The Position of Christ in the Covenant of Grace
This paper deals with an aspect of the controversy within federal theology. Those who hold to the fact that there are only two covenants regard Christ as Head of the covenant of grace. Those, including the author, who believe that Scripture reveals three covenants believe that Christ should be called Head of the elect or of his church, but Mediator of the covenant of grace. This disagreement can have farreaching implications for one's approach to Scripture as well as preaching. The author gives biblical, theological, and practical arguments for his case.
In his treatment of the contracting parties in the covenant of grace, Francis Turretin writes: And it seems superfluous to inquire here whether this covenant was made with Christ as one of the contracting parties and in him with all his seed, as the first covenant had been made with Adam and in Adam with his whole posterity — or whether the covenant was made in Christ with all the seed so that he does not so much hold the relation of a contracting party as of Mediator, who stands between those at variance for the purpose of reconciling them. It is superfluous, I say, to dispute about this because it amounts to the same thing.1Nevertheless, Turretin himself, immediately after the above quote, distinguishes as follows:
It is certain that a twofold pact must be attended to here or the two parts and degrees of one and the same pact. The former is the agreement between the Father and the Son to carry out the work of redemption. The latter is that which God makes with the elect in Christ, to save them by and on account of Christ under the conditions of faith and repentance.2
Some details of Turretin's distinction might be disputed (such as the restriction to the elect), but the distinction itself is necessary, for the position of Christ is distinct in both covenants (or parts or degrees of the covenant, as Turretin refers to it). This paper will argue, that there is indeed significance to the designation of Christ's position in the covenant of grace. In question is the nature of the covenant of grace as Scripture has set it forth, and as Christ intends it to be brought forth in preaching in the midst of his church. Specifically, I will argue that the concept of Christ as the head of the covenant of grace is conceptually foreign to Scripture, and practically harmful to the healthy tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, which Scripture everywhere fosters.
The Old Testament
The Old Testament sets forth the covenant of grace in a grand and oft-recurring way. It is announced immediately after the fall into sin, and organically elaborated upon throughout the biblical dispensations until, on the eve of Christ's coming, prophets and people wait for its fulfillment in the Servant of the Lord. From the outset, Scripture sets forth the covenant of grace as that gracious disposition in which God binds a people to himself. He does so with Adam and Eve and their seed, and continues it, after the death of Abel, and the expulsion of Cain, with the line of Seth until he purges his church in the flood. Even after the flood, particularly the line of Ham, but also other strands who had partaken of the blessings of the covenant of the grace, are lost to idolatry and corrupt religion. When God calls Abraham, and establishes his covenant with him and his seed, he continues the same covenant into a different dispensation, with a different means of revelation and new institutions (such as circumcision). The promises associated with the covenant of grace come to both Ishmael and Isaac equally (Gen 17:7ff.). Yet, there comes a distinction between Ishmael, who breaks the covenant (cf. Gen 17:12), and Isaac, who continues in it and inherits it (cf. Gen 17:19; Gen 21:10). This dynamic continues in the life of the people of Israel (cf. Josh 23:6-8; Jer 11:10, etc) until the end of the Old Testament dispensation.
The Old Testament says two things explicitly concerning the position of Christ in this covenant of grace. If we attend to the language and context of these passages, we will discover that neither warrants the designation "the Head of the Covenant" for Christ's position in the covenant of grace. First, Malachi 3:1 announces the coming of the "messenger of the covenant." This phrase is without parallel elsewhere. Calvin explains the term as follows:
It was necessary that the covenant should be confirmed by him — (H)e was God manifested in the flesh, yet this did not prevent him from being God's minister and interpreter in order to confirm his covenant; and we know that the office of Christ consists in confirming and sealing to us the covenant of God, not only by his doctrine, but also by his blood and the sacrifice of his cross.3
The second reference to the position of Christ in the covenant of grace can be found in the remarkable statement in Isaiah 42:6 about the Servant of the Lord:
I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles.
The phrase "a covenant of the people" should be taken to mean — "the covenant mediator for the people."4
E. J. Young writes:
The covenant of God with his people finds in him personification and guarantee.5
(T)he covenant which was made with Abraham and his posterity had its foundation in Christ; for the worlds of the covenant are these, 'In thy seed shall all nations be blessed' (Gen 22:18). And the covenant was ratified in no other manner than in the seed of Abraham, that is, in Christ, by whose coming, though it had been previously made, it was confirmed and actually sanctioned.6
At the same time Isaiah declares that the Servant of the LORD will be "for a light of the Gentiles." His significance goes beyond Israel alone. The prophecy has reference to the Messiah, the Great Son of David, who shall bring righteousness and salvation to the earth.7These two instances show how the covenant is integrally bound up with Christ. Neither instance, however, warrants the designation "Head"; instead, they both point to Christ as the Mediator, Confirmer, Security, and Foundation of the covenant of grace.
The New Testament
In the New Testament, too, the covenant of grace is a central concept. It culminates in Christ's mediatorial work and is set forth majestically in apostolic preaching. In the New Testament Christ is called "the mediator of the New Testament" (Hebrews 9:15), "the mediator of the new covenant" (Hebrews 12:24), "the mediator of a better covenant" (Hebrews 8:6), while he also is "surety of a better testament" (Hebrews 7:22).8
The Old Testament background to the term mediator of the covenant lies with Moses, also called a Mediator (Gal 3:19). Moses' mediatorship was provisional and already focused on the mediatorship of Christ. The mediator of the new covenant has "offered himself without spot to God," and he has "appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Hebrews 9:14, 26). Thereby He has paved the way to God for His people (Hebrews 10:19-23).9Christ is the Mediator and the Surety of the covenant. "Mediator" and "Surety" are not identical terms, though they are closely related. In addition to mediating between two parties, a surety assumes the legal obligations. His liability can cost him dearly. It can even cost him his life. The Canons of Dort (II, 8) says that "Christ by the blood of the cross confirmed the new covenant." The Form for the Administration of the Lord's Supper puts it this way:
Christ "confirmed with His death and shedding of His blood, the new and eternal testament, that covenant of grace and reconciliation when He said, 'It is finished.'"10
In his treatment of Christ's role in the covenant, J. van Genderen states that the covenant has been grounded in Christ. He notes that Calvin calls Christ the foundation and fulfillment (fundamentum and complementum) of the covenant. What this means is that the covenant promises are fulfilled in and by Him.11
So far, our survey confirms that the New Testament sets forth Christ clearly as the Mediator of the covenant of grace. There are two New Testament passages, which are often cited to support the idea that Christ would be head of the covenant of Christ. The first is Romans 5:12-21, and the other, Galatians 3:16. According to Romans 5:12-21, there is an antithetical parallel between Christ and Adam. This is not a pure parallel, witness the refrain, "not as ... so also" (Rom 5:15ff.). Paul is concerned here to set forth the comprehensive and salvific role of Christ in justification. What believers have, they have by virtue of union with Christ, who is head over his people for good, as Adam was head over mankind for ill. This headship is federal, that is to say, not "real," but legal. Believers are accounted righteous and obtain life by virtue by the obedience of their federal head, Jesus Christ, the Righteous. Note, however, that the word 'covenant' is not mentioned here. Christ is placed here over against Adam as the head of all who belong to him.12He is the Head of the new humanity, as Adam is the head of the old humanity. He is the Head of the new humanity, because His own have been chosen in Him and given by the Father to Him (Ephesians 1:4; John 17:6). Now many extend the reference to Adam to the covenant of works associated with Adam. This may be legitimate (though this too should not go unproven); yet, it is an additional step to see the covenant of grace in back of the reference to Christ, by virtue of a parallel to the covenant of work. There are differences, as well as similarities, between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. For now, let it be clear that to import the covenant of grace in Rom 5:11-21 is to conflate two distinct concepts, which Scripture, certainly at this point, does not conjoin.
Secondly, Galatians 3:16 is often referred to. Here Paul makes a Christological qualification to the children of the covenant: "and to thy seed, which is Christ." One might get the impression, that the words that God spoke to Abraham (Gen. 17:7), according to Paul, only refer to Christ and believers. However, a study of the context shows that the apostle is not reducing the circle of covenant children according to election, but rather concentrating the circle of covenant children for the purpose of excluding works religion. Paul always starts from the reality of the promises, which God gave to Abraham and all Israel (cf. Rom 9:4; Heb 2:1-6). Yet, Paul also moves beyond this Christologically. If those promises are to stand and attain their purpose, then Christ must come, in and through whom God causes His promises to be fulfilled. This thought is not far from what the apostle says in 2 Corinthians 1:20: "For as the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen." 13
The name of Christ is not mentioned in Galatians 3:16 to undermine the general address of the covenant promises, but rather to underscore his mediatorial indispensability for the inheritance of the promises. The text makes clear that only by faith in Christ — and not by the works of the law — do we partake of what God promises in his covenant.
If ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:29)14
Meanwhile, the New Testament gloriously sets forth the headship of Christ. It is, however, over his church, his body. Consequently, our Canons of Dort refer to Christ as "the Mediator and Head of the elect" (I, 7). This has grand and majestic significance. Christ saves his church as Head (Eph 5:23), and rules her as Head (Eph 1:22). He has all preeminence over his body and is the first fruits of the church (Col 1:18; 1 Cor 15:20). The church receives the ministry of nourishment and edification from her Head (Col 2:19). In Him the church has her flesh in heaven (Eph 2:6). As Head of his church, Christ gives his Spirit to his body (1 Cor 6:17; 15:45).
Scripture sets forth many wonderful truths concerning Christ. Our duty is to do them justice within the framework that Scripture has laid out for us. We must we wary of conflating concepts that Scripture distinguishes and importing ideas into texts and passages. In one place a concept may indeed have perfect validity. In another, it creates confusion. The supposed Headship of Christ in the covenant of grace is a case in which two biblical concepts have been infelicitously combined.
This is a proper time to indicate appreciation for some of the intentions that have motivated theologians of the past and present to maintain the concept of Christ as the Head of the covenant of grace. Though a separate study is warranted on how and why this concept developed historically in Reformed theology, it would be beyond the scope of this paper to do so. Nevertheless, I wish to point to two factors, which, I believe, have largely contributed to the prominence of the concept in Reformed theology.
One of these factors, undoubtedly, was the grave danger posed by Arminianism during the 17th century and beyond. Some have even argued that the covenant of redemption, as separate from the covenant of grace can be originally traced back to Arminius (e.g., A. Comrie). This can and has been disputed. It is clear, however, that while the distinction was implicit in Calvin, Olevianus, and others, Arminius was the first to formalize it, though clearly in a heretical way. This has led Professor van der Schuit to say that Arminius did not invent, but pervert the concept. Certainly, sound Reformed men since Arminius (such as Ames, Witsius, Brakel, Dickson, Rutherford, Owen, etc.) have held to the concept in its biblical form, and with great legitimacy. Nevertheless, for some, such as Comrie, the concept retained objectionable features.
Secondly, the Neonomianism of men such as Richard Baxter prompted many, especially in the British Isles, to move away from the concept of a general covenant of grace and a particular covenant of redemption. Neonomianism made faith a condition to the covenant of grace in a legal way. Boston writes that unless Christ be the representative in the covenant of grace, there is still room for boasting.
According to Boston, man still figures too largely, "if it (the covenant) be made with the sinner himself, standing as principal party, contracting with God, and undertaking and performing the conditions of the covenant for life: for how low soever these conditions, undertaken and wrought by the sinner in his own person, are supposed to be, the promise of the covenant is made to them; and so, according to the Scripture — reckoning, it is a covenant of works."15
These two factors have, I believe, been responsible for the hesitancy of some to speak as freely about the covenant of grace as Scripture does, and as theologians such as Calvin, Olevianus and Rutherford have done. Now this hesitancy has continued into the twentieth century and been evident in such a broad spectrum of theological opinions, ranging from A. Kuyper, H. Hoeksema, and G. H. Kersten, and even some modern theologians. Though there are great differences in the doctrines of these men, they are joined in this regard: they view the covenant of grace from eternity with Christ as its head. Let us, for example, concentrate a moment on the view of G. H. Kersten. In many ways Kersten reiterated the view of Comrie, who closely paralleled Boston on the covenant of grace. According to Kersten, the covenant of grace is the accomplishment of the covenant of redemption, which was established from eternity with the elect in Christ, their representing Covenant head.16
According to Kersten, the covenant of grace was established with Christ, and in Him with all the elect, and in time it is established with the elect, when they by rebirth and faith are incorporated into the covenant. God establishes the covenant with Abraham and his spiritual seed: the elect. According to this view, Acts 2:39 expresses a specific restriction: "as many as the Lord our God shall call." They are the elect. Alongside of this, there can only be an outward appearance or administration of the covenant, but the promises of the covenant and the seals of the covenant or sacrament, by which the promises are confirmed, are truly meant only for the elect. This point of view brings with it, that the full reality of the covenant, the validity of the promises of the covenant, and the veracity of the sacraments cannot be maintained for the whole congregation. This, the synodical pronouncements of the Gereformeerde Gemeenten in 1931 affirm.17
Covenant and Election
It is clear that the relationship of covenant and election is at issue. In fact, the 1931 synodical pronouncements state as much and choose one above the other:
that the covenant of grace is dominated by election to salvation; that therefore the essence of the covenant concerns only the elect of God and not the natural seed; that the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace are one in character and essence. It is one and the same covenant.
In contrast to this, we maintain, on the basis of Scripture, that neither should election dominate the covenant of grace, nor should the covenant of grace be identified with the covenant of redemption. In the first place, there is no biblical ground why election should dominate the covenant of grace. They are not in a competitive relationship, but two biblically revealed matters, which stand firmly next to each as two aspects of revealed truth. We deduce the following from Scripture:
- We know clearly from Scripture that God chose His own before the foundation of the world. Yet, we also learn that God established the covenant of grace in time and unfolds it through history. Rutherford makes the insightful comment that the Covenant of Grace is "no more eternal, then the creation, which is eternal in the Decree of God, as are all things that fall out in time. But this Covenant (of grace) was made in Paradise, though it was decreed from everlasting, yet it had no being as a Covenant, nor could have any, so long as the Covenant of Works did stand."18
- Election is God's gracious decree before the foundation of the world to save a certain number of persons in Christ. The covenant of grace is a salutary relationship that God has ordained with the believers and their children throughout history.
- Covenant and election are not quantitatively identical. Not all children of the covenant partake of communion with God, to which God elects his people.19We know that none of the elect shall fail in the purpose of God. Yet, we know that many to whom the covenant pertained (Rom 9:4), many children of the kingdom (Matt 8:12), and children of the covenant (Acts 3:25) will be cast out. Natural olive branches are not spared (Rom 11:21), and some abide not in the vine (John 15:6). There is a falling short of the promise which is left us (Heb 4:1), a letting the word slip (Heb 2:1), a departing from the living God (Heb 4:12) and a not entering in because of unbelief (Heb 3:19). There is the breach of the covenant (Jer 31:32) and the profanation of the covenant (Mal 2:10). None of this is ever said of the elect of God. Therefore, election and covenant should not be confused, but distinguished.
Secondly, the covenant of grace has two unequal parties — God and sinful man. The covenant of redemption, on the other hand, has two equal parties. The former is a covenant of grace, and Christ never needed grace. He may be head of his elect in the covenant of redemption, but he can never be head of the covenant of grace.20
Thirdly, the covenant of redemption requires of Christ that he bear the punishment and fulfill the law of God for His own.21The covenant of grace requires of us that we believe and repent, a duty that Christ does not fulfill in our stead. Rutherford writes:
The condition of justifying faith, laying hold on him who justifies the ungodly, is required of us in our Covenant (of grace): There is no such condition required of Christ in his Covenant of suretyship. The faith of Christ is the faith of dependency, but not as a condition of the Covenant of suretyship, but in another account.22
Christ rather mediates in the covenant of grace, for there must be the satisfaction for our sins with respect to the justice and truth of God. Lord's Days 5-6 never speak of our need for a Head; instead, we need a Mediator, one who is very man and very God.
The covenant of redemption shows close parallels to the covenant of works. Van der Schuit says: "Both the covenant of redemption and the covenant of works are characterized by obligation, by works, and not grace."23
Christ says in reference to the covenant of redemption: "I have finished the work which thou gayest me to do" (John 17:4). Such passages as Psalm 2:7-8, Psalm 40:7-9 and their quotations in Acts 13:33, Hebrews 5:5 and 10:5, Isaiah 42:1 and 53:10-11, as well as many texts in John (4:34; 10:18; 12:49: 15:10; 17:4) confirm that this is indeed the character of the covenant of redemption. Rutherford writes:
The same necessity, in regard of infinite wisdom that our Redeemer should be obedient to the death of the Crosse, Phil 2:8, and be under the Law, Gal 4:4 to keep his Father's commandments, and abide in his love, Joh. 15:10 requires also a Covenant of obedience upon the part of Christ-Man; for all men being born under the Law and Covenant of Works, Christ-Man also must be under the same.24
This then is the Scriptural distinction that must be drawn between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace. There is no hierarchy of the one over the other nor an identification of the two, but a clear distinction between the two.
The three covenant view, besides being Scriptural, has immense practical value. The value can be said to be of two kinds, evangelical and experiential. First, its evangelical value respects the proclamation of the promises of the gospel. The two covenant view poses practical problems vis a vis the address and appropriation of the promises of the gospel. Many who hold to only two covenants allow for an outward appearance or administration of the covenant, while the promises of the covenant and the seals of the covenant or sacrament, by which the promises are confirmed, are actually meant only for the elect. This point of view brings with it, that the full reality of the covenant, the validity of the promises of the covenant, and the veracity of the sacraments cannot be maintained for the whole congregation. Often there has been in circles that hold to two covenants, an intense struggle concerning the free or well-meant offer of grace. Those who insisted on the wide proclamation of the promises do so with an appeal to the command of Scripture (note Thomas Boston, the Erskines, Horatius Bonar, etc.). The impression this leaves is what the two covenant view does not allow methodologically, is brought in practically or colloquially said, what is impossible "through the front door," is brought in "through the backdoor." It is far healthier to maintain from the start what Scripture says concerning the covenant. This will obviate the need to import anything aposteriori.
Secondly, this view of the covenants has immense experiential value. Not only is the hearer of the Word faced immediately and emphatically with the call and promise of the covenant of grace, but he is also called to a full experience of the riches and benefits of the covenant of grace. Van der Schuit writes:
The person who truly experiences the covenant of grace as "conventio," that is as spiritual marriage (which, as we have seen, is different than the "constitutio," the establishment of the covenant) will be led via the covenant of grace to the covenant of redemption, in order there to be comforted with the eternal Suretyship of Christ, who was sanctified by the Father's oath.25
Van der Schuit continues: When a person begins to thirst after God, he doesn't ask for a Head, but for a Mediator between God and himself. Lord's Day 5 of the Catechism speaks the language of such a broken and a contrite heart. The first question of a seeking sinner should not concern his election. The focus is a seeking and longing after Jehovah and his strength. How can I appear justified before God? How do I find the way to God? When a sinner is led by the power of the Spirit on this way, he often does not immediately discover the full riches of the Surety, who reconciles to God and pays the debt. Yet, over time this too is made known to his soul. It is one thing to say: "I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee." It is another thing to be brought to the bosom of the Father to feast in the joy of adoption. There a person discovers the glory of the Surety, who is also the Physician. The light begins to break through to reveal the mountains of eternal election. The believer views the riches of the covenant of redemption as it respects himself and finds there the covenant of grace anchored in the will of the Triune God. Here Christ's saying fits beautifully:
Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.
Here the most robust reasoning must kneel in adoration: God all and in all.
In this vein Van der Schuit shows the immense experiential value of the three covenant view. Some have seen in this a close attachment of van der Schuit to Rutherford. Whatever it may be, Scripture sets out the path. We have but to follow and echo what God himself has revealed.
The concept of Christ as the Head of the covenant of grace is not exegetically warranted. It is artificially arrived at by a conflation of two theological concepts, Christ the Mediator of the covenant, and Christ the Head of his church.
It does not flow naturally from the revelation of the covenant of grace in the progression of revelation.
It is not proven by a careful, contextual reading of either Romans 5 or Galatians 3.
The concept of Christ as the Head of the covenant of grace is not theologically sustainable.
The parallel to the covenant of works cannot be pressed too far without serious problems.
The parallel to the covenant of redemption and the covenant cannot be pressed too far without serious problems.
The concept of Christ as the Head of the covenant of grace is extra-confessional and derails the emphasis of the confessions on Christ as the Mediator of the covenant.
The concept of Christ as the head of the covenant of grace has practical implications, which can threaten the biblical balance and tension regarding the offer of the promise