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Editorial: Clarity on the Covenants

Gregory Edward Reynolds

The first major Bible purchase in my Christian life was made in Geneva Switzerland. Ironically it was an Oxford University Press edition of the Scofield Reference Bible. Wouldn't Calvin have been dismayed! That was 1972. A year later I cut my teeth on covenant theology by studying Charles Ryrie's Dispensationalism Today at the Bible Institute of New England under the tutelage of a Dallas Theological Seminary grad. Following the footnotes convinced me that covenant theologians such as O. T. Allis, snidely referred to as "Allis in wonderland" by Dallas students, were more biblical in their understanding of the structure of Scripture. By the time I got to Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1976 I was primed to fortify my soul on the unity of the covenants in the covenant of grace. A good dose of John Murray was just the theological vitamin I needed.

Then came Meredith G. Kline, who flew in each week in my middler year, teaching OT Prophets, reminding us of the discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants as well as distinguishing between the two different types of covenant found in Scripture. To my novice mind he sounded for all the world like a dispensationalist. While fortified in my commitment to reformed theology, I left seminary in 1979 very confused—although I was not fully aware of it—about the covenants or the covenant—which is it? It wasn't until the early nineties as I re-examined the covenant constructions of theonomy and of Dr. Kline's biblical theology that things began to come into focus. One need not agree with Dr. Kline in many other areas to appreciate that his covenant theology is essentially the confessional doctrine.

Shortly after that time a couple visited our church and after a mid-week Bible study during which I had explained the covenants of works and grace in an historical diagram on the chalk board. Afterward the husband expressed his delight to hear what he had never had explained to him, an overview of the biblical doctrine of the covenants as our Confession sets them forth. This was a mature Christian man who has been in the OPC for many decades. I was astonished—even dismayed. I realized I was not alone in my former confusion. We are in need of clarity on the covenants. With over three hundred biblical references and half a millennium of theologizing it would be difficult to overestimate either the importance of this doctrine or the clarity with which it is articulated in our confessional standards.

My purpose is not to present a comprehensive view—that would be impossible—or even to summarize the voluminous debate presently going on in reformed circles—that would be unwise—but rather to focus on what we have committed ourselves to as a confessional church. Our Confession is clear on several important points with regard to what the Bible teaches about the covenants. Remember, the Westminster Confession is our consensus on what the Bible teaches. Whatever else may be debatable—and there is plenty—this confessed system of reformed doctrine must be clearly believed and taught by church officers. If we believe the Confession to be unbiblical in its teaching on a given doctrine then we must seek through painstaking exegesis to prove the point to the church. Meanwhile, we are bound by our vows to uphold what we corporately confess. To do otherwise threatens the unity of the church which our Confession is designed to promote.

The Westminster Confession and Catechisms were composed after a century of exegesis and formulation of the doctrine of the covenants. Our standards represent a mature statement of this doctrine and the first reformed confession to make it prominent. The following are what I see as several of the essential features articulated by Scripture and embodied in our doctrinal standards.

Our Confession Teaches a Comprehensive Definition of Covenant

In defining covenant we must include all of the covenants in the Bible. If we define only redemptive covenants then we, by definition, eliminate the covenant God made with Adam before the fall. Thus a covenant in our Confession is a divinely initiated and sanctioned administration of God's kingdom. Without this there could be no relationship of union and communion between God and his people, either before or after the fall. Our Confession is clear in identifying the creation covenant as a covenant of works. "The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works..." (WCF 7.2).

Our Confession Teaches a Plurality of Covenants

The question around which my own quandary centered was: Is there only one type of covenant with two aspects: promise and obligation? Or are there two types of covenant? I have come to recognize that the source of my greatest confusion on the doctrine of the covenant was my failure to distinguish two essential types of covenant in Scripture and Confession: covenants of works and covenants of grace. I mistakenly thought that the works principle, wherever it showed up in Scripture, was simply accenting the obligation side of a single kind of covenant, rather than indicating another type of covenant altogether.

In what follows I do not mean to neglect the most fundamental covenant between Father and Son in eternity, in which the Father gives the elect to Christ through the covenant of grace which the Son incarnate secures through his active and passive obedience, fulfilling the covenant of works as the second Adam on behalf of the elect. This first, heavenly covenant, called the covenant of redemption or peace, forms the eternal basis for the bi-covenantal arrangement revealed in history: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. As Vos says: "The covenant of redemption is the pattern for the covenant of grace. However, it is more than that. It is also the effective cause for carrying through the latter."[1] This covenant is assumed by our Confession, as is evident, e.g., in the chapters on God's eternal decrees, God's covenant with man, and Christ the mediator.

While all covenants have obligations, not all are covenants of works. Mono-covenantalism insists that there is really only one kind of covenant—a combination of promise and obligation.[2] While it is true that every covenant makes demands on both parties, this does not mean that there is only one kind of covenant in Scripture. Scripture and our Confession clearly teach a bi-covenantal structure. Paul sums up federal theology pointedly in Romans 5:12-21, whereby the obedience of the two representative heads is imputed to those represented. The obedience required to inherit eternal life, that the first Adam failed to render, was perfectly rendered by the second Adam. Thus the covenant of works forms the foundation of the covenant of grace.

The Abrahamic covenant is the essential expression in the Old Covenant of the covenant of grace to which Moses hearkens back (Deut. 4:31, 5:3). Jeremiah in 31:31-32 declares the provisional nature of the Mosaic covenant, "Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD." Paul emphasizes this distinction in Galatians 3:17-18. "And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect. For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise." The Abrahamic covenant of grace promise runs like a golden thread through the entire Mosaic economy, while that economy itself, accenting the law, and recapitulating the probation of the first Adam, cries out for the obedience and grace of the second Adam.

Paul clearly distinguishes between covenants of works and faith:

Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work. (Rom. 11:5-6)

Our Confession Accounts for the Legal Character of the Mosaic Covenant

This point grows out of the last point. While there has been a range of opinion as to how to doctrinally account for the strong legal accent in the Mosaic covenant, its presence in Scripture and Confession is clear.

Geerhardus Vos puts it succinctly from the perspective of historical theology: "the older theologians did not always clearly distinguish between the covenant of works and the Sinaitic covenant. At Sinai it was not the "bare" law that was given, but a reflection of the covenant of works revived, as it were, in the interests of the covenant of grace continued at Sinai."[3] The Confession in chapter nineteen clearly identifies the Mosaic covenant as a covenant of works "This law [given to Adam as the covenant of works, 19.1], after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments.... Although true believers be not under the law as a covenant of works..." (WCF 19:2, 6). While there has been a range of terminology and doctrine to account for this legal element in Moses, we must account for it in a way that mono-covenantalism is not equipped to do.

Paul accentuates this aspect of the Mosaic covenant by contrasting the works demanded by that covenant with the faith called for in the New Covenant:

For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, "The man who does those things shall live by them." But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, "'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom. 10:5-9)

This certainly does not mean that there was no grace revealed in the Mosaic Covenant, as was noted above regarding the continuous thread of the Abrahamic covenant throughout the Mosaic period, but, even when referring to it as an administration of the covenant of grace, the Confession calls it the "time of the law" (WCF 7.5). It also makes clear that there can be no eschatological inheritance of the created order as man's eternal dwelling without fulfillment of the covenant of works, typified in the Mosaic covenant. Both Scripture and the Confession refer to the Mosaic administration as a "law" covenant. "For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). But the revival of the covenant of works in the Mosaic administration was, as Vos stated, in the interests of revealing both the need for and God's provision of grace in the mediator, Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, the Confession elaborates on the present usefulness of the Mosaic covenant as a covenant of works, not as a way of salvation but as a rule of life: "Although true believers be not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly..." (WCF 19.6). Those who were saved under the Mosaic covenant were saved the only way sinners can be saved since our first federal head failed, through the grace of the second federal head Jesus Christ.

Our Confession Teaches Grace to Sinners Based on the Merit Of Christ

While there has not been unanimity in our tradition on the question of a gracious element in the covenant of works with Adam it seems clear that both our Confession and the Scripture use "grace" in a strictly redemptive way, as the undeserved favor of God toward sinners. Our Confession, it seems to me, avoids using the term in the pre-lapsarian situation, while at the same time affirming the Creator-creature distinction in affirming God's condescension: "The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant" (WCF 7.1). The danger of using "grace" otherwise is that it may tend to confuse its definition and even diminish its power after the fall. I say this may be its tendency, not the intention of those whose choose to use the word otherwise.

The meritorious obedience required of Adam was defined by God not Adam as the requirement for attaining eternal life. WCF 7.2 states, "The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience." This also reiterated in more demanding language in WCF 19.1, "God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it; and endued him with power and ability to keep it." If we deny merit in the first covenant arrangement with Adam, we will undermine it in the second arrangement with the second Adam, Jesus Christ. According to Paul in Romans 5:19, "For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man's obedience many will be made righteous." Thus, denying the covenant of works and its consequent demand for merit may tend to undermine the imputation of Christ's righteousness and its reception by faith alone.

It is not accidental that the specific term "merit" is used by the Confession writers in connection with Christ's intercession and perseverance of the saints (WCF 17.2; WLC 55).

Our Confession Teaches the Practical Importance of the Covenants

Clarity on the covenants helps the church to understand the Bible. It provides a hermeneutical structure by which to interpret particular texts properly. If ministers teach this doctrine clearly it will help the church to understand the Bible more clearly.

Clarity on the covenants helps to preserve free and sovereign grace in justification by faith by providing a righteousness that not only cancels the debt of our sin, but establishes us as righteous and pleasing in God's sight. The scope of Christ's accomplishment is succinctly summed up in the Shorter Catechism's definition of justification: "Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone" (WSC 33). In terms of historical theology, distinguishing between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace avoids semi-Pelagian anthropology. Semi-Pelagian theology always undermines assurance, because it bases salvation partly on human merit. The Larger Catechism teaches differently:

This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father; upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ; the abiding of the Spirit, and of the seed of God within them; and the nature of the covenant of grace: from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof. (WCF 17.2)

Christ maketh intercession, by his appearing in our nature continually before the Father in heaven, in the merit of his obedience and sacrifice on earth, declaring his will to have it applied to all believers; answering all accusations against them, and procuring for them quiet of conscience, notwithstanding daily failings, access with boldness to the throne of grace, and acceptance of their persons and services. (WLC 55)

Clarity on the covenants helps define the church's identity and task. It is not accidental that a more mono-covenantal view often forms the basis for believing that the modern state is mandated to enforce the Law of Moses, or at least the Ten Commandments. Every American cultural reformation movement from Christian reconstruction, to the call to restore Christian America, to the liberal social gospel is rooted in one way or another in a failure to properly distinguish between the Old and New covenants. The proper response to the cultural denial of dispensationalism is the spirituality of the New Covenant church as a gracious embassy of Christ, not the reformation of the culture of this present evil age. This is Paul's description of the church's witness:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor. 5:17-21)

Clarity on the covenants fosters genuine obedience to God's law. A very real and legitimate concern of those who hold a more mono-covenantal view is to foster repentance and obedience to God's commands. The entire doctrine of the covenants is to be viewed from the perspective of the Christian life in the fullness of our relationship to our Lord: "The covenant is neither a hypothetical relationship, nor a conditional position; rather it is the fresh, living fellowship in which the power of grace is operative. Only by the exercise of faith does it become a reality. It is always believers who act as true covenant partners with God. They who are partners also have the promises in their entirety sealed to them as believers. The covenant is a totality from which no benefit can be excluded."[4] Thus we should be satisfied with the way in which our Confession guarantees obedience among justified sinners by recognizing that in union with Christ, while faith alone justifies, "yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love" (WCF 11.2).

In conclusion, to change the metaphor from optics to architecture, when the structure of a building is right everything added to it follows suit. So when we get our covenant theology right the entire structure of our system of doctrine will be right. Isn't this why we are united around our Confession? Can anything be more practical than understanding the basis of our relationship with the living and true God?

A Suggestion for Our Continuing Conversation

While discussion of the doctrine of the covenants is healthy we must distinguish between what is confessional and what is not. In other words, those of us who have taken vows to uphold the Confession as what the Bible teaches must defend and teach those doctrines as non-negotiable. Our in-house discussion among those who affirm the Confession's teachings must be within those bounds. We must each be willing to alter our theology to be more consistent with Scripture and our Confession. Isn't this what semper reformanda is all about?

Suggested Reading

Geerhardus Vos, "The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology."

Thomas Boston, Human Nature in Its Fourfold State.

Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology. My review of this book will be posted in July as part of vol. 15, no. 6.

Endnotes

[1] Geerhardus Vos, "The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology," Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 252.

[2] Norman Shepherd, "My Understanding of Covenant." http://www.spindleworks.com/library/CR/shepherd.htm.

[3] Vos, 255.

[4] Ibid., 256.

(Biblical quotations are from the NKJV.)

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