GOD’S COVENANT WITH THE HUMAN RACE
1 The distance between God and the creature is so great, that (although reasonable creatures owe obedience to him as their Creator) they could never have attained the reward of life except by an act of voluntary condescension on God’s part. This he has been pleased to express by way of a covenant.1
Man was created the highest of all God’s creatures. He was endowed with reason, the capacity to discover, understand, interpret and evaluate truth. Upon hearing the voice of God and the voice of Satan he was capable of discerning which was true and then to understand that truth well enough to direct his life by it. Unlike any of God’s other earthly creatures he was able to hear God and respond obediently. Despite his great advantages and his unique ability to relate to his creator, man is incapable of securing eternal life as the result of his own effort. Man’s only hope of gaining the life that by nature belongs to God alone comes through God’s willingness to offer it, to bind himself to blessing man in a covenant relationship. This would have been true even apart from the Fall because the great gulf between Creator and creature makes it impossible for us to earn what belongs inherently to God alone.
Confusion can occur if we think of a covenant in terms of a contract or agreement hammered out between two equals to their mutual satisfaction. The covenants of Scripture are not negotiated by man with God, but are imposed by God on man. In this sense they are more like the last will and testament of a man who disposes of his properties as he sees fit. It is for this reason the word for covenant has sometimes been translated ‘testament’. The covenants in Scripture are promises made by God and sealed with an oath in which he binds himself to do good for mankind. By entering into this binding covenant he gives assurance to his people of his love and faithfulness.
2 Moreover, as Adam had brought himself and his posterity under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace.2 In this covenant he freely offers to sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ,
Man’s fall into sin only served to widen the gulf between him and his Creator. Sin brought all men under the curse of God’s law making it impossible for them to please God and join him in the kind of relationship he desired. In response, the Lord established a covenant in which he promised to redeem those who had fallen under the curse. While the term “covenant of grace” does not occur in Scripture, it does express a biblical truth. Paul speaks of “the covenants of the promise” (Eph 2:12), indicating a number of covenants that are all related to one overarching promise, namely, the promise of salvation. Each of the historic covenants grows out of the previous ones, and all find their final fulfillment in the New Covenant established by Christ. There is both unity and progression evident in these covenants. The unity of the covenants contradicts some dispensationalist teaching that posits very sharp differences in God’s dealings with mankind from age to age. The progression in the covenants weakens much of the argument used by others holding to Reformed doctrines for infant baptism (e.g. baptism is to be identified with circumcision).
Like all the historical covenants of Scripture, the covenant of grace is an expression of the sovereign will of God. He did not seek man’s input when determining the stipulations of the covenant. He established this covenant as he did because it pleased him to do so. Man has no other option in entering this covenant than to come through Jesus Christ. The man who wants to come on the basis of his own works or through some other savior simply does not have that option. Life and salvation are freely offered, but they are offered only through Jesus. We should not overlook the fact that this offer of salvation is freely made to sinners. It should not surprise us that God desires all men to be saved. He says, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” The free offer of salvation extended through the gospel call we give to sinners is an expression of the love of God for his creatures in general that is expressed in so many ways through common grace. The salvation of the elect alone ought never cause us to refrain from sharing the good news with any sinner we meet. If the destruction of wicked Jerusalem brought tears to our Lord’s eyes, the eternal destruction of the wicked ought to bring us no less sorrow, a sorrow that moves us to share with them the hope of life.
requiring from them faith in him that they may be saved,3 and promising to give his Holy Spirit to all who are elected to eternal life, to make them willing and able to believe.4
Another aspect of the biblical covenants that is sometimes ignored is the obligations they lay on those men who enter into them. Election may be unconditional, but faith is nevertheless required for salvation. God’s eternal decree concerning the elect does not mean that they will gain salvation with or without faith in him and his promises. Some might think this makes the fulfillment of the covenant uncertain since it involves a human response to God’s promises. Such is not the case, however, because our faith and obedience to the stipulations of God’s covenant are the inevitable response to the work of the Spirit in the life of every one of the elect. A key element of the new covenant is that God “will put [his] law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33). All who are saved must come in faith to Christ and follow him to the end, but it is absolutely certain that they will do this because God writes his law on their hearts making them both willing and able to do all he has commanded. “The Reformed view is that all conditions of the covenant of grace are really fulfilled by the work of God. Part of his work is done for us by Christ. Part of it is done in us by the Holy Spirit” (Williamson). Works are required in the saved, yet all of salvation is by grace alone.
3 This covenant is revealed through the Gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards step by step until the full revelation of it was completed in the New Testament.5
God’s commitment to bring life to sinful man through Jesus Christ was revealed first to Adam in the garden after the Fall when God promised that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. To Abraham the promise was given, “and through your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 22:18). Through Moses he told of the Prophet to whom all the people would need to listen (Dt 18:15). To David he spoke of a Son through whom the throne would be established forever (2 Sam 7:16). Through Isaiah he spoke of a servant who would be pierced for our transgressions (Is 53:5). Through sacrifices, people and events God foreshadowed in an ever more clear way the one through whom salvation was to come. The covenant of grace is the same throughout history, but through progressive revelation the nature of that covenant became more and more clear. There is a unity that holds the historical covenants together, but not to the extent that they can be said to be identical.
This salvation rests on that eternal covenant transaction between the Father and the Son which concerns the redemption of the elect.6 It is by the grace of this covenant alone that all the descendants of fallen Adam who have ever been saved have obtained life and blessed immortality. Human beings are now utterly incapable of gaining acceptance with God on those terms by which Adam stood in his state of innocency.7
Like the word ‘Trinity,’ the term ‘covenant of redemption’ is a theological expression that is used to describe a Biblical truth even though the term itself is not found in Scripture. The teaching behind this term is that there was an agreement between the Father and Son made in eternity to save the elect. The Father chose the Son before the creation of the world as the means of redeeming the elect (1 Pt 1:20). In time, the Father gave his only-begotten Son and sent him into the world so we might have eternal life (Jn 3:16, 5:36; Gal 4:4). The Father worked through his Son to reconcile us to himself by making him who knew no sin to be sin for us (2 Cor 5:19, 21). The Son for his part agreed to come to do the will of his Father (Jn 6:38) and to give his life for his people as had been predetermined (Jn 10:18, Acts 2:23). His reward for his work was those God chose in him before the creation of the world to become his sons (Eph 1:4-5). The covenant of redemption then is simply a shortcut to describing the eternal purpose worked out within the Godhead for the salvation of sinful men in which Father and Son agreed to their respective activities on our behalf.
This covenant by which God bound himself to work for man’s salvation was not a response to an unexpected turn of events, but was conceived of in eternity. It is solely on the basis of this gracious covenant established by God apart from any of man’s input that sinful man may gain eternal life. The covenant of redemption established in eternity serves as the foundation for the covenant of grace that is given in the course of time. The test given to Adam which if passed would have brought God’s blessings is no longer a means of obtaining those blessings. Since the Fall man’s sinful nature eliminates any possibility of presenting us from presenting ourselves to God as righteous simply by keeping his commands.