Read the series.
Some of this post reuses material from a previous article.
The Covenant of Grace (1)
Covenant theology depends for its credibility upon theological covenants with virtually no exegetical proof. This is especially the case with the “Covenant of Grace.”
[N]ot only do covenant theologians speak of the one people of God in both Testaments, they also affirm that the church existed in the Old Testament. One key linchpin for seeing continuity between the covenants revolves around the centrality of the covenant of grace. Because God is working out his unified plan to redeem humanity through this covenant, all historical covenants fall under this larger covenant and thus are expressions of it. (Benjamin L. Merkle, Discontinuity to Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational & Covenantal Theologies, 139; Merkle is a CT)
The “Covenant of Grace”, which is often simply called “the covenant” by CT’s, wields tremendous, we might say decisive hermeneutical power over CT’s biblical interpretation. Again, Merkle says “Covenant theology understands all the biblical covenants as different expressions of the one covenant of grace.” (Ibid, 15). But before one gets to use such a potent hermeneutical and theological device, one needs to prove that it is actually Scriptural.
As Herman Witsius defines it,
The Covenant of grace is a compact or agreement between God and the elect sinner; God on his part declaring his free good-will concerning eternal salvation, and everything relative thereto, freely to be given to those in covenant by, and for the mediator Christ; and man on his part consenting to that good-will by a sincere faith. (The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, 1.165, Bk. 2. Ch.1.5)
Witsius goes on to make it clear that the covenant insures there is only one people of God (the Church) in both Testaments. This means, for one thing, that whenever one comes across any passage which seems to point to a separation of, say, OT Israel from the NT Church, this must not be allowed to stand, since the “covenant of grace” does not permit it. Therefore, CT’s must first demonstrate if it is possible to establish a “Covenant of Grace” from the text of Scripture rather than from human reason alone, and then they must show that this covenant is the very same covenant as the Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants which are very clearly found within the Bible.
What then is the exegetical basis for the Covenant of Grace? Well, don’t hold your breath! Even dyed-in-the-wool CT’s like O. Palmer Robertson admit that there is slender exegetical apparatus from which to derive it (he thinks the “covenant of works” fairs better, expending much effort on making Hosea 6:7 refer to a pre-Fall covenant). In reality, I would say there is no exegetical justification at all! This impression is only confirmed the more expositions of the Covenant of Grace one examines. What you will find is that passages patently referring to the Noahic, Abrahamic covenants, etc., are used as proof-texts. Brown and Keele spend six pages of their book Sacred Bond trying to make Genesis 3:15-24 into the Covenant of Grace. The way they begin their investigation is telling:
While the covenant of grace is more fully revealed in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 with God’s covenant to Abraham, which is then fulfilled it two stages, the old (Mosaic) and the new covenants, its “mother” or “seed” promise is in the protevangelium of Genesis 3:15. (Ibid, 60-61)
They also seem to believe that Satan tried and succeeded to get Adam and Eve “to enter into league with himself.” (Ibid, 61). Are we then to believe that there are three covenants in Genesis 1 – 3, even though there is no clear textual evidence for one? In fact, what one will find when reading these authors is how quickly they repair to their Confessions of Faith. The Confessions present the story which the Bible is fitted into.
Reformed theologian Robert Reymond, who boldly claims that “The church of Jesus Christ is the present-day expression of the one people of God whose roots go back to Abraham” (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 525f.), does no better in coming up with actual biblical texts which support the Covenant of Grace. He, like all CT’s, insists the issue be settled by the Scriptures (Ibid, 528). What this turns out to be is insisting that the OT be interpreted via his interpretation of the NT! Naturally, the NT never speaks about a Covenant of Grace, and he begs leave to spiritualize the texts whenever it suits him (Ibid, 511 n.16), that way he can maintain that the land promises “were never primary and central to the covenant intention” (Ibid, 513 n.19). Quite how one can read Genesis 12-17 and come away believing that the land was not a primary issue escapes me. According to many scholars, the land is a very prominent feature of the OT covenants.
Following the reasoning of CT’s as they dive in and out of selective passages (often avoiding the important referents within the context) can be a mind-numbing experience. One needs to try to keep in mind what they are attempting to prove: that God has made one covenant with the elect of both Testaments to guarantee that there will be one people of God, the Church, inheriting heavenly promises in Christ. For example, Robertson says,
The covenants of God are one. The recurring summation of the essence of the covenant testifies to this fact… All the dealings of God with man since the fall must be seen as possessing a basic unity…Diversity indeed exists in the various administrations of God’s covenants. This diversity enriches the wonder of God’s plan for his people. But the diversity ultimately merges inti a single purpose overarching the ages...The various administrations of the covenant of redemption [i.e., grace] relate organically to one another… (O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 52, 55, 61, 63; my emphasis)
That may sound okay, but what one has to realize is that this means that anything found in the biblical covenants which does not fit this preconceived picture (e.g. a physical land for the people of Israel, a literal throne of David in Jerusalem), is demoted to an ancillary and temporal place or is transformed into a “type” or “shadow” of a spiritual reality which comports with the requirements of “the covenant.”
If we turn to CT’s own explanations of their system, we find a curious dualism of frankness and subterfuge. I do not use “frankness” in the ethical sense, just in the sense that there is sometimes a willingness to face the text and deal with what it actually says. By “subterfuge” I am not saying there is an unethical motive in these men, but that they almost instinctively avoid the clear implications of passages which undermine their teaching. Robertson, for example, when dealing with the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant, carefully picks his way through Genesis 15 (and 12:1) without mentioning God’s land-promise (Ibid, Ch. 8). He first constructs his thesis with the help of certain NT texts, and then deals with the land issue once he has a typological framework to put it in. He is more “up-front” when he refers to Jeremiah 31, 32 and Ezekiel 34 and 37 on pages 41-42 of his book, but this plain speaking about God’s planting of His people “in this land” to “give them one heart and one way” (Ibid, 41), and his explicitly linking the land promise to Jacob with the Abrahamic covenant (Ibid, 42) does not last for long. Needless to say, the land promise to Israel evaporates under the flame of Reformed typology as the book progresses (Ibid, Ch. 13), and the Church becomes the “Israel” through its participation in the new covenant (e.g. 289).
In none of this does one find any solid exegetical proof. Instead, at the crucial moment, in order to get where they want to go, CT’s will rely upon human reasoning (“if this, then that”) to lop off covenanted promises which contravene their theological covenants. The land promise stated over and over in the Abrahamic covenant (e.g. 12:1, 7; 15:18-21; 17:7-8) and repeated in the prophets (e.g. Isa. 44; Jer. 25:5; 31:31-40; 32:36-41; 33:14-26; Ezek. 36:26-36), is ushered into a room marked “obscurity” by the covenant of grace. How ironic; the land promise is expressly stated and restated all over the OT, and the covenant of grace never once puts in an appearance!
Another noted CT who exemplifies this phenomenon I have been referring to is Michael Horton. His book God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology takes back with one hand what it appears to give with the other. Placing an enormous burden on Galatians 4:22-31 which it was never supposed to bear, Horton sometimes seems to interpret the covenant passages at face value. He repeatedly admits that both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were unconditional. He rivals any dispensationalist in his belief in the unilateral nature of these biblical covenants (Ibid, 42, 45, 48-49). But then he makes the land promise part of the Mosaic covenant (whence it can be safely dispatched). He states,
The Mosaic (Sinai) covenant is an oath of the people swearing personal performance of the conditions for “living long in the land,” while the Abrahamic covenant is a promise by God himself that he will unilaterally bring about the salvation of his people through the seed of Abraham. (Michael S. Horton, God of Promise, 48)
This is an amazing statement. Although he is right to say that possession of the land was tied to obedience to the Mosaic covenant (e.g., Lev. 26), even the Mosaic covenant looked forward to a new covenant whereby God would circumcise their heart (Deut. 30:6) so that “in the latter days” they would not be forsaken, but would be remembered because of the Abrahamic covenant (Deut.4:30-31; 30:19-20).
So, what happened? Is the Abrahamic covenant only about salvation as Horton claims? I invite anyone to read Genesis 12-17, Jeremiah 33 or Ezekiel 36 and demonstrate such a thing. It is patently false. In fact, there is no provision for salvation in the Abrahamic covenant itself—although the Seed promise (singular) is there it is developed through the New covenant, not per se the terms of the Abrahamic. All the talk about typology (Horton’s book is also filled with it) cannot alter these facts.
That God must be gracious to sinners if they are to be saved is not at issue. What is at issue is whether there is any such thing as the covenant of grace (we have focused on it since it is the support for CT’s interpretations and theology). We have no qualms in saying it is a figment overlaid on the biblical covenants. It is what makes CT’s see only the salvation of the church in the covenants. It is what makes them transform the NT Church into “new Israel”. It stands behind many of their dogmas. But the Covenant of Grace, together with the “Covenant of Works,” is curiously absent from the Word of God.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.