26 July 2020
The distance between God and man is so great that it is impossible for man to know God and to establish any relationship with Him until God reveals Himself to him, and by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, He is pleased to express this relationship with man by way of covenant.
A covenant relationship is a mutual commitment that binds one party to the other on a voluntary basis; mutual obligations have been accepted and pledged on both sides. It is imperative to understand that God relates to man in a covenantal relationship. The story of the Bible has to do with man’s covenant relationship with God first ruined and then restored. The original covenant between God and Adam and Eve is called the Covenant of Works, whereby God undertook to prolong the happy state in which He had made the first human pair for all subsequent humanity provided that man humbly obeyed to observe one prohibition, specified in the narrative as not eating a forbidden fruit. The devil, presented as a serpent, seduced Adam and Eve to disobey God so that they failed to keep their obligation in the Covenant of Works, resulting in loss of good and corruption of nature. But God at once revealed to them (in an embryonic stage) a redemptive plan that had in it both the covering of sin, and prospective victory for the woman’s seed ( a human Saviour) over the serpent and his malice.
The biblical revelation, which is the written Word of God, centres upon a God-given narrative of how successive revelations of God’s covenant purpose and provision were given and responded to at key points in history. The backbone of the Bible is the unfolding in space and time of God’s unchanging intent in having a people on earth to which He would relate covenantally for His and their joy.
So the strand that unites and binds together the books of the Bible are, first, the one covenant promise, sloganised as ‘I will be your God, and you shall be my people,’ which God was fulfilling to His elect all through His successive orderings of covenant faith and life; second, the one messenger and mediator of the covenant, Jesus Christ the God-man, prophet and king, priest and sacrifice, the Messiah of Old Testament prophecy and New Testament proclamation; third, the one people of God, the covenant community, the company of the elect, whom God brings to faith and keeps in faith, from Abel, Noah, and Abraham through the remnant of Israel to the worldwide New Testament church of believers; and fourth, the one pattern of covenant piety, consisting of faith, repentance, love, joy, praise, hope, hatred of sin, desire for holiness, a spirit of prayer and a readiness to battle the world, the flesh and the devil in order to glorify and honour God. The Bible is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame.
In fact, the gospel itself is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame. Jesus Christ, whose saving ministry is the sum and substance of the gospel, is announced in Hebrews 7:22; 8:6 as the mediator and guarantor of the covenant relationship. The gospel promises, offering Christ and His benefits to sinner, are therefore invitations to enter and enjoy a covenant relationship with God. Faith in Jesus Christ is accordingly the embracing of the covenant, and the Christian life of glorifying God by one’s words and works for the greatness of HIs goodness and grace has at its heart covenant communion between the Saviour and the sinner. The church, the fellowship of believers that the gospel creates, is the community of the covenant, and the hope of glory, promised in the gospel, is the goal of the covenant relationship (Rev.21:2).
The reality of God is also properly understood only if viewed within a covenantal frame. God is the triune Creator, who purposes to have a covenant people whom in love He will exalt for His glory. God desires covenantal fellowship with rational beings; the nature of such a fellowship corresponds to the relationship of mutual honour and love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the unity of the divine being, so that the divine purpose is an enlarging of this circle of eternal love and joy. This covenant communion is the inner life of the triune God.
The Bible is clear on the fact that from eternity, in the light of human sin foreseen, a specific agreement existed between the Father and the Son that they would exalt each other in the following way: the Father would honour the Son by sending Him to save lost sinners through a penal self-sacrifice leading to the cosmic reign in which the Son, through the Holy Spirit, would impart to sinners the redemption He won for them; and the Son would honour the Father by becoming the Father’s love-gift to sinners and by leading them through the Spirit to trust, love and glorify the Father in the model of His own obedience to the Father’s will.
Notice that the three persons of the Godhead are involved: The love of the Father and the Son, with the Holy Spirit, to lost sinners is shared unanimous love. It is not as if an unloving Father sent HIs Son to placate Him and an apathetic Holy Spirit is recruited to save us. This covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam and from the vital union that we have with Christ through the Holy Spirit’s action flows all the aliveness to God, all the faith, hope and love Godward, all the desire for Him and urges to worship Him and willingness to work for HIm. Christ is therefore all in all in our salvation, and this salvation has as its ultimate purpose the exaltation and glorification of the Father and the Son together.
The God-given covenant carries, of course, obligations. The life of faith and repentance, and the obedience to which faith leads, constitute the covenant-keeping through which God’s people receive the fullness of God’s covenant blessing. Covenant faithfulness is the condition and means of receiving covenant benefits, and there is nothing arbitrary in that; for the blessings flow from the relationship; and human rebelliousness and unfaithfulness stop the flow by disrupting the relationship. Israel’s unfaithfulness was constantly doing this throughout the Old Testament story, and the New Testament makes it plain that churches and Christians will lose blessings that would otherwise be theirs, should covenant fidelity or faithfulness be lacking in their lives.
Following the failure of Adam and Eve to keep the obligation of the Covenant of Works, the redemptive purpose of God became clearer as God called Abrahamm, made a nation from his descendants, saved them from slavery, named Himself not only their God but also their King and Father, taught them His law (the family code), drllled them in sacrificial liturgies (as He dwelled among them in the tabernacle), disciplined their disobedience, and sent messengers (prophets) to hold up before them His holiness and His promise of a Saviour King and a saving kingdom (the kingdom of God), which in due course became reality with the coming of the promised Messiah.
Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by the first covenant (the covenant of works), the Lord God was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace wherein He freely offered to sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Jesus, that they may be saved, and promising to give to them all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe. This covenant of grace was differently administered in the time of the Law, and in the time of the gospel. Under the Law, as detailed above, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision the paschal lamb (of which Christ is the antitype), and other ordinances delivered to the people of Israel, all these looking forward and fore signifying Christ to come, which were, for that time sufficient and efficacious, through the operations of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins and eternal salvation, and is called the Old Testament.
Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper… in them: it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles, and is called the New Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations. (From Westminister Confession)
The Covenantal relationships between God and man are noted in various parts of Scripture. “I will be your God” is an unconditional undertaking on God’s part to be ‘for us’ (Rom. 8:31), ‘on our side’ (Ps. 124:11-5; Exodus 6:7;Jer 32:38; Ezek. 11:20, 2 Cor. 6:16-18; Rev. 21:2 etc.). Of particular interest are three portions of Scripture:
“Even as He chose us in HIm before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph.1:4-6).
“Therefore He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Heb. 9:15).
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus,..(1 Tim. 2:5) ….”He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory (1 Tim. 3:16(b)).
God’s covenant of grace in Scripture is one of those things that are too big to be easily seen, particularly when our mind is focused to look at something smaller. When we look at specific topics in our study like God’s promises, faith, the plan of salvation, the church and so on, we may not notice that these relational realities are all covenantal in their very essence. Each of these is anchored in God’s resolve to relate to His human creatures, and have us relate to Him in covenant – which means, in the final analysis, a way for man to relate to God that reflects facets of the fellowship of the Son and the Spirit with the Father in the unity of the Godhead. From this we can begin to see how big and significant a thing the covenantal category is, both in biblical teaching and in real life. (With appreciation to the late J.I. Packer “on Covenant Theology”)