What Is The Substance Of The Covenant Of Grace?

For most of 2,000 years the Christian church was universally agreed that there is one way of salvation, that the history of redemption was essentially unified. In the post-apostolic church this consensus began to develop very early in the 2nd century in response to the challenge of various heretical movements and most particularly the Gnostics, who sharply distinguished between the “god” of the Old Testament and the God of the New. Indeed the orthodox Christians reacted so strongly they began describing all of Scripture as law. The Old Testament was the “old law” and the New was the “new law.” This is not to say that there was no recognition of diversity in the history of redemption, there was, but the emphasis was strongly on the unity of salvation between the old and the new.

The Reformation inherited and continued to value the fundamental unity of salvation history in Scripture even as they described that unity in different terms. Thus, Adolf von Harnack’s quip that Luther was the first theologian to understand Marcion was most certainly false. The Protestant hermeneutical and theological distinction between law and gospel did not reintroduce the Marcionite juxtaposition of the OT “god” v. the NT God. The Reformed churches, partly in response to what appeared to them to be a movement back toward Marcion by the Anabaptists, developed a reading of redemptive history that explained the unity and diversity of Scripture in terms of the covenants that God had made before history and in history. Again, this was not new. The 2nd and 3rd century fathers, in response to the Gnostics and other dualists (e.g., Marcion) had done the very same thing. In the 5th century, Augustine would appeal to the covenant God made a covenant with Adam before the fall as if it were a given. The medieval church had also referred regularly, although not always happily for the gospel, to a sort of covenant theology.

In modern period of church history and particularly since the mid-19th century, however, the widespread and long-held conviction about the fundamental unity of salvation has been challenged and especially in the US. The 19th century saw a number of movements that emphasized the discontinuity between the old and the new. Chief among those was Dispensationalism but there were other movements too that stressed discontinuity. Nineteenth-century American evangelicalism looks a great deal like early sixteenth-century Anabaptist radicalism. For more on this see the essay “Magic and Noise: Being Reformed In Sister’s America.”

Since then there have been broader social and cultural changes that have made it more difficult for American evangelicals, who remain deeply influenced by those 19th-century changes in American Christianity, to appreciate and value the unity of redemption. Americans under 40 and certainly those under 30 have grown up in a culture, in a time, in which the one of the reigning philosophical assumptions is that the “many” are more important than the “one.” Those who lean toward “the many” emphasize diversity, that which distinguishes one thing from another. They’re all about the individual, the particular. They are suspicious of attempts to link one thing to another. It seems artificial. They don’t want to be pigeonholed. Having been raised in the wake of the Reagan prosperity, they assume a higher standard of living than their predecessors. They expect “options.” This preference for the particular is so powerful that they sometimes have difficulty making choices because it means picking one thing and bypassing another and that requires them to give up an option.

By contrast, those over fifty were probably raised in a culture where the emphasis cultural assumption favored “the one” or that which unifies over that which distinguishes. That generation had fewer choices and lower expect ions about personal autonomy. They were shaped by an ethos formed by the first half of the twentieth century which had seen not one but two world wars, the second of which was followed by the Cold War. Their economic assumptions were more influenced by those who had experienced the Great Depression. In that period America was not yet fully urbanized and suburbanized. They had more experience with rural cultures and unity was considered a virtue rather than a disguised form of oppression.

For these historical, cultural, and social reasons, Reformed Christians in America (and perhaps elsewhere in the west) face genuine obstacles as they try to explain the historic Reformed doctrine of the “substance of the covenant of grace.” There are other obstacles. Many evangelicals are unfamiliar with even the notion of a covenant of grace. Most of them and not a few Reformed folk think that the doctrine of predestination (that, from eternity, God has elected some to salvation and allowed others to remain in their fallen state) is the sum of Reformed theology.

It was not so from the beginning of Reformed theology. The Reformed writers assumed the ancient Christian view that there is one way of salvation. In the 1530s Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) wrote a treatise defending the essential unity of the covenant of grace in the Old and New Testaments against the Anabaptists. In the 1580s, Caspar Olevianus (1536–85) published On Substance of the Covenant of Grace, in which opened with a discussion of Jeremiah 31 and continuing to elaborate on the essential unity of the covenant grace while accounting for the progress of revelation and redemption in Scripture. Herman Witsius (1636–1708), in his great work surveying the Biblical teaching on the unfolding history of redemption and revelation, The Economy of the Covenants (1677), followed Bullinger, Olevianus, and the mainstream of Reformed theology to that point and in the next post we’ll begin looking at his account of the unity of the covenant of grace “as to its substance.”

As mentioned above, Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), in On the Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect (1585) began his explanation of covenant theology with an appeal to Jeremiah 31. This is interesting because, in our setting, which is largely dominated by Baptist assumptions about the nature of redemptive history, revelation, and hermeneutics, Jeremiah 31 is often assumed to be a proof text for the Baptist view that the new covenant is new relative to everything that went before it. If, however, we read Jeremiah 31 in its own context, as prophetic literature and interpret it the way the New Testament does, we come to a quite different reading. According to Jeremiah 31 itself and according to its NT interpretation, the contrast is between the new covenant and the Mosaic or old covenant.

Olevianus, then, began with Jeremiah 31 because he saw in it a re-statement of an even older promise. He wrote:

God promised through the prophet Jeremiah [31:31,2] that he himself would make a new covenant with us, not like that covenant that he came to regret with the fathers, when he led them from the land of Egypt. Because they made the covenant void. But this was to be the covenant:

‘I will put my law in your midst, and I will write my law in your heart and I will be your God and you will be my people.’

Because, he shall have been propitiated, he would no more remember our iniquities and our sins (Jeremiah 31; Hebrews 8). Likewise, this covenant promised to us knowledge of the true God that also embraces the free forgiveness of sins in Christ and also that he might beget from himself the renewal of man to the image of God.*

There are several interesting features about this section (1.1.1) of De substantia. One is that he understood implicitly there to be a distinction of kind between the Mosaic/Old covenant and the new. The Mosaic could be made “void” (irritum) but the new covenant, being more basic to God’s plan for redemptive than the Mosaic/Old covenant, cannot.

The next question is what Olevianus (and the rest of the Reformed mainstream) regarded as the substance of the covenant of grace? Before we answer that we must be sure to understand his categories and distinctions. Olevianus was a trained humanist as well as a theologian. He learned Aristotle at university and particularly the Organon. As part of his education he learned the traditional Christian appropriation of the distinction between the substance of a thing, i.e., its essence, and its accidents or external appearance.

We make this distinction all the time. If you have a smart phone you probably have some sort of cover. The cover is not the phone. It is accidental to the phone. The same is true of your computer. The outer shell that houses your computer isn’t actually the computer. Things like the motherboard, those are the computer. Reformed people distinguish every sabbath between the “elements of worship” i.e., Word (including the sacraments) and prayer (including our sung responses to God’s Word) and the circumstances of worship (time, language, and place). It is not the time, place, or language that makes worship what it is. It is the right administration of the Word and the right use of prayer that are essential to worship. The substance of a thing is what makes it what it is, the thing without which it doesn’t exist. The accidents or circumstances are the administration of the covenant of grace.

The Reformed understand that there has always been different ways of relating to the one covenant of grace at the same time. The OT prophets and the Apostle Paul clearly distinguished between those who had only external, outward relation to the covenant of grace and those who had an outward and an internal or inward or spiritual relation to the covenant of grace. In other words, it is possible to participate in the administration of the covenant of grace and not actually benefit from its substance of essence. As I’ve shown elsewhere (see the linked article above on the new covenant), in that respect, according to Hebrews, it is quite possible to participate in the administration of the New Covenant and yet trample under foot its essence—to one’s own destruction.

How did the Olevianus and others define the substance or essence of the covenant of grace? “I will put my law in your midst, and I will write my law in your heart and I will be your God and you will be my people.” Embedded in this prophetic articulation of the covenant of grace is essentially or substantially the same promise he had made to Adam, after the fall (Gen 3), to Noah (Gen 6), and to Abraham (Gen 17). Embedded in that re-articulation is the ancient promise to send a redeemer who would turn away the wrath we earned and to earn righteousness for all his people. This, Olevianus would go on to say is the first benefit of the covenant of grace: “free forgiveness of sins in Christ,” i.e., unconditional acceptance with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

The second benefit is also articulated in Jeremiah 31, “that he might beget of himself, the renewal of man to the image of God.” This is progressive sanctification, a Spirit-wrought grace that follows logically, necessarily from the first benefit, justification. When Olevianus said “renewal” (renovatio), he was thinking of the progressive, spiritual, and moral renewal of the believer, by the Spirit, who works through the use of the holy sacraments (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 65) in which believers, by grace, gradually put to death the old man and are made alive in the new (HC Q. 88–90).

At first glance, the phrase “substance of the covenant” might seem nebulous but it isn’t. It’s the most practical thing: free acceptance with God and being gradually conformed to Christ’s image. Nothing is more concrete or practical than that. When our theologians, whether Olevianus in the 16th century or Witsius in the 17th century, wrote about the “substance of the covenant” they were writing about the same way God has always saved and sanctified his people whether under Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David or Christ. There is a unified covenant of grace.

Might we say that the substance of the covenant of grace is not a formula but a person, Christ. I considered writing that. It is certainly true but there is a reason why writers such as Olevianus and Witsius did not immediately give that answer to the question, “what is the substance of the covenant of grace?” The reason is that when the covenant of grace grace was first articulated, it promised Christ but he was promised to us in words. In other words, to say simply “Christ” is to neglect the means by which he is offered and also to flatten out the textures of the history of redemption.

In De substantia 1.1.2, Olevianus linked the promised benefits of the new covenant to the administration of that promise in the history of redemption. His starting point was God’s simplicity. He is one. Because he is one he does not change and because he does not change, he cannot lie. He does not contradict himself. Therefore we must distinguish between the substance of the covenant of grace and its administration. When, through Moses, God said, “this is my covenant in your flesh” he was not saying that everyone who was circumcised had (ex opere operato) the substance of the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace is twofold (dupliciter). It has two aspects. In the first instance there is the substance of the covenant itself and in the second there is its administration.

There is no covenant of grace without administration. Perhaps the most persistent error in the history of Reformed covenant theology has been conflate the administration with its substance or to collapse the administration of the covenant of grace into its substance. If we say that anyone who participates in the administration has the substance, then we are sacerdotalists. We’ve turned the covenant of grace into magic. This is the error of the Romanists and the Federal Visionists. If we allow the substance to swallow up the administration, then we lose the administration. This is what Baptists do with the new covenant. They divorce it from the history of redemption. Galatians and Hebrews 6:4 and 10:29, however, are all about not confusing the the administration of the covenant of grace with its substance. The Galatian Judaizers thought that, since they had participated in the administration, they necessarily had the substance. Some in the congregation of Christian Jews, to whom Hebrews was written, participated in the administration of the new covenant but did not mix that participation with faith and thus fell under anathema. The writer accused them of falling away and of trampling underfoot the Son of God and of profaning the blood of the covenant. The administration of the covenant of grace is real. It matters. God uses the process of the administration of the covenant of grace to bring his elect to faith.

Only the elect, however, have the substance of the covenant of grace. They have it through the administration but only they have it. Those who only participate in the outward administration, in the visible assembly, never have it even though they may seem to be believers. That is why they are called “hypocrites.” There are false brothers and sisters and it is quite shocking when they do fall away.

The substance of the covenant of grace was promised through a typological and shadowy administration under Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. When Deuteronomy 30:6 said, “God will circumcise your heart and that of your children” and “my covenant will be in your flesh” he was binding together the substance of the covenant of grace with its administration. This is why the Reformed confessions and churches have distinguished them while refusing to separate them. The substance is ordinarily only found in the midst of the administration. This is why we confess what we do about the necessity of the visible church in Belgic Confession chapter 28 that, ordinarily (i.e., by divine ordination and in the ordinary providence of God) “there is no salvation apart from it….”

Yet, it is undeniably true that though many heard to preaching of the law and the gospel only 8 persons were saved in the ark, that of those circumcised under Abraham and Moses, as Olevianus wrote, “not all of their hearts were circumcised.” Yet, salvation was, he wrote, “offered” to them in the administration of the covenant of grace. Those who did not receive Christ and his benefits (justification and sanctification), “personally, maliciously, rejected the gracious offer of the covenant….”

That is why he wrote that the essence of the covenant of grace is “a sworn oath promised by God” of free, unconditional acceptance with God and of his ongoing, gracious work in the justified by the Holy Spirit, through the means of grace, gradually, progressively to conform believers to Christ. That substance, that promise, that oath, however, was administered through “the testimony or call of the Royal word” that calls us out of darkness, (“of which darkness one is convicted by the law partly natural and partly written”) and through that efficacious call, which is administered outwardly and visibly, the elect are given grace to receive “the Son of God offered in the gospel with the double benefit truly, free righteousness…and renewal to the image of God or the spirit of holiness for sharing in the heavenly inheritance.

So, it is true that Christ is the substance of the covenant of grace but he is not presented to us, as it were nakedly, apart from the administration of the covenant of grace or apart from the history of redemption, through types and shadows. It is Christ who is offered in the gospel, whether in types or in the reality of the New Covenant, but he is always offered in the visible covenant assembly and it is in the administration, i.e., in the church where we live out our new life in Christ. Another way to put this is to say that it is possible to have the forms and the words without Christ but it is not ordinarily possible to have Christ without the forms and the words.