Confessionally Reformed: Covenantal (Part 2)

by | Nov 21, 2016 | Christian Herring

This is the 15th article in Christian Herring’s series “Confessionally Reformed,” where he explains what the term “Reformed” means. To see more articles in this series, follow the link here.


The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.
Chapter 7.2, Westminster Confession of Faith

Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace: wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.
Chapter 7.3, Westminster Confession of Faith

The Vine, The Testator

In the previous article, I put forward the idea that we see covenant theology at work through the analogy of a vine and branches, the vine being Christ, and the branches being members of the church. This is because all benefits of the covenant of grace come through Christ as our “federal head.” Through the federal headship of the first man, Adam, we are all under sin and death (see my article on Total Depravity). Through the federal headship of the second man, Christ, we receive eternal life.

But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.)

 Romans 5:15-17 (KJV)

I put forward in my article on the covenant of redemption how Christ is the singular blessed man on whom the Father bestows glory and honor, and he is the firstborn among many believers who attain that glory through the virtue of being grafted into him.

Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

 Isaiah 53:10 (KJV)

A seed shall service do to him;
unto the Lord it shall
Be for a generation
reckon’d in ages all.

— Psalm 22:30 (SMP)

For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.

— Romans 8:29-30 (KJV)

This covenant is also known as a “testament,” because, as the Confession teaches, it is in reference to the inheritance of the reward offered through the death of Jesus Christ the testator (WCF 7.4).


For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth.

— Hebrews 9:16-17 (KJV)

Upon his death, all benefits of the promises contained in the covenant of redemption are bequeathed [imparted] upon those whom God has grafted into his vine.

Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him; Called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec.

— Hebrews 5:8-10 (KJV)

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.

— Matthew 26:26-28 (KJV)

One Vine, One Church

This covenant, wherein salvation is offered through the virtue of Christ, extends throughout the entire history of the Church from the time of Adam’s fall. This covenant was put forward directly after the fall in the type and shadow of the seed of the woman coming to crush the seed of the serpent, and in the sacrifice of the animal to cover the shame of Adam and Eve’s transgression, which they failed to be able to cover by themselves.

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

— Genesis 3:15 (KJV)

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

— Genesis 3:7 (KJV)

Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them.

— Genesis 3:21 (KJV)

This covenant was also shown through the rests of the sabbaths, the land promises, the sign of circumcision, and the animal sacrifices under Moses, as an offering for the sins of the people when they broke the law of God. The Westminster Confession sums this up better than I could.

This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law and in the time of the gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all fore-signifying Christ to come, which were for that time sufficient and efficacious, through the operation 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.

— Chapter 7.5, Westminster Confession of Faith

This is called the “old” or the “first” testament, because these types and shadows were not shown without their own blood of the testament, albeit imperfect.

Whereupon neither the first testament was dedicated without blood. For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and all the people, Saying, This is the blood of the testament which God hath enjoined unto you. Moreover he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle, and all the vessels of the ministry. And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.

— Hebrews 9:18-22 (KJV)

This is, of course, not an actual propitiation of sins, because “in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Hebrews 10:3-4).

Salvation was made efficacious not through the ordinances themselves, but through the faith in the promised propitiation shown through them. However, these believers under the Old Testament were not saved by merely the promise, but the effectual working of Christ through faith in the gospel.

Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.

— John 8:56 (KJV)

By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward.

— Hebrews 11:24-26 (KJV)

Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.
That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

— Galatians 3:6-9;14 (KJV)

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 4:2 (KJV)

These types and shadows of the old testament have been superseded by the new. Jesus Christ, the substance of these ordinances has come, making effectual through faith in his death and resurrection both the old rudimentary ordinances of the gospel, and the new ordinances experienced by believers today.

But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.

— Hebrews 9:11-15 (KJV)

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; which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet 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.

— Chapter 7.6, Westminster Confession of Faith

Recommended Resources

The Westminster Standards by The Assembly of Divines
The Covenant of Life Opened (PDF) by Samuel Rutherford
Covenant Theology Lecture Series (lecture manuscripts) by Dr. Ligon Duncan
Covenant Theology Lecture Series (iTunesU course) by Dr. Ligon Duncan

Christian Herring is a member of Redeemer Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Christiansburg, VA. He is a husband and father.