The Consensus Of The Divines, Legalism, And The Covenant Of Works

Introduction
Recently it has been argued that the Westminster Standards (i.e., the Confession of Faith, the Shorter Catechism, and the Larger Catechism), were consensus documents and as such represent a general agreement on certain points but as a consensus document the doctrine of the confession is not intended to be binding at every point. Thus, regarding the doctrine of the covenant of works, it is argued that there were several theologians in the period who did not teach it and thus today, even those who affirm the Westminster Standards are not obligated to believe the covenant of works. It is further argued that there is a fundamental problem in the doctrine of the covenant of works, namely that it is legalistic. As the argument goes, if we combine these two considerations, one can be faithful to the Westminster Standards and deny the covenant of works.

Defining Terms
Let us being with the second part of the argument, that the doctrine of the covenant of works is “legalistic.” The adjective “legalistic” is a little slippery. E.g., Christians confess that the abiding validity of God’s moral law. It is the Antinomians, i.e., to those who reject the abiding validity of the moral law, who hold that it expired with the death of Christ. That the moral law was in force before Sinai, during the Old (Mosaic) Covenant, and remains in effect in the New Covenant is the ecumenical Christian doctrine.

There are good reasons to reject the antinomian position. First, the moral law was not first published at Sinai. The moral law is not purely Mosaic. It is grounded in creation. God gave a law to Adam: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:16–17; ESV). Implied in that commandment is the entire moral law. It required him to love God above all and his neighbor as himself. It prohibited idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, and covetousness. Further, the Sabbath was already instituted in creation (Gen 2:3; Ex 20:8). It was a part of the creational pattern into which he was created.

God’s moral law is a reflection of his nature and it is reflected and embedded in creation. This is what Paul teaches in Romans chapters 1 and 2. Because it is grounded in creation and revealed in nature, the substance of the moral law is known universally and all humans shall be judged by it. Further, that it was republished at Sinai does not make the moral law purely Mosaic. It temporarily took on some Mosaic, typological features (e.g., the land promise), which were fulfilled and that expired with the death of Christ. The civil and ceremonial Israelite laws were added to it but they, with all the types and shadows, expired with the death of Christ. The moral law does not expire. It cannot expire. We know that the moral law continues in force in the New Covenant. Our Lord summarized the moral law for us in Matthew 22:37–40 and the Apostles re-stated it repeatedly. The moral law per se is not Mosaic but grounded in the nature of God. It can no more change than God can change. There will never be a time when it is appropriate to have another God before the Triune God revealed in Scripture. There will never be a time when it is appropriate to commit adultery or to covet. The premise that the moral law is inherently Mosaic and thus fulfilled and expired in Christ is false. Therefore the conclusion that the moral law is no longer valid is also false.

The claim that the covenant of works is legalistic is, in part, a problem of definition. By legalistic we usually mean three things: that our standing before God might be determined by our law keeping or an undue emphasis upon the law in sanctification or the imposition of man-made laws in the Christian life. None of these is true in the doctrine of the covenant of works. The covenant of works holds that God made Adam’s entrance (and ours) into eternal life conditional upon perfect and perpetual obedience to his holy law. It further holds that God made Adam so that he could obey it, if he would, and the he freely, mysteriously, and tragically chose not to obey. In so doing he, as the federal head of all humanity plunged himself and us into sin and death.

The doctrine of the covenant of works is not legalistic because it was instituted before the fall, when Adam had the ability to obey. Before the fall Adam heart, mind, and will were not corrupted by sin. We must distinguish clearly, with a bright line, between life before the fall (ante lapsum) and after the fall (post lapsum). Historically, it was the Pelagians who refused the make this distinction. They taught that Adam was merely a bad example and Jesus was merely a good example. Pelagius and his followers made Jesus into the first Christian. Thus, they had no compunctions about saying that just as Adam might have obeyed so too we now, even after the fall, have the power to obey. This is the great danger of those who (like Norman Shepherd) talk about Adam’s faith and works, Jesus’ faith and works, and our faith and works as if Adam, Jesus, and we are all saved by faith and works. That is a form of Pelagianism. According to the Synod of Dort, the Remonstrants (Arminians) resuscitated the errors of the Pelagians. This is the irony of describing the doctrine of the covenant of works as Pelagian. It is the absolute antithesis of Pelagianism. The criticism rests on a gross misunderstanding of both Pelagianism and the doctrine of the covenant of works. Pelagius more or less ignored the fall thus blurring the line between the pre- and postlapsarian state. The covenant of works unto glory was only said to be effective before the fall.

To say that sinners are able to obey the law unto sufficiently to enter into eternal blessedness is legalism but the doctrine of the covenant of works has never taught such a thing. It is legalistic to say that Christians are under a covenant of works now for their standing with God but the covenant of works has never taught that either. It is legalistic to impose man-made laws upon Christians but doctrine of the covenant of works does not do that. By any reasonable, objective definition of the covenant of works cannot be called legalistic.

We must also get a right definition of grace. In Scripture grace is God’s favor to sinners. It is not conditioned by anything in them or done by them. Adam was not a sinner until he sinned. He was not under a covenant of grace before the fall.

Some (e.g., Barth and others) set up a system a priori whereby, because of the distance between God and man, the only way God is able to relate to humans is by grace. This is not how Scripture speaks. It is not true that we creatures can only relate to God by grace. The list of things God cannot do is relatively short. He must be and he cannot contradict himself. There is nothing contrary to the divine nature to establish a covenant of works with a righteous man able to meet the terms of the covenant. God is free to establish a covenant whereby we relate to him on the basis of works or obedience to the law. What is there about the revelation of the law in the garden that suggests that Adam was under grace and not under law? If no one has ever been under law, why does Paul say in Romans 2:12, 3:19; 6:14–15 that we are not under law but under grace? Was Jesus in a covenant of grace? Neither the orthodox Reformed theologians have not taught such a thing nor do the Reformed churches confess it. Rather, Paul says Jesus was born “under the law” to redeem those “under the law” (Gal 4:4). Jesus earned our place with God by his perfect, righteous obedience. It is an error even to hint that Jesus’ obedience was accepted by grace because it implies that it was not inherently, worthy, that it was condignly meritorious. Paul says, “so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). Christ became obedient even unto death on a cross (Phil 2:8). He learned obedience (Heb 5:8). The churches confess that Christ merited eternal life.

It is argued by some that we creatures can only and ever relate to God on the basis of grace. It is not clear, however, on what biblical basis one would defend such a position. This seems to be something that its adherents know a priori rather than something they have deduced from Scripture. As we will see in the next installment of this series, that is not the view taken by the Westminster Divines. Indeed, they not only did not characterize the relation between Adam and God before the fall as gracious but they even refrained from characterizing God’s act of establishing the covenant of works as gracious. Instead, they used the expression “voluntary condescension” (WCF 7.1). In other words, the Westminster Divines chose to emphasize God’s freedom in entering into the covenant of works, his condescension (stooping down) to make the covenant of works but they did not call it a gracious covenant or a covenant of grace.

Common Mistakes
There are other (sometimes) unstated reasons why some persist in characterizing the covenant of works as legalistic. First, they do not distinguish sufficiently, clearly or consistently between the Adam’s state before the fall and after. It is one thing to say that Adam was under the law for his standing before God before the fall, when he was perfectly righteous and able to obey the law. It is another to say that he was under the covenant of works for his standing before God, as if he could actually, potentially keep it, after the fall. Yes, the law continued to demand perfect, perpetual righteousness but Scripture repeatedly denies that we sinners can keep it satisfactorily. The only human who kept it perfectly after the fall is Jesus, the God-Man, who came as the Last Adam (1 Cor 15:45; Rom 5:12–21) and who sustained the probationary test of the covenant of works during his whole life as the substitute of all the elect. We who believe are not under a covenant of works but a covenant of grace. We do not seek to present ourselves on the basis of our obedience or even on the basis of our Spirit-wrought sanctity but only on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness for us. Remember, Jesus was born without sin and never sinned. He was not born a sinner. Our sins were imputed (credited) to him (and in that sense he is said to have “become sin” [2 Cor 5:21] but never sinned (Heb 4:15). He was born under the law (Gal 4:4) not for himself, not to qualify himself, but for us—to be our Substitute and Mediator.

Second, it seems that some are troubled by the very notion that anyone (even Jesus?), under any circumstances (even before the fall) should present himself to God on the basis of obedience to or performance of the law. The early orthodox Scottish Reformed theologian Robert Rollock was not troubled by the notion that Adam was to present himself to God on the basis of his works. He went so far as to say that the covenant of works with Adam, before the fall, was not founded on grace but upon nature, because God made Adam so that he could keep it. Rollock spoke thus because he wanted to distinguish very clearly between works and grace.

The Westminster Divines spoke of voluntary condescension instead of grace  for good reason. They knew that Paul regularly contrasts grace and works as two distinct principles. Romans 11:6 is very clear: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” The principle controlling the covenant under which Adam was placed, before the fall, was not grace (divine favor conditioned upon the obedience of another) but works, i.e., his perfect, personal obedience. It was this principle that was expressed repeatedly to the Israelite: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the law” (Deut 27:26). “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am Yahweh” (Lev 18:5). These are the passages quoted by the Apostle Paul to prove to the Galatian Judaizers, who were legalists in every sense of the word, that they could not possibly meet the standard they had set for others.

God is gracious to sinners. We might even say that God was gracious to enter into a covenant with righteous Adam (even though the Westminster Divines wisely decided not to speak this way) but we dare not allow the principle of grace to wipe out the principle of law nor ought we to mix the two, so as to make the covenant of works gracious or the covenant of grace legal or we shall find ourselves quite at variance with the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture and in a mess. A legal covenant of grace is an oxymoron as is a gracious covenant of works and neither is good news for sinners. Both tend toward the Pelagianizing error of confusing the pre- and postlapsarian conditions.

The charge of legalism against the covenant of works is one of those allegations that seems persuasive at first because we all know that legalism is bad and that grace is good. It is almost instinctive to react to the charge by asserting the graciousness of the covenant of works. That is a trap, however, into which we ought not step. We need not do so long as we remember that grace and works are two different principles and that Adam was in a covenant of works for us before the fall and that Jesus, as the Last Adam, fulfilled the covenant of works after the fall as our substitute so that we sinners redeemed sola gratia, sola fide might be in a covenant of grace.

Five Reasons To Read The Standards Correctly
It has been argued that the orthodox Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works is legalistic. It has also been argued that since the Reformed confessions, e.g., the Westminster Standards, were intended to be consensus documents therefore those who subscribe them are to respect their teaching in general but are not bound by particular assertions.

Such an approach to the confessions is untenable for five reasons. First, such an approach does not work when applied to analogous documents, e.g., a mortgage. During the purchase of a house, the buyer signs a great number of documents. Each page of the large mortgage agreements is signed or initialed by the buyer. Each time the buyer signs a document he is, in essence, promising to repay the loan and signalling that he understands the consequences if he does not. Imagine trying to say to the loan officer, “Well, I agree with page 21 but I do not agree with page 37. When the buyer signs the loan papers he is agreeing to the entire thing. If the buyer cannot abide an article in the agreement, he must negotiate that at the time of purchase. A signature is not a general agreement with reservations as to particulars.

Reformed Christians also sign binding documents in the church. In the modern American Presbyterian system typically only those who hold special offices (e.g., Minister or Teaching Elder, ruling elder, and perhaps the deacons) are said to be bound to the teaching of the confessional standards. In Reformed churches with European Reformed roots, the entire congregation is said to be bound to the confessional standards. Traditionally, at some point in the ordination process, a minister may actually sign his name to a piece of paper indicating his agreement with the confessional standards. This is why we use the word subscribe, because one’s name is written below the confessional standards.

Second, Signatories to the Reformed confessions indicate thereby that they agree with what the documents say. If a candidate for ministry (or perhaps a lay member) has a reservation about a word, a phrase, or a clause in a confessional document, he makes that reservation known to the body at the time of his examination and his reservation is adjudicated.

Third, Even if one is only agreeing to the “system of doctrine” contained in the confessional documents, that system is composed of particulars. Some of those particulars may not be essential. E.g., in Recovering the Reformed Confession (2008). I argued that the original Reformed understanding of church-state relations was not essential to the Reformed faith, that revising that understanding did not change the essence of Reformed confession. In contrast, were we to change the doctrine of Scripture, God, man, Christ, salvation, the church, or sacraments, that would be a substantial change. Ultimately it is up to one’s ecclesiastical body to judge whether a reservation about a word, phrase, clause or article in a confessional document is essential to the document. It can be proved that the doctrine of the covenant of works is essential to the Westminster Standards.

Fourth, for what it’s worth, the Reformed confessions were not drafted to be selectively subscribed. They were originally subscribed quia, i.e., because they are biblical. Since the 18th century, however, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have frequently adopted a more selective approach to subscription. This selective approach may be relatively conservative or it may be relatively liberal but selective it is. This approach is known as the quatenus (or insofar as) approach. In this form of adherence, the subscriber is said to hold the confessional documents “insofar as” the are biblical. The assumption is that there is some daylight between what the confessions say and what Scripture teaches. It is sometimes assumed that it is up to the individual to draw that line. The notion that one adheres to the Westminster Standards generally but rejects the doctrine of the covenant of works in particular is a consequence of this approach.

Fifth, the revisionist approach being advocated relative to the covenant of works reflects the view that the Reformed confessions are mini-systematic theologies. This is not correct. The Reformed and Presbyterian confessional standards are ecclesiastical documents. A systematic theology, however worthy, is not an ecclesiastical document. The Reformed and Presbyterian churches do not publish systematic theologies. They publish binding ecclesiastical interpretations of God’s Word on those issues deemed by the churches to be essential to the faith and life of the churches. In other words, the confessional standards do not address every possible issue. Where they do speak, however, they are to be regarded as authoritative, ecclesiastical, public interpretations of God’s Word. One may dissent from any number of things in a theologian’s systematic theology. The same is not true of the Reformed confessional standards. Of course they are normed by God’s Word (sola scriptura). Should a minister or member conclude that a word, clause, phrase, or article of the standards are contrary to Scripture, he should bring that case to the churches for their judgment. After that he must decide whether he can live with the judgment of the churches. There is a place for this even under the quia approach to subscription. The form of subscription adopted by the Synod of Dort (1619) provided that a minister whose views changed after ordination should approach his classis (presbytery) and make his views known so that the church might decide whether that change is material to the confession.

It is true that he Reformed confessional standards are consensus documents and for that reason, when we subscribe them, we profess adherence to all that they teach, unless we have brought our reservations before the church to be judged. In other words, it is quite backwards to conclude that because the standards are consensus documents therefore we are not bound the particulars of their teaching. It is precisely because they are consensus documents that we are bound to their particulars. The churches do not speak to everything. Where they do speak it is to be regarded as the considered view of the churches and the public, binding, agreed, authoritative understanding of God’s Word on that issue.

The Westminster Standards Confess The Covenant Of Works
Few doctrines in the Westminster Standards are taught as clearly and repeatedly as the doctrine of the covenant of works. For clarity the relevant phrase is highlighted in italics. In Westminster Confession 7.2, Presbyterians confess: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” This very language reappears in WCF 19.1 “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.” Again, in WCF 19.6 “Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works…” and “…although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works…”. The same doctrine, in slightly different language, appears in Westminster Shorter Catechism 12:

What special act of providence did God exercise toward man in the estate wherein he was created?

A. 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.

The phrase covenant of life was the committee’s way of articulating the intended outcome of the covenant of works. It is not a different doctrine. The doctrine occurs again in number 16:

Did all mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression?

A. The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.

The divines used it again in Larger Catechism number 20:

What was the providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created?

A. The providence of God toward man in the estate in which he was created, was the placing him in paradise, appointing him to dress it, giving him liberty to eat of the fruit of the earth; putting the creatures under his dominion, and ordaining marriage for his help; affording him communion with himself; instituting the Sabbath; entering into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience, of which the tree of life was a pledge; and forbidding to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.

and 22:

Did all mankind fall in that first transgression?
A. The covenant being made with Adam as a public person, not for himself only, but for his posterity, all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him in that first transgression

and 30:

Doth God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?

A. God doth not leave all men to perish in the estate of sin and misery, into which they fell by the breach of the first covenant, commonly called the covenant of works; but of his mere love and mercy delivereth his elect out of it, and bringeth them into an estate of salvation by the second covenant, commonly called the covenant of grace

and 97:

What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?

A. Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience

The Westminster Divines taught the doctrine of the covenant of works (or the covenant of life) no fewer than 10 times. Sometimes it is necessarily implied but usually it is expressed explicitly. It is difficult to imagine what else they might have done to try to communicate to us that they believed the covenant of works and that they intended for us to believe it. How many times was it necessary for them to say it? Contrast the relative indifference in some quarters to the covenant of works with the passion some evidence for the doctrine of creation “in the space of six days,” which the divines used twice.

It is nigh unto impossible to imagine how the doctrine of the covenant of works is not essential to the Westminster Standards. It functions to account for the way God related to us before the fall, to explain at least one major function of the law after the fall, and to explain the difference between works and grace. In short, it is essential to our understanding of the history of creation, redemption, and the application of redemption (ordo salutis). Subscribing the Westminster Standards while seeking to omit the covenant of works is like saying that one likes beef, but one likes neither steak nor hamburger.

Further, the doctrine of a prelapsarian covenant covenant of works was widely taught and held well before the Westminster Assembly. That God entered into a probationary covenant of works with Adam before the fall was taught by second century fathers. That Adam was in a covenant of works before the fall was taught by Augustine. It was taught by Ursinus in 1561 and it became almost universally taught by Reformed theologians in the late 16 century and through the 17th century. It became so essential to the Reformed understanding of the creation, redemption, and the application of redemption to the elect that Wilhemus a Brakel (1635–1711) said that those who denied it failed to understand the covenant of grace. He said that in part because it was the Remonstrants (Arminians) among others who rejected the doctrine of the covenant of works and their denial, as Witsius noted, was part of their corruption of the gospel whereby they made the covenant with Adam gracious and the covenant of grace legal, as if that were possible. Pace to those who continue to believe and assert that the covenant of works was a British peculiarity, it was also taught by the Dutch, the Germans, the French, the Swiss, the English, the Scots, and the Irish. It may be implied in the 1561 Belgic Confession’s phrase “commandment of life” (art. 14) but it was confessed unequivocally by the Westminster Divines in the 1640s. For more on the history of Reformed covenant theology see the essay “Christ and Covenant: Federal Theology in Orthodoxy,” in Herman Selderhuis, ed., Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (Leiden: Brill, 2013).  Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, repr. 2008). See also the bibliography here.

Conclusion
In Reformed and Presbyterian theology and in the Presbyterian confessional standards, the doctrine of the covenant of works is not a second blessing reserved for a few illuminati. It is not a mere antiquity that we have outgrown nor is it some option on a menu of doctrines. When ministers, teaching elders, and ruling elders subscribe the confessional standards in Presbyterian Churches surely they are endorsing a doctrine confessed 10 times. If they are persuaded by arguments against that doctrine they ought to bring those arguments to their ecclesiastical assemblies for review.

Further Research

Here are libraries of posts and original source quotations on the Covenant of Grace, the Covenant of WorksCovenant Theology, and Recovering the Reformed Confession. For a more detailed discussion of the role of confessions in the life of the church see Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).

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.