WCF 7 | Of God’s Covenant with Man
Every relationship needs definition. Without clear terms we are unsure how to interact with each other. Marriage is a good example of how definitions aid relationships. Upon marriage an otherwise unrelated man and a woman become united by covenant. In the presence of witnesses each partner promises to fulfil responsibilities. Signed records formalize the covenant.
So it is with God’s relationship to people. Imagine if God had created humans but never introduced himself or articulated what he expected of them or what they could expect of him. Our debt of obedience and the penalty for non-compliance would still have existed but we wouldn’t have known it. And how could we enjoy God ignorant of how the sovereign Creator would treat us from one moment to the next? From the beginning God has defined his relationship with his people through covenants.
The Covenant of Works (5.1, 2)
Scripture doesn’t explicitly identify a pre-fall covenant of works. And we don’t need to commit to that name; the assembly also called it a “covenant of life.”[i] But Scripture does give us reasons to hold to a pre-fall covenant. First, the initial relationship between God and Adam has all the marks of a covenant, or a binding agreement. It has contracting parties, promises, conditions, penalties and, in the tree of life, a sacrament.[ii] Second, the New Testament explicitly contrasts the actions of Adam and Christ as covenant mediators. Here’s how Paul put it: “For if, by one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17; cf. 1 Cor. 15:44–49).
In the first covenant Adam did not need grace, which we might define as unmerited salvation. Instead the covenant was based on a law principle: “the person who does the commandments shall live by them” (Rom. 10:5; cf. Gal. 3:12; Lev. 18:5). In Genesis one and two God stipulated positive and negative commands. The King required Adam to steward his world, “to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15; cf. 2:5). He spelled out the positive command like this: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over …every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). God provided freedom in this first covenant, for example, in the naming of the animals (Gen. 2:19). His people weren’t slaves. And God enforced only one restriction: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (2:17).
For his part God provided everything his people would need to thrive. They shared his image so they possessed the competencies required for their task. God also provided food to eat (1:29–30). He made not one person but two so that the man and woman might “have a good reward for their labor” (Eccl. 4:9 NKJ). God gave a weekly day of rest to diversify their efforts and keep them from forgetting the Lord whose work is always good (Gen. 2:1–3). And the garden’s tree of life signified that so long as Adam honored God he would not die. The covenant of works was a completely generous arrangement.
But our first parents violated that covenant (cf. Heb. 8:9). Having broken it they could not regain life through the principle of works. And God was in no way bound to offer another arrangement for salvation. But he did.
The Covenant of Grace (5.3–6)
The covenant of grace is an entirely different agreement. It is still based on works, but not on the works of creatures. God “freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ.” Christ is the life (John 14:6). He is salvation (Ps. 27:1). In Christ God provides what the covenant requires. This is why “the covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament.” A testament records a person’s legal will to disburse his possessions as an inheritance upon death. Hebrews nine unites covenant (or testament) to Christ’s death. By dying and rising again Jesus redeems the elect from their sins—salvation is the inheritance of trusting covenant members (Heb. 9:15–17). Even the requirement of trust is met by God who gives his “Holy Spirit to make [the elect] willing, and able to believe” (see Eph. 2:8). And this is Scripture’s story from Genesis three to Revelation twenty-two.
Scripture’s two testaments reveal a single gracious covenant with two different forms of administration. In the Old Testament the covenant pointed forward to Christ as the second Adam. Even in a deteriorating world God was saving by grace (see Gen. 6:8). But he wisely disciplined his immature people “under the law.” The law was a “guardian until Christ came” (Gal. 3:24), who is “the end of the law” (Rom. 10:4). The law is like a road that leads God’s children to Jesus. Every expression of the law, including its “promises, prophecies, [and] sacrifices” all hinted at the coming Savior. The sacrificial system taught the enduring principle that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). It provided believers a way of approaching God. But it was not an alternate plan of salvation; “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). Bulls and goats prepared the faithful to receive “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). So Old Testament saints also heard the gospel (Heb. 4:2). And those who believed it truly drank from the spiritual rock of Christ (1 Cor. 10:1–4); they were actually trusting in Jesus though they did not yet know Messiah by that name. Their faith in God’s promise to save was graciously credited to them as righteousness (Rom. 4:1–4; Gen. 15:6).
The New Testament administration of the covenant of grace is characterized by gospel, or good news, because in Christ the substance of the covenant is finally revealed. Jesus is “the guarantee of a better covenant” (Heb. 7:22). His blood accomplishes the forgiveness of sins promised in the covenant of grace (Matt. 26:27–28). Instead of a temple and its elaborate rituals the covenant is now administered through gospel preaching and sacraments which both direct our faith to Jesus.[iii] The promises are no longer localized, restricted to Jews who could travel to Jerusalem. The gospel is now the witness of Jesus’ free grace to anyone who will hear his voice and put their trust in him.
Sadly, many people still live as if they can satisfy God by good behavior. But even the best human works cannot cancel the curse of the broken covenant of works. If you try to live according to the flesh on the basis of law “you will die” (Rom. 8:13). But losing your life is unnecessary. Jesus has already died and secured an inheritance for all who believe in him. The covenant of grace offers penitent sinners “abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” (Rom. 5:17). Draw near to God’s throne of grace with confidence and receive what Christ’s death has accomplished for those he loves (Heb. 4:16).
William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Joel Beeke, Contending for the Faith: The Story of The Westminster Assembly.
[i] Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 12.
[ii] See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 215–217.
[iii] Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 67.