The Dutch theologian, Petrus van Mastricht, defines the covenant as: “An agreement between God and His people, in which God promises salvation and all the benefits implied therein, and demands obedience to His glory, and the Church on her part promises obedience to God and demands the reward of the promise.” According to him the covenant is strictly bilateral, that is, it has two parties that enter into a mutual treaty, God and the Church. Thus also Franciscus Turretinus: “Strictly and properly the covenant denotes a pact of God with man, through which God promises His blessings, particularly eternal life, to that one, and in like manner from man requires due obedience and loving worship, certain external signs being employed for the sake of confirmation; which is called bilateral and mutual because it is established by a mutual obligation of the covenanting parties, here by promise on the part of God, thereby keeping of the condition on the part of man.” And Brakel defines the covenant as: “An agreement or pact between God and the elect, in which God promises salvation and redemption, to which man consents and which he accepts.”
In the more recent Dutch theologians one finds a glimmer of deeper and richer notion of the covenant. Dr. A. Kuyper Sr. begins to emphasize the fundamental truth that God is a covenant God in Himself and that the relation between the Three Persons of the Trinity is a covenant relation. He finds in this covenant life of the triune Jehovah the basis for all covenant dealings of God with man; and he even speaks of the covenant as a relation of friendship in which God eats and drinks with man and speaks with him as a man with his brother, as a friend with his friend: “The establishment of the covenant is an act of friendship.” Yet, ultimately he does not transcend the notion of the covenant as a means to an end, as an agreement or pact or alliance between God and man. The idea of the covenant is, according to him, expressed in the definition that it is an alliance between two parties against a third. Also Dr. Bavinck emphasizes that the covenant rests in the covenant life of God Himself: “The covenant of redemption causes us to know the relation and the life of the Three Persons in the divine being as a covenant life, as a life of the highest consciousness and of the highest liberty. Here, within the divine being, the covenant has its full reality.” He even finds in the covenant the very essence of religion as fellowship with the living God. But also he ultimately considers the covenant as a means to an end, as a way of salvation. The covenant of grace “defines the way along which the elect shall reach their destination. It is the river-bed in which the stream of election moves onward to eternal glory.” And Dr. Vos defines the covenant of grace as “the gracious pact between the offended God and the offending sinner, in which God promises eternal life in the way of faith in Christ and the sinner accepts this believingly.” And incidentally the same definition may be found in the “Dogmatiek” of Prof. F. M. Ten Hoor.
Perhaps it is not superfluous to devote a line or two to the covenant conception of the late Prof. W. Heyns, especially because the Reformed Churches (Art. 31), or the so-called Liberated Churches, of the Netherlands favor the same covenant idea and have repeatedly appealed to him as a sort of authority on the subject. According to Prof. Heyns the essence of the covenant is the promise “to be a God unto you”. He must have nothing of presumptive regeneration, for by this the very basis of assurance is removed upon which children of the covenant may claim that God has indeed established His covenant with them, that He is their God, and that all the blessings of salvation are really theirs. Hence, he seeks something positive, something objective, something that may be said about and to all the children of the covenant that are born of believing parents, something that is more than a supposition, that is, in fact, indubitably certain. This positive, objectively certain ground he finds in the idea of the promise of God. The very essence of the covenant he finds in the promise: “I will be your God.” That infants as well as the adults are comprehended in the covenant of grace, therefore, means that theirs is the promise of the covenant. The promise is for all the children of believers, head for head, and soul for soul. God, in His part of the covenant, promises to all that He establishes His eternal covenant of grace with them, adopts them as His children and heirs, incorporates them into Christ, gives them the forgiveness of sins and eternal righteousness and life, that through His Holy Spirit He will dwell in them, apply unto them all that they have in Christ, sanctify and preserve them, until they “shall finally be presented without spot or wrinkle among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.” Here, then, is something objective, something everlastingly sure,—the promise of God. On the basis of this promise all the children of believers that are baptized are really in the covenant. One does not deal in suppositions here, but in certainties. It is on the basis of this certainty that the promise is for all the children of believers that they are baptized. Moreover, this promise is not to be identified with a mere “offer of grace”, such as comes to all that hear the gospel, according to Heyns. It is much more: it is a bequest on the part of God to all that are baptized. God bequeaths upon all the children of believers all the blessings of salvation. He gives them the right by testament to the riches of grace. And He solemnly seals this bequest, this testament, this objective right to the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, to them all by baptism.
But with this promise the command is inseparably connected: “Walk before me and be upright.” The promise is conditional, and the condition connected with the promise is faith and repentance. All have the promise. On the part of God the bequest is made to all by promise. God swears to all in baptism that their names are written in His testament. But the blessings promised are applied only to those that accept the promise by faith.
Such is the covenant conception of Prof. W. Heyns and, in the main, the theologians of the Reformed Churches (Art. 31) of the Netherlands agree with this view.
Of course, when one reads this view of the late Prof. Heyns, one cannot escape the impression that it is not Reformed, but Arminian. And the leaders of the Liberated Churches in the Netherlands have been repeatedly accused of this heresy. But they emphatically repudiate this accusation. They insist that one can believe and fulfill the covenant condition only through grace. And God works this grace only in the elect. However, how they harmonize this with their insistence upon the view that on His part God promises the blessings of salvation to all, it is difficult to understand.
Heyns presents his own solution of this problem. According to him, all the children that are born of believing parents have “subjective grace, which a) is sufficient in connection with spiritual labor bestowed through the means of grace to bring forth good fruit of faith and obedience, so that God judges that He has the most perfect right to expect these; b) does not exclude the possibility to bring forth wild grapes, when in spite of the most excellent labor bestowed upon him, the covenant child remains unfruitful, and therefore does not consist in saving grace; c) is not in conflict with the confession that the deepest ground of our salvation lies in election and that salvation shall be a work of God entirely. The outcome will not be the same in all, and the difference will be according to the council of God; ‘the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded.’ . How God in the ethical sphere executes His counsel without violating man’s moral freedom and responsibility remains for us a profound riddle, d) But makes the covenant member all the more responsible for his remaining unfruitful and bringing forth of wild grapes, and threatens him with a more severe judgment. Scripture teaches accordingly that the covenant child that enjoyed the influence of the work of the gospel is left wholly without excuse.” Cf. “Catechetics”, 143-145).
In brief, according to Heyns the promise of the covenant is objectively for all that are baptized. All are given the right to the blessings of salvation. The realization of this promise, however, depends on the’ attitude of the covenant children: they must accept the promise and walk in faith. And all receive sufficient grace to comply with the condition, yet so that they can also refuse and be lost.
I do not believe that in general the Liberated adopt this view of Heyns concerning a certain preparatory grace. Yet they must still explain how it is possible that the promise of salvation is on the part of God to all the children that are born under the covenant, that God, also according to them, must realize this promise by His sovereign grace, and that yet many of the covenant children are lost.
But let us now, after this little excursion, return to the main line of our discussion.
All the definitions of the covenant which we have discussed so far have this in common, that they describe the covenant as a means to an end, not as an end, the highest end, in itself. They differ only in their denotation of the essence of the covenant, some emphasizing the idea of an agreement or pact or alliance, others that of the promise, still others that of a way unto salvation. They differ too in their description of the parties of the covenant and their relation to each other. According to some, the covenant is strictly unilateral. According to others it is completely bilateral. While still others prefer to speak of the covenant as unilateral in its origin, but as bilateral in its operation. And, again, some identify the covenant of redemption, the pactum salutis, with the covenant of grace; while others consider the covenant of redemption as the basis for the covenant of grace. Some insist that the covenant of grace is established with Christ; others call it a pact between the offended God and the offending sinner. But always the covenant is essentially a means to an end, a pact or agreement, and the essential elements are always the promise of eternal life and the condition of faith and obedience.
There are several grave and serious objections against this presentation of the idea of the covenant. First of all, how can man ever be a party, a contracting party in relation to the living God? God is God, the Infinite, eternal, self-existent one. He is the Lord, the absolute sovereign, out of whom and through whom and unto whom are all things. There is none beside Him. And man is the creature, that owes all that he is and has, body and soul, all his powers and talents, his entire existence, every moment, to his Lord and Creator. God is the Fount, and man is the creature that drinks from that fount of all good. God is the all-sufficient I AM: man is completely and constantly dependent for his whole life and existence upon Him. There is no obligation man can assume, apart from that which is incumbent upon him by reason of his being a creature to love the Lord his God with all his heart and with all his existence. He can bring nothing to God, whose is all the silver and the gold and the cattle on a thousand hills. He can do nothing for the Most High, who is perfectly self-sufficient. All the good man has is a gift of grace, of free and sovereign favor, from his God. Even if he may love and serve His creator, it is a gift of divine goodness for which man owes Him thanks. How then can the relation of that creature to His Creator ever be or become an agreement or pact according to which man may merit something higher than he has already attained, even eternal life. Shall I make an alliance with the worm that crawls at my feet? Can the man who owes me a thousand dollars merit some other good that I am able to bestow upon him by paying his debt? Can man, then, be a contracting party with the Most High and merit anything with Him to whom he owes all? God forbid. The covenant between God and man can never be a pact, whether we call it the covenant of works or the covenant of grace, with mutual stipulations, conditions, and promises.
Reformed theologians have felt this objection very keenly, and therefore they usually add that this form of dealing on the part of God is due to His condescending grace and mercy. By grace man is put in a position in which he is a party with God and is able to merit or to obtain some higher good, particularly eternal life. But I object that God cannot deny Himself, and that even by grace He cannot so condescend to man that the latter becomes a party next to Him, even though the relation is presented as one between a very great party and a very small one. Man can never have the prerogative, or receive it from God, to make his stipulations and to demand eternal life on the basis of anything whatever that he has done or that he believes. The declaration of the law, “Do this, and thou shalt live”, is forever true, to be sure, because obedience is the sole way of God’s favor, and in His favor is life. But it does not and can never mean that by keeping God’s precepts man in the state of righteousness could attain to that higher state which is called life eternal and which is attainable only through the Son of God. And it is true that in the covenant of grace, as in all covenants, there are indeed contained two parts and that our part of the covenant is that we love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our mind and with all our soul and with all our strength; but let me remind you, first of all, that “parts” is not the same as “parties”, and secondly, that our part in the covenant is not a condition which we must fulfill in order to enter into the covenant of God or to remain in it, but rather our expression as moral creatures of the covenant relation which God establishes with us by His grace. The covenant is first established with us through “God’s part”. And our part follows and is the fruit of that gracious act of God.
Nor do we ever read in Scripture of a mutual transaction between God and man, in which God stipulates certain conditions which man accepts and by fulfilling which he may make himself worthy of eternal life. The covenant of works is usually described as consisting in a promise, a condition, and a penalty. This promise is said to be eternal life, the condition is obedience in regard to the probationary command not to eat of the forbidden tree, and the penalty is death. But first of all, let it be noted that Scripture does not speak one word in the first three chapters of Genesis of a mutual agreement between God and Adam. It is God that acts, and He alone. He plants the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden; and He gives Adam the command ,“Thou shalt not eat of it.” The command is in no wise contingent upon Adam’s agreement or consent. He is under the law. Secondly, the idea that God promised Adam eternal life in case he obeyed this command is pure fiction: Scripture does not speak of such a promise, nor even suggest it. The notion of such a promise is deduced from the threatened penalty, death. It is argued that since death was the penalty of disobedience, eternal life was the implied promise. And it may be granted: Adam would not have died, had he remained obedient to God’s command. But this does not imply that he would have attained to eternal life and to heavenly glory. He would have been confirmed in the state of life in which he had already been created. Moreover, we may safely state that eternal life is a form of fellowship with the living God which Adam could never attain. It is a form of life that requires for its basis the union of God and man established in the incarnation of the Son of God and that has its central realization in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. No promise of eternal life, therefore, was, or could have been, extended to Adam. Nor was the keeping of the probationary command presented to him as a condition unto that higher, heavenly life.
Nor is that other manifestation of the covenant, that is called the covenant of grace, ever presented in Scripture as a pact or agreement. Uniformly we read that God establishes His covenant freely and absolutely. When, after man had violated His covenant, He continues and maintains it, He reveals this act of grace in a sovereign declaration: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” diatheekee, which emphasizes the one-sidedness of this covenant.. On man’s consent this realization of the covenant depends in no wise. Both before and immediately after the flood the Lord says to Noah that He will establish His covenant with him and with his seed: the covenant is God’s, and He alone establishes it. ; . The same expression is used to denote God’s covenant with Abraham, : “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 thus it is presented throughout Scripture. Through Isaiah Jehovah says to His people: “I will make an everlasting covenant of peace with you.” . And through Jeremiah: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel.” ; . And the unilateral character of the covenant is clearly revealed in the vision of Jehovah to Abraham, recorded in , f.f. Abraham is commanded to take several sacrificial animals, divide them into halves, and lay the pieces in a row over against each other. Jehovah, then, under the symbols of a smoking furnace and a burning lamp passes through the midst of the pieces. The meaning of this ritual of passing between the halves of the sacrificial animals must have been well-known to Abraham. It symbolically expressed that the covenant was inviolably ratified and that he that so ratified it guaranteed it with his life, would rather go through death than ever annul it. Now, while in performing this ceremony both the covenant parties usually would pass through the pieces because the covenant could not be of one, in the vision of Gen. 15 the Lord alone performs this act, thus indicating that He is His own party and that He alone establishes His covenant. This is probably the reason why the word BERITH in the Hebrew is usually rendered by the Greek