I do not think it’s humanly possible for me to distill how thoroughly the Covenant of Grace permeates through scripture in a post like this, so if this is something that you want to dive deeper on, I would encourage Ligon Duncan’s lectures because he has a section on each of the OT covenants and also talks about covenant theology in the NT, as well.
What is the Covenant of Grace?
The Covenant of Grace is the covenant that God made with Adam that the seed of the woman (Jesus) would come and fulfill the Covenant of Works. Through this covenant, all other covenants between God and man are tied together. Herman Bavinck articulates 3 characteristics of the Covenant of Grace in his book, Our Reasonable Faith:
- The covenant of grace is everywhere and at all times one in essence, but always manifests itself in new forms and goes through differing dispensations. Essentially and materially it remains one, whether before, or under, or after the law. It is always a covenant of grace.
- The second remarkable characteristic of the covenant of grace is that in all of its dispensations it has an organic character. In history the covenant is never concluded with one discrete individual, but always with a man and his family or generation, with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, and with the church and its seed. The promise never comes to a single believer alone, but in him his house or family also.
- A third and final characteristic of the covenant of grace which goes along with the second point above, is that it realizes itself in a way which fully honors man’s rational and moral nature. It is based on the counsel of God, yes, and nothing may be subtracted from that fact. Behind the covenant of grace lies the sovereign and omnipotent will of God. But God’s will is the will of the Creator of heaven and earth, who cannot repudiate his own work in creation or providence, and who cannot treat the human being he has created as though it were a stock or stone. It is the will of a merciful and kind Father, who never forces things with brute violence, but successfully counters all our resistance by the spiritual might of love.
I want to clarify that dispensations above is more synonymous with administrations than the way dispensationalists use that terminology. Each covenant with a patriarch is an administration of the Covenant of Grace. So it is its own thing, but also tied to the greater whole. While the Covenant of Grace was established with Adam after the fall, it is reestablished again and again throughout the OT in God’s covenants with the patriarchs. The most commonly used example is through God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
This is definitely a gracious covenant that required very little from Abraham and his people and includes a sign of the covenant that we see translated differently into the New Testament, which I will be addressing in the Means of Grace post later today.
But what about the Mosaic Covenant?
While there isn’t really any disputes about the Covenant of Grace as a concept, there is some disagreement within reformed circles as to whether or not the Mosaic covenant falls into the Covenant of Grace. A well loved and big proponent of it not being part of the Covenant of Grace is Michael Horton, who argues that the “do this and live” nature of the Moral law handed down through the 10 Commandments is law and not gospel, and therefore falls into the Covenant of Works and not the Covenant of Grace. I will let him speak for himself here:
What then are we to say about Moses’ status in the church today? Reformed theology has traditionally insisted that the moral law (that is, the Ten Commandments) remains in force, while the ceremonial and civil laws of the old covenant are now obsolete along with that covenant itself. No other nation was brought into a covenant relation with God as a typological witness to His coming kingdom. While the Sinai covenant is itself a covenant of works, where Israel promises to do everything it says on pain of death, we inherit God’s promises in a covenant of grace. And precisely because Christ has fulfilled the covenant of works for us, we can inherit all of the everlasting promises in a covenant of grace. Only the heirs of that covenant, after all, are able to begin in this life to say with the Psalmist, “How I love your law, O Lord!”
On the other hand, we have Ligon Duncan, who argues differently in an excellent sermon refuting theonomy, dispensationalism, and Lordship Salvation all in one shot, which I will link below.
Now Covenant Theologians have described the covenant with Moses differently over the years, and there has been some confusion over this issue even amongst Reformed Theologians. But in general, while Reformed Theologians acknowledge that there are aspects of the Covenant of Moses or the Covenant of Law, which reflect some of the language and ideas of the Covenant of Works, nevertheless, the Covenant of Law, or the Covenant of Moses, or the Mosaic Economy, is squarely within the stream of the Covenant of Grace. It is not an alternate option to the Covenant of Works given to us by God in the Old Testament It is part of the Covenant of Grace. It is not saying, “Well, okay, if you don’t get saved by faith as under Abraham, you can try law under Moses.” That is not the point.
I can see both sides of the conversation and I think a lot of each side ends up getting strawmanned by each other because people generally lack nuance when they read it, but I think the important thing is to see the unity that we all agree that the moral law is still something we need to do, but because we cannot do it perfectly, the point of the Covenant of Grace is that Jesus fulfills the law on our behalf.
The Covenant of Grace is how the Covenant of Works is fulfilled. It establishes how Jesus’ sacrifice atones for our sin and gives us the Gospel throughout the Old Testament. The Covenant of Grace is also how Irenaeus was able to show that the God of the Old Testament is actually the God of the New Testament, in that it shows a continuity with how God interacts with his people. As it is written in Hebrews 13:8:
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Resources on the Covenant of Grace:
- Monergism https://bit.ly/2H4XhVF
- Ligonier https://bit.ly/350d9AK
- TableTalk https://bit.ly/2H52P21
- The OPC https://bit.ly/3411m5V
Where the confessions and catechisms reference covenant theology:
- Westminster Confession Ch 7
- Westminster Larger Catechism Q & A 30-36
- Savoy Declaration Ch 7
- Second Helvetic Confession Ch 10
- Canons of Dort Head 2, Paragraph 2 & Paragraph 4
- 1689 London Baptist Confessions Ch 7
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