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An Overview of Covenant Theology (Lesson 1.4)

Covenant Theology is structured around two distinct covenants that God establishes with man: The first is the Covenant of Works, which God established with Adam, together with all who came from him; the second is the Covenant of Grace, which God establishes with Christ, together with all who belong to Him.

I. The Covenant of WORKS:

The Covenant of Works refers to the covenant relationship that God entered into with Adam in the garden before the fall. We read in Genesis 2:16-17: “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.'” God was giving Adam a very specific command. His obedience would have meant life, but his disobedience would result in death.

This relationship that God initiated with Adam is called the Covenant of Works, because, as we'll see, it was a covenantal relationship; and because the condition of this covenantal relationship with Adam was his works; that is,God was requiring of Adam perfect obedience to the command He had given. The Westminster Shorter Catechism describes it this way: “When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.” This is the Covenant of Works.1

One thing that's vital for us to understand about the Covenant of Works is the relationship that Adam shared with the entire human race who would descend from him. Though God's command was given only to Adam, at the same time, Adam served as a representative for the entire human race. Indeed, the destiny of all humanity hinged on Adam's obedience or disobedience. Scripture makes this clear in passages such as Romans 5:12-21. Had Adam obeyed, it would have meant life not only for him—but for all humanity; and in the same way, when he disobeyed, he brought ruin and death upon us all.

II. The Covenant of GRACE:

After Adam had fallen into sin in the garden, and all men with him, the Lord drew near to Adam and entered into a very different kind of covenant with him. Beginning with the promise of Genesis 3:15, God entered into a covenant of grace with fallen man. In the Covenant of Works, God had entered into a covenant with sinless man that was based on human obedience. But now, in the Covenant of Grace, wonder of wonders, God enters into a covenant with fallen man that is based on divine grace.

The Covenant of Grace is set forth in The Westminster Confession of Faith in this way: “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.”2

Genesis 3:15 contains the first promise that Scripture makes of the coming of the Savior. Satan had triumphed; mankind had fallen. But that wouldn't be the last word. God would send a Redeemer to save His people from their sins. A seed would come from the woman who would crush the serpent. God would act. Ruin had come through one man. But redemption would come through Another. And through God's covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, the Lord continues to expand on this promise more and more. These covenants aren't to be understood as separate dispensations, but as progressive stages of one single, overarching covenant—the Covenant of Grace. And with each new stage, we come to learn more about the Savior and the salvation He would win for His people.

So, in its essence, the Covenant of Grace is really just another name for the gospel. God's covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, teach us about the gospel. Through pictures, prophecies, and promises, these covenants point us forward to Christ and the salvation He would accomplish for His people. And with the coming of Christ and the inauguration of the new covenant, those pictures become a reality, and those promises find their fulfillment. In the Covenant of Grace, God would do so much more than make salvation possible for us again—He would make it certain. In the Covenant of Grace, God redeems sinners—and He does it by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.3

III. The Covenant of REDEMPTION:

Though the Covenant of Grace comes after the Covenant of Works chronologically,Scripture makes it clear that God's plan of salvation was set in place long before the creation of the world. For indeed, before the earth's foundation, and even from all eternity, the Godhead of the Trinity, foreseeing and ordaining the fall of Adam, was pleased to construct a plan of redemption in which the Father would send the Son into the world to redeem for himself, through the working of the Holy Spirit, particular individuals among Adam's fallen race. This rescue plan is often called the Covenant of Redemption.4

Where do we see it in Scripture? First, we're told that God's plan to redeem a people for himself was put into place before the creation of the world. Ephesians 1:3-4 says: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . .[who] chose us in Him before the foundation of the world. . .” (cf. 3:9-11; 2 Timothy 1:9). Secondly, Scripture tells us that the Father commissioned the Son with a special task; the task of accomplishing redemption for His people. Christ is constantly testifying of the fact that the Father sent Him into the world to accomplish a particular work. He says in John 6:38: “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” And again He testifies in John 10:18, saying: “I have authority to lay [my life] down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.” And in John 17:4, as Jesus prays to the Father, He says: “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.” Thirdly, Scripture tells us that the Father had promised to give the Son a particular people—the same people He was sent to redeem. In Psalm 2, we read of a sacred exchange that took place in eternity past between the Father and the Son: “I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He [the Father]said to Me, 'You are My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as Your possession.'” (vv7-8). And Jesus speaks of a people that the Father had given Him when He says in John 6:39:“This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.” Christ also prays again to the Father in John 17:6, saying: “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word.”5

So, to summarize: Before the foundation of the world, and long before Adam sinned in the garden, God had constructed a plan of salvation. The Father was delighted to set apart particular individuals to redeem for himself from every tribe and tongue and nation under heaven; and He promised them to the Son. The Father would send the Son into the world for them; the Son would lay down His life for them; and the Spirit would draw each and every one of them to the Son, according to the Father's promise. This is what theologians call the Covenant of Redemption. How does it fit together with the Covenant of Grace? Before the foundation of the world, God planned to redeem a particular people; that's the Covenant of Redemption. After the fall, God began putting this plan into action, redeeming sinners like Adam and Eve,Noah and Abraham,Joseph and Moses and David; that's the Covenant of Grace. In other words, the Covenant of Redemption is the foundation of the Covenant of Grace; and in the same way, the Covenant of Grace is the practical outworking of the Covenant of Redemption.6

What Scripture clearly affirms is that long before the creation of the world, God had constructed this plan of redemption. What's not as clear is if this arrangement between the persons of the Trinity can properly be called a covenant. And though there's agreement as to how this Covenant of Redemption relates to the Covenant of Grace in general terms, it's also not entirely agreed upon how it is that they relate to one another more specifically.

Some take the Covenant of Redemption as being something quite distinct from the Covenant of Grace, contending that the first of these was a covenant which was made between the persons of the Trinity, whereas the second is made between God and man.

Others contend that the Covenant of Redemption isn't separate at all, but is rather one and the same with the Covenant of Grace. According to this view, the Covenant of Redemption is simply Jesus' unique task as the head and representative of the Covenant of Grace. In other words, as the Covenant of Works was made with Adam, and in and through him extended also to his posterity, so too, the Covenant of Grace is made with Christ as the head of all who belong to Him. But whether we see the Covenant of Redemption as being distinct from the Covenant of Grace or as part of the Covenant of Grace, there are some sweet applications for us as we meditate on the implications of God's plan of redemption.7

The first application is our security in Christ. The fact is, our salvation isn't ultimately contingent on us at all. It's contingent on a promise the Father made to the Son. The Father has promised His Son a people in the Covenant of Redemption—and if God's Word to man is certain because God cannot lie—how much more certain is the promise of God the Father to God the Son?8 Another application of the Covenant of Redemption is God's love for us in Christ. The truth is, God loved you, not just at your conversion, and not just from your mother's womb, but before the foundation of the world. This means that God loved you not just long before you loved Him, but long before you ever even existed; long before anything existed. It also means that He loved you knowing full well all the sins you would ever commit.9And the last application in thinking through the Covenant of Redemption is the Great Commission. Jesus said to His disciples in John 20:21: “as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” God's rescue mission is happening even as we speak, and Jesus is calling us to be a part of it. And we can go with great confidence, because the Father has promised to give a people to the Son. We don't announce the gospel hoping that some might come—we do so knowing that Christ's sheep will come.

1 This is from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question #12. The Covenant of Works is also known by other names, such as the Covenant of Life, the Covenant of Nature, the Edenic Covenant, and the Covenant of Creation. There are some who deny that what took place with Adam was truly a covenant, but we'll talk more about that in the next lesson of our study.

2 From The Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.3.

3 Thomas Boston writes: “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, beholding a lost world, his mercy seeks a vent. . .” (View of the Covenant of Grace, p5). And: “The foundation on which