THE COVENANT OF GRACE.
SHORTER CATECHISM, 20; LARGER CATECHISM, 30ó35; CONFESS1ON OF FAITH, VII.
With this chapter the passage is to be made from the dark shadows of sin to the bright landscapes of grace. Here it will be seen how God in his wonderful mercy has provided a suitable and complete remedy for manís sad, sinful estate as fallen in Adam. The method according to which this remedy is set forth in the Standards is that of the covenant relation. Just as man in the first Adam failed under this relation, so by the second Adam he is recovered under the provisions of a covenant, which is usually called the covenant of grace. This is the topic for study in this chapter, and its explanation will present the gracious basis upon which the whole scheme of redemption securely rests in a plan of grace.
Sometimes the distinction is made by theologians between what is called the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace. According to the former, God enters into covenant with his Son, giving him a people whom he redeems and assuredly saves. According to the latter, God enters into covenant with his people to redeem and save them by his Son, as the Mediator whom he has appointed. In the first case, God and the Son are the parties to the covenant, and the Son is the surety for his people; and in the latter case, God and the elect are the parties, and the Son is the Mediator between them. The Standards do not distinctly recognize this twofold aspect of the covenant. They speak of a second covenant, commonly called the covenant of grace, according to which God has been pleased to provide for and secure the salvation of the elect. This distinction may be regarded as a valid one, so long as the idea of two covenants is not entertained. Strictly speaking, there can be only one covenant, but that covenant may be viewed in the twofold aspect, which this distinction implies. The Scripture terms mediator and surety, as applied to Christ, quite justify this twofold view of the covenant of grace, though the covenant itself is always one and the same.
It is a matter worth noticing at the outset that the Shorter Catechism has only one question given to this topic, while the Larger devotes six questions to it, in which almost the same points are covered as are treated of in the Confession. From the two latter parts of the Standards the materials to be explained in this chapter are chiefly drawn.
I. The Nature of the Covenant of Grace. The very essence of this covenant is that it is gracious. Both of the Catechisms emphasize the fact of electing love and grace in this connection. The Shorter says that God, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, and did enter into a covenant of grace to deliver and save them by a Redeemer. The Larger says that God, out of his mere love and mercy, delivers his elect out of their estate of sin and misery. The Confession, after setting forth the fact that the covenant of works was a gracious condescension on the part of God, goes on to say that by the second covenant he freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ. In this way, stress is laid by the Standards upon the gratuitous nature of the second covenant. And were it not that the grace of God thus appears in it, man would indeed have no hope. By reason of the fall he had incurred guilt, which he could neither atone for nor forgive. He had also, by the fall, come into the possession of a depraved nature, which he was helpless to change or remove. Hence, grace alone could rescue him, and that grace must be divine. The Larger Catechism lays special stress upon the gracious nature of the second covenant.
There are two ideas presented in the Confessiob in regard to this gracious covenant relation. First, There is the idea expressed by the term covenant, presently to be explained at length; and, Secondly, that denoted by the word testament, according to which the Confession says that the covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture. The ninth chapter of Hebrews is the important passage in this connection. There the reference is to the case of a man making his last will or testament, by means of which, in view of his death, he bequeaths his property to those whom he appoints his heirs. So, in regard to the covenant of grace, when the term testament is applied to it, special reference is made to the death of Christ, the testator, by means of which the everlasting inheritance, and all that pertains thereto, is bequeathed to those who are heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ. This is a precious factor in the covenant. In the covenant, strictly speaking, there is made prominent the fact of the divine promise of salvation through faith in Christ; but, Ďwith the testamentary idea, the fact of divine heirship is emphasized. Both the fact of covenant promise and of testamentary heirship are to be kept in view in explaining the covenant of grace.
II. The Parties to the Covenant.
As in the first covenant God and Adam were the parties, so in the second covenant God and Christ are the parties. And as in the first covenant relation Adam stood for himself, and the race in him as his seed, so in the second covenant relation Christ stands and acts for himself and his covenant-elect seed. Hence, the parties in the covenant of grace are also twofold.
First, There is God the Father for the Godhead. In this case the first party is precisely the same as in the first covenant. It is proper to note with care the fact that, while it is said that God the Father is the first party, he stands for and represents the entire Godhead, as all the persons concur in the divine procedure. Moreover, the covenant does not contemplate the eternal Son merely as the second person of the Trinity, but also, if not chiefly, as the incarnate God-man, who is made partaker of the human nature.
Secondly, There is Christ for himself and his elect seed, given him by the Father, as the second party. This statement blends the distinction already explained between the covenant of redemption and of grace. The covenant was made with Christ for himself, and in him on behalf of the elect, or those whom the Catechism says were ordained unto life. The Catechisms both clearly teach that Christ stood and acted for the elect in a direct covenant relation with God, in order to deliver them from an estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation and glory.
This brings distinctly into view the federal or representative principle in connection with the work of Christ, in such a way as to make it plain that the Standards are constructed according to what is known as the federal idea, and that they consequently exhibit a distinct phase of what is termed the covenant or federal theology. It is quite true that the Standards do not push the covenant idea so far as some representatives of that type of theology, but it is evident that on broad scriptural outlines they are constructed under the control of the federal principle, both in regard to the natural and the legal relations in Adam, and in reference to the gracious and redemptive relations in Christ. There is some need to emphasize this aspect of the structural principle of the Standards at the present day, as there is a tendency in certain quarters to overlook, or lay it aside. This principle is the very essence of both covenants.
III. The Conditions of the Covenant.
This is a very important point, which can only be considered in part at this stage of the exposition of the Standards, for it really raises the whole mediatorial work of Christ, as prophet, priest, and king. The full discussion of this work comes up later on, so that at this stage only a general view is to be taken of the covenant conditions. These conditions are really twofold, as suggested by the Standards at this point.
1. On Christís part, perfect obedience to the covenant law, and full satisfaction for the penalty incurred by the failure of the first covenant, were made. In this way Christ, standing in the covenant place and relation of the first Adam, took up the covenant liabilities just where they had been laid down by our first parents. He rendered the obedience required, he met the penalty incurred, and this complete two-fold satisfaction made by Christ is the condition of the covenant fulfilled by him on his part. Had he failed, its saving benefits would not have been procured by him, to be made over to his people. But he fully met all the covenant conditions assumed by him, and so wrought out an everlasting righteousness which is unto all and upon all those who believe in him.
2. On manís part, the only condition is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. By means of this gracious condition, those who believe in Christ obtain the benefits of the fulfilment of the legal conditions of the covenant of grace. This is implied in the statements of the Catechisms at this point, and it is more fully brought out in the Confession later on, when it announces that God requires faith in Jesus Christ, on the part of sinners, that they may be saved. This saving faith, to be afterwards more fully explained, is the single gracious Condition of the covenant on manís part. Satisfaction made by Christ, and faith exercised in Christ, make up the twofold condition of the covenant.
It is worth while observing, further, that the condition, so far as Christ himself is concerned, was purely legal, with a view, of course, to a gracious end. Christ, as the Redeemer, was made under the law, he obeyed the demands of the law, and he also suffered under the curse of the law. Hence, his standing under the covenant, and the conditions which he fulfilled, were alike legal. This being the case, the reward of his obedience and the result of his death became a matter of debt to him. His claim to this reward is justly made, so far as he himself is concerned, on the basis of a strict, legal satisfaction made by him, as the second Adam. But when manís case is considered, the benefits of the covenant, coming to him by the way of faith, are entirely a matter of grace to him. Christ, having fulfilled the legal conditions, has purchased life and salvation for all those who believe in him; then, when that life and salvation are conveyed by faith to the believing sinner, it is offered and received as a gift. Hence, eternal life is debt to Christ for his people, but gift to his people from him.
IV. The Results of the Covenant of Grace.
The conditions of the covenant being fulfilled, certain results follow. The result, so far as Christ is concerned, is life and salvation purchased for his people. This precious result is fully secured and freely offered to men in the message of the gospel.
But the results of the covenant are set forth chiefly in their relation to sinful men. These are now to be briefly exhibited, as they are expressed in a threefold way in the Standards. The Catechisms present the case in a positive and a negative way, while the Confession also points out the agency which brings the sinner into possession of these results.
1. There is deliverance from the guilty estate of sin and misery. Those who believe in Christ are delivered from sin, both as to its guilt and its depravity, and from the misery which that state of sin involves. Hence by the provisions of the covenant of grace, whose conditions Christ has fulfilled, there is deliverance for the elect who believe in Christ from the sin, guilt and misery, which the failure of the first covenant entailed. This is the all-important negative result which the covenant of grace secures for those to whom it relates.
2. Then, introduction into a state of grace is the positive result of the covenant promise to sinful men, through the fulfflment of its legal conditions by Christ. The word salvation must be taken here in its very widest sense, as including everything which comes to the believer through Christ, the Mediator of the covenant. It embraces all that eternal life involves. Justification, adoption, regeneration, sanctification, and glorification, with all that is therein implied, make up the splendid category of the things entering into the full salvation which flows from the covenant of grace. Not only is there full remission of sin, as under the preceding head, but there is also complete salvation from sin procured in due time for all the elect who are ordained unto life and salvation.
3. The promise of the Holy Spirit is also made good unto all those who are ordained unto life and salvation. The presence and work of the Holy Spirit have been procured by Christ in fulfilling the conditions of the covenant. The special office of the Spirit is to make the elect, who are ordained unto life and salvation, both able and willing to believe in Jesus Christ. This is a very important feature of the theology of the Standards. It sets forth the doctrine of determining grace, which is sometimes known as the irresistible, or invincible, grace, which operates in the case of the elect. Being dead in sin, men need the Holy Spirit to renew them, and to unite them to Christ, who is their life. The Larger Catechism speaks very distinctly upon this point, when it says that God gives the Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces, and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God. This ministry of the Spirit is the result of the work of Christ, the Mediator of the covenant; and the outcome of the Spiritís work is to make good in actual experience, in the case of the elect, the benefits of the covenant, by leading them to believe in the Mediator thereof. When they thus believe, being united to Christ, they are delivered from their estate of sin and misery, and are brought into an estate of salvation through the Redeemer in whom they trust.
It may be well, in closing this topic, to point out the fact that certain common operations of the Spirit and certain outward benefits are secured indirectly through the covenant for the non-elect. Respite from the immediate punishment of sin, the opportunity to repent in the day of divine mercy, the quickening of the conscience within, and the restraints from sin without, together with all the care and gifts of divine providence which the non-elect receive, are to be traced indirectly to the work of Christ as the Mediator of the covenant. This is implied in the doctrine of the Standards, but it is not emphasized as much as, perhaps, it ought to have been, in order fully to represent the teaching of the Scriptures upon this important subject. So far as the case of the elect is concerned, the doctrine of the Standards is, that all the elect, and they only, have given to them that renewing and determining grace which makes them willing and able to repent of sin and to believe in Jesus Christ.
V. The Administration of the Covenant of Grace.
This heading opens up a very interesting and instructive line of study, which leads to the consideration of the historical unfolding of the covenant among men from age to age. The Shorter Catechism has nothing to say upon this point, but the Larger Catechism and the Confession have statements which are quite complete, and almost entirely similar. Several important items are now gathered up.
1. It is said that the covenant of grace is one and the same in all ages and under all dispensations. From the promise made to our first parents, that the seed of the woman should bruise the head of the serpent, onward through all the stages of the unfolding of the purposes of grace, there appears but one gracious method of providing and bestowing the benefits of Godís purpose to redeem. However the outward form may vary, there is but one underlying covenant relation. Its essential nature, or, as the Confession says, its substance, always remains the same. In the patriarchal and the Mosaic eras, in Old and in New Testament times, there is one and the same covenant, with the one only Mediator, Jesus Christ, the same promise of life and salvation, and the similar condition of faith in order to the reception of the blessings of the covenant, which is well ordered in all things, and sure.
2. But the mode of administration may, and does, differ from age to age. Hence arise what may be called different dispensations of the covenant of grace. By this is meant that there are different ways of exhibiting and conveying the gracious benefits secured by the provisions of the covenant. In the early dispensations the mode was quite simple and direct; in the Mosaic it became much more elaborate in its outward forms; and in the New Testament it appears to be more distinctly spiritual. It is not an easy matter to make clear divisions between some of these dispensations, and various writers are by no means agreed as to the number of them to be defined. As a matter of fact, they seem to shade into each other, just as one prepared the way for another. Some would divide as follows: From Adam to Noah, from Noah to Abraham, from Abraham to Moses, from Moses to Christ, and from Christ to the end of the world. A careful study of these covenant eras, noting in each the measure of truth revealed, the form of the ordinances instituted, and the measure of grace conveyed, makes a most interesting biblical inquiry. As the historical unfolding of the covenant moves on, it assumes more and more definiteness. The stream narrows its channel, but it flows ever more deeply till the time of Christ, when it overflows all its banks and exhibits again its primitive universality. There are two great dispensations recognized in the exposition of the Standards, and these are to be briefly considered in closing this chapter. They are known as the Old and New Testaments.
These two great dispensations, are not covenants strictly speaking. That of the Old Testament has law so much in the foreground that it is sometimes called the dispensation of law; that which is called the New Testament has grace so much in the foreground that it is very properly termed the gospel; yet both are gracious. But law is in the foreground and grace is in the background in the Old, while grace is in the foreground and law in the background in the New Testament. Thus law and grace are blended in the covenant relation. A few things are now to be said concerning each of these dispensations.
First, The Old Testament, or covenant, dispensation is considered. Here the mode was by promises which related to the blessings of the covenant, by prophecies which set forth the nature and work of the Messiah and his kingdom, by sacrifices which pointed constantly to the one great sacrifice to be made in the fulness of time, by circumcision which was the seal of the covenant, by the passover which was a perpetual memorial of a past deliverance and an abiding pledge of the deliverance from sin, and by other types and ordinances, such as the kingly and priestly official lines, and the various rites of the Jewish economy. By means of all these things the coming of Christ was foresignified, and thereby the faith of the true Jews in the advent of the expected Messiah, by whom they were to obtain salvation and eternal life, was constantly built up. In every case Christ in the new was the substance and antitype of the shadow and. the type of the old dispensation.
Secondly, The New Testament, or covenant dispensation follows. Under this dispensation Christ the substance was exhibited. In it, also, although the ordinances are fewer in number than in the Old Testament, and although there is more simplicity in outward form and less glory in ritual, yet in these few simple ordinances there is held forth with more fulness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, whether Jew or Gentile, the blessings of the covenant of grace. The ordinances by which the benefits of the covenant of grace are dispensed are the preaching of the word, no doubt including prayer, together with the two sacraments of baptism and the Lordís supper, which have taken the place of circumcision and the passover of the old dispensation. These, as means of grace, will come to be spoken of in a later chapter, so that no exposition need be added here.
3. Men, specially the elect, were, and are, truly saved under both dispensations. The Standards teach distinctly that the Old Testament saints were as truly saved as those in the gospel dispensation, and that they were saved by the Holy Spirit, through the merits of Jesus Christ, and by means of faith on their part. The Confession and Larger Catechism agree in saying that the modes by which the covenant was administered under the law of the Old Testament dispensation were for the time sufficient and efficacious through the operation of the Spirit to instruct and build up the elect in the faith of the coming Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins and eternal salvation. Thus the Old Testament believers were as truly saved by faith as are those of New Testament times. The Romish opinion of the Limbus Patrem is not only unscriptural, but entirely unnecessary, in the light of the exposition of the covenant of grace just made. Hence, the doctrine is, one covenant with two dispensations, one Mediator and one method of salvation, and multitudes fully saved under both dispensations of the covenant of grace.