Confession and Orthodoxy: Covenantal Thinking
When I was in seminary, our apologetics professor regularly reminded us that all of God’s relationships with humanity are covenant relationships. The covenant ungirds every facet of our existence as humans. Not only has the truth of this affected me since then, but also I remember it well because I missed a question on the final exam wherein we were asked to cite from memory chapter seven section one of the Westminster Confession. With that in mind, let's look at an overview of the Confession’s chapter on the covenant.
The chapter begins by distinguishing God and man yet showing how God reveals himself to man:
The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.
This “distance” is a distance of being. We are not, nor will we ever be, on God’s level or able to grasp and understand God as God knows Himself. God is infinite and transcendent and the finite can never contain the infinite. Yet since God created us, we owe obedience to him. But God condescended to man in order to reveal himself. He does this because he desires to not because he has to. All of God’s revelation and relational activity is by way of covenant. If more theologians and philosophers thought in terms of covenantal condescension, the problem either making God and man nearly identical (in ontology and in epistemology) or radically separated with no points of connection and contact could be avoided.
From here, the Confession goes on to distinguish the two main covenants: first, the covenant of works established with Adam as a federal head. In the Garden of Eden, life was promised to Adam and his prosperity on the condition of the obedience. The promise was essentially “do this and live”. The benefits of the covenant were everlasting communion with God and fully experiencing the eschatological life eating of the Tree of Life—which in the book of Revelation is a blessing of the New Heaven and New Earth. The curse of the covenant was death. These “blessings” and “curses” are standard in ancient near eastern covenant formulas, and while Genesis 1-3 does not uses the world “covenant” the pattern is clearly there. In fact, Israel’s later disobedience to the Law-covenant is likened to Adam’s disobedience in the garden: “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me” (Hos. 6:7).
The second covenant that undergirds the structure of the rest of Scripture is what the Confession calls “the covenant of grace”. Upon Adam’s fall, God “was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ.” Again, critics argue: “there is no word covenant there” however, the concept is present. Genesis 3:15, commonly called the “proto-evangelium,” is the first gospel announcement and promise. God’s continuing revelation made by successive covenants is the unfolding and outworking of this promise to his people.
In 7.5, the Confession explains the role of the Law, or the Mosaic covenant, and the time of “the gospel”. Of course, every believer at any point in time is always saved by faith in Jesus as 7.3 instructs. However, the Confession is careful to follow the Biblical text and states “this covenant [of grace] was differently administered”. So under the Mosaic Law it was “administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come.” This is why, for example, the ceremonial law was mandated and enforced as an obedient response or why Gentiles before the coming of Christ as described as “at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). However, in the administration of the time of the law, all these things pointed to Christ’s coming “by whom they had full remission of sins.” Old Testament sacrifices never took away sin and obedience to the Mosaic Law never saves.
Once Christ came, or as the Confession, says “under the gospel” referring to the time of the full revelation, the substance of the covenant was revealed. Now the covenant is administered via the preaching of the Word and the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Here the confession says regarding these sacraments in comparison to the administration of the time of law “though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles.”
The important thing is that the Westminster Confession allows redemptive history to dictate the relationship between the Mosaic Covenant (i.e. Law) and the time of fulfillment of the gospel (or they could have easily used the language of New Covenant). But these two administrations are not in the scope of God’s work “two covenants of grace.” It is not as if God’s Law is plan A and when that fails, God goes to plan B—grace. Rather the Mosaic Covenant was given as grace serving the original promises of the covenant of grace in Gen. 3:15, Gen. 12, and Gen. 15:6. The Law was not another means of salvation but as Paul writes, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). So the confession is clear that the time of law and the time of gospel are “differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations” because they are the outworking of one covenant promise of grace.”
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.