Covenant Theology and the Single Covenant of Grace
A Question I Was Asked:
“Where do you stand on Covenant Theology and on reformed theology's 'single covenant of grace?'”
Here is the main part of a recent question sent to me:
'...I have noticed that you call yourself “loosely reformed, but with a few rather important provisions” - having read your writings, your provisions in certain areas of Calvinism appear to be the same as mine, but where do you stand on Covenant Theology and on 'the single covenant of grace'?'
Well, first of all I always say that these are areas where differences of opinion between sincere believers should be allowed, so I do not tackle this question in the same way as I might tackle plain and serious errors which make the true biblical gospel of no effect (the prosperity gospel, for example), however, where I am asked about a particular issue I will certainly give my opinion. So here goes:
Reformed Theology has posited the picture of a single 'covenant of grace' as being the way that God has worked with people upon this earth from the time of Adam onwards. There are serious problems with this concept. Here are a few:
It is unbiblical. I don't see the revelation of an ongoing single 'covenant of grace' anywhere in the Bible, but I see several covenants culminating in the all-important New Covenant which fully reveals the grace of Christ.
Biblically, covenants appear to be made between God and Man (the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic or Old Covenant etc), but the 'covenant of grace' seems to be something which was decided upon by reformed theologians!!
The biblical covenants appear to be based on vitally important historical factors, events and milestones.
The apostle Paul often seemed to contrast the grace of Christ with an earlier administration 'written on tables of stone', which had passed in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Galatians 3:23-25; Galatians 4: 21-31). Also, the writer of the Book of Hebrews appears to regard the Old Covenant as obsolete in Christ (Hebrews 8:13), so that would presumably mean that that particular covenant must be separate from the New Covenant.
Okay. Now let me
broaden this out a little:
I have slightly changed my understanding on the biblical covenants over the last few years; I used to see two vital covenants, (the Old and the New), plus several 'more minor' ones, but I now doubt whether this can be upheld from the Bible. After all, the Old Covenant was between God and Old Testament Israel alone, affecting no other nation upon earth! But the Noahic covenant (Genesis 9:8-17) and the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17) affected all the peoples of the earth. Moreover it is the Abrahamic Covenant which Paul looks back upon as being of particular significance for Christians because of its clear revelation of grace (Galatians 3:3-29).
But certainly the New Covenant which, of course, fully reveals the work of Christ upon the cross and the grace which flows from that, is revealed to be the major – and indeed final - Bible covenant!
So we find several different (but all vitally important!) biblical covenants revealed which are established between God Himself and God-called individuals/peoples upon this earth; they are all centered on historical events which are shown to be real milestones (usually spiritually).
But the single 'covenant of grace' of reformed theology is basically just one covenant, certainly with some variations, but essentially just the one covenant; yet I find the more accurate biblical picture to be one of several definite covenants (note Romans 9:4 and Ephesians 2:12 where the Greek grammar uses the plural: 'covenants'), followed by the one and only New Covenant which then fully reveals the meaning in those earlier covenants. All the covenants have their foundation and base in history; the New Covenant then becomes an absolutely pivotal point in redemption history and, of course, the Bible never speaks of further covenants after Christ is fully revealed.
One of the inevitable results of this Calvinist approach is the presence of legalism in certain areas of the reformed movement, especially in its more 'hard line' wing. Why legalism? Because the New Covenant (though basically correctly understood by most reformed writers - at least in its essence and meaning) nevertheless remains somewhat under-revealed where one upholds the schema of a single covenant; that is to say: the covenant of grace approach does not stress that 'all things are now new in Christ' so much and it continues to hold a high place for law, since elements of Mount Sinai cannot easily be put aside where they continue to form part of the same covenant. This tends to show itself in the fact that reformed churches usually focus on the Ten Commandments whereas other evangelical churches, though certainly holding the Ten Commandments in high regard and respect, tend to focus on the Law of Christ (which, after all, Jesus revealed to have superceded all Old Covenant law - check out Matthew chapters 5 through 7). Further, after comparing the Old Covenant with Hagar and the New Covenant with Sarah (Galatians 4:21-29) the apostle Paul goes as far as to tell the legalistically-inclined Galatians to '...Get rid of the slave woman (Hagar) ...' !! (verse 30). Finally he says,
'Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.' (verse 31, NIV throughout).
The clear separation which Paul places between Christ (the New Covenant), and the Mosaic (Old) Covenant really seems conclusive, and yet the 'covenant of grace' teaching must maintain that these are parts of one covenant. My conclusion is that, according to the Scriptures, there is no single covenant of Grace which God has always used in His dealings with men and women!
Dispensationalist theology seems to have a far better understanding of the utter supremacy of the New Covenant than one finds in some confused Calvinist writers (but sadly, dispensationalism has problems in other areas). The Covenant of Grace concept, of course, also leads to an approach towards infant baptism which, again, is theologically highly questionable, to put it mildly.
But I am not going to go any further with this here since I am now going to provide a link to two very fine articles, which covers this subject in much greater detail:
It is also essential to consult:
WHAT IS 'COVENANT THEOLOGY'?
IS THERE A COVENANT OF GRACE?