The Covenant of Grace

Previously, we saw the importance of understanding a covenant as an agreement in Scripture, and that the Covenant of Works existed with Adam before the Fall with the promise of life for obedience (which we qualified typologically as temporal, not eternal—earthy, not heavenly). All these details were to fully appreciate God’s plan for Jesus Christ to fulfill the Covenant of Works as eternal God and earn Christians eternal life. Now the Confession transitions into the Covenant of Grace stressing that the only possibility for anyone's everlasting security is Solus Christus (in Christ Alone).

WCF 7.3:  Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second,(e) commonly called 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,(f) and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.(g)[1]

After the Fall, the Covenant of Works is still binding on all Adam’s posterity, but it only condemns. Adam became “incapable of [maintaining] life.” E. Clark Copeland explains, “… that the covenant of grace brings to consummation the covenant of life and confirms its principle of perfect obedience to the Lord God is confirmed through the Scripture in the command to be perfect as He is perfect, and in man’s accountability at the judgment …”[2] The Covenant of Grace is gracious in terms of what it bestows to us, but it is a reward for perfect obedience in relation to Jesus Christ on our behalf. 

Still, the Confession teaches that this salvation does have a condition: the requirement of faith (see WLC 32).[3] Without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and thus to be saved. Copeland writes, “The gospel offer is made in covenant terms.”[4] Wayne Spear instructs, “In one sense, then, the Covenant of Grace may be said to be conditional. Its command is to believe, and the promised salvation is given only to those who believe … those whom God has chosen from eternity are enabled to fulfill the condition of the Covenant of Grace.”[5] Indeed, faith is a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9). God ordains our salvation, and He meets His condition by making us “willing and able to believe”—so it is all His sovereign grace.[6]   Still, as Watson emphasizes, “Faith is the condition of the covenant of grace; without faith, without covenant; and without covenant, without hope.”[7]

Some add a distinction of the “Covenant of Redemption” as the Trinity’s eternal commitment to the Covenant of Grace for the redeemed realized in time.  However, A.A. Hodge instructs that our standards

“...say nothing of two covenants … but assume that there is but one covenant contracted by Christ in behalf of the elect with God in eternity, and administered by him to the elect in the offers and ordinances of the gospel and in the gracious influences of his Spirit … The Confession of Faith in these sections teaches how that same covenant is administered by Christ to his people.”[8]

So the Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 31 reads, “The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.”[9]

WCF 7.4: This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a Testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.(h)[10]

The Greek word for “testament” is usually translated as “covenant” in Scripture, but it is appropriately rendered by the Confession here reflecting Hebrews 9:15 with Christ passing on our inheritance to us through His “last will and testament” enacted by the cross.[11] O. Palmer Robertson points out that “the theme of Hebrews 9:15ff is covenant inauguration,”[12] and explains that the idea of “testament” here relates to Christ agreeing to take on the death penalty of the Covenant of Works and so put it and its curse to death, thus bequeathing us His righteous life in the Covenant of Grace (see Rev. 21:7).

WCF 7.5: This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel:(i) under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all fore-signifying Christ to come:(k) which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah,(l) by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called, the Old Testament.(m)[13]

The Old Testament believers had types, shadows, and signs looking ahead to the Messiah and were sufficiently saved by faith in Him just as we are. Sproul helpfully qualifies, “The big difference between the old and new covenants is the difference between promise and fulfillment … they trusted in promises that had not yet been realized. We, on the other hand, trust in promises that have been fulfilled.”[14]

The Confession’s teaching here disallows the likes of modern dispensationalism.[15] There is only one way of salvation, and that is the same Messiah of the Old and New Testaments, for He was “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). And He has only one body of believers who are all sealed by and abiding under His same blood as He so eternally covenanted.

WCF 7.6: Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance,(n) was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper:(o) which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory; yet, in them, it is held forth in more fulness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy,(p) to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles;(q) and is called the New Testament.(r) There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.(s)[16]

While we have less outward religiosity, now we have more inner spiritual reality. This is why our worship is simpler; the Old Testament types and signs of the saints then saved in the same way by the same Savior are fulfilled in the coming of Christ and thus are no longer necessary (nor allowed). Ceremonies and elements in worship that have either been fulfilled or never prescribed have no true spiritual power in them and thus no real benefit (regardless of the nostalgia and emotion they may conjure).

* * *

Concluding Remarks

Fesko points out that this bi-covenant distinction by the Westminster Assembly is nothing novel:

“By the time of the Confession, the divines do not create doctrinal categories but merely codify doctrines that have already been in the theological air for quite some time … The twofold covenant structure cannot be said to be unique to the Confession.”[17]

The Confession simply makes more explicit what already existed behind earlier creedal statements, while, “standing on the shoulders” of earlier church fathers, more maturely developing the doctrine of the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace.

Most importantly, R.C. Sproul writes, “The covenant of grace, rather than annihilating the covenant of works, makes provision for someone else to fulfill the covenant of works for us … We are still justified by works—the works of Jesus, not our own.”[18] Fesko also notes,

“The doctrine of the covenants sets the stage for everything else that follows in the Confession … In many ways the Confession’s doctrine of the covenants, especially the covenant of grace, illustrates why the soteriology of the Westminster Standards can be summarized as a redemption that comes through Christ and covenant … the divines introduce the covenant concept to frame the relationship between Christ as Mediator and the elect.”[19]

This distinction sets up the following chapter of the Confession, “Of Christ the Mediator,” which is the heart of the Gospel.

It would be fitting to close with some of Thomas Watson’s excellent summary explanations and applications of God’s covenant with man:

“What a vast difference is there between the first covenant and the second! In the first covenant it was, if you commit sin you die; in the second covenant it is, if you confess sin you shall have mercy. In the first covenant no surety was allowed; under the covenant of grace, if we do but confess the debt, Christ will be our surety.”[20]

“In the first covenant we had a posse stare, a power of standing; in the second we had a non posse cadere, an impossibility of falling finally. I Pet i 5.”[21]

“Under the first covenant, the justice of God, as an avenger of blood, pursues us; but if we get into the second covenant we are in the city of refuge, we are safe, and the justice of God is pacified towards us.”[22]

“The great proposition I shall go upon is, that there is a new covenant ratified between God and the elect. What is the new covenant? It is a solemn compact and agreement made between God and fallen man, wherein the Lord undertakes to be our God, and to make us his people.”[23]

“The least failing would have made the covenant with Adam null and void, but many failings do not annul the covenant of grace … The first covenant ran all upon ‘working,’ the second is upon ‘believing.’ Rom iv 5.”[24]

“In the first covenant, works were required as the condition of life; in the second, they are required only as the signs of life.”[25]

“Will you look to Christ for help? He is a mediator only for such as are in covenant … Till you are in covenant with God, there is no mercy.”[26]

“The covenant of grace brings preferment. Our nature now is more ennobled, we are raised to higher glory than in innocence, we are advanced to sit upon Christ’s throne. Rev iii 21.”[27]

“If thou seest thy sins and loathest thyself for them, God will take thee into covenant … Isa. xliii 24, 25. As the sea covers great rocks, so God’s covenant mercy covers great sins. Some of the Jews that crucified Christ had their sins washed away in his blood … it is God’s design in the new covenant to … accept us through Christ’s worthiness. Therefore let not unworthiness discourage you; it is not unworthiness that excludes any from the covenant, but unwillingness.”[28]

“You that are in covenant with God, all your sins are pardoned … You may upon all occasions plead the covenant.”[29]

“Now, the union between Christ and the saints being so inseparable, it can never be dissolved, or the covenant made void; so that you may die with comfort.”[30]

Let us praise the Lord our God, that through Christ He “keepest covenant” (1 Kings 8:23) with His Church and never allows it to be removed (Isaiah 54:10). For it is an “everlasting covenant” as Charles Spurgeon extols regarding 2 Samuel 23:5:

“This covenant is divine in its origin … God, the everlasting Father, has positively made a covenant with you … He, stooping from His majesty, takes hold of your hand and makes a covenant with you … If God the Holy Spirit gives me this assurance, then His salvation is mine, His heart is mine, and He Himself is mine. An everlasting covenant means a covenant which had no beginning and which will never, never end. How sweet, amid all the uncertainties of life, to know that ‘the foundation of God standeth sure’ (2 Timothy 2:19). How blessed to have God’s own promise, ‘My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips.’ (Psalm 89:34).”[31]
 


Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Reformed Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA, since 2010. He and his wife, Fernanda, have six covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, Isaac, Gabriel, and Gideon. He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.


Notes

[1] (e)Gal. 3:21; Rom. 8:3; Rom. 3:20-21; Gen. 3:15; Isa. 42:6. (f)Mark 16:15-16; John 3:16; Rom. 10:6, 9; Gal. 3:11. (g)Ezek. 36:26-27; John 6:44-45.

[2] E. Clarke Copeland, “The Covenant: Key to Bible Understanding,” in The Book of Books: Essays on the Scriptures in Honor of Johannes G. Vos, ed. John H. White (Presbyterian and Reformed: location?, 1978), 34.

[3] “God requires faith, and gives what He requires. One is reminded of the prayer of Augustine: ‘Give what Thou bidst and bid what Thou wilt.’” James Benjamin Green, A Harmony of the Westminster Presbyterian Standards with Explanatory Notes, 7th Printing (Location?: Wm. Collins World, 1976), 53.

[4] Copeland, 37. He also points out that “The Great Commission (Mat. 28:16-20) may also be seen as the establishment of a covenant union by Jesus with His disciples …,” 36.

[5] Wayne R. Spear, Faith of Our Fathers: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2006), 47-48.

[6] “The life and salvation offered in the Arminian version of the gospel is merely potential, because it depends upon certain actions and attitudes that do not yet exist, and will not exist unless men perform the work which produces them. But the life and salvation offered sinners in the Reformed version of the gospel is actual, because it depends upon God alone not only for the end to be attained, but also for the creation of those attitudes and actions that are necessary for the receiving of that end.” G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith: For Study Classes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publications, 1964), 65.

[7] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity: Contained in Sermons Upon the Westminster Assembly’s Catechism (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1970), 218.

[8] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 126. “With whom was the covenant of grace made? Primarily with Christ, secondarily with the elect; directly with the Saviour, mediately with those ordained unto salvation.” Green, 52. Fesko does note that, “From the earliest days of the reception and interpretation of the Confession, the covenant of redemption was viewed as compatible with it,” and he rightly points out that the Sum of Saving Knowledge uses the term “Covenant of Redemption” quite often; J.V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2014), 165; however, he appropriately explains, “The covenant of redemption is another example of a doctrinal teaching that was not addressed directly by the Standards but left as an orthodox extra-confessional matter …”; Ibid, 166.

[9] Note that all the administrations of the Covenant of Grace in Scripture include in some way, “and to thy seed”, reflecting Psalm 89:3-4: I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto David my servant, Thy seed will I establish for ever, and build up thy throne to all generations. Selah. The Father eternally covenanted this gracious plan for us with the Son to live the Covenant of Works perfectly and credit His righteousness to us, thus earning us access to eternal life in heaven; at the same time, He also agreed to have our guilt imputed to Him for breaking the Covenant of Works and spare us eternal death in hell. See Psalm 2:7-8, Psalm 22, Psalm 110:3-4, Isaiah 53, and John 6:37-40.

[10] (h)Heb. 9:15-17; Heb. 7:22; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25.

[11] Notice, the Confession calls it a “Covenant of Grace”, not a “Testament of Grace”, because the divines do understand the overarching federal headship representation in all aspects: death, burial, resurrection, ascension, intercession, and rule, on our behalf by the God-man Jesus Christ. A good example of the normal translation of diatheke is Hebrews 12:24, where it is said that Jesus is the “mediator of the new covenant.

[12] O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ and the Covenants (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1980), 142 (fn. 12). On page 39, he also says of Hebrews 9:15-20: “ … both ‘testament’ and ‘covenant’ involve death. Death activates a testament. Death inaugurates and vindicates a covenant.”

[13] (i) 2 Cor. 3:6-9. (k) Heb. 8-10; Rom. 4:11; Col. 2:11-12; 1 Cor. 5:7. (l) l Cor. 10:1-4; Heb. 11:13; John 8:56. (m) Gal. 3:7-9, 14.

[14] R.C. Sproul, The Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. 1, The Triune God (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2006), 225, 226. This is why the New Testament constantly quotes the Old Testament to prove that Jesus is the Messiah that all were hoping in for salvation. O. Palmer Robertson explains, “The ‘old covenant’ may be characterized as ‘promise,’ as ‘shadow,’ as ‘prophecy’; the ‘new covenant’ may be characterized as ‘fulfillment,’ as ‘reality,’ as ‘realization.’” Robertson, 57. Later, he writes, “ … a clear line of continuity must be seen in the relationship of the old covenant to the new. While the new covenant will be at radical variance with the old covenant with respect to its effectiveness in accomplishing its goal, the substance of the two covenants in terms of their redemptive intention is identical.” Ibid, 282. He also writes, “While the form of the old covenant administration may pass away, the substance of blessing which it promises remains … Continuity as well as newness must be recognized in the relationship of the new covenant to the old.” Ibid, 285, 286.

[15] Which fails to appreciate the significance of the facts that Jesus and the disciples were Jews; the first 3,000 converts to Christianity were Jews; the early church of the New Testament were mainly Jews and they worshipped in Jewish synagogues during a transitional period (and even still went to the temple); Stephen calls the Old Testament saints the “church” in Acts 7:38 and Paul says in 1 Cor. 10:4 that they ate and drank spiritual meat and drink of Jesus Who was their Rock; and Christ prophesied to permanently destroy the Temple and its typological ceremonial system in Matthew 24. Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39, 46-47). Dispensationalists also ignore the import of Paul’s argument in Romans 3:21-24, 30 and quoting Psalm 32:1 in Romans 4, and Galatians 3:24, Heb. 13:8, and Acts 15:11. Paul says in Galatians 3:8 that the Gospel was preached to Abraham (as well as to all Israel in the O.T., see Heb. 4:2). This is why so many (even the half-breed Samaritans) were saying when Jesus came, “Could this be the Messiah?” or “We have found the Messiah!” They had been waiting for the Messiah of which all the Scriptures spoke (See Gen. 3:15, 49:10; Deut. 18:18; the Passover in Exodus 12 with 1 Corinthians 5:7; Psalm 2, 16, 22, 40, 45, 68:18; 118:22; Isaiah 7:14, 9:6, 53; Zech. 6:12-13, 9:9; Hosea 11:1; Malachi 3:1 as just a few examples). The men and women of Hebrews 11 in the “hall of faith” are Old Testament saints admired for trusting in Jesus Christ. Beware of the Scofield Bible reference notes.

[16] (n)Col. 2:17. (o)Matt. 28:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25. (p)Heb. 12:22-28; Jer. 31:33-34. (q)Matt. 28:19; Eph. 2:15-19. (r)Luke 22:20. (s)Gal. 3:14, 16; Rom. 3:21-23, 30. Ps. 32:1 with Rom. 4:3, 6, 16-17, 23-24; Heb. 13:8; Acts 15:11.

[17] Fesko, 137.

[18] Sproul, 225. 

[19] Fesko, 162-164. Green writes, “If it was right for the second man, the last Adam, to represent us without our consent, was it not right for the first man, the first Adam so to represent us?”, 42.

[20] Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), 36.

[21] Watson, Body of Divinity, 131.

[22] Ibid, 132.

[23] Ibid, 154.

[24] Ibid, 155.

[25] Ibid, 156.

[26] Ibid, 157.

[27] Ibid, 158.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid, 159.

[30] Ibid, 160.

[31] C.H. Spurgeon, Morning by Morning: Meditations for Daily Living, December 21 (Springdale, Pa.: Whitaker House, 1984), 358. The author expresses his gratitude to Elder Emeritus of our church, Mr. Ron Renner, who shared this his morning devotion with him shortly after our church’s class on WCF 7, from which this article series is developed upon its lecture handouts.