...

*Recently, I discovered this article in my files as an old, yellowed manuscript. How and where I got it, I do not know. The manuscript bears the title under which we publish the article, “The Covenant Concept.” In addition, the manuscript states that the article was “dictated by Herman Hoeksema in 1943.” The date is important. In 1943, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands were debating the doctrine of the covenant. By this article, which undoubtedly circulated among the ministers in the Protestant Reformed Churches, if not also among the people, Hoeksema carefully and clearly laid out the Protestant Reformed covenant conception. A few years later, the Protestant Reformed ministers who introduced the doctrine of a conditional covenant into the Protestant Reformed Churches opposed the “covenant concept” that had prevailed in the Protestant Reformed Churches at every point. To my knowledge, this article has not previously been published.

—Ed.


All of the views of the doctrine of the covenant (in fact, all views possible in this connection) can be comprehended under two heads: a) those that consider the covenant as a means to an end, and b) those that consider it an end in itself.

According to the first conception it is termed a “way to salvation,” an “agreement,” a “promise,” or, perhaps, an “alliance” (cf. A. Kuyper, Dictaten Dogmatiek).

According to the second conception, the covenant is essential and an end therefore in itself. It is that living relationship of most intimate fellowship of friendship that is a reflection of God’s own triune life, according to which He makes Himself known to and blesses His people and they know Him and find their delight in His fellowship and service. This idea of the covenant is founded upon Scripture. Allow us to point out the following:

1.The covenant with Adam (which certainly was not any agreement at all, nor an alliance between God and Adam, an agreement made after his creation) was a relationship that was given with Adam’s creation after the image of God. God reveals Himself to Adam and speaks to him, while Adam knows God as he speaks to Him in the garden “in the cool of the day.”

2.We find support in what we read of the covenant people in their relation to God: “they walked with God” (Gen. 5:22Gen. 6:8)—to walk with someone is an act of friendship and fellowship. We read that they talked with Him, and God revealed thereby His counsel to them and hid nothing from them (Gen. 6:13Gen. 9:9Gen. 18:17ff.).Moses knew and saw God face to face (Deut. 30:10), and Abraham was called the “friend of God” (Is. 41:8James 2:23).

3.It is this idea of friendship and fellowship that is symbolized in the tabernacle and temple.

4.This idea is literally expressed in many texts: Psalm 25:11Isaiah 55:3Isaiah 61:8Jeremiah 32:40 (the “everlasting covenant” cannot be a means to an end); Ezekiel 37:26;John 17:23 (intimate communion of life); II Corinthians 6:16 (the tabernacle and God’s dwelling with us); Revelation 21:3(the final realization—the tabernacle is with men).

In connection with the establishment of the covenant, it is a much discussed question whether the covenant is unilateral or bilateral (monopleurisch or dupleurisch). Is the covenant established by God alone, or by an act of God and man? This question is closely related to the other, which was a bone of contention in the Netherlands not so long ago, viz., whether we may speak of “parties” in the covenant, or only of “parts.” Of course, if the idea of the covenant is that of an agreement or alliance, it would seem to follow that 1) the covenant is established by the agreement or alliance, and, 2) that there must be at least two agreeing or contracting parties. However, the general answer of Reformed theologians is that the covenant is unilateral. In the establishment of the covenant, at least, God alone acts, not God and man. This is certainly the view of the Reformed confessions in as far as they speak of the covenant. How could the Heidelberg Catechism speak of the baptism of infants on the ground that they as well as the parents are in the covenant, if God alone had not established His covenant with them? The unilateral conception is also very strongly emphasized in our Form for Baptism. According to this form, God the Father makes an eternal covenant of grace with us, God the Son washes us in His blood from all our sins, and God the Holy Spirit sanctifies us and dwells in us. And this is quite well maintained by Reformed theological leaders in recent years (cf. Kuyper, Bavinck, Berkhof, etc.).

Yet, this was not always clearly maintained in the development of the idea of the covenant in Reformed theology, and still less in Reformed preaching. Professor W. Heyns, in his Gereformeerde Geloofsleer, strongly emphasized that the covenant is unilateral, but you discover that by this nothing else is meant than that God alone establishes the promise, and that now it depends upon the acceptance of that promise on our part whether the covenant is to be realized. Those who favor the view that the covenant is a pact or agreement often present it as conditional. God alone establishes all the conditions and obligations as well as the benefits of the covenant, but the realization of the covenant requires acceptation and consent on our part.

We must, however, maintain the fundamentally Reformed view: God alone, and unconditionally, establishes His covenant. It is strictly unilateral throughout. This ought to be evident from the following:

1.From the very idea of the covenant, especially if we conceive of it as the living relationship of friendship. How could man, either as creature or as sinner, secure for himself any right, or have any power to enter into that relation, or make himself the friend of God? It is evident that the relation, as well as his being taken into that relation, must be of God only.

2.From the covenant as God established it with Adam. There is no reciprocal action recorded in the first chapter of Genesis, or in the immediately subsequent chapters, on the part of God and Adam to establish or to realize any covenant relationship. God simply created him a covenant creature after His image, and He placed him in the proper relation of such a creature to Himself. Adam functions on the basis of that which God has made him as the friend-servant of his Creator.

3.From God’s dealings with Adam after the Fall, especially from Genesis 3:15. God offers nothing, and makes no conditions to fallen man, but simply declares that in spite of the work of Satan and of Adam He will maintain His covenant and will put enmity between man and the devil in their generations, an enmity the positive notion of which is friendship with God.

4.From the teaching throughout Scripture: “I will establish my covenant…” (Gen. 6:18—Noah; Gen. 17:7ff.—Abraham); “I will make an everlasting covenant of peace with you” (Is. 55:3Ezek. 37:26); “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…” (Jer. 31:31Heb. 8:8-10).

5.From the vision of Genesis 15 especially. Abraham is commanded to take sacrificial animals: heifer, she-goat, ram, turtle-dove, young pigeon, “and he divided them into halves and laid the two halves of each animal over against each other in two rows,” and the Lord under the symbols of smoking furnace and burning lamp passed between the pieces. The meaning of the vision is plain. The passing between the halves of the slaughtered animals signified or symbolized the ratification of the covenant. It was a testimony on the part of the parties of a covenant, that they would be faithful in the covenant even unto and, if need be, through death. Naturally, in the case of a man’s covenant, both parties would pass between the halves of the slaughtered animals. But in this case Abraham is a witness, God passes through alone. The covenant is His and He establishes it. It is based upon His faithfulness, and He will maintain and realize it even through the death of His Son.

As to the realization of this covenant, we can speak of its objective and subjective realization. To the objective realization belongs:

1.The eternal ordination of Christ as the Head of the covenant (institutio mediatoris) and the election of His people in Him, so that they are one body with Him legally and organically in their election.

2.It is centrally realized in the Incarnation, which can be viewed as the ideal realization of the covenant. There we see the union of God and man in most intimate fellowship. In Christ, God dwells with us.

3.Through the cross and the resurrection, by which is established the necessary basis of righteousness for this relation of friendship.

4.It is centrally perfected in Christ’s exaltation, by which the covenant-fellowship is raised to the heavenly level.

5.This central perfection of God’s heavenly tabernacle will ultimately be realized at the coming of Christ and the public adoption unto children.

The subjective realization of the covenant takes place through the Spirit of Christ. We are by nature not friends but enemies of God, dead in sin, not only unworthy to be received into the relationship of God’s friendship, but also wholly unfit for and spiritually unable to fellowship with the living God. If the covenant were an agreement, we could not possibly agree; if it were an offer, we could not possibly accept; if it were conditional, we would be wholly incapable of assuming any obligation or of fulfilling any condition. It cannot be, therefore, that God realizes the covenant objectively in the death and resurrection of Christ, while the subjective realization of that covenant depends in any way upon us. On the contrary, it is all of God, who makes us His friends and receives us into His own party. This He does through His Spirit and Word, whereby He regenerates us, calls us, gives us the true faith whereby He justifies us, delivers us from sin and its dominion, preserves us in the midst of the world, and finally makes us completely like Christ, receiving us into His everlasting tabernacle.

Now, Reformed theologians have usually said that, although the covenant is unilateral in origin, it becomes bilateral in operation and manifestation. In the true sense, this is also expressed in our Baptism Form, for after it has developed the truth that the triune God establishes His covenant with us, it continues to teach that “in all covenants there are contained two parts,” our part consisting in this: “that we love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, forsake the world, crucify our old nature, and walk in a new and holy life.” These, then, constitute our “covenant obligations,” yet we hasten to add that we must be very careful when we speak of these “covenant obligations,” lest we should turn in the direction of synergism. These obligations are not conditions either to enter or to remain in the covenant relation, but they constitute our calling, resulting from our having been received into God’s covenant. This calling we can fulfill only because God has realized His covenant within our hearts. The relation is as it is expressed in Philippians 2:12, 13: we work out what God works within us. God’s sovereign covenant of grace does not destroy us as rational, moral beings, changing us into “stocks and blocks,” but rather makes us His co-workers, or imitators, “that we may be followers of God as dear children” (Eph. 5:1). These obligations must not be understood, therefore, in the sense of another law imposed upon us from without as a burden, but rather as the expression of a law that God has written in our hearts, the fulfilling of which becomes our greatest delight.

… to be concluded