II Timothy 2:15 reads as follows: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
Our Arminian Brothers and Sisters have historically taken this passage and literally “divided up” God’s Word into several “dispensations”. Dispensations were largely popularized in the 1909 edition of the Scofield Bible. A “dispensation”, as defined by Scofield, is “…a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.” (Scofield Bible, p.5)
The seven “dispensations” are generally defined as “the dispensation of innocence, of conscience, of human government, of promise, of the law, of grace, and of the kingdom.” (Systematic Theology, Berkhof, L., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1939, 1941, p.290).
Classic “dispensationalism” literally “divides up” the Sacred Scriptures in such a way that our sovereign, saving, eternal, unchangeable God deals redemptively with different people in different ways at different times, resulting in major discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments. Such a disconnect between the Testaments caused the late Reformed theologian Dr. Louis Berkhof to write in Systematic Theology that, “This theory … is divisive in tendency, dismembering the organism of Scripture with disastrous results.” (p.291)
In his book, Children of the Promise (P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ, 1995, pp. 22–23) Robert R. Booth writes,
The dispensational method of isolating the New Testament from the Old Testament, as though we may determine any doctrine in its proper relation to redemptive history with the New Testament alone, is dangerous and misguided. The problem with this dispensational method is not so much that it starts with the New Testament, since the New Testament immediately points us to the Old Testament. The real problem posed by this method is that it not only wants to start with the New Testament but also wants to stop with the New Testament and settle the issue with the New Testament alone. We must not forget that all Scripture—including the Old Testament—is profitable for doctrine (2 Tim. 3:16). Starting and ending with the whole Bible is the only sure way to arrive at sound doctrinal positions. The dispensational system does not adequately account for the unity of the Bible.
We in the Reformed tradition have historically viewed Scripture and seek to interpret Scripture as a unified whole and from a so-called “covenantal perspective.” While it is my understanding that the so-called “new” 1967 edition of the Scofield Bible does indeed contain “covenantal references” in its footnotes, please know that a “dispensational interpretive system” stands in diametrical opposition to the Reformed interpretive system of “covenantal theology” with very profound implications concerning the way in which we view everything from the world to worship, from sin to salvation, from how we view our children to how we celebrate the sacraments, and so on.
In the Reformed tradition we recognize God’s special and unique dealings with Adam (referred to in Reformed theology as the “Adamic Covenant” or the “Covenant of works”); God’s Covenant with Noah; God’s Covenant with Abraham; God’s Covenant with Moses; God’s Covenant with David; and the New Covenant – with each covenant building upon the others with all having their consummation in Christ. Please understand, however, that in Reformed Theology we are not even close to what our dispensational brothers and sisters mean when referring to their seven different dispensations! Rather, we profess and practice the proposition that each of these various covenants are all successive administrations of one and the same, single, over-arching covenant which comprises both the Old and
New Testaments in all of their fullness, richness and glory, namely, THE COVENANT OF GRACE.
What exactly is a “Covenant”? According to the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Elwell, Walter A., Editor, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1984, p. 276) a covenant, essentially, is
A compact or agreement between two parties binding them mutually to undertakings on each other’s behalf. Theologically (ie. used of relations between God and man) it denotes a gracious undertaking entered into by God for the benefit and blessing of man, and specifically of those men who by faith receive the promises and commit themselves to the obligations which this undertaking involves.
Another very accurate and insightful definition by Robert Booth defines a covenant between God and man as “a conditional promise, sealed by blood, sovereignly administered by God, with blessings for those who obey the conditions of the covenant and curses for those who disobey its conditions.” (Children of the Promise, p.24) We can boil all of this theological language down into a very simple statement which says essentially that:
A covenant is a relationship in which God says ‘I will be your God— along with all of His promised blessings; and in which we in response say, ‘And we will be your people’ – along with our promised obedience.
With this all-too-brief account of biblical and theological content and context concerning the definition of “covenant”, let us consider Three Key Aspects of The Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Grace is a single, over-arching covenantal relationship which Dr. Berkhof states is so-called because “The covenant originates in the grace of God, is executed in virtue of the grace of God, and is realized in the lives of sinners by the grace of God. It is grace from the beginning to the end for the sinner.” (Systematic Theology, p.278).
The Eternal Source
In Genesis 15:1 we read, “After this the word of the Lord [Hebrew: dabar yaweh – the first time this particular phraseology is used in Scripture] … came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.’”
The words “After this” seem to indicate that Abram is focusing on the promise which God had so graciously made to him when He called him back in Genesis 12:1–3 and how that promise might not be fulfilled. Abram was afraid. In response to his fears, the Lord God graciously sought him out once again and sought to allay those fears by saying, “I am your shield.” What is a shield? A shield is a defensive weapon which wards off assaults by the enemy. And notice: God doesn’t say, “I will give you a shield” – God says, “I am your shield” –and not only so, but also, “your very great reward.”
Why is that so significant? As someone has so insightfully said, “God’s saints are prone to seek their happiness in God’s gifts, rather than in the Giver.” And isn’t that true? We can get so caught up in any number of “creature comforts” which we so abundantly receive from the hand of our sovereign, gracious God when all the while all we really need is HIM! That is why we have often seen and heard in various missionary reports of the great JOY in the hearts and on the faces of natives in various parts of the world even though physically/ financially they are living in abject poverty! How can this possibly be when we who have been given so much are so often quite fear-filled and downcast? The reason is because they have better come to understand and appreciate the glorious gospel truth that God is all they need, because God is all they have! They truly profess and practice the fact that when they have Him they have everything! His Holy Spirit has witnessed to their spirits saying, “Do not be afraid … I am your shield, your very great reward.” Oh, may God also increasingly grant to each and every one of us such grace!
Underscore the fact that the Bible says, “After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram.” In fact, it says that very same thing in verse 4. This is extremely significant in one respect because it so beautifully illustrates for us that which literally sets biblical Christianity apart from every other cult, sect, and religion throughout the history of the world. Only in Christianity, only in CHRIST are we set free from having to make it on our own or work our way to heaven or be “good enough” to be saved! The Lord God condescends to Abram, just as we find the Lord God calls for Adam in the Garden of Eden after the Fall, saying, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9); and then speaks the words of Genesis 3:15 where God says to the serpent, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” In fulfillment of this prophecy, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ literally invaded human history by being born of the virgin Mary. Galatians 4:4–5 states,
But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
There are many Reformed theologians who correctly point out the Scriptural fact that long before the incarnation of Christ, indeed, even before the onset of the Covenant of Grace in all of its various administrations, we find that from all eternity the Father and Son had a pact, an agreement, they “covenanted together” (some call it the “Covenant of Redemption”) in which the Son agreed to accomplish the salvation of His people according to His heavenly Father’s will. That is why we read, for example, in such passages as John 6:37–39, All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of Him who sent me. And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that He has given me, but raise them up at the last day.
Other theologians correctly expound upon this fact by declaring that the Trinitarian relationship between the three Divine Persons of the God-head, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has profound implications for and indeed is the “prototype” of the way in which we view all of creation; for example, the way in which the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity convenant together is the prototype for the way in which all true believers are in covenant with God the Father as the Originator, God the Son as the Executor, and God the Holy Spirit as the Applier of the redemption to our souls. (Berkhof, L. Systematic Theology, p.266)
Glory be to God! Indeed, I fervently hope and pray that just as “the word of the Lord came to Abram” the Word of the Lord has come and is coming and will come to each and every one of us each and every day. Why so? Because the Bible says that our good and gracious God Himself is the Eternal Source of The Covenant of Grace.
The Elect Subjects
After the Word of the Lord comes to Abram, assuring him that the Lord God Himself is his “shield and very great reward”, one might expect that Abram would rejoice and say “thanks”, if not also, “praise the Lord!” But what do we find? In Genesis 15:2–3 we read,
But Abram said, ‘O Sovereign Lord what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus … you have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.’
Before we would too readily condemn Abram, let us remember that God does indeed command us, as His people, to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (I Peter 5:7) Let us also grant that Abram was simply and legitimately asking God for some measure of assurance concerning these things because as he considered the course of his life, well, let’s face it, he was getting on in years! Abram was about 86 years old at this time and Sarah was about 77. Things were looking a little bleak!
Abram asks God about it, and notice that in verse 4 we read,
Then the word of the Lord came to him: ‘This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will by your heir.’ He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring [your seed, your descendants] be.’
Think of it! The God who by the power of His Word literally spoke galaxies into existence; the God who by the power of His Word created those stars similarly by the power of His Word, His Word of promise, would supernaturally and miraculously and graciously create from the union of an admittedly very old man and very old woman an offspring as innumerable as the stars in the sky! Glory be to God!
God makes His covenant of grace with Abram and his offspring, spiritually speaking. Here again is another place where our Reformed view of the covenant differs so markedly with the view of our Arminian brothers and sisters. We believe that God’s covenant was being made not simply with physical, national Israel, but with Abram as the Father of all believers, and with His “spiritual descendants”, namely, all those who by Gods’ grace would come to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. And who would come to believe? As Ephesians 1:4 tells us, all those whom “God chose in Christ before the creation of the world”; John 6:37 refers to all those “whom the Father gives Him”; Acts 13:48 states “All who were appointed for eternal life”; and as the Holy Spirit inspired Apostle Paul writes in Romans 11:7, “What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did.”
Do not misunderstand: even though God so graciously made His covenant with Abram and his descendants, that is, with believers as well as with their children; and even though in Gen. 17:9–14 God very clearly sets apart Abraham’s entire household along with the very clear command to have all male members of his household circumcised as the sign of the covenant (a sign which in the New Testament era has been replaced by the Sacrament of Baptism which is to be bestowed upon believers and all of the children of their household), and even though Arminians tend overemphasize an exclusively “individualistic salvation”, still in all, each and everyone of us and ours needs to personally repent of our sins and to believe in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ!
A person could have a “legal standing” in the covenant of grace by virtue of being the baptized child of believing parents and yet not have a life-giving spiritual standing in Christ! That is why we, by God’s grace, as believers individually and communally, along with the parents, must seek to be found ever faithful in the spiritual instruction and nurture of our children at home, church and school.
Lest any of us or our children experience the dire, damning consequences of proving ourselves to be covenant breakers, let us make absolutely certain that by the sovereign grace and electing love of God, we personally have repented of our sins and professed our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior! Being in covenant with God does graciously provide us with many means of “sanctification” or growth in holiness, but it by no means in and of itself guarantees our salvation! Salvation is the gracious gift of God only to those who by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone have been born again!
In Genesis 15:6 we read, “Abram believed the Lord, and He credited (or, imputed) it to him as righteousness.” Here we find in no uncertain terms the biblical doctrine which John Calvin called the “hinge of the Reformation”, namely, “Justification by faith alone.” God declares me “not guilty” in His heavenly court and views me “Just-as-if-I’dnever sinned” by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
In a certain sense that “faith” is the sole “condition” of the covenant. Even such faith itself is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9). That is why part of the glory of the Covenant of Grace is such that what God requires of us He also provides for us! Our realization and recognition of this critically important point also prevents us from falling into the Arminian error of essentially turning the Covenant of Grace into a “covenant of works” by considering “the faith which we exercise of our own free will” to be “a good work” which actually accomplishes our salvation for us!
The Covenant Sealed
In Genesis 15:7–17 we read,
He also said to him, ‘I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.’ But Abram said, ‘O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?’ So the Lord said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.’ Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other … When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking fire pot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.
While there is much about the historical establishment of this covenantal ceremony that we do not know nor understand, we do read in various tablets discovered through archeological digs that various nations in Abram’s day did indeed practice this sort of ceremony. In Jeremiah 34:18 the Lord declares, “The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.”
By cutting the animals in two and then “walking between the halves opposite each other”, those entering into such a contract, or covenant, were in effect vowing a “malediction” upon themselves (not “benediction”, but “malediction”) or calling down a curse upon themselves, saying, in effect, that if they break or violate the conditions of this covenant, let their bodies be torn in two such as happened to these animals so sacrificed!
Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote, “Where the blood is shed there grace is manifested.” In Genesis 15:17 we read, “When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking fire pot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.” The fire and the smoke are the very same two representations of the power and presence of God such as we find throughout the wilderness wanderings of the people of Israel (Exodus 13:21). And so here in verse 17 of our text we have the very presence of God passing between the pieces.
We do not read that “Abram passed between the pieces”, as would surely occur were two equal parties entering into a covenant agreement, but only God did! And that is why verses 18-21 go on to state that, “On that day the Lord made a covenant” (literally “cut a covenant”). The emphasis of this portion of Scripture is the fact that on that day the LORD “cut a covenant” with Abram and said, “‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites”- 10 tribes in all! The number of completeness! Representing the universality of God’s covenant with His people and its unqualified completeness and guaranteed success! A portion of Scripture looking forward to the day when “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15b), and looking forward to that day when in heaven they will sing a new song, saying, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev. 5:9) And when tens of thousands of angels will sing in a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Rev. 5:12).
Oh, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, may the Lord our God effectually seal unto each and every one of His elect THE COVENANT OF GRACE!
Rev. Richard J. Kuiken is the senior pastor of the Reformed Bible Church in Pompton Plains, New Jersey.