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Question and Answer

Covenant Theology and the OPC

Question:

Are OPC churches "Covenant" churches, and what exactly does that mean?

Answer:

Yes, OPCs are "covenant churches," but it will require a little more to explain what that means. I'll attempt first to let you see it in a broader fashion and second to show from Scripture that Covenant Theology is biblical.

1. Perhaps a quotation from the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) would be a good place to start. In fact, it would help if you could acquire a copy of that confession (the primary doctrinal standard of the OPC).

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to 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" (Chapter 7, Paragraph 1).

At this point let me say that the idea of covenant is involved in all our human relations. Since we are citizens of the USA, our government is required to protect us from harm and danger, protect us by police locally and armies internationally. The relationship between government and people is often based on a contract or agreement or "covenant," implicit or explicit. Marriage is a covenant with obligations and privileges, and the traditional concept of the family is covenantal. So is education at all levels, insurance on life and property. In one way or another, education, insurance, and our banking system are all likewise covenantal.

In terms of the covenant, however, our relationship to our Creator is unique. Human, worldly covenants are negotiated, but God's covenants are imposed by our sovereign Creator. At the heart of the matter, we have no choice whether to be God's image bearers, nor do we have a part in declaring the conditions of the covenant.

God sovereignly sets forth the terms of the covenant. If we continue till death in rebellion against God's lordship over us, we'll be condemned to everlasting punishment in hell as covenant breakers, but the Christian gospel affords heaven to those who come into covenant with God through faith in Christ as Savior and Lord.

The Westminster Confession speaks of two covenants. WCF 7-2 reads,

The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam: and in him to his posterity, on condition of perfect and personal obedience.

Paragraph 3 follows:

Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace: wherein he freely offereth sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him that they might be saved, and promising to give unto those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them able and willing to believe.

The covenant of works was not abolished by the introduction of the covenant of grace. "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). And death is the lot of all mankind, including those who were born dead and the millions of aborted children who never had a chance to do anything good or bad. Romans 5:12 covers that: "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all have sinned."

By this verse alone (and it isn't alone), we see that (except for the special cases of those Old Testament saints Enoch and Elijah—see Hebrews 9:27—and those Christians who will be alive and remain to the coming of the Lord), we are all born to die. That is, as a consequence of Adam's breaking God's covenant, Adam's sin brought with it all the miseries of this life, death itself, and (apart from God's grace) everlasting separation between God and man.

So, since Adam failed the obedience test (Gen. 3), a second Adam was needed. That Head of the covenant of grace was Jesus Christ. According to 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, Adam represented all the human race in his failed headship. So. all who died, died because they were "in Adam" (vs. 22), but those whom Jesus died to save (by grace through saving faith) were "in Christ." This comparison and contrast between Adam and Christ is dealt with in verses 44-47.

So our relation to God in Scripture is covenantal. Other Bible-believing churches take a different approach by just speaking of salvation by personal faith in Jesus Christ. That's not wrong—it's just not enough. To replace the covenant, however, near the beginning of the 20th Century dispensationalism (made popular by the Scofield Reference Bible of 1909) was brought in.

Dispensationalism took different forms, but they all made a sharp distinction between Law and Grace, saying that, from Moses to Christ, God dealt with his people through Law. But when Christ the Messiah came and was crucified, Law stepped aside and Grace took over. The problem with that is that there is much grace in the Old Testament and much Law in the New Testament.

In the Old Testament, for example, Psalms 32 and 51 deal with King David's great sin with Bathsheba. By the law David should have died, but the God of grace pardoned him. (See also Ex. 33:19 and 34:6-9). Old Testament saints (Old Testament sinners saved by grace) delighted in God's law, and one good example was the author of Psalm 119 (see verses 77, 92, and 174; compare with verses 16, 24, 47, 143, and 174), but such was also true of the New Testament saints, including the Apostle Paul: "Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.... For I delight in the law of God after the inward man...." (Rom. 7:12 and 7:22).

The Bible teaches that one cannot earn the right to heaven by doing good works of the law, but both Testaments also teach that even though we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Eph. 2:8-9), saved sinners are called to perform good works (Eph. 2:10). Christ said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). In short, we see in the Bible Law and Grace operating in similar fashion in both Testaments.

Understood correctly, both Old and New Testament present the story of how Christ, by his perfect obedience to the Father's will and his substitutionary death on the cross, fulfilled in the New Covenant the requirements of the Old. That is the distinction between Old and New Covenants as well as what brings them together.

Many serious Bible students become confused because they see the various covenants God made with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David as separate and discrete covenants, without any essential relationship with each other. In contrast, we who believe in covenant theology see these covenants as progressive administrations of the one covenant of grace.

It's worth noting that God's gracious promise in Genesis 3:15 was stated on the very day Adam (with whom the covenant of works was made) fell. The serpent (Satan) had deceived Eve, thus bringing her and Adam (whom she convinced that the fruit was profitable) onto the devil's side and abandoning the Lord's side. God said, "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise [crush] your head, and you shall bruise his heel." This prophecy is fulfilled and interpreted in Revelation 12. In a word, the promise of Genesis 3:15 covers the whole history and fulfillment of redemption!

Thus dispensationalists (such as C. I. Schofield) are wrong in thinking that God's covenant plan of salvation can be understood by dealing with these individual covenants apart from one other as though they were separate entities. With the exception of the "Rainbow Covenant" (Genesis 9) which had to do with God's promise never again to destroy the earth by flood waters, the other Old Testament covenants had these qualities in common: they were Christological (that is, they were foreshadowing Christ), they were symbolic (blood sacrifices and the feasts in the Mosaic Law), and they were progressive, pointing to the consummation of the ages.

There is one more matter to be considered: the treatment of covenant in the Epistle to the Hebrews. There the "Old Covenant" and the "New Covenant" seem to be set in opposition to each other. How then can they be seen as part of the over-all covenant of grace? In chapter 1:1 & 2 we read: "God, after he spoke long ago to our fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he made the world...."

The amazing contrast between the Mosaic age and "these last days" is the theme of this book. It was written to Hebrew believers during the time of the transition from the time of the Old Testament to the time of the coming of Messiah. The author considers the limited priesthood of Aaron (contrasting it with that of Jesus); the sacrifices of blood (ineffectual, requiring constant repetition); the inferiority of the Jerusalem on earth (compared to the Jerusalem from above—Heb. 12:18-29). And these Christian Jews were smarting under the oppression of those days and were seriously considering returning to their earlier Judaism without Christ. That in itself stirred up the author's heart to warn against "going back"!

But the continuity is still there. Chapter 11 pictures the great company of witnesses encouraging these 1st Century Jewish Christians to keep on running the race (Ch. 12:1-11) because these Old Testament saints had their eyes fixed Jesus. And our dispensational brothers fail to do justice to Hebrews 11:39 & 40: "And all these, having gained approval through faith, did not receive what is promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect." In these words, the writer of Hebrews saw the entire Church of Christ as one body of the redeemed.

I could say much more, but this is as much as you may wish to digest at one reading. The case of people who interpret everything in terms of a number of "dispensations" often don't see the over-all picture of the covenant of grace. It is like the old saying, "They can't see the forest for the trees."

I hope this has been helpful to you. Sometimes the shortest questions deserve the longest answers. If you are so inclined, please return with further queries.


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