Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
One Covenant OF Grace Under Several Administrations
For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory. 2 Corinthians 3:9NKJV
Question 33 of the Larger Catechism asks, “Was the covenant of grace always administered after one and the same manner?” It gives the answer, “The covenant of grace was not always administered after the same manner, but the administrations of it under the Old Testament were different from those under the New.” Last time we considered how God’s grace is manifested in the second covenant. This week we examine the Biblical doctrine that God’s one Covenant of Grace has been administered differently throughout the history of the Church.
Various forms of the somewhat archaic word “administer,” are used frequently in the Westminster documents (23 verbs, 14 nouns). As used here by the Catechism, the meaning of “administer” and “administrations” is that of managing or governing. Hence, the subject of this question is how God has managed or governed His covenant of grace differently, with respect to His church’s participation in it, down through the ages.
Remember, when we are talking about the covenant of grace, we are primarily talking about God’s self-imposed, contractual obligation to save the elect. As we saw previously, God brings this salvation by providing and offering a Mediator who will save every sinner who trusts in Him for that salvation. Accordingly, the former question identified faith as the sole condition required in order to receive the salvation accomplished by the Mediator. It went on to teach that this saving faith, “with all other graces,” is worked into God’s elect by His Holy Spirit. As a result, these elect are now enabled “unto all holy obedience.” Thus, they have contributed nothing to this new condition. Our salvation is not, even in the smallest degree, a work of man, but it is entirely a gift of God: God sovereignly grants to us all that He requires of us.
Here, it is very important to recognize that God’s grace ordinarily comes to His people through divinely chosen means, which God changes from time to time. Next week, Lord willing, we will examine some of those particular means, but this week we want to affirm the principle of grace through different means. What is at stake here is nothing less than soli deo gloria! For example, we see Old Testament Israel being required to keep all of those meticulous cleanliness, dietary, and religious laws. Were the Jews saved by their works, even in part, or were they too, totally depraved sinners who were saved entirely by grace alone? Some modern theologians are now teaching that Israel had an “external covenant” with God, whereby God bound Himself to reward Israel’s outward conformity to His laws with temporal blessings (the land, temple, favored nation status, etc.) Is that it? Did God actually covenant with Israel, requiring them to try and earn certain blessings from Him by their imperfect and therefore sinful obedience? God forbid!
But then, what was the purpose of those cleanliness laws, animal sacrifices, priestly robes etc.? Well, we know that they served as types of Christ, who came as the lamb without spot or blemish, and so they pointed Israel to the Messiah, but was that all they did? Was there no actual blessing to the ancient Israelites as they kept these commands but merely a prophecy of the future? Our Catechism question cries out “No!” All of those sometimes strange commands, precepts, and statutes were divine means of grace to His people, sanctifying and keeping them alive and growing in the faith! Thus, God declared to Israel regarding the blood in animal sacrifice: “I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls,” (Gen. 17:11). God gave them the blood of animals. It was God’s gift to them for their good. Not that animal sacrifice ultimately atoned for sin (Isa. 1:11-15; Ps. 40:6; 51:16-17). It was a means of grace: an administration of God’s grace through which believers could really receive the grace Christ would come to purchase for them. Thus, if you were an Israelite living before Christ, as you kept those laws, trusting in God’s grace and not looking for payment, you would have been blessed in your keeping of them. Your faith would have been strengthened, your repentance and good works increased. For faithfully walking in those ordinances was the God-ordained way He brought to pass His covenant of grace to His believing people. Even as faithfully participating in the sacraments is a different means of the same sanctifying grace to us today. Different means, various administrations, but the same marvelous grace – and all of it purchased for us by Christ!