Covenant Theology Part 3

The Covenant of Grace


Today we are continuing our mini-series on Covenant Theology. In out last article, we looked at the Covenant of Works. As a recap, the Covenant of Works was the pre-fall covenant made between God and Adam in which God condescended to reward Adam with blessing and eternal life upon obedience to the covenant stipulation (not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). On the flip side, in the event of Adam's disobedience, God promised that "in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:17). We also argued that the death that was a result of Adam's failure to fulfill the Covenant of Works was both physical (Adam became mortal and subject to death) and spiritual (Adam lost communion with God and entered into a state of sin and spiritual death).

We also hinted that the promise of hope was given as well in Genesis 3:15. In that verse, which is found in the middle of God's judgment on the Serpent, we read the following prophecy: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." Reformed theologians like to refer to this promise as the Proto-Evangelium, or the "first gospel." In this verse we see several things:
1. We see an antithesis set up between the "offspring of the Serpent" and the "offspring of the woman." The story of redemption that is traced through the bible details this antithesis
2. We see that the offspring of the Serpent will be dealt a deathblow by the offspring of the woman ("he shall bruise your head"). This has been interpreted as the deathblow Satan and his minions received at the cross (cf. Colossians 2:15)
3. In the process of dealing that deathblow, the offspring of the woman will have his heel bruised. This is interpreted as the death Christ suffered on the cross; a death that was not final as God resurrected his Son
This promise – made in the midst of Adam's failure – signals God's gracious provision for our sin problem. This is the promise of the Covenant of Grace – that God will do for man what man could not do for himself.

So what is the Covenant of Grace? The Covenant of Grace is a covenant made between God and sinful man with Jesus Christ serving as the mediator of this covenant. In this covenant, God promises to freely and graciously give sinful mankind salvation and eternal life through Jesus Christ. The only thing God requires in return is faith in him for salvation. This faith is the faith that trusts in the person and work of Jesus Christ for their salvation and not in their own efforts. It is called a Covenant of Grace because the salvation found in it is not earned or merited. Having defined what the Covenant of Grace is, let's answer some questions people may have regarding it.

First, why do we need a Covenant of Grace? We need a Covenant of Grace because our first representative, Adam, failed to live up to the stipulation of the Covenant of Works. Adam's failure in the Garden brought sin and misery and death into the world and made it impossible for man to earn of merit eternal life thorough obedience to the law:
• Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. (Galatians 3:21)
• For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it. (Romans 3:20-21)
• For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh. (Romans 8:3)
At this point, God is not obligated to initiate a second covenant with mankind. Man's failure to live up to the terms of the Covenant of Works placed man under the yoke of condemnation. God would be perfectly justified to leave things as they were, but he enters into a new covenant; a covenant of grace.

Who are the parties to the Covenant of Grace? As we noted earlier, the parties are on the one hand God as the offended party, and on the other hand man as the offending party. Because of sin, a mediator is necessary to bring the two parties together, and that mediator is Christ (1 Timothy 2:5-6). Jesus Christ stood in the place of sinful man and fulfilled the requirements of the Covenant of Works that Adam and his progeny were unable to fulfill. Jesus Christ also took on the penalty for our covenant failure by suffering the judgment of God's wrath for sin on the cross. These two elements of Christ's work as our Mediator – his fulfilling of the Covenant of Works and his suffering the punishment for our sin – are called the active obedience and the passive obedience of Christ respectively. Both of these are necessary for man to be declared just and righteous before God's eyes.

Are there any conditions to be met for the Covenant of Grace to become effective? At first blush, it may seem contradictory to ask if there are any conditions for the Covenant of Grace; isn't grace by definition unconditional? Yet in our definition of the Covenant of Grace, we noted that God requires faith. We cannot ignore the witness of Scripture that states that those who have faith in the person and work of Christ are those who will inherit eternal life (John 3:16; Romans 10:9). Here's the thing, faith is necessary for salvation; we cannot escape that. However, the bible also teaches that God enables those whom he has chosen to believe in Christ. In other words, the faith that is necessary for salvation is itself a gracious gift. Note well the following Scriptures:
• And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. (Acts 13:48)
• And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
• No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44)
People who are dead in sin cannot respond in faith to the gospel unless God does a gracious act in them first to enable them to respond in faith and repentance. So "yes," the Covenant of Grace has a condition, but it's a condition that God graciously meets in his elect.

Finally, how is the Covenant of Grace different in the OT than it is in the NT? The best way to understand this is to see the OT as the time of promise and the NT as the time of fulfillment. The Covenant of Grace in the OT is seen in the promise made to Abraham and his descendents. God promised to bless Abraham and to make his name great and that all the families of the earth will be blessed through him. The Covenant of Grace is also seen in the covenant made with the Israelites at the foot of Sinai. God sets up an elaborate sacrificial system to atone for their sins. All of these sacrifices prefigure Christ and his work. Even the law, with all of its demands, is an extension of the Covenant of Grace in that God provides his people with his holy standards for them to live by. All of the OT points forward to and prefigures Christ. In the NT, all of the types and shadows of the OT are fulfilled in Christ. He came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). The contrast between the old covenant and the new covenant (both aspects of the Covenant of Grace) is wonderfully detailed in Hebrews 7 – 10.

The Covenant of Grace is a fulfillment of the Covenant of Works. What Adam could not do, Christ did. And with Christ fulfilling all of the stipulations of the Covenant of Works, God is now able to enter into a Covenant of Grace with his people – forgiving them their sins and counting them righteous in Christ.

Until next time...

Soli Deo Gloria!


Next: Covenant of Redemption

The Series:
Covenant Theology: What is a covenant and why is this concept important?
Covenant of Works: The promise of obedience any why it didn't work.
Covenant of Grace: The promise of the grace of God.
Covenant of Redemption: The promise between God and Jesus and what it means to us.

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Republished 5-20-2013