The Covenant Promise

Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

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. 

Genesis 17:7

We have noted in the past that the Liberated churches appear to be committed to quite a different kind of logic than are we. It has always been our position—and, we believe, the position of the Christian church historically and biblically—that logical consistency in the interpretation of the Scriptures and of the doctrines elicited from them must be maintained; for, if one teaching contradicts another, both cannot be correct, and our minds will not be able to grasp the true biblical depth of either. But the Liberated reject this and even seem offended by it, apparently having accepted the rather modern notion that to require consistency is to be rationalistic and scholastic, as though rationality and scholarship are bad things. It is not that the Liberated are completely indifferent to logical thought—for, after all, without it meaningful communication can hardly take place—it is just that they do not want it to be insisted upon. They want to be able to maintain divergent teachings whose harmony cannot be resolved. And the result is that they and we end up with some strikingly different understandings as to the real meaning of certain basic Reformed doctrines on which creedally we ought to be agreed. Particularly is this so with the doctrine of the covenant and its promise.

There can be little question but that the seminal source of the doctrine of the covenant is to be found in that promise which was given to Abraham in Genesis 17:7: “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.” In this is contained the whole truth of the covenant and the essential reality of the gospel of grace.

1. It begins with the very nature of what it is that constitutes a promise, particularly when it is a promise of God. When God makes a promise, we would maintain, that promise is a statement of what is going to happen, that which He fully intends and without question will bring to be, much as it is set forth in Hebrews 6:13-15: “For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself, saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee. And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise.” For Abraham that was all that was needed. The fact that it was the Lord who promised was sufficient for him, asGalatians 3:6 says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness.”

2. Neither is there any question as to what it was that God was promising here; it was, “to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.” It was all that anyone could ever desire, for what can be more wonderful than to know that the eternal God of heaven and earth is committing himself to be one’s God—his Savior, his Lord, and his Friend? It was by every measure the equivalent of what Jesus so beautifully speaks at the beginning of his great High Priestly prayer, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). This was God’s promise which without question or equivocation would certainly come to pass, the end of all things.

3. The real question is, however, to whom was this promise addressed, or, in effect, who is the promised “seed”? The answer to this is quite different from what we might expect, except that it is given directly by the Scriptures: “He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, and to thy seed, which is Christ” (Gal. 3:16). When all is said and done, and the whole history of this world has been examined, there is but one human person who is worthy of inheriting God’s promise, of entering into covenant with him, and that is His own Son, Jesus Christ, come into our flesh. Of everyone else it must be said that they have, “sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). He alone is worthy to inherit the world, given to Him by the hand of God.

It is very difficult to overestimate the importance of this in the overall context of biblical truth, touching as it does the heart of the New Testament focus on Christ. Essentially it is the same as when He is called in Romans 8:29 “the firstborn among many brethren,” and in Colossians 1:15-18 “the firstborn of every creature,” and, “the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.” [See also Hebrews 12:23.] Clearly these passages are not speaking in terms of time, for in time there were many births before His. The Scriptures are speaking here of the mind and purpose of God. To Him Jesus is always the One through whom and unto whom all other things were made (see Eph. 1:10). He is first in God’s mind, even as in time He is the only one ever to enter that covenant by His own desert. To Christ belongs preeminence in will and value of the eternally Triune.

(Perhaps we should note as well, if only in passing, that, if there is a conditional element to be found in the covenant of grace, it must be here; and the only one ever able to fulfill it is also this same Jesus, God’s only Begotten Son. Everyone else has failed, and always will—which is after all the lesson of the law, Romans 3:20.)

4. But still, the question is, if this be so, what of that seed which is promised to be in number “as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore” (Gen. 22:17)? And what about Abraham himself, was not the promise for him? Here again, when we look, the Scriptures speak. In both Romans and Galatians we are told that when “Abraham believed God,” it means that he believed in the coming of Christ. That is why it was “counted unto him for righteousness.” Abraham saw (John 8:56) and believed this promised seed to be the answer to his sin and need. Abraham could not enter the covenant by his own works or worth; but through faith in Christ he did. And so do all of those who follow as his spiritual children in this same faith, as Galatians 3:7, 27, 29 says, “they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham…. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ…. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

5. That is what is designated by the covenant sign, whether circumcision in the Old Testament or baptism in the New. The symbolic cutting away of the filth of the flesh or the external washing with water, each in its own way and time, points to the cleansing needed to enter into covenant communion with God, which only faith in Christ can supply. No one can do it of himself, for the Holy Spirit is the “author of faith,” as Ephesians 2:8explains: “By grace are ye saved through faith; and. that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” It is the gift given only those who are chosen by God and given to Jesus Christ, as Acts 13:48 expresses it, “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” It is the elect of God alone who can ever be partakers in the promise of covenant grace.

Now all of this is little more than basic Reformed doctrine, a simple expression of the gospel; and I would assume that most informed members of the Liberated churches would agree with it—except, that is, for that last part, the inference that the promise is only for the elect. It is not so much that they reject thedoctrine of election, or that in the end it is only the elect that are saved; they simply do not think that this should be brought into consideration along with the doctrine of the covenant, and that for a reason particularly their own. As we have pointed out in recent articles, they are very determined that the covenant must be for each and every baptized child, and not just for the elect. Instead of election, it is conditionality which should be brought in, or else human responsibility will not be sufficiently understood. Little do they seem to realize, however, that in doing so a wholly different twist is placed on nearly everything we have just said:

l. If every baptized child must receive the promise, then the promise of God is not as certain as the Scriptures make it appear. It all hinges on demands and warnings, which is to say, on conditions which many fail to meet, with the result that they are lost in the end. God’s promise has no certain fulfillment in them.

2. And, if the promise is for every baptized child, some of whom go lost, then the content of the promise, “to be a God unto thee, and unto thy seed after thee,” is not as rich as it says. There are some who receive the promise, and yet never come to know God as He said that they would. They may have the right to it—as the Liberated are inclined to claim (even to the point that, if a child dies in infancy, the parents may be assured that child is in glory because of this); they may be told that God is willing to save them; but, having no place for repentance and faith, they never know God in that living fellowship He seemed to be speaking of. The reality of the covenant is less than it might seem to be.

3. And again—most importantly—if the covenant is for all, gone is the preeminence of Christ, the firstborn from the dead, the only true seed and only heir to the promise given by God. In the end Christ is not the first and only seed, the means by which all others must enter in, for when everything is said and done there are others in the covenant who failed to meet the conditions and never come to them. He may be the greatest, He may be the one who helps some to perform the demands of God (while others are left in their sin); but the only seed, He is not, for some are counted as seed who never belong to him. He is not the only one.

4. If indeed all who are baptized, including those who fall away, are part of that great multitude whose number is “as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore,” it can only mean that the covenant of grace is not an end in itself. There are those who belong to it of whom Jesus will say in the end, “Depart from me, I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23). The covenant is not an eternal reality, it is not that “the tabernacle of, God is with men” (Rev. 21:3), but only a temporary means to an end. Here in time it may serve to urge men to Christ, after which it will finally be done. The covenant and its promise are in effect mere rhetorical devices used to urge men to fulfill the and when finally this purpose has been served, it will be no more.

5. And so the sign of baptism, as that of circumcision before it, if it speaks the promises of God externally to some to whom God never intended to impart the Holy Spirit internally (Matt. 3:11), it is not something sure; it expresses God’s willingness to save some whom He finally chooses to leave in their sin. Once again a contradiction is left between what God says and what He does.

This we sensed from the start. With good intent, we thought, the Liberated, with their conditional covenant, were losing the true depths of what God had wrought. We wanted badly to discuss this with them on the basis of the confessions and the Word of God. They were resolved, however, that, if we differed with them, we must be in agreement with their enemies; and the only question was whether we would accept their view to be propagated within our churches. When it became apparent that we would not, the knitting of the sock was stopped; nor is there any indication conditions necessary for salvation; it will soon be started again.