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The Covenant of Grace (2)
It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of “the covenant of grace” to Reformed theology. When one reads of “the covenant” in the writings of CT’s the implication is that it is the covenant of grace. When it comes to CT’s comprehending the Bible as a “redemptive-historical” book, the thing that is powering this is the covenant of grace. Hence,
The covenant of grace tells us that the whole Bible is about one thing: God redeeming a people for himself through Jesus Christ. (Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond, 69)
The covenant of grace is the appearance in time of the Covenant of Redemption. As this is the case it could be said that the covenant of grace furnishes the ground of redemptive history. While both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace promised eternal life (R. Belcher, The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 41), it is the covenant of grace which is superior in both its ability to give salvation and in its primal intent as God’s chosen way of salvation for sinners.
Then too, the covenants of CT; in particular the covenant of grace, sets the hermeneutical agenda for how the Bible is to be read. J. I. Packer wrote,
What is covenant theology? The straightforward, if provocative answer to that question is that it is what is nowadays called a hermeneutic—that is, a way of reading the whole Bible that is itself part of the overall interpretation of the Bible that it undergirds. (“Introduction to Covenant Theology” in Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, I.; 1. no page number)
This is a very revealing quote, for it shows that CT is not merely an extended exegesis of the Bible. In fact it is more accurate to say that CT exegesis of Scripture is to a great extent governed by the requirements of the covenantal system: i.e., especially the requirements of the single covenant of grace. Packer thinks CT is obvious to the attentive reader (Ibid, I.), but thinks for instance, that the covenant of grace may be missed because it is “too big to be easily seen.” (Ibid). This “covenant”, absent much if any exegetical warrant, is the lens through which the Scriptures are to be seen for what they are.
On a tangent, one quite often comes across dispensationalists who claim that “Dispensationalism is a hermeneutic.” I think this is a mistake because one cannot equate “plain-sense” interpretation with Dispensationalism. Why not? Because I do not think that most of the dispensations themselves can be arrived at via the plain sense without deductive inferences. But I digress.
Of the covenant of grace Witsius himself says,
We therefore maintain, agreeable to the sacred writings, that to all the Elect, living in any period of time, 1st. One and the same eternal life was promised. 2dly. That Jesus Christ was held forth as the one and the same author and bestower of salvation. 3dly. That they could not become partakers of it in any other way, but by a true and lively faith in him. (Ibid, I. 292)
The Dutch scholar says that he will prove the three premises above, but in reading on through the next twenty plus pages I failed to see the premises substantiated in an acceptable way. It is not enough to state that we know OT saints were saved or to cite Acts 15 to prove that OT saints were saved by believing on Jesus crucified. It will not do. Genesis 15:4-6 clearly says that Abraham believed what Yahweh said about a son coming from his body without adoption and the descendants who would come through him. That faith is what God reckoned to Abraham for righteousness according to Moses and Paul (Rom. 4:2-3). Abraham did not believe that Jesus would die on a Roman cross and be raised the third day. However, Abraham did believe that the promised Deliverer would one day come (Jn. 8:56), and it is on the basis of what Christ did on the cross that Abraham’s sins were expiated. But CT cannot accept this because they view the “gospel” as being the same throughout history.
The Covenants of Scripture Are Actually Only Instances of the Covenant of Grace
This can be shown from any CT work, but here is a full example of it from Francis Roberts (1609-1675). Though long I think this quotations says it well:
After the Fall God deales with his Church and People also by way of Covenant; and that the COVENANT of FAITH [i.e. Grace] in Iesus Christ the last Adam. This is very observable in several eminent Intervals or Periods of time, wherein God Revealed his Covenant more and more clearly by degrees, till it came to a full and compleat discovery in these daies of the New Testament. As, God dealt by way of COVENANT, 1. With Adam presently after the Fall, and with the Fathers before the Flood till the time of Noah: Promising the Seed of the woman, to bruise the Serpents head. 2. With Noah, establishing his Covenant with him, to save him, and his family, and a seed of the Creatures, in the Ark, from perishing by the waters of the Flood, when the whole world should be drowned. Under these two dispensations of the Covenant, together with the Promises and other Appurtenances thereof, did the Fathers and Church live till the daies of Abraham. 3. With Abraham and his seed, Covenanting and Promising to be a God to them, to give them the land of Canaan, and make them heirs of the world, and in his seed to make all the Nations and families of the Earth blessed; … 4. With Israel; led and brought by the hand out of the land of Egypt, At Mount Sinai in the daies of Moses; … Under this and the former Administrations of the Covenant, the Church was nurtured up, till the time of David. 5. With David and his Seed God made an everlasting Covenant ordered in all things and Sure, Promising with an Oath, To establish his seed for ever, and build up his Throne to all generations, &c. which Covenant had its fullest accomplishment in Christ, of the Seed of David, and in his Spiritual Kingdom … 6. With the people of the Iews under the Babylonish Captivity, God Covenanted to return their Captivity and restore them into their own land, the land of Canaan; to take away their stony heart, and to give them an heart of flesh; To cleanse them from all their filthiness and Idols, &c. promising that they shall be his people, and he will be their God. And under this, with the foregoing ministrations of the Covenant, The Church of God was nursed up from the time of the Babylonish Captivity, till the very coming of Christ in our flesh. 7. Finally, with the Church and people of God under the New Testament, after Christs Incarnation, God makes a New Covenant in Christ: New, not so much for substance, as for Circumstance and manner of Administration (all the former Ministrations being laid aside as waxing old and wearing away;) And New, for Continuation, in that this dispensation of the Covenant should not wax old as did all the former, but should continue still fresh New and unaltered to the very end of the world. And under this Covenant, the Promises and Appendixes thereof, the Church of Christ is and shall be continued, built up, and perfected, From the First till the Second coming of Jesus Christ.” (Francis Roberts, The Mystery and Marrow of the Bible, 5-6. Available at https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A57385.0001.001/1:6?rgn=div1;view=full…)*
Here we can see in this quote how the one covenant of grace (which Roberts calls the Covenant of Faith) is seen in different instantiations through biblical history until the first coming of Christ. After the Passion, the New covenant becomes the final and unalterable instance of the covenant of grace until Christ returns and all the elect are gathered together. So when CT’s expound for example, the covenants with Noah, Abraham, David, and the New covenant, they are expounding them as progressive revelations of the one covenant of grace. This recalls Packer’s point about CT being a hermeneutic!
But for all the excellence of Roberts’ explanation there is one thing missing. Here is Michael Horton:
The covenant of grace… is announced after the fall and develops from Seth and his line, leading to Abraham and the messianic Seed, in whom “all the nations will be blessed.” That covenantal line is persecuted from within and without and narrows progressively until it is reduced to a single individual: Jesus Christ. In his wake, it widens again to become even broader than before, embracing people “from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9)” (Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology, 166-167; my emphasis)
Central to the eschatological outlook of Covenant Theology is that Israel reduces down to Jesus, and those who are in Him comprise the “New” or “True” Israel. The hermeneutical wheels are turning.
*My thanks to JJ. Weissman for telling me about Roberts’ work and providing the link.
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.