Volume Twenty-Eight — Part 1 Article 11 Volume 28 | Home

Christ and the Promissory Covenants

The covenants with Noah, Abraham and David are promissory covenants, and they all find their most perfect expression and complete fulfillment in the new covenant promise:
    For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put My laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people: and they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. —Heb. 8:10-12.

The new covenant promise is made to the house of Israel. This does not refer to the old Israel, which has rejected the gospel and is now found outside of Jesus Christ. Every gospel believer, whether from Jewish or Gentile descent, is now a son of Abraham and a member of God's new Israel 1 (Gal. 3:6-8, 27-29; 6:16; Rom. 2:28, 29; 9:7,8). This is so because Christ incorporates all Israel in His own Person. To be in Christ is to be in Israel. The promises of the new covenant therefore belong to every believer in Jesus.

This means that salvation and eternal life are given to the believer as the inheritance was given to Abraham — that is to say, wholly by promise. But right at this point we must understand why the covenant is promissory to the believer. It is not promissory as if God had waived His demand for perfect righteousness from man. As far as God is concerned, the conditions of covenantal union between God and man are always the same. He has not set aside the stipulations as if it were a small matter whether or not His will is obeyed. God sent His Son to do what fallen man was obligated to do but could not do. Christ fulfilled the stipulations of the covenant on the sinner's behalf. He did this in order that the reward might be of promise to the believing sinner.

The great mercy of God is certainly displayed in providing Christ as the Mediator of the covenant, but God's justice is equally displayed in requiring full payment of all human obligations at the hand of this Mediator. The stipulations (the Ten Commandment law) were not set aside or abrogated by the work of Christ but were honored and established (Isa. 42:21; Rom. 3:31).

To the believer grace is free. It costs him nothing. But grace is not cheap. It has cost Another much to obtain it for the believer. When we speak of the covenant of grace, we must always remember that it was not grace but work for Christ. He won for us a free promise by His blood, sweat and toil.

We must be careful not to sever this unity between the law (obligatory covenant) and the gospel (promissory covenant) as if they were two covenants which sustain no relation to each other. God did not require one thing of man in one age for salvation, then abandon that requirement for another requirement entirely. Law and promise are not antagonistic in Christ (Gal. 3:18), but each finds its true place in God's everlasting covenant.

First, we must understand our obligation in the covenant. Calvin truly says, "The Lord promises nothing except to perfect keepers of His law." And then, to underline our predicament, he adds, "And no one of the kind is to be found." Now comes the reason why the covenant can be a covenant of promise: "For if righteousness consists in the observance of the law, who will deny that Christ merited favor for us when, by taking that burden upon Himself, he reconciled us to God as if all had kept the law." —Institutes, Bk. 2, chap. 17, sec. 5.

This means that the way of faith in Christ does not set aside the law's legitimate demand for righteousness but meets it. Although the sinner can never satisfy the covenant claims by personal righteousness, he can satisfy them by faith in the vicarious righteousness of Christ. By faith he can bring to God the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ, and the Lord places that righteousness of His Son to the sinner's account. This is how the believing sinner is justified by faith.

Justification before the law is more than pardon for past sins. While on the cross Christ bore away the curses of the broken covenant so that the believing sinner might be pardoned, He also fulfilled the stipulations of the covenant by His life so that a perfect keeping of the commandments might be imputed to the believer.2 Being justified by faith in both Christ's doing and dying, the believer is entitled to all covenant rewards. Says Calvin again:

    We define justification as follows: the sinner received into communion with Christ, is reconciled to God by His grace. While cleansed by Christ's blood, he obtains forgiveness of sins, and clothed with Christ's righteousness as if it were his own he stands confident before the heavenly judgment seat. —Ibid., Bk. 3, chap. 17, sec. 8.
The New Obedience of the Believer — Its Content

The new covenant not only promises the believer forgiveness of sins and acceptance into God's favor, but it guarantees his sanctification in a life of new obedience. God declares, "I will put My laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts . . ." (Heb. 8:10). It is by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that the believer is assured that his covenant fellowship with God will be a life of new obedience. In a promise which compliments Jeremiah's promise of the new covenant, the Lord declares through Ezekiel:
    A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes, and ye shall keep My judgments, and do them.  —Ezek. 36:26, 27.
What is to be the actual content of the obedience of the covenant partner? We must think carefully at this point, for right here the road divides in three directions. Two roads are detours to destruction, and only one is the straight path to glory.

Antinomianism. The first error is to say that since Christ kept the law of God (stipulations of the covenant) for us, it is not necessary that the believer submit to the law of God as a rule of life. Louis Berkhof is quite right when he says, "It is pure Antinomianism to maintain that Christ kept the law as a rule of life for His people, so that they need not worry about this any more." —Systematic Theology, p.614. Antinomianism misuses Paul's dictum, "not under the law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14), as if the apostle meant that the believer should have no further dealings with the law.

If we take the dispensational view of the covenants, it is difficult to avoid the heresy of antinomianism. Dispensationalism reads Paul as if the law itself were "the yoke of bondage" and the villain. What Paul fights against is not the law as the just requirement of the covenant but the misuse of law. The Judaizers perverted the holy covenant; they tried to use the law as a means of obtaining the inheritance.

Dispensationalism says that the law is only for the Jew. It is said that the Christian does not need the law as a rule of life but has the Holy Spirit instead. A sort of Spirit-ethic takes the place of objective biblical ethics. If the believer is cut loose from an objective law, how is he going to tell the difference between the Holy Spirit and the human spirit? And what can save him from just another system of ethical relativism? How can he distinguish the Holy Spirit from all sorts of human impressions and impulses? What can save him from the worst kind of subjectivism?

The doctrine that men are released from any obligation to obey the law of God constitutes one of the greatest apostasies which has permeated the modern church. Nothing more effectively opens the floodgates of lawlessness and corruption upon society than this soul-ensnaring delusion. Christ did not suffer and die to give men license to trample on His Father's holy commandments. He did not fulfill the stipulations of the covenant so that men could thereafter despise them with impunity.

Says the apostle Paul, "For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Rom. 8:3, 4). It is not a Spirit-filled mind which is no longer subject to the law of God, for the apostle continues, "Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (Rom. 8:7). And St. John also says, "He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him . . .He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked" (1 John 2:4, 6).

Legalism. Legalism is not wrong because it says that the believer needs to keep the law. It is wrong because it says that he must keep it for the wrong reasons. Legalism generally acknowledges the necessity of free forgiveness for the sins of the past, but it then proposes that the believer by a life of new obedience must satisfy the covenant stipulations and so at last gain the inheritance.

Those who undertake to fulfill the conditions of the covenant by their personal obedience are "under the law" (Gal. 3:23). It makes no difference whether it is said that such obedience is by one's own strength, by the help of the Holy Spirit, or even by the Spirit's power entirely. The believer is still put "under the law," because it is proposed that the obedience in the believer himself must satisfy the covenant stipulations.

It is sometimes said that in the old covenant experience a person tries to satisfy the claims of the law in his own strength but in the new covenant he satisfies these claims by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. This is the old error of legalism under the guise of putting the Third Person of the Godhead in the room of the Second Person. It is not the Holy Spirit's work either to help the believer satisfy the covenant claims or to do it in the believer. The work of the Holy Spirit at this point is to direct the believer to the Mediator, who has satisfied these claims on the sinner's behalf. When Christ died on the cross, He sealed forever the covenant of grace. His death meant that He had fulfilled every condition by which any man can have covenant fellowship with God.

We believe that Louis Berkhof, who in other respects presents an excellent treatment of the covenant, is to be questioned when he says, "In the covenant of works man could meet the requirements of the covenant in virtue of his natural endowments [correct], but in the covenant of grace he is enabled to meet them only by the regenerating and sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit." —Berkhof, op. cit., p.264. If by requirements Berkhof means the conditional stipulations, we say, Never! What man was obligated to do and could have done in his sinless state, Christ has done as the second Adam. The Holy Spirit does not in this life enable us to meet the conditions imposed upon sinless Adam, unless it be by giving us faith to lay hold of the righteousness of our Mediator.

The True Way of Obedience. In the first place, it must be said that the law which is put in the believer's heart under the ministration of the new covenant is the same law which was loved, obeyed and honored by Jesus on the believer's behalf. The believer looks to the cross and sees that it is no light thing to sin — that is, to break the covenant stipulations. He also sees that the righteousness of Christ which is imputed to him is Christ's life of holy obedience to each commandment of the Decalogue. The man who thinks that he can lightly esteem the stipulations of the covenant because of grace and Calvary has no part or lot in grace or Calvary, for he does not understand or appreciate the very first principles of salvation.

Christ did not treat the covenant demands irreverently or carelessly. The covenant is a legal document. No person readily tampers with a carefully-drawn-up legal transaction, least of all one whose terms and conditions have been unilaterally decreed by Almighty God. Here is the eternal, immovable and unalterable will of Jehovah in respect to the human family. If one word is changed, the integrity of the divine administration is compromised. If a person offends in one point, he is guilty of all (James 2:10). Every jot and tittle of the covenant must be honored (Matt. 5:17, 18), for God is particular about His words. It is precisely because man dared to tamper with the covenant stipulations that its curses were pronounced on the human race and finally fell with unabated fury on the head of our Substitute and Surety.

In view of all this, how can the believer fail to reverence the holy commandments of God and even walk before the Lord with fear and trembling? Yet he keeps the commandments of God, not in order to be accepted, but because he is accepted by the work and merit of Christ alone. His careful obedience to each precept of the covenant is nothing but an expression of His faith in Jesus. He is not saved by obedience but to obedience. He is justified by faith alone, but the faith which justifies him is never alone. He does not obtain the inheritance by faith and works but by faith which works (Gal. 5:6).

Abraham, the father of the faithful, is often presented by the apostles as the believer's example. He obtained the inheritance by faith in God's promise (Gal. 3:15-18). Yet the genuineness of his faith was testified to by his life of obedience in such a way that God could say of him:

For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him. — Gen.18:19.

. . . and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed My voice. — Gen. 22:18.

. . . and I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because that Abraham obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws. — Gen. 26:4, 5.

A holy life on the part of the believer is not optional. While God promises to him the gift of the Holy Spirit, a holy life is still the believer's responsibility and task. Spurgeon says, "We cannot be saved by or for our good works, neither can we be saved without good works." — C.H. Spurgeon, Autobiography (Banner of Truth), Vol. 1, p.224.

The work of Christ has released the believer from the law as a procuring cause of his justification, but it has in nowise abolished it as his rule of life. Divine grace does not set aside its recipient's responsibility, nor does the believer's obedience render grace any less necessary. God requires obedience (conformity to His law) from the Christian as truly as He does from a non-Christian. True, we are not saved for (because of) our obedience; yet it is equally true that we cannot be saved without it. —Arthur W. Pink, The Divine Covenants (Baker), p.107.

This new obedience of the believer is not perfect in itself, for the channel of corrupted human nature means that his most pious works fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23; Eccl. 7:20; Rom. 7:14-25; Gal. 5:17; etc.). In this sense he is never wholly without sin and imperfection (1 John 1:8). Therefore no work proceeding from the believer can stand approved before the undimmed splendor of God's law unless, as Calvin says, "it is buried in Christ's innocence." The believer's obedience is accepted because Christ has passed over that same ground and is able to impute His perfection to each act of obedience which the believer renders to God. If, however, a man substitutes a form of "obedience" which is outside and contrary to the words of the covenant, that "obedience" can never be acceptable to God, because Christ has no righteousness to impute to anything outside the order of covenant life. In order for obedience to qualify as being "in the Lord," it must be within the words of the covenant.

Is the Covenant Unconditional?

Throughout the history and development of covenant theology it has been warmly disputed whether or not the covenant is unconditional as far as the believer is concerned. On the side of the unconditionalists it has been argued that Christ has fulfilled the conditions of the covenant (and this is certainly true). On the side of the conditionalists it has also been argued that without repentance and faith no man has any saving interest in Christ (and this also is certainly true).

The problem is partly due to the ambiguity of the word condition. We can heartily endorse these comments by John Murray:

If condition is understood in the sense of meritorious cause, then the Covenant of Grace is not conditioned .But if understood as instrumental cause, receptive of the promises of the covenant, then it cannot be denied that the Covenant of Grace is conditioned... The promises respecting salvation are on condition of faith and repentance, and no one can deny that these promises are conditional. —International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, art. 'Covenant Theology" (Eerdmans).

It is in this latter sense that we now use the word conditional and would therefore say that the covenant privileges are conditional on a faith that will produce the kind of obedience which we discussed under our previous subheading, "The True Way of Obedience." Unbelief and disobedience disqualified the Jews from inheriting the covenant promises given to Abraham, and unbelief and disobedience will disqualify any man today.

In the light of the failure of national Israel and the many warnings given to Christians in the New Testament, we submit that it is safer to speak of unmerited election than of unconditional election. To be sure, election is undeserved and is not merited by anything in the believer. But election, like the covenant with which it is inseparably connected, does not work deterministically, mechanically or automatically. People will not be found among the elect irrespective of whether they persevere in a life of faith and holiness. Says the apostle Peter:
 

    . . .whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And besides this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. —2 Peter 1:4-11.

False theories in regard to unconditional salvation have emptied of any real force and meaning the numerous warnings which the New Testament presents to the church. To be sure, there is one strand in the New Testament which encourages the believer to live in confidence and assurance of salvation; but there is also another strand which is there to inspire a certain fear and trembling, especially in those who are inclined to become "secure and lazy by the continual preaching of grace" (Luther). Many want to cut and hack at these scriptures to bring them into harmony with their "systematic" theology which allows for no real tension between confidence and fear.

The doctrine of unconditional salvation also empties of all meaning the biblical doctrine of a final judgment according to works. But the doctrine of a final judgment according to works assumes tremendous importance in the New Testament, especially in Paul, who is also the apostle of justification by faith (see Rom. 2:6,16; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Cor. 3:13; 4:5; Col. 3:22-25; 1 Peter 1:17; Matt.12:36, 37).

The genuineness of our faith in the Mediator of the covenant must be attested to in the final judgment. Since faith is known by its fruit (good works — i.e., works in harmony with God's law), the deeds of all the professed people of God must pass in review before God. The man without a "wedding garment" will be cast out (Matt. 22:1-14). He will not inherit the covenant blessings but the covenant curses. Says Lutheran scholar Adolf Koberle:

All must appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive the final judgment on this earthly life. Whoever in the earthly congregation continues to serve evil shall not inherit the Kingdom. . . . when the idea of judgment on the entire attitude of the one who is justified has been maintained, there will be no room for the ancient antinomian misunderstanding which has always accompanied Paulinism and Lutheranism like a dark shadow. . . If even the justified sinner must face the judgment it is no longer a matter of indifference as to the degree in which he has allowed himself to be purified by the Spirit from the 'defilement and evil of the flesh." —The Quest for Holiness (Augsburg), p.166.

The Christian is now righteous before God, elect, saved, and has eternal life. But he has these things by faith only. They are not yet realized as simple historical possessions. So the New Testament also speaks of "the hope of righteousness" (Gal. 5:5), "the hope of salvation" (1 Thess. 5:8), and "the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:7). Faith is the title deed of things hoped for (Heb. 11:1), and for this reason the believer is exhorted to continue in the faith (Col. 1:23; Heb. 6:12). The decree unalterably fixing the destiny of men will be made only on the day of judgment, and on that day no genuine believer will stand in jeopardy. Then the covenant which has been ratified and sealed by Christ's death will be consummated with all those who have kept the faith unto the end (Rev.3:10; Matt. 24:13; 2 Tim. 4:7).

And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God.... He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be My son. —Rev. 21:3, 7.

And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and His servants shall serve Him: and they shall see His face; and His name shall be in their foreheads. —Rev. 22:3, 4.

(To be continued)

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Footnotes:

1 Just as the writer to the Hebrews argues that a new covenant implies a new priesthood and sanctuary (Heb. 7-9), 50 we too can argue that a new covenant implies a new Israel.
2 Sometimes theology has called these two aspects of Christ's work the active (life) and passive (death) obedience of Christ.