Patrick Gillespie: The Importance of the Covenant of Redemption

Mankind needs saving from God by God. As demonstrated in my previous posts on Patrick Gillespie (#1, #2, #3, #4), the broken Covenant of Works paved the way for the salvation of God’s elect in the Covenant of Grace. Yet in the sequel to his Ark of the Testament, Gillespie argued in The Ark of the Covenant that our salvation in the Covenant of Grace rested on the eternal Covenant of Redemption between the Father and the Son concerning the salvation of the elect (Ark of the Covenant, 1). This eternal Covenant received its highest expression and development in the mid to late seventeenth-century. In his preface to the reader, John Owen referred to Gillespie’s book as the most well ordered and best argued book that he had read on this subject (unpaginated [4]). While in recent centuries, many have rejected the Covenant of Redemption by collapsing it into the Covenant of Grace, Gillespie argued that the Father/Son covenant not only differed from the Covenant of Grace in substance, but that it ensured that the Covenant of Grace made between God and sinners in Christ rested on the free grace of God alone.
This post treats Gillespie’s arguments for the existence of the Covenant of Redemption and its nature. The two following posts will treat the relationship between the Covenants of Redemption and of Grace. The third and last in this series will address why Christ needed to be both God and man in order to fulfill the Covenant of Redemption as the Mediator of the Covenant of Grace. This material aims to illustrate why most Reformed orthodox writers, represented here by Gillespie, taught an eternal covenant between the Father and the Son and why this doctrine can continue to be helpful to the church today.
The tile of The Ark of the Covenant can potentially mislead modern readers. Only the first 144 out of 480 pages establish this doctrine. The remaining material expounds Christ’s work as Mediator of the Covenant of Grace. The link between the two uneven sections is that Christ’s covenant with the Father is the ground of his work as Mediator of the Covenant of Grace.
Gillespie established the Covenant of Redemption through two avenues. First, he identified all of the components of a covenant in the biblical descriptions of the eternal interchange between the Father and the Son. Second, he showed that the parties, conditions, and other components of a covenant differed in this Covenant from the Covenant of Grace. In my first post on Gillespie on the Covenant of Works, I noted his six components of a covenant. These include two or more parties, mutual consent to the covenant, mutual conditions, mutual engagements, the good of both parties, and inviolable force. Gillespie largely implied the presence of these qualifications in his first chapter through lengthy expositions of Scripture in which the components of a covenant are present in various dialogues between the Father and the Son. I will summarize his views here and then list some of his primary Scripture citations. The parties are the Father and the Son. The Son did not need to enter this covenant, but he did so by voluntary condescension (20, 36). The conditions were that the Father would give a seed and glory to the Son and that the Son would become incarnate in order to redeem the Father’s elect (2, 5, 39-40, 106). The Father engaged to bestow this seed and Mediatorial glory the Son and the Son engaged to do all that was necessary to save the Father’s elect. The covenant aimed at the good of manifesting God’s glory (41-42) and Christ’s exaltation as Mediator (106). Lastly, neither party could or would violate the terms of this covenant. Some of Gillespie’s favorite Scripture proofs included Isa. 59:20-21, Ps. 89 throughout, Isa. 53 throughout, Ps. 40 with Heb. 10, Ps. 2, Prov. 8:23-31, Phil. 2:5-11, and many others. While it is beyond the reach of this post to explain these passages, Gillespie argued that all of them reflected in one way or another the six components of a covenant listed above. Pages 51-112 explain each of these components in more detail. This relation of the Holy Spirit to this covenant also deserves some explanation, which I cannot do here.
Yet some may reply that this covenant represented merely eternal aspects of the Covenant of Grace rather than a distinct covenant. In response, Gillespie listed 9 ways in which the covenant of redemption differed from the Covenant of Grace.
  1. The covenant of redemption rises from grace in both parties, but in the covenant of reconciliation grace stands on one side only (117).
  2. “These covenants differ in the property of eternity.” While both are everlasting covenants, only the covenant of redemption is an eternal covenant.
  3. “The parties are different.” Jehovah and his Son are the parties in the covenant of redemption. In the Covenant of reconciliation, the parties are the Father, the Son, and the Spirit and elect sinners (118). The Covenant of Redemption is made with Christ “personal” while the Covenant of Grace is made with Christ “mystical,” or his church (119). Ps. 89:19.
  4. The Covenant of Redemption is between equals while the Covenant of Grace is not.
  5. There is no Mediator in the covenant of redemption (150). Prov. 8:30.
  6. “The promises of these two covenants are different.” For example, promises of a new heart and cleansing from idolatry belong to us rather than to Christ. In addition, Christ received promises of a throne at God’s right hand, a name above all names, dominion from sea to sea, all power in heaven and earth, etc. (121).
  7. The covenant of reconciliation has threats while the Covenant of Redemption has none. Heb. 2:3; 1 Cor. 16:22.
  8. The commands and conditions differ in both covenants. The conditions of the Covenant of Redemption are peculiar to Christ, such as taking on flesh, becoming surety, etc. Conversely, believing in Christ and repenting from sin belong to us as conditions and not to Christ. The conditions in the Covenant of Grace are also not causes of the things promised as they are in the Covenant of Redemption (122).
  9. Lastly, the Covenant of Redemption does not require our consent like the Covenant of Grace does. Prov. 8:22-31. All of these things give insights into common Reformed arguments why the Covenant of Redemption must be distinct from the Covenant of Grace
Why was distinction so important to Gillespie and how can it help us in modern theology? Pages 26-50 present arguments for the necessity of the Covenant of Redemption. Summarizing some of these arguments can help us understand better what this doctrine was designed to accomplish in Reformed covenant theology. This covenant represents God’s eternal purpose to glorify himself through exercising his justice and mercy in redemption (32). This covenant was necessary because the nature of Christ’s work could not be performed without a covenant, since it required commanding and obeying, sending and going, giving and asking (33). This covenant put the glory of the Triune God on display more clearly than in any other divine works (39-42). This covenant secured the salvation of the elect by God’s action alone, with the result that “all the hard labor is over” before the elect lift a finger to the work (45). Finally, the Covenant of Redemption cuts off all boasting and self-glorying in the redeemed, since the entire plan of redemption rests on Christ (50). While this brief sketch of Gillespie’s treatment of the Covenant of Redemption is underdeveloped in this post, it gives us enough material to rethink the doctrine and to study it further.
Ryan McGraw