From the same West Coast reader who has asked questions about the subject of covenant breakers a couple of times before, I received some further questions. He writes: “In Old Testament times the Word of God speaks about covenant breakers. Can we also speak in the new dispensation about covenant breakers in the same sense of the word, with respect to those born of believing parents but who have turned their back on the church or who live an unruly and irregular church life? My question is not about the term itself, but rather about the idea of this expression. In my opinion it sounds like a contradiction of the true meaning of God’s covenant. Who can break God’s covenant? It seems to me that if we use the termcovenant-breaker, then the subjective view overrules the objective covenant idea.”
Evidently my correspondent has been having a rather extended discussion about questions related to covenant-breaking. I first answered some questions about this subject some three years ago (cf. Vol. 51, pp. 368,369). Then I answered some questions about the Old Testament use of the expression “to break God’s covenant” in Vol. 52, p. 847. And apparently the discussion is not yet ended. I cannot fault my correspondent for this, because I frequently say, “Call again” at the conclusion of my answers. Hence, I will try again to shed some light on the subject.
First of all, I am not sure what my correspondent means when he suggests that if we use the termcovenant-breaker, “then the subjective view overrules the objective covenant idea.” However, if he means to suggest that then man’s action overrules the objective surety of God’s covenant, then I agree that there is a very real danger of this. That leads me to say that in this entire discussion about. covenant breaking there are two crucial questions. The first is: what do you understand by the covenant of grace? As I stated in my reply three years ago, “If you define the covenant, as we do, as the eternal relationship of friendship between God and His elect people in Christ Jesus, then it certainly follows, too, that that covenant cannot be broken. It is eternal, and it is an everlasting covenant. And it lies in the very nature of the case, therefore, that an eternal and an everlasting covenant is unbreakable.” If, however, you understand the covenant as consisting in some kind of contract or agreement or in a general, conditional promise, then you also open the door to the possibility that such a covenant can be broken. In fact, you open the door to the certainty that such a covenant will be broken. But as I pointed out in my earlier answer, both Scripture and our Baptism Form emphasize that God’s covenant is eternal and unbreakable. In fact, the Baptism Form makes plain that this very truth is of tremendous significance for our faith and for the assurance of faith—if you want to talk about the subjective aspect. “And if we sometimes through weakness fall into sin, we must not therefore despair of God’s mercy, nor continue in sin, since baptism is a seal and undoubted testimony, that we have an eternal covenant of grace with God.” That, by the way, is one of the most beautiful and comforting expressions in our liturgical literature.
The second crucial question is this: who do you understand as being included in God’s covenant? Does God’s covenant embrace only the elect, that is, believers and their seed? Then again you cannot very well speak of that covenant being broken in the sense that the relation of friendship is severed. If, however, you include all children of believers, head for head and soul for soul, you also necessarily open the door to the idea of that covenant being broken through the unbelief and impenitence of the reprobate children, who fail to fulfill the conditions of that covenant. But then again you come face to face with the problem of what becomes of the Scriptural idea of an eternal covenant of grace.
In the second place, as I also pointed out earlier, Reformed people have sometimes spoken rather loosely and inaccurately, in connection with the sins of those who are born and brought up and live in the historical sphere of God’s covenant, of covenant-breakers. This language is not accurate and precise. We must certainly not forget that in the sphere of the covenant all sin—whether of elect or reprobate—is more emphatically sinful. Moreover, the sin of the unbelieving and impenitent in the sphere of the covenant is aggravated; and they shall be beaten with double stripes in the judgment. These truths must be emphasized, too. But it is neither necessary nor helpful to speak in this connection of covenant breaking; it is only confusing.
Finally, let me point out that in the New Testament the expression is not found. I pointed out earlier that the Old Testament usage of this terminology stands connected undoubtedly with the fact that at Sinai the law was imposed upon the promise. But in the new dispensation we are not under the law, but under grace. Only once is the expression “covenant breakers” found in the New Testament, in Romans 1:31. But there the expression has nothing to do with the covenant of grace between God and His people, but rather with man-to-man relationships.
I hope the above comments will help my questioner.