A Brief Overview of Covenant Theology
Since we have been focusing on the sacraments as signs and seals of the Covenant of Grace, perhaps an overview of Covenant Theology is in order. Ligon Duncan states, “Covenant Theology is the Gospel set in the context of God’s eternal plan of communion with His people and its historical outworking in the Covenants of Works and Grace (as well as the progressive stages of the Covenant of grace). Covenant Theology is the Bible’s way of explaining and deepening our understanding of 1) the Atonement, 2) assurance, 3) the sacraments and 4) the continuity of redemptive history. Covenant Theology is also a hermeneutic, an approach to understanding the Scriptures, an approach that attempts to biblically explain the unity of biblical revelation.”
Let’s begin with the Covenant of Works. Having created man in His own image as a free creature with knowledge, righteousness and holiness, God entered into a covenant with Adam that He might bestow upon him further blessing. This covenant consisted of 1) a promise of eternal life upon the condition of perfect, perpetual obedience throughout a probationary period; 2) the threat of death upon disobedience and 3) the sacrament of the tree of life or in addition, the sacraments of paradise and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Although the term “covenant” is not mentioned in Genesis, all the elements of a covenant are present even though the promise of eternal life is there by implication only. Before the Fall Adam was perfect but could still have sinned; had he retained his perfection throughout the probationary period he would have been confirmed in righteousness and been unable to sin. Inasmuch as he was acting not only for himself but representatively for mankind, Adam was a public person. His fall therefore affected the entire human race that was to come after him; all are now conceived and born in sin. Without a special intervention of God there would be no hope; all would be lost.
The good news is that God has intervened on behalf of mankind with another covenant. Unlike the earlier Covenant of Works whose mandate was “do this and you shall live” (cf. Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:12), the Covenant of Grace is bestowed on men in their sinful condition with the promise that in spite of their inability to keep any of the commandments of God, out of sheer grace He forgives their sin and accepts them as His children through the merits of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, on the condition of faith.
Next, let us consider the Covenant of Redemption. According to Covenant Theology, the Covenant of Grace established in history is founded on still another covenant, the Covenant of Redemption which is defined as an eternal pact between God the Father, and God the Son concerning the salvation of mankind. Scripture teaches that within the Godhead there are three Persons, the same in essence, glory and power objective to each other. The Father loves the Son, commissions Him, gives Him a people, the right to judge, and authority over all mankind (John 3:16; 5:20,22,30; 10:17-18; 17:2,4, 6,9,24; Psalm 2:7-8; Hebrews 1:8-13). The Son loves the Father and delights to do His will, and has shared His glory forever (Hebrews 10:7; John 5:19, 7:15). The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit commune with each other; this is one of the meanings of the Trinity. On this foundation, Covenant Theology affirms that God the Father and God the Son covenanted together for the redemption of the elect; the Father appointing the Son to be the Mediator, the second Adam, whose life would be given for the salvation of the elect and the Son’s accepting the commission, promising that He would do the
work which the Father had given Him to do and fulfill all righteousness by obeying the law of God. Thus before the foundation of the world, within the eternal being of God, it had been determined that creation would not be destroyed by sin, but that rebellion and iniquity would be overcome by God’s grace, that Christ would become the new Head of humanity, the Savior of the world, and that God would be glorified.
Finally, let’s consider the Covenant of Grace. This covenant has been made by God with mankind. In it, He offers life and salvation through Christ to all who believe. Since no one can believe without the special grace of God, it is more precise to say that the Covenant of Grace is made by God with believers or the elect. Jesus said all that the Father has given Him would come to Him and that all who come to Him would be accepted (John 6:37). Herein is seen the close relation between the Covenant of Grace and the Covenant of Redemption with the former resting on the latter. From eternity the Father has given a people to the Son—to them was given the promised Holy Spirit so that they might live in fellowship with God. Christ is the Mediator of the Covenant of Grace since He has borne the guilt of sinners and restored them to a saving relationship with God (Hebrews 8:6, 9:15, 12:24). He is mediator, not only in the sense of arbitrator, but in the sense of having fulfilled all the conditions necessary for procuring eternal salvation for His people. Thus, Hebrews 7:22 calls Jesus the “surety” or “guarantee” of the new covenant which is better than that which came with Moses. Within the context of this last passage, repeated mention is made of God’s promise to Christ and His people. He will be their God and they will be His people. He will bestow on them the grace they need to confess His name and to live with Him forever; in humble dependence on Him for their every need, they will live in trustful obedience from day to day. Faith is the sole condition of the covenant and even it is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Although the Covenant of Grace includes various dispensations of history, it is essentially one. From the promise in the garden (Genesis 3:15), through the covenant made with Noah (Genesis 6-9), to the day when the covenant was established with Abraham, there is abundant evidence of God’s grace. With Abraham a new beginning is made which the later Mosaic Covenant implements and strengthens. At Sinai the covenant assumes a national form and stress is laid on the law of God. This is not intended to alter the gracious character of the covenant however (Galatians 3:17-18) but it is to serve to train Israel until the time would come when God Himself would appear in their midst. In Jesus the new form of the covenant that had been promised by the prophets is manifest, and that which was of a temporary nature in the old form of the covenant disappears (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8). While there is unity and continuity in the Covenant of Grace throughout history, the coming of Christ and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit have brought rich gifts unknown in an earlier age. These are a forecast of future blessedness when the present world passes away and the holy city, the new Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven from God (Revelation 21, 22). Then the promises of the Covenant of Grace will be fully realized.
The signs and seals of the present administration of the Covenant of Grace are baptism replacing circumcision, and the Lord’s Supper fulfilling and replacing Passover.