Reformed writers or theologians of the past have not always accorded the subject of the Covenant the same place in their discussion or treatment of Reformed dogmatics. The late Professor Bavinck of the Netherlands in his "Gereformeeyde Dogmatiek" treats this subject in his Christology, the doctrine concerning the Christ. Prof. L. Berkhof, in his "Reformed Dogmatics", discusses the Covenant in Anthropology, the doctrine of man. The late Dr. A. Kuyper of the Netherlands speaks of the Covenant immediately prior to Christology and following upon his discussion of the fall of man and its consequences. Others, among whom also the late Prof. Ten Hoor, treat this subject in Soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Until now we have discussed the Knowledge of God, the rational proofs of His existence, God's Revelation in the Holy Scriptures, His Oneness, and the doctrine of the Trinity. We now purpose to continue our contributions to the rubric, "Our Doctrine", with a series of articles on the Covenant. We believe that a series of articles on this subject can be of benefit to the readers of our Standard Bearer, particularly to our Protestant Reformed young people. We are also convinced that God's living fellowship and relationship with His people, His covenant fellowship with His own, is inseparably connected with His own being and life. Theologians such as Kuyper and Bavinck have recognized and given expression to this truth. We believe the Trinitarian life of God to be the basis of the Lord's covenant fellowship with us. Hence, having treated the doctrine of the Trinity in our last article, we would at this time begin our series of articles on the covenant.
The Covenant - A Tremendously Vital Subject
The subject of the Covenant is of tremendous and vital importance. It is surely Scriptural. The Word of God speaks of a relation between God and man in various ways. (God's dwelling with man and man's dwelling with God; Enoch's and Noah's walking and talking with God; the tabernacle and temple of the Old Testament; Abraham as the friend of God; God's future, eternal tabernacle with man in the new heavens and upon the new earth) This is of importance, however, not only because of the emphasis that it receives in Holy Writ, but also because of the many questions which it occasions within the heart and mind of the church and child of God.
Should we speak of parties or of parts in the covenant? The Protestant Reformed Churches prefer to speak of "parts" instead of "parties". Our Baptism Form speaks of "parts" in the familiar expression, "Even as in all covenants there are contained two parts". Prof. K. Schilder of the Liberated Churches of the Netherlands; however, prefers to speak of "parties". This was emphasized by him during his recent visit among us. He spoke of God as the large or capital "P" and of man as the small "p". (In all justice to the learned theologian of the Netherlands, it must be noted that he spoke of the large "P" and the small "p" exactly because he would emphasize the infinite distinction, which exists between God and man.) He repeatedly emphasized that he spoke of God and of man as parties in the covenant not because they must be considered independently in any sense of the word. The reason he made this distinction is that, although we must maintain the infinite distinction between God and man, we must nevertheless not lose sight of the fact that man, as a moral-rational creature, assumes an active part, plays an active role within the sphere of the covenant.
Another question of vital interest for the anxious child of God is that which
concerns the position that our children occupy within the covenant.
Must we regard, presuppose them to be regenerated? This is the position
of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands today. In this they follow
the conception as developed by the late Dr. A. Kuyper. According to
Dr. Kuyper presupposed regeneration is the ground for the baptism of
infants. On the other hand, must we regard all our children as of the
covenant, as covenant-children in the essential sense of the word? This
was the position of the late Prof..Heyns. He declared the promise to
constitute the essence of the covenant, and, inasmuch as he applied
the promise to all, he placed all within the covenant in the essential
sense of the word. Prof. Schilder, during his visit among us vehemently
rejected the Heynsian conception of Baptism and the Covenant. The Liberated
Church of the Netherlands seems to desire to say something positive
for all the children of believers. The writer of this article is of
the conviction that the most important question for the believing parent
is not the salvation of a particular child or children. God's covenant
and the realization of that covenant is and must remain the supreme
question. The church gives birth to a two-fold seed. In this we must
be willing to be a sweet-smelling savor of Christ in them that are saved
and in them that perish (II.Corinthians
Fundamentally but two conceptions of the covenant are possible. The covenant is either a means unto an end, or it is the end itself. The covenant is either a contract, which God has sovereignly established with man unto his salvation, or it is salvation itself, the expression of God's eternal and blessed fellowship with His people in Christ Jesus.
Various Conceptions of the Covenant
The first conception of the covenant to which we would call attention is that of the late Prof. Heyns. He sought the essence of the covenant in the promise. However, we must bear in mind that he did not understand the promise in the Reformed sense of the word. The promise according to the Holy Scriptures, understood in the Reformed sense, is the word of Divine faithfulness whereby God declares unto His people that he will bestow upon them the eternal salvation that He has laid away for them from before the foundation of the world. The Reformed conception of the promise is not that of an offer but exactly that of a promise. In a promise the question whether we will receive something is determined solely by the giver of the promise. Prof. Heyns understood the promise in the sense of an offer - God's promise of salvation was, therefore, an offer of salvation. According to him, this offer of salvation is extended to all. To support this view, Heyns advanced his theory of Pelagianism, as applied to the baptism of infants. The professor was well aware of the fact that according to the Holy Scriptures all are conceived and born in sin, and therefore, wholly unable to accept this gracious offer of salvation. He therefore advanced the theory that the Sacrament of Baptism confers upon each child a sort of qualifying grace, not saving grace, enabling that particular child to accept the promise or offer of salvation, which would later be extended to him in the preaching of the gospel.
This Heynsian view of the covenant is impossible. In the first place, it must
be rejected because it is guilty of Pelagianism! It declares that each
child is rendered able to accept the "offered salvation" without regenerating
grace. Man, therefore, is not wholly corrupt apart from the regenerating
grace of God. This is Pelagianism. Secondly, this view must be rejected
because it contradicts the Scriptures. Paul, confronted by the promise
of God on the one hand and by the destruction of thousands of Israelites
and their evident damnation on the other hand, declared that the word
of God (the promise) had not taken effect exactly because the promise
had never been extended to all. According to Paul (Romans
9) the objects of the promise are not all those who are called Israelites
but only the true Israelites according to election. Thirdly, the Heynsian
view must be rejected because it involves a virtual denial of the Trinity
in its interpretation of the first part of our Baptism Form.
According to our Baptism Form: "Second: Holy Baptism witnesses and seals unto us the washing away of our sins through Jesus Christ. Therefore, we are baptized into the Name of God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. For when we are baptized into the Name of the Father, God the Father witnesses and seals unto us that He makes an eternal covenant of grace with us and adopts us for His children and heirs, and therefore will provide us with every good thing and avert all evil or turn it to our profit. When we are baptized into the Name of the Son, the Son seals unto us that He washes us in His blood from all our sins, incorporating us into the fellowship of His death and resurrection, so that we are freed from our sins and accounted righteous before God. When we are baptized by the Name of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit assures us by this holy sacrament that He will dwell in us and sanctify us to be members of Christ, imparting to us that which we have in Christ, namely the washing away of our sins and the daily renewing of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without spot among the assembly of the elect in life eternal."
Prof. Heyns laid all emphasis upon the word "will" ("that He, the
Holy Spirit, will dwell in us"). He emphasized that this
will or desire of the Holy Spirit to apply the blessings of Christ upon
us was dependent upon our acceptance of the gospel, or our willingness
to permit the sanctifying work. This would involve us in a virtual denial
of the Trinity. The Father has made an eternal covenant of grace with
us and adopted us to be His children and heirs; this is a fact. The
Son has washed us in His blood and incorporated us into the fellowship
of His death and resurrection; this too is a fact. The Father and the
Son have, therefore, witnessed and sealed this eternal covenant of grace,
the adoption unto children and heirs, the washing away of our sins,
and the incorporation into Christ's death and resurrection. But does
the Spirit witness and seal unto us the bestowal of the blessings of
the Father and the Son? According to Prof. Heyns not at all, He will
do this only if we accept the offered blessings of salvation. The Father
and Son on the one hand and the Spirit on the other hand, therefore,
are not in complete accord.
A second view of the covenant to which we would call attention is that
which defines the covenant as a contract or mutual agreement with mutual
stipulations and obligations. Prof. Berkhof's definition of the covenant
is virtually the same as that of the late Prof. Ten Hoor (page 121 of
his Gereformeerde Dogmatiek). Page 277 of' his Reformed
Dogmatics reads, "The covenant of grace is that gracious agreement
between the offended God and the offending but elect sinner, in which
God promises salvation through faith in Christ and the sinner accepts
this believingly, promising a life of faith and obedience." We should
note in this definition that God promises salvation through faith in
Christ, and the sinner must promise faith and obedience. Older theologians,
such as Mastricht, also regarded the covenant as such a mutual agreement
or contract (see Standard
Bearer, Vol. 1, No. 12, pages 15-16). We must bear in mind in our
evaluation of this conception of the covenant that it was maintained
that the covenant of God with man as far as its origin and establishment
is concerned was solely of God ("monopleurisch"). Nevertheless, in its
essence it was presented as a contract and mutual agreement between
the Father and the Son (the Father requiring obedience, etc., and promising
eternal life to the Son, and the Son promising obedience and expecting
eternal life from the Father). This conception of the covenant was based
among other things upon the so-called "counsel of peace" or "counsel
of redemption". Another "proof" for this conception of the covenant
is seen in the text that is regarded as a fundamental expression of
this covenant relationship, "I will be a God unto thee and to thy seed
after thee, and ye shall be My people." God, therefore, promises to
be our God, and we must respond and promise to be God's people. Besides
this text, many other texts are quoted in which the obligations of the
people of God (hope, faith, love, etc.,) are mentioned in Holy Writ.
We object also to this conception of the covenant. Such a type of covenant is indeed possible among men, where a covenant must be regarded as a mutual agreement or contract. Men can stand over against one another on an equal footing. But this is surely impossible with regard to the relationship between the living God and man. God is the living God. He is the infinite Creator of heaven and earth. The entire universe, not to mention mere man, therefore, is less than a drop of water in the bucket or a particle of dust on the balances. Hope, faith, obedience, the gifts of the grace of God, are not to be regarded as the conditions upon which God's covenant with us is realized, but they are fruits of the Spirit of God in Christ Jesus. Hence, God's work is always unconditional, whereas our personal or covenant obligations are nothing else than what is required of us because of the nature of the grace of God. God's grace is such that it saves us as moral, rational creatures; and therefore, causes us to work and to will according to His good pleasure.
A third conception of the covenant is that which regards the covenant as a way of salvation. This view is closely related to the conception of the covenant as a contract or agreement. God, establishing His covenant with us, makes known unto us the way of salvation. This way of salvation is faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord. This is then the significance of God's covenant with man. We object to this. If the covenant of grace is merely a way of salvation, it is necessarily only temporary and comes to an end as soon as the salvation has been attained. However, according to the Word of God, God's covenant is an eternal covenant. This does not mean merely that it is unbreakable; that, according to Prof. Berkhof "God remains forever true to His covenant", and will therefore grant life in the way of faith. But the covenant itself is eternal, is never annulled, abrogated. God will dwell forever with man.
A fourth conception of the covenant to which we would finally call
attention is that which regards the covenant of God with man as an alliance
against a third party. This view of the covenant was advanced by the
late Dr. A. Kuyper. In his "Dictaten Dogmatick", locus de Foedere, pages
3-5, we read and translate, "The idea of the concluding of a covenant
signifies in the most pregnant sense an alliance between two or more
persons, families, tribes, or empires, with the purpose of defending
one's self with united strength against a third power from whom danger
does or can threaten. The concept "covenant" falls under the genus,
"alliance", but it is a species of this genus, and its specific character
lies in the uniting of self to ward off danger. Whereas the concept
"covenant" is applied to the relation between God and man, not only
in the present day but also in times when the concluding of a covenant
was generally understood as an alliance against a third and dangerous
power, hence, in the Covenant of Grace, as well as in the Covenant of
Works, we may not lose out of sight this character of being united against
a third party. Also the concluding of a covenant of God with man presupposes,
as background, the existence and operation of a third power, which threatens
God in His honour as well as man in his position and future, and against
which God and man unite. This third power is, concretely, Satan, and
in general the ungodliness into which the godliness, which originally
had been laid into the creature, could turn about."
In the last statement Dr. A. Kuyper refers to the possibility of our holiness and righteousness and godliness becoming corruption and unrighteousness and ungodliness. Hence, the meaning of this learned theologian is clear. Dr. Kuyper conceived of the covenant between God and man as an alliance against Satan and sin. When later in the same book Dr. Kuyper discusses the Covenant of Works he again declares that Adam not only received from God the calling to exercise dominion, but also the mandate to protect and defend Paradise and the entire cosmos in behalf of God against the devil.
We reject this conception of the Covenant as impossible, mainly because
fundamentally it gives us a dualistic conception of the realization
of God's covenant. Sin and Satan are presented in this view dualistically.
God and Satan are presented here as standing over against each other,
and the Lord and man make an alliance with the purpose of thwarting
and frustrating the Evil One. Of course, Satan is the adversary of God.
The very name "Satan," signifies "adversary". This, however, must not
be understood in a dualistic sense of the word (as if the devil can
in any sense frustrate or oppose the work of the Lord). That the devil
is the enemy of God must be understood spiritually. Spiritually he hates
Jehovah. Spiritually he attempts throughout the ages to frustrate the
realization of God's covenant and the coming of His Kingdom. It must
not be thought that God fulfills His counsel and realizes His Covenant
in spite of the work of the devil. The fact is that sin and Satan serve
the Lord and the realization of His covenant. This is surely the testimony
of Holy Writ, "I form the light; and create darkness: I make peace,
and create evil: I the Lord do all these things" (Isaiah
45:8), and in I
Corinthians 3:21-23 we read, "Therefore let no man glory in men.
For all things are yours; Whether Paul, or Appollos, or Cephas, or the
world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all
are yours; And ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's." Therefore, the
church of the living God can take the cry of victory upon their lips,
"For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through
the thanksgiving of many, redound to the glory of God" (II
Corinthians 4:15). Indeed, we must fight the good fight of faith,
and the Lord enables us by His grace to fight that good fight against
sin, Satan and all the powers of hell. Moreover, we are more than conquerors,
and all things, also sin and Satan, work together for our eternal good
We conclude, therefore, that the covenant must not be understood as a promise (and surely not in the arminian sense), or as a contract or agreement with mutual stipulations and obligations, or as a way of salvation inasmuch as the covenant according to the Word of God is an eternal covenant, or as an alliance against sin and Satan. Rather, God's covenant is the highest to which man can possibly attain. God will forever dwell with man. It constitutes the very essence of eternal life - "For this is eternal life, that we know the one and only true God, through Jesus Christ Whom He has sent" - John 17:3. God's covenant is the relationship of living friendship between God and His people in Jesus Christ, His Son and their Lord. To this we will call attention, the Lord willing, in subsequent articles.