Confessionally Reformed: Covenantal (Part 1)
The distance between God and the creature is so great that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.
— Chapter 7.1, Westminster Confession of Faith
Covenant theology is perhaps the most primary distinctive of the Reformed. Almost every belief is informed in some way by covenant theology. If you remember in my earlier posts about soteriology, the understanding of how we are saved flows from the foundation of the Covenant of Redemption. As the Confession states, God has been pleased to express himself to man by way of covenant, so all understanding we have of God comes through covenant theology.
This is why there is such a stark contrast between the reformed systems and other non-reformed protestant understandings. Here we’ll briefly contrast the primary views apart from Reformed Covenant Theology.
Classic (or Traditional) Dispensationalism sees God as dealing with man in different ways throughout history. These dealings are separated into distinct periods of time known as dispensations. This is an unfortunate term, since the Westminster Confession describes the covenant of grace being revealed to man through various “dispensations” in chapter 7.6.
In Dispensationalism proper, these dispensations are totally distinct from one another. These periods are seen as tests for man that are given and ultimately fail, until the time that Christ comes and fulfills the terms.
Dispensationalists see a sharp division between the spiritual Church, and Israel according to the flesh. The Church has not replaced Israel, neither have the promises that were given to Israel been made to be of no effect. God still has plans for the nation of Israel, and the prophecies of the Old Testament will be literally fulfilled. In the Traditional view, Christ is awaiting his rule in the future millennium.
Progressive Dispensationalists agree on most points with Classical Dispensationalists, but depart on a few distinctives. While still affirming a distinction between the Church and Israel according to the flesh, Progressive Dispensationalists do see some of the prophecies of the Old Testament being fulfilled to some extent in the New Testament Church.
Progressives would also see that the Church was anticipated in the Old Testament, however unclearly, while Traditionalists would say that the Church is merely a parenthetical entity between God’s past and future plans for the nation of Israel. In the Progressive view, Christ is reigning now, but will reign in a greater and fulfilled sense in the future millennium.
NEW COVENANT THEOLOGY
New Covenant Theology falls more in line with traditional Reformed views, many seeing their system contained in the 1644 London Baptist Confession of Faith. New Covenant Theology departs from traditional covenant theology in other areas that are in such contrast, it cannot be considered a reformed system.
They reject the traditional understanding of the primary covenants in the reformed tradition: the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. They see the Church as becoming spiritual Israel at Pentecost, and no “Church” existed in the Old Testament. They see all the laws of the Old Testament as one unit, passed away or fulfilled in Christ. This rejects the historic reformed view of the tripartite division of the law, being moral, judicial, and ceremonial. The law we are under in the New Testament is the “law of Christ,” which is a new law given to spiritual Israel, the Church.
Reformed Covenant Theology
While I recognize that reformed baptists have a covenant theology, I believe it is an error and in some cases departs significantly from a true understanding. There are also differing views of the covenants in Presbyterian theology, too many to get into in a blog article, so I will keep this explanation in line with my understanding within the Presbyterian system.
COVENANT OF WORKS
I discussed the Covenant of Redemption in an earlier article, so we’ll dive into the Covenant of Works. This is the covenant given to Adam in the Garden of Eden.
And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
— Genesis 1:15-17 (KJV)
This covenant was given to Adam, who had the capacity to fulfill the terms. Adam was created good (Eccl. 7:29), having the free agency to choose between evil and righteousness. He was offered this covenant, with life being promised on the fulfillment of it, and death being promised on the breaking of it.
Adam was different from us in this, as once he broke covenant, we all inherit the nature of death through the flesh passed down through the physical seed (Romans 5:12). Through Adam all have transgressed the covenant (Hosea 6:7). God, however, being pleased to show forth his mercy and grace, upon the offense of Adam offered the promise of remission of sins through a mediator. This promise being progressively revealed through types and shadows under the various dispensations, until being ultimately fulfilled and revealed clearly under Christ in the new covenant. This promise is the foundation of the Covenant of Grace.
COVENANT OF GRACE
Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.
— Romans 5:18-19 (KJV)
Under the Covenant of Grace salvation is offered. The Covenant of Works revealed that man is incapable of achieving life through the working of the law, and needs another to take sins away and impart righteousness. Since the fall, man has become totally defiled and corrupt in all his faculties.
Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled.
— Titus 1:15 (KJV)
One could say that the Covenant of Grace is simply the revelation or out-working of the Covenant of Redemption. This is because the promises contained in the Covenant of Redemption are offered to Christ, and we receive the benefits by being Christ’s seed. The gospel is not offered to Christ, however, but to man. The benefits of Christ are offered through the Covenant of Grace, in various ways in different dispensations.
One could conceive of this as being part of a vine. The Covenant of Grace is through the vine of Christ. God has given the increase of the branches (the church) of this vine. It is at this point that we get into the differences between baptist theology and presbyterian theology. The following will be a summary of Presbyterian distinctives.
Christ is the vine by which both the visible and the invisible church is grown. The visible church consists of both believers and unbelievers. As we progress through the history of redemption, believers are in the process of being grafted in, and unbelievers are in the process of being cut off. We see this applied to the new covenant in Scripture.
Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.
— Romans 11:19-22 (KJV)
This is why the author of Hebrews exhorts the church to exercise faith in the covenant promise, lest they be cut off to die outside of the promised rest like the unbelieving Israelites.
Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end; While it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation. For some, when they had heard, did provoke: howbeit not all that came out of Egypt by Moses. But with whom was he grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness? And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.
Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.
— Hebrews 3:12-4:2 (KJV)
There are those in the congregation of the church who are part of the vine of Christ who receive blessings from God through the common operations of the Spirit within the means of grace in the assembly, but since they turn away from exercising faith in Christ, they are cut off and thrown into outer darkness.
For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.
— Hebrews 6:7-8 (KJV)
The author of Hebrews rightly exhorts us, let us therefore fear, lest we come short of entering God’s rest. This should cause us to examine ourselves, as Paul says to the Corinthians.
Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?
— 2 Corinthians 13:5 (KJV)
No man can see the heart. Each believer has the responsibility to search their own hearts and to pursue the rest promised through the covenant. Church officers cannot truly tell who is and who is not a real believer. They must make a charitable judgement. Even Philip couldn’t tell that Simon Magus was not a real believer when he baptized him, but only when later he showed himself to be apostate. In my next article we will examine these covenant promises and who they apply to.