We concluded our previous article with the
observation that God's covenant with His people constitutes the very
essence of eternal life. We must not identify the idea of the covenant
with a promise. God then establishes His covenant with man merely by
bestowing upon him His promise of eternal life, and, according to the
late Prof. Heyns, this promise must be understood as intended for all
the children of the covenant, as given to all without distinction. This,
of course, is the arminian conception of salvation. Neither must God's
covenant with man be regarded as a contract or mutual agreement with
mutual stipulations and obligations. This definition may apply to a
covenant between men who stand on an equal footing toward one another.
But we can hardly speak of an agreement or contract with respect to
the covenant between the Lord and man. 'The Lord is the living God.
Hope, faith, love, obedience, etc. are gifts of God's grace; and therefore,
not conditions upon which God's covenant is realized. The work of the
Lord is always unconditional. Our covenant obligations are nothing else
than what is required of us because of the nature of God's grace, which
is such that it saves us as moral-rational beings; and therefore, causes
us to work and to will according to His good pleasure. Thirdly, God's
covenant must not be identified with a way of salvation. Regarded from
this point of view, the covenant is the Lord's unchangeable word or
revelation to us that He will save us to the uttermost in the way of
faith and obedience. We object to this conception of the covenant because
the covenant according to Scripture is not something temporary but is
eternal. Finally, God's covenant with His people must not be interpreted
as an alliance of God and His people against the power of sin and the
wicked world round about us. Sin and Satan must not be viewed dualistically.
The fact is that they serve the development of God's covenant. All things
exist for the sake of the elect, and all things work together for good
for those who love God and are the called according to His purpose.
God's covenant with man is, therefore, life itself, the highest to which man can possibly attain, the blessed relationship of the living friendship of the living God with His own in, because of, and through the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Word, "Covenant"
The word which is used in the Scriptures for covenant affords us little
help in our attempt to determine the significance of this Scriptural
concept. In the Old Testament the word for "covenant", used
approximately three hundred times, is always "berith". According to
some sources this word "berith" is derived from a word which means "to
cut", and it contains reference to the ceremony described in Genesis
15:17. Abraham had been commanded by the Lord to take an heifer
of three years old, a she-goat of three years old, a ram of three years
old, a turtledove, and young pigeon, to "divide them in the midst, and
lay each piece one against another". It was customary for parties who
entered into a covenant relationship with one another to follow this
procedure, thereupon to pass between the halves of these slain-animals;
thereby declaring that, if either failed to live up to his obligations,
to him would happen what had happened to these animals. God passed between
these pieces and thereby availed Himself of this ceremony to conclude
His covenant with Abraham (Gen.
15:17). Some opine, therefore, that "berith" is derived from a word
which means "to cut" and that it refers to this ceremony in Genesis
15. Others declare, however, that the word used for "covenant" is
derived from a word which means "to tie or bind" They are of the opinion
that the idea of covenant is that of a bond.
In the New Testament we have the word "diatheenee". This word is generally
translated "covenant" In Hebrews
9:15-17, however, this word is translated "testament" and this is
undoubtedly the correct translation. The word "testament" emphasizes
the thought that the idea of priority belongs to God. This also is emphasized
in Luke 1:72-74,
where we read of "His holy covenant, the oath which He sware unto our
father, Abraham" (covenant and oath are identified here). It remains
a question, however, whether the meaning of this word in the New Testament
emphasized the idea of "disposition/testament/disposal" or that of "covenant/agreement/contract".
Hence, to determine the Scriptural significance of the concept, "covenant", we must attend to the Scriptural passages that speak of God's relation to His covenant people. The word itself affords us little help in the attempt to define its concept.
The Idea of the Covenant
Basically and fundamentally, the Scriptural concept "covenant" is inseparably
connected with the trinitarian existence of the living God. This thought
is literally expressed in II
Peter 1:4, "Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious
promises that by these ye might be partakers of the Divine nature, having
escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust". That the
Scriptural concept "covenant" should be inseparably connected with the
trinitarian existence of the living God lies in the nature of the case.
Prof. Berkhof declares in his Reformed Dogmatics, "The archetype
(original pattern - H.V.) of all covenant life is found in the trinitarian
being of God, and what is seen among men is but a faint copy (ectype)
of this" (page 263). All revelation is necessarily Divine Self-revelation.
That all revelation is Self-revelation must be understood in a two-fold
sense of the word. This is true first of all in a subjective sense.
God's revelation is Self-revelation, because He is the Subject of His
own revelation. He does the revealing. Of course, only God can reveal
Himself. God's revelation is also Self-revelation, however, because
He is the Object of His revelation. If it be true that only God
can reveal Himself, it is equally true that God can only reveal Himself.
He is the absolute Reality and the absolute Good. Of whom could He speak
except of Himself? All revelation, therefore, is Divine Self-revelation.
God does a11 things to reveal and to glorify Himself, hence, to know
God is life eternal. This knowledge, we understand, is an experiential
knowledge. To know about God is not life eternal. It is possible
to know all about the Lord and yet it were better that one had never
been born. But to know God experientially; to know Him with all the
love in our hearts and minds and to enjoy living fellowship with that
Eternal and Blessed Good, that is life everlasting. Greater good than
the living fellowship with the blessed God is inconceivable. God's own
covenant life is the basis for this blessed fellowship between the living
God and man.
God is the Triune God; and therefore, in Himself a covenant God. God is Triune. This implies, as we saw in a previous article, that He is essentially one. One mind, one will, one desire, one seeking, one life characterize the living God. He is never in conflict with Himself, is never divided. He is personally three. Personally He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That God is personally three implies that each Person lives the entire Divine fullness in His own personal way. Hence, God is a covenant God. God's covenant is not something incidental, something external, something which was added to the Divine life. God's covenant is not a contract which the three Persons concluded among themselves, or an agreement between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, a pact into which the Three Divine Persons voluntarily entered. God's covenant is the very essence of the life of the Triune God. He is a covenant God. The life of covenant-friendship constitutes the very essence of God's being. A life of friendship presupposes two conditions or requirements. To be friends we must, in the first place, be essentially one. This speaks for itself. There must not be any conflict between us. The second requirement for friendship, however, is personal distinction. Although essentially one, we must have our personal function, duty, work to perform. Both requirements are fundamental for a life of true friendship. Notice how this applies to Scripture's revelation of the living God. He is essentially One, and personally three. Hence, the relation of covenant fellowship constitutes the very essence of the life of God. The Lord our God is a covenant God.
This also determines God's covenant relationship with His people. The
Lord receives us, inducts us, takes us up into His own covenant life.
He makes us partakers, according to II
Peter 1:4, of His own Divine nature. To be sure, the infinite distinction
between God and the creature must be maintained. Prof. Schilder (during
his recent visit among us), preferring to speak of parties rather than
of parts when discussing the relationship between God and man (or his
People), emphasized this distinction between the Infinite Creator and
the finite creature by the use of the capital letter P and the small
letter p. He spoke of God with a capital P (Party), and of man with
a small p (party). Upon this distinction he laid all the emphasis. This
distinction must indeed be maintained. God does not, cannot impart Himself
unto man. This lies in the nature of the case. He is infinite, we are
finite; He is the Creator, we are creatures; He is the Eternal, we are
temporal. He is the Absolute-Reality; we are relative, exist only thru
Him and in relation to Him. He is the self-sufficient God in Himself;
owes His life to nothing outside of Himself. If heaven and earth were
to fall away, He would remain standing. All creation, not only man,
therefore, but all creation, the entire universe together is less than
a drop in the bucket or a particle of dust on the balance. This distance
between the living God and man must be emphasized, always borne in mind.
How then could the covenant between God and man possibly be presented
as a contract or an agreement, or even as an arminian promise? Can this
conception of the covenant be attributed to the living God, of Whom
we read in Isaiah
40:11-15, "He shall feed His flock as
a shepherd: He shall gather the lambs with His
arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are
with young. Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of His hand,
and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the
earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills
in a balance? Who hath directed the Spirit of the Lord, or being His
counsellor hath taught Him? With whom took He counsel, and who instructed
Him, and taught Him in the path of judgment, and taught Him knowledge,
and shewed to Him the Way of understanding? Behold, the nations are
as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance:
behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing." God is and must
ever remain the living God.
Yet, we become partakers of the Divine nature. We understand this does not mean that we become partakers of the divine nature in the essential sense of the word. God is and will forever remain the infinite Creator and man will forever remain the creature. But we become partakers of the Divine nature according to the measure of the creature. As creatures we share the Divine life. What God wills and seeks and loves and desires as God, we will and seek and love and desire as creatures. The life of the Lord has been reflected in us. We know Him. As the Lord seeks and loves Himself we have learned to seek and love the living God.
Hence, God's covenant with man is the fellowship, the communion of friendship, between God and His people in Christ Jesus. This relationship is characterized first of all by a communion, a friendship of love. God and His people love one another. But this relationship between the Lord and man is a relationship between God and man. Indeed, they know one another in a bond of friendship. God and His people are friends. However, because God is the living God, He is the Sovereign Friend. In this relationship of friendship the Lord loves us, blesses us, is the sovereign Lord Who must be worshipped and adored. He is and forever will remain the Source of all our blessings, the Fountain of life and all our peace, the God out of Whom and through Whom and unto Whom are all things, even forever, and man in his relationship toward the living God is friend-servant. He is God's friend and loves the Lord with all his heart and mind and soul and strength; but, as man, he is the Lord's servant. His calling is to see the Lord with all that he is and has, to inquire after and do the will of his God. This for that man is eternal life. Is it possible to conceive of a greater calling, of a higher glory, of a grander ideal than to praise the glories of Jehovah and proclaim the greatness of Him Who hath called us out of darkness into His marvelous light? Surely, to be the servant of the living God with all the love of one's heart and mind, to be privileged to proclaim His greatness and behold His beauties and sing of His glories--this is eternal life, the highest to which man can possibly attain. Thus man has been inducted into God's life, he loves and wills the Lord, according to the measure of the creature, even as God eternally loves Himself: We understand this covenant relationship is the essence of religion, the highest to which man can possibly attain.
Scriptural Proof for this Conception of the Covenant
This conception of the covenant we believe to be the teaching of the
Word of God. We believe that the Holy Scriptures speak this language
throughout. In various ways this glorious truth is held before us. Sometimes
the word covenant itself is used. Very often, however, other
expressions appear in Holy Writ, such as: dwelling, abiding, tabernacle,
temple, friend of God, etc. All these expressions point us to the one
cardinal truth of the Word of God, namely, that the Lord our God is
a covenant God in Himself and for and with His people, in and through
and because of Jesus Chris, the Lord.
We would first call attention to Paradise. The doctrine of a "covenant of works" has recently been advocated in connection with the calling and sin in Paradise. The history of the doctrine of the covenant of works is comparatively recent of date. Our reformed Confessions do not speak of it. This is all the more remarkable in the light of the fact that the Westminster Confession, drawn up soon after the Synod of Dordrecht, does mention it. That our fathers did not incorporate this doctrine into our confessions is, therefore, not to be attributed to the fact that they had not heard of it. Dr. A. Kuyper; however, later developed this theory, and this is generally accepted as sound, reformed doctrine.
This so called "covenant of works" speaks of a promise, a threat, and a condition. To be sure, so it is said, man cannot merit anything before God. Yet, the covenant of works is presented as a gracious, special condescension of God whereby He agreed to give Adam eternal life in the way of obedience. The condition upon which this threat and the promise were contingent was Adam's obedience to the command of God, which had forbidden him to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. His failure to obey this command of God was threatenend with death, and if the first man refrained from eating of the forbidden fruit, he would receive eternal life, the eternal and heavenly fellowship with God. That this promise refers to eternal life in the heavenly sense of the word lies in the nature of the case. Spiritual life could hardly be offered him inasmuch as he possessed it. What the Lord, therefore, promised our first father was eternal fellowship with God, minus the possibility of sin and death; and therefore, eternal life.
This conception of Adam's position and calling in Paradise we consider
impossible. We reject it in the first place because of its utter lack
of Scriptural proof. That the Scriptures do not speak literally of this
doctrine is even admitted by its proponents. Nothing is said in Genesis
1-3 of any agreement between God and Adam. Besides, nothing is said
in these three chapters of a promise of eternal life. One simply does
not read of it. However, so the proponents of this doctrine reply, neither
do we read of God's coming to an agreement with Abraham or with Noah.
Should this later fact not have warranted the conclusion from the defenders
of a "covenant of works" that therefore, also in connection with Abraham
and Noah we must not speak of an agreement of the Lord with them. But
is this true? That a murderer will be electrocuted surely does not imply
that he will receive special favors if he obey the law. Consequently,
the attempt to prove the "covenant of works" by appealing to Romans
5:12 collapses. To be sure, sin and death entered into the world
by one man. Does this prove that also eternal life could have been merited
for all by that one man? Secondly, we reject the theory of a "covenant
of works" because man cannot merit anything before God. Scripture abundantly
establishes this. Thirdly, the doctrine of a covenant of works is fundamentally
a denial of Christ. To teach that God offered Adam eternal life in the
way of obedience implies that Adam could have accomplished it. But the
Scriptures teach us in Ephesians
1:9-10, "Having made known unto us the mystery if His will, according
to His good pleasure which He hath purposed in Himself: That in the
dispensation of the fullness of times He might gather together in one
all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth;
even in Him."
In distinction from the mechanical theory of a covenant of works, we
maintain that Adam was created by God in covenant relationship with
Jehovah. It was not Adam's choice whether or not he would serve God.
Neither did the Lord enter into an agreement with Adam. We read nothing
of such an agreement in Holy Writ. The fact is, Adam was created as
God's friend-servant. He was simply created man, and in the image of
God. He was, therefore, created the Lord's friend-servant. Adam's service
of God was the spontaneous expression of his whole being; and therefore,
his relation to the living God was an essential relation, created in
his very being. To this must finally be added the striking word of Genesis
3:15: "And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between
thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise
his heel". Adam violated God's covenant. He trampled it under foot.
He refused to be the friend-servant of God and chose rather to be the
master of his own fate, the captain of his own soul. He turned his back
upon the Lord and became the servant/slave of the devil. However, the
Lord maintains His covenant. He maintains it in Christ. Sin after all
is but a means in the hand of God to realize His covenant fellowship
with His chosen people in the way of sin and grace unto the glory of
His blessed Name. Note that God maintains His covenant by establishing
enmity between the seed of the woman and that of the devil, between
His elect people and those reprobated unto eternal damnation. But enmity
is essentially friendship. The enmity against the world is surely the
friendship of God. We are enemies of sin and of the world exactly because
we become the friends of God. Hence, the Lord maintains His covenant
with Adam and His own elect by maintaining him and them in the relationship
of friendship. Paradise is, therefore, proof for our conception of the
covenant, and Genesis:
3:15, let us never forget, is the key to all subsequent history.
All of history is nothing else than development of this spiritual struggle.
God makes us His party and grants us the victory.