God’s Covenant with Man Unilateral

Basically and fundamentally but two conceptions of the covenant of God with man are possible. It is either a means to an end or it is the end itself. Viewed as the former, it can be regarded as a promise, or an agreement, contract, or a way of salvation, or an alliance against Satan and all the powers of sin and darkness. Viewed as the end itself it is the highest to which man can possibly attain. We are convinced that the latter conception is the Scriptural presentation. Thus far we have advanced considerable proof in support of this contention. We noted that the Word of God speaks of the covenant as an eternal covenant and that the Lord realizes it by writing His law into the hearts of His people. Moreover, it is clear from Holy Writ that Adam was created by God in covenant- relationship with Him and that therefore God’s covenant with the first man could not possibly have been something incidental, something added after his creation. We also brought out that Adam, after violating the covenant, was restored into covenant-relationship with Jehovah and that the Lord did so by establishing enmity between the seed of the woman and that of the devil. Scripture, we saw, speaks of Enoch, Noah, and Abraham as the friends of God and Psalm 25:14 literally identifies the covenant with fellowship, intimate acquaintance with Jehovah. And finally the Word of God describes the eternal glory as God’s tabernacle with man, and the Father’s house with many mansions—and this is surely the idea of friendship and communion,

God’s Covenant with Man, Unilateral or Bilateral?

Is the covenant of the Lord with man unilateral or bilateral? This is a very pertinent question. Must God’s covenant with His people be regarded as unilateral (“monopleurisch”)? Does it proceed solely from God? Is it established by the Lord alone? Or must it be viewed as bilateral, “two-sided”, (“dupleurisch”)? Does it proceed from God and man, and is it established jointly by God and man? Besides, must the covenant, also as far as its development, its operation and manifestation, is concerned, be regarded as unilateral or bilateral? Is it correct to say that God’s covenant with man is unilateral in origin but bilateral in its operation and manifestation?

In this connection the question might also be asked: Should we speak of parties or parts in the covenant? We are probably all aware of the fact that our Baptism Form speaks of “parts” rather than “parties”. But Professor Schilder, during his recent visit among us, made it clear that he preferred the term “parties” to the term “parts”. The question, “Is God’s covenant with man unilateral or bilateral”?, is therefore a pertinent question,

God’s Covenant with Man is Unilateral in its Establishment—The Reformed View.

When we, in this connection, speak of the establishment of God’s covenant, we refer to its origin, to the moment when it is established rather than to its continuous operation and manifestation. The continuous operation of the covenant implies that it must be assumed and kept by man. To this continuous manifestation we do not refer at this time. To be sure, if the covenant is regarded as an agreement or an alliance, this would seem to indicate that two parties are necessary to establish such a covenant, inasmuch as at least two parties are required to make an agreement. Reformed thinking, however, has always emphasized the unilateral character of the establishment of God’s covenant with His people.

First, our Reformed Confessions surely emphasize the unilateral character of the establishment of God’s covenant in Christ Jesus. In answer to Question 74, “Are infants also to be baptized”?, the Heidelberg Catechism answers that “they as well as the adult are included in the covenant and church of God”. This answer is understandable only if the establishment of God’s covenant be regarded as unilateral. Indeed, these children whereof the Catechism speaks in Lord’s Day 27 did not enter the covenant of their own choice or agreement. The fact, therefore, that they as well as the adult are included in the covenant and the church of God emphasizes the unilateral character of this covenant. Also our Baptism Form stresses the unilateral character of the origin of God’s covenant. We read in Part One: “Secondly, Holy Baptism witnesseth and sealeth unto us the washing away of our sins through Jesus Christ. Therefore we are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. For when we are baptized in the name of the Father, God the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us, that He doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for His children and heirs, and therefore will provide us with every good thing, and avert all evil or turn it to our profit. And when we are baptized in the name of the Son, the Son sealeth unto us, that He doth wash us in His blood from all our sins, incorporating us into the fellowship of His death and resurrection, so that we are freed from all our sins, and accounted righteous before God. In like manner, when we are baptized in the name of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost assures us, by this holy sacrament, that He will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ, applying unto us, that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins, and the daily renewing of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without spot or wrinkle among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.” This language of our Baptism Form cannot be understood in a bilateral sense of the word. Mind you, all these things are declared of children who are baptized. We read, do we not: “For when we are baptized. . . .”

Reformed theologians of the past also have advocated this unilateral character of the Covenant. Prof. Bavinck writes in his “Gereformeerde Dogmatiek”, Volume III, page 194 (we translate): “But also when

God and man conclude a covenant, the unilateral character naturally appears repeatedly upon the foreground; we are not dealing with two equal parties, but God is the Sovereign, Who; enjoins His ordinances upon the creatures. . . . For, indeed, the covenant of God also imposed obligations upon those with whom it was concluded; obligations, namely, not as conditions for our entrance into the covenant. . . . but as the way upon which he who had been taken up in the covenant out of grace henceforth must walk.” Other theologians, too, have expressed themselves likewise.

The late Prof. W. Heyns also emphasized the unilateral character of the covenant. However, according to him the essence of the covenant lay in the promise, the promise that God will be our God in Jesus Christ, the Lord. And this promise he interpreted as an offer, as a promise which the Lord simply extended to all. Hence, Heyns’ unilateral conception of the covenant simply consisted herein that God, of His own sovereign will, extended this promise to everyone who received the sacrament of baptism. And, naturally, it depends upon us whether this covenant or promise will be realized in us. The Holy Spirit, then, wills to sanctify us. But we must will to be sanctified and accept this gracious promise of God.

God’s Covenant with Man Unilateral in its Establishment—Scriptural

That God’s covenant with man is unilateral is surely Scriptural. This is evident, first of all, from the very idea of the Covenant. We proceed now from the assumption that the covenant is essentially a relationship of friendship. Holy Writ surely teaches us throughout that we are by nature children of wrath and also of disobedience. As children of wrath we lie under condemnation, are estranged from the fellowship of God, and worthy of eternal death and desolation. As children of disobedience we are characterized wholly by disobedience, are devoid of all spiritual light and truth, are darkness in all our thinking and willing. As such we are not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be—Rom. 8:7. Hence, the relationship of friendship must surely be realized by God. We have no right to it. And we cannot merit the right to it. Besides, it is God alone who can bring us into this relationship of friendship spiritually. We are enmity and darkness. We cannot love God. It is God alone who can make us His friends and pour His love into our hearts and minds. The very idea of the covenant requires, therefore, that we maintain the principle that it is unilateral—God alone must and God can realize it.

This appears, secondly, from Scripture’s account of the creation and existence of man in Paradise. Man was created in this covenant relationship. Scripture does not speak of any agreement or contract between man and the living God. To this we have already called attention in previous articles.

Thirdly, that the establishment of the covenant must be regarded as unilateral also appears from God’s dealings with man after the fall. The Lord sets enmity between His church and the seed of the devil. And enmity is, as we have already noted, the friendship of the Lord which renders the people of God His party over against the children of darkness. Notice also that God sets this enmity: “I will set enmity between thee and the woman, thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise its heel.” And this, we understand, applies not only to Eve but to all her seed, to all the people of God throughout the ages. Hence, Gen. 3:15 teaches us that our fighting the good fight of faith, our being the party of the living God, is not the result of an agreement or contract but exclusively the fruit of the irresistible grace of the living God.

Fourthly, this truth is clearly substantiated by various Scriptural passages. Notice, please, the personal pronoun “I” in the following quotations. “But with thee will I establish My covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons’ wives. . . . And I, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you; . . . . And I will establish My covenant with you, neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there anymore be a flood to destroy the earth. And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between Me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”—Gen. 6:18; 9:9; 9:11-17. “And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and 1 will be their God.”—Gen. 17:6-8. “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the days that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which My covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”—Jeremiah 31:31-34. “But now saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and He that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art Mine. . . . When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. . . . For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Savior: I gave Egypt for thy ransom, Ethiopia and Seba for thee. . . . Since thou wast precious in My sight, thou hast been honorable, and I have loved thee: therefore will. I give men for thee, and people for thy life. . . . Fear not: for I am with thee: I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west; …I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring My sons from far, and My daughters from the ends of the earth; . . . . Even every one that is called by My name: for I have created him for My glory, I have formed him, yea, I have made him. . . . Ye are My witnesses, saith the Lord, and My servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe Me, and understand that I am He: before Me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after Me. … I, even I, am the Lord; and beside Me there is no savior. … I have declared, and have saved, and I have shewed, when there was no strange god among you: therefore ye are My witnesses, saith the Lord, that I am God. . . . Yea, before the day was I am He; and there is none that can deliver out of My hand: I will work, and who shall let it? …. I am the Lord, your Holy One, the creator of Israel, your King.” —Isaiah 43:1-7, 10-13, 15. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”—Eph. 2:8-10. Notice also how God receives all the glory in the following beautiful passage, Psalm 89:1-18: “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord for ever: with my mouth will I make known Thy faithfulness to all generations. For I have said, Mercy shall be built up forever: Thy faithfulness shalt Thou establish in the very heavens. I have made a covenant with My chosen, I have sworn unto David My servant, Thy seed will I establish forever, and build up thy throne to all generations. Selah. And the heavens shall praise Thy wonders, O Lord: Thy faithfulness also in the congregation of the saints. For who in the heaven can be compared unto the Lord? who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the Lord ? God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about Him. O Lord God of hosts, who is a strong Lord like unto Thee? or Thy faithfulness round about Thee? Thou rulest the raging of the sea: when the waves thereof arise, Thou stillest them. Thou hast broken Rahab in pieces, as one that is slain; Thou hast scattered thine enemies with Thy strong arm. The heavens are Thine, the earth also in Thine: as for the world and the fullness thereof, Thou hast founded them. The north and the south Thou hast created them: Tabor and Hermon shall rejoice in Thy name. Thou hast a mighty arm: strong is Thy hand, and high is Thy right hand. Justice and judgment are the habitation of Thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before Thy face. Blessed is the people that know the joyful sound: they shall walk, O Lord, in the light of Thy countenance. In Thy Name shall they rejoice all the day: and in Thy righteousness shall they be exalted. For Thou art the glory of their strength: and in Thy favor our horn shall be exalted. For the Lord is our defense; and the Holy One of Israel is our King.” And please note, finally how the unilateral aspect of salvation is emphasized in the first chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, whereof we quote but a few verses: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, To the praise of the glory of His grace, wherein He hath made us accepted in the Beloved. In Whom we have the redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace; Wherein He hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence; Having made known unto us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He hath purposed in Himself, etc. etc.—verses 3-9. Indeed, this latter passage of the Word leaves little doubt as to the sovereign character of our salvation and the establishment of the Lord’s covenant with His people.

Fifthly, and finally, that the establishment of God’s covenant is unilateral is beautifully emphasized in Abraham’s vision as recorded in Genesis 15. According to verse 7 the Lord had renewed His promise to Abraham that He would give him the land of Canaan for an inheritance. Upon Abraham’s question, “Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?”, the Lord had commanded him (verse 9) to take an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon. These animals Abraham had taken, had divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another. The birds, however, he had not divided. After the sun had gone down, we read, a deep sleep fell upon Abraham. During that sleep the Lord appeared unto him, and told him that his seed would be a stranger in a strange land, but that He would cause his seed to return out of that strange land with a great substance. To symbolize this renewal of His covenant with Abraham we read in verse 17: “And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces.” The symbolism referred to in this passage in Genesis 15 was a ceremony usually carried out by two or more parties who concluded a covenant with one another. As such the symbolism was plain. The parties declared by means of this ceremony that they pledged faithfulness to one another and agreed that, if one or the other would prove to be unfaithful, the same would happen to him that had happened to those animals which had been slain. When such a covenant was concluded between men both parties would pass between the divided parts of the animals. Hence, the symbolism is striking as it appears in Genesis 15. Abraham is in a deep sleep. It is God alone who passes through the midst of the animals. And in connection with this symbolism verse 18 declares: “In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.” It is therefore, not God and Abraham who conclude a covenant with one another. It is not the Lord and Abraham who enter into an agreement or a covenant with one another. It is God alone who passes through the midst of the animals. Hence, the covenant of God with Abraham is of the Lord alone. God will cause the seed of Abraham to become a stranger in the strange land of Egypt. And God alone will cause the people of Israel to return out of the land of bondage. And God alone will give the land of Canaan unto that people for an inheritance. The promise but also the fulfillment of that promise is of Jehovah. The covenant is His. He takes us up into His covenant fellowship. The establishment of the Lord’s covenant fellowship with His people is, therefore, strictly unilateral. To Him, to Him alone be all the glory.

(to be continued)