Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Unfolding of the One Covenant of Grace
For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. Romans 4:13KJV
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 looked at this question we noticed how God’s plan of salvation was always and only “by grace through faith.” That God’s people in whatever age they lived were always taught to believe not in their works but in God’s grace. Today we will examine how God historically and successively revealed His one Covenant of Grace.
As we saw previously the Westminster Standards set forth a two Covenant framework for God’s relationship to mankind. The first covenant was a covenant of works in which God covenanted with Adam, and through him with the whole human race, an agreement by which humanity could live and fulfill God’s purposes for human beings: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. When Adam sinned the curse of that covenant came upon him and all whom He represented – every human being coming from Him – which is to say everyone except Jesus Christ who alone was conceived by the Holy Spirit and not from Adam. Yet immediately in the Garden, in Gen. 3:15, God announced to Adam and Eve a second covenant, the Covenant of Grace by which mankind, through the seed of the woman, would be victorious and succeed where they had failed. This Covenant of Grace is the one and only gospel of salvation, and it was and is announced to human beings at different times and in different ways since the Fall of man in the Garden. So the various covenants the Bible shows God making with man – the ones with Noah and Abraham, the one given through Moses, and the New Covenant announced through Jeremiah and inaugurated by Christ in the upper room – are each a manifestation and administration of this one Covenant of Grace.
Each successive administration of the Covenant of Grace revealed more of God’s one plan of salvation to His people of that period, and required different ways in which they were to relate to God. So for example Noah and his family were commanded to be fruitful and multiply and to spread out over the whole earth. God gave them a few laws and all creatures to be their food (Gen. 9:1-7). But when God specified the family of Abraham to be His people, He required them to go out of the world and into one specific region (Gen. 12-15), and He gave them circumcision and promised them land and descendants (Gen. 12-17). Then through Moses, God made His people into a nation and gave them many more laws and ceremonies, and created for them a priesthood, and further imposed regulations on their food, clothing, worship practices, and where each tribe would live and how they would relate to one another. Then with David God promised a line of kings through which He would rule and protect His people and conquer their enemies (2 Sam. 7), though all of the other aspects of the covenant under Moses would continue to be in force. Then Jeremiah announced God’s promise of one further stage of the covenant in which God’s people would all know the Lord, and in which God would fully forgive their sins and remember them know more (Jer. 31:31-34).
This is the Covenant Jesus made with His disciples in the upper room, the stipulations of which included the building of a church (Matt. 16:18), through the preaching of the gospel, the teaching of Jesus’ laws, and the administration of the sacraments (Matt. 28:19-20). In this final earthly administration of the Covenant of Grace, all of the shadows, types, and pictures of God’s saving grace given under Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David are fulfilled and cease to be. The priesthood, the dietary laws, the kingship, the tribal land allotments, and similar things are all no longer in force for God’s people. We are no longer called to go and live in the boundaries of the Israelite nation, but since David’s greater Son is now king over all the world, we are to go into all the world proclaiming and living out God’s now accomplished salvation. We wait only for the king to return and fully claim all that is rightfully His: “Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power,” (1 Cor. 15:24). Even so, come Lord Jesus!