Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored (Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, 2012). Pp. 165. $12.00 (paper). [Reviewed by David J. Engelsma.]
The purpose of this book is commendable: an overview of the biblical doctrine of the covenant that will introduce this essential truth to Reformed and Presbyterian believers.
Sacred Bond gives brief explanations of all the important aspects of the covenant, from the source of the covenant in the “covenant of redemption” to the new covenant, including also the covenant with Adam in Paradise, the covenant with Noah, the Abrahamic covenant, the Sinaitic covenant, and the Davidic covenant. There are references to the main passages of Scripture teaching all the aspects of the covenant and brief explanations of these passages.
That the book fails to achieve its purpose is due to two serious faults. The explanation is not precise and consistent. And it is doctrinally erroneous in important respects.
The imprecision and inconsistency concern, chiefly, the definition, or basic description, of the covenant, no minor matter. The title of the book suggests the correct definition and right description: the sacred bond (of communion) between God and His elect people in Jesus Christ. Here and there, throughout the book, the authors renew the description of the title, referring to the covenant as a “relationship” and as “communion.”
But the formal, authoritative, and controlling definition identifies the covenant as an “agreement that creates a relationship with legal aspects” (11). The emphasis throughout on conditions and conditionality indicates that the authors meant by “agreement” what the word signifies.
An agreement is not a sacred bond, or relationship. As the definition expresses, at best an agreement can create a relationship. When its mutual stipulations are violated, an agreement can also destroy a relationship.
As if this confusion were not enough, there is yet another description of the biblical covenant: a promise. The important administration of the covenant with David—the “Davidic covenant”—is defined as “God’s promise to David,” etc. (123).
A promise is neither a sacred bond nor an agreement, but something quite different from both. Theologically, the concept of covenant promise (by God) contradicts the concept of covenant as mutual agreement.
Similarly, it is contradictory to assert, on the one hand, that “the covenant of redemption was not a ‘plan B’ to fix the mess Adam made, but the original blueprint for the work of Christ” and, in the same breath, to assert that God’s plan regarding Christ was “to remedy the disastrous results of the first Adam’s failure to fulfill the covenant of works in the garden of Eden and bring humankind to glory” (23).
The explanation of this contradiction is the authors’ conviction that Adam might have accomplished for all humans what Jesus Christ accomplished only for some, that is, the meriting of eternal, heavenly, immortal life. Christ, therefore, was not decreed as the Savior whose purpose was served by the covenant with and the fall of Adam, but was planned by God merely as the (partial) “remedy” of the failure of Adam.
More grave is the inconsistency, indeed the contradiction, concerning the Sinaitic covenant, that is, the covenant established with Israel at Sinai. The book describes that covenant both as an administration of the covenant of grace, established originally with Adam in the promise of Genesis 3:15 and then with Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and as a republication of the covenant of works (as the authors see and call it) with Adam before the fall. As a republication of the covenant of works, the covenant with Israel put that nation in the position that “Israel’s standing before God . . . rested on their keeping of the law . . . . The people’s law-keeping was their merit or righteousness before the Lord” (110). “The Mosaic covenant is compared to a business deal . . .” (111).
The authors suppose that they relieve this contradiction by distinguishing eternal benefits from temporal blessings and the heavenly Canaan from the earthly. But the fact remains that on their view the Sinaitic covenant was not wholly an administration of the covenant of grace. In an important respect, it was the imposition upon the people of God of a covenant of works and merit. And the apostle’s answer into his question, “Wherefore then serveth the law?” must be significantly qualified. In a certain respect, the law was indeed “against the promises of God.”
This leads to the second fault of the book: It is doctrinally erroneous.
This reviewer marvels at the error, in light both of the identity of the authors and of the contemporary development of the doctrine of the covenant that these authors espouse. This development is the heresy of the Federal Vision. The heresy has grievously troubled the denominations to which the authors belong. One of the authors is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church; the other is a minister in the United Reformed Churches.
The Federal Vision is, as it advertises itself as being, the natural, inevitable development of the doctrine of a conditional covenant. Out of the theology of the covenant as a conditional agreement between God and men comes the denial of justification by faith alone, as of all the doctrines of grace.
In their exposition of the covenant, the authors of Sacred Bond show no awareness of the covenant heresy and its root. If they are aware, as one cannot imagine they are not, they have learned absolutely nothing from the heresy and its dreadful effects in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, including their own.
The biblical covenant confessed and explained by Brown and Keele is conditional from stem to stern, from source to fulfillment. The “covenant of redemption,” whence the covenant and the covenant Christ originate, is a conditional agreement between the Father and the Son in the Godhead, with the Holy Spirit chipping in that He will apply the covenant.
Likewise, the book presents the covenant with Adam as a conditional pact between God and Adam—a “covenant of works.” Doing full justice to the word “condition,” the authors declare that Adam could very really have merited eternal life by his obedience (44-46). Everlastingly, Adam and the entire human race might have shouted and sung in heaven about the highest life and supreme blessedness, “This is what we earned. Glory be to us!”
Although the authors recognize the covenant with Abraham as unconditional, they go on to describe the new covenant with believers and their children, which is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, as conditional: “Its [the new covenant’s] condition is, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ’” (138). As though the Canons of Dordt had never exposed the Arminian heresy as teaching that faith is the new covenant condition of salvation, rather than obedience to the law in the old covenant (Canons, 2, Rejection of Errors: 4), the authors of Sacred Bond distinguish the new covenant from the old thus: “Its [the old covenant’s] condition was, ‘Do this and you will be blessed’ . . . . The new covenant, on the other hand, is based on God’s promise to save sinners. Its condition is, “‘Believe . . .’” (138).
As for the covenant with Noah, that, according to Sacred Bond, was “the common grace covenant” (73). God made that covenant with “all humanity descended from Noah” (77). The covenant with Noah expresses God’s grace toward reprobate, God-hating, depraved sinners and bestows God’s blessings upon them, apart from the righteousness of the cross, in “sunshine, rain, food, and possessions . . . . They are common graces from God, and the Noahic covenant gives God’s covenantal foundation for them” (75).
All humans have a grace of God in common. All humans alike are bound to God and to each other in a divine covenant of grace. God is bound, in His covenant, graciously, to the likes of Nero, Duke Alva, Hitler, Stalin, John Wayne Gacy, Richard Dawkins, and all those today whose rebellion against Him has reached the pitch of changing “the truth of God into a lie, and worship[ing] and serv[ing] the creature more than the Creator” ().
The authors put the blessing of God in the houses of all these wicked persons, where it may contend (successfully, the authors think) with the curse that God Himself has placed in these houses (see).
To this reviewer, it is irksome that Reformed writers illustrate holy, biblical truths by scenes or lines from profane movies. The Christian life need not, and ought not, be taught by a line that a Hollywood actor portraying the unbelieving Wyatt Earp spoke to another Hollywood infidel acting out the life of godless Doc Holiday (70, 71). Perhaps this is the Christian “culture” that characterizes the theology and practice of common grace. If so, it is another reason why Reformed Christians should repudiate common grace.