The concept of the covenant might well be described as the normative idea of biblical revelation. It does justice to two important elements in that revelation, namely its unity and its progressive character. There is in Scripture a divine unfolding of the eternal purposes of God; but amid all the diverse modes by which that revelation is made there is an inner coherence, so that the complete revelation is the Word of God, the one perfect and fully coherent utterance of the Most High. Yet it is probably a fairly safe generalization to say that even in evangelical thought, which claims to be biblical, this normative concept has tended to become a peripheral idea.
A covenant is essentially a pledged and defined relationship. There are three main elements in it—the parties contracting together, the promises involved, and the conditions imposed. It is clearly possible to have a covenant between equals or one which is imposed unilaterally by a superior. It is obvious, however, that any covenant between God and man can never be as between equals, but must be imposed from above. The LXX translators clearly saw this point when they translated berith not by suntheke but by diatheke which still retained something of its original connotation of a sovereign disposition.
Grace after the Fall. In God’s dealings with man, the Fall presents a clearly-defined line of demarcation. Prior to that point it is with man in a state of innocence that God deals. Afterwards it is to man as a guilty rebel that God extends his free and undeserved favor. Hence the distinction has been drawn between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The former in so far as it is still a gracious act of condescension might be better described in Matthew Henry’s phrase as “the covenant of innocency.” It is true of course that the term covenant is not explicitly mentioned, but the elements of a covenant relationship—contracting parties, promises, and conditions—are all present.
With the Fall a completely new situation emerges. Man is now a sinner under God’s wrath and condemnation. The fellowship between the creature and his Creator has been severed; and he is estranged. Yet his changed condition is seen not only in his alienation from God, but in the corruption of his nature. Thus he is not only out of touch with God but is utterly displeasing to God and, further, is incapable of restoring the relationship. This means that if there is to be a renewed relationship it will be entirely due to the grace of God. God must take the initiative, for man in his rebellious state will not of his own accord turn Godward. But God must also enable him to return; for, because of his sin, he is in such a state of bondage that he cannot turn. The covenant then, if it is to be established, is inevitably a covenant of grace. It is one in which God freely, and without any constraint outside himself, brings men who are wholly without merit into fellowship with himself. The promises made are gracious ones, for man deserves not blessing but condemnation. The conditions imposed are also gracious, for it is only by the enabling grace of God that man can fulfill them. The guarantee of the blessings of the covenant, which is to be found in God’s own character, is a further token of his gracious activity. That God the sovereign Judge should pledge himself to guilty men in such a way that they should have claims upon him, is the supreme demonstration of his grace.
The One and the Many. The further question now arises: In what sense can it be valid to speak of the covenant of grace as if there were only one covenant when in Scripture there are a number of covenants? But it is surely at this very point that we find how essential the covenant idea is to an understanding of the structure of biblical revelation, for it is in terms of the oneness of the covenant of grace that we can trace the unity which is a fundamental characteristic of Scripture. And it is because of the diversity of administration of the one covenant, as seen in the successive covenants, we do justice to the progressive nature of God’s self-disclosure in his Word.
The Covenant with Abraham. Turning first to the diversity of covenants, we find a succession of these culminating in the one sealed by the blood of Christ. Prior to Abraham there are elements of a covenant relationship, but the terms are not explicitly formulated, unless one includes the covenant with Noah which does not however seem to fall within the main stream. But for the precise formulation of the covenant we must wait until the call of Abraham. Here the covenant is rooted in the electing grace of God who takes the initiative in calling Abraham. In the relationship, established by God in Genesis 17, he pledges himself to Abraham to be his God. He promises blessing to him and through his seed to the nations of the earth. He gives to him as a seal of the covenant the rite of circumcision, and Abraham’s acceptance of this rite and of the promises of God is his fulfillment of the demand of the covenant, namely, faith in the God of the covenant.
The Covenant on Sinai. That the covenant with Israel on Sinai is still a covenant of grace is seen in various ways. It is because of what God has done, rather than what they will do, that God establishes his covenant with them. Thus in Exodus 19:4 it is the redemption from Egypt which is the basis of the covenant. But this redemption from Egypt is itself the outcome of the covenant with Abraham. It is because God had pledged himself to be their God that he delivered them (Exod. 2:24; 3:16–17). Hence the law of Sinai must not be interpreted apart from the covenant of grace, for it is itself embedded in that covenant. Indeed it was this separation of the law, in an attempt to make it a means of salvation, which was the error of the bulk of the Jews and which was the target of the great polemic of the Apostle Paul. The law in isolation becomes a system of bondage. The law viewed within the covenant becomes itself an expression of grace, for by intensifying the awareness of sin and leading God’s people to self-despair, it intensifies also their longing for the promised deliverer and leads them to cast themselves upon the mercy of God. Obedience to the law then is not a means of establishing the covenant but of enjoying and retaining its blessings.
Further Covenants. This Sinaitic dispensation of the covenant really embraces the period from Moses to Christ. There are in this period further covenants, but while they fall within the terms of the one made with Moses, there is more of the Messianic element in them. Thus in the Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7:12–17; Ps. 89:3–4, 26) the promise given is primarily in terms of the coming Davidic king (see also Isa. 55:3–4). So it is with the covenant with Israel after the Exile. While it looks back to God’s past mercies and while it insists on obedience as a condition for enjoying the fruits of this gracious covenant, it also looks forward to culmination of God’s mercies in the coming of the Messiah (see Hag. 1:13; 2:4–9; Zech. 12–14; Mal. 3:1–4; 4:4–6).
The New Testament Culmination. The New Covenant, inaugurated by the Messiah and sealed in his blood, is thus the culmination of the gracious activity of God already manifested in the covenants made with Israel. In it the blessings promised, and already received by faith, are fully realized. The prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31 is fulfilled. Thus in Luke 1:72 the coming of the Saviour is viewed as the outcome of the promises of God to the fathers. The law written on tables of stone is now written on the heart. The blood of the sacrifice by which forgiveness is effected is no longer in terms of a mere prefiguring by means of animal sacrifice, for the blood of the Saviour himself is shed that he might become the mediator of the covenant (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; 1 Cor. 11:25). The central affirmation of the covenant, so often declared in the Old Testament, is again declared; but now it is accompanied by a deeper assurance rooted in the full and final revelation of God in Christ and imparted to the believer by the Spirit of God so that it is with a deeper awareness of its wonder that believers now listen to the gracious word: “I … will be your God, and ye shall be my people” (Lev. 26:12; cf. Gen. 17:7; Exod. 19:5; chap. 21; Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10).
There is a development also in the character of the community with whom the covenant is made. Formerly it was with a particular family, the offspring of Abraham, and then with the nation of Israel. To participate in the blessings of the covenant involved membership of this nation. Of course not all those who were outwardly numbered among the covenant people were partakers of the inward and spiritual blessings of the covenant. But the new covenant breaks forth from this Jewish limitation. Now the promises of the Gospel extend to every nation. The covenant people in its visible aspect is now the Church of Christ dispersed throughout the world, while in its inward aspect it remains what it has always been, the elect of God.
The Unity of the Covenants. The attempt has been made in this brief survey of the various covenants within Scripture to stress the common element throughout, namely the gracious activity of God. But the unity of the covenants may be demonstrated in other ways. In the New Testament the men of the Old Testament are always reckoned as true believers, and the Church of God is continuous throughout both dispensations (Rom. 4; 11:17; Heb. 11; see also John 10:16; Acts 7:38; Gal. 3:29; 6:16). Nor is this some artificial reconstruction based on a romantic estimate of Old Testament religion, for it corresponds to what is apparent within the Old Testament itself. Believers there are promised not just material blessings but spiritual; Canaan, for example, is clearly not their final goal (cf. Heb. 11:13). Indeed, one could scarcely read the Psalms with their passionate aspirations for God and their exuberant delight in him without discarding the notion that such men were laboring under the bondage of a covenant of works. They are surely recipients of the rich blessings of the covenant of grace. That which distinguishes the covenants of the period before the Messiah, and the new covenant inaugurated by his coming, is not a difference of essential character but rather a diversity of administration. The former are administered in terms of promise, prophecy and type, the latter in terms of fulfillment. The privileged position of the New Testament believer is not that he lives by faith in contrast to those who tried to live by works. It is rather that while they rejoiced in the signs of the dawning day, he stands in the full blaze of the noonday of revelation, with a fuller knowledge, a deeper assurance, and a richer experience of the Spirit, yet at the same time sharing with them a common faith in Christ, the mediator of the covenant.
The Mediator of the Covenant. From the foregoing it may be seen that when we say the covenant of grace is the unifying theme of Scripture, we are not saying anything different from the assertion that Christ is the one who gives Scripture its unity. For Christ is at the heart of the covenant of which he is the mediator. We may view this from two different standpoints. We may speak of the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son, which is the basis of the covenant of grace between the triune God and the elect. Or we may speak throughout of the covenant of grace made with the Son as the head and representative of his people. In either case Christ is the mediator in that his work is the foundation of the covenant, and union with him is the effectual means of membership. The Old Testament believer thus looked forward in hope to the Christ who was yet to come. We look back to the Christ who has already come. All alike are justified by faith in the one Saviour whose blood brings to us the blessings of the covenant.
Summary of the Elements. We may well follow Pierre Marcel in summarizing the essential elements of the covenant of grace. It is freely given by God himself and in this gracious activity the three persons of the Trinity are at work. The Father chooses those whom he will call into covenant relationship. It is with the Son that the covenant is made and it is his blood which establishes its basis. It is the Spirit who realizes the covenant in the life of the believer. It is an eternal and thus an unbreakable covenant. It is made with a particular people, formerly with Israel and now with God’s elect in every nation. Throughout God’s dealings, the covenant, while differently administered, remains essentially the same.
Privilege and Responsibility. A firm grasp of this truth is not only vital to a clear understanding of the unity of the biblical revelation—it is also an essential element in a healthy spiritual experience. So we study it, not merely to have a neat theological system, but as the great means of strengthening faith in the God of the covenant. Has he pledged himself to be our God? Then we can face whatever life may send, with calm assurance. Indeed, death itself can hold no terrors, for this is an everlasting covenant. But while it is a source of encouragement, it also brings a challenge and often a rebuke. It speaks of privilege but also of responsibility. It promises blessing but demands obedience. The inevitable corollary of the gracious promise “I will be your God” is the call to holy living implicit in the searching words “and ye shall be my people.”
Bibliography: J. Calvin, Institutes, II.x–xii; C. Hodge, Systematic Theology; P. Marcel, The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism; J. Murray, The Covenant of Grace; G. Vos, Biblical Theology.
St. Paul’s Church
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