The Scriptures are clear, the God of heaven and earth, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is a covenant-making and a covenant-keeping God. Within Reformed orthodox tradition, two views predominate regarding God’s covenant revelation and his relationship to man.
There are those who subscribe to a two-covenant view of God’s revelation, namely a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. This understanding of God’s covenant-making and covenant-keeping views any idea of a covenant of redemption as part of the covenant of grace. Those who subscribe to a three-covenant view of God’s covenant revelation, see a covenant of redemption, a covenant of works and a covenant of grace.
Our confession follows the three-covenant view. Chapter 7, ‘Of God’s Covenant’, marks a new section in our confession that runs through chapter 20, laying a foundation for all that follows in these chapters. Focus is given in this chapter to the covenant of grace with the three-covenant view of God’s dealings with man clearly informing it. God’s covenant forms the foundation of his relationship with man. Whilst there is great unity with the Westminster Confession in our confession of faith, this chapter contains significant difference because it is in the matter of God’s covenant and its administration that significant difference exists between the Presbyterian and Baptist understanding.
In paragraph 1, there are two truths regarding our understanding of God and our relationship with him that are set down. The first truth spoken of is the great distance between God and man. Here our confession affirms the creator/creature distinction that is fundamental to accurate theology, Psalm 113v4-5. The second truth is that which arises from God himself in order to address the distance with man, that is, his voluntary entering into a covenant.
Much debate has surrounded God’s initial relationship with our first parents. Whilst the narrative of Genesis 1-3 does not explicitly speak of a covenant between God and man it is evident that our forefathers believed God condescended to enter into covenant with man, in order to bring him to eternal life. This is subsequently upheld by the revelation of scripture and God’s subsequent interaction with man in redemption, Hosea 6:7, Jeremiah 31:31-34.
It is helpful to address two key matters at this juncture.
What is a covenant? Much has been written in an attempt to define a biblical covenant. Various texts make it clear that a covenant is more than a promise. It involves an oath, that is to say, it is a sworn promise, Deuteronomy 4:31; Psalm 105:8-9.
Also, whilst there is no specific phrase ‘covenant of grace’ in scripture, just like the term ‘trinity’, the concept is clearly taught. The truth of it must be upheld and understood. It is the covenant of grace that chapter 7 of our confession is particularly concerned with in paragraphs 2 and 3.
How encouraging and reassuring it is to know that notwithstanding the distance between God and man, God is pleased to make himself known to us in grace. This reality should give us hope and comfort in the challenges and difficulties, and complexities of life in a fallen world.
In paragraph 2, our confession sets down the nature of the covenant of grace and exactly how it is that God condescends to relate to us by way of saving grace. There is both a universal and a particular aspect in the covenant of grace that must be understood. They both find themselves rooted in the work of accomplished redemption by our Saviour.
What is the universal element? God freely offers salvation from sin to all who believe in Christ, John 3:26. Christ has lived, died and risen to accomplish redemption. Some have debated the language of the confession at this juncture, believing it is too loose, yet surely it is clear. The covenant of grace is all about an accomplished redemption. It does not promise salvation to all men without distinction. It promises salvation to those who believe in Christ. Without faith in Christ, there is no salvation, and there is no part in the covenant of grace. The gospel declares an accomplished redemption to all men, offering them salvation from sin through faith in the one who has accomplished redemption, Jesus Christ.
What is the particular element? It is the truth that those who believe the gospel are only those whom God in electing grace has chosen to believe. All who believe the gospel do so because of the electing love of God and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to live for the glory of God, John 6:44-45.
How important for Christians to understand the universal and particular elements involved in God’s gracious purpose of salvation as revealed in the covenant of grace. The gospel is the announcement of an accomplished work of redemption on behalf of sinners. Christ has lived, died, risen and ascended to glory as Saviour and Lord. He alone reconciles us to God. He alone brings us pardon for sin and a right standing before God. He alone ever lives to intercede for us at the right hand of the Father. The benefits of what Christ has accomplished only become ours by faith. It is a faith that God alone grants in his electing purpose and a faith that is only wrought in us by the work of the Spirit and the truth of the word.
This great task of preaching Christ to the world should be carried out in the confidence that God’s particular purpose in Christ is sure and certain. Who will respond to the preaching of the gospel? Those whom God has given to Christ and whom He has ordained to eternal life. Those whom the Spirit awakens and transforms. This is where the particular aspect of paragraph 2 is important. God commissions Christ to make the covenant of grace with the elect. Only those whom God has chosen in Christ will receive the Spirit, believe, and so enter into covenant with God through Christ.
The church must believe as Paul declares; the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes. Proclamation of Christ and him crucified is the church’s calling in the world. God will save his elect through the proclamation of his Son. Such truth should motivate prayer in the lives of the saints. Gospel work is the greatest work of all and that which will count in eternity.
The great debate and difference between the Westminster/Savoy covenant position and the 1689 Baptist position is are found in paragraph 3 of our confession. The debate over the unity of the covenant and the continuity/discontinuity of the covenant is addressed here.
Paragraph 3 sets out the fact that God progressively reveals his covenant purpose in Christ, beginning with Adam. God did not reveal his full purpose all at once, John 8:56. It took centuries for God to reveal His purpose in Christ fully. It is important to observe the clarity of this paragraph regarding the eternal foundation of the covenant of grace. The language of this paragraph indicates the confessing of a covenant of redemption between the Father and Son, Psalm 110:4. This reflects what was undoubtedly the general consensus amongst 17th century Particular Baptists.
In recent times a re-discovery of 17th century Particular Baptist works has given rise to what is known as 1689 Federalism. This position identifies the covenant of grace with the new covenant and speaks of the covenant of grace being promised in Old Testament covenant revelation and fulfilled/established in the New Testament covenant revelation. This framework is clearly consistent with the language of the confession and the context of the time in which our confession was written. However, there are also modern Reformed Baptists who would argue for that the covenant of grace is more than the New Covenant. Ongoing study of this important matter continues and helps us to think through what the framers of the 1689 Second London Confession believed regarding God’s covenant.
The final feature of the covenant of grace stated in this chapter makes it clear that the only hope for Adam’s fallen race is to be found in the covenant of grace established in Christ. An allusion is made to man’s violation of the covenant of works at the close of the paragraph. The only hope for man’s salvation being found in Christ and the covenant of grace, Galatians 3:18-22.
In understanding God’s covenant, we learn that the gospel is an exclusive message. It declares the exclusivity of Christ in salvation. The covenant of grace reveals the love of God towards sinners and calls them to trust in Christ. Any church that would fulfil its calling must be clear on the character of God in grace and the purpose of God in Christ. All who are in Christ are in covenant with God. Each true congregation of Christians gathering together is a manifestation of God’s covenant grace and part of his covenant community. Their life should be ordered accordingly.
It is God’s grace in Christ that brings us together, and it is God’s grace in Christ that binds us together. This should give us cause for praise and so shape our lives as to live for his glory in every way.
Saturday 5th June 2021