Not Duty Bound: Geerhardus Vos on the Covenant of Redemption

In a previous episode of Christ the Center, we threw our oar in the water on the recent discussions regarding the proposed Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) of the Son to the Father. If you haven’t listened to the episode yet, I would encourage you to do so. One of the helpful contributions of the panelists was their call for the inclusion of the pactum salutis (also known as the covenant of redemption or the counsel of peace) in our discussions on the Trinity, especially as it helps us to properly distinguish between (1) God’s necessary processions ad intra (which cannot be otherwise) and (2) God’s free and voluntary missions ad extra (which can be otherwise).

The covenant of redemption is that work of God ad extra in which the three persons of the Godhead (each knowing themselves in distinction from the other two persons) freely and voluntarily covenant in person-to-person relationships to undertake the decrees of creation and redemption. As a work ad extra, the covenant of redemption is not natural or essential to God. In other words, it is not something eternally necessary to God. The processions ad intra are eternally necessary, since God cannot be otherwise than triune, but the covenant of redemption as a work ad extra is freely and voluntarily undertaken by each person of the Godhead. There is no ontological subordination obligating or requiring any of the persons to enter into this covenant. It is freely and voluntarily entered into by all three persons of the Trinity. In the episode, Dr. Tipton sheds further light on the covenant of redemption and expresses the importance of it for addressing the current issues at large. He says,

Built into the idea of the pactum salutis are three distinct self-conscious persons (not separate self-conscious persons since that would be tritheism) within the unity of the Godhead undertaking the decrees of creation and redemption, and doing so freely and voluntarily. That moves us into the idea that even though we want to affirm without compromise that there is one God and one essential will in the Godhead, there are nonetheless also three self-conscious distinct persons hypostatically, personally willing certain things. The Father wills to send the Son; the Son wills to be sent; the Father and Son will to give the Spirit; and the Spirit wills to be given. Understanding this as a background gives you a Reformed, theological, and trinitarian-covenantal context for addressing some of these issues.

The remainder of this post will look to briefly summarize and explain some aspects of Geerhardus Vos’ formulation of the covenant of redemption from his formative article “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology.”

Perfect Freedom in the Trinity

The first major point Vos makes is that

the covenant of redemption is nothing other than proof for the fact that even the work of redemption, though it springs from God’s sovereign will, finds its execution in free deeds performed in a covenantal way.

The freedom of God’s execution of redemption is important because for Vos the covenant idea demands this freedom. The demand is met with the perfect freedom that dominates in the triune Being. And it dominates in the triune Being because the three persons covenanting are of absolute ontological equal ultimacy. In other words, there is no necessary or ontological subordination in which one person of the Godhead is “duty bound” to receive the covenant arrangement.

The Father doesn’t come to the Son, for example, with a covenant proposal that the Son is obligated to enter into and submit himself to on the basis of and because of his eternal generation. Rather, the Son submits freely, voluntarily and willingly to the covenant arrangement as One equally ultimate with the Father and Spirit. To say that the Son is obligated because of his eternal generation is to confuse God’s processions ad intra (which cannot be otherwise) and God’s missions ad extra (which can be otherwise).

Vos clarifies this by contrasting the parties of the covenant of redemption (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and the covenant of works before the fall (God and Adam). The covenant of works, writes Vos, “had to be regarded as one-sided to the extent that man, as God’s subordinate, was in duty bound to act upon the covenant that was proposed.” Adam couldn’t debate the terms of the covenant, nor could he reject and refuse entrance into it; rather, he was “duty bound” to the covenant that God sovereignly imposed upon him.

This, however, is not true of the parties of the covenant of redemption because it is between the equally ultimate persons of the Godhead. For this reason Vos refers to it not as “one-sided,” but “two-sided.”[1] While Adam was duty bound to the covenant of works, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit exercised perfect freedom in their coming together in the covenant of redemption. No person was duty bound. There was no necessarily subordinate party in the covenant of redemption as there was in the covenant of works (i.e., Adam). Thus, the covenant of redemption was arranged, as Vos is going to say, between the three persons “judicially.”

The One, Undivided, Divine Will

Vos sheds further light on the covenant of redemption by distinguishing it from predestination. “Although this covenant of redemption may now be included in God’s counsel in that it operates within the Trinity, it should still not be confused with predestination.” He continues,

In predestination the divine persons act communally, while economically it is attributed to the Father. In the covenant of redemption they are related to one another judicially. In predestination there is the one, undivided, divine will. In the counsel of peace this will appears as having its own mode of existence in each person. One cannot object to this on the basis of the unity of God’s being. To push unity so strongly that the persons can no longer be related to one another judicially would lead to Sabellianism and would undermine the reality of the entire economy of redemption with its person to person relationships.

While Vos unequivocally affirms that God’s will is one and undivided, he nonetheless is able to speak of this “one, undivided, divine will” as appearing to have a mode of existence in each person. This allows the persons to relate to one another judicially, as they do in the covenant of redemption. If we don’t allow for this, then we fall into the error of Sabellianism (which is a form of modalism).[2] We cannot pit unity over against diversity. Instead, we need to maintain the equal ultimacy of the unity and diversity in the Godhead.

These equally ultimate persons are able to relate to one another “judicially” with each being self-conscious and, therefore, knowing themselves in distinction from the other two persons and freely willing to the covenant arrangement: the Father, knowing himself as Father, wills to send the Son; the Son, knowing himself as Son, wills to be sent; the Spirit, knowing himself as Spirit, wills to be given. There is, then, in the covenant of redemption “person to person relationships.”

The Glory of the Triune God

While we have only scratched the surface of Vos’ article, one last point is in order. After tracing the history of the covenant concept, Vos asks an important question at the outset of his study: “To what … does one attribute the fact that from the beginning this concept of the covenant appears so much in the foreground of Reformed theology?” He answers that it was the Reformed principle of “the preeminence of God’s glory in the consideration of all that has been created,” “which served as the key to unlock the rich treasuries of the Scriptures.” These treasuries of course included the great opulence of covenant theology. It is only fitting then to conclude this post with Vos’ articulation of how this Reformed principle interlocks with the covenant of redemption:

The fact that redemption is God’s work by which He wills to be glorified can in no wise be more strongly expressed than by thus exposing its emergence from out of the depths of the divine Being Himself. Here it is God who issues the requirement of redemption as God the Father. Again, it is God who for the fulfillment of that requirement becomes the guarantor as God the Son. Once again, it is God to whom belongs the application of redemption as God the Holy Spirit. In the clear light of eternity, where God alone dwells, the economy of salvation is drawn up for us with pure outlines and not darkened by the assistance of any human hand. It is a creation of the triune One from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things.


[1] Here is the full quote from Vos, “For it is only in the triune Being that that perfect freedom dominates which the covenant idea appears to demand. Here the covenant is completely two-sided, whereas before the Fall it still had to be regarded as one- sided to the extent that man, as God’s subordinate, was in duty bound to act upon the covenant that was proposed.”

[2] “Sabellius believed God is like the sun that emanates light and heat. At different points in history we see God differently, just as we experience the sun’s light and heat differently. Ultimately, Sabellius erased all distinctions between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and he taught that the Father is the Son is the Spirit: in ages past, God was the Father; during Jesus’ ministry, God was the Son; today, God is the Spirit. There is no eternal, personal communion between three distinct persons. We have one God who wears three masks, not three distinct persons in relationship with one another even though they share the same essence, according to Sabellius.” http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/modalistic-monarchianism/.


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