Rev. Woudenberg is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work. 

Romans 11:6

As we have seen, Dr. Klaas Schilder considered the covenant to be a legal or forensic relationship between God and all the baptized children of believers. Emphasis was placed by him on the promises of the covenant, but never apart from its demands and its threats. If anyone fails to meet these demands, he must always be warned, he thereby becomes a covenant-breaker, and his right to the promises which once he had is lost. In the end, the covenant was to Schilder a very special, forensic statement of law which comes to all those who through baptism enter the covenant of grace. God is their God, and at baptism He speaks His promises to every child individually and personally, but also conditionally, with the requirement that the covenantal conditions be met.

As we have noted in the past, there is an element of truth to all of this. Those who are baptized are certainly set before the promises of God in many different ways: by the sign which they received at baptism and through which they were given a place within the body of the true church of God, with the result that they are “instructed and brought up under the aforesaid doctrines” (as their parents vow they shall be), participate in the worship of the people of God when they gather in the church, and grow up with a distinct knowledge of Christian life in response to the teachings of God’s law and the duties they will ever be responsible to keep. These are important and most precious privileges, which those who are born and raised in a sinful world apart from the covenant of God never know. The possession of them lays a particular responsibility upon those who have them, and for it they will be required to give answer in the final day.

But our question remains, is this the essence of the covenant of grace, or is there something more than that?

To answer our question there is of course but one place to go, God’s Word as found in the Bible, there to gather those principles upon which God’s covenant is built. There are a number of very pertinent passages which speak to that which we want to know.

Of these, possibly the most basic is Romans 4:9-11, “For we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also.” Here Paul speaks directly to our problem, for he is dealing with the institution of the sacrament of circumcision, the Old Testament sign and seal of the covenant of grace — now replaced by the New Testament equivalent, baptism (Col. 2:11,12). According to Paul, that which this sign sealed was “the righteousness of the faith,” and he adds, significantly, “which he had yet being uncircumcised.” What Paul clearly intends to point out is that this sign of circumcision was not the means by which Abraham came to righteousness, but rather it was given as a seal upon the righteousness that Abraham through faith had already come to possess. And that was with a purpose. By giving it in that order, Paul underscores the truth that Abraham’s righteousness had not come by means of any outward work wrought by man, but through faith alone. And accordingly it also follows that such righteousness, along with all the covenant blessings that follow from it, is not confined to those who have received this sign as physical descendants of Abraham, but is rightfully given to all who follow in that same faith, whether they have received that sign or not. To receive the sign, with all of the special privileges it brings, is a great blessing, but only when it is received with the same faith possessed by Abraham, who is therefore called the father of all true covenant seed.

As it was, of course, already by the time that this happened Abraham had been promised a seed, which in the first place was realized in the birth of Isaac — a miracle child born out of due time to Abraham’s covenant wife, Sarah. But Isaac was only a visible type, a picture of the true seed to come, Jesus Christ, who in His day would say, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56). In some amazing way, Abraham was able through those vague Old Testament types and shadows to discern the essential elements of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to the point that through that faith he was joined to that Christ, and received His righteousness to himself. So it has been for everyone since who has shared the same faith he had, with the result that they are accounted by God to be Abraham’s spiritual children, whether physical descendants or not (Gal. 3:29).

With that in mind, then, we can move on to understand the original passage on which this was built, “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…. Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:7-10). Here we have the actual institution of the sacrament of circumcision to which Paul was referring, and what it tells us about the covenant of grace, in connection with what we have just seen Paul to have said. Circumcision was, of course, a sign that was to be placed on the organ of procreation of every male member of Abraham’s house — whether born from his flesh or brought into his household by some other way — as a sign of the covenant of grace, or, as Paul points out, of the righteousness of faith, the two in Scripture being identified as essentially one.

Moreover, when we go back a few verses, we find what this identity meant. There we read of God’s promise to establish a covenant with Abraham and with his seed after him. What we have is one of the earliest uses of the word covenant in the Bible — it having been used prior to this only in regard to Noah — and from this we learn most distinctly what is the essence of this covenant established with man by God. The text explains it to mean, “to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.” It is a profound and beautiful expression by which God indicates what His covenant is about, and this in turn is used in the rest of Scripture over and over again. We find it, for example, already when Jehovah meets Jacob at Bethel, “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed” (Gen. 26:12,13). God introduces Himself as the God of Abraham, and of Jacob’s father Isaac, even as He would be of Jacob as well. It was in much the same way that Jehovah instructed Moses at the burning bush to introduce Himself to Israel; “… I AM THAT I AM: … Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you…. The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations” (Ex. 3:14,15). And to this Moses returned when instructing Israel in the law: “I will have respect unto you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you…. And I will set my tabernacle among you: and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people” (Lev. 26:9-12). What was indicated in each of these cases was that closest of spiritual bonds, which is known by all who share in the same righteousness that Abraham possessed through faith.

When we come into the New Testament, while finding the same expression, we see that it takes on a much more precise significance, as in Hebrews 8:10: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people.” These words were first spoken to Israel amid the shadows of the Old Testament age, but now in New Testament light they can be applied to “the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb. 12:23). To be in the covenant of God is explained as having the aw of God, not imposed from without, but written within the mind and heart. In New Testament light, that which was spoken to Abraham, “I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people,” takes on a new dimension of thought. To have God as one’s God is to have His Word, His revelation, and His truth implanted within the depths of one’s heart. It is the realization of that righteousness which by faith Abraham knew.

And it was of this, accordingly, that the sacrament of circumcision was given to be a sign. As the word circumcision indicates, it consisted of a circular cut or incision upon the male organ of procreation by means of a very bloody operation. This then left a circular scar, made by blood, through which the seed of conception would have to pass for every child born in Israel — a reminder that the righteousness of faith to which this sacrament pointed could be obtained only through the shedding of blood. This, in Israel, no child was allowed to forget, for the sacrament that separated them as a nation always pointed to that. Abraham had seen that in his Old Testament way, and had come thereby to the joy of true righteousness; and every believing child in Israel saw it in his way as well, as do all who have followed in that faith ever since. In Israel it was by the sacramental sign of a circular cutting which joined them to the nation, even as today it is by the cleansing water of baptism through which every member of the Christian church must pass. But, in every instance, what it points to is the fact that righteousness is only by faith.

There is more. If we move on to the epistle of James, we find the same reference to Abraham picked up, but described with yet a different term: “And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God” (James 2:23). James develops the idea of righteousness in terms of friendship. Few things speak more vividly to us than that, for friendship is often what we desire in life almost more than anything else. We all, it seems, have a deep underlying desire to have true and lasting friends. But what is a friend?

Often what we call a friend is simply someone with whom we interact socially; but there are few who have not been betrayed by one they thought was a friend (Ps. 41:9). That of which true friendship consists is perhaps best described by Jesus to His disciples just before His death: “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you” (John 15:15, 16). Here Jesus describes friendship in contrast to the relationship between a master and his servant. In such instances there is on the master’s part no interest in explaining to his servant or slave why he is telling him to do what he does. He simply tells him what he wants done, and expects that servant to do it whether or not he understands the master’s reasons or is in agreement with what he requires. But not so, says Jesus, with a friend. With a friend one explains the inmost thoughts and desires of the heart, so that the friend may with understanding respond to this in love. And so, says Jesus, does He do with those who belong to Him. He reveals to them the full purpose of the Father, as He has received it from Him, so that we may respond to His desire with a service of gratitude and love. It is essentially different from what we noted in Hebrews. In the new covenant the law is not imposed upon us from without as it was in the old external covenant with Israel, but the law is written in the heart and becomes the motive of a willing response of love.

So we are left with the question: what is the essence of the covenant of grace? Is it simply to be exposed to the word of promise, and to bear the responsibility of meeting it; or is it through faith to have entered that righteousness which Abraham knew, thus to dwell with God as our Friend, hearing Him speak and responding in love to what we hear?