Category: General Theology

A Summary of the Great Tribulation

A Summary of the Great Tribulation

Although God’s people may expect tribulation throughout the present age (Jn. 16:33; Acts 14:22), the word “tribulation,” as here, is also used specifically of a future time (Mt. 24:21,29; Mk. 13:24). This future time is also referred to as the time of Jacob’s Trouble (Jer. 30:6-7)

Since our Lord links the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel with this time of tribulation (Mt. 24:15-21; Mk. 13:14-19), it is evident that the tribulation is to be connected with the seventieth week of Daniel (Dan. 9:27). Furthermore, the Biblical references have in common an allusion to unprecedented trouble (Jer. 30:7; Dan. 9:27; 12:1; Mt. 24:21-22).

While the seventieth week of Daniel is seven years in length (see Dan. 9:24, note; compare Rev. 11:2, note), and the terms “tribulation” and “great tribulation,” as used in the Scriptures, both have to do with the latter half of the seven years, it is customary to use “tribulation” of the whole period, and “great tribulation” of the second half of the period.

From the Scriptures we may deduce that the tribulation will begin with the signing of the covenant to permit the renewal of Jewish sacrifice (Dan. 9:27); it will be a period of unexampled trouble and judgment (see chain ref., Tribulation, Ps. 2:5 to Rev. 7:14), and is described in Rev. 6-19; and it will involve the whole earth (Rev. 3:10), but it is distinctively “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7).

The elements of the great tribulation (the latter half of the seventieth week) are:

(1) the cruel reign of the “beast . . . out of the sea” (Rev. 13:1) who, at the beginning of the final three and one-half years, will break his covenant with the Jews (by virtue of which they will have re-established the temple worship, Dan. 9:27), and show himself in the temple, demanding that he be worshiped as God (Mt. 24:15; 2 Th. 2:4) {The rise of the Beast, while chronicled in Revelation 13, it is alluded to in the opening of the 1st seal.}

(2) the active interposition of Satan “having great wrath” (Rev. 12:12), who gives his power to the beast (Rev. 13:4-5). It is important to remember that even though Satan has fierce wrath, that wrath is governed by God the Holy One and is used as a minister of Divine Wrath.

(3) the unprecedented activity of demons (Rev. 9:2,11; compare v. 20); and

(4) the terrible bowl judgments of Rev. 16. These bowl judgments are teh final opportunity for the wicked to turn toward God in repentance and faith. Bowls six and seven are devoid of the opportunity to repent and are the most terrible of God’s outpouring of wrath. Following the seventh bowl judgment, Christ returns

The tribulation will, nevertheless, be a period of salvation. An election out of Israel will be redeemed (Rev. 7:1-4) with an innumerable multitude of Gentiles (v. 9). These are said to have come “out of the great tribulation” (v. 14). They are not of the priesthood, the Church, to which they seem to stand somewhat in the relation of the Levites to the priests under the Mosaic Covenant. The great tribulation will be followed immediately by the return of Christ in glory, and the events associated therewith .

There is a difference of opinion about the location in Revelation at which the great tribulation is first alluded to. Some suggest as early as ch. 6; others, as late as ch. 11.  Either way, it is described in chs. 11-18.

 

**Adapted from the Scofield Study Bible**

What is Election? (guest post)

What is Election? (guest post)

The following is provided by our dear friend, the eminent theologian and most learned scholar, James Quiggle…

Some may not know what election is, others many not understand, and many may have heard only a distorted view of election. Here is a brief explanation. First a definition.

Election. The choice of a sovereign God, 1) to give the gift of grace-faith-salvation to effect the salvation of some sinners, and 2) to take no action, positive or negative, to either effect or deny salvation to other sinners. The decree of election includes all means necessary to effectuate salvation in those elected. [Quiggle, “Dictionary of Doctrinal Words,” s. v. “Election (1)”]

The Greek word translated “he chose” in Ephesians 1:4 (most versions) is eklégō [Zodhiates, s. v. “1586”]. The word means “to select, to choose,” and is translated choose, chose, chosen, or elect in twenty-two verses. This word, as used by the Greeks and Romans, and as used by the New Testament writers, does not necessarily imply an adverse or negative action toward those not chosen. Nor, as used by the New Testament writers in regard to election to salvation, does this word imply something meritorious in those chosen, or something undesirable in those not chosen. When used with regard to salvation, eklégō simply means God made a choice. [Quiggle, “God’s Choices,” 17.]

God, before he created anything, saw all human beings as sinners. In the foreordaining acts of God to sovereignly make a universe according to his purpose in creating, God created a sinless human being, Adam. God chose to allow Adam to choose his path in life. The choices available to Adam were continued submission and obedience to God’s authority, Genesis 2:17, or rebellion against God. Adam chose rebellion, Genesis 3:6. The principle of rebellion against God is known as “sin.” Adam’s disobedience to God’s commandment added the principle of rebellion, sin, to his human nature, permanently changing Adam from sinless to sinner.

Adam was the seminal and legal representative of his descendants: his sin became their sin. Seminally his sin became their sin because Adam’s sin changed his human nature, adding the principle of rebellion against God. When Adam procreated, his sinful nature was inherited by his descendants, Genesis 5:3. Thus, Romans 5:12, sin entered the world through one man’s sin and spread to all human beings, so that all in Adam die, 1 Corinthians 15:22. Legally, Adam was the representative of his race, the legal head because the seminal head. The judicial guilt of Adam’s sin was imputed to his descendants. (Just as the righteousness of Christ is imputed to those who are his “descendants,” not physically, but those who believe on him for salvation.)

God, then, in the process of his foreordaining choices, saw all human beings—the descendants of Adam— as sinners because of Adam’s sin. God sovereignly chose to save some sinners, justly leaving the rest as he found them. God never says why he made an electing choice, nor the reasons for the choice, nor the reasons for his particular choices (which individuals he would elect). God, with all his attributes acting in union and harmony, chose to establish a covenant relationship with some sinners, and bring them into that covenant through salvation. God made a decision of his will, not an emotional decision. God’s decision toward the non-elect to leave them as he found them, in their sin, was also not an emotional decision, but a decision of his will that, like the decision to elect some, would fulfill his purpose in creating.

God’s love and mercy in election was his decision to seek the best good for some sinners, without expectation of recompense or reciprocity, and without consideration of their merit (they had none) or demerit, 1 John 4:10. He made this decision without favoritism toward the elect. Those God elected were chosen in love and mercy (Ephesians 1:4; 2:4) to be saved, sanctified, and adopted, to the praise of his glory. That same love does not prevent any non-elect from choosing to come to God through faith in God’s testimony concerning salvation to believe and be saved.

Because election does not prejudice God against the non-elect, God would, in fact, act savingly toward any non-elect if they did choose to seek him and come to him for salvation. But their desire for their sin persuades them to make the choice to reject God. Sin is an attribute of fallen human nature, a principle or attribute of evil that motivates human beings to rebel against God, disobey his commandments, and seek a path in life apart from God. Sin has authority (dominion, rule) over the sinner, not as some invincible overlord, but as an innate part of human nature constructively working with all the other attributes of human nature to persuasively incline the will to choose an act of sinning. The evil attribute sin influences every other attribute with the inclination to sin, and in that sense sin can be said to dominate the will. The sinner freely chooses sinning because his will is of itself always inclined to choose sinning, and as being rebellious and disobedient toward God never desires to change its inclination to choose sinning to rebel against God, disobey his commandments, and seek a path in life apart from God.

The propitiation (atonement) Christ made on the cross for sin completely satisfied God’s justice for the crime of sin, all sin, 1 John 2:2; Romans 3:25. Propitiation (atonement) powers redemption, but propitiation is not redemption. Propitiation is directed toward God to satisfy God’s justice for the crime of sin. God’s justice being satisfied, God could act righteously to redeem sinners according to his sovereign choices.

God, for reasons suitable to his purpose in creating, reasons known only to himself, acted sovereignly to choose to redeem some sinners (election, Ephesians 1:4) by applying the merit of Christ’s propitiation, through his gift of grace-faith-salvation (Ephesians 2:8) to their spiritual need, thereby regenerating their soul, leading to the sinner’s exercise of faith, and the forgiveness of sins. Election guarantees the salvation of the elect, but neither helps nor hinders the non-elect, who could be saved, if they would freely choose to be saved. But the desire of the non-elect for their sin is so powerful they do not choose to be saved. Thus the necessity of God’s gift of grace-faith-salvation to effect faith and salvation in the sinner.

An illustration of election. The river of sinful humankind is justly racing toward the waterfall of death emptying into the lake of eternal fire; God reaches into the river and saves many; he prevents no one from swimming to the safety of the heavenly shore; he puts his saved people on the shore encouraging all to believe on Christ and be saved; he saves all that come to him by faith in his testimony of salvation.

A complete explanation of foreordination and election may be found in my book, “God’s Choices, the Doctrines of Foreordination, Election, and Predestination.”

Unlimited Propitiation, Limited Redemption (Guest Post)

Unlimited Propitiation, Limited Redemption (Guest Post)

Author and Theologian, James Quiggle has brought us another excellent post. This time on Propitiation and Redemption

 

God sent Christ to the cross to propitiate (fully satisfy) God for the judicial debt due the crime of man’s sins, 1 John 2:2; Romans 3:25. Propitiation: the satisfaction Christ made to God for sin by dying on the cross. Christ’s propitiation fully satisfied God’s holiness and justice for the crime of sin. Christ’s propitiation was of infinite merit, because his Person is of infinite worth, thereby being sufficient for all the sins of the all the world.

God himself specifically applies the infinite merit of Christ’s propitiation according to his decree of election, Ephesians 1:4, through his gift of grace-faith-salvation, Ephesians 2:8. Election: The choice of a sovereign God, 1) to give the gift of grace-faith-salvation to effect the salvation of some sinners, and 2) to take no action, positive or negative, to either effect or deny salvation to other sinners. The decree of election includes all means necessary to effectuate salvation in those elected.

The sum of these things is the unlimited merit of Christ’s propitiation, and the limited redemption that merit is used to accomplish. Put in terms of an ongoing controversy, Christ did not die only for the elect, he died to propitiate God for all sins. Not to redeem all sinners, but to propitiate God for all sins. In familiar terms this is known as Unlimited Atonement and Limited Redemption.

The unlimited merit of Christ’s propitiation is not universal salvation. That misguided belief confuses propitiation with redemption. Propitiation is God acting toward God to satisfy God for the crime of sin. Redemption is God acting toward man to effect the forgiveness of a person’s judicial debt for his or her sins.

Some Reformed theologians, from the time of the Synod of Dort (1619) have taken a shortcut through doctrine to say since the merit of the propitiation is applied only to the elect, then Christ died only for the elect. (The technical term is a metonymy (a substitution) of the effect for the cause.) But that shortcut undermines the truthfulness of the gospel call to every sinner (discussed below), and denies the clear statement of 1 John 2:2, not for our sins only but also for all the world. The careless distort doctrine and thereby create error.

The merit of propitiation (the older term is atonement) must be applied to effect redemption. Every Old Testament example of forgiveness of sin through sacrifice teaches the merit of the shed blood, the atonement, must be applied by faith to effect forgiveness of sins to accomplish redemption.

The redemption Christ’s propitiation accomplishes is limited and particular, because applied according to a specific purpose, through a specific means, to specific individuals. That specific purpose is God’s choice to save some not others: the decree of election, Ephesians 1:4. That specific means is God’s gift of grace-faith-salvation, Ephesians 2:8, given only to the elect. The specific individuals are those whom God has chosen to give his gift of grace-faith-salvation according to his decree of election.

God’s decree of election does not prevent any from coming and believing; thus the legitimacy of a gospel call to all sinners. In the 48 uses of the Greek words for choice, none of those uses ever says anything negative about the ones not chosen. Those words are eklégō (Strong’s 1586); eklektós (Strong’s 1588); eklektós (Strong’s 1589). Do the word study, see for yourself.

The gospel call is directed toward “whoever desires,” Revelation 22:17; whoever believes on him, John 3:16; Romans 10:11; 1 John 5:1; whoever calls on the name of the Lord, Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13. If, as some propose, Christ died only for the elect, then God is a liar when he states in the gospel that “whoever desires, whoever believes, whoever calls” on the name of the Lord will be saved.

That offer to “whoever” is why propitiation is not redemption, and why election does not prevent any from coming and believing. The infinite merit of Christ’s propitiation is available for any who “desire, believe, call upon” to be saved. The decree of election takes no action, positive or negative, to either effect or deny salvation to other sinners. The call to believe is a genuine offer to all, the moral responsibility to believe is genuine requirement for all, salvation is genuinely available to any “whoever” who might “desire, believe, call upon” the Lord to be saved.

Why, then, are only the elect saved? Because the unsaved sinner is unable to overcome his or her desire to remain a sinner. The evil attribute sin in human nature influences every other attribute with the inclination to sin, and in that sense sin can be said to dominate the will. The sinner freely chooses sinning because his will is of itself always inclined to choose sinning, and as being rebellious and disobedient toward God never desires to change its inclination to choose sinning to rebel against God, disobey his commandments, and seek a path in life apart from God.

Thus the necessity of God’s gift of grace-faith-salvation. The propitiation (atonement) is sufficient for all, but is efficient to redeem only the elect, because only the elect receive God’s gift of grace-faith-salvation. The sinner is unable to initiate saving faith because his will is of itself always inclined to choose sinning, and as being rebellious and disobedient toward God never desires to change its inclination to choose sinning.

The problem some in Reformed theology have is basic ignorance of the doctrines they profess to believe. Thus the unbiblical statement, Christ died only for the elect. No, Christ died for the purpose of fully satisfying—propitiating—God’s holiness and justice for the crime of sin. That is why the propitiation was, “not for our sins only, but also for all the world,” 1 John 2:2. And having been satisfied for all sins, God could act in justice and holiness to genuinely offer salvation to all, and act according to his sovereign will to apply that merit in truthfulness, justice, and holiness to those whom he has chosen to be his legacy out of the world (Ephesians 1:11).

None are prevented from “desiring, believing, coming,” because the gospel call is legitimately made to all. But the fact of sin is that only those whom God has given his gift will desire, believe, and come.

Therefore do not confuse atonement (propitiation) with redemption. The atonement (Christ’s propitiation) was directed toward God only, in order to satisfy God’s justice and holiness for the judicial debt of the crime of sin. Redemption is directed toward man by God through election, Eph 1:4, to redeem sinners through the applied merit of Christ’s propitiation, via the gift of grace-faith-salvation, Eph 2:8.

The definitive statement on biblical salvation was accomplished by the Synod of Dort, 1618–1619. Here are the portions applicable to this discussion, from the Canons of the Synod of Dort.

SECOND HEAD OF DOCTRINE, Of the Death of Christ and the Redemption of Men Thereby, Article 3, “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” In familiar terms Unlimited Atonement/Propitiation.

FIRST HEAD OF DOCTRINE, Of Divine Predestination, Article 6, “That some receive the gift of faith from God and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree, for ‘known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world’ (Acts 15:18). ‘Who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will’ (Eph. 1:11). According to which decree, He graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe, while He leaves the non-elect in His just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy.”

Article 7, “Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He hath out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault from their primitive state of rectitude into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ.”

SECOND HEAD OF DOCTRINE, Of the Death of Christ and the Redemption of Men Thereby, Article 8, “For this was the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation”

Or, as the summary states: “While the death of Christ is abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world, its saving efficacy is limited to the elect.” Unlimited Propitiation, Limited Redemption.”

Christ died on the cross to propitiate God for all sin, so God could act in justice, holiness and righteousness to save sinners. Salvation: The application of Christ’s infinite merit to overcome the demerit of sin and save a soul, specifically applied through God’s gift of grace-faith-salvation, according to God’s sovereign decree of election, then personally applied by each sinner through saving faith in Christ, in response to receiving God’s gift of grace-faith-salvation.

The 4-fold Gospel (A.B.Simpson)

The 4-fold Gospel (A.B.Simpson)

Perhaps one of my favorite articles by A.B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, is the 4-fold Gospel. This article looks at 4 ministries of Jesus found in the 4 Gospels: Savior, Sanctifier, Healer, Soon Coming King.

 

The link below is provided by permission of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. As with them, I pray it blesses you.

 

The 4-Fold Gospel PDF

Arminianism- The F.A.C.T.S.

Arminianism- The F.A.C.T.S.

Many of my Calivnist Brethren, in their zeal to defend Scriptural Truth, often  and unfortunately mischaracterize the soteriology of the Arminians.

 

While I do disagree with them, as a Calvinist my own self, I emphatically oppose characterizing Arminians as heretics. In the link below, Dr. Brian Abasciano lays out Arminian Soteriology on behalf of the Society of Evangelical Arminians.

 

The F.A.C.T.S.

1 John 2:2 and Calvinism

1 John 2:2 and Calvinism

While discussing Calvinism with a colleague, 1 John 2:2 came up.

Here is the text of the verse before we consider…

 “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

It has been said that this verse poses a problem for Calvinism but I disagree. The text clearly demonstrates that anyone who wants to can be saved. What it does not address is the question of who wants to be saved.

We tend to overthink matters and thereby complicate things. Does Scripture teach Divine Election?  Yes. Does the Scripture teach that man is responsible for his sin? Yes. Does the Scripture teach that only the Elect are saved? Yes. Does the Scripture teach us who comprises the Elect? NO!! Therein lies the problem with being too rigid in certain systems. God does not make a habit of revealing anything more than we need to know. Therefore we get in trouble if we go further than He has revealed and presume to know that which is not our business.

1 John 2:2 is not a problem for Calvinists any more than it is a proof of Arminianism. It is simply a fact laid out in Scripture. Here is the fact: The penal substitutionary atoning death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is absolutely sufficient for anyone that wants to be saved. This particular verse does not speak to who it is that would want to be saved and there need not be any controversy over the verse. In fact the only reason there is a controversy is that humand create one where one need not exist.

Why Did We Switch to Weekly Communion?

Why Did We Switch to Weekly Communion?

Why have communion weekly if there is no proscription to do so in the Scripture? The answer has much to do with the reason behind our breaking the wafer before we partake: it is a participatory symbol. Let me explain…

The nearest to an instruction that Scripture gives us to the frequency of communion is in 1st Corinthians 11. We  could presume from verse 20 that it was a weekly occurrence butt the Apostle does not spell that out. That being said, in verse 26 he does get very specific, “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.” The closest to an apostolic command is that ye do it often, so we do.

We do not mean to imply, in any way, that it is superior to celebrate communion weekly. Neither are we allying ourselves with Rome. Rather we remember that we gather for a worship celebration and it is appropriate that we come to the Lord’s Table when we gather.  What could be more worthy of celebration than the death and resurrection of the Lord.

During our time of corporate worship, our souls are nourished on the word of God. Should they not also be nourished by the Word who is the Living Bread come down from Heaven (John 6:51). Let’s be clear, the bread and the wine DO NOT literally become the body and blood of the Lord. Rather, we are showing two things: 1. That we are participating in the Atonement purchased by the broken body and the shed blood of Jesus. 2. We show our gratitude that this Atonement was made on our behalf.

What about the “real presence” of Jesus in communion? Good question. One of the names of the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ and since the Holy Spirit is omnipresent, the presence of Christ is always with us. He is not more present at the communion table and less present at the picnic table. Christ is always with us, at communion and everywhere else.

The Communion Service is a memorial for us. It reminds us of our divine rescue from sin and our continued dependence on Christ. In eating the physical bread and drinking the physical cup we are making a very profound and powerful statement: “By grace, the body of Christ was broken for me and the blood of Christ washes away my sin.” These physical symbols portray a spiritual reality- we are partakers in the blessings of life in Christ.

That, Beloved, is why we take communion weekly; to remember staggering grace that saw the King of the Universe die for our sin. Remember that next time you come to the table and come as often as you feel is good to do so. For us, we will come, weekly, to remember the body and blood of our Lord and to, in that memorial, celebrate the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

A Lenten Fast: Biblical Truth Meets Tradition

A Lenten Fast: Biblical Truth Meets Tradition

I am a Baptist Pastor. I also have some mild inclinations toward Anglicanism and many friends on both sides of the Lenten Debate. Is Lent biblical or is it just tradition? I contend that is it both. Walk with me down this path…

What is Lent?

Historically, Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Resurrection Sunday. It calls our attention to the time when the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Prior to that temptation, Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights with much prayer. (See Matthew 4 for additional study) Lent reminds us to do the same.

Do Fasting and Ashes go together?

Esther 4:1 tells us that Mordecai clothed himself in sack cloth and ashes, walking about the city wailing loudly.

Job 42:6

Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.”

Nehemiah 9:1

Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the sons of Israel assembled with fasting, in sackcloth and with dirt upon them.

Jonah 3:5-9

Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. He issued a proclamation and it said, “In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water.

Should I tell people what I am giving up for lent?

Nope

Matthew 6:16-18 (NIV)

16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

How do I please God with my fast?

Read Isaiah 58. The Lord God, Himself, describes the fast that pleases Him. So often we are tempted toward the outward acts of righteousness, tithing our mint, dill, and cumin and we miss the entire point behind the act (Luke 11L24).

A proper fast is designed to give God His due glory and to prepare ourselves to be with Him and to serve Him.

So is ritual wrong?

Not at all. Many liturgies, including those in Leviticus, are filled with deep and rich theology. Ritual helps to guide us in our theology and more importantly in our doxology (praise). A certain level of ritual (if your church has an order of service you have ritual) is necessary to help us stay on the path. Ritual, however, must never rise to the level of mandate, if that mandate cannot be drawn, chapter and verse, from the Scripture itself.

What do I do?

Enjoy the ritual, if you like. It was designed to help you grow closer to God. Just as the Model Prayer (The Our Father) is designed to teach us to pray and to develop the right habit and attitude, so ritual and liturgy do the same.

Give God the glory and don’t advertise your obedience. God deserves glory, you and I don’t.

If you celebrate Lent, I wish you to have a holy season which draws you deeper into communion with Christ. If you do not celebrate Lent, I still wish for you to draw deeper into communion with Christ. He will be our inheritance and treasure forever so let us savor that Treasure even today.

 

What is Dispensational Theology

What is Dispensational Theology

The following is a guest post by James Quiggle:

Theology is the science that seeks to understand God and his interactions with his creation through systematic study of God’s revelation of himself in the Bible.

Dispensationalism is a systematic method of understanding history as a series of God-initiated economies, or “dispensations,” by consistently applying the principles of the grammatical-historical (literal) hermeneutic to all scriptures.

Dispensational theology is that branch of the science of theology that seeks to understand God and his interactions with his creation, as God has revealed himself in the Bible through a series of God-initiated economies, or “dispensations,” by consistently applying the principles of the grammatical-historical (literal) hermeneutic to all scriptures.

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.