The covenant of grace is the one covenant through which all believers are saved. It began in Genesis 3:15 with God’s promise to send a Savior and runs throughout redemptive history until Christ’s second coming. Although it was administered differently during different epochs of redemptive history, its substance remains the same in all periods. In other words, in both the Old Testament and New Testament the way in which God saves sinners is always the same: by his grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone. Christ is the one Mediator of the one covenant of grace that unifies the one people of God in all periods of redemptive history, as shown in figure 1 below.
Before Christ came into the world, the covenant of grace was administered by type and shadow (i.e., symbolic pictures of the reality). Believers put their trust in God’s promise to send the Messiah. Since the time of Christ, however, the covenant of grace is administered in more fullness, in the new covenant, as believers put their trust in the Messiah who lived, died, was raised again from the dead, and ascended into heaven.
The covenant of grace is the historical outworking of God’s eternal plan of salvation in the covenant of redemption. As we learned in earlier in our series, the covenant of redemption was made before the foundation of the world among the persons of the Trinity and fulfilled through Christ’s active obedience and atoning death. It was for Christ a covenant of works. Just as there was a covenant of works with the first Adam, so also there was a covenant of works with the second Adam, Christ. His obedience under this covenant is the foundation of the gospel and of the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace is essentially the application to sinners of the benefits earned by Christ. Through this covenant that Christ mediates, God brings his people into communion with himself and promises them, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” His promise is not on the basis of their obedience but on the basis of Christ’s obedience. It was works for Christ so that it is grace for us. “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19).
Like the covenant of works, the covenant of grace is made between God and humans. A big difference between these two covenants, however, is that the latter has a Mediator between God and his covenant partners, whereas the former does not. Christ is that Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). This makes the nature of these covenants very different from one another. The covenant of works is based on law and requires perfect, personal obedience. Its condition is, “Do this and you will live” (cf. Lev. 18:5; Gal. 3:12). The covenant of grace, by contrast, is based on God’s promise to save sinners. Its condition is “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31; cf. Rom. 10:6–13; Gal. 2:16). In the covenant of grace, God pronounces sinners justified and righteous on the basis of the righteousness of Christ imputed to them and received through faith alone. Figure 2 shows the distinction between the covenants of works and grace.
Contrary to the teachings of classical dispensationalism, the Bible does not teach two plans of salvation for two peoples of God (that is, Israel and the church), but rather one plan of salvation for one people of God throughout redemptive history. God’s one plan of salvation is in the historical outworking of the covenant of grace.
Thus, we may define the covenant of grace as the covenant between God and believers with their children in which he promises salvation through faith in Christ, who merited their salvation by his obedience in the covenant of redemption.
What Does the Bible Teach?
While the covenant of grace is more fully revealed in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 with God’s covenant to Abraham, which is then fulfilled in two great stages, the old (Mosaic) and new covenants, its “mother” or “seed” promise is in the protevangelium of Genesis 3:15. This becomes clear when we examine four features of God’s promise in this text.
First, God terminated the sinful relationship between Satan and the woman. The Lord says to the Serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman.” God declares that he will not allow the devil to remain in covenant with the man and the woman, which is essentially what happened in the fall. In his tempting of the woman (Gen. 3:1–6), the Serpent casts doubt on God’s goodness and truthfulness by challenging the covenant stipulations. “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’ . . . You will not surely die.” He tried to derail God’s kingdom plan to bring his image bearers to glory. He sees that God made Adam his servant in the covenant of works, so he tries to forestall the coming of the eternal blessings by getting Adam barred from the Tree of Life. He knows that if he can get Adam to violate the covenant of works, then God (being just by nature) must judge him according to the stipulations he made. At first, the Serpent’s scheme seems to work. He manages to persuade the woman (and consequently Adam) to disbelieve God and enter into league with himself. Yet, after Adam’s fall, God does not permit that sinful relationship to continue. He puts enmity between the Serpent and the woman. Reconciliation between God and humans would be made through a new covenant, since the original covenant of works was violated and broken. But the devil did not realize that God had planned to send a second Adam who would bring his kingdom project to completion.
Second, the Lord puts enmity between the Serpent’s offspring and the woman’s offspring. He promises to form a community of people for himself whom he will set apart from the offspring of the devil and one day rescue from the latter’s fierce hostility. The Hebrew word for “offspring” (or “seed”) dominates the book of Genesis, appearing at least thirty-seven times in chapters 12– 50. This indicates God’s faithfulness to his promise to form a community of believers and their children called out from the world and the offspring of the devil. This community can be traced throughout redemptive history and into the new covenant, not by bloodline, but by those who believe in God’s promise. As Paul says to Gentile Christians in Galatians 3:29: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Thus, Genesis 3:15 reveals God’s first formation of his church.
Third, the Lord promised a Messiah who would judge the Serpent, doing the work the first Adam failed to accomplish: “He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The Lord shifts from the collective offspring to a singular offspring. Like the English word offspring, the Hebrew word can refer to one’s children (Gen. 4:25; 15:3), a distant descendant, or a large group of descendants. Here in Genesis 3:15, we encounter both the singular and collective senses of this word, which tells us that the Lord would not only form a people from the woman and make them his holy covenant community but also he would also from the woman bring a Champion-Offspring who would defeat the Serpent.
That the first Adam failed in his responsibility to carry out judgment on the Serpent is further elucidated in Genesis 3:23–24, which tell us that the Lord relieved Adam of his priestly duty of protecting the holiness of the garden and gave it to the cherubim with the flaming sword. In Genesis 2:15, we are told that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work and keep it.” In order to reach the goal of the Tree of Life, Adam was to remain obedient in these covenant responsibilities. He was to take care of the garden as a gardener and protect it as a guardian. Eden was a holy temple and sanctuary to the Lord. Protecting it from defilement was part of his priestly responsibility to the Lord. Thus, he failed in the covenant of works even before he ate of the forbidden tree. He failed when he allowed his wife to enter into league with the devil. At that point, he should have exercised his priestly authority and executed judgment on the Serpent. Consequently, “the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:23–24). Fallen Adam would continue in his responsibility to “till” or “tend” the earth (now cursed and bearing thorns) as an everyday function for life. But his holy responsibility of “guarding” the garden was taken from him and given to the cherubim as he failed in his priestly duty to protect Eden from defilement. If God’s elect were to reach the goal of the Tree of Life, God would need to send a new Adam to exercise judgment on the Serpent, which is precisely what he promises in Genesis 3:15: “He will bruise your head.”
God’s promise of a Champion-Seed is central to the unfolding drama of redemptive history. Throughout the Old Testament, the people of God look forward to their Messiah who will vanquish Satan and give them victory over his offspring. The Bible repeats this champion concept in stories like David and Goliath (1 Sam. 17). In this famous account, the battle between the Israelites and the Philistines comes down to these two champions, each of whom represents his people as a federal head. If David defeats Goliath, the Philistines will become slaves to Israel, but the opposite will result if Goliath defeats David. As David defeats Goliath (even removing his head!), he foreshadows his descendant Christ who would defeat Satan and obtain victory for his people.This is why when Christ began his earthly ministry he was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1). Like the first Adam, Jesus was also tempted by the devil to enter into covenant with him (Matt. 4:1–11). But unlike the first Adam, Jesus did not succumb to those temptations. Instead, he remained faithful and obedient in his covenant with the Father. But Christ’s victory over Satan also required him to undergo the horrors of the cross. As the Lord promised in Genesis 3:15, “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” In order for Christ to deliver his people from the power of death, he would need to taste death himself (Heb. 2:14–16). Without suffering the wrath of God against their sins, Christ could not have made atonement for his people nor exercised redemptive judgment against Satan, as was promised in Genesis 3:15. Therefore, it is through his obedient life and atoning death that Christ trampled the head of the Serpent.
The fourth feature we observe from this passage is Adam’s response of faith in God’s promise, as well as God’s clothing of Adam and Eve with the garments of a slain animal. Notice that Eve’s name is not given until after God’s promise in Genesis 3:15. Up to this point, she is known only as “the woman,” because she was taken out of the man (see Gen. 2:23). In Genesis 3:20, however, we are told, “The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.” Where did that idea come from? It came from God’s promise to reverse the curse of death on humans through the Champion-Offspring of the covenant of grace. Adam and Eve believed this promise with true faith (demonstrated in Adam’s naming of Eve), and they were justified. God then removed the useless garments they made of fig leaves in an attempt to cover their shame, and he clothed them with the skins of an animal that had to suffer death. Their physical nakedness was not intrinsically evil but was a symbol of their spiritual nakedness. The very fact that they were trying to run away from God showed that Adam had broken the covenant of works and their own consciences were testifying against them. Nevertheless, because they believed in his promise, he provided garments for them and clothed them so that they would no longer be guilty and ashamed.
Why Is This Doctrine Important for the Christian Life?
The covenant of grace is important for the Christian life for several reasons. First, it tells us that we are not under a covenant of works and therefore do not relate to God on the basis of our own law keeping. In the covenant of grace, God promises to accept us as righteous by virtue of the righteousness of his Son, the second Adam. In other words, it draws attention to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Whereas the covenant of works (law) says, “Do this and you will live,” the covenant of grace (gospel) says, “Christ did it for you.” This allows us to go through life on the solid foundation that God receives us because of Christ. There is no greater contributing factor to our joy and comfort as Christians than the reality that God accepts us in spite of the fact that we still struggle with sin and disobedience. Knowing that God loves us on account of Christ protects us from the rollercoaster of our own conscience and emotions.
Second, the covenant of grace teaches us that the whole Bible is about one thing: God redeeming a people for himself through Jesus Christ. It traces the unfolding drama from Genesis to Revelation. It shows us that the Bible is actually one book with one story, told on the stage of real human history. Without seeing the big picture that the covenant of grace provides, we will be tempted to think of the Bible as being little more than a manual for ethical behavior or self-improvement. We will tend to think of the Scriptures as a compilation of stories with a moral point, like Aesop’s fables, or as a prophecy handbook that must be deciphered by current events. The covenant of grace, however, guards us from these pitfalls by highlighting the central point and plotline of Scripture. It unifies the Scriptures and sets every story in the context of the larger story about Christ, who was promised in Genesis 3:15, came in the fullness of time, and will return again. Few things are more important for us to understand as we read God’s Word and seek to know him more.
Third, the covenant of grace reminds us that we are pilgrims in this age. The end of the story is yet to come. As Christians, we sometimes assume that our lives should be free from the trouble and messiness of this world. We tend to think that because we are Christians we should have normal lives immune, or at least less susceptible, to suffering and letdown. But the truth is that, until the consummation, there is no such thing as “normal life.”
There is a scene in the movie Tombstone that illustrates this rather well. Wyatt Earp goes to see his friend Doc Holliday as he lies on his deathbed, and Doc tells Wyatt how he was in love once, but the woman he loved joined a convent. “She was all I ever wanted,” he said.
He then asked his friend, “What did you want out of life, Wyatt?” With a cynical tone that came from years of difficulty and heartbreak, Wyatt responded, “Just to live a normal life.” Surprised, Doc answered, “There is no normal life, Wyatt. There’s just life.” Most people who saw the film could identify with that line, for there is no normal life free from complications; there is just life with its messiness and ups and downs. Normal life ended in Genesis 3 with the fall and disobedience of our first parents. The covenant of grace, however, with its saga of fallible sinner-saints who trusted in God’s promise, tells us about pilgrim life. It does not promise us that our lives in this fallen world will be free from complications any more than our neighbors,’ but it does promise us that a glorious end awaits us. The covenant of grace points us to the heavenly goal that the first Adam never reached but which the second Adam has secured for us. It tells us that this life is temporary, and the best is yet to come.1. The Hebrew word for “offspring” or “seed” is zera.’ 2. The Hebrew words for “work” and “keep” in Genesis 2:15 are the words ‘abad and shamar respectively. 3. The same Hebrew words for “work” and “guard” are used in Genesis 3:23–24 as in Genesis 2:15, namely, ‘abad and shamar. 4. The similarity between the words “woman” and “man” is also seen in the Hebrew of Genesis 2–3: the word for “woman” is ‘ishah, and the word for “man” is ‘ish. 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 coauthor of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.