If the covenant of grace is vital to the Christian gospel and the Christian life, and if it is important from both a doctrinal and practical point of view, it certainly is deserving of further exploration and development. Such authors as Peter Y. De Jong, William Hendriksen, Anthony Hoekema, Pierre Marcel and John Murray have made significant contributions to this study. but it must nevertheless be admitted that a general revival of interest in the subject has not yet been attained.
This article is meant to be a brief survey of certain aspects of the covenant which are most significant. If it should prove helpful to some and should stimulate further thought on the part of others, the purpose of this contribution will have been attained.
Let us, then, take a look at a number of propositions which may serve to highlight some of the important aspects of the covenant as presented in Scripture. If some of the things said do not seem to harmonize with the traditional presentation of the doctrine, let them be tested by the Word.
The Covenant Essential
The covenant belongs to the very heart of God’s truth; it is essential to the gospel. It is by no means peripheral in character.
This doctrine is not simply one of many, or even one of several important truths which the Bible reveals. It is so interwoven in all of Biblical revelation that it may be said, as was maintained in a previous article, that the whole Bible is covenantal in character. Awareness and understanding of this fact are necessary to an appreciation of the unity and glory of the Word. Before we can heed and really obey the Biblical injunction of “rightly dividing the Word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15) we must be convinced that the Word is basically one in authorship, content, and emphasis.
Covenant Not Imposed
Cod’s covcnant with man is inherent in man’s creation by God. Fmm his inception man, and in a very rcal sense the whole creation, sustained a covenantal relation to God. This was by divine intent and action.
Often it is assumed and taught that God made a covenant with Adam. This is then referred to as the covenant of works. Where in Scripture does one read of the establishment of such a covenant? Yet its existence is perfectly clear. The fact is that there was a covenant between God and Adam in paradise, but this was not really made, nor was it a covenant of works. That is a misnomer.
The covenant existed the moment Adam was “born” of God. Adam was created in this relationship. It was essential to his whole being, life, and purpose. One does not adopt as a son one who is already a son. Rather, one declares and glories in this fact and expects the son to realize and confess it.
The traditional and time-worn emphasis on condition, promise, and penalty associated with the so-called covenant of works should not be construed as the establishment of a covenant, but as the testing of man’s awareness of his high privilege and of his obedience to solemn obligation.
Covenant More Than an Agreement
It is accepted practice to refer to the covenant as an agreement. Who would care to deny this aspect of the truth? But at the same time it is a serious mistake to identify covenant and agreement in such a way as if the two were synonymous. One must penetrate to the essential Biblical thrust and proceed to the “inwardness” of the covenant.
This is indicated by the Biblical insistence that man in distinction from all other creatures on earth was created in God’s image, and by the simple and irrefutable statement “Adam, who was the son of God.” (Luke 3:38) The covenant like marriage is a legal contract hut in its essence it is a loving relationship. The final relation between God and man is the covenant.
This relationship to God indicates the true dignity of man. It is true that Adam forfeited the right to be called “son of God.” But that is not the end of a story; it is rather a beginning. For Scripture reveals how man the sinner is brought back to God. Abraham is paid the signal honor of being called the “friend of God.” Israel is the people of whom jehovah declares “out of Egypt have I called My son.” The Psalmist by divine inspiration and out of the fulness of rich experience declares, “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him, He will show them His covenant.” (Ps. 25:14) To believers Christ gives the “right to be called sons of God.” And the believers of the New Testament, no longer bondservants and no longer under the guardianship of the law, are led to recognize that by faith they are sons of Abraham, and finally they cry out in the Spirit that they are the sons of God.
What does this really mean? In a few words this means that man shall be eternally frustrated unless he finds his strength, joy, and purpose in God by and for whom he was created. “To live apart from God is death.” Salvation, on the other hand, is rescue from sin and restoration to sonship and service. Only in this way can man be happy, for only in this manner can he attain the purpose of his creation and the goal of his life; the glory of God.
Adam, the son of God, was given dominion over the earth. This is beautifully emphasized in the latest volume of Eric Sauer, The King of the Earth. The Biblical evidence for man’s royal status and assignment is too abundant to relate. Reference to two passages will suffice to establish the point.
We refer first of all to Genesis 1 and 2. Adam was given the task of dressing and keeping the garden. It is also related that he gave names to the animals. But in addition to this, or more accurately, it is explicitly stated that Adam was given the mandate to exercise authority over the earth and, with paradise as a pattern, to develop all to God’s praise. Adam was given dominion. He was to rule in God’s name, over God’s world, according to God’s will, and to God’s praise.
TIle same thought is expressed in Psalm 8. “What is man…Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet” (Psalm 8:6).
We ask what this means and the answer is that man was given more than a mere function or assignment. He was given royal office and position. He was ruler of the world. The realm in which man lived and of which he was a part was at the same time given him as a kingdom in which he was to proclaim and prosecute God’s claim.
And this was a family affair. Adam, God’s son, was appointed and recognized as a partner, a junior partner to be sure, but a partner nevertheless. And it is not at all surprising that centuries later the apostle Paul should declare of those who had been brought back to God that they were called into the “fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ” and that they are “laborers together with God.” (I Cor. 1:9, 3:9.)
Men Are Covenant-Breakers
“Covenant-breaking” is terminology used by Scripture itself. But if we use the language, we must be certain that we understand it. It would seem that again and again it has been used in the restricted sense of referring to those who in some fashion were in the covenant of grace but violated that covenant by their unbelief and disobedience.
In reality, all men are covenant-breakers. “They all like Adam [men] have transgressed the covenant” (Hosea 6:7 ). In Adam they have done violence to the original relationship of law and love. But that is not all. They perpetuate Adam’s sin and persist in Adam’s spirit of rebellion. All sinners are prodigals and rebels.
This underscores for us the seriousness of sin as not consisting simply in overt acts, but as revealed in a basic attitude and disposition. Sin is a condition.
Man is lost, terribly lost. He cannot and will not find his way hack. He is in need of more than education, correction, and reformation; he needs regeneration, so that born again or born from above, he may be a new creature. He must be renewed or, as indicated in Ephesians 2, he must be re-created. The source of all his troubles lies in the fact that he is not right with God. The son has rebelled against his Father; the servant is fighting against his Lord. Man has broken the covenant of love and life.
God’s Redemptive Program
We must view the redemptive program of God in its proper perspective. God reveals his interest in men, the prodigal son, but his interest extends far beyond man to all of creation. Mankind divided, deluded, depraved, is to be saved in that great throng which Cod has chosen and redeems unto everlasting life. As the whole race and world are involved in the fall of Adam, so also the race and the world are involved in redemption through Christ. The Bible nowhere teaches that every individual shall be rescued from sin, hut it does indicate that in and through Christ man is saved from sin and restored to the favor and service of God.
The view of salvation which puts the emphasis only on the individual, and regards it solely as an escape from the sin and suffering of this present world, is hardly consistent with the Scriptural presentation. Satan shall never be allowed to gloat over even a partial victory.
The world also must and shall be salvaged. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24;1.) He made it and He owns it. He has never relinquished His claim to His creation and fully intends that it shall be cleansed of all satanic and sinful influence so that eternally it shall reveal his glory and praise. This even the patriarchs understood so that according to the promise of Cod they looked beyond an earthly Canaan and expected a better and heavenly country. Cod maintains his authority and develops the kingdom which was once entrusted to Adam but which in redemption is committed to Jesus Christ. In the coming of that kingdom men shall be victorious over Satan and God shall be honored as Lord of all.
The covenant, broken by man, was sovereignly re-established. The beauty of Genesis 3:15 is to be found first of all in its content, and then in the fact that it is a divine declaration and ultimatum to Satan. Words of redeeming love arc at the same time words of holy opposition. To man’s new found ally God declares: “and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, between thy seed and her seed…and it shall bruise thy head.” (Genesis 3:15)
God who is sovereign in creation is also sovereign in redemption. The covenant is indeed theocentric and monopleuric. God, and God alone, is the Redeemer of Israel and the Savior of the world. He is the incomparable God.
To have wandered from and to be estranged from God, this is man’s plight and the world’s tragedy. To be the object of God’s love and to be restored and reconciled to Him is man’s glory. This is the thrilling message of the Word, the romance of the gospel. Redemption is the work of God and any part man plays is by the renewing power of God’s Word and Spirit.
To the devil as well as to man God says, “All things are mine.” Not only to Pharaoh, but to all His enemies, God says, “Let my people go.” Surely there are two parties in the covenant. It is a covenant between God and man, but the glory and comfort of this covenant are enhanced for the believer when he remembers that it is the covenant of God. He made it, He maintains it, and He will bring it to eternal fruition.
A Chosen People
In his redemptive program for the world, God deals with a select group. They are a special group not in the sense of possessing special virtues or meritorious claims to divine attention. They arc a select group solely because God “according to His sovereign good pleasure” chose them unto eternal life in Christ. The sovereign God, of whom we must admit that our knowledge is as a thimbleful compared with all the oceans of the world, is theGod who has spoken to us in the fulness and wonder of His truth and grace.
The people of God are one. God works consistently and according to a definite pattern. According to His Word, He shows His grace to an individual, a family, a tribe, a nation, and then to all the peoples of the earth. And in all times and places those who are redeemed are the true Israel of God.
It is true that the Old Testament church is pictured as the church in her infancy and childhood. Hence the law spells out in great detail what God forbids and what He requires. In the New Testament the church attains maturity and majority, even though she still falls short of perfection. She is blessed with far greater privileges and is specifically charged with the great responsibility of proclaiming the gospel in all the world and of seeking the kingdom of God. But essentially her duty toward God remains the same. The law of God, reiterated in the gospel kept and fulfilled by Christ, is still the perfect and abiding standard for her teaching and practice.
The place of children and their inclusion in the covenant and church is very clear. God is the God of believers and their seed. His promise is “to you and your children.” When Jesus says, “Suffer the little children to come unto Me and forbid them not for of such is the kingdom of heaven,” he is not merely extending a tender invitation but is actually defending the rights of his people’s children. No wonder the apostle Paul, led by the Holy Spirit into the deeper meaning of the covenant, climaxes the teaching in the third chapter of Galatians with the jubilant assertion, “And if ye are Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise.” What promise you say? There can be no doubt. It is the promise or the covenant,“I will be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee.”
Significance of the Theocracy The prominence of the theocracy in Old Testament revelation with the accompanying emphasis on law, ceremonies, and sacrifices, is to be accounted for by the fact that God used Israel as a channel of revelation.
Israel was God’s chosen people and thus uniquely privileged. But she also had a very special function to perform. She was to declare to all the surrounding nations that Jehovah was Cod and that he and he alone was Lord of all. She was to do tills not so much by an extensive mission program as by demonstration. Her witness was this that she was to reveal her God by being what she really was, a people with Jehovah, the God of heaven and earth, as her God. By being Israel and by living as God’s people she was to manifest to the nations who God is and what he does. Israel must be Israel, “prince of God,” and by her distinctiveness she must be a call and challenge to others.
The fact that Israel failed in this again and again, especially by committing the cardinal sin of idolatry, only serves to accentuate Jehovah’s faithfulness. By nature the Hebrews were no different than others, but they were distinctive because of God’s promise and grace. Their only claim to greatness was their unique relationship to Jehovah. The mark of distinction was the covenant.
It is clear that in his covenant faithfulness Jehovah shepherds Israel, his people who are his precious possession so that he cannot and will not let them go. To all peoples he is the God of power, justice, and even goodness; to his people he is the God of redeeming grace. He will judge the nations, but his people he will bless, and try, and chasten, and transform. He loves them with eternal love so that they may trust in his majestic and sovereign revelation: “For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from tllee, neither shall the covenant of My peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.” (Isaiah 54: 10.)
The Grace of the Covenant
The grace of the covenant is overwhelming. Grace is not an aspect of or an element in the covenant; but rather grace is the context and spirit of the covenant from beginning to end. The covenant is gracious in its entirety, in both its promise and claim. It is also for that reason that the judgment of God on those who break his covenant is terribly eternal and eternally terrible.
Tho demand or claim of the covenant is a sovereign claim. God never relinquishes his right; he refuses to abdicate. His throne is not precarious, and his law is not relative. His unalterable demand is still, “Walk before Me and be thou perfect” (Genesis 17:1.) The negative side of this demand is expressed. in the words, “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them.” (Galatians 3:10.) The same requirement is expressed in the words, “Be ye holy, for I am holy.” (I Peter 1: 16.) The majestic God of Sinai demands the faith that fears and the life that obeys. And this is also the God of Calvary who maintains his law and punishes transgression.
But God’s Word is gospel; it is glad tidings. It is the message of grace in the self-revelation which he gives; in the promise of eternal life he expresses; and in the salvation he provides. His amazing grace is seen in this that he himself fulfills the very demand which he makes. He does for man what man cannot do for himself. In Christ he reveals his grace. maintains his law, fulfills his demands, and pays the price of our redemption. What men must do is believe. Even this faith, however, is not a human achievement or contribution. Man does not attain to it by himself. This is impossible for a depraved and lost sinner. Faith is the gift of God. By his Holy Spirit God works this faith in us so that we are indebted to Him for the power and willingness to receive Christ as our Savior and King. In fact Ephesians 2:10 makes plain that we are even indebted to God for the good works we perform as the fruits of faith. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” The covenant and its redemption are so totally and completely the work of God’s grace that even our gratitude is grace which God bestows.
Covenant and Kingdom
We have a view of Scripture which emphasizes the essential unity of the Word. There is only one reason for this. Scripture itself possesses and reveals this view. Of course, there is progress, and because of progress Scripture goes from prophecy to fulfillment, and that which was predicted is later presented as history.
According to Scripture the covenant and the kingdom go hand in hand. They are one. It is not true that the Old Testament speaks only of covenant and that in the New Testament this is supplanted by an altogether different emphasis on the kingdom. This is a misrepresentation of what the Bible teaches. What does the Bible really teach?
Scripture reveals that man, created as God’s son and image-bearer, was given dominion over the earth and therefore appointed king. In the redemptive program revealed after man’s fall it is indicated that man shall possess a great and blessed land; the theocracy is prophetic; the Messiah is pictured as David’s Son surpassing his illustrious father in the glory of his kingdom, so that when Jesus comes, He proclaims the gospel of the kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is the great theme of his preaching.
To establish the kingdom in man’s heart Jesus calls men to faith and restores men to divine favor. He delivers sinners from bondage and creation from its curse. Not only man but also the world is involved for Jesus explicitly declares that he came to seek and save that which was lost. The kingdom is not an accommodation on God’s part but rather his omnipotent and sovereign insistence on his creative purpose and redemptive program.
Now we see the reason why the great commission is issued and why it is prefaced by the declaration, “All authority is given unto me in heaven and on earth.” The church while pleading with sinners, promising life and salvation to all who believe must do so with the dignity, earnestness, and insistence of one pressing a divine claim.
And now we see the meaning of Christ’s ascension for man as well as for himself. We rejoice in the fact that he has been given as head over all things to the church. thatHebrews 1 teaches that in Christ man has been restored to the throne, that always we are pointed to the Exalted Christ as the comfort and hope of the believer. And we begin to appreciate that New Testament assurance that believers “shall reign with Christ.” The Kingdom is the superstructure of the covenant; the covenant is the foundation of the Kingdom.
The covenant is an eternal idea. The oovenant is a present reality. The covenant is a glorious hope. The covenant is a wonderful comfort.
Hold fast that which thou hast. But how? Believe in God’s promise. Abide in his love. Proclaim his gospel. Be diligent in his service, and trust in his grace.
In this second article of his series the Rev. George Glitter. pastor of the Alger Park Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Mich., continues his consideration of the comfort and challenge of the Biblical teaching of God’s gracious covenant with his people. Only when appreciating and living by the unique gift of grace in Christ Jesus which is theirs, can believers be a blessing to the world in which God himself calls them to worship and witness and work.