February 14, 2017
Generally speaking, a covenant, according to Reformed theology, is a legal relationship between two parties that involves promises and conditions. A covenant, therefore, has three basic elements: parties, promises and conditions. My goal is to expound the Westminster Standards’ teaching on the Covenant of Grace in light of these three basic elements, beginning with the parties.
Identifying the two parties of this covenant is not as straightforward as one might expect, and has been a bone of contention among the Reformed. In his discussion of the contracting parties of the Covenant of Grace, Louis Berkhof readily admits that “it is not easy to determine precisely who the second party is.” All are agreed who the first party is, namely God, but many have found it difficult and confusing as to who is the second party. Is it all of mankind, the visible church, the elect only, Christ and the elect in him or all of the above? According to the Westminster Standards, the answer is multifaceted and is largely dependent upon which perspective of the covenant is being considered.
First, in contrast to the Covenant of Works, the Covenant of Grace is a covenant that God establishes with sinners. WCF 7.3 notes that after the fall and due to man’s inability to secure life, the Lord was pleased to make the Covenant of Grace, “wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved.” WLC 32 says that God’s grace is demonstrated in the Covenant of Grace by his freely providing and offering to sinners a mediator through whom they can receive life and salvation. Hence, in a general sense, the Covenant of Grace is offered to sinners.
Second, the Covenant of Grace is made or established with believers and their children, that is, those within the visible church, which includes the elect and the reprobate. Sacraments are for those “within the covenant of grace (WLC 162),” and baptism “is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church (WLC 166).” Thus, baptism, which is a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace (WCF 28.1), is not to be administered to unbelievers until “they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him (WLC 166, WSC 95),” while it is to be administered to children of professing believers because they are “within the covenant (WLC 166)” and “members of the visible church (WSC 95).” Since not all baptized and/or professing members of the visible church are saved or of the elect (WLC 61; WCF 28.5-6), it follows that membership of the Covenant of Grace is broader than the elect.
Third, the Covenant of Grace is made with Christ and the elect in him. WLC 31 says that the Covenant of Grace “was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.” Consequently, God promises in the Covenant of Grace “to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe (WCF7.3; cf. WLC 32).” And that the grace promised in baptism “is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time (WCF 28.6).” Thus, in one sense, the Covenant of Grace is identified with the elect.
This multifaceted approach to the parties of the Covenant of Grace reflects the Reformed understanding that the Covenant of Grace may be viewed from different perspectives. A number of different contrasting terms have been employed to express this point with one popular being the external/internal distinction. John Ball believed that “externally” the Covenant of Grace is made with every member of the visible church but “savingly, effectually, and in a speciall manner it is made only with them, who are partakers of the benefits promised.” In his work on the covenants written after the Assembly, Samuel Rutherford said that the covenant must be considered in two ways, “As Preached according to the approving and commanding will of God,” and “as it is internally and effectually fulfilled in the elect according to the decree and the Lords will of purpose.” This external/internal distinction, for Rutherford, results in a corresponding two-fold identity of the human party of the Covenant of Grace, namely, the members of the visible church and the elect. Rutherford wrote, “The parties contracters in the Covenant preached, are God, and all within the Visible Church, whether Elect or Reprobate, and their seed, they professing the Gospel…But the parties contracters of the Covenant in the latter respect are, Jer. 31. Heb. 8. only, the house of Judah, the taught of God, the people in whose heart the Law is ingraven.” Thus, from one perspective the Covenant of Grace is made with all those who have made a profession of faith, and their children. All those who come under the “the call and offer of Christ in the Preached Gospel,” and give their consent by making a profession and receiving the seals, along with their children, are “externally in Covenant” and “under the Covenant of Grace.” Yet, from another perspective, that is, of the thing promised and of special promises, the covenant is only established with the elect.