Grace Before Time: The Covenant of Redemption – 2
We begin our survey of covenant theology with a consideration of that covenant from which all other biblical covenants flow: the covenant of redemption. The covenant of redemption is essentially God’s blueprint for our salvation. Just as a house begins with a plan of meticulous engineering and technical design, so also did our redemption originate on the drafting table of God. Before the creation of the world, a plan was already in place to send the Son as the second Adam to remedy the disastrous results of the first Adam’s failure to fulfill the covenant of works in the garden of Eden and bring humankind to glory. The covenant of redemption was not a plan B to fix the mess Adam made, but the original blueprint for the work of Christ and the plan of redemption.
The covenant of redemption is the first of three overarching covenants in redemptive history, namely, the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. There are, of course, more covenants in Scripture, such as the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and so on. As we will learn in the subsequent articles in this series, however, these are subsets of the three overarching covenants. The first overarching covenant is the covenant of redemption. Sometimes referred to by its Latin title, pactum salutis, the covenant of redemption is the origin and firm foundation of the covenant of grace. Without it, there would be no election, no incarnation of the Son, no cross, no resurrection, and no promise of heaven. In short, there would be no salvation of sinners.
The covenant of redemption is unique for at least two other reasons. First, it was made between the persons of the Trinity, and not, as in most biblical covenants, between God and humans. The covenant of redemption is a pact between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit with the purpose of redeeming God’s elect. The Father gave to the Son those whom he chose to save and required him to accomplish their salvation though his obedient life and atoning death as the second Adam. He also promised the Son a reward on the completion of his work. The Son accepted the Father’s gift, agreed to the conditions of this covenant, and submitted himself to the Father’s will. The Holy Spirit promised to apply the benefits earned by the Son to the elect and unite them with the Son forever. Thus, we say the covenant of redemption is an intratrinitarian covenant between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Second, the covenant of redemption is unique because it was established before time. All other biblical covenants were made in time and history. The covenant of redemption, however, was made in eternity, before the foundation of the world and all things temporal. Thus, we say that it is a pretemporal covenant.
Therefore, behind all of God’s covenanting with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, and his elect stands the covenant of redemption. Planned from eternity by the members of the Godhead, the covenant of redemption is the basis and driving purpose of all redemptive history. We can define the covenant of redemption as the covenant established in eternity between the Father, who gives the Son to be the Redeemer of the elect and requires of him the conditions for their redemption; and the Son, who voluntarily agrees to fulfill these conditions; and the Spirit, who voluntarily applies the work of the Son to the elect.1
What Does the Bible Teach?
We should not be alarmed that the Bible never mentions the phrase “covenant of redemption.” The Bible teaches many key doctrines without ever using the same terminology that theologians have coined for those doctrines. For example, Scripture teaches the doctrine of the roman Trinity, yet never uses the word Trinity. Nevertheless, we can still use the word Trinity to refer more easily to the teaching of Scripture that God is one in essence yet three in person. The doctrine of the covenant of redemption is no different. Although the exact phrase does not appear in the Bible, the doctrine itself does. This becomes evident as the drama of redemptive history unfolds. God’s promise to send a Savior, first verbalized in Genesis 3:15, is progressively revealed in the Old Testament until it comes to fulfillment in the person and work of Christ. In the bright light of the New Testament, we see clearly that the relationship between the Father and the Son is covenantal in nature, involving a promised reward to the Son for his obedience to prescribed conditions.
We now turn to a few of the many passages in Scripture that teach this doctrine.
Psalm 40:6–8. This psalm reveals a covenantal relationship of obedience and reward between the Father and the Son, especially as it is interpreted by the book of Hebrews. David begins by describing how God rescued him from a slimy pit (40:1–2). He gives praise to God for his salvation and declares that the one who trusts in the Lord is blessed (40:3–5). Then, in verses 6–8, he makes an intriguing statement about the proper relationship between the Lord and the person who trusts in the Lord. “In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted . . . Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.’” It is not the sacrifices of animals in which God delights, but obedience to his commands.
Although David wrote this psalm, the writer to the Hebrews explicitly identifies the speaker in verses 6–8 as Christ. In Hebrews 10:5–10, after explaining how the sacrifices of the Mosaic covenant were inadequate to provide salvation, the writer says that Christ came into the world to do the Father’s will. Psalm 40:6–8 is essentially Christ’s loyal words to the Father as he submitted himself to the conditions of the covenant of redemption. The writer then makes the point that “by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10). Because Christ fulfilled the will of the Father through his active obedience, he has saved us and reconciled us to the Father. He satisfied the conditions of the covenant of redemption and, consequently, earned the promised reward.
Psalm 110. In this psalm, which is frequently quoted in the New Testament, the psalmist foretells of Christ’s exaltation and kingship. He describes the Messiah as receiving the reward for his active obedience; he sits at the right hand of the Father (110:1) and rules in the midst of his enemies (110:2). Yet the psalmist also describes the Father’s oath to the Son, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek’” (v. 4). As I noted in the first article of this series, the taking of oaths is an important aspect of covenant making throughout Scripture. The Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, for example, were both sealed with oaths. The same is true of the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son. Psalm 110:4 highlights the oath-bound character of this covenant. The Father seals the covenant with his oath and designates the Son as the mediating priest for the elect.
Again the book of Hebrews teaches this more clearly. In Hebrews 7, the writer compares Christ with Melchizedek in order to persuade his Hebrew-Christian audience of Christ’s rightful claim to the office of high priest, even though he descended from the tribe of Judah and not from the priestly tribe of Levi. Knowing that his readers were tempted to abandon the faith and return to Judaism, he makes the argument that if perfection could come through the Levitical priesthood, there would be no reason for a greater high priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, as foretold in Psalm 110. Applying Psalm 110:4 to Christ, he says, “For it is witnessed of him, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek’” (Heb. 7:17). He then highlights the fact that this appointment to the office of priest was with an oath: “And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: ‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever”’” (Heb. 7:20–21).
But when did this event occur? Scripture reveals no particular point in Christ’s earthly ministry in which the Father made this oath to the Son. Nor is there anywhere in the Old Testament where such an oath was made. We might note that in Hebrews 7:28 the writer makes reference to the fact that Psalm 110:4 was written long after the Mosaic law was given at Sinai and that this “word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.” Yet the word of the oath was revealed in the days of David the psalm writer, not the oath itself. The Father made this oath to the Son when he gave him his priestly assignment in the covenant of redemption.
Isaiah 53. This well-known prophecy about the suffering Servant also teaches us about the covenant of redemption by telling us that the relationship between the Father and the Son concerning the redemption of sinners is covenantal in nature; it has a relationship of obedience and reward. This is revealed even in his title, “my servant” (Isa. 52:13; 53:11), which is classic covenant terminology. (For example, in Isaiah 42:1–9, the Servant is explicitly called “a covenant for the people.” See also Isaiah 49:1–8.) Isaiah 53 not only foretells of the humiliation and anguish Christ experienced in his life and death but also of how his obedience to the will of the Father is the cause and basis of our redemption. After describing how Christ would be “crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5) under the weight of God’s wrath as our sin was imputed to him (Isa. 53:6), Isaiah says in verse 10, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him,” and “the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” In other words, the suffering of Christ was according to the Father’s will and, through Christ’s obedience to the Father’s will, his will was accomplished. This was not a haphazard or random idea; rather, this was a predetermined plan between the Father and the Son which resulted in the salvation of the elect. As Isaiah says in verse 11, it was through Christ’s obedience that he made “many to be accounted righteous.” His active obedience to the Father achieved the justification of his people.
The New Testament makes clear that this was a mutual agreement between the Father and the Son. Paul tells us in Philippians 2 that Christ “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:6–8). The Son was not forced into this plan of redemption. He did not go unwillingly to the cross. Rather, the Father gave him work to do, and he, in turn, submitted himself to the Father’s will and obeyed it perfectly.
That this was a reward for Christ’s obedience is explicit in Isaiah 53:12: “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong.” Because Christ accomplished the work the Father gave him to do, he earned the reward of a conqueror and the right to the spoils of war. The use of the word therefore indicates that Christ’s obedience (previously described in Isa. 53:1–11) has the consequence of a reward. Paul reflects this also in Philippians 2, where he goes on to say, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:9–11). Christ’s reward for his obedience was the justification of his people and the exaltation of his name, all of which is to the glory of the Father.
Thus, Isaiah 53, in the light of the New Testament, teaches us that our redemption is the result of Christ fulfilling the conditions and receiving the reward prescribed in a pact between him and the Father.
Romans 5:12–19. In this passage, Paul teaches us explicit analogy between Adam and Christ, showing that both of these individuals were federal representatives of other people. Whereas Adam’s disobedience in the covenant of works resulted in the condemnation of those whom he represented (that is, the whole human race), Christ’s obedience in the covenant of redemption resulted in the justification of those whom he represented (that is, the elect). Again, we are confronted with scriptural teaching of the obedience-reward relationship between the Father and Son. The Son obeyed the Father so that “the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19; cf. 1 Cor. 15:21–22).
Why Is This Doctrine Important for the Christian Life?
At first glance, we might be tempted to think of this doctrine as rather abstract and impractical, as if it has value only in the seminary classroom or the speculative conversations of professional theologians. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth.
First, the covenant of redemption teaches us about the love of God. The doctrine of the covenant of redemption reveals to us that there exists between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit perfect love and harmony. Their promises and commitments to each other demonstrate their love for each other. The Father’s love for the Son is expressed in his reward of a people whom the Son will rule as King. The Son’s love for the Father is expressed in his submission to the Father’s will, even at the highest personal cost. The Spirit’s love for the Father and the Son is expressed in his work to bring this plan to completion. And the Father and Son’s love for the Spirit is expressed in pouring him out on the church as their special gift from heaven. No member of the Trinity acts apart from the other two members.
Yet the doctrine of the covenant of redemption also teaches us that God is eternally moved to communicate to others this love that he experiences within himself. As Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949) put it, “Just as the blessedness of God exists in the free relationship of the three persons of the adorable Being, so man shall also find his blessedness in the covenantal relationship with his God.”2 God has decided to share his love with his elect. In his sovereign will, he chose to make us the objects of the eternal, mutual love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We did nothing to move him to this love, for he loved us while we were still sinners and his enemies (Rom. 5:8–10). Rather, he acted first by setting his love on us before the foundation of the world in this great covenant involving each person of the Godhead. In the covenant of redemption, we see that our salvation is trinitarian from beginning to end, carefully planned in eternity past and executed in human history. What amazing love is demonstrated by the fact that Christ came on a specific mission to fulfill his covenant obligations and obtain redemption for us!
Second, the covenant of redemption provides us with comfort and assurance. Knowing that our salvation was planned out by the triune God before the foundation of the world gives us unspeakable comfort. If you are a Christian, it is because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit covenanted together in eternity to save you. You are not a Christian because you are better, smarter, or possess a softer heart than other people. You are a Christian because the Father chose you in the Son, the Son fulfilled the conditions for your salvation, and the Spirit applied to you the redemptive benefits of the Son’s work. When you are tempted to doubt your salvation, remember that Christ said, “It is finished,” and that the Father is satisfied with the work of his Son. Your salvation remains secure, not because of anything you do, but because Christ finished the work the Father gave him to accomplish and satisfied God’s justice. Consequently, the Father has highly exalted him. The obedience-reward pattern in the covenant of redemption causes us to look to Christ rather than ourselves for assurance of our salvation. It highlights the obedience of our legal representative and the merit he earned for us in our place. What comfort this brings us as those who are often find ourselves troubled in conscience by the weakness of our faith and our failures in the Christian life!
1. Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored (Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, 2012), 25. The material in this article is found in expanded form in that resource.
2. Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 245.
Rev. Michael G. Brown is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA. He is the editor and contributing author of Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons. and co-author of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.