After Adam’s colossal defeat in keeping the covenant of works, we desperately needed redemption. We literally had to have a Champion who could represent us.
This is really the purpose of the covenant of grace: To deliver us the mediator we urgently required in order to save us from total destruction! It’s a rescue operation to save us from the consequences of the covenant of works.
God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Jesus fulfilled the covenant of works perfectly, but how do we receive the benefits? That brings us to today’s topic: the covenant of grace.
What is the Covenant of Grace?
The Westminster Confession (7.5) answers:
Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant [the covenant of works], 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.
The covenant of grace is the one covenant by which God saves His people. Like an olive tree, it begins in seed form with Adam (Genesis 3:15) and stretches and expands across the two testaments and concludes at Christ’s second coming.
I remember having several questions about this and you may too: Is the covenant of grace the same thing as election? Who was the covenant of grace made with? The Westminster Larger Catechism gives us a genuinely good answer: The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed (Q&A 31).
So how does the covenant of grace blend with the covenant of redemption? Louis Berkhof explains:
The counsel of redemption is the eternal prototype of the historical covenant of grace. This accounts for the fact that many combine the two into a single covenant. The former is eternal, that is, from eternity, and the latter, temporal in the sense that it is realized in time.
In its most narrow sense, the covenant of grace is rooted in the covenant of redemption. As Berkhof said, the counsel (covenant) of redemption is eternal and the covenant of grace is historical.
So, we shouldn’t think of the covenant of grace as identical with the doctrine of election. It’s better to think of it as flowing from it.
Berkhof says things so well, and he did because he learned his theology from his teacher, Herman Bavinck. In his Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck wrote the covenant [of grace] is distinct from election in that it shows how election is realized in an organic and historical way.
This is important because it shows the covenant of grace is the historical “real time” outworking of election. It’s the channel that delivers the benefits of Christ to the believer.
Through the covenant of grace, the promise made to Adam and Eve and to Abraham, “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” becomes a reality. It occurs by faith alone in Christ.
One of my favorite books on Covenant Theology, Sacred Bond by Zach Keele and Michael G. Brown, gives a simple and understandable definition of the covenant of grace:
The covenant of grace is the covenant between God and believers, with their children, in which he promises salvation through faith in Christ, who merited their salvation by his obedience in the covenant of redemption.
I love this definition because it makes the connection between the covenant of redemption (election) and the way it plays out in real time history in the covenant of grace. It also emphasizes that faith in Christ is essential for us, and for our children, in order to receive the essence of the covenant of grace: salvation.
People today, as well as in Old Testament times, were never saved by merely being the progeny of a believer. They have always been saved by faith in Christ.
What’s amazing about the covenant of grace is that, whereas we didn’t have a mediator in the covenant of works, in the covenant of grace believers have the mediation of the Son of God. We stand before God with the very righteousness of Christ!
While the condition in the covenant of works is “do this and live” the promise of the covenant of grace is “believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). There’s also good news if you have children: “This promise is for you and your children” (Acts 2:39)!
The Unity of the People of God
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. Westminster Confession (7.5)
How was the covenant of grace administered in the Old Testament? By promise, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, and Passover. How is it administered in the New? By the preaching of the Word and the administration of baptism (circumcision) and the Lord’s Supper (Passover). Are you seeing the connection?
The covenant of grace was administered differently in the Old and New Testaments, but the substance was the same. What was the substance? It was Christ.
There are not two different ways of salvation: one in the Old Testament and one in the New. There is one way of salvation throughout both testaments: faith alone in Christ. That’s why the Westminster Confession goes on to say in 7.6, There are not two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations, meaning the time periods of the Old and New Testaments.
The Westminster Divines were just reiterating what John Calvin had written 80 years before:
The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same. Yet they differ in the mode of dispensation (Institutes 2.10.2).
United in Christ
What I love about Reformed theology and the covenant of grace is how it truly unifies all of Scripture! Its focus throughout the two testaments is on Jesus Christ.
Because of this, Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph, David, Esther, you and me are all ONE people with ONE destiny: We are united in Christ! This is why Paul could say to Christians that Abraham is “the father” of all who believe, thus making us the true Israel of God (Galatians 6:16).
When people ask “How were Old Testament believers saved?” We can answer: By grace, through faith alone in Christ.
There is one mediator between God and man. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). This is why Bavinck concluded, “There is one faith, one Mediator, one way of salvation, and one covenant of grace.”