The Covenants of Works and Grace: What Is Covenant Theology?

The Covenants of Works and Grace: What Is Covenant Theology?

Disclaimer: I hold to Dispensational Theology. That being said, it is our goal to provide a well-rounded understanding of both the Bible and historical Reformed Theology. (We believe Dispensationalism is a natural outgrowth of Reformed Theology)

The folllowing article is held in copyright by Dr. Richard Pratt and Third Millennium Ministries. It is used by permission. 

The Covenants of Works and Grace: What Is Covenant Theology?

In the seventeenth century an outlook developed in Reformed theology that saw covenants between God and humanity as central to the teaching of Scripture. In older works this approach to the Bible was called Federalism. In our day, it is more common to speak of this perspective simply as Covenant Theology.

In traditional Covenant Theology, the whole history of the Bible was divided into two major covenant relationships: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Neither of these expressions appears in the Bible, but the distinctions form helpful theological categories that reflect the underlying unity of Scripture, much as the term “Trinity” summarizes one essential aspect of the truth of Scripture about God. This dual covenant approach to Scripture finds a clear expression in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms (WCF 7.1-519.1,6WLC 3136,97).

In Reformed theology the term covenant of works refers to the arrangement God made between himself and Adam before humanity’s fall into sin. It does not refer to the covenant made with Moses at Sinai, as other Christian traditions tend to use the term. In the covenant of works with Adam, God promised blessings to Adam if he obeyed the command of God (Ge 1:28-30), but judgment if he disobeyed (Ge 2:15-17). The determining factor was Adam’s works, thus the term covenant of works(cf. Ho 6:7). In recent years, the value of describing Adam’s relationship with God as a covenant of works has been questioned; many prefer simply to speak of a pre-redemptive arrangement or probation before the fall into sin. In all events, the Scriptures indicate that Adam failed to keep God’s command. So God made a second covenant arrangement, the covenant of grace in Christ.

The terminology covenant of grace is used to describe God’s relationship with his people throughout the rest of Scripture. Properly speaking, this covenant was ultimately made with Christ as the last Adam, the representative of redeemed humanity. It is designated a covenant of grace because it operates on the basis of divine grace offered through Christ’s death and resurrection to all who believe in him. Some Reformed theologians have spoken of a heavenly, eternal covenant between the Father and the Son, which they have called the covenant of redemption(Jn 6:37). The covenant of grace is the historical expression of this eternal covenant.

The covenant of grace began with the promise made after the fall that the seed of the woman would one day crush the seed of the serpent (Ge 3:15). After this, the covenant of grace unfolded in five major stages of Biblical history. None of these covenant stages opposes any other. On the contrary, each subsequent stage builds upon the previous ones.

(1) After its initiation with God’s grace offered to Adam (Ge 3:15), the covenant of grace developed through the covenant of nature’s preservation given to Noah (Ge 6:189:9-17). Noah’s covenant focused on the stability of the present order of nature until the end of all things, thus providing a stable arena within which God’s redemptive plan would unfold. (2) Next, God’s covenant with Abraham (Ge 15,17) began several stages of covenants made with the nation of Israel as God’s special chosen people. God promised that Abraham’s descendants would receive great blessings and would be the instrument of blessing to the entire human race. (3) Following this, the nation of Israel received Moses’ covenant of law (Ex 19-24) during the exodus from Egypt, in order to guide the nation toward greater blessings in the land of promise. (4) When David became king, God then made a royal covenant with him (2Sa 7Ps 89,132), in which he promised to bless David’s faithful sons and never to take the throne of Israel away from David’s family. (5) Finally, the climax of the covenant of grace came through the new covenant established by Christ (Je 31Lk 22:201Co 11:25Heb 8:8-13). This covenant comes in three stages: the first coming of Christ, the history before his return and the consummation of his kingdom. As the covenant of grace unfolded in this manner, the various stages did not differ in substance but were “one and the same under various dispensations” (WCF 7.6).

The stages of the covenant of grace manifested in God’s Old Testament national covenants with Israel had the special role of preparing God’s people for the coming of his Son, who would fulfill all of God’s promises and give substance to the shadows cast by Old Testament types (Isa 40:10Mal 3:1Jn 1:14Heb 7-10). In the new covenant the temporary arrangements for imparting those blessings are replaced by the realization of that which they anticipated, namely Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the new covenant, the Seed of Abraham and heir of his promises (Ga 3:16). Christ obeyed the law perfectly and offered himself as the true and final sacrifice for sin. As the royal son of David, he now reigns over the world as the inheritor of all the covenant blessings of pardon, peace, and fellowship with God in his renewed creation-blessings he now bestows upon believers (Ro 8:17). Christ’s sending of the Spirit from the throne of his glory seals God’s people as his own, even as he gives himself to them (2Co 1:22Ep 1:13-14).

As Heb 7-10 explains, the new covenant is the supreme expression of God’s one eternal covenant of grace with sinners (Heb 13:20)-a better stage of the covenant than those of the Old Testament, with better promises (Heb 8:6), based on a better sacrifice (Heb 9:23), offered by a better high priest in a better sanctuary (Heb 7:26-8:13) and guaranteeing a better hope than the former versions of the covenant ever made explicit. The fulfillment of the old national covenants in Christ brings to fruition the promise that the door of faith would be open to large numbers of Gentiles. To extend the kingdom of God throughout the world (see theological article “The Kingdom of God” at Mt 4), Gentiles and Jews alike become Abraham’s seed by faith in Christ (Ga 3:26-29), while Jews and Gentiles outside of Christ are also outside the covenant of grace (Ro 4:9-1711:13-24).

Scripture describes the elements of God’s covenants with his people in ways that parallel the international treaty arrangements of human emperors in the ancient Near East. Either explicitly or implicitly, four basic dynamics appear in each stage of the Biblical covenant: (1) God shows himself to be the benevolent King who initiates and sustains his chosen people throughout their covenant relationship with him. (2) God requires loyal gratitude from the people embraced by his covenants. (3) Judgments come against those who flagrantly violate his covenants. (4) Blessings come to those who are faithful to the covenants.

As the divine King of the universe (see theological article “The Kingdom of God” at Mt 4), God’s covenantal dealings guided the kingdom forward toward its ultimate end: the gathering of a redeemed people “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev 7:9), who will inhabit a renewed world order (Rev 21:1-5). Here the covenant relationship will find its fullest expression: “They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev 21:3). The kingdom of God still moves toward that goal in our day.

The dual framework of the covenants of works and grace describes the whole of God’s sovereign dealings with humanity. Salvation comes to us because Christ fulfilled the requirements of the covenant of works through his perfect obedience. As a result, our salvation is covenant salvation: Justification and adoption, regeneration and sanctification are covenant mercies; election was God’s choice of the members of his final, purified covenant community, the invisible church (see theological article “The Church: Visible and Invisible” at 1Pe 4); baptism and the Lord’s Supper, corresponding to circumcision and Passover, are covenant ordinances; God’s law is covenant law, and keeping it is the truest expression of gratitude and loyalty in response to God’s covenant grace. Renewing our covenant commitments to God in response to his faithfulness should be a regular devotional exercise for all believers, both in private and in public worship. An understanding of the covenant of grace guides us through and helps us to appreciate not only the diversity of Scripture, but its amazing unity as well.

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