Skip to comments.Covenant Theology: The Covenant of Grace (pt. 1)
Posted on 02/04/2004 5:50:56 AM PST by sheltonmac
Covenant Theology: The Covenant of Grace
(Part 1 Sermon Number Seven)
James E. Bordwine, Th.D.
Most recently in this study of covenant theology, we looked at the arrangement between the Creator and Adam, which we call the covenant of works. We learned that God promised permanent blessedness to Adam if the man remained faithful to the commands of God relative to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam, however, disobeyed God and, as the representative of the human race, brought about the depravity of our souls and the ruination of our relationship with the Creator.
The story of man's fall is, indeed, a tragic one. However, as I noted in our study of that portion of Scripture, there are indications that the Creator would restore His creatures. Most prominent among these indications is God's promise of salvation in Gen. 3:15; in this verse, God foretells of the ultimate destruction of the serpent and his seed. The manner in which God fulfills this wonderful promise and restores the human race is called the covenant of grace. We now will give our attention, therefore, to this covenant of grace.
I will be following the outline which I used for our examination of the covenant of works. First, I will define the covenant of grace and talk about some of its chief characteristics. Second, I will explain the provisions of the covenant of grace; we will see who was involved in the covenant of grace, what the aim was of this covenant and how the aim was achieved. Third, I will explain the outcome of the covenant of grace, which is, of course, the redemption of God's elect.
01. The Definition of the Covenant of Grace
Under this first point, I want to provide some preliminary information which will help us understand what is meant by the term covenant of grace. Our Confession of Faith explains that the covenant of grace is the plan by which fallen man is restored to fellowship with God. According to this plan, God freely offers life and salvation to sinners in Jesus Christ (cf. WCF VII). So, the covenant of grace is designed to counter the fall of man. This covenant provides the means for sinful man to again have fellowship with God.
I want to emphasize the term grace in the designation covenant of grace. It should be obvious why theologians designated God's saving activity as a covenant of grace. Grace is the unmerited favor of God. Grace is active when sinners do not receive what they deserve, but are loved, protected and embraced by the very One they have so grievously offended. Grace is what enables you to go to heaven when you die even though you should go to hell. Grace is God's willingness to save us in spite of our offense. Grace is what allows God's justice to be satisfied in the suffering and death of a Substitute instead of only in your suffering and death. Everything which comes after man's banishment from Eden is grace.
While we say that the covenant of grace covers the period from man's fall to the consummation, we must also recognize that in Scripture this covenant is unfolded, elaborated upon and explained in a number of secondary arrangements or covenants. We have God's covenant with Noah, for example; and God's covenant with Abraham and God's covenant with Israel under Moses. Each of these periods revealed something about how God was saving His people by grace. Each of these arrangements between God and people refined our understanding of just how God was going to save us.
Throughout Scripture, therefore, in His interaction with Noah and Abraham and Moses, God testified that He would accomplish the restoration of fallen man as He promised in the Garden of Eden. All the information that is provided pointed to a fulfillment and that finale is the ministry of Jesus Christ. From the time God made the promise of redemption in Gen. 3:15, Scripture has one point of focus, which is the advent of the God-Man. From the time of Adam's banishment, God shows us that He has undertaken not only to allow us to be saved, but also to provide the means of our salvation. That is the covenant of grace.
02. The Provisions of the Covenant of Grace
To explain the provisions of the covenant of grace, I will refer to God's contact with Abraham. The Scripture teaches that God established a relationship with Abraham which bore all the marks of a covenant. As I said before, the Abrahamic covenant is one of those secondary covenants in the Bible which reveals to us aspects of the over-arching and all-inclusive covenant of grace. When God spoke to Abraham, He explained the essential elements of that arrangement whereby fallen man would be saved and restored. We can be sure that we are not misunderstanding the significance of God's contact with Abraham because the apostle Paul uses this very event as the foundation for his explanation of the atoning work of Christ. The Abrahamic covenant, while not a complete revelation of the provisions of the covenant of grace, nevertheless provides us with a good and necessary background for understanding God's plan of redemption.
The details of God's covenant with Abraham are found in Gen. 12, 15 and 17. As we read these verses, keep in mind that this relationship is what Paul later teaches was, in essence, the gospel:
12:1 Now the LORD said to Abram, Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father's house, To the land which I will show you; 2 And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; 3 And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.
15:1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great. 2 Abram said, O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? 3 And Abram said, Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir. 4 Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir. 5 And He took him outside and said, Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them. And He said to him, So shall your descendants be. 6 Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
17:1 Now 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. 2 I will establish My covenant between Me and you, And I will multiply you exceedingly. 3 Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying, 4 As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you will be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you. 7 I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. 8 I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. 9 God said further to Abraham, Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10 This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised.
Until God told these things to Abraham, there had been no official establishment of the covenant of grace. The promise of salvation made by God in Gen. 3:15 communicates the basic idea of the covenant of grace, which is God's intention to restore what sin had destroyed, but prior to Abraham's time, no transaction had occurred to formalize the provisions of the covenant of grace. What, then, do we learn about God's plans to restore the fallen human race based upon His contact with Abraham? I'll start with the manner in which this arrangement between God and Abraham is structured. The structure of this relationship is covenantal in nature. First, we have the parties involved in this arrangement; second, there is a promise made to Abraham; third, certain conditions are specified for the promise to be realized; and fourth, a penalty for failing to abide by the conditions is set forth.
Let's turn our attention, therefore, first to the parties involved in the Abrahamic covenant. In all three passages, God and Abraham appear as the two parties in this covenant. God initiates contact with Abraham, God determines the stipulations of the covenant with Abraham, God makes the wonderful promises found in the covenant, but Abraham is a genuine party to what is enacted. Moreover, it must be observed that Abraham is acting as a representative for all his descendants so that we can say that the Abrahamic covenant is between God and the house of Abraham. The similarities to God's covenant with Adam are apparent.
Notice that in the first announcement of the Abrahamic covenant, God says to the patriarch: In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (12:3) And later, God says: I will establish My covenant between Me and you. And I will multiply you exceedingly... and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations... and I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant... (17:2, 4, 7) Clearly, the Abrahamic covenant involved not only Abraham and his immediate family, but all of his descendants (later, of course, we will learn from Paul that the descendants of Abraham are those who imitate his faith).
The second provision of the Abrahamic covenant is the promise which God made to the patriarch. We might assume initially that the promise is contained in phrases like, In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (12:3) Certainly it is true that such predictions are part of the promise, but the one statement from God which defines precisely what He was promising in this covenant is found in Gen. 17:7: And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. The promise of the Abrahamic covenant is this last phrase, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.
God promises to establish a unique relationship with Abraham and his descendants; He promises to have Abraham and his descendants as His peculiar people throughout the coming generations. We must remember that man is a fallen creature, yet the offended Creator is promising to take him back, as it were, and re-establish fellowship with wayward man. This is grace! Man had not changed; he was still a fallen, depraved creature. But God promised his restoration in Eden and now, through Abraham, He is graciously moving to confirm that promise.
What about the conditions of this covenant with Abraham? From Abraham's perspective, there is a two-fold condition, which is belief of God's promise followed by the obedience required by the promise. As God explained to Abraham what He intended to do, the time came when Abraham believed in the LORD and [the LORD] reckoned it to him as righteousness. (15:6) In another place, God said to Abraham: Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: ever male among you shall be circumcised. (17:9, 10) God appointed a sign of the relationship that He was establishing with Abraham and his descendants. This sign was a physical mark on the body which identified those who were members of the covenant family being created by God. Circumcision served as testimony that a man belonged to God's company and it served as a symbol of all the benefits promised to him by the God of the covenant.
Abraham's part in the covenant, then, was to believe that the Lord would do what He promised and to act on that belief by obeying God when he was told to apply the sign of the covenant. This is what every covenant between God and man involves: man hears the voice of God and responds accordingly. Abraham's obedience to the command to circumcise signaled his belief of God's promise. Abraham's belief of God's promise was not confirmed merely by him saying, Yes, I believe what you say, LORD. Abraham was required to demonstrate his conviction that God could be trusted and that demonstration was the act of circumcision. Abraham proved his belief in the covenant promises by obeying God's order. This is a perfect illustration of the Biblical principle that genuine belief is followed by obedience; where there is no obedience, the claim of belief is negated. Abraham had to be circumcised and he had to circumcise the males in his household because that is what God said was required to indicate belief in the promises. This was not a matter of what Abraham thought would be a sufficient response to God. This was not a matter of what Abraham's males were capable of demonstrating. This was a simple matter of doing what God said should be done.
Having described circumcision in this manner, it should be clear that circumcision was the sacrament of the Abrahamic covenant. You will recall that I stated previously that Biblical covenants include all the elements we are discussing plus some object or practice which epitomizes the covenant. Circumcision served the two-fold purpose of reminding the members of the covenant family of God's wonderful promisescircumcision was performed, remember, in anticipation of the fulfillment of those promisesand circumcision reminded the members of God's covenant family of their obligations before Him. To carry the mark of circumcision was to be marked as one of God's people.
The last element in the Abrahamic covenant is, of course, the penalty for violating the terms of the covenant. The penalty of this covenant is implied. The penalty would consist of missing or being denied the promise of the covenant. The penalty of this covenant was to be left in a hopeless state, still alienated from the Creator; it was to be cut off from the covenant people that were being assembled by God. This is, in fact, the terminology used by God in His instructions to Abraham (cf. 17:14). He warns that any male who does not bear the sign of the promise, circumcision, would be cut off from his people. And in later revelation, as the covenant people of God take on a more apparent form as the nation of Israel, this same threat is held out against those who would fail to abide by the terms which God first stipulated to Abraham.
There is more to understanding the provisions of the covenant of grace. We've just examined the four elements which help us understand how this covenant was structured. Already, then, we've seen that this covenant included the provision of a blessed relationship between Abraham (and his descendants) and God. This covenant provides that wonderful promise from God that He will be the God of Abraham and the God of Abraham's descendants. This covenant provides a sign of Abraham's faith, which was circumcision. But, as I just stated, there is much more to this covenant. In foundational form, this covenant with Abraham is the covenant of grace. In the next sermon, I want to return to this notion and show why God's relationship with Abraham is so important to a right understanding of the work of Christ and the gospel. I'll do that by calling attention to additional Scripture which reveals the connection between God's promise, Abraham's faith, the birth of Isaac and the coming of Christ.
I'll begin my conclusion by stating that the average modern evangelical is unaware of the richness of this portion of Scripture because he is not used to devouring large sections of the Bible; he is used to proof-texting his way through life. What I mean is that he is able to cite a verse here and a verse there, but has no grasp of the systematic and progressive nature of God's Word. The average modern evangelical would not turn to Gen. 12, 15 and 17 to explain his redemption; he would quote a few verses from the New Testament not realizing that those very verses rest on the foundation of the Abrahamic covenant. In the application, therefore, I want to identify a few of the great truths of our faith which are contained in the record of God's contact with Abraham.
One of the most obvious truths to stand out in the Abrahamic covenant is yet another example of the holy and perfect Creator condescending to lowly and sinful man. God sought Abraham; God called Abraham; and God instructed Abraham. There is no initiative taken by Abraham in this story. God takes the initiative and this is just another illustration of God's mercy and God's undeserved love. In Scripture, God always is the One seeking us; He always comes to us and teaches us and provides for us and preserves us. The Abrahamic covenant demonstrates this truth so clearly as God calls the patriarch and makes him a key figure in the redemption of the world. Those who don't study the whole Bible, those who only read the New Testament, those who find it tedious to read such records of God's association with the patriarchs will never relate to Abraham's humility and thanksgiving; they will never know God as they could.
Consider another key truth illustrated in the Abrahamic covenant. This covenant is a perfect example of a practice that can be seen in all of God's contact with the human race. God habitually deals with the heads or representatives of families, tribes and nations. The average modern evangelical doesn't know that God operates this way and, consequently, he doesn't really understand much about our government, the Church or his own family; he thinks strictly in terms of individualism and this is why the life of the average modern evangelical is a pale imitation of Biblical faith. Those who don't study the whole Bible will miss this characteristic of God. They won't relate rightly to authority in their lives; they won't relate rightly to their churches, their spouses or their children-or, if they are children, they won't related rightly to their parents. Those who don't study portions of Scripture like the Abrahamic covenant will never relate to Abraham's joy and hope as he contemplated all the descendants promised to him by God. Such people will never know God as they could.
The Abrahamic covenant also demonstrates the unbreakable connection between faith and the fruit of faith. Abraham's declared belief of God's word was followed by his unquestioning obedience to the Lord's commands. The average modern evangelical thinks he can declare his belief in God and of God's word and then live as he pleases; he thinks his salvation is verified by a mere profession. The average modern evangelical knows a lot more about what pop psychology thinks about man's problems than what God's word says about man's problems; he knows a lot more about what his friends and neighbors think about morality than what the Creator says about morality. And so, there is a wide chasm between what this kind of Christian says and what he does. He has not studied the Bible and does not know the truth so well illustrated by Abraham: faith without works is dead being by itself.
Biblical faith is living faith and living faith must produce appropriate fruit. Those who don't study passages like the Abrahamic covenant will struggle through life because they are pictures of uninformed inconsistency. They will never relate to Abraham's understanding of the relation between faith and obedience. They will continue, day after day, juggling the many opinions they hear in the world while they try to figure out which one matches their profession of faith. They will never know God as they could.
There also is something to be learned about hope from the Abrahamic covenant. If this portion of Scripture teaches anything, it teaches that the basis for our hope as believers, the basis for our expectation of blessing now and in eternity, is nothing more, nothing less than the living God. He alone promises and delivers in a supernatural fashion; He alone is able to promise and bring to pass that which involves the supernatural. Abraham heard those astounding promises from God that he would be the father of nations, that kings would come from him, that all the people of the earth would be blessed in him, and yet, at the time, he had no heir!
What was the basis for Abraham's hope that these things would come to pass except the God who does the impossible? On what ground could Abraham expect that these things would be except the word of El Shaddai, God Almighty? Those who don't study the whole Bible, those who think it sufficient to learn a few verses, will never know the depth and satisfaction of Abraham's faith. Life will frighten them and darkness with strike fear in their heart because they won't really know God. The average modern evangelical doesn't know God and, consequently, he whimpers when there is an election and he crosses his fingers when legislation is being considered and he walks around with his head down hoping that no one will challenge his Christian beliefs because, deep down, he's not even sure what he believes and he has no ability to analyze the world and view the future from Abraham's perspective. He doesn't really know God because he doesn't really know the Bible.
Let me challenge you with this: Don't be satisfied to be identified as a modern evangelical; it is not a complement and it is nothing to be proud of in the eyes of God. Study the whole Bible; learn about God and His ways from His many encounters with men like Abraham. Make sure you understand God's plan of redemption. I assure you that this plan is deeper, richer, more wonderful, more God-honoring and more humbling than what is being preached in the pulpits of our land today. Rise up and imitate the faith of our fathers; rise up and take your place as a student of the word. Learn it and teach it to your family; learn it and take it into your workplace.
Just imagine all the comforting truth we would have missed had we not studied the Abrahamic covenant. The whole Bible is like this. Make it your goal to know God and understand that you come to know God, really know God, by studying His holy word.
Conclusion (Preparation for the Lord's Supper)
Lest I be misunderstood, let me say, as we come to the Lord's Table, that the study of God's word which I have recommended is motivated only by the fact that Jesus Christ, God's Son, lived, died and rose again in our place and, therefore, we have been restored to communion with our Creator; and we now have the mind, the ability and the divinely-given right to know our great God. Our whole lives should and may be consumed with the study of God's wordbecause we love Him, because we truly want to do what pleases Himbut, in the end, when we come to our last hour on this earth, we will only have begun to plumb the depths of the love that sent the sinless One to die for sinners; we will only have begun to understand that grace in which we who were once condemned and doomed, now stand.
Perhaps if the author were to name some names and point out the churches that he thinks are "modern evangelical" it would make some sense. But his piece is nothing short of a stereotypical rant about something I think he really knows nothing about. He just tosses out the term "modern evangelical" and then points out some flaws that I dare say are probably rampant in his own congregation.
The Lukewarm church has been around since the first century. It is not a modern phenomenon. It is not limited to churches that have sprung up in the last century. I dare say that the churhces that have sprung up in the last century probably sprung up principally because the old churches had left their first love and God had called many away from them.
The author paints with too broad a brush when he implies that all evangelicals do not study the Word of God.
thats funny - Christ and the repentant thief on the Cross might disagree - he found salvation with ONLY a profession of faith
Now if he were to live a while after professing, sure - works as a fruit should have been demonstrable - but its not conditional to salvation
Im in agreement with you - this is a hit piece and consistent with the tack that to build up "ours" we must tear down "thiers"
Let's say I wanted to hear in depth Bible studies on the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Would I go to the Reformation sites? Well, they might cover a lot of the Bible, but not the entire Bible. But if I searched a "modern Evangelical" site, I bet I could find what I was looking for:
Now if "Modern Evangelicals" don't study the whole bible, then how does the author explain the fact that if you want to study the whole bible, (not just bits and pieces here and there) then more often than not you have to go to a "Modern Evangelical" church?
IMHO, the author knows nothing of what he speaks. He's just painting lukewarm christians and pretending that they are a modern phenomenon limited to newer chruches and newer denominations. Its a cheap shot across the bow. Well I just fired back. Let's see if anyone can find a reformation site with as much Bible Study material as you will find on those "Modern Evangelical" sites.
I think it's also a note that one could better make privately, don't you? :)
Over the course of the next few weeks I hope to post each of Dr. Bordwine's sermons on Covenant Theology. The Christians here on FR may not agree with everything contained in these posts, but I believe that there are some serious failings in the modern church that need to be addressed, the biggest of which seems to be a lack of understanding of the nature of God.
Well, as a "Modern Evangelical" I think that the author and the poster paint a broad brush and appear to limit the true worshipers of God to those who agree with the FCT theology. Hinting that they have a lock on the true meaning of the bible and they have a lock on studying the whole word of God.
I only wish they'd let us know who they think are the Modern Evangelical churches, so we could prove them right or wrong. But instead they point to the whole evangelical movement as some kind of heretical schism.
xzins just made a note of that, and you called him on the carpet. I think his response was at least as appropos as the authors statements.
I think the thief found salvation because he recognized that he and the other thief deserved what they were getting, because of how they had lived their lives. I think it was the repentant behavior that saved him.
I wish my father had always called me on the carpet that gently!
Look, I know that most folks are walking on egg shells right now, and that's unfortunate - maybe necessary - but still unfortunate. Coining an acronym like "fcs" (I think that's what it was) is almost guaranteed to generate complaints, and it did. Perhaps my way of pointing that out was a bit too subtle, but in some ways I'm walking on that same egg shell carpet the rest of you are.
Nor do I think we need to belabor the point, or have an extended conversation about the complaints. If we're going to "heal" around here we all need to stop picking at the scabs of old wounds, however gently it's done.