration of being believers or unbelievers. The ground of distinction is in the creature and not the sovereign will of God. The Arminian hypothesis is refuted by all those Scriptures which make faith, repentance and holiness the gifts of God and the results or fruits of election.

3. The election is to everlasting life and all the means of attaining it. It includes grace and glory. It is not an election to external privileges, but to the heavenly inheritance. If grace and glory are the end to which election looks, then election is prior in the order of thought to the scheme of redemption, and is the moving cause of its institution. Here we encounter a section of the orthodox, who undertook to conciliate the Arminians by postulating a general purpose of mercy to the whole race, in consequence of which Christ was given as the Saviour of the world and made a redemption intended for all under the condition of a true faith. According to this scheme, election is posterior to the introduction of the Gospel, and instead of contemplating man simply as fallen, contemplates him as perverse under the general call. It comes in, not as the impulsive cause of redemption, but as the means of saving redemption from being a failure. This scheme is the one to which all the advocates of general and indefinite atonement are logically driven. But it is contradicted by the whole tenor of Scripture. The elect are said to be given to Christ to be redeemed, not given as redeemed. Christ is distinctly affirmed to be the fruit of election. He is the head of the election of grace. Then again the whole doctrine of atonement must be given up in any just and proper sense of the term.

4. Election is eternal. This is admitted by all but Socinians. Others dispute about its nature and grounds, but admit that whatever it is, it is an eternal purpose.

5. The order of the Divine decrees according to these views is — (l.) Creation; (2.) Permission of the Fall; (3.) Predestination; (4.) Redemption; (5.) Vocation.

According to the Supralapsarians — (1.) Predestination; (2.) Creation; (3.) Fall; (4.) Redemption; (5.) Vocation.

According to general atonement Calvinists — (1.) Creation; (2.) Fall; (3.) Redemption; (4.) Predestination; (5.) Vocation.

Under redemption here must be included the general dispensation of mercy by the proposition of salvation.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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