RPM, Volume 16, Number 9, February 23 to March 1, 2014

Covenant Theology

The Covenant of Grace Part 2
Sermon Number Nine

By Jim Bordwine, Th.D.

Westminster Presbyterian Church 411 Chkalov Dr, Vancouver WA 98683

Introduction

In this series on Covenant Theology, we have recently begun studying the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace has to do with the manner in which God fulfills the promise he made in the Garden of Eden. At that point, God promised to restore the fallen human race. The covenant of grace is God's plan for our redemption.

In the last sermon, I offered some additional information having to do with defining the covenant of grace and I identified the leading characteristics of this covenant. For instance, I emphasized that in this covenant of grace, God provides the means for sinful man to again have fellowship with his Creator and, therefore, the designation of God's saving activity as a covenant of grace is entirely understandable.

Grace is the unmerited favor of God; grace is in operation when sinners do not receive what they deserve, but are loved, protected, and embraced by the very One they have so grievously offended. The covenant of grace, by which the fallen human race is restored and made ready for heaven, exists because of God's willingness to show sinners unmerited favor.

Another characteristic of the covenant of grace that I covered is the way in which this covenant has been manifested to us. The covenant of grace is not defined by one primary portion of Scripture, like the covenant of works. Throughout the Bible, we find the unfolding of God's marvelous plan for our salvation in a series of arrangements or "sub-covenants."

Each of these secondary covenants is a partial manifestation of the overriding covenant of grace; each one provides us with unique information about God's plan for fallen man's redemption and helps us better understand the nature of our salvation. The result is a progressive revelation of God's will for us in the Bible. Through this method, God provides us with a continuing commentary on the unfolding plan of salvation.

In the last sermon I gave some examples of these under covenants. I pointed to the Noahic, the Abrahamic, and the Mosaic covenants. I then provided a brief description of these secondary covenants. And I pointed out that they all culminate in the work of Jesus Christ, which is called the New Covenant. 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 in whom and by whom that promise of salvation would be fulfilled. The covenant of grace unfolds methodically in the Scriptures and reaches its fullness in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

All of this material was covered in the first point, which was the definition of the covenant of grace. We now are ready to continue with point number two in our study of the covenant of grace:

02. The Provisions of the Covenant of Grace

By way of review, I'd like to read the following passages:

Genesis 12:1 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; 2 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; 3 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 will be blessed."
Genesis 15:1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, "Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great." 2 Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" 3 And Abram said, "Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir." 4 Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, "This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir." 5 And He took him 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." 6 Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Genesis 17:1 Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be blameless. 2 I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly." 3 Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying, 4 "As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you will be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 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. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you. 7 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. 8 I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. 9 God said further to Abraham, "Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10 This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised."

These passages describe an arrangement that God made with Abraham; this arrangement is one of those "sub-covenants" or "secondary covenants" that explains God's plan for man's restoration. This plan for our restoration, as I've said repeatedly, is known as the covenant of grace. In the Abrahamic covenant, we have the fullest explanation of the covenant of grace prior to the actual consummation of that covenant in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.

The Abrahamic covenant, while not a complete revelation of the provisions of the covenant of grace, nevertheless provides us with a good understanding of the essential elements of God's plan for our redemption. For this reason, the study of God's arrangement with Abraham is profitable. Moreover, it should be emphasized that until the Abrahamic covenant, there had been no official establishment of the covenant of grace. The promise of salvation made by God in Gen. 3:15 communicates the basic idea, which is God's intention to restore what sin had destroyed; but prior to Abraham's time, no transaction had occurred to formalize the provisions of the covenant of grace.

Again I would say that this is why the study of the Abrahamic covenant is not only profitable, but necessary to a right understanding of the covenant of grace; by this I mean that the study of the Abrahamic covenant is essential for a proper understanding of our salvation. As I just mentioned, the New Testament depends heavily on the Abrahamic covenant in its explanation of the work of our Savior. The Abrahamic covenant contains all the elements of the overriding covenant of grace.

When I talk about the provisions of the covenant of grace, I have in mind four things: first, the parties involved in the covenant; second, the promise of the covenant; third, the conditions of the covenant; and fourth, the curse of the covenant. As we look at Gen. 12, 15 and 17, we see these four elements in a basic form. The information given to us about these four elements is not exhaustive, by any means, but God's words to Abraham do give us an essential outline of the covenant of grace. Additional Biblical passages, some of which I will cite later, expand on the fundamental ideas contained in the Abrahamic covenant to give us a complete understanding of God's plan for our redemption.

My plan is to identify the provisions of the Abrahamic covenant and then show how those elements are developed in later revelation to provide a complete picture of the covenant of grace. Let's turn our attention, therefore, to the parties involved in the Abrahamic covenant. In all three passages, that is, Gen. 12, 15 and 17, God and Abraham appear as the two parties in this covenant.

God initiates contact with Abraham, God determines the stipulations of the covenant with Abraham, God makes the wonderful promises found in the covenant, but Abraham is a genuine party to what is enacted. And it must be observed that Abraham is acting as a representative for all his descendants; we can say, therefore, that the Abrahamic covenant is between God and the household of Abraham.

Notice that in the first announcement of the Abrahamic covenant, God says to the patriarch: "In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (12:3) And later, God says: "I will establish My covenant between Me and you. And I will multiply you exceedingly... and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations... and I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant..." (17:2, 4, 7) Clearly, the Abrahamic covenant involved not only Abraham and his immediate family, but all of his descendants (later, of course, we will learn from Paul that the descendants of Abraham are those who imitate his faith).

The second provision of the Abrahamic covenant is the promise that God made to the patriarch. We might assume initially that the promise is contained in phrases like, "In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (12:3) Certainly it is true that such predictions are part of the promise, but the one statement from God that defines precisely what He was promising in this covenant is found in Gen. 17:7: "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." The promise of the Abrahamic covenant is this last phrase, "to be God to you and to your descendants after you."

God promises to establish a unique relationship with Abraham and his descendants; He promises to have Abraham and his descendants as His particular people throughout the coming generations. We must remember that man is a fallen creature, yet the offended Creator is promising to take him back, as it were, and re-establish fellowship with him. Let me emphasize that man had not changed; he was still alienated from God. But God promised his restoration in Eden and now, through Abraham, He is graciously moving to confirm that promise.

What about the conditions of this covenant with Abraham? From Abraham's perspective, there is a two-fold condition, which is belief of God's promise followed by the obedience required by the promise. As God explained to Abraham what He intended to do, the time came when Abraham "believed in the Lord and [the Lord] reckoned it to him as righteousness." (15:6) In another place, God said to Abraham: "Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: ever male among you shall be circumcised." (17:9, 10)

God appointed a sign of the relationship that He was establishing with Abraham and his descendants. This sign was a physical mark on the body that identified those who were members of the covenant family being created by God. Circumcision served as testimony that a man belonged to God's company and it served as a symbolic seal of all the benefits promised to him by the God of the covenant. Moreover, as we observe in God's comments to Abraham, the family of the man marked with this covenant sign are also included in the promise made. (By the way, let me say that I plan to return to this portion of Scripture in a future sermon in this series and explain the place of children in the covenant; therefore, I will not be dealing with that particular aspect of the covenant at this time.)

Abraham's part in the covenant, then, was to believe that the Lord would do what He promised and to act on that belief by obeying God when he was told to apply the sign of the covenant. Abraham's obedience to the command to circumcise signaled his belief of God's promise; Abraham demonstrated his belief in the covenant promises by obeying God's order. This is a perfect illustration of the Biblical principle that genuine belief is followed by obedience; where there is no obedience, the claim of belief is negated.

Having described circumcision in this manner, it should be clear that circumcision was the sacrament of the Abrahamic covenant. You will recall that I stated previously that Biblical covenants include all the elements we are discussing plus some object or practice that epitomizes the covenant. Circumcision served the two-fold purpose of reminding the members of the covenant family of God's wonderful promises?circumcision was performed, remember, in anticipation of the fulfillment of those promises?and circumcision reminded the members of God's covenant family of their obligations before Him.

The last element in the Abrahamic covenant is, of course, the curse. The curse of this covenant is implied. The curse would consist of missing or being denied the promise of the covenant. The curse of the covenant with Abraham was to be left in a hopeless state, still alienated from the Creator; it was to be cut off from the covenant people that were being assembled by God. This is, in fact, the terminology used in later revelation as the covenant people of God take on a more apparent form as the nation of Israel.

I began this explanation of the Abrahamic covenant by saying that this covenant is the fullest explanation of the covenant of grace; this covenant represents the first formalized expression of God's promise to put enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman.

I noted earlier that the Abrahamic covenant helps us understand the covenant of grace�"the overriding plan God has decreed. We can see that this is true by studying the later parts of Scripture. In Gen. 12, 15 and 17, we have several ideas that, in subsequent parts of the Bible, are developed and expanded into a full revelation of the glorious covenant of grace; and this full revelation terminates, as I stated, in the work of the Savior, Jesus Christ. In my next sermon, I will continue this study of the covenant of grace in light the Abrahamic covenant. Before moving to some application, however, I want to explain how and why we will make the transition from Abraham to Christ.

It is clear that God's arrangement with Abraham depended on the patriarch having a male heir. In Abraham's contact with God, this concern soon dominates their exchanges. God promised Abraham that he would become the father of nations and that in him all the people of the earth would be blessed. But at the time, Abraham had no male heir and, therefore, what God promised appeared impossible.

As God restates His promises and assures Abraham that he will have a male heir, the Abrahamic covenant takes on a broader signification. This broader signification is, of course, God's intention to save the human race according to the stipulations of the Abrahamic covenant, that is, by God causing what He promised to become a reality. When Isaac is born, Abraham learns the value and trustworthiness of God's promises. He also learns through Isaac's birth that God's ability and willingness to keep His promises are the basis for mankind's redemption.

Therefore, in my next sermon, I will begin with an examination of Isaac's role in the Abrahamic covenant and then consider the apostle Paul's inspired commentary on these matters as it is recorded in Gal. 3.

Application

In my last sermon, I used the application to encourage the study of the Scriptures in light of the poor theological comprehension that characterizes so many in the modern Church. I now want to return to that theme and use the Abrahamic covenant to again encourage you in your continuing study of the Bible.

There are a number of great truths to be found in the Abrahamic covenant, truths that form the core of our religion. Nevertheless, the average modern evangelical would be unaware of the richness of this portion of Scripture because he typically does not examine large sections of the Bible; rather, he is used to "proof-texting" his way through life. What I mean is that he is able to cite a verse here and a verse there, but has no grasp of the systematic and progressive nature of God's Word. This is how so many erroneous beliefs get established and propagated in the Church.

I will cite for you my favorite example. Someone reads 2 Pet. 3:9, which says that God is not willing for any to perish, but that all would come to repentance. Based on that verse, it appears that those of us who teach that God deliberately elects some to everlasting life while passing by and foreordaining others to everlasting death are wrong.

God is not willing for any to perish�"that is what the Bible says. The big problem is that he pulled out one verse and paid no attention to the context. The context clearly shows that Peter is referring to God's promise of salvation to His elect. God is not willing that any of those ordained to everlasting life should perish, but will bring them all to repentance.

Far from proving what the proof-texting Christian thinks it proves, this verse actually teaches that God chooses those to be saved and makes sure they are saved! Jesus said: "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one." (John 10:27-30)

The "one verse" interpretation clearly contradicts these words from the Savior. When the context is considered, an accurate interpretation is far more likely. Moreover, the person who knows the Bible well, so that he is familiar with statements of Jesus, would realize that any interpretation of 2 Peter 3:9 which contradicted Jesus had to be wrong. He would then search for interpretation that aligned with the teaching of the Savior.

In the same way, many modern evangelicals follow the same faulty approach to studying the Scriptures. Unless Gen. 12, 15 and 17 are examined, a proper understanding of our redemption is impossible. A Christian might quote a few verses from the New Testament not realizing that those very verses rest on the foundation of the Abrahamic covenant. Let me emphasize once again, therefore, knowing the Bible is essential.

I now want to call your attention to just a few of the great and timeless truths that are revealed in the Abrahamic covenant. As I mention these truths, take note of how important they are to the Christian faith and how integral they are to the message of the Bible. Knowing the truth however requires dedication to studying the whole Bible.

In God's dealings with Abraham, we see another example of the holy and perfect Creator condescending to sinful man. God sought Abraham; God called Abraham; and God instructed Abraham. There is no initiative taken by Abraham in this story. God takes the initiative and this is another illustration of God's mercy and God's undeserved love.

In Scripture, God is always the One seeking us; He comes to us and teaches us and provides for us and preserves us. The Abrahamic covenant demonstrates this truth so clearly as God calls the patriarch and makes him a key figure in the redemption of the world. Those who don't study the whole Bible, those who only read the New Testament, those who find it "tedious" to read such records of God's association with the patriarchs will never relate to Abraham's humility and thanksgiving; they will never know God as they could.

Consider another key truth illustrated in the Abrahamic covenant. This covenant is a perfect example of a practice that can be seen in all of God's contact with the human race. God habitually deals with the heads or representatives of families, tribes and nations. The average modern evangelical doesn't know that God operates this way and, consequently, he thinks strictly in terms of individualism and this is why the life of the average modern evangelical can sometimes be a pale imitation of Biblical faith.

The Abrahamic covenant also demonstrates the unbreakable connection between faith and the fruit of faith. Abraham's declared belief of God's word was followed by his unquestioning obedience to the Lord's commands. We are greatly mistaken, therefore, if we think we can declare belief in God and of God's Word and then live as we please; our salvation is not verified by a mere profession only. Nevertheless, although we should not, many do think in this matter.

Therefore, there is a wide chasm between what this kind of Christian says and what he does. He has not studied the Bible and does not know the truth so well illustrated by Abraham: faith without works is dead being by itself; Biblical faith is living faith and living faith must produce appropriate fruit.

There also is something to be learned about hope from the Abrahamic covenant. If this portion of Scripture teaches anything, it teaches that the basis for our hope as believers, the basis for our expectation of blessing now and in eternity, is nothing more, nothing less than the living God. He alone promises and delivers in a supernatural fashion.

Abraham heard those astounding promises from God that he would be the father of nations, that kings would come from him, that all the people of the earth would be blessed in him, and yet, at the time, he had no heir! What was the basis for Abraham's hope that these things would come to pass except the God who does the impossible?

Those who don't study the whole Bible, those who think it sufficient to learn a few verses, will never know the depth and satisfaction of Abraham's faith. Life can frequently frighten them and trials will sometimes strike fear in their hearts because they don't really know God; and God cannot be really known without a study of His Word.

Don't be satisfied with an incomplete knowledge of the Scriptures. Study the whole Bible; learn about God and His ways from His many encounters with men like Abraham. Make sure you understand God's plan of redemption; I assure you, as I stated in the last sermon, that it is deeper, richer, more wonderful, more God-honoring, and more humbling than much of what is being taught in churches today.

My exhortation to you is that you imitate the faith of our fathers; establish yourself as a student of the Word. Learn it and, if you are in the position, teach it to your family; learn it and take it into your workplace. Just imagine all the comforting truth we would have missed had we not studied the Abrahamic covenant. The whole Bible is like this. Make it your goal to know God and understand that you come to know God, really know God, by studying His holy Word.

Prayer

Hymn for communion

Conclusion

Lest I be misunderstood, let me say, as we come to the Lord's Table, that the study of God's Word that I have recommended is motivated only by the fact that Jesus Christ, God's Son, lived, died and rose again in our place and, therefore, we have been restored to communion with our Creator; and we now have the mind, the ability, and the divinely-given right to know our great God. Our whole lives should be consumed with the study of God's Word?because we love Him, because we truly want to do what pleases Him Receive these elements and rejoice in God's mercy. Remember His promise to care for us and take us to be with Him some day; remember, too, the duty of holiness that rests upon the shoulders of all who would live in God's covenant family.

Receive these elements and renew your dedication to Christ. Confess your sins and receive God's certain forgiveness in Him. Let your soul be nourished as you commune with the risen Savior.

6 And 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.
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