What We Believe (10): The Covenant of Grace

This is the tenth in a series of articles on Reformed Doctrine, under the heading, What We Believe. The familiar question-and-answer method is being followed. Rev. Elco H. Oostendorp of Hudsonville, Michigan, deals with “The Fall”in this article.

What is meant by the Covenant of Grace?

The covenant of grace is the gracious arrangement that God made with fallen men in which He provided a way of salvation through the Mediator, His Son, Jeslls Christ. In Romans 5:12–21 Paul contrasts Adam and Christ, and he concludes that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (vss. 20, 21). While it can be said that even the covenant of works was a gracious arrangement on God’s part in that man did not deserve life and God’s fellowship by any accomplishment on his part, in the covenant of grace God is dealing with sinners who have merited punishment. Besides, whereas in the covenant of works the condition was obedience to God’s command, in the covenant of grace salvation is a free gift (Eph. 2:8–9).

Doesn’t, the discussion of the Covenant of Grace belong to Christology, the third division or locus of Theology?

Some theologians (e.g., Charles Hodge) do place it there, but following Berkhof, Bosma and others we consider it under anthropology. We can indeed be thankful that as we think of what the Bible teaches us about man, the human race, in relationship to God, we only learn not only that we are sinners under judgment, but that God has revealed the good news that He so loved the world that He gave His only Son tnat we might not perish, but by faith have eternal life. Although God has not set aside the covenant of works, He has provided a way to fulfil its demands. This glorious truth is briefly summed up in the first affirmation asked of parents in the Form for Baptism: “Our children, though conceived and born in sin and therefore subject to all manner of misery, yea, to condemnation itself, are sanctified in Christ, . . . and members of His Church.” The meaning of the covenant also must be considered in studying the meaning of the sacraments which can be defined as holy visible signs and seals of the covenant of grace.

When did God first reveal this Covenant?

Right after the fall of our first parents, He came to them and prononuced judgment on their sin, but even in doing so showed His grace. This fact is expressed especially in Genesis 3:15 where God declares that He will put enmity between the serpent and the woman, between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. This is not only the first messianic prophecy. As such it is also the first revelation of the fact that God takes man’s side over against the devil, and will bring about victory over him through thc seed of the woman.

When does God first use the word “Covenant”?

In Genesis 9:8 and following verses, after the waters of the flood had subsided, a covenant was made with Noah and his descendants and with all flesh. God promised never again to destroy the earth with a flood, and designated the rainbow as the sign of the covenant. This covenant assured the order of nature, as stated in Genesis 8:22: “While the earth remains seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” This is sometimes called the covenant of nature or of common grace. Although in Genesis 9:1–7 God did give Noah some commandments, notably the law of capital punishment for murder in verse 6, this covenant did not involve any conditions on man’s part. It was a unilateral promise of God. An instructive paint is that it was made not only with Noah, but also with his descendants, the whole human race that would come from him.

Where do we read of the first formal establishment of the Covenant of Grace?

In Genesis 17:7. Jehovah had made many promises to Abraham before this, which involved the covenant idea, but here He used the term. By this time covenant relationships between men had developed. Recent discoveries of ancient documents illustrate how important this concept was in ancient days. We find Abraham also making covenants with his neighbors. Four points now stand out (1) As with Noah, so with Abraham, it was God who established the covenant. Jehovah called him, and made promises to him. In all of their relationships God took the initiative and laid down the conditions. In this respect too it was a covenant of grace and an expression of divine love. (2) Although ever since Cain and Abel (Seth) there had been a division between wicked and godly men, and the choice of Noah illustrated divine election, now God selected an individual and his family as special objects of His grace and salvation. In the Old Testament this was largely limited to Abraham‘s physical descendants (seed), but in the New Testament age the covenant was made with all those who share Abraham’s faith (compare Gal. 3).

As Reformed believers we correctly appeal to Genesis 17:7 as teaching that God still makes His covenant with believers and their children. (3) The heart of the covenant relationship is expressed in the words, “I will be your God, and you are my people.” These words are repeated again and again in the prophets. (4) A sacrament was given as a sign and seal of the covenant, namely, circumcision. In the New Testament dispensation of the covenant, baptism has taken the place of circumcision.

What is meant by the “Covenant of Redemption”?

This is the term used to designate the fact that from eternity there was a covenant among the members of the Trinity concerning the salvation of sinners. This is closely related to divine election. The Father chose a people and gave the Son as their redeemer; the Son agreed to become man and do all that was necessary to accomplish salvation, and the Holy Spirit agreed to apply the benefits of Christ to those whom He purchased. In the sense that this is the divine background of the covenant of grace it can be said that this covenant is made by God the Father with Christ as the Head and Surety of the Church. This view is taught by the Westminster Larger Catechism when it answers the question:With whom is the covenant of grace made?” by saying: “The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in Him with all the elect as his seed” (Bosma, Exposition of Reformed Doctrine, page 120).

Is the Covenant of Grace a conditional covenant?

As God said to Abraham, it is He who establishes the covenant. In a very important sense it is His divine and unchanging promise (the word Paul uses in Gal. 3), and so it is unconditional as far as our action is concerned. Yet when God spoke to Abraham in Genesis 17;1, 2, He said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.” In Exodus 19:5 we read that God said to Israel at Mount Sinai, “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples.” In Galatians 3:9 Paul says, “So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith.” Thus the Form for Baptism can correctly say that as in every covenant there are contained two parts, also the covenant of grace assigns us a duty. Baptism as the sign and seal of the covenant obliges us to a new obedience in response to His grace in adopting us as His children; we must cleave to Him, trust in Him and love Him with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength.