The covenant of God and our mission to the world (2): The decree of the covenant and missions

Previous article in this series: March 15, 2020, p. 282.

“As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world” (John 17:18). “Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (John 20:21). As God sent His Son, the chief Missionary, to save the world of men whom the Father had given to Him out of all nations and to give them everlasting life in His covenant, even so the Son of God has sent us into all the world to preach the gospel of that salvation He has accomplished on the cross and that covenant God now establishes with men throughout the nations.

The covenant…

and missions.

The missio Dei, or mission of God, was to send His only begotten Son into our flesh to save from our sins the world whom He loved, to reconcile to Himself all creatures and those whom He ordained to eternal life out of the whole human race, to draw the world into His own covenant life.

“God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17). “And when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son… to redeem them that were under the law…” (Gal. 4:4-5). “And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world” (I John 4:14).

Our Lord Jesus Christ, in turn, has given us a great commission, the missio ecclesiae—which is not some little sideshow, but the great calling of the church—to go into that world and preach the gospel of the covenant that God has promised to establish with all who are afar off, whom He will call to faith in Christ and their seed after them in the lines of continued generations (Gen. 17:4-7; Acts 2:39).

But before we examine more closely those two areas where God has promised to establish His covenant, I would like to pause and consider the mystery and wonder of the covenant within the blessed Trinity. My reason is that the mission of the Son of God was to draw the world into that divine covenant, and that is the basis of our mission to preach the good news that He has done so by the blood of His cross and is doing so by His Spirit. I am hesitant to go very far into this mystery of God’s own covenant life for fear of getting tangled up in vain speculations about things that God has not shown us. For the Most High God said to Moses from the burning bush, “Draw not nigh thither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet; for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” As we draw near to behold the inner covenant life of God in the holy Trinity, let us first take off our shoes, for we are standing on holy ground. We will gaze at the brilliant and glorious things God has revealed to us in His Word about His own divine covenant life, the very being of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. May He guard us from transgressing the boundaries of what He would have us to know from the Holy Scriptures.

First of all, let it be understood that many Reformed and Presbyterian theologians of the past and present have posited a covenant within the Trinity between the Father and the Son. They called it the pactum salutis, Latin for “the covenant of redemption.”1 They certainly did not all define this covenant within the Godhead in the same way. But they all agreed that it was a mutual contract between the Father and the Son (and sometimes they included the Holy Spirit). In this eternal agreement, the Father supposedly assigned the work of redemption to the Son, promising to give Him a great reward provided He first fulfill the condition of perfect obedience: He had to obey the will of the Father, go into the world, humble Himself to the death of the cross, and accomplish salvation. Likewise, the Son supposedly accepted this eternal assignment, promising to become a man through the incarnation and to give His life a ransom for the salvation of many, while requiring the Father to keep His end of the bargain.

The pactum salutis between the Father and the Son, according to these theologians, is the basis of the covenant of grace between God and men. By His mission to the world, the Son supposedly fulfilled the conditions laid upon Him in the pactum salutis and paved the way for the establishment of the covenant of grace with men. After the Son received His reward from the Father, their eternal pact served its purpose and fell away. God now establishes His covenant with men, which these theologians also define as a mutual contract with parties, promises, and conditions. As the Father sent the Son into the world, God sends men into the nations to preach the gospel. That gospel announces the promise of God to all men to give them eternal life on the condition of faith in Jesus Christ. By accepting Jesus Christ, a man supposedly fulfills the condition laid upon him in the covenant and receives the reward of eternal life. Once he has received the reward, the covenant with him simply falls away. The covenant for these theologians is always an agreement, a conditional contract, and a means to an end. When it serves its purpose, it falls away.

God has led the Protestant Reformed Churches to a different understanding of the covenant, both within the Trinity and between God and elect sinners. For reasons known only to Him, He has guided us into the truth of the Scriptures that His covenant is not a contract or agreement with parties, promises, and conditions that serves its purpose and then falls away. But His covenant is the warm relation of living fellowship and friendship between two or more persons who know each other and dwell together.2 That is true of His covenant with us. That is also true of His covenant within Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God has revealed in His Word (for example, II Cor. 6:18) that His covenant is like the father-child relationship.

Thus, we need only consider our own families to understand the nature of the covenant within the Godhead. I am a father. My wife and I have a son and four daughters. What is the nature of our relationship with them? Shall I liken it to my relationship with our Filipino landlord with whom I have a cordial relationship, but whom I do not really know, with whom I have entered into a rental agreement by signing a contract with promises and conditions? Not at all. But by the wonder of conception and birth, God has forged an intimate relationship of fellowship between us and our children. God has structured the relationship so that we as parents have authority over our children and they must submit to us. But at its core, it is a relationship of love and life, knowledge and fellowship. God has taught us in the Scriptures that our blessed Christian family life is only a dim reflection of the unimaginably beautiful family life of God Himself within the Trinity. That intimate relationship of God the Father with God the Son in God the Holy Spirit is the real covenant within the Trinity. That is far from the traditional doctrine of the pactum salutis, which supposes that the covenant within the Godhead is just a glorified, divine business contract with parties, promises, and conditions.

However, Reformed and Presbyterian theologians who teach the pactum salutis are correct that the covenant of grace that Christ confirmed by the blood of the cross and which God is establishing in the nations of the world is the fruit of an eternal decree of God. They are wrong to confound the actual covenant within the being of God with the decree of God to reveal and share that covenant with others outside Himself. This has led them into a serious flaw in their exegesis of the Scriptures, which say that God sent His Son into the world and that Jesus did the will of the One who sent Him (for example, John 3:17; 4:34; 5:30). For instance, Jesus said, “I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me” (John 6:38). They explain this to mean that the First Person of the Trinity, in His covenant with the Second Person of the Trinity, required Him to go into the world. Hence, the Second Person came down from heaven not to do His own will but the will of the First Person. But that explanation distinguishes the will of the Father from the will of the Son and leads us away from the truth that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share the whole divine essence equally, including the divine will. Rather, by those words our Lord meant to say, “I came down from heaven and became a man not to do my own human will, but the will of God who sent me.”3

But let us try to penetrate a little farther into this matter. The covenant of grace with men from all nations flows from an eternal decree of God, the decree of the covenant, and that decree includes the will of God to send His Son into the world. Moreover, that decree of God to send His Son into the world to reveal and share His own covenant with others outside Himself is the one will of all three persons of the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit make the decree of the covenant together, as they make all the decrees of God together. They have one mind, one heart, one will. They have one life, one love, one covenant. In their covenant with each other, God the Father wills the sending of the Son into the world through the incarnation. God the Son wills the same, though from His own unique personal point of view: He wills the sending of Himself, His own going forth into the world and becoming a man. God the Holy Spirit wills the same too, though from His own unique personal point of view. He wills to cooperate with the Father and Son in that sending and going by overshadowing the virgin Mary with all the power of the Highest, so that she would conceive the holy child who is very God and very man. The three Persons willed to work together in their greatest mission to establish the covenant of God with the world.

Now, if these three Persons dwell together in an eternal relationship of communion, can we imagine the free and open communication that must exist between the Father and the Son through the Spirit outside of space and time as they joyfully discuss their one plan to share that covenant with us creatures? Can we even begin to comprehend the boundless joy and infinite pleasure that belongs to them who dwell together in the unity of the Godhead and engage in eternal conversation, with complete oneness of mind, about their mission to draw us into that communion? Oh, the bottomless depth and limitless height of their covenant communion! Oh, the unfathomed width and unknown breadth of their covenant intimacy! How wondrous is that eternal divine covenant! It is the eternal reality of sweet communion that is dimly reflected and slightly tasted in the good relationship between a Christian father and his son, who make and discuss important plans together in a spirit of love that proceeds from the one to the other and back again. The reality of the covenant within the Trinity is not a cold pact or business agreement, but a warm relationship of friendship. Out of that divine covenant, the three Persons of the Godhead, with one mind and one will, determine to send the Son into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit to draw the world of elect men in all nations into God’s covenant forever.

So, when our Lord Jesus Christ speaks in His human nature to or about the one who sent Him, He speaks not only to or about the First Person, but to and about the thrice holy God. God Triune sent His Son into the world that the world through Him might be saved.

Then, as we saw at the beginning of this article, as God sent His Son, the chief Missionary, into the world, even so the Son has sent us into the world to preach the glad tidings of what He has done.4 Jesus said so in His high priestly prayer: “As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world” (John 17:18). Jesus told the disciples too after His resurrection: “Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (John 20:21). We see that the mission of the Messiah is the basis for our mission as the church in this present time until the end of time. As the Son was sent, we are sent. As the Son was sent to be the Messiah and save the world of the elect into the covenant of God, even so we ministers of the gospel have been sent to proclaim the good news of that salvation and to summon men in all nations to repent and come to Christ. As the Son was sent, even so we believers and followers of Jesus Christ are called to echo the words of that gospel that we hear from our ministers to our unbelieving neighbors who live in the house next door, who sit in the cubicle next to us at the office or in the seat next to us in the work truck. As the Son was sent to humble Himself and go the way of the cross in great love for us and zeal for Jehovah, even so we are called to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him in sacrificial love both for our own covenant children and for our neighbor, desiring that they too might be drawn into God’s covenant, if the Lord wills.

The grand covenant purpose of God is not only for believers and their children in their generations; it also embraces the whole world and reaches unto the ends of the earth. For God sent His Son not to condemn the world of the elect in all nations, but to save them—to reveal and share His everlasting covenant with them. Therefore, the Son of God sends us into all the world to teach all nations and to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

1. See Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1 (Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2004), 401ff. Hoeksema describes the pactum salutis as taught by Reformed and Presbyterian theologians of the past (Mastricht, Turretin, à Brakel, Hodge, Vos, Bavinck, Berkhof, and Kuyper). He discusses the passages used to support this doctrine and evaluates it both positively and negatively. See also Davi Charles Gomes, “The Source of Mission in the Covenant of Redemption,” in A Covenantal Vision for Global Mission (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2020), 3-19. In this essay, Brazilian Reformed theologian Davi Gomes calls the pactum salutis the source of the mission of the church, which is “to sound clearly the glorious music of the gospel to the ears of the listening world” (p. 16). He refers to Presbyterian and Reformed theologians such as C. Hodge, G. Vos, and R. Muller to support his conviction of the traditional view of the pactum salutis.
2. As a Protestant Reformed missionary, what caught my eye in the essay of Davi Gomes is that he mentions Herman Hoeksema with approval, specifically his teaching that the covenant is “the most intimate communion of friendship in which God reflects his own covenant life in his relation to the creature” (p. 10). I was delighted to find Gomes writing favorably about the true idea of the covenant. But my delight was tempered by his description of the covenant as a pact with parties, promises, and conditions. Gomes speaks of intimate communion with God as the goal of the covenant into which God brings the elect in all nations rather than the nature of the covenant itself.
3. Gomes refers to Hoeksema again on the next page, saying that “Herman Hoeksema adds further color to this image [of the covenant of redemption—which is actually the decree of the covenant].” He quotes from Reformed Dogmatics where Hoeksema calls the decree of the covenant “the decree which dominates all other decrees of God concerning the ultimate end of all things as God has conceived it in His counsel. Instead of a decree concerning the means…[it] is the decree concerning the end of all things” (p. 11). However, Gomes follows other theologians in confounding the actual covenant within the Trinity with His decree to reveal and share that covenant with others outside Himself.
4 The main point of the essay of Davi Gomes, which has also been the main point of this article, is that the glorious mission of God, His eternal purpose to send His Son to save the world of men whom He gave to Him out of every nation, tribe, and tongue, is the source of our mission to proclaim the gospel of that salvation in all the world. He asks the rhetorical question, “Does this instrument of God’s glorious grace [the church] make music only for its own sake? [No!] If its mission is rooted in the very movement of the Trinity outside himself, it is only natural that it must also be a movement that expresses the beautiful music of grace to all of creation” (p. 15).