RPM, Volume 16, Number 8, February 16 to February 22, 2014

Covenant Theology

The Covenant of Grace
Part 1
Sermon Number Eight

By Jim Bordwine, Th.D.

Westminster Presbyterian Church
411 Chkalov Dr, Vancouver WA 98683


Most recently in this study of Covenant Theology, we looked at the arrangement between the Creator and Adam, which we call the covenant of works. We learned that God promised permanent blessedness to Adam if the man remained faithful to the commands of God relative to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In time, however, Adam disobeyed God. This development is known as the fall of man because Adam was the representative of the human race. The corruption of the soul was thereafter inherited by every human being.

As I noted in our study of that portion of Scripture, however, there are indications that the Creator would restore His special creatures. Most prominent among these indications is God's promise of salvation in Gen. 3:15; in this verse, God predicts the ultimate destruction of the serpent and his evil seed. The manner in which God fulfills this wonderful promise and restores the human race is called the covenant of grace. This is the next topic in this sermon series.

I will be following the outline that I used for our examination of the covenant of works. First, I will define the covenant of grace and talk about some of its chief characteristics. Second, I will explain the provisions of the covenant of grace; we will see who was involved in the covenant of grace, the aim of this covenant and how the aim was achieved. Third, I will explain the outcome of the covenant of grace; under this third point, we will learn how this new arrangement that God enacted, concluded.

01. The Definition of the Covenant of Grace

I will begin this point with a quote from our doctrinal standards. In the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter VII, we read this definition of the covenant of grace:

Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

Simply put, the covenant of grace is God's restoration of the fallen human race. This arrangement provides the means for sinful man to be restored to fellowship with God. What is accomplished in this covenant is what God promised in the Garden of Eden following Adam's transgression. The covenant of grace is God's salvation of His people.

It should be obvious why theologians designated God's saving activity as a covenant of grace. Grace is the unmerited favor of God. Grace is active when sinners do not receive what they deserve, but are loved, protected, and embraced by the very One they have so grievously offended. This rescue of fallen man exists only because of God's willingness to show sinners unmerited favor. We did not deserve this favor, we could not earn this favor; in fact, in our sinful state, we despised God's favor. And yet, He provided for our salvation. This is why we must call God's saving activity a covenant of grace. In this covenant, salvation comes to the sinner because God provides that salvation and then enables the sinner to receive it.

Listen to the apostle Paul as he describes what God has done for us:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:4-10)

As already seen, fallen man is spiritually dead. He has lost ability and desire to know God. He cannot make any attempt, on his own, to approach God or in any way recover what has been lost. The only answer for fallen man is just what Paul specifies here—namely, an act of God whereby we are delivered from the consequences of Adam's sin. And that involved another life, the life of God's own Son; that life was of such worth that its sacrifice atoned for our sin.

Further, Paul teaches that we are not only given a new life in Christ, we also share in His victory over death. He rose from the dead having surrendered Himself to it and then breaking its grip. Those who are united with Him will know that same victory. And it's all of grace, Paul emphasizes. There is no price paid by us, no toll extracted from us. Nothing we have or could give would be sufficient. The price was something of infinite and perfect value; and that was the life of the Savior.

Another characteristic of the covenant of grace is the way in which it has been revealed to us. The covenant of grace is not defined by one primary portion of Scripture alone, as is the covenant of works. The covenant of grace is what the Bible is about beginning at the point of man's fall. Throughout Scripture, we find the unfolding of God's marvelous plan for our salvation in a series of what we might call arrangements or "secondary covenants." Each of these sections, to a certain extent, governs man's relationship with the Creator.

However, we must remember that each one is a partial manifestation of the overriding covenant of grace. I would add that each sub-covenant provides us with unique information about God's plan for our redemption; the result is a progressive revelation of God's will for us. In this manner, we have a continuing commentary, as it were, on the progress of the covenant of grace.

We live in a day when another approach to interpreting the Bible dominates the thinking of the majority of evangelicals. I'm referring, of course, to Dispensationalism. The Dispensationalist proposes a number of conflicting schemes for man's rescue; this results in a one extremely misleading conclusion, in particular. When the Bible is viewed as a series of periods during which God attempted to restore man using different methods, the unity of Scripture is destroyed and the glorious plan of God for the salvation of the human race is obscured.

A covenant theologian, on the other hand, sees only one plan for fallen man's restoration unfolding in the Bible. That one plan is revealed progressively in conjunction with some major figure. For example, we would refer to the Noahic covenant as one of those components that make up the overall covenant of grace. To this would be added the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. Again, these periods of revelation are given in connection with some major character. Each period reveals a bit more about the promise in Gen. 3:5.

Consider the Noahic covenant. In this arrangement, God graciously promises to preserve His creation as Noah and his descendants carry out God's mandate to multiply and fill the earth:

Then God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, "Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth. And I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, neither shall there again be a flood to destroy the earth." (Gen. 9:8-11)

This arrangement came after the human race had shown its rebellion against the Creator. In this portion of the covenant of grace, God reveals His intention to preserve the human race in anticipation of our eventual restoration, just as God promised at the point of Adam's sin. Noah and his family were preserved and they began the re-population of the earth knowing that the Lord's promise to redeem mankind was yet to be accomplished.

Something unique happens when God begins His relationship with Abraham. God reveals that He is going to call out a particular people on the earth. They will become the focal point of God's continuing plan of redemption. In the arrangement God specified to Abraham, we learn much about the nature of the covenant of grace and we learn about obligations that belong to those who would participate in God's redemption of the human race:

Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father's house, To the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Gen. 12:1-3)

Later, after promising Abraham that he would have a male heir through whom God would keep His promise to bless Abraham and make him a great nation, the Lord spoke these words to the patriarch:

And [God] took [Abram] outside and said, "Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He said to him, "So shall your descendants be." Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:5, 6)

This short passage is, indeed, glorious! Consider what God is saying. At this point, those who acknowledge and honor Him are very few. Although there are many people on the earth, there is no community, much less a nation, that is following the Lord. Yet here He promises that the day will come when the number of those He will redeem and have as His children will be beyond counting! Abraham is all by himself when he hears these words. He has no reason to anticipate what God has just declared. But this is the first time since Gen. 3:15 that we have an indication of the scope of God's plan; in fact, this passage is even more informative that Gen. 3:15.

Finally, in Gen. 17, the Lord gives the fullest explanation of the covenant He has established with Abraham:

"And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly." And Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying, "As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you." (Gen. 17:2-7)

Now Abraham learns that God's plan includes his descendants. What greater comfort could any man be given in this world than that his descendants will be included in the tremendous work God has been explaining to Abraham? There is a wonderful familial aspect to the covenant of grace, meaning that God will work primarily through families or "lines" of people. You'll remember that this fact is one of many emphasized at the time of the Savior's birth. An enduring connection is made from Christ all the way back to Abraham as Matthew's Gospel opens.

The third significant sub-covenant or portion of the overall covenant of grace is found in conjunction with the appearance of Moses. During this period, several essential aspects of God plan are revealed and illustrated. For example, during the ministry of Moses, the people of Israel learned about substitutionary sacrifice. This was the most significant teaching of the sacrificial system under which the Jews lived.

They also learned about the inevitable failure of self-justification and the utter dependence of the sinner upon the goodness and mercy of God. In example after example, these truths were stressed so that the people would think rightly about God's promise of redemption. They were to understand that their welfare depended on God alone because they could not change the sinful nature they had inherited from Adam.

Naturally, therefore, the eyes of the discerning worshiper were focused toward the future when a perfect sacrifice would appear, one that would have the worth necessary to pay for their sin. That future sacrifice would be the means by which the promise in Gen. 3:15 would be kept.

I want to include a brief commentary on this portion of God's revelation provided by the apostle Paul. In Gal. 3, he writes:

What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed should come to whom the promise had been made. (vv. 17-19)

Clearly, Paul teaches that the law, the period of the administration of Moses, in other words, was not the end of the promise from God, but only a part of the unfolding plan of redemption. It taught people to recognize their sinful state, but also to recognize and anticipate, God's solution, as it were.

Each of these arrangements, with Noah, Abraham, and Moses, progressively provided God's people with more information, more understanding of the ultimate covenant of their salvation, which is the covenant of grace. From Eden to Moses, there is an increasing revelation of what God meant when He promised to put enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. There is more to be explore, such as the Davidic covenant, but this information just given should be sufficient to help us grasp the true nature of God's revelation. It is not so many attempts to save man with each one ending in failure; it is, instead, a unified and glorious whole—one promise, one plan, one outcome.

The last thing that I want to note is that these periods of revelation starting with Noah, all culminate in the work of Jesus Christ. And His ministry is referred to as "the New Covenant." Throughout Scripture, God reveals how He is going to accomplish the restoration of fallen man as He promised in the Garden of Eden. All the information that is provided in the covenants that I've been talking about points to a fulfillment and that finale is the ministry of Jesus Christ. From the time God made the promise of redemption in Gen. 3:15, Scripture has one point of focus, which is the advent of the God-Man.

Therefore, when Jesus appeared to the disciples after His resurrection, He said:

"These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures..." (Luke 24:44, 45)

Jesus taught His disciples that all previous revelation was about Him. ("The law, the prophets, and the psalms," by the way, was a common designation of the entire Old Testament.) Everything since Eden pointed to Jesus Christ.

I trust you are beginning to see how covenant theology opens the Scripture and provides us with an understanding of the whole Bible. When we study the Scripture by consulting Scripture itself, we gain a sweeping grasp of the entirety of God's revelation. God made a promise; in the time of Noah, He restated His intention and added a bit more information. In the time of Abraham, the Lord revealed the focus of that promise, which would be the salvation of so many that their whole number could not be counted. Then, in the time of Moses, God revealed many of the specific details of His plan, such as the central place of substitutionary atonement.

The information that I've supplied thus far shows how unified and focused the Bible is; it shows how the message of the Bible is one; it shows how there has been only one plan for our restoration. This information illustrates the single-mindedness of God where our salvation is concerned and it explains the unwavering commitment to the cross exhibited by our blessed Savior. All of this information combines to demonstrate the magnificence of the gospel.


In the application, I want to concentrate on the fact that the view of our salvation that is presented in the Bible is, in some aspects, significantly different from the view held by many modern evangelicals. Therefore, I will contrast briefly what the Bible says with the prevailing opinion of redemption in the contemporary Church. I'm doing this not for the purpose of condemning every church that doesn't believe what we believe, but for the purpose of providing correction to thinking that just about all of us have inherited, so to speak, from contemporary Christianity. We have a duty, I believe, to know the truth of the Word and to make whatever changes are necessary in our own perspective.

Let me begin by summarizing what I've said thus far about our salvation and the covenant of grace. First, it is evident that there always has been one design for the redemption of fallen man and this one plan has been consistently and progressively revealed in the Bible. God determined to save His people and the determination He made included the manner of their salvation, which was the substitutionary ministry of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Second, the Bible declares, as we have seen, that our redemption is all of God. At no point have we seen an indication that fallen man has any part in this plan—in terms of bringing it to fruition. On the contrary, once Adam disobeyed his Creator, man was incapable of exerting any positive influence on his destiny.

Now, let me contrast that with what I believe many evangelicals believe about salvation. Some believers don't know what you're talking about when you describe Scripture as a "consistent, progressive revelation." They view the books of the Bible as though they are strung together in some haphazard fashion. To them, Noah had little to do with Abraham and Abraham had little to do with Moses and Moses just got stuck with a bunch of stiff-necked people that finally pushed God so far that He decided to give up on them and turn to the Gentiles.

Some Christians seem to believe that God "figures things out" as the years come and go; He tries one plan, then He tries another. For such Christians, talk about a plan of redemption conceived in eternity leaves them speechless. They haven't been taught the complete revelation of God and what they have been taught has suffered from an unbiblical method of interpretation.

It's a sad truth that a good portion of evangelicals are at an intellectual and spiritual disadvantage with it comes to understanding what the Bible says about our salvation. We have so "down-sized" God in our thinking and so distanced ourselves from sound theological literature and become so Biblically illiterate that we face significant difficulty when it comes to seeing and understanding the progressive and unified nature of Scripture.

The contemporary Church didn't get this way overnight. In the past, God's people delighted in the study of His Word and they hungered for the writings of gifted theologians and they believed it their duty to improve their knowledge of the faith; and they counted this duty a great joy. But where do you find such people today? We are failing to equip ourselves with knowledge of God's great plan; and that means, of course, that we are not prepared to equip our children. And so, the cycle of doctrinal ignorance and understanding continues.

The encouraging news is that this state of affairs can be turned around. All it takes is commitment. It takes Christians who decide that the mediocre version of the faith that is so prevalent today is not sufficient for them or their children. Therefore, they reorganize their time and priorities so that mastery of the Word of God becomes primary.

And with that emphasis comes a growing admiration and love for Jesus Christ. His willingness to come to this earth and give Himself for us is the most remarkable truth we'll ever hear. God, the One against whom we rebelled, took to Himself our flesh that He might walk among us, teach us, encourage us, and eventually die for us. Does your life adequately reflect gratefulness for what you have been given? Does the use of your time and resources plainly illustrate your realization that God did everything for you to save you, including sending His Son to take your place?

If changes need to be made in your priorities, your study habits, your leadership of your family, or your personal spiritual development, then do not delay. Better yet: Why would you delay? Is there something more significant than this to which you feel compelled to give attention? Have you been given something greater than salvation? Throughout the Bible, we are taught that a true, living faith will express itself in deeds, not just words. I have no doubt that most of those here this morning would speak reverently and lovingly of God and His Son, Savior. But there is something more important reliable and revealing than our words—and that is the character of our lives.

Every examination of the work of Christ requires us to examine ourselves as well. Do that which honors God and that which glorifies your Savior by thinking seriously about the kind of life you are living. What do your days looks like? How are your treating others? Are you obedient to the authorities in your life? Are you showing charity? Do you extend forgiveness easily; and do you repent earnestly? These basic issues are where the reality of our faith is revealed.

You may read a lot of books or listen to a lot of lectures, you may talk a lot about God and you may recite some of the great principles of the faith—but if you are not living the truth, then you have a major problem. Make sure that your conduct matches your confession.

I just said that every examination of the work of Christ requires us to examine ourselves as well. Following that, I concentrated for a few moments on how believers should be living. But there may be someone here today who is not born again. There may be someone here who has never understood what God has done for sinners until now. If you find yourself in that place, call on Jesus Christ, confess your sins, believe that He is the Savior of sinners like us, and God will surely save you.


Hymn for Communion


The Lord's Supper is the sacrament of the covenant of grace. It portrays the aim of that covenant, which was our redemption through the substitutionary life and death of Jesus Christ. This sacrament testifies to the saving activity of God pictured in the several covenants I've mentioned and finally and fully realized in the New Covenant inaugurated with the shedding of Christ's blood.

This sacrament, then, is a sign of these things and a seal of all the benefits that come to us in Christ. Those who belong to Christ and are walking in fellowship with Him participate in this sacrament as children of God. What great encouragement that provides for the coming week! We come, we are reminded of crucial truths, we learn some new truths, we give thanks to God for what He has done as we receive these elements, and we return to our callings with revived determination and joy.

Matthew 26:26 While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." 27 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. 29 But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom."
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