March 1, 2013
iii. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.
The rest of this chapter on the covenant is focused on the covenant that God established with man because of, and after, the fall of man into sin. That covenant is "commonly called the covenant of grace."
On a first reading, one might think that the covenant of grace is confined strictly to the New Testament. The Confession says that, once Adam disobeyed and "made himself incapable of life," the Lord established the covenant of grace "wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ." Since life is offered "by Jesus Christ," surely this can refer only to that time when and after Christ became flesh and dwelt among us.
The beauty of covenant theology, however, is that it has its focus in Christ from Genesis 3:15 into eternity future. As the Confession goes on to say: "This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel: 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 foresignifying Christ to come; 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, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament." (section 5)
That is, while it is recognized that the covenant of grace was administered differently in redemptive history, there is no need or biblical burden to turn the recognition of different dispensations into an "-ism." All of the dispensations have the promised Messiah as their central focus, in recognition that the promised Messiah would himself come, finally and fully, to redeem. So, the promises, prophecies, sacrifices, etc. under the Old Covenant foresignify Christ; they were meant to turn the spiritual eyes and hearts of the Lord's people to Him and His gracious provision of a Redeemer (cf. Job 19:25). The Old Covenant was not "Plan A," to which another "Plan" needed to be amended, given Israel's failure. The continuity of redemptive history, set in bold relief in the Old Covenant, is seen in the continual indications and signs, which were a part of daily Old Covenant existence, which themselves were meant and designed to point beyond themselves to a need for and promise of One who would redeem (cf. Heb. 9:7-18).
In and since the era of the New Testament, "when Christ, the substance, 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..." (section 6). That is, the plan of God for the people of God is the church of Jesus Christ and its new covenant administration. So, says the Confession, "There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations." Note, there is no difference "in substance" between the Old and New Covenants, because the substance of the covenant of grace is Christ Himself.
One of the most significant and potentially life-changing applications of this latter truth is that, when we read, teach or preach the Scriptures, we ought to see Christ there. We ought to see that the one plan of God, since the fall, was to redeem a people and to defeat His enemies, and that the entirety of redemptive history is caught up with that plan, and all to His glory. The announcement of Genesis 3:15 sets the terms of the rest of history, and everything revealed to the Lord's people after that is pointing to the glory of the One who came, and who dwelt among us, who defeated Satan, and the last enemy, death, at the cross, and who now sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
Westminster Confession Chapter 7 will change the life of anyone who has ears to hear. It begins and it ends with God's gracious condescension. That condescension is on display now and into eternity future as, now by faith but then by sight, we see the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, who is the substance of the covenant.