The essence of the covenant, therefore, is not to be sought in a promise, and that, too, a promise in the sense of a certain general offer to the children of believers, as Prof. Heyns would have it. Neither is it to be sought in the idea that the covenant is a certain way, or manner, of salvation by which God would make us partakers of everlasting glory, as many others describe the covenant, thereby actually denying that God’s covenant is eternal. Nor does it consist in a certain agreement between two parties according to which mutual stipulations and conditions must be met; as it is also often presented; for the covenant is God’s, and He bestows upon His friends all that is necessary for the life and the battle of the covenant. But the essence of the covenant is to be sought in this living relation of friendship whereby God the Lord is the sovereign friend of His people, and they are the Lord’s friend-servants, partaking of His fellowship, by grace possessing and manifesting His life and fighting the battle of His cause in the midst of the world. The realization of that covenant as it shall presently be revealed in everlasting glory constitutes the history of salvation; the struggle in the cause of that covenant is the battle of the ages.
If we keep this fundamental idea of God’s covenant in mind, we also understand the Scriptures. In “the beginning,” the dawn of creation, lies also the beginning of the realization of God’s covenant. For man is immediately placed in Paradise as the covenant friend servant of the Lord. That is his position. That determines the relation in which he stands to the Lord his God, on the one hand, and to the entire earthly creation, on the other hand. Of an agreement, according to which God and Adam mutually posit certain stipulations, we read literally nothing in the history of Paradise. God indeed establishes His covenant with Adam; and the Lord delineates the place which Adam assumes in relation to Himself and in relation to creation; but Adam stands in God’s covenant without any condition laid down beforehand. Nor is it true that in the first chapters of Holy Writ we read of any promise constituting the essence of the covenant,—a promise dependent upon Adam’s consent or acceptance. Indeed, God threatens death, should Adam violate His covenant; and indeed, this implies by way of contrast that Adam had life and that only in God’s covenant of friendship could he enjoy life. But one certainly does not find a promise that Adam could merit eternal life in the way of obedience. We must and do call your attention to some of these things intentionally. Many of these ideas are so deeply rooted in the thinking of our people that they simply consider them as the Reformed and Scriptural presentation without giving them a thought, though they are to be found neither in Scripture nor in the confessions. The Covenant of Works is then commonly presented as a certain agreement between God and Adam (and in Adam with the human race), according to which Adam could merit, in the way of obedience, eternal life, and according to which he would die in case of disobedience.
But now Adam does not merit eternal life. He becomes disobedient and dies, and we die in him. And now what Adam did not merit, that Christ obtains for us through His perfect obedience. Such, in general, is the view which is always and again inculcated and which without a second thought is imbibed in the catechism class and in theological schools. If one puts these things differently, then many are of the opinion that he is departing from the truth and ought to be branded a heretic. Nevertheless, it is not true that this presentation in this form is found in the Scriptures. Nor is there anything attractive about it; nor does it open one’s eyes for the glorious work of God with respect to His covenant. It really always makes us stand nostalgically with our noses against the fence of Paradise, with the futile wish in our souls that Adam had not fallen! For after all, if it be true that Adam also was able to earn that which Christ now bestows on us, if only he had remained standing, then it remains eternally tragic that the first Paradise is no longer there and that we did not receive eternal life through the obedience of the first man. If only he had remained standing, then the entire present history of struggle and suffering could have been prevented, and then all men would have entered eternal life through him; but now there is not only the fearful history of struggle and sorrow and misery, with the cross of Christ at the center, but also the fact that at end of history’s course thousands and millions sink away into an eternal night of misery and hellish suffering. Then it may be true that the Lord ultimately has the victory, but the fact remains that the devil succeeded through his temptation in striking a tremendous breach in the works of God. And thus we arrive at the point of actually criticizing the counsel of the Lord Jehovah, Who certainly conceived and willed all these things from before the foundation of the world.
(to be continued)