Classical Covenant Theology On the Covenant of Grace

By Edited by R. Scott Clark

John Calvin (1509-64). For Paul’s inquiry is not so much whether the unbelief of men neutralizes the truth of God, so that it should not in itself remain firm and constant, but whether it hinders its effect and fulfillment as to men. The meaning then is, “Since most of the Jews are covenant-breakers, is God’s covenant so abrogated by their perfidiousness that it brings forth no fruit among them? To this he answers, that it cannot be that the truth of God should lose its stability through man’s wickedness. Though then the greater part had nullified and trodden under foot God’s covenant, it yet retained its efficacy and manifested its power, not indeed as to all, but with regard to a few of that nation: and it is then efficacious when the grace or the blessing of the Lord avails to eternal salvation. But this cannot be, except when the promise is received by faith; for it is in this way that a mutual covenant is on both sides confirmed. He then means that some ever remained in that nation, who by continuing to believe in the promise, had not fallen away from the privileges of the covenant (Commentary on Romans 4.3, Strasbourg, 1539).

Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83). Q: 1 What firm comfort do you have in life and in death? A: That I was created by God in his image and for eternal life. After I, of my own accord, lost this image in Adam, God out of his immense and gracious mercy, received me into his covenant of grace, so that, on the basis of the obedience and death of his Son, who was sent in the flesh, he gave to me, a believer, righteousness and eternal life. Moreover, He sealed his covenant in my heart through his Spirit who renews me in God's image and who cries in me "Abba, Father," and through his Word and the visible signs of his covenant (Summa theologie, 1561).

Heidelberg Catechism (1563). Q: 19. From where do you know this? A: From the Holy Gospel, which God Himself revealed first in Paradise; afterwards proclaimed by the holy Patriarchs and Prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and finally fulfilled by His well-beloved Son.

Robert Rollock
(c.1555-99). Whereas God offers the righteousness and life under condition of faith, yet he does not so much respect faith in us, which is also his own gift, as he does the object of faith, which is Christ, and his own free mercy in Christ, which must be apprehended by faith; for it is not so much our faith apprehending, as Christ himself, and God's mercy apprehended in him, that is the cause wherefore God performs the promise of his covenant unto us, to our justification and salvation (Select Works, 1.40).

Canons of Dort
(1619). First Head: Article 17. Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with the parents are comprehended, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy (Gen 17:7; Acts 2:39; 1 Cor 7:14).

Canons of Dort
(1619). Rejection of Errors Second Head: Paragraph 2. [We reject those:] Who teach: That it was not the purpose of the death of Christ that He should confirm the new covenant of grace through His blood, but only that He should acquire for the Father the mere right to establish with man such a covenant as He might please, whether of grace or of works. For this is repugnant to Scripture which teaches that "Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant that is a new covenant ..." and that "it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. (Heb 7:22; 9:15, 17)."

Canons of Dort (1619). Fifth Head: Paragraph 1. Who teach: That the perseverance of the true believers is not a fruit of election, or a gift of God gained by the death of Christ, but a condition of the new covenant which (as they declare) man before his decisive election and justification must fulfill through his free will. For the Holy Scripture testifies that this follows out of election, and is given the elect in virtue of the death, the resurrection, and the intercession of Christ: "What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened (Rom 11:7)." Likewise: "He who did not spare His own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ (Rom 8:32-35)?"

John Ball
(1585-1640). The Covenant of Grace is that free and gracious Covenant which God of his mere mercy in Jesus Christ made with man a miserable and wretched sinner, promising unto him pardon of sin and eternal happiness, if he will return from his iniquity, embrace mercy reached forth, by faith unfeigned, and walk before God in sincere, faithful and willing obedience, as becomes such a creature lifted up unto such enjoyment, and partaker of such precious promises. This covenant is opposite to the former in kind, so that at one and the same time, man cannot be under the Covenant of works and the Covenant of grace. For he cannot hope to be justified by his perfect and exact obedience, that acknowledging himself to be a miserable and lost sinner, does expect pardon of the free mercy of God in Jesus Christ embraced by faith. (A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace. London, 1645, 14-15).

Westminster Confession of Faith
(1647). Chapter 7:3. 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 offereth 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. 7:4. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in the Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ, the testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed. 7:5. This covenant was differently administered in the time of t 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 he promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation, and is called the Old Testament.

Westminster Larger Catechism.
Q. 30. Doth God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?

A. God doth not leave all men to perish in the estate of sin and misery, into which they fell by the breach of the first covenant, commonly called the covenant of works; but of his mere love and mercy delivereth his elect out of it, and bringeth them into an estate of salvation by the second covenant, commonly called the covenant of grace.

The Sum of Saving Knowledge
(1647). 3b) The covenant of grace, set down in the Old Testament before Christ came, and in the New since he came, is one and the same in substance, albeit different in outward administration: For the covenant in the Old Testament, being sealed with the ordinances of circumcision and the paschal lamb, did set forth Christ's death to come, and the benefits purchased by it, under the shadow of bloody sacrifices, and various ceremonies: but since Christ came, the covenant being sealed by the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's supper, does clearly hold forth Christ already crucified before our eyes, victorious over death and the grave, and gloriously ruling heaven and earth, for the good of his own people.

Francis Turretin
(1623-87). XI. Not without reason did the Holy Spirit wish to designate the covenant of grace under the name of "promise," because it rests entirely upon the divine promise. In this it wonderfully differs, not only from all human covenants (which consist of a mutual obligation and stipulation of the parties), but from the covenant of works (which although it also had its own promise on the part of God to the doers and so was founded on the goodness of God, still it required obedience on the part of man that it might be put into execution). But here God wished the whole of this covenant to depend upon his promise, not only with regard to the reward promised by him, but also with regard to the duty demanded from us. Thus God performs here not only his own part, but also ours; and if the covenant is given for the happiness of only the one party, it is guarded and fulfilled by the fidelity of only one party. Hence not only God's blessings fall under the promise, but also man's duty; not only the end, but also the means and conditions leading us to it (as will be shown in the proper place) (Institutes of Elenctic Theology [Topic 12, Q. 1.11).

Francis Turretin. II.
( 1 ) Condition is used either antecedently and a priori, for that which has the force of a meritorious and impulsive cause to obtain the benefits of the covenant (the performance of which gives man a right to the reward); or concomitantly and consequently a posterior), for that which has the relation of means and disposition in the subject, required in the covenanted. (2) A condition is either natural, flowing from the strength belonging to nature; or supernatural and divine, depending upon grace. (3) The federal promise is twofold: either concerning the end or the means, i.e., either concerning salvation or concerning faith and repentance (because each is the gift of God). (4) The covenant can be considered either in relation to its institution by God or in relation to its first application to the believer or in relation to its perfect consummation (Institutes of Elenctic Theology; 12.3.2)

Francis Turretin. III.
These things being laid down, we say first, if the condition is taken antecedently and a priori for the meritorious and impulsive cause and for a natural condition, the covenant of grace is rightly denied to be conditioned. It is wholly gratuitous, depending upon the sole good will (eudokia) of God and upon no merit of man. Nor can the right to life be founded upon any action of ours, but on the righteousness of Christ alone. But if it is taken consequently and a posterior) for the instrumental cause, receptive of the promises of the covenant and for the disposition of the subject, admitted into the fellowship of the covenant (which flows from grace itself), it cannot be denied that the covenant is conditional. (a) It is proposed with an express condition (Jn. 3:16, 36; Rom. 10:9; Acts 8:37; Mk. 16:16 and frequently elsewhere). (b) Unless it was conditional, there would be no place for threatenings in the gospel (which could not be denounced except against those who had neglected the prescribed condition)-for the neglect of faith and obedience cannot be culpable, if not required. (c) Otherwise it would follow that God is bound in this covenant to man and not man to God (which is perfectly absurd and contrary to the nature of all covenants, in which there always is a mutual agreement and a reciprocal obligation because the contracting parties are bound on both sides-as between a husband and wife, I a king and his subjects, etc.) (Institutes of Elenctic Theology; 12.3.3).

Francis Turretin. V.
Third, if the covenant be viewed in relation to the first sanction in Christ, it has no previous condition, but rests upon the grace of God and the merit of Christ alone. But if it is considered in relation to its acceptance and application to the believer, it has faith as a condition (uniting man to Christ and so bringing him into the fellowship of the covenant). If, however, in relation to its consummation with faith (obedience and the desire of holiness), it has the relation of condition and means because without them no one shall see God (Institutes of Elenctic Theology; 12.3.5).

Francis Turretin. XV.
Thus we have demonstrated how faith is a condition in this covenant. Now we must see whether it performs this office alone or whether other virtues are with it, particularly repentance. Concerning this, the orthodox dispute among themselves-some denying and others affirming. We think the matter may be readily settled by a distinction, if we bear in mind the different senses to a condition. It may be taken either broadly and improperly (for all that man is bound to afford in the covenant of grace) or strictly and properly (for that which has some causality in reference to life and on which not only antecedently, but also causally, eternal life in its own manner depends). If in the latter sense, faith is the sole condition of the covenant because under this condition alone pardon of sins and salvation as well as eternal life are promised (]n. 3:16, 36; Rom. 10:9). There is no other which could perform that office because there is no other which is receptive of Christ and capable of applying his righteousness. But in the former, there is nothing to hinder repentance and the obedience of the new life from being called a condition because they are reckoned among the duties of the covenant (Jn. 13:17; 2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 8:13) (Institutes of Elenctic Theology; 12.3.15).

Francis Turretin. XVI.
Second, the condition is either antecedent to the acceptance of the covenant (which holds the relation of the cause why we are received into it) or subsequent (holding relation of means and the way by which we go forward to its consummation). In the former sense, faith is the sole condition of the covenant because it alone embraces Christ with his benefits. But in the latter sense, holiness and obedience can have the relation of a condition because they are the mean and the way by which we arrive at the full possession of the blessings of the covenant. If they do not have causality either with respect to justification (or eternal life flowing from it), still in other respects they pertain to this covenant both as inseparable attendants of true and sincere faith because "faith ought to be effectual through love" (Gal. 5:6), as the qualities of those to be saved (Mt. 5:8; 25:35, 36, Heb. 12:14), as fruits of the Spirit in Christ (Rom. 8:2, 9,10) and marks of our conformity with Christ (Rom. 6:4, 5; Col. 3:1; Eph. 2:4, 5), as proofs of our gratitude towards God (Tit. 2:14), as testimonies of our sonship (I ~n. 3:3; Rom. 8:15) and as duties which the rational creature owes to God (Lk. 17:10) (Institutes of Elenctic Theology; 12.3.16).

Francis Turretin. XVII.
There is not the same relation of justification and of the covenant through all things. To the former, faith alone concurs, but to the observance of the latter other virtues also are required besides faith. These conduce not only to the acceptance of the covenant, but also to its observance. For these two things ought always to be connected-the acceptance of the covenant and the keeping of it when accepted. Faith accepts by a reception of the promises; obedience keeps by a fulfillment of the commands. "Be ye holy, for I am holy." And yet in this way legal and evangelical obedience are not confounded because the legal is prescribed for the meriting of life, the evangelical, however, only for the possession of it. The former precedes as the cause of life ("Do this and thou shalt live")) the latter follows as its fruit, not that you may live but because you live. The former is not admitted unless it is perfect and absolute; the latter is admitted even if l imperfect provided it be sincere. That is only commanded as man's duty; this is also promised and given as the gift of God (Institutes of Elenctic Theology; 12.3.17).

Francis Turretin. VII.
Nor can it be objected here that faith was required also in the first covenant and works are not excluded in the second (as was said before). They stand in a far different relation. For in the first covenant. faith was required as a work and a part of the inherent righteousness to which life was promised. But in the second, it is demanded-not as a work on account of which life is given, but as a mere instrument apprehending the righteousness of Christ (on account of which alone salvation is granted to us). In the one, faith was a theological virtue from the strength of nature, terminating on God, the Creator; in the other, faith is an evangelical condition after the manner of supernatural grace, terminating on God, the Redeemer. As to works, they were required in the first as an antecedent condition by way of a cause for acquiring life; but in the second, they are only the I subsequent condition as the fruit and effect of the life already acquired. In the l first, they ought to precede the act of justification; in the second, they follow it (Institutes of Elenctic Theology; 12.4.7).

Francis Turretin. XV.
There is not the same opposition throughout between the Old and New Testaments as there is between the law and the gospel. The opposition of the law and the gospel (in as far as they are taken properly and strictly for the covenant of works and of grace and are considered in their absolute being) is contrary. They are opposed as the letter killing and the Spirit quickening; as Hagar gendering to bondage and Sarah gendering to freedom, although the law more broadly taken and in its relative being is subordinated to the gospel. But the opposition of the Old and New Testaments broadly viewed is relative, inasmuch as the Old contained the shadows of things to come (Heb. 10:1) and the New the very image (ten eikona) (Institutes of Elenctic Theology; 12.8.15).

Consensus Formula Helvetica
(1675). Canon XVI: Since all these things are entirely so, we can hardly approve the opposite doctrine of those who affirm that of his own intention and counsel and that of the Father who sent him, Christ died for each and every one upon the condition, that they believe. [We also cannot affirm the teaching! that he obtained for all a salvation, which, nevertheless, is not applied to all, and by his death merited a salvation and faith for no one individually but only removed the obstacle of divine justice, and acquired for the Father the liberty of entering into a new covenant of grace with all men. Finally, they so separate the active and passive righteousness of Christ, as to assert that he claims his active righteousness as his own, but gives and imputes only his passive righteousness to the elect. All these opinions, and all that are like these, are contrary to the plain Scriptures and the glory of Christ, who is Author and Finisher of our faith and salvation; they make his cross of none effect, and under the appearance of exalting his merit, they, in reality diminish it. Canon XXIII: There are two ways in which God, the just Judge, has promised justification: either by one's own works or deeds in the law, or by the obedience or righteousness of another, even of Christ our Guarantor. This justification is imputed by grace to those who believe in the Gospel. The former is the method of justifying man because of perfection; but the latter, of justifying man who is a corrupt sinner. In accordance with these two ways of justification the Scripture establishes these two covenants: the Covenant of Works, entered into with Adam and with each one of his descendants in him, but made void by sin; and the Covenant of Grace, made with only the elect in Christ, the second Adam, eternal. [This covenant] cannot be broken while [the Covenant of Works] can be abrogated. Canon XXIV: But this later Covenant of Grace according to the diversity of times has also different dispensations. For when the Apostle speaks of the dispensation of the fullness of times, that is, the administration of the last time (Eph 1:10), he very clearly indicates that there had been another dispensation and administration until the times which the Father appointed. Yet in the dispensation of the Covenant of Grace the elect have not been saved in any other way than by the Angel of his presence (Isa 63:9), the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8), Christ Jesus, through the knowledge of that just Servant and faith in him and in the Father and his Spirit. For Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8). And by His grace we believe that we are saved in the same manner as the Fathers also were saved, and in both Testaments these statutes remain unchanged: "Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him," (the Son) (Ps 2:12); "He that believes in Him is not condemned, but he that does not believe is condemned already" (John 3:18). "You believe in God," even the Father, "believe also in me" (John 14:1). But if, moreover, the holy Fathers believed in Christ as their God, it follows that they also believed in the Holy Spirit, without whom no one can call Jesus Lord. Truly there are so many clearer exhibitions of this faith of the Fathers and of the necessity of such faith in either Covenant, that they can not escape any one unless one wills it. But though this saving knowledge of Christ and the Holy Trinity was necessarily derived, according to the dispensation of that time, both from the promise and from shadows and figures and mysteries, with greater difficulty than in the NT. Yet it was a true knowledge, and, in proportion to the measure of divine Revelation, it was sufficient to procure salvation and peace of conscience for the elect, by the help of God's grace.

Peter van Mastricht
(1630-1706). I think we must distinguish most carefully between those promises of the covenant of grace which are of the nature of means to an end, such as are the obtaining of redemption through Christ, regeneration, conversion, the conjunction of faith with purpose of amendment; and those which are of the nature of an end, e.g., justification, adoption, glorification etc. If this is done, we seem bound to say that the promises of the covenant of grace of the first kind are plainly absolute. It involves a manifest contradiction to require of man dead in sins a preliminary condition for the redemption of Christ, like redemption etc. But promises of the second class, like justification, adoption, etc. are altogether conditioned, yet in such a way that the satisfaction of the conditions depends not upon the strength of the free will (liberum arbitrium), but on the absolute promises of this covenant (Theoretica et practica theologia, 5.1.37).

Charles Hodge
(1797-1878). The Condition of the Covenant. The condition of the covenant of grace, so far as adults are concerned, is faith in Christ. That is, in order to partake of the benefits of this covenant we must receive the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God in whom and for whose sake its blessings are vouchsafed to the children of men. Until we thus believe we are aliens and strangers from the covenant of promise, without God and without Christ. We must acquiesce in this covenant, renouncing all other methods of salvation, and consenting to be saved on the terms which it proposes, before we are made partakers of its benefits. The word `` condition," however, is used in two senses. Sometimes it means the meritorious consideration on the ground of which certain benefits are bestowed. In this sense perfect obedience was the condition of the covenant originally made with Adam. Had he retained his integrity he would have merited the promised blessing. For to him that worketh the reward is not of grace but of debt. In the same sense the work of Christ is the condition of the covenant of redemption. It was the meritorious ground, laying a foundation in justice for the fulfilment of the promises made to Him by the Father. But in other cases, by condition we merely mean a sine qua non. A blessing may be promised on condition that it is asked for; or that there is a willingness to receive it. There is no merit in the asking or in the willingness, which is the ground of the gift. It remains a gratuitous favour; but it is, nevertheless, suspended upon the act of asking. It is in this last sense only that faith is the condition of the covenant of grace. There is no merit in believing. It is only the act of receiving a proffered favour. In either case the necessity is equally absolute. Without the work of Christ there would be no salvation; and without faith there is no salvation. He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life. He that believeth not, shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him (Systematic Theology).

G. Vos
(1862-1949). It is equally easy to demonstrate that the [Reformed] theologians did not place election and covenant side by side in a dualistic fashion, but related them organically. It is a well-known fact that for many election circumscribes the extent of the covenant even in their definition of the covenant ("The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology," Shorter Writings, 259).

M. J. Bosma
(1874-1912). Thanks to the grace of God that he has revealed another covenant, the covenant of grace, in the stead of the broken and condemning covenant of works. What Adam lost, Christ has gained for his people. What is the second part of justification? Adoption to be children and heirs of God. Every person is naturally under the demands of the covenant of works. To gain eternal life according to this covenant he would have to lead a perfect life; but this is impossible at present, for we are all born in sin and live in sin. But what we can not do Christ has done for us. He has taken away the penalty of sin not only, but has also by his active obedience fulfilled the demands of the law for us as a condition to gain eternal life. When God justifies us he counts all of Christ's merits to our credit, and reckons us in Christ. For Christ's sake we are therefore also adopted as heirs of eternal life. All the promises of the covenant of grace accrue to the justified. Christ and his people share together. We are not merely forgiven and then told to earn eternal life by our own works, but are made children of God forever. What is the ground of justification? The only ground is the righteousness of Jesus Christ. God never declares any one just unless the law is satisfied, and nothing less than absolutely perfect righteousness can fulfill the law. This Christ as our representative has rendered, and his merits are the sole legal ground of justification. There is nothing in us to which God has regard when he justifies us, no inherent righteousness, no faith, or good works. Christ died "the just for the unjust," he came "to give his life a ransom for many," "he was made sin for us," "made a curse for us." (Exposition of the Reformed Doctrine [Grand Rapids, 1907]).

Edited by R. Scott Clark

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