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Covenant Theology IS Reformed Theology

10 April, 2008

I spend a lot of time and words on Creed:or:Chaos talking about covenant theology, and I hope it’s not getting too old, because there’s a good reason: as Steve Baugh said in an old issue of Modern Reformation, “Let me make a bold assertion about covenant theology: it is not incidental to Reformed theology — it is Reformed theology.” Nevertheless, many in Reformed circles today hold to a kind of alternative covenant theology which is in many ways in serious tension with what covenant (Reformed) theology believes and teaches. This is often called “monocovenantalism,” which is simply the belief that there is only one type of covenant between God and humanity, fundamentally the same throughout Scripture–the covenant of grace. And as with traditional covenant theology, this understanding makes a huge difference for just about everything. Along with the classical Reformed tradition, however, I believe the distinction between law or command on one hand, and gospel or promise on the other represents two distinct ways of relating to God and two paths of righteousness, and comes from a proper understanding of the two basic types of biblical covenant. In line with this, I further believe that subsuming all the covenants under the covenant of grace has contributed to a confusion of law and gospel, command and promise, in our understanding of Christ’s work and our relationship to God.

So our aim at Creed:or:Chaos isn’t just to wag our finger at others to chide them for not being ‘Reformed enough’. This is not about being more Reformed than thou, but it’s about gospel truth and the power of salvation. In other words, flattening out the different kinds of covenants throughout the Bible blurs the fundamental difference between the ‘two words’ of Scripture describing the paths to righteousness before God: “Do this and live” versus “Christ has done this so that you may live in him.” What then is the classical Reformed alternative to one all-encompassing covenant type?

The beginnings and murmurings of a full-fledged Christian covenant theology (not including Jesus and the apostles and their appeal to the Old Testament, of course) go all the way back to Iranaeus (later 2nd c. AD). And although similar emphases can be seen more or less clearly throughout Church history, covenant theology has really come into its own during the Reformation and especially in the Reformed tradition in the centuries that have followed.

In this covenant theology, although different persons have put things in slightly different ways, there are basically three covenants. Instead of talking about one or the other as I’ve usually done, I’ll give an overview of all three. So let’s start with the first:

THE COVENANT OF REDEMPTION

Also called the “counsel of peace” (see Zech 6:13) or the pactum salutis, this may be thought of as the covenant behind the covenant of grace, and for this reason some have taught that it is just the pre-historical (eternal) era or administration of the historical covenant of grace–doctrinally there is no disagreement either way.

Overview

The covenant of redemption is our name for what Scripture reveals as the eternal, inner-Trinitarian agreement between Father, Son, and Spirit concerning the accomplishment and application of our salvation in Jesus Christ.

Since we’re dealing with a high mystery here, which is barely on the fringe of our comprehension, we need to proceed especially carefully. The Bible never explicitly calls this divine plan of redemption a “covenant,” and for this reason many interpreters have not accepted the covenantal reality and importance of this inter-Trinitarian agreement for the outworking of our salvation. Nevertheless, Scripture has revealed this covenant relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit for our salvation, and so we must not deny it because of the danger of saying too much. This covenant in itself and in its different aspects is a lofty mystery, yes, but it’s also present even in the child’s milk of the gospel message. It is a revealed mystery, and as such it belongs to us and to our children (Deut 29:29).

A good rule of thumb, then, is that whenever we see in the biblical texts the basic building blocks of a covenant (in this case a covenant certainly between equals), it is safe to call it a “covenant.” I hope that in light of what the Bible says about this marvelous plan, we’ll all be motivated to do more than simply recognize the covenant of redemption as biblical, but be moved as well to a deeper trust and love of our Triune God, who has freely chosen in such a way to do all things for our good and his glory through this outworking of his covenant faithfulness.

Scriptural basis

In several of the Psalms, we see that between YHWH and Messiah as contracting parties there are promises made, and conditions stated for receiving those promises (e.g. Ps 2:7-9, 22:1, 2, 40:7-9, 89:3). The NT confirms that these statements are about the commission that Christ came to fulfill as the Servant of the Lord (Is 42:6; cf. Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5, 5:5, 10:5-7).

This covenant plan of redemption, according to Scripture, was included in the eternal counsel of God, originating with the Father, executed by the Son, and applied by the Spirit (Eph 1:4ff., 3:11; 2 Thess 2:13, 14; 2 Tim 1:9, 10; Jas 2:5; 1 Ptr 1:2).

Christ came to fulfill the command given him by the Father–to become a man, under the law, in order to seek and save the Father’s freely loved elect people as their new representative. Because he has accomplished this, he has received and is receiving the rewards promised to his obedience: all glory and honor, and a redeemed people, kingdom, and bride (e.g. Ps 22:27, 72:17; Matt 28:18; Luke 22:29; John 5:30, 43, 6:38-40, 10:18, 17:4-12, 24; Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:22; Eph 1:20-22; Phil 2:9-11).

The Spirit, in this covenant, freely agreed to enable the Son to perform his commission from the Father by providing his human nature in the incarnation, and by upholding him as Christ our Savior throughout his life of suffering and obedience. One the basis of this salvation that Christ has earned once and for all, the Spirit also unites the elect to him by faith, applying all the benefits of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to them (e.g. Is 42:1-7, 49:8, 61:1; Ps 16:8-11; Luke 1:35; John 3:31, 10:16, 14:26, 15:26, 16:13, 14, 15, 17:12, 19-22; Acts 2:25-28, 33; Gal 4:45; Heb 2:10-13, 14, 15, 4:15, 7:25).

Importance

I hope it’s clear now why confessing this covenant is so important for us. Besides the fact that it’s biblical and therefore a necessary aspect of the “whole counsel of God” for our Christian faith and life, the covenant of redemption is the firm and eternal foundation of all the benefits of the covenant of grace in Christ for our salvation. It therefore gives the covenant of grace its efficacy. In Louis Berkhof’s phrase: “It is only by faith that the sinner can obtain the blessings of the covenant [of grace], and in the counsel of redemption the way of faith is opened.” Every aspect and every point of our salvation in Christ flows out of the imperishable covenant plan of our Triune God.

In tracing out the path of the above Scripture references (always in context!), I hope you conclude that this covenant is not something that theologians have imposed upon the biblical text; it would still be there and it has still been recognized more or less clearly throughout Church history, even if it hasn’t been called a covenant explicitly or consistently. The Reformed tradition, I think rightly, has emphasized the structural and thematic importance of God’s covenants as they play out in the Bible–not only in the Bible, in fact, but as the Bible, itself the written self-revelation of our covenant-making and covenant-keeping Lord.

THE COVENANT OF WORKS

Continuing my look at the historical Reformed alternative to “monocovenantalism” (the view that there is only one overarching type of covenant between God and humanity in history), I’ll give a brief introduction/overview of the covenant of works which is, unfortunately, as often dismissed as nonbiblical-or worse, rejected as unbiblical-as the covenant of redemption. But also like the covenant of redemption, the biblical importance of the covenant of works can’t be stressed enough.

Overview

The covenant of works, also called the covenant of life, nature, or law, is the name that the Reformed have traditionally used to characterize the original creational relationship between God and Adam, as the representative of all humanity, in the Garden of Eden.

Our original, natural way of relating to God involves us as his creatures, his servants, and his covenant partners. Because we are creatures, we are bound to follow the will of our Creator, and to serve him for his glory and our happiness; since we were created good and pure, this blessed service was the truest desire of our hearts. And as creatures created to be in intimate covenant relationship with our God, he gave us the calling and the full ability to “glorify and enjoy him forever” in this relationship.

It is important to understand, then, that this covenant can only be called “gracious” very carefully. If we mean by “grace” God’s free favor–that God didn’t have to do it–then of course it was gracious. But if we mean by “gracious” that it wasn’t up to Adam and Eve’s righteous personal obedience to keep their covenant with God, then it was certainly not gracious–we were perfectly willing and able to follow God’s will, which makes our fall all the more mysterious and disastrous. Our God-given goal in Eden was to earn eternal life and the inability to fall by passing the test; according to Scripture, we were not to receive our reward (eating of the tree of life) from God on any other basis. Only in the covenant of grace do we find any other way of gaining everlasting life, and even there it’s based on Christ’s keeping this covenant of works on our behalf (more on that later). Rather than “gracious,” I think it’s better to say with the Westminster Confession that this covenant with us found its motive in God’s “voluntary condescension.”

Scriptural basis

One of the main problems people have with affirming an original covenant of works, as they say, is that the Bible never talks about one. And if this were true, it would be a very good reason not to hold to it! But the Bible actually has a lot to say about this covenant (just as it has to say about the covenant of redemption).

When God placed Adam in paradise, he didn’t put him in an amusement park or a retirement home. Adam was commissioned to “tend and keep” the Garden (Gen 2:15), and “keep” means something more like “guard” or “protect”–after all, in a short time Eden and its inhabitants would be assaulted by the Evil One himself. For Adam, this was a test of obedience to his covenant God.

As a covenant of works conditioned upon obedience, then, this relationship involved all the elements we find in other biblical covenants: there were parties to the covenant, of course, God and humanity-in-Adam. There was also a condition: Adam must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:17). If he did so, he would suffer the covenant curse: death for disobedience (2:17). But there was another tree in the Garden that is specifically named in Scripture: the tree of life (2:9). If the tree of knowledge carried death in its wake, this tree carried the promise of life if Adam were allowed to eat from it–the sacramental sign that pointed to the gift of eternal life upon successful completion of his probation (4:22-24). The original design and intention, after all, of God’s holy law is to lead to true life in communion with God (Rom 7:10; 10:5; Gal 3:13). This was Adam’s goal: to bring himself and the human race into a consummation of our relationship with God that could not be broken, into a true and everlasting life that could not be lost.

But we all know how things turned out; instead of guarding the Garden sanctuary and killing the Serpent in holy zeal as we ought, we followed Satan’s lie and rebelled against God, and lost the original righteousness that he had created us with–we were now naked and subject to sin and death.

And because God is still God and we are still his covenant creatures, now through our own fault the law of life has become our death. In Adam as our representative head, all humanity still naturally relates to God by the law–we live and breathe it, even though inside, apart from the work of his Spirit, we reject it and the One who upholds it. This broken covenant is the fountain of all sin, misery, and death that we have called down upon ourselves by its righteous curse. The way to life, therefore, if by our own obedience, is forever blocked–we are sinners. But if someone should keep this covenant in our place…then that would be truly and purely grace! All praise be to God that this isn’t an if in Christ our Lord.

So we have parties, a condition, a curse, a promise, and a sacrament–if it looks and walks and quacks like a duck…then it’s a COVENANT! What else do we need? There is still more to this covenant, however.

Adam and Jesus

Probably the most important, though not the only, biblical basis for the covenant of works outside Genesis 1-3 is Paul’s comparison (in Rom 5) of the failure of Adam and the success of Jesus as the Second Adam. Like Christ in the covenant of grace Spiritually, Adam naturally represents us all in the covenant of works–we stand in life with the obedient Christ just like we fell in death with disobedient Adam. Just as in Adam we died, so in Christ we live, because he is now our obedient covenant Head, the promised Seed of Adam, who crushed the head of the Serpent to whom we fell prey so long ago (Gen 3:15).

In sum, therefore, the work of Christ was to keep the covenant of works on our behalf, and to apply the rewards of blessing and eternal life that flow from it to us by his Spirit. And since the will of God is still the ‘perfect law of liberty’ and fountain of all life, we are enabled more and more to begin to keep this same law–not as a condition (like Christ), but out of gratitude to God in Christ. Our sacraments are signs and seals for us in this hope, that one day we will again have access to the tree of life even as Christ, the one with whom we enjoy communion in these sacraments by faith, has gone there ahead of us to prepare a place (Rev 22:2).

Is this unnecessary and unbiblical, OR really at the heart of the Bible’s message of creation, sin, redemption, and consummation? “In Adam” or “in Christ”: there are two kinds of covenants, two ways of relating to God, according to the testimony of Holy Scripture.

THE COVENANT OF GRACE

Hopefully most of us are familiar enough with the covenant of grace that I don’t need to go into much detail about every aspect here. I’ll just make a few observations that help in thinking about this covenant biblically, especially as to how it relates to the other biblical covenants I already discussed. It’s important to keep in mind the covenants of redemption and works when we come to this covenant; they came first, whether logically or chronologically speaking, and so make up the canvas on which God has painted the covenant of grace.

Relation to Covenant of Redemption

First, the covenant of redemption is the eternal fountain and source of the historical covenant of grace. Those in the covenant of grace by faith are elected, redeemed, and renewed by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who together decided to do this great work from eternity past in the covenant of redemption. The covenant of grace is the outworking in history of our Triune God’s eternal plan of redemption, and for just this reason it is founded on the strongest bedrock imaginable. We can be confident that God will accomplish all his purposes, even as he has time and again proved himself faithful in the salvation all of his people–ever since Eden–through Christ Jesus our Lord.

Relation to Covenant of Works

Second, it is important to understand Jesus’ work in the covenant of grace in light of the covenant of works. Again, even though the covenant of grace is the outworking of God’s eternal plan of salvation, it was only revealed to humanity in history after we sinned and fell (first in Gen 3:15), in rebelling against God and breaking the covenant of works. It is very important, then, to realize that law came before grace, and provides grace’s context. We enjoy the blessings of the covenant of grace freely and without regard to our own works as earning our standing before God, but we need to remember that it wasn’t therefore unearned at all–Christ earned our standing. His law-keeping merited all of the benefits he gives to us in the covenant of grace–forgiveness, righteousness, faith, repentance, and everlasting life. So nothing in salvation rests on us as its basis, whether having to do with our trust or our obedience, because Christ earned our trust and obedience by his true and perfect faithfulness and obedience, and the Spirit grants us these gifts for Christ’s sake alone through faith.

The covenant of grace, then, is the biblical relationship in which we enjoy union with Christ as our head and communion with one another as his body, all as an outflow of what he has accomplished on our behalf. So think again here about what I just said about the parallels between Adam as our unfaithful head and Jesus as our faithful one. In this covenantal union, by true faith in Christ, we have been crucified and raised with him (baptism) and are fed and nourished on him and by him through the Spirit (the Lord’s Supper) to everlasting life. This life is characterized in Scripture as an unendingly joyous wedding feast and as praise and worship of our God forever (Rev 21, 22). This is the everlasting future consummation of all our redemption from the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit which he has purposed in eternity past, and accomplished in space and time 2000 years ago in Palestine.

Conclusion

There’s A LOT of wonder and richness in the covenant of grace that I haven’t even come close to touching on, but I think the character and meaning of the covenant of grace makes so much more sense against the backdrop of the others. And I hope that this brief sketch of the covenant of grace, in the fuller context of the other covenants, demonstrates in a small way the righteousness, justice, holiness, and goodness of our covenant-making and covenant-keeping God in working all things in our redemption to the everlasting praise of his righteousness, wisdom, and glorious grace. In so far as we clearly and faithfully lay open the Scriptures and the wonderful works of our Triune God in this way, covenant theology – Reformed theology – should never get old or stale.

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12 Comments
  1. 10 April, 2008 12:47 pm

    Thanks for a concise but helpful introduction to Covenant Theology. It seems to me that a denial of a distinct Covenant of Works administration would inherently undermine the very existence of a Covenant of Grace. Grace, in any manifestation, can only exist, be revealed and be expressed in an environment of works, in an evnironment of obligation. God cannot express grace where an obligation does not exist on behalf of the recepient of his grace. God could not have expressed grace towards us had Christ not graciously fulfilled the obligations set forth in the covenant of works, had their not been an obligation on our part there could not have been a gracious pardon of that obligation as Christ himself met that obligation by his redeeming life and his atoning death.

  2. 10 April, 2008 1:43 pm

    Great post!

  3. creedorchaos permalink*
    10 April, 2008 3:49 pm

    Vatche~

    Absolutely. I think the language of ‘grace’ should be used very carefully and purposefully in these situations; ‘gracious’ can mean freely done, without compulsion, or it can mean done despite deserving the opposite, in the context of demerit. Now of course God does what he does without compulsion; but to speak most accurately, it seems we should use grace as synonymous with demerited favor, favor shown in the midst of and over against our just desserts. That’s what the Bible is clearly talking about as ‘gracious.’

    And importantly, that should always remind us to keep in view the righteousness and justice which is so much a part of free grace. If grace simply meant, ‘God did something even though he technically didn’t have to,’ then we neglect God’s righteousness and holiness in being gracious to us — only because God has fulfilled his own righteousness and holiness in Jesus Christ do we (justly!) receive his favor. Grace is demerited by us and merited by Christ on our behalf.

    That being said, we also need to recognize that many very solid preachers and teachers have used grace interchangeably for ‘freely done’ and ‘done in the context of deserving the opposite,’ and using it in the former sense doesn’t mean it’s automatically wrong. But it is less clear, and there has been quite a bit of confusion on such things, esp. in light of the push for seeing ‘grace’ in the covenant of works in order to level out the difference between it and the covenant of grace (since there also ends up being ‘works’ in this covenant as well).

    ~B

  4. 10 April, 2008 4:27 pm

    This is a good summary of most of the preaching in America:”flattening out the different kinds of covenants throughout the Bible blurs the fundamental difference between the ‘two words’ of Scripture describing the paths to righteousness before God: “Do this and live” versus “Christ has done this so that you may live in him.”

    Meredith Kline has a similar concern against Dan Fuller in COVENANT THEOLOGY UNDER ATTACK: “The irony of all this is that a position that asserts a continuum of “grace” everywhere ends up with no genuine gospel grace anywhere. An approach that starts out by claiming that a works principle operates nowhere ends up with a kind of works principle everywhere. What this amounts to is a retreat from the Reformation and a return to Rome.”

    Perhaps even more inciteful on this very point is when the young super hero Dash in the Pixar movie THE INCREDIBLES responds glumly to his mother’s comment that “everyone is special” with…

    “which is another way of saying no one is.”

    🙂

  5. 10 April, 2008 4:37 pm

    AGENT CHAOS,

    Thank you, for your clear articulation of what I was trying to say. As you state “grace” has a technical/theological connotation as well as a non-technical/popular designation, whenever possible teachers/preachers should indicate the sense in which they are using the term.

    It seems to me, that the doctrine of works is one of those doctrines that uphold a hundred other doctrines by its standing. Not only does this doctrine help us to better understand God’s gracious dealings with us in the life and death of Christ, it helps us to better understand and appreciate the very character and attributes of God as well as the nature of man and the way that man relates to God by virtue of his “creatureliness,” that is his “createdness.”

    It is also telling that many who deny the imputation of the active obedience of Christ also deny the covenant of works. In the case of some, the denial of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience is driven by a monocovenantal view of God’s administration of grace. In the case of denying the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, I believe the very understanding of Justification is seriously compromised.

    In my experience, as a former dispensationalist, this denial of the covenant of works is one of the many pitfalls of dispensational theology. Fortunately, there may be some dispensational people who do believe in a covenant of works, but in their case it is a matter of happy inconsistency.

    Thank you for your edifying, clarifying, and challenging post.

  6. 11 April, 2008 5:24 am

    Hi Chaos!

    What do you think of the following Herman Hoeksema’s views in his article “The Covenant God’s Tabernacle with Men”? Is this “the other view”?

    “That the covenant is not a mutual agreement, but established by Jehovah alone, is also clearly revealed in the vision recorded in Genesis 15:9ff. Abraham is commanded to take several sacrificial animals, divide them into halves, and lay the pieces in two rows over against each other. Jehovah then, under the symbols of a smoking furnace and a burning lamp, passes through the midst of the pieces. The significance of the ritual of passing between the halves of the sacrificial animals must have been well known to Abraham. It was a symbolic act expressing the inviolable ratification of a covenant. The party passing through the midst of the divided animals thereby expressed that he would rather go through death than violate the covenant. Only, while in the case of a covenant between men both parties would pass through the midst of the halves of the sacrificial animals, thus expressing that the inviolability of the covenant depended upon the faithfulness of both, in the vision of Genesis 15 the Lord alone passed through them, indicating that He is His own party, and that He alone establishes and maintains His covenant.

    To this we may add that the covenant could never be established with believers and their children, in their generations, if it were an agreement the ratification of which depends on the consent of man, or upon any condition man must fulfill. Infants can fulfill no conditions. They cannot act as party in a pact. If, therefore, the covenant is established with them, not as they grow up, but from infancy, it cannot be conditional, it is not an agreement or pact. The covenant is God’s. He sovereignly performs all that belongs to the establishment of the covenant. He alone determines who shall be received in it. On His faithfulness alone it is based. God is faithful! That is the sole reason why the covenant is inviolable. It cannot be broken. It is an eternal covenant.”

  7. 11 April, 2008 8:47 am

    Bill~

    I’ll answer really quick for Phil (he’s pretty busy right now, but he’ll jump in if he has time). This understanding of Gen 15, as far as it goes, represents very well the traditional Reformed understanding of the ‘unilateral’ nature of the covenant of grace — that it depends on God’s faithfulness alone, and that he takes our curses for disobedience upon himself in Christ. It seems odd that he doesn’t like the language of ‘agreement’ and ‘pact’. These things in themselves are just synonyms for ‘covenant’, and don’t have to be taken crassly (as in ‘impersonal contract’). The important thing is, What kind of covenant?

    Hoeksema has some other problems, however, and I would be really careful with him. To put it bluntly, the things that he would be really good on are the things that have been stressed in Reformed covenant theology for centuries (and so probably treated very ably by someone else), and the places where he would not find a whole lot of precedent in the tradition are places where his views aren’t very helpful or biblical, in my opinion.

    ~B

  8. 11 April, 2008 3:17 pm

    Yeah, things are busy but I have more time than last week. I have a meeting to go to at the moment. I will say that Gen 15 was one of my favorite sermons. I didn’t do it to well here in class but I took some of Dr. JJKim’s corrections and fixed it and then did it again in Vancouver for aka. Thomasgoodwin’s Scottish Pres friends. I think it was my best sermon ever. So Bill, after doing a quick scan as my wife waits outside in the car for me, what HH writes above is much of the content that was in my sermon. I stole much of my sermon’s punch from the Upper Register which has a lot of Dr. M. G. Kline’s stuff. MGK and HH would differ quite a bit on some of the things you asked me about earlier (I’ll adress those a little later–I hope) but here in this particular matter the boyz seem to be in accord with ea. other. Gotta go. Peace, brother!

  9. 14 April, 2008 10:00 am

    I find it fascinating you contrast Covenant Theology with “monocovenantalism” — this contrast had not occurred to me. I tend to drift — not in theology but in approach into monocovenantalism myself (i.e., it tends to be my oeprant but not professed theology). So its a helpful corrective.

    Ordinarily — i.e., when it comes up — I tend to contrast Covenental Theology with Dispensationalism. There be a whole lot of Dispensationalism going on still -especially on the holiness side of the God-game.

    Nice blog btw. I’ll be back to look at your Lord’s Prayer stuff — an interest of mine.

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