The Covenant and the Atonement

In his excellent book, The Scripture Doctrine of the Church, D. D. Barmerman makes the following points:

I. “The Gospel” was “preached beforehand unto Abraham,” and received by him. The apostle’s whole argument with the Galatian Christians, in the third chapter of his Epistle to them, is, that if they do not know Abraham’s Gospel, they do not know the Gospel of God’s grace at all. . . . 

II. The covenant which God made with Abraham and his seed was the very covenant of grace and peace whereby we also, if we are true believers, inherit the promises. . . . If we are not in that “covenant confirmed beforehand by God,” we are not in the covenant at all. (pp. 4, 5)

With this every truly Reformed man agrees. It is because the Dispensationalists have lost sight of this that their Bible has shrunk to the New Testament, and even that becomes in most of their interpretations outlandishly contrived. But exactly because many in Reformed circles do not consider this covenant made before with Abraham carefully enough, they do not understand the nature of the covenants as fully as they should, nor for that matter the place of the atonement in the covenant. By using the history of the covenant with Abraham, which Paul in both Romans and Galatians uses so extensively, we intend to say a few things about the nature of the Covenant and the place of the Atonement in it. 

In Reformed circles the truth of the Covenant has been impoverished because too much attention has been paid to ancient covenantal contracts between men and direct analogy then made to the covenant of God in His grace with His people. How the insertion of God into the covenantal relationship transforms the entire picture has not received due consideration for the most part. As a result, the Scriptural truth of God’s covenant with His people has suffered, especially as it is the most brilliant revelation of God’s Sovereign and unmerited grace. In most covenantal explanations there is too much that clings to them of the earthly arrangement, so that to some degree God as the sole worker of Salvation is lost sight of, and to some degree man’s doing something that enables the covenant to remain in force is suggested. This must be avoided. 

What is accented in the record of Abraham is. not a covenant of God with man in terms of a contract tendered by God, consented to by man, with corresponding responsibilities, (however easy the terms might be for man), but what we see is a relationship of abiding friendship into which the Sovereign God out of His own eternal love enters with His elect people, to which relationship God binds Himself without any qualifying clauses. This is a covenant in which the Almighty God obligates Himself simply according to His own good pleasure to those whom He in His own good pleasure makes the promises. Almighty God is fully resolved to be forever the God of Abraham and His seed, true Jacob Israel (Gal. 3:14-16), come what may. He so commits Himself to blessing them that He cannot not bless them and remain a God of truth. Even after the covenant of the Law at Sinai, which covenant Israel horribly transgressed, this is so. The recurring refrain in the Old Testament is—”Yet for My name’s sake. . . .” This is the most important phrase in the whole of Old Testament history. Countless times it alone stood between sinful Israel and their being consumed by God in indignation. “Yet for My name’s sake. . . .” (Is. 48:9-11). And what “name” is that? “I am Jehovah, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Of that name God never repents. And it is this alone that carried the Old Testament remnant to the New Testament age. 

In Genesis 12 God singles out Abraham to receive the call to leave Ur to go to the land He would show him. InGenesis 15:7 God reveals that it is His avowed purpose to give him the land for an inheritance. It pointed to the Kingdom of Heaven which Abraham’s seed is to inherit (Heb. 11:10, 16). How fully God obligates Himself to realize the promise with Abraham is seen in chapter 15. Abraham seeks a seal of assurance that God intends to keep His word. Amazingly, God sees fit to honor this audacious request born of despair. He uses a ceremony, common to that day, whereby men sealed covenantal vows. He passes through the midst of animals slain and cut in half (vs. 17). This served as the strongest of vows. By the slain animals men said, “So may it be done to me and more also if I fail to keep my word in this covenantal matter.” As though His own declaration were not enough (Gen. 15:1, 2), God condescends to seal His word with this ceremony. “I the Almighty and eternal God will sooner pass through death than fail to keep My word to bless thee and give thy seed the land.” God alone passed through the carcasses. He required nothing of Abraham. His word was independent of man. He held only Himself to perform what He had determined to do. 

Thus you have the most basic expression of the Covenant. It is not a means leading to God’s love, but in and of itself an expression of God’s amazing grace and eternal love for an elect recipient and cherished people, according to which He would draw them unto Himself. 

In this covenant the atonement, Christ’s sacrifice, has a central place. (This is anticipated already by the bloody carcasses.) It must have, because of God’s righteousness. That God is resolved to have Abraham’s children enjoy His fellowship does not mean that He intends to “jeopardize” His own righteousness by ignoring man’s sinful condition and guilty state. That is made plain by the covenant of the Law, which expressed God’s righteousness and taught man his sinful unworthiness in painful terms. For there to be communion, there would have to be righteousness. 

Significantly, Scripture tells us ‘that the Law, which was added 450 years later, did not annul, make of no effect, the covenant made with Abraham (Gal. 3:17). It did not add conditions which, man being unable to fulfill, would conceal God’s previous word of promise. That stood. In fact it is because of the prior covenant established with Abraham that God was obligated (meaning, had graciously obligated Himself) to provide a way whereby the righteousness could be justly worked out and obtained. It is not an arbitrary matter that the covenant of grace was made before the Law was added, before the righteous demands were spelled out. The unconditional promise stood, regardless of the righteous demands of the Law (Gal. 3:17, 18). According to His immutable word He would bless Abraham and His seed, and. He would not fail even in the face of Jacob-Israel’s transgression. 

By the cross-atonement God kept the covenant. It is important to say it exactly that way. We do not say that by the cross God kept His part of the covenant, leaving the impression that there remains now something that Abraham’s seed must keep if the covenant is actually to be finalized and operate. The cross is not a means whereby God can now work salvation if the children of Abraham co-operate and show the necessary faith. Such is to say far too little about the reconciliation worked by God. No, the cross is the event whereby God carries out His covenant vow to Abraham, namely, that He would surely give to Abraham’s seed the Kingdom. Through this death and its fruit Abraham’s seed passed into the Kingdom. And what seed that is is set forth in Romans 9:6 ff; not his fleshly descendants, but those elected to be his spiritual sons. 

In the cross you have the amazing spectacle of Immanuel, God with us, passing through death. But, the Son of God dies, not because God has failed someplace along the line, and so the Son must suffer the penalty, but because the unrighteousness of Abraham and his seed had to be paid for, dismissed, and replaced by righteousness, lest it prevent the fulfillment of God’s word. Their righteousness had to be worked out. The Law revealed that, and exposed man’s inadequacy. And so, according to His promise to Abraham, God accomplished this requirement in His Son. Rather than having His word fail due to His chosen people’s sin, He passed through death. And, certainly, that passing through death could not be in vain. As Christ states in John 6:37, “All that the Father giveth Me shall come unto Me; and him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out.” In accordance with His covenant promises God prepared a Mediator Who as The Seed of Abraham works all righteousness for those with whom God had determined to dwell and to whom He would give the Kingdom. 

It must not be thought that, following the cross, the heirs of Abraham still had something to keep and work before the covenant of grace could operate. Christ as the Son of God is The Seed of Abraham also, and in Him the seed of Abraham fulfilled all righteousness. The blood of the covenant is shed that when God by His Holy Spirit calls the elect irresistibly unto faith and repentance their faith is not in vain, but has a God-approved object, a faith that indeed obtains righteousness, righteousness in the One crucified. 

It is of God! It is of grace, grace that staggers the imagination and which overwhelms the soul, grace that magnifies Jehovah’s name alone as Jehovah Our Salvation.