Dear Church Family,
The Bible describes the ‘bad news’ of the fall of man – his sin and sinfulness – in no uncertain terms. Yet, in chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (as we examined this past week in the adult Sunday school class), we learn of the gracious condescension of God by way of covenant. In his book Confessing the Faith, Chad Van Dixhoorn gives this definition of a divine covenant: “a sovereignly determined and administered arrangement between God and man, with penalties and promises” (97).
There are two biblical covenants which are taken up and described in this chapter: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.
The Covenant of Works
In the Garden of Eden, God entered into a ‘covenant of works’ with man. God gave Adam free reign of the garden, to eat freely from it; however, He commanded him to not eat of one tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Having been created in a state of righteousness and holiness, Adam had the ability to obey or disobey this command. If he obeyed, God promised him life; if he disobeyed, the penalty was death (Galatians 2:16-17). The Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of this covenant as a ‘covenant of life’ in which God required perfect obedience…upon the pain of death (WSC 12).
As we know from Genesis 3, Adam disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit. Based upon passages like Romans 5:12-20, theologians have referred to Adam as the covenant (or federal) head of all mankind: through Adam, sin and death entered the world and death spread to all men because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 5:12; 3:23). Thus, because of man’s falling into a state of sin and death, the wrath of God abides upon all men (John 3:36; Ephesians 2:1-3). Man failed to meet the requirements of the covenant of works and lost any hope of life, blessing, and intimacy with the Creator
The Covenant of Grace
In His lovingkindness and according to His good pleasure, God made a second covenant which theologians typically refer to as the ‘covenant of grace.’ The covenant of grace is very different from the covenant of life. For one thing, the covenant of grace has a different requirement: instead of perfect obedience, the condition is faith in Jesus Christ for salvation (John 3:16-18, 36). And, in this covenant of grace, God ordained (or predestined) some to eternal life. He promises to save them by giving them His Holy Spirit, making them willing and able to believe (John 6:44-45; Acts 13:46-48; Galatians 3:11).
There are many who still seek to earn salvation through obedience, but it is futile. The good news of the gracious covenant of grace is that Christ has met the demands of the covenant of works on our behalf. And, in His sacrifice, Jesus underwent the penalty of death for us: God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The Old and New Covenants
The covenant of grace begins in Genesis 3:15 and continues through to the end of Revelation 22. After the fall of man at the beginning of Genesis 3, the Scripture is one big story of God’s plan of salvation through the covenant of grace – from start to finish. At the same time, in the Scriptures, there is often a distinction made between the old covenant and the new covenant.
Simply put, the old covenant (or old testament) refers to the covenant of grace before the incarnation of the Son of God, before Christ came into this world; the new covenant (or new testament) refers to the covenant of grace renewed (or fulfilled) through Christ’s work in His first coming and His future return, our present era. Though the entire Bible speaks of one covenant of grace, it also speaks of how this covenant of grace begins in the old covenant and is ultimately fulfilled in the new covenant.
For instance, in the book of Hebrews, we learn that when God established the new covenant through Jesus Christ (as foretold in Jeremiah 31:31-34), He made the first covenant (the old covenant) obsolete (Hebrews 8:13).
The Differing Administrations of the Covenant of Grace
Thus, the Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of how the covenant of grace was administered in the old testament by “promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances” that all pointed to Christ who was yet to come. Though these elements were a mere shadow of what was to come, the substance (or essence) of them was Christ (cf. Colossians 2:17). Therefore, the Holy Spirit used these old covenant shadows to grant redemption and sanctification to God’s people. (WCF 7.5)
In the new covenant, the covenant of grace is dispensed through means that are more simple, yet more powerful: the preaching of the Word and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper. In these new covenant administrations, the covenant of grace reveals the work of Christ in His death and resurrection and the fulfillment of all the old testament promises (2 Corinthians 1:20). Indeed, these means of dispensing God’s grace in the new covenant are at the heart of the Great Commission to make disciples through baptizing and teaching all of Christ’s commandments (Matthew 28:18-20).
In the end, we find that whether a person lived before Christ’s first coming or after, every human being has one of two possible covenant heads. “In Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). One is either in Adam, abiding under the wrath of God and the just punishment of the covenant of works; or one is in Christ, abiding under the grace of God and the blessing of eternal salvation through faith in Him.
Let us praise God for the good news of the gospel which is made more poignant through an understanding covenant history between God and man: through Adam’s disobedience, we were all made sinners; yet, through Christ’s obedience, we are made righteous by faith in Him (Romans 5:19).
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch