We continue our examination of the seventh chapter which deals with God’s covenant with man. In sections one and two the relationship of God with man before the fall is treated. That we have already considered in previous articles. The remaining four sections of this chapter examine the Biblical data on the gracious condescension of God to form a positive relationship with man before the fall.3. Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second,(a) commonly called the Covenant of Grace: whereby He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved;(b) and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.(c)
c. Ezekiel 36:26,27; John 6:44,45
4. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in the Scripture by the name of a Testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.(a)
a. Hebrews 9:15-17;7:22; Luke 22:20; I Corinthians 11:25
5. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel;(a) under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come,(b) which were for that time sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah,(c) by Whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.(d)
d. Galatians 3:7-9,14
6. Under the gospel, when Christ the substance(a) is exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper,(b) which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet in them it is held forth in more fulness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy,(c) to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles;(d) and is called the New Testament.(e) There are not therefore two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.(f)
a. Colossians 2:17
b. Matthew 28:19,20; I Corinthians 11:23-25
c. Hebrews 12:22-27; Jeremiah 31:33,34
e. Luke 22:20
Section three describes just what God’s covenant with fallen man was like. It makes clear that God institutes this relationship without any consultation with man. This relationship does not come about by mutual agreement between God and man. Section one made clear that if God and man were to have any positive relationship it was because of the condescending goodness of God. This section reiterates this and adds that the state of fallen man makes the source of the covenant to be only of grace.
Some might raise their eyebrows in suspicion at some of the terminology in this section. We would agree that some of the terminology is not happy. However, we also believe that the Confession is not suspect here.
The Arminians hold that Adam incurred the penalty of death because he did not perfectly obey the command of the Lord. They would say that God responded to man’s failure by sending Christ and thus introduced a new covenant, offering the eternal life Adam lost to all men upon condition of faith. This virtually makes the relationship of God with fallen man also a covenant of works, with faith a work of man.
This is certainly not the presentation of the Westminster.
Notice first the beneficiaries of this covenant. Listen to the Larger Catechism. Q. 30. Doth God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?
A. God doth not leave all men to perish in the estate of sin and misery, into which they fell by the breach of the first covenant, commonly called the Covenant of Works; but of His mere love and mercy delivereth His elect out of it, and bringeth them into an estate of salvation by the second covenant, commonly called the Covenant of Grace. (emphasis mine—RVO)
Q. 3 1. With whom was the covenant of grace made?
A. The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in Him with all the elect as His seed.
Secondly, we regret that present day usage of the word “offer” (in theological circles, especially) has so changed this word that it cannot be used today without confusion. I believe that the Westminster uses this word in the same manner as does the Canons of Dordt in the Third and Fourth Head article nine, viz. “to present.” We are sorry that even the notable A. A. Hodge in his commentary on the Confession does not see this idea of presentation, but rather uses the term in the same way Arminians do.
Thirdly, the Confession confirms our conviction ye the use of the word “offereth” when it shows that faith, both as a power and activity, is wrought by the Holy Spirit, and that work is only in the elect. There are no conditions for man to fulfill. Salvation is not probable but actual, for it is the work of God alone. He bestows the ability, the attitude, and the action in man necessary for the receiving of that salvation.
Terminology which troubles us in this section is the following. As we pointed out in an earlier article, we prefer to speak of one kind of positive relationship which God had with man, being in essence the same with Adam before the fall as after the fall. Therefore, we would not care to speak of a first and a second covenant. Also, the idea that man made himself incapable of life “by that covenant” seems to imply that the covenant was not an end in itself, but the means to the end of life. We do not prefer this language.
Section four describes the possibility and nature of the covenant of grace. An analogy exists between a testament or will and the covenant. The will is executed only upon the death of the testator (Hebrews 9:16-17). The death of Christ is necessary for the establishment of the covenant of grace, for His death wrought the glorious and everlasting inheritance of heavenly life and all the blessings of that life.
The Confession emphasizes the essential unity of the work of God in the Old and New Dispensations. It does this over against the error of dispensationalism, which teaches that God uses different ways of saving man in different periods of history. Each one of these different periods is called a dispensation. Although there is disagreement among themselves, most dispensationalists divide history into seven dispensations. In each dispensation the way God gives salvation is essentially different. The Confession maintains that the Covenant of Grace has remained the same in essence from the beginning. The Confession does recognize two dispensations, but differs radically from the dispensationalist in its definition of a dispensation. The Confession holds that the two dispensations are but two administrations of the same covenant. There is an absolute unity of’ the one and only Covenant of Grace, though there is variation in the manner of administration of that covenant. “There are not therefore two Covenants of Grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.”
The two recognized different ways in which the Covenant of Grace has been administered are “under the law” and “under the gospel.” The dispensation under the law is called the Old Testament and the dispensation under the gospel is called the New Testament. A reading of II Corinthians 3:6, 14 will show that this is Biblical terminology. In this passage “old testament” and “new testament” do not mean the major divisions of the Bible, but they refer to dispensations.
In the old dispensation the Covenant of Grace was administered by types and shadows which pointed ahead to Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation. In the new dispensation this covenant is administered by the gospel, i.e., the good news of the reality; Jesus Christ has come and earned the salvation which is dispensed primarily through the preaching of the Word of God.
The new dispensation is superior to the old in “fulness, evidence and spiritual efficacy.” The more revelation given resulted in the truth being more clearly understood. (This was already true within the old dispensation. The revelation Isaiah had was much larger than that possessed by Abraham, for example.) This increased revelation is not only in the volume of the written Word of God, but especially in the incarnation of Christ (John 1:14) and the presence of the Spirit of truth (John 16:13).
We wait for the eternal dispensation when all will be made plain. Even now in the new dispensation “we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (I Corinthians 13:12).
Our anticipation of a better dispensation does not change the present reality of the glorious salvation we have. Nor does the increased fulness and evidence which we have of this salvation change the reality of its existence in the old dispensation. They too had “full remission of sins, and eternal salvation.” Christ was the only Savior in the old dispensation too, for He is the Lamb slain from the foundations of the world.
What a marvellous grace that works the covenant. What a wonderful God Who works all things that to Him may be all the glory.