Lesson 2 – God’s Covenant with Man

Survey Studies in Reformed Theology

Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©1998, 2010, 2017

Objective Soteriology: Lesson 2 – God’s Covenant With Man
(Video: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
Topics covered in the Westminster Confession of Faith VII

The Covenant Concept
Not a Testament
The Eternal Counsel of God
The Covenant of Works
Original Sin
The Covenant of Grace
Unity and Diversity of the Covenant

The Covenant Concept

God explains his relationships with us in terms of Covenants. A “covenant” is a type of bond or relationship established formally between persons or groups of persons. It had a special meaning everyone understood in those ancient days. Today that word has a more broad meaning. The word for “covenant” when God introduced it in the earliest books of the Bible is the Hebrew word “berit” (בּרית). The question is, “what kind of bond or relationship does berit signify?”

Dr. O. Palmer Robertson in his book The Christ of the Covenants reviews the ancient historical uses of that word. It’s a bond established by one party who is Sovereign over the other party.
The bond is formalized by the shedding of an animal’s blood. That ceremony represented the penalty of death for parties breaking the covenant. Roberson defines a covenant as, “a bond in blood sovereignly administered.” A covenant was not simply an agreement between two or more equal parties.

In the time of Moses, the element of sovereign administration was always present.
A “covenant” was imposed upon conquered subjects by the absolute authority and power of a conquering king.

[For a detailed study see G. Mendenhall’s “Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East” (1955),
Meredith Kline “Treaty of the Great King” (1962), and J. Robert Vannoy “Covenant Renewal At Gilgal” (1976). ]

Moses used this term to describe the bond God established with his people. In the time of Moses it was a common term applied to Hittite suzerainty treaties. A conquering King (a Suzerain) could simply have destroyed the people he considered as enemies. Instead he chose to subjugate them according to certain terms (promises and stipulations). Both parties benefited.

The king promised to protect the people and enforce laws. He got more people, economic benefits, and an army. The people promised to honor his laws, work the land, pay taxes, and their sons to serve in his military. They also were kept alive when they all could have been killed. The penalty for violation of the treaty was death. God used that form to reveal his promises and warnings to his people.

The ancient treaties included the following elements:

They started with a Preamble. It declared the lordship and sovereign power of the conquering king.

Then there was an Historical Prologue. It recorded the past acts of benevolence and mercy of the king. It established that he could have destroyed those conquered, but instead he made them his people.

Then there were Stipulations. They demanded loyalty and obedience to specific laws for the subjugated people.

Legal Copies were to be written and deposited where all parties of the covenant could read them. Duplicates were often made for the King and the people.

Witnesses were called upon to confirm the oath.

Curses and Blessings were pronounced as consequences which were to be imposed upon the parties depending upon their covenant faithfulness.

God made covenants with the fallen, undeserving human race. Adam was the covenant head who represented all his posterity. In him we are all fallen, and therefore deserving of God’s wrath. God as Sovereign king was under no obligation to preserve any of the human race alive. Yet, by grace he promised to make some to be his people and to be their God.

The Hittite Treaties were sealed with the blood of sacrificed or dismembered animals. A ratification ceremony was held where the dismemberment and shedding of blood took place. That represented a pledge of death for whoever would break the treaty.

Biblical covenants were also sealed with the shedding of representative blood. Hebrews 9:22, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

In Genesis 15 God sealed the covenant he made with Abram summarized the usual suzerain treaty form.
15:4-8 ……. the merciful promises of God
15:9-11 …… animal bodies cut up for the covenant ceremony
15:12-16 …. the promises of the covenant
15:17-21 …. the covenant ceremony and God’s pledge

The same form was used when God gave the law to Moses: Exodus 24:7-8 “then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘all that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!’ So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘Behold, the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’ ”

In Israel’s rebellion, Jeremiah appeals to this same covenant form as Israel was confronted with her disobedience: Jeremiah 34:18-20 “and I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not fulfilled the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between its parts — the officials of Judah, and the officials of Jerusalem, the court officers, and the priests, and all the people of the land, who passed between the parts of the calf — and I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life. And their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth.”

The suzerain covenant form is clearly followed in Moses outline of the covenant book of Deuteronomy:
1:1 – 1:5 – Preamble
1:6 – 4:49 – Historical Prologue
5:1 – 26:19 – Stipulations (Conditions stated: God’s moral law). 10:4-5 – A copy of the Covenant was placed in the Ark of the Covenant for God and His people
27:1 – 30:20 – Sanctions: Covenant Ratification
27:1 – 27:26 – Ratification Ceremony
28:1 – 28:14 – Blessings
28:15 – 28:68 – Cursings
29:1 – 30:10 – Warnings and Promises
30:11 – 30:20 – Witnesses Called
31:1 – 34:12 – Succession (Administration)

In Adam as our Covenant Representative we all became covenant breakers and therefore deserve the curse of the Covenant. Romans 5:12-21
5:12 sin entered by “one man” and death by sin
5:14 death reigned from Adam…even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of Adam’s sin
5:15 by the transgression of one, the many died
5:16 judgment arose from one transgression yielding condemnation
5:17 by the transgression of one, death reigned through the one
5:18 through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all
5:19 Through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.

The same basic representation in Adam is seen in 1 Corinthians 15:12-28
15:21 by a man came death…
15:22 as in Adam all died…

God as sovereign king would be justified in destroying all of the human race. Instead he revealed his mercy in taking upon himself the curse demanded by our disobedience. Galatians 3:13 “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us for it is written, cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”

A covenant requires the shedding of the blood representing the death of one of the parties of the broken covenant. Humanity was the party that broke the covenant since all were represented “in Adam.” All human blood deserved to be shed. One of the two parties in the bond made in blood had to pay. If all humans are not to suffer, then the only one who could legally qualify to pay the penalty is the other covenanting party – God. Jesus died as if he was the offending party. Yet He was the one offended. 2 Corinthians 5:21 “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

This was done that the blessings of God might come upon us, the covenant breakers. Since it was a bond in blood administered sovereignly and brought unmerited favor upon its recipients, it is properly called a “Covenant of Grace.”

Not a Testament

God’s promise was Not in the form of a Testament. In the New Testament the Greek word “diathaekae” (διαθήκη) was commonly used to translate the Hebrew word “berit” (בּרית), which means “covenant”. It has been translated as “testament” in keeping with the Greek cultural use of that term.

Old Testament Law spells out the disposition of a person’s possessions to his family upon his death. There was no purpose or provision made for a last will and testament. Later in the Greek culture, a last will and testament could be drawn up to govern a person’s estate. The death of the person making the will activates its provisions.

New Testament translations of the Hebrew Scriptures used “diathaekae” (διαθήκη) for “berit” (בּרית). It was the closest equivalent to “covenant” in the Koine Greek language. It had a well established meaning among Jews for the bond God made with Abraham, Noah, and David.

“Diathaekae” (διαθήκη) in God’s word should not be forced into its Greek legal use. In the New Testament it’s used in the context of its Old Testament use familiar to those with a Jewish background.

Many impose the Hellenistic idea of “a last will and testament” upon the Biblical concept of covenant. This does not hold up when examined. Death in these two contrasting traditions has a very different significance.

To defend the “testament” interpretation, verses 15-17 in Hebrews 9 are usually quoted. But it depends upon which way the original words are translated, and which cultural tradition you have in mind. The King James Version translates “diathaekae” (διαθήκη) as “testament”. Then it speaks of the death of the testator being necessary for the “testament’ to take effect. That translation would fit the Greek culture, but not the Hebrew culture to which this book was written.

The New American Standard Bible uses more researched definitions. It translates diathaekae” (διαθήκη) as “covenant”, and “diathemenos”(διαθέμενος) as “the one who made it” instead of “testator”. It derives as a second aorist participle from diatithaemi” (διατιθημι) which means “to arrange, dispense, make”. It could be used to mean a “covenant maker” or “testament maker”.

The decision has to be made based upon how the words were used by the Jews concerning God’s covenant, not by how the Greeks used the term in a different context. In an ancient Hebrew era covenant the judicial death was directed against the covenant violator. The English Standard Version mixes the two traditions. It uses the word “covenant” instead of “testament” in 9:15 and 18, but it translates verse 16 as, “where a will is involved”.

There are some similarities between a covenant and a testament. Both involve death, and are legally binding formal agreements. But the differences show that God’s “covenant” is not well represented by the word “testament.”

When a covenant is inaugurated, the penalty of death is represented symbolically by the death of animals. In God’s Redemptive Covenant, the Covenant of Grace, the death of God the Son, the covenant maker, occurred in place of the covenant breakers. This was necessary so that the guilty parties could receive the blessings. It represents what would happen to them for breaking the stipulations of the bond they violated. With a testament, death is not a result of breaking the agreement, and there is no inaugural symbolic death representing a curse making it a “bond in blood”.

While we see the concept of “inheritance” applied to our benefits in Christ, his death is best represented not as the death of the maker of a last will and testament, but as the sovereign party in a covenant dying in our place. We are called joint heirs with Christ because he paid the covenant penalty for us. Our inheritance parallels the concept of “covenant succession” which is also spelled out in God’s Law. The promised Messiah took upon himself the death due to the violator of the bond sealed in blood. By this substitutionary death the demands of the covenant are satisfied judicially and the blessings promised in the covenant, our inheritance, may be granted to the otherwise unworthy subjects of the relationship.

The terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” would be better if replaced with, “The Old Administration of the Covenant of Grace”, and “The New Administration of the Covenant of Grace”, or more simply, “Old Covenant” and “New Covenant”. But those terms are pretty well established so there’s not much hope in changing them.

There is an Eternal Counsel of God

There is an eternal plan in the mind of God. He eternally intended to create mankind, to permit him to fall into sin, and to provide for redemption. The whole Trinity was involved in this Eternal Plan. The Father would send the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, to redeem a people for himself, and the Holy Spirit would apply that redemption effectually to all the Father had given to the Son.

Some call this plan among the three members of the Trinity a “Covenant of Redemption”. (for example: Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology, Vol II pages 359-362).

The fact of such an eternal decree within the members of the Trinity is well established in the Bible, but it’s no where referred to as a covenant. The actual historic meaning of “Covenant” (the Hebrew “berit” – בּרית) does not support this idea. A “covenant” is not just an agreement between two or more persons as some incorrectly define it. As we’ve seen, a “covenant” is “a bond in blood sovereignly administered.”

There can be no sovereign administration of one member of the Trinity over the others. All are equal. The idea of a bond made with a blood, even hypothetically, is meaningless within the Trinity. No party could violate it or have stipulations and curses imposed or pronounced. This eternal concurrence of the persons of the Trinity is better referred to as the “Counsel of Redemption.”

The Covenant of Works

Before the fall into sin, Adam and Eve were under a “Covenant of Works”. The classic theological use of the term “Covenant” is summarized by Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology, ” … a promise suspended upon a condition and attached to disobedience a certain penalty.” (II page 117)

This definition does not include all that we now know is implied in the historical meaning of the term berit. But this classic expression is not contrary to anything we now know about how the word was used in the era of Moses. The theological idea is drawn from Scripture itself showing what a powerful tool we have in the use of context even when our knowledge of language may be lacking.

A truly biblical theology is primarily federal. That’s where someone is designated to represent a group of other people. It recognizes that God set Adam to be the legal representative of the human race. The general commandments given to Adam together with the promised blessings and threatened punishments were made with the whole human race federally in Adam. Adam’s sin brought condemnation and death upon us all (Romans 5:12, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). God gave certain duties to Adam. We call them “Creation Ordinances”. Among them are the moral principles of marriage, and week of six day of labor and the Sabbath Day. These continue to apply to the whole human race after the fall.

A promise was made with Adam. It was suspended upon a condition. Attached to it was a penalty for disobedience, and promises of blessings for obedience. The term “covenant” describes this relationship. The term “covenant” (“berit” – בּרית) is not directly used in the Genesis record of Eden to describe this bond between God and unfallen man. But there is evidence later in Scripture that uses this word for the relationship in pre-fall Eden.

Hosea speaks of Israel saying, “like Adam, they have transgressed the covenant” (Hosea 6:7). This shows that Adam’s sin was like that nation’s in that it was a transgression of a covenant. The same word (“berit” – בּרית) is used here.

We can also see that the concept of Sovereign administration is present in Eden. God the Creator imposed his promise and conditions upon mankind sovereignly. Since the covenant included the death of the covenant breaker as its penalty (“in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die”), it also included the element of the shedding of blood. Therefore the use of the term “covenant” is justified from the historic use of the word as well as from its theological use within the context of the rest of Scripture. The relationship between God and humans in Eden before the fall into sin was clearly a “bond in blood sovereignly administered.”

Historically this covenant made with Adam before the fall has been called a Covenant of Works. There was a condition of personal obedience placed upon Adam if he was to receive the blessing of the covenant. Since no partial disobedience was permitted, the Westminster Confession adds that God demanded perfect and personal obedience.

Man’s duties under this covenant involved several positive commandments and one negative one regarding the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Creation ordinances are explicitly stated in Genesis regarding man’s obligations before the fall.

Man was to work in the garden to maintain it and act in God’s place as representative master over all things (Genesis 1:28). He was to exercise that dominion within the bounds of six work days separated by a day of ceasing from labor (Genesis 2:3, Mark 2:27, Exodus 20:8-11). He was to cleave to his wife and be one flesh with her producing offspring to fill the earth (Genesis 1:28, 2:23-24).

Unfortunately, some hearing the term “Covenant of Works” presume that the value of doing good works was limited to the time prior to the fall of man. They assume that grace was not operative in God’s dealings with man in Eden. This is certainly not what the terms were intended to mean. What made this first bond a “Covenant of Works” was not that the goodness of obedient deeds was unique to that period. But that the condition of obedience was upon man himself and his own actions in contrast with the post-fall relationship where men have fellowship with God on the grounds of the obedience of another, Jesus the Messiah. Here again the federal headship principle is seen as Jesus stood to represent all of his people in his suffering, death and victory.

Meredith Kline in By Oath Consigned suggests we use the term Covenant of Creation to describe this first bond between God and man. The idea being that God entered into this bond with man at his creation in distinction from the later bond which God takes up to redeem mankind after the fall.

O. Palmer Robertson also adopts this term Covenant of Creation. He shows that the particulars of the bond of God with Adam at creation include all the key elements of a covenant:
– God created a universe that declares His glory
– God demanded devotion to him as Sovereign Lord
– God organized his creation by revealing moral laws which included the sabbath principle, a six-day work ethic, and an authority structure for family. He forbid the eating of the fruit on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
– God threatened death if the covenant was broken
– God promised continuing fellowship with him while the covenant is kept

Original Sin

In Adam’s violation of the Covenant of Works all mankind became alienated from God by federal representation. As the old New England Primer expressed it, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” (see also WCF VI)

The principle of federal headship is not uncommon. This is the relationship where one person stands as representative of a specified group of persons. The representative acts on behalf of the people binding them to his decisions and actions. We see this same relationship when parents act legally for their children, when owners of businesses conclude agreements effecting all their employees, and when heads of state commit their citizens to war or conclude treaties.

This principle built into human relationships by the Creator is seen in Adam’s moral representation of all those who descend from him. God’s word directly teaches that sin together with its consequences passed upon all of the human race by Adam’s sin. This is what we call “original sin”. Romans 5:12 “… through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned”, and 1 Corinthians 15:22 “For as in Adam all die …”

This concept is summarized in the Westminster Shorter Catechism in the answer to question #16, “The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.”

There are two elements included in original sin.
First is the inherited guilt which comes from the sin of Adam. We all bear the legal consequences for his crime, and deserve the penalty of death. Because of that inheritance, we are creatures who have offended God. There is a sense in which we are permanently guilty of sin. We will always be creatures who have at one time offended God, even after atonement and justification through Christ (reatus culpae). It is not the fact of our sin that Jesus removed on the cross, but the judicial consequences. This penal aspect of our guilt (reatus poenae) has been truly satisfied by the federal substitution of the Messiah in place of his people.

The Reformed and Lutheran view is that guilt itself is present in all of Adam’s posterity. Since death passed upon all men as a penal result of Adam’s sin we are all directly held justly worthy of eternal separation from God on that ground alone. This is called “immediate imputation.” What is credited to us is applied directly to each individual and becomes their legal standing.

The other element of original sin is the pollution of Adam’s sin. This is that corruption of the human soul that results from the fall. This is not merely a loss of original righteousness as Augustine asserted in the earliest formulations of this doctrine. Calvin pointed out that it must include our positive disposition toward evil.

Some cannot accept the biblical fact that we are condemned for the sins of Adam federally. They limit imputation to the pollution of sin only. To them the guilt is not passed on, only the damage to our souls. This view hold us responsible only for our own sins that we commit because of the soul damage done by Adam’s sin. This view is called “mediate imputation”. This is the view of Amyraut and LaPlace at Saumur. It was condemned as heresy by the Reformed churches and the Lutheran churches (Helvetic Consensus of 1675, Synod of France 1645). This view has been widely adopted in recent times by many of the dispensational churches which generally follow the Amyrauldian constructions.

The results of Original Sin are seen in man’s total depravity and moral inability. Man is depraved in every aspect of his being. This does not mean that his depravity is never restrained by God’s sovereign power. But it does mean that the effects and distortions of sin extend to every part of man’s being. Fallen man, is not able to understand God’s truth in a manner corresponding with that which honors the Creator. He can not do anything morally good (Romans 3:10-12). Even the good that is performed in him by the restraining power of God is perverted in his understanding for purposes other than the glory of the Creator. In his representing his deeds as coming from man’s own ability aside from Christ, he actually offends God by his charities and works.

Scripture abundantly supports the idea of man’s total inability and depravity.

Romans 3:10-12, “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.’ ” (see Psalms 14 and 53)

Psalm 130:3, “If Thou, LORD, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”

Ecclesiastes 7:20, “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who {continually}does good and who never sins.”

1 Corinthians 2:14, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”

Ephesians 2:1-3, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.”

Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?”

Ephesians 4:18, “being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart;”

Titus 1:15, “To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled.”

Romans 6:16, “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone {as} slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?”

Romans 8:6-8, “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able {to do so}; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Mark 7:21-23, “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting {and} wickedness, {as well as} deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride {and} foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

John 6:44, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.”

John 6:65, “And He was saying, ‘For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father.’ ”

Central to this issue is the concept of imputation. The word impute means primarily to attribute or to credit something or some condition to someone. The Theological sense of the word reflects the more judicial sense it has in Scripture. Charles Hodge defines it, “to impute is to attribute anything to a person or persons, upon adequate grounds, as the judicial or meritorious reason of reward or punishment.” (Systematic Theology. vol 2, pg 194)

Adam’s guilt was imputed to his posterity in a similar way as the manner in which Jesus Christ’s righteousness is imputed to his people by grace, and their sin is imputed to their Savior. The concept of federal headship as presented in Scripture indicates that the guilt of Adam and the Righteousness of Christ are imputed to those who themselves have not done the deeds either good or bad, but who are represented by their respective heads. Similarly our sin is imputed to Christ who knew no sin yet bore the just penalty for our sin.

From this inherited corrupt nature all actual sins of the human race issue. They are the actual sins of the individual acting as the agent of and efficient cause of the sin.

Because we inherit a corrupted nature from Adam we choose to sin. Real guilt results from each sin. These transgressions also produce spiritual, temporal, and eternal agony and misery in the individual, though for the redeemed the guilt is paid for by the Savior.

The Covenant of Grace

God is under no obligation to award favor or blessing to any of his creatures. Every human descending naturally from Adam deserves eternal condemnation and separated from his Creator’s fellowship. Eternal and perfect justice demands that the full price of the offense be paid.

Since justice is one of the revealed attributes of God’s nature it cannot be set aside or violated. This is not an external limitation imposed upon God but arises from the demands of his own nature (see notes on Theology Proper chapter 2 – particularly the section on God’s independence). There must always be satisfaction of the demands of justice. By his grace, God in his own sovereign disposition provided the death of our Savior to die in place of his people federally. He took up their guilt and satisfied the just penalty they deserve.

If the redemptive relationship of God with fallen humans is purely sovereign and requires that the death penalty be carried out (the shedding of blood) then this relationship may rightly be termed a covenant.

The redemption provided in this covenant is not personally meritorious. Fallen individuals are not able to do anything that would stand as good before the judgment seat of the Holy Creator. For this reason this covenant may rightly be called a Covenant of Grace.

This does not mean that there was no grace before this covenant was revealed. Nor should it be understood to imply that there is no expectation for those under grace to personally do what is good in the eyes of God. The difference between this and the “Covenant of Works” is that the pre-redemptive covenant was to be kept personally, while the only hope of blessing in the post-redemptive covenant is found in the obedience of an infinite substitute which is by moral necessity both God and man. This mandates the incarnation of the Son of God (see article by David McWilliams – 1994 – ‘Did Jesus Have to Die?” from the Westminster Theological Journal, posted with permission of the author on the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies web site). Some have attempted to improve the designation of this post-redemptive relationship by calling this a Covenant of Redemption.

The ideas of federal headship and imputation come to their fullness in the concept of redemption through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. He stood as the federal head of the elect given to him by the Father. In his infinitely worthy death he paid the infinite debt of justice on behalf of those he intended from all eternity to redeem. Jesus is rightly called the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45).

Each represented his people federally. Adam represented the entire race that would descend from him. Jesus represented all the elect. Each fully acted on behalf of those he represented and his merits were imputed to them.

Historically there are differing views about which humans are included in the Covenant of Grace. Some would view the covenant as being made with all humans since all are held responsible for the stipulations of the covenant, and all are to be encouraged to come to the Savior on the grounds of the gospel promise. Those who trust sincerely in the gospel will be saved. The faith we urge the world to have in Christ must neither be seen, nor presented, as personally meritorious. An individual’s faith is more evidentiary than causative of his regeneration, and is more instrumental than efficaciously causative of his justification. God implants true faith on the grounds of the merits of Christ only. All those in whom it is implanted will irresistibly but personally and truly come in repentance and trust. But that outward call of the gospel is sincerely extended to all fallen humans regardless of their place in the church or eternal election.

Some see the Covenant of Grace as being made only with the visible church. Only they are to receive the sign of the covenant which in this era is baptism and in the old circumcision. There are covenant promises attached to the duties and work of the people as a church. Those who qualify are protected within the care network of the church. Those who reveal a rebellious spirit against the covenant and its Lord are to be excommunicated from the covenant community implying their former outward inclusion. Membership in the covenant community is not co-extensive with the class of people who are regenerated. Therefore, some under the Covenant of Grace receive the Covenant’s curses rather than its blessings.

Some see the Covenant of Grace only extended to the elect of God. It is only for them that Jesus Christ served as Federal Head, and promises to continue to minister to them as Savior and Lord. The curse of the covenant is effectively paid for all those represented in Christ and therefore the blessings of the covenant may come upon all those chosen before the foundation of the world by the good pleasure of God alone.

These various configurations are not a weakness of the covenant model, nor do they represent any conflicting notions. We must remember that all revealed truth is analogical. That is, it agrees with, corresponds with, but is not completely identical with, what is in the perfect mind of God. There is an analogy between what God speaks to his creatures and what God knows infinitely and perfectly.” (see notes on Prolegomena, chapter 1).

The eternal reality in the mind of God is projected into finite form for us to know about it. Therefore the concept of covenant is a form produced by providence in God’s management of history and language. God intended that this form would exist when He intended to use it in revealing the essential characteristics of the relationship he bears with human persons.

There may be various configurations in the application of the covenant idea. They would depend upon how the model is used and what is being explained by it at the moment. There is no confusion of the relationship on the divine side. But there are inevitable limitations in its perception on the part of us created beings who must view eternal and infinite things only by observing their projection into temporal and finite form.

The part of Jesus Christ in the covenant is equally intriguing. He is on the one hand the Sovereign God, the offended party. On the other hand he is the Federal Head representing the elect for whom the benefits of the covenant are secured. And again he is seen as the covenant mediator representing the lost race before the manifest presence of God’s majesty.

These are not conflicting roles but again represent the covenant idea in its various uses to demonstrate the work of the Eternal Son in redeeming his people by vicarious atonement.

Unity and Diversity of the Covenant

The Covenant of Grace is but one covenant, yet it is administered in various ways. The Westminster Confession calls these administrations “dispensations” of the covenant (WCF 7:5-6).

There is a unity of the Covenant in all ages. There were different men used as covenant mediators between God and his people, and there were expanding degrees of revelation and symbolisms of that one covenant. The continuity of the promises show the oneness of its sovereign administration.

There is the unifying idea of the Immanuel Principle. God assures his people that he will be present with them in a special way, to be their God and to declare them as his people. One of the names given to God in Hebrew is “Immanu El” (עמּנוּ אל). It’s two separate words in Hebrew. It combines the prepositional form “with us” (Immanu – עמּנוּ), and the word for “God” (El – אל). Together they mean, “With-us God”. It’s a designation for God as he stands in covenantal presence among his people.

Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” This verse was quoted by the Angel to Joseph when he learned that Mary would give birth to the promised Messiah (Matthew 1:20-23).

This Immanuel principle is one of the clear unifying ideas which seems to be always present when God marks out a people for himself in all ages. Fundamental to the “covenant concept” is the idea of subjugating undeserving people under a sovereign King’s care and protection, and expecting allegiance from them showing loyalty and obedience to the King.

The primary work of salvation is God restoring fallen people to a state of holiness by atonement and redemption securing reconciliation. All this is through the merits of Messiah’s substitutionary death so that the recipients of grace are restored to fellowship with God. He becomes their God and they his people in a way unique from the remainder of the lost human race. This fundamental covenantal union has not changed in the course of human history.

God revealed this basic redemptive promise to Abraham in this covenantal form. Genesis 17:7 “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.”

The Lord spoke to Moses and to the nation of Israel in his time showing that same unique relationship. He used the covenant name Yahveh ( יהוה “YHVH”, often translated as “Jehovah”, and represented in Scripture as “LORD” following the example of Jesus and the other New Testament writers when quoting the Hebrew Scriptures).

Exodus 6:7, “Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.”

Deuteronomy 4:20, “The LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, from Egypt, to be a people for His own possession, as today.”

In the period of the kings God spoke similarly by the prophets he raised up to deliver his message to his people. 2 Kings 11:17, “Then Jehoiada made a covenant between the LORD and the king and the people, that they should be the LORD’s people…”

Ezekiel 34:24, “And I, The LORD, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I the LORD, have spoken.”

Zechariah 8:8, “and I will bring them back, and they will live in the midst of Jerusalem, and they will be My people and I will be their God in truth and righteousness.”

Foreshadowing the age of Messianic deliverance God said, Zechariah 2:11, “many nations will join themselves to the LORD in that day and will become My people. Then will I dwell in your midst, and you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me to you.”

The Immanuel principle is most clearly applied to the union of God with his church after the greatest revealing of God being with us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 8:10, “this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put My laws into their minds, and I will write them upon their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”

2 Corinthians 6:16, “… just as God said, ‘I will be their God, and they shall be My people.'”

The basic promise and benefit of God’s Covenant of Grace has always been the same in each era of its revelation since the fall of mankind.

The Consistent Promise of Messiah

The way of becoming a child of God has always been the same since the sin of Adam. It is always a work of God’s grace alone. It has always been based upon the satisfaction of the sins of specific individuals by the one Messiah, Jesus Christ. That grace removes sin and its guilt by judicially satisfying it. Then the person is reconciled together with God restoring his lost fellowship with his Creator. This reparation of the separation transforms what we call “spiritual death” into “spiritual life”. It produces a true saving faith, sincere repentance, and a desire to obey God thankfully. These works of faith and repentance are the means by which we demonstrate God’s work on our hearts. God restores these attributes in us to fulfill what he decreed in our redemption. Therefore we are saved by grace through faith. These are gifts of God, not things to be found in our fallen nature. (Ephesians 2:8, 1Corinthians 2:14).

True salvation in contrast with the false religions of man is a sovereign work of God alone. It is not based upon any merits or qualities in the sinner, but wholly upon the merits of Jesus Christ. God provides all that is necessary to remove the curse of sin which enslaved humanity when Satan lured Adam into spiritual death.

The promise of grace was first made to Adam. By God’s decree alone and by the work of the promised Messiah, the seed of Satan would be destroyed by the woman’s seed. Genesis 3:15 “… He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.”

At the ceremony where God ratified his covenant with Abraham that same foundation of grace is evident. His righteousness did not come from his own merits, but was credited to him by Jehovah in whom he had put his trust. Genesis 15:6 “Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

In Romans 4 the Apostle Paul details how the covenant of God with Abraham was not founded upon any works the Patriarch had done, but wholly upon that which God provided, evidenced in the faith wrought in his heart. He quotes Genesis 15:6 as support for his statement. In Romans 4:2 Paul wrote, “if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God…”

The humility of King David shows his understanding that his blessings were not the result of his own works or of personal merit. Psalm 32:1 “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!” These are clearly represented as acts of God, not anything earned or deserved by David.

Before he quoted David’s words from Psalm 32:1-2, Paul interpreted David’s testimony unambiguously. In Romans 4:6-9 Paul wrote, “… David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works…”

Isaiah showed the faith God produced in the Old Testament believers which looked to God to provide for the removal of their sin and its guilt. Through him God revealed more detail about how the provision would be made. There would be a suffering servant of Jehovah, one who would pay the judicial debt of his people (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). He was the One the Sacrifices of Moses had depicted long before that time.

Isaiah 53:4-6, “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being {fell} upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.”

More revelation took place to the disciples at the Last Supper. As they partook of the elements of Passover our Lord explained their true meaning. Jesus made it clear that it would be his blood that would be shed to seal the covenant upon his church “this is the new covenant in My blood” (Matthew 26:28). Though the word “new” (“kainos” καινός) is not in all the ancient manuscripts, it does not mean a new covenant to replace an old previous one. This particular Greek word means a renewed form of the one Covenant of Grace. Before the death of Christ, the old relationship with God was demonstrated through sacrifices. They were performed by faith in God’s promise that one would come to die in their place. When Jesus was sacrificed a new relationship began since he fulfilled what the sacrifices represented. It became a newly fulfilled form of the same Covenant.

In writing to the Galatians (Galatians 3:6-29) Paul quoted Genesis 15:6 again. He explained how the promised Messiah fulfilled the same promise God had made to Abraham. Then he added quotes from Genesis 15:7 and 8 “… it is those who are of faith that are sons of Abraham … all nations shall be blessed in you.” In this new relationship the Messiah fulfilled the promise God had made to Abraham, and extended it to include God’s people in all the nations as originally promised, not just Israel.

Paul’s whole argument is to show this unity. Galatians 3:29, “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

This same unity, centered in the promise of a Messiah, is demonstrated in Hebrews (particularly chapter 11), Romans, Ephesians, Galatians, and all through the New Testament. It is this Promised One, Jesus Christ, who would satisfy divine justice for his people as a perfect vicarious sacrifice which is embraced by a faith implanted by grace.

Both the Old and New Testaments build upon this same idea. In every age since the fall, man has only been justified in one way: by grace through faith, never by works, never by his own abilities

Any salvation by man’s initiation would be impossible. Man’s total depravity begins at the fall (Romans 5). The promises of grace as the cause of faith did not begin with the New Testament. Therefore, every Old Testament believer was saved not by works, but by God’s Sovereign Grace. It was on the basis of the salvation provided by the coming Messiah, and applied by the instrumentality of God’s gift of faith to trust in that promise.

The Unity of the Parties of the Covenant

In every era the covenant of God has been between himself and his chosen people.

Deuteronomy 7:6-8, “For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

The promise of the covenant was made by God to the descendants of Adam (Genesis 15:18, Exodus 20:5, Acts 2:39). Genesis 15:18 “On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates”

Exodus 20:5, “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me.’ ”

That same promise is explained as extending to believers in the New Testament period. It was not a new promise, but a renewed understanding of the old one, a new form and administration of a promise that extends all the way back to Eden. With reference to this ancient promise Peter said to the church after the death of Jesus Christ, Acts 2:39, “For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.”

The ancient promise was not temporal. It was intended by God to be a perpetual one. There is a grafting in of the Gentiles (non-Jewish nations) into the covenant nation of God’s promise. Genesis 17:13 “A {servant} who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.”

Paul spoke of the continuing nature of God’s covenant people in Romans 11:17-19, “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, {remember that} it is not you who supports the root, but the root {supports} you. You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ ”

Since the promise is associated with descendants, dying without children was considered to be tragic. Would the suffering Messiah die without seed? It may appear so at first since Jesus was crucified with no children. But we who are grafted in by grace are the seed of that Messiah, his spiritual children. Compare Isaiah 53:8 with 53:10;

Isaiah 53:8, “By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living, For the transgression of my people to whom the stroke {was due?}”

Isaiah 53:10, “But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting {Him} to grief; If He would render Himself {as} a guilt offering, He will see {His} offspring, He will prolong {His} days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.”

The Unity of the Forms of Covenant Renewal

In each age there were new covenant mediators. God, the Sovereign party of the covenant, does not change. The covenant representative of the people does change since men die and need to be replaced. (For a more detailed examination see Covenant Renewal at Gilgal by J. Robert Vannoy).

Mediator Covenant sealed to each by slain animals
Adam God’s promise and the providing of skins of slain animals in Eden (Genesis 3:21)
Noah The rainbow and the sacrifice if animals after the flood (Genesis 8:20)
Abram The literal dividing of animals (Genesis 15:9-10)
Samuel Sacrifices of peace offerings (1 Samuel 11:12-12:25)
Jesus His death at Calvary as the lamb of God, the final sacrifice

Diversity in the Covenant through the ages

One of the most obvious diversities of God’s covenant throughout the ages is the progression of how much is revealed about God, about his promises and his decrees.

The work of Messiah has been made known progressively. In the time prior to the birth of Jesus it was depicted by an increasingly precise system of sacrifices representing the judicial death of the sinner though a promised substitute. He would satisfy the demands of guilt, and objectively sanctify the sinner. By obediently presenting the sacrifices with full confidence in the promise of God, the Old Testament worshiper was demonstrated to be an object of grace, a regenerated child of God, and was strengthened spiritually.

In the time after the death of Jesus the anticipatory sacrifices were replaced by a commemorative and sealing sacrament, the Lord’s Supper. Like the sacrifices, it is a symbol, a means of God’s grace, and an obedience. By partaking in true saving faith the believer is assured that by God’s promise he is a regenerated child of God, and has been made spiritually alive to grow in Christ-likeness.

The pre-resurrection sign of the covenant was circumcision which represented the removal of moral defilement by a bloody sign. Those who took this sign upon themselves in faith were counted as members outwardly of God’s covenant people. The sign was only to be given to adults if they made a credible profession of faith in the promises of the God of Israel. The same sign was to be placed on the male infants to show that they too were to be raised as members of the covenant people. Those Jews who grow up to deny the covenant sealed by their circumcision were cut off from Israel by judicial process.

The post-resurrection sign of the covenant is baptism. It, rather than the bloody sign of circumcision, marks out those who make a credible profession of faith together with their children as members outwardly of the covenant people of God. As with circumcision this sign was only to be given to adults if they made a credible profession of faith in the promises of God as fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It was also to be administered to the children of only those baptized.

The male represented Christ in the home as its head and representative to God (Ephesians 5:22-27). After the Cross, husbands continued in that representative role, but to show the fulfillment of the covenant sacrifice in Christ the bloody sign was no longer appropriate, so females also receive the sign of baptism.

The place of convocational worship also depicted God’s truth progressively. At first it was done by families. Then under Moses it became centralized in the Tabernacle (Deuteronomy 12:5, 11, 14, 18). This centralization did not become more fully realized until the time of David and then Solomon when the temple replaced the tabernacle. Jesus showed that in his completion of the work of atonement the local limits upon convocational worship would be lifted.

John 4:21-24 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father. You worship that which you do not know; we worship that which we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

To further depict this advancement the temple veil was rent at Christ’s resurrection and the temple itself was destroyed in 70 AD as a judgment of God (Matthew 23-24).

Yet, with all these diversities, there is no sharp division into separate covenants of God. The Exodus took place under the Abrahamic form established for the administration of the covenant. The Mosaic law and its levitical ceremonies were not given to Israel until they gathered at Sinai. Therefore the Passover was based upon the promise made to Abraham, not upon the promises and practices given later after Sinai in the Mosaic Law. Exodus 6:8 “I will bring you to the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession; I am the LORD.”

The deliverance of Israel under Moses was the basis for the law. That deliverance under the Abrahamic promise became the foundation upon which the commandments were given. The preface to the Ten Commandments reads, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…”, what follows is a “therefore …” (Exodus 20:1-2).

The term “dispensation” is used to describe the various administrations (dispensings) of this one covenant. The blessings were dispensed by a succession of covenant mediators whom God raised up over his people. The covenant was administered in different ways by the Patriarchs, then by the Judges, next by the Kings and Prophets, and after Jesus’ resurrection by the Apostles and continuing officers of his church acting as appointed shepherds and teachers under the mediatorship of Jesus Christ himself. Each administration expanded upon the ones before. The truth of the covenant rule of God over his people has been a progressing revelation realizing God’s eternal decree. In each period we learn more about God’s plan and grace, and are enabled to live more and more by progressively clearer principles all based upon the one eternal and unchanging purpose of God.

The covenant of God’s grace, his redemptive covenant, is singular. Not just the New Testament, but the whole Bible belongs to the church. The word of God is a unity proclaiming a plan which will not be fully revealed before the final day of judgment in the return of Jesus Christ and the consummation of the ages.

Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter VII.
“Of God’s Covenant with Man”
I. The distance between God and the creature is go great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.

II. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

III. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

IV. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.

V. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.

VI. Under the Gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.

(Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.)

return to the WCF III index

Leave a Reply