Election and the Covenant of Grace

George W. Knight III

The Westminster standards put the covenant of grace in the context of election. They indicate that the covenant promises are made only to or for the elect. This teaching is found in several places in the standards. Let's see if there is biblical warrant for what our standards teach.

Those places are at least the following:

WCF, 7.3: "... the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe."

LC, A 30: "God ... of his mere love and mercy delivereth his elect out of it [the estate of sin and misery], and bringeth them into an estate of salvation by the second covenant, commonly called the covenant of grace."

LC, Q/A 31: "With whom was the covenant of grace made? The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed."

WCF, 28.6: "The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time."

The best starting point is probably the Larger Catechism, Question and Answer 31. There the issue is stated quite clearly: "The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed." The key verse appealed to is Galatians 3:16, which reads as follows: "Now the promises [referring back to vs. 15, where the word covenant is used with reference to Abraham] were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, 'And to seeds,' as referring to many, but rather to one, 'And to your seed,' that is, Christ."

We can understand from this passage why the Westminster divines say that the Scripture teaches that the covenant was made with Christ, the single seed. When we compare Romans 5, we understand why they say that it was made with him "as the second Adam." They also say that the covenant of grace was made "in him [Christ] with all the elect as his seed." Here the divines appeal to Isaiah 53:10–11, where it is said that the Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, will fulfill the promises of God (the covenant of grace), so that he can see his offspring (literally, his seed).

But the fuller and better reason for their writing the second half of Answer 31 is found in Galatians 3:29, where Paul says, "And if you belong to Christ [the promised seed], then you are Abraham's offspring [literally, "seed"—making the connection which the divines captured], heirs according to promise [the other key word used in vs. 16]." They inherit the things promised to them in the covenant of grace, and thus the covenant of grace is made with them, the elect, in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Another profitable section of the Scriptures to consider is Romans 9, where Paul is dealing (in chapters 9–11) with the question of Israel's place in God's plan. He asks how the Jews, who possessed "the covenants" and "the promises" (9:4), could, on the whole, be separated from Christ. The answer is not that "the word of God has failed" (vs. 6a).

Paul explains: "For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel" (vs. 6b). He goes on to say in the next couple of verses that not all descendants of Abraham are true "children of God," but only those whom God has chosen or elected. "That is," he emphasizes, "it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants" (vs. 8).

The example of the twins, Jacob and Esau, provides good evidence of this. God chose Jacob before the boys were even born, "in order that God's purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls" (vs. 11). As Paul continues in the chapter, he demonstrates that God is merciful and shows his mercy to whom he pleases. The word of God has not failed because he never promised to all the Israelites, but only to the elect, what he had promised to Abraham.

The significance of this passage for our study is stated clearly by John Murray (Romans, vol. 2, pp. 9–10):

"The word of God" should be understood in a more specific sense and not in the sense of Scripture as a whole or of the word of the truth of the gospel. It is the word of promise in the covenants alluded to in verse 4. Covenant in Scripture is synonymous with oath-bound promise and the statement here is to the same effect as saying "God's covenant has not come to nought." Then the reason is given: "they are not all Israel who are of Israel." Those "of Israel" are the physical seed, the natural descendants of the patriarchs.... The main thought is that of children according to the flesh. In the other expression, "they are not all Israel", obviously the denotation is much more limited and the thought is that there is an "Israel" within ethnic Israel. This kind of distinction appears earlier in this epistle in connection with the term Jew and circumcision (2:28, 29). If the terms of the present passage were applied to the earlier the formulae would be, "they are not all Jews who are of the Jews" and "they are not all circumcised who are of the circumcision." Thus we have been prepared by the patterns of Paul's thought and usage for what we find here in 9:6.

The Israel distinguished from the Israel of natural descent is the true Israel. They are indeed "of Israel" but not coextensive with the latter. It is in accord with our Lord's usage to make this kind of distinction within a designated class. He distinguished between those who were disciples and those truly disciples (cf. John 8:30–32). He spoke of Nathanael as "truly an Israelite" (John 1:47). If we use Paul's language, this Israel is Israel "according to the Spirit" (Gal. 4:29) and "the Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16), although in the latter passage he is no doubt including the people of God of all nations. The purpose of this distinction is to show that the covenantal promise of God did not have respect to Israel after the flesh but to this true Israel and that, therefore, the unbelief and rejection of ethnic Israel as a whole in no way interfered with the fulfilment of God's covenant purpose and promise. The word of God, therefore, has not been violated.

But what does Paul mean in verses 3–4, where he says of the people of Israel that "theirs" (NIV) are "the adoption as sons," "the covenants," etc.? Schreiner speaks of these things as "past blessings," and goes on to say that "it is not as if gifts in the past actually contain the promise of future blessing" (Romans, p. 485). Hodge says of "the adoption": "As Paul is speaking here of the external or natural Israel, the adoption or sonship which pertained to them, as such, must be external also, and is very different from that which he had spoken of in the preceding chapter" (Romans, p. 298). That is, we cannot say that God gave them the sonship in a full and inner sense, and then took it away from them; then we could say that his word had indeed failed.

This understanding of the Jews and their privileges is touched on earlier by Paul in Romans 2:17–29, especially verses 28–29:

A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly; nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God. (NIV)

Thus, the Israelites had all these great and wonderful promises outwardly, but only to God's elect (who were transformed inwardly by him) were they actually given.

So verses 3 and 4 of Romans 9 are followed by verse 6 and following, and the former must be understood in the light of the latter. We do not want ourselves and our children to imagine that in external rites we are safe and secure. Jesus rebuked such thinking when he said, "Do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father' " (Matt. 3:9). Rather, we want to encourage them, as the apostle Peter does, to "be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure" (2 Pet. 1:10 NIV) by adding to their faith all the evidences of God's gracious work within them (1:3–11).

So let us remember and announce that in baptism God proffers to our children the truth and promise of the gospel, a truth which is accomplished through the work of Christ and applied by the Spirit according to God's election and his enabling us to respond in faith. Christ is the seed in which the covenant of grace and its promises are fulfilled and accomplished in our midst (Gal. 3:15–18). Thus, the great truth proclaimed by the apostle Paul is true to all who belong to Christ: "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29 NIV).

The author is a teacher at Matthews OPC in Charlotte, N.C. He also is an adjunct professor at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He quotes the NASB unless otherwise indicated. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2005.