The Three Covenants

This episode was a doozy. Despite being the shortest one so far it introduced some profound concepts that had me backtracking so often it probably became the longest one yet for me. Lets dig in.

Covenants help us see the unity in Scripture, that it’s not a collection of random books with little to no relation to each other. This is especially true in regards to the Old Testament which many Christians treat to be of little to no relevance today. But Covenants don’t just help us, they are vital to understanding Scripture. The word covenant is used hundreds of times in Scripture. The word first appears in relation to Noah, but the concept itself begins at the Garden. A Covenant of Works is established after man’s creation, followed by a Covenant of Grace after the Fall.

A Covenant of Works can be simply summarized as “Do this and live.” It is dependent on our obedience both in doing and omission. A Covenant of Grace is God’s free favor to a sinner.

Evangelicals, thanks to the rise of dispensationalism and the influence of anabaptist theology often object to he idea of a Covenant of Grace. It clashes with the revivalistic/pietistic mentality we have that focuses on an individualistic, born again experience. We are focused much more on our personal, unique, individual relationship to God rather than our place within his whole plan of salvation. This focus over the past century and a half has lead evangelicals becoming unfamiliar with covenant theology, but unfamiliarity does not mean unimportant, it only shows holes in our knowledge.

Reformed theology has been Covenantal since the beginning. Our earliest theologians immediately recognized and worked on explaining the history of salvation. We must introduce Christians to the hundreds of times in the Old Testament and dozens in New Testament that Scripture uses the word Covenant, how it is used and why. This will give us better understanding and appreciation of Law, Gospel, and the unity of salvation.

There is a strong impulse to combat Covenant Theology by turning Abraham into Moses and not distinguishing the two, blurring the distinctions between the two Covenants. After all, if Abraham is indistinguishable from Moses then we can do away with him and his distinctives, just as everything distinctly Mosaic has passed away. But if we do this we run into the problem with much of the New Testament that consistently appeals to Abraham, his Covenant, and our birthright as his children, but does not make similar appeals to Moses.

There are three primary Covenants working throughout history:

The Covenant of Redemption – This is the eternal covenant made before the history of the world, within eternity, between the Persons of the Trinity. The Father gave his Son a people, the Son voluntarily agreed to save them, and the Spirit applies redemption for those whom the Son attoned, died, and was raised.

ESS (Eternal Subordination of the Son) Note – Some appeal to this to try to prove Son is ontologicaly subordinate to the Father. This is not true. Nowhere do we suggest Son is in his Being subordinate. he is eternally begotten yes, and submits yes, but voluntarily as a Person. Thus this is an economic and not ontological subordination. Each Person of the Trinity is equal by nature in power, substance and authority.

This Covenant of Redemption plays out in the following two Covenants:

The Covenant of Works – This covenant first appears in the promise of eternal life and blessedness to Adam and Eve in the Garden, conditioned upon their perfect and total obedience (Do this and live, as we said above). We were capable before the Fall of keeping this Covenant and obeying the Law. The Trees of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. The Trees are both symbols and sacraments of this Covenant. After Adam’s disobedience and the promise made in the Garden, the Covenant of Works now plays out by the Son’s promise to obey on behalf of those the Father has given him. He is their substitute and representative, and his obedience is credited to them. That leads us into…

The Covenant of Grace – The Covenant of Grace is the promise to and provision of the Son, from all eternity, to voluntarily become a substitute and save those the Father gave him. Christ’s fulfillment of the Covenant of Works is applied to us via the Covenant of Grace. Grace for us who receive the benefits of his obedience… By Grace Alone, through Faith Alone in Christ Alone. Thus the Covenant of Grace is not conditioned on our own obedience, but the continued obedience of a substitute. The seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent. The instrument by which we receive this is faith. Trusting and Resting in the promised Messiah/Mediator is how this instrument plays.

Thus the principles of the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace are radically different. While they both promise eternal life and blessings they do so on a different basis. Covenant of Works is to those who meet the terms of the covenant by obedience. In a Gracious Covenant the benefits are given freely, unconditioned by our obedience and received through resting in the Promised One.

The Covenant of Redemption is the unfolding story of the two Seeds, the Seed of the Serpent and the Seed of the Woman. The broken Covenant of Works and the restorative Covenant of Grace. Adam to Noah is a story of the consequence of the Fall and the punishment humanity rightly deserves. Yet Noah is saved through grace, not by his own merit or righteousness, but solely at God’s discretion and pleasure. Types and shadows like this abound in the Old Testament, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, even the Babylonian exile. The Covenant of Works is imprinted in the heart and mind of humanity, and thus continues to work throughout history. If you are not within the Covenant of Grace you are subject to the Covenant of Works and subject to its standards.

The Mosaic theocracy (national Israel) was another outworking of the Covenant of Works. Reformed folk have differed on how to relate the two, and it has become quite a controversial subject as of late, but according to Dr. Clark, this is the historic Reformed position. The legal covenant with Moses at Sinai is an echo of the earlier covenant made with Adam. This covenant is not for salvation, nor justification, but as a reminder to the Israelites of their sin and misery, pointing them towards their need for a savior. Again, this is not salvation via works or compliance to the Law, but as a powerful witness to the continuing demand of the Law and our inability to meet it. See Galations 3 and 4 for Paul contrasting the Abrahamic Covenant with the Mosaic. The Covenant of Grace expressed with Abraham never went away, the imposition of the Mosaic Covenant did not change God’s promise to him. The Mosaic Covenant was a temporary expression of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, another type and shadow, illustrated through a national people with sacrifices and a priesthood that pointed towards the One True High Priest and the One and Only Sacrifice. Paul says what makes one a true Israelite is not circumcision but faith. Abraham is thus the father of all who believe. Typological promises (like land) were temporary expressions of the more fundamental promise of a Savior.

Jesus said his was a new covenant, ratified in his own blood. he was the fulfillment of that first promise to Adam and Eve. He is the mediator and the New Adam. The new covenant is new relative to Moses, it has Abraham as the paradigm. It is a renewal of original promise in light of the advent of the Son.



White Horse Inn: Implications of the Resurrection

For Easter meditation from the White Horse Inn:

“Jesus is our intercessor. Paul says, ‘Who shall condemn us? He who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all. How will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died, more than that, who was raised, who was at the right hand of God interceding for us.’

“What a wonderful doctrine – to think that Jesus didn’t just finish it and go home. He went into the heavenly sanctuary where he had to cast out Satan, our accuser. So now, he is in the court room. We have a loving Father and a defense attorney and there is no prosecutor and he’s interceding every day for us. And because he has been raised, we will be raised as well.” -Michael Horton