The Second Covenant
And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name. 1 Thessalonians 5:9NKJ
Question 30 of the Larger Catechism asks, “Doth God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?” It gives the answer, “God doth not leave all men to perish in the estate of sin and misery, into which they fell by the breach of the first covenant, commonly called the Covenant of Works; but of his mere love and mercy delivereth his elect out of it, and bringeth them into an estate of salvation by the second covenant, commonly called the Covenant of Grace.” Last time we saw how God’s punishment for sin will look in the everlasting state; this week we consider how sinful men will avoid this deserved punishment!
Question 30 of the Larger Catechism is an astonishing question! Anyone with an ounce of understanding of the holiness of God and of the wickedness of man would expect the answer to be a resounding “Yes! Of course a holy and righteous God will leave such wicked and rebellious creatures as fallen mankind to perish in their own sin and misery. They made it for themselves; it is exactly what they deserve. How could God do anything else and continue to be a holy and righteous God? Evil must be punished. The debt to goodness must be fully paid, or else evil has defeated and corrupted God Himself!”
There have been many professing Christians throughout the ages who disdain such expressions of the necessity and goodness of God to punish sinners – as if it were not sin, but righteousness that is the real evil. They believe they are much more loving and caring to instead speak of what actions the attributes of mercy and grace would necessitate from God. The more honest of these folks openly deny the doctrine of Hell, the rest simply never speak of it. They hear question 30 and with a wink and a grin answer, “How primitive of those hardened old Britains! Don’t they know that a loving and merciful God must forgive poor man? Of course God would not leave mankind to perish in his sin!” However, such a way of considering God, man, and sin does not marvel at the wonder of God’s grace. On the contrary, it minimizes sin, denigrates the righteousness of God, and lowers grace to the point of where it is something mundane and even expected. God’s amazing, free grace becomes a debt He owes to wicked, sinful men.
We must never forget that the only thing that God owes to His rebellious creatures is His own eternal wrath. Furthermore, we must affirm that this doctrine is good! God’s wrath against sin is good. It is perfect. It is beautiful, refreshing, and renewing. Like a man scrubbing a dish covered in filth, turning it upside down and wiping it all over until it is clean, spotless, and useful again, so is God’s wrath to sin. It washes away the gross ugliness of evil until the creation is perfectly disinfected and unspoiled once more. God’s holy character requires Him to do what is right. And nothing is more satisfactory to God’s righteousness than to fully punish sinners with the entirety of the wrath they deserve. After all, that was the deal in the covenant of works.
Yet incomprehensively, God does not leave man to the wrath he has so richly earned. Without compromising His own perfectly righteous indignation, but giving full satisfaction to His holy wrath and fury, God delivers His people, His chosen, His elect from that wrath, giving them salvation instead! He does this by bringing into effect a second covenant, the Covenant of Grace. This must be some kind of covenant if it can satisfy God’s offended righteousness while at the same time save sinful man who has transgressed it. And of course it is! In fact, the rest of the Catechism serves simply to explain and unpack the implications of this Covenant of Grace. All this question covers is that God has established it “of his mere love and mercy.” Even if the Catechism ran on for a thousand questions (instead of nearly 200), it could not say anything more profoundly true and revealing about the Covenant of Grace than this simple phrase. Why did God not leave all mankind to perish forever in the fires of His just wrath? Why did God sovereignly choose to save some when He should have damned all? Why did God make another covenant with man, by which He would give him the salvation he had already forfeited? Was it merely that God looked down the corridors of time and saw who, under the right conditions, would make one little good decision? No! When one rightly understands the graciousness of God’s grace, the question is not “Why doesn’t God save all?” but “Why would He save any?” And the answer is: “Of His mere love and mercy!” Mercy is never earned. Grace is never deserved. This is the wonder of God’s gracious covenant.