Last session we saw how “God’s multiple bonds with His people ultimately unite into a single relationship.”
That was the big idea last week. In that statement we see the seeds of diversity. God did have multiple bonds, and in Christ they are unified, however from covenant to covenant we find rich diversity and color. Each one of these covenants is like a facet on a diamond. The diamond is one, and yet each face on it reflects its beauty and light slightly differently. To use another analogy would be to look at the animal kingdom. Scientifically speaking we have divided up animals to fall into the categories of genus and species. The genus is the general classification and the species is the specific. A lion is of the genus Panthera. This category contains the four big cats: the leopard, tiger, jaguar, and the lion. Each one of these cats have a different specific classification, that being species. The lion belongs to the species leo. So a lion is called Panthera leo. What we see is that there’s diversity with in the general classification, but the specific classification all point to this king among the beasts. So this session we are going to look at these general classifications regarding the covenants in one hand, yet in the other hand knowing that it all points to this one King of the universe.
THE BIG IDEA is that the diversity of the divine covenants reveals the intricacy of God’s redemptive plan through history.
In the coming weeks we are see more of the diversity than this session. Today we’re only really looking at how the covenants are arranged structurally. There are 3 basic categories in which the church has sought to understand the distinctions of the covenants.
Covenant of Works/Covenant of Grace
Old Covenant/New Covenant
All three of these positions represent different points of view on how to structure the covenants. Even in the diverse viewpoints that follow, notice the unifying thread that runs through these different structural distinctions, that being Sovereign Free Grace.
In this structural distinction of the covenants we see a division between pre-creation and post-creation. The basic idea of this distinction is that before creation there was an intertrinitarian covenant made in order for God save a people to Himself. God the Father and God the Son covenant with each other to save a people.
They were the two parties of this covenant, commonly called the covenant of redemption.
“The Father gave the Son a work to do; He sent Him into the world to perform it, and promised Him a great reward when the work was accomplished. Such is the constant representation of the Scriptures. We have, therefore, the contracting parties, the promise, and the condition. These are the essential elements of a covenant.”
Robertson spends the least amount of time on this section, one can tell he is not in favor of it. According to his research, this particular distinction is not found in any of the classic creeds but has gained a foothold by theologians like Charles Hodge, Louis Berkhof, and Ken Campbell. Hodge would have disagreed with his research. In his Systematic Theology he points out the the Westminster Confession 7.3 and the Shorter Catechism Q.20 both speak of a covenant of grace where God and his people are the parties of the covenant. However in the Larger Catechism Q.31 the covenant of redemption is put forth because God and Christ are the parties. I don’t believe that the Puritans saw this a contradiction. Hodge says this “The latter, the covenant of grace, is founded on the former, the covenant of redemption. Of the one Christ is the mediator and surety; of the other He is one of the contracting parties.”
It’s important to note here that Robertson does not criticize the view that God had a desire before creation to save a people. He just doesn’t think that makes it a covenant. He says that the essence of this structural distinction is that of a mutual contract as opposed to the Biblical category of a covenant being one that is a bond that is sovereignly administered. I don’t necessarily see a contradiction. There still is a bond that is sovereignly administered between the members of the Godhead. Certainly there was an inviolable agreement between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to save a people, and it was a bond in blood, Christ’s blood (He was the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world. Rev. 17:8)
Covenant of Works/Covenant of Grace
In this structural distinction, Genesis 2 and 3 is the dividing line. This division could be characterized as God’s relational dealings with man pre-fall, and post-fall. However more qualifications are necessary, because even post-fall, the covenant of works is still in effect. The unsaved will be judged for their lack of perfect works; and the saved will be granted mercy for Christ’s perfect work on their behalf. Robertson points out the the strength of this structure is that “...delivers the church from the temptation to draw too strongly a dichotomy between old and new testaments.”
In other words the people in the O.T were under the covenant of works, and so are people in the N.T; and people in the O.T. were saved by the covenant of grace and so were people in the N.T.
This distinction has been largely popularized by the Westminster Confession of Faith. Specifically in chapter 7, sections 1-6.
The covenant of works which applies to all men could be summed up by saying that at creation God required Adam to “work” perfectly. To not eat of the tree-of-the-knowledge-of-good-and-evil. If he “worked” perfectly, life and blessing would follow for him and his posterity. If he “worked” imperfectly, i.e. disobeyed, he would gain death for himself and his posterity. The fact that his testing period was in the form of not-eating-the-forbidden-fruit, should not be a stumbling block for us. God’s conditions have always been perfect obedience for eternal life. Ultimately this test of not-eating-the-fruit was a demonstration of God’s perfect requirement. Nothing less and nothing more. This covenant describes all of mankind’s relationship to their Creator.
The covenant of grace which applies to God’s people could be summed up by 7.3 of the Confession:
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 offers 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 eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe. So remember A=A, law of identity. Grace = God doing it all. This covenant describes Gods relationship to his elect based purely on His Sovereign Free Grace.
Although Robertson likes this covenantal structure better than the last, he still has some minor criticisms. 1) Being that the covenant of works might suggest to some that grace is excluded from it. A simple clarification fixes this by saying that creation and continued existence are both acts of grace. 2) He says that the covenant of grace might suggest that no works are involved. This is of course is false because Christ still had to work perfectly in order for us to be saved; and the Christian is saved unto good works-Eph. 2:10. There are still works in the covenant of grace. Although I think these are legitimate concerns, I do not believe the next structural distinction saves us from those type of necessary clarifications.
Old Covenant/New Covenant
In this covenantal structural distinction, the line of division rests upon the person of Jesus Christ. Before the incarnation, God relates to the human race through the old covenant; after the incarnation, God relates to man through the new covenant. A brief tour through the book of Hebrews shows this basic distinction being made everywhere. In the old covenant there was a promise made, and in the new covenant that promise is achieved.
Perhaps the sharpest place to see this however is in the book of Galatians. Paul’s chief goal in this letter is to proclaim the true gospel against those legalistic Judaizers were adding to his gospel. I think this book is more complex than first glance offers. On the surface the Judaizers do not disagree that you need Christ. The affirm Paul’s message that Christ is needed. They said that you need Christ plus the law that Moses gave, and the circumcision that Abraham required Here’s where the rub is. If it’s Christ plus anything you lose not only the gospel, but the entire Christian world view. Galatians 2:21 says “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”
The covert thing that these Judaizers were doing though, was that they were disguising their argument under the law of Moses, and the circumcision of Abraham. In other words, they were saying that “we are following Moses and Abraham. We are sticking to God’s intention for His people. This is what God told us to do.”
What’s the problem with that statement? They didn’t just misunderstand Christ and the gospel, they misunderstood Abraham and Moses. And this is where we can misunderstand Abraham and Moses. That line in your Bibles between Old and New Testament isn’t a line separating two realities. It’s a line that separates the promise from it’s fulfillment in Christ. This is key to understanding all of the Bible! Spurgeon said that “...the doctrine of the covenants is the key of theology.”
To demonstrate this clearly, we go back to Galatians. Paul has one major contrast in his letter: Between the true Gospel and the legalism of the Judaizers. He then supports this main contrast with secondary contrasts. However, after his initial rebuttal with each of the secondary contrasts, he quickly footnotes them in order to soften their distinction so that two realities aren’t created. So let’s look at each of these secondary contrasts and how they are softened.
Antithesis #1 “Before faith came” vs. “faith has come”
“Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law...” Gal. 3:23
“But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” Gal. 3:25-26
These are two different time periods. Jesus Christ defines history. Prior to His coming is the age “before faith came”; after Christ’s coming is the age “faith has come.” This contrast is important in Paul’s mind because he uses it to show that the Judaizers were dead wrong. They have not taken seriously what Christ accomplished when he entered history. There’s no going back to the shadowed promises, they have been fulfilled.
The softening. However. The same gospel that Paul was preaching, Gal. 3:8 says that God “...preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” Galatians 3:8. In other words Paul preached the same gospel that was preached to Abraham. The believer shares the same blessing given to Abraham before Christ came.
Summary: The secondary contrast that supports the main contrast is that “The old covenant and the new covenant are radically distinct from one another.”
But this antithesis is softened because there has only been one way of salvation in both the old and the new covenant.
Antithesis #2: Abrahamic Covenant vs. Mosaic Covenant
In this comparison, Paul pits the promise to Abraham against the law given by Moses, showing that the inheritance comes by a promise. “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” Gal. 3:17-18 In other words, life and blessing does not come through law but through promise.
The softening. It is not in Paul’s mind that Moses had a different way of salvation then Abraham did. This is where hyper-dispensationalists, and NPP, and the Federal Vision people need to listen carefully. Paul is taking the argument of the Judaizers seriously here and he is showing the ridiculousness of their idea. He’s doing that by examining the law of Moses apart from promise to Abraham and to his seed, that is Christ. This was not the design of the law. It is not a separate reality from the promise. Gal. 3:17 says that “the law...does not annul [the] covenant, [and] make the promise void.” The design of the Mosaic law was not to save anybody, it served a different purpose. The Judaizers got Moses wrong. To believe that under Moses people were saved by works is to agree with the Judaizers. They were operating under the premise that the law could justify the sinner. Only the promise to Abraham’s seed could justify the sinner.
In addition to getting Moses wrong, they also got Abraham wrong. This is where baptismal regenerationists need to pay attention. By the time we reach Galatians 5, Paul starts arguing against circumcision for justification. But Moses didn’t require that(John 7:22), Abraham did!(Gen.17:10) Galatians 5:2-3 says “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” Apparently the Judaizers were telling the Galatians that in order to be saved, in addition to believing in Christ, one had to get circumcised; just like churches today that preach baptism necessary for salvation. They are falling into the same anti-gospel that the Judaizers were preaching. They got Abraham wrong because they interpreted circumcision as meaning it saved you, instead of being a sign for you. When Paul argued like this in Galatians 5, he was demonstrating that “the ultimate contrast...is not between the Abrahamic and the Mosaic covenants, but between the way of justification advocated by the Judaizers and the way of justification provided by Christ.”
Summary: When Paul is taking the argument of the Judaizers seriously, he makes sharp distinctions between Abraham and Moses. But this antithesis is softened because these two covenants as presented by Scripture, actually work in unity together.
By the way on page 60 Robertson calls Meredith Kline out in the footnote. Kline wrote the book By Oath Consigned and said that the Mosaic Covenant “...made inheritance to be by law, not by promise-not by faith but by works.”
This is the same mistake that the Judaizers made. Kline may not have misunderstood Christ like the Judaizers did, but he certainly misunderstood Moses. That mistake will lead to two different realities. Somebody could be suffering from cognitive dissonance, and hold that I suppose, but that is leaven to the Christian worldview and to the gospel. The design of the Mosaic law served at least two functions. 1) It was set for conditions for the Israelites to stay in the promised land and 2) It was designed to uncover the sinfulness of man’s heart. Given after the Abrahamic covenant, it was to show that we must be saved through promise, because we would fail through the law. The Mosaic was working in concert with the Abrahamic. It was meant to demonstrate to the universe of how far we far short of the glory of God, and is meant to drive us to the cross. It is our schoolmaster to lead us to Christ. Gal. 3:24.
There is diversity between all these covenants which we will continue to see in the weeks ahead, but they ultimately unite into one covenant that binds together the redemptive plan of God.
Having said that I want to end this session with looking at these 3 structural distinctions one more time. 1) Pre-Creation/Post-Creation Covenants,
2) Covenant of Works/Covenant of Grace, 3) Old Covenant/New Covenant
I think all three of these should be used to look at the covenants and not simply one of them. Robertson seems to prefer the last. Truly the Bible is divided up by the incarnation of Christ. The Old and New Testament, the old and new covenant as Hebrews and other books use the language. I’m all for that. I want to be Biblical. Having said that, these other two are not less true. They are just looking at other facets on the same diamond.
Here’s how Robertson rightly speaks of this 3rd distinction: “The ‘old covenant’ may be characterized as ‘promise,’ as ‘shadow,’ as ‘prophecy’;[that’s exactly how the Puritans defined the covenant of grace in the O.T it in the Westminster Confession in 7.5 ] the ‘new covenant’ may be characterized as ‘fulfillment,’ as ‘reality.’ as ‘realization.[that’s exactly how the Puritans defined the covenant of grace in the N.T. in the Westminster Confession in 7.6]’”
In fact the last statement in 7.6 in the confession says this: “There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.”
Using Paul’s idea in Galatians, of this antithesis, and then the immediate softening that follows, regarding these 3 distinctions, I would chart it like this.
Antithesis: 3) Old Covenant/New Covenant (God’s relating to man pre/post Christ) On one hand Paul is saying that the New Covenant is superior to the Old because we have the promise consummated in Christ. When the new has come the old has passed away--2 Cor. 5:17
The Softening: 1) Pre-Creation/Post-Creation Covenants--The softening here affirms that this “new covenant” was an eternal plan in the mind of God . Infinitely before the Old and New Testament time period. His election was an intertrinitarian covenant from before time began.
2) Covenant of Works/Covenant of Grace--The softening here affirms that the “old covenant” or the covenant of works was never designed to save anybody apart from the promise. The wicked from the O.T. and the N.T. will be judged for not being perfect. Those that are saved from the O.T. and those that are being saved in the N.T. are under the covenant of grace or the “new covenant” because Christ fulfilled the covenant of works perfectly.
I believe that all three of these structural distinctions are just facets on the same diamond. All three are true showing the divine covenants from a different perspective. Just like as the covenants through time unfold: the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, are not three separate realities but rather an unpacking of the same truth; so are these three structural distinctions, all three true unpacking the divine covenants in different ways.
Quotes from: O. Palmer Robertson The Christ of the Covenants Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. 1980