September 2012

Challenging Covenantalism: The Covenant of Grace

I have been attempting to reveal the reality that there is not a covenantal scheme found in Scripture as is presupposed by those who believe in Covenantal Theology (CT). This belief system, built upon the assumption that there was a covenant between God and man, i.e. the Covenant of Works, is pervasive and subtle in all of its insinuations. The conclusions of such a system have become foreign to the actual statements of Scripture to an alarming degree. Over the next few posts, I will continue to lay the groundwork that is necessary in order to review these conclusions so that at least it can be understood what I am saying. Given the fact that I have little to no response from anyone on these posts, I can only assume that what I am writing is being considered, at least.

Last post we verified the reality that there is/was no Covenant of Works. One may believe that there was, but that does not make it real. Did God actually make a covenant in the garden, pre-fall, with Adam with conditions, stipulations, rewards, and blessings? No. That is a contrived system super-imposed over the Scripture. Adam already had full access to the Tree of Life, not contingent upon obedience. Adam already was blessed of God, not contingent upon obedience. Adam was instructed/commanded directly to not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil under penalty of death, without condition. There was nothing to which Adam had to agree. He was under the sovereignty, authority, and care of his Creator who created all things simply according to His will (Revelation 4:11). There was no compulsion to create a covenant (an agreement, conditional or otherwise) in that perfect world which God created. As said in the previous post, love cannot be regulated by law (Galatians 5:22-23).

We come now to consider the next covenant as stated by CT, the Covenant of Grace. This covenant is stated as follows:

“The covenant of grace  is a compact between God and the elect sinner; God on His part declaring His free good-will concerning eternal salvation, and every thing relative thereto, freely to be given to those in covenant, by, and for the mediator Christ; and man on his part consenting to that good-will by a sincere faith” (Witsius, Economy of the Covenants, p.165).

It must be stated that the philosophical nature of CT is very appealing to many, which causes its popularity. This popularity is especially keen in the world of young men. There is a particular thrill that comes from engaging in dialogue and contemplation about deep things, contrived or true. The structure of CT is no different. Because of its philosophical nature, CT draws many to its system simply because it affords an exercise of the mind to a large degree. However, there is no greater exercise of the mind, heart, and will than to meditate upon truth. What God actually did is far more profound and engaging than anything man could dream of. Plus, truth is humbling. It breaks the will and sanctifies the person. This, to the glory of God.

As we come to the Covenant of Grace, we come to a subject that is indeed “deep”, profound, and eternal. We are talking about the work of God in Christ on behalf of sinners. The Covenant of Works discussion dealt with God’s dealing with Adam pre-fall. However, this “covenant” deals with Adam’s offspring post-fall. The redemption of sinners is the heart of the gospel. It is near to the heart of all that God has accomplished in Christ. It is territory to tread slowly and carefully upon. Of its nature, it demands absolute precision and care. Zeal is no substitute for accuracy. Zeal without truth cannot save (Romans 10:1-3).

This covenant states that God made a covenant, agreement, pact, with elect sinners that they might be saved. R. Scott Clark, who has written very detailed upon the entire subject and nature of CT, writes, “The term covenant of grace can be used broadly and narrowly. When used broadly, it refers to everyone who is baptized into the Christ confessing covenant community. When used narrowly, it refers to those who have received the double benefit of Christ: justification and sanctification” (R. Scott Clark, http://clark.wscal.edu/covtheses.php , accessed 9/10/2012). Dr. Kim Riddlebarger writes, “The covenant of grace is the historical outworking of an eternal covenant of redemption (the so-called “covenant before the covenant”) in which the members of the Holy Trinity decreed that Jesus was to be the redeemer of those whom the Father had chosen in him, and that Jesus would do this on behalf of, and in the place of, all those sinners chosen from before the foundation of the world (cf. Ephesians 1:3-14)” (http://wscal.edu/blog/entry/3636 , access 9/10/2012). Both descriptions assume a pre-creation covenant between God and Christ which is entitled, “The Covenant of Redemption".” Both authors state that that pre-Adamic covenant is the basis upon which all other covenants, and their accomplishments, flow. I am not attempting to deal with the topic of the Covenant of Redemption at this time. I will wait until a future post. However, it is enough to say, as I have said before, it is entirely unnecessary to assign a covenantal structure to God’s plan of redemption, outside of the stated covenants of Scripture, to which the New Testament writers explicitly refer based upon the teaching of the Old Testament. There is no need to subsume the biblical covenants under a larger one. For example, using the reference from Dr. Riddlebarger, Ephesians 1 makes it extensively clear that there was no compelling covenant in eternity pre-Adam demanding that God do what He did in creating the world, ordaining the fall of man, and the death of His Son. It was simply the expression of His free will. Consider these passages:

Ephesians 1:5–6 (NASB95)

5 In Love, He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will,

6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

Ephesians 1:7–11 (NASB95)

7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace

8 which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight

9 He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him

10 with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him

11 also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will,

Now, if we take these truths (God predestined us to become sons according to the kind intention of His will, for His glory, freely given to us, according to His rich grace, according to the kind intention of His will, according to His purpose, after the counsel of His will) and assign to them a pre-creation covenant that supposedly explains the initial compulsion of God to do what He has done in Christ, we have just confounded these verses. It is no longer according to the free counsel of His will, but counsel of His will based upon an agreement that He made with Christ and then the elect. Those are two very different statements. God is unaffected by any outside influence or compulsion. He does what He pleases (Psalms 115:3; 135:6). He is not compelled by any covenant, except what is stated in Scripture. He does what He pleases based upon His will. Some might say, “Yes, and it pleased God to make this covenant with Jesus Christ and the elect.” If that is true, then God’s compulsion was no longer to freely give, but to give out of duty. This is not freely giving. The essence of giving freely is that there is no previous cause compelling one to do what he is doing. Even the actual biblical covenants, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Priestly, Davidic, and New, were still initialized by God’s will, whether bilateral or unilateral. Paul teaches that the entire plan of redemption is the result of God’s will, not agreement. But we will deal with this further at another time.

The covenant of grace is fanciful on a number of fronts. First, it is not stated in Scripture. To take the terms Scripture does use (justification, sanctification, predestination, election etc.) and assign them to a concluding covenant out of which they flow does not make that covenant true. Again, Scripture does not indicate that God made an agreement with the elect, nor continues to do so when the elect are saved. The salvation of the elect is based upon the freedom of God’s purpose in Christ and that is all (Ephesians 2:8-9). Second, the elect are saved on the basis of the New Covenant, not a covenant of grace. The two are not the same. The New Covenant is the basis upon which our sins are forgiven since that is what the Scripture actually says: “

Hebrews 8:12 (NASB95)

12 “For I will be merciful to their iniquities,

And I will remember their sins no more.”

This “better covenant” is based upon better promises than the Mosaic Covenant which could never cleanse the conscience. The salvation from the curses of the Mosaic Covenant for disobedience because of our depravity and God’s just wrath upon us for our disobedience is not based upon an agreement between God and man, elect or not. It is based upon the work of Jesus Christ through the New Covenant which was based upon better promises, the Abrahamic promise, which itself is based upon the promise of the Messiah in Genesis 3:15. Once Jesus Christ entered into the true tabernacle of heaven, after “offering Himself without blemish to God” (Hebrews 9:14), He obtained eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12). That eternal redemption is because Jesus Christ fulfilled the New Covenant, not the covenant of grace (or redemption, for that matter). Jesus Christ is the Mediator of the New Covenant (Hebrews 9:15; 1 Timothy 2:5). The true covenantal structure of the Scriptures are self-contained and sufficient for elucidating all that God has done and is doing and will do in the redemption of mankind and the entire creation. To go beyond that and state all of that is still the result of a larger covenant, the covenant of grace or redemption, is adding to what the Scripture has actually revealed and what God has actually done.

Third, as with the entirety of CT, if one believes in the covenant of grace, he teaches himself to impose upon Scripture and thus develops the habit of adding to the Scripture. No matter the subject, if we say something God has not said, it is never true (Jeremiah 23:25-32). Covenant Theology, as a system, is foreign to Scripture. Therefore, to impose it upon Scripture does damage to the Scripture.

Fourth, if the elect choose to enter into a covenant with God, how does that affect the sovereign nature of salvation. Calling the sinner to repent and follow Jesus Christ does not indicate a covenant or agreement. It is a command. To do so, is to disobey and be subject to eternal destruction (2 Thessalonians 2:6-10). If a sinner calls upon the Lord for salvation, is very different than saying that he agrees to a covenantal relationship with God. It does not appear that the idea of “covenant” ever describes the justification, sanctification, and glorification of a sinner (Romans 8:28-20). It is, again, the expression of the will  of God. We must maintain the purity of the will of God in all that He does.

In future posts, I will be dealing with the following subjects:

  1. The Covenant of Redemption.
  2. God’s Purpose in Christ.
  3. The True Covenantal Structure of God’s Plan.
  4. The Gospel.
  5. The Difference Between Israel and the Church.
  6. Eschatology and the Millennial Reign of Jesus Christ.
  7. The True Nature of the Church.

There may be further topics as well as the need arises.

Challenging Covenantalism: The Covenant of Works-pt. 2

The last post posed a question: “Was there a Covenant of Works?” That is a legitimate question, given the weight that is attributed to this covenant. Since it becomes the foundational brick in the wall of Covenant Theology (CT), it must be examined and identified as true or false. To assume either way is detrimental to the revelation of God and will harm His glory.

We saw last time that CT asserts that God made a covenant with Adam in which if Adam were obedient, he would inherit eternal life. If he were disobedient, he would die. Or to put another way, if he obeyed, he would be blessed. If he disobeyed, he would be cursed. The backdrop for this reasoning is the assertion that the components of covenants are present in the narrative of Genesis 1-2. “the substance of covenant is the stuff that forms the contents of Genesis 1-3” (Meredith Kline, “Two Adams, Two Covenant of Works”, selected readings from Kingdom Prologue, 2000, p.1). These components also are present in the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) treaties identified in archaeological finds over the years. In comparing those finds, including significant discoveries like the treaties of the Hittites and the Ebla Tablets, with the biblical texts, it is believed that God followed the same pattern as those treaties and covenants as written in the ANE discoveries in the creation of the world.

  • I would like to challenge that assumption and clarify a few things concerning this hypothesis. Specifically, I do not believe that Moses is writing as one would from the structure of ANE treaties. Further, the components of a covenant are not present in the text of Genesis 1-2.

First, it is important that we insert a foundational tenant of Scripture, namely the doctrine of inerrancy. Inerrancy states that the Scriptures, in the autographs, are inspired by God through the instrument of human authors and as such the resultant text is infallible, true, and authoritative. Also, the basis of the inerrancy of Scripture, and the veracity of the resultant copies of those inerrant letters/books, is that God, who cannot lie (Titus 1:2), is the source of the information contained therein. That is, although man may have used sources other than dictation from God (e.g. Luke 1:1-4), the resulting text of Scripture is nonetheless truth and has God as the source of that information. Inerrancy is also claimed by CT as well. Why is inerrancy significant to our discussion? Because, when speaking of covenantal language in Genesis 1-2, A) does history interpret the event of creation, or B) does creation define and interpret history? The only correct answer is B, Scripture, and its account of creation, defines and interprets history. Therefore, let us consider the assertion that all the components of ANE treaties are present in the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2 as patently false. There are a number of reasons, which I will give below, but begin by considering that God did not follow the conventions of culture (of ANE or otherwise) when He established the foundations of the earth. If it is asserted that God’s work in creation followed the pattern of ANE treaties/covenants, then we have committed eisegesis saying that God’s creation work was patterned after ANE cultural norms. Surely, inerrancy cannot be maintained with that assertion since creation came before the Hittites.

Second, the components of a covenant/treaty are not present in Genesis 1-2. The general components of the covenant of works are usually listed as preamble/prologue, contractual parties, stipulations, blessings for obedience, curses for disobedience, and concluding remarks usually calling upon witnesses to the agreement. Michael Horton, author and host of White Horse Inn, a Christian radio show from a Reformed perspective, also describes a “typical” covenant arrangement and attributes that back into Genesis:

" In addition, the literary elements of covenant-making seem to be present in the Genesis narrative, especially as interpreted by the rest of Scripture. Even in Genesis 1-3 we recognize the features of a covenant that we have delineated: a historical prologue setting the stage (Genesis 1-2), stipulations (2:16-17), and sanctions (2:17b) over which Eve and the serpent argue (3:1-5) and which are finally carried out in the form of judgment (3:8-19) (Michael Horton, God of Promise [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006], 90).

Kim Riddlebarger, professor at Westminster Seminary California and pastor of Christ Reformed Church, Anaheim, CA., lists them in summary form as:

“Although the term “covenant of works” does not appear in the creation account, all of the elements of such a covenant are clearly present in Eden. First, there are two parties involved (Adam and his creator), with God sovereignly imposing the terms of this covenant upon Adam and his descendants. Second, there is a condition set forth by God as spelled out in Genesis 2:17–“but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Although this condition comes in the form of a specific prohibition (if you eat from the tree you will die), it can also be framed as a positive theological principle which describes the very essence of this covenant: “Do this [i.e., obey by not eating] and live.” Third, there is a blessing promised upon perfect obedience (eternal life) as well as a threatened curse (death) for any act of disobedience. If Adam obeys his creator and does not eat from the tree, then he will receive God’s promised blessing–eternal life. But should Adam eat from the tree, then he will come under the covenant curse–which is death (Westminster Seminary California, blog, http://wscal.edu/blog/entry/3608, accessed 9/4/2012).

 

If we simply use these writings as our starting points, we will discover that the ideal of the Covenant of Works is, in fact, the philosophy of man and not a true explanation of what God actually did.

First, Michael Horton indicates that the entire narrative of Genesis 1-3 fits into the ANE structure. Unfortunately, he does not seem to comprehend that the creation of the world and the cosmos does not fit into covenantal/treaty structure.  Although Moses wrote during the time when the Near East was not ancient, creation occurred before ANE culture. When these things are read into the biblical text, the text is treated as some literary piece and not actual history. Such is the common failure of CT.

Second, Dr. Riddlebarger, who has done much to confuse the Scriptures, states that if Adam would obey God, he would receive access to the Tree of Life. Once eating the fruit, he would then live forever. It is further stated that Adam is on a kind of probation to prove his obedience. There are a few problems with that teaching, however. Most CT teachers repeat Genesis 2:17, “…but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” Along with this verse is the usual statement that this indicates a kind of test for Adam. In fact, this “condition” becomes the hinge pin for much in CT. Adam failed to maintain the condition by breaking the covenant, and thus he died as per this verse. The converse, they reason, is also true. If Adam does obey, then he will receive blessing. One glaring problem is the fact that the biblical text says in the previous verse, “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely…” (v.16). Adam already had access, free access, to any other tree in the garden, including the Tree of Life. In fact, both eating of every other tree in the garden and not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are all under the umbrella of a “command” (v.16). It is just as much a command to eat freely as it is to not eat. This is also verified by the fact that the Tree of Life needed to be guarded from Adam and Eve after the fall (Genesis 3:24). He did, in fact, have access to that tree even after his disobedience! The reasoning with CT is that if Adam exhibits perfect obedience to the command (the stipulations of the “covenant”), then by not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he will then, in time, be able to have access to the tree of life, by the sheer fact that he will still be alive to do so. This conditional existence of Adam, according to CT, is the basis for the rest of their assumptions in theology. However, there were no conditions in the garden, and thus there was nothing for Adam to agree to. This is not a contractual agreement between two parties. In fact, is was not a “royal grant” either since God does not promise to benefit Adam in the least. Adam was already blessed, already possessed life, and already walked with God:

Let me reiterate. Adam already had free and unhindered access to the tree of life (Genesis 2:16). There was no condition, whatsoever, for Adam to be able to go up to that tree and take of its fruit and eat. He was already given free access by the Creator.

This is crucial to realize. Since there was no contractual condition for which Adam must attain, then there was no covenant. Since there was no covenant, this arrangement in the garden does not follow ANE treaty structure, or anything of the sort. God’s work in creation is simply an expression of His will. To assert and teach that Adam’s eating of the tree of life is based upon not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is to 1) miss the actual words of the text, 2) misrepresent what God has done in creation, and 3) diverge from sound biblical revelation on the matter, and thus maintain an apostate position, thereby harming the church for whom the truth of Scripture belongs (1 Timothy 3:15).

Third, CT also asserts that God would bless Adam if he obeyed, and curse Adam if he did not. That is not true. As already stated, God already blessed Adam (Genesis 1:28). He already had life (Genesis 2:7). In fact, the restriction to the tree of life post-fall indicates that he would have been confirmed in some kind of perpetual physical life that could be sustained forever. That is not to say, however, that he would have inherited “eternal life” such as we have in Christ (i.e. partaking of the divine nature – 1 Peter 1:3). We know this because God indicates that if Adam and Eve, in their punished, fallen state, would have eaten of that tree, they would have been confirmed in that state. The tree itself, having properties that sustained and strengthened (see Revelation 22:2; cf. Ezekiel 47:12), did not possess the quality of eternal, divine, life since Adam and Eve would have been sustained in their fallen condition if they would have eaten of that tree. Therefore, to say that if they would have obeyed, they would have satisfied the covenantal agreement with God and would have been given access to the tree of life so that they would live eternally is false. Adam already had access to the tree of life (Genesis 2:16). Adam and Eve were already blessed of God (Genesis 1:28a). The tree of life simply perpetuated physical life forever, which is not the same thing as the quality of divine life that CT attributes to it.

In none of these arrangements do we see conditions placed upon the man. God did not say, “Adam, if you obey Me, I will give you to eat of the tree of life.” He already had access to that tree under no grants or conditions. God simply created the tree for Adam and his offspring. Nor did He say to Adam, “If you obey Me, I will bless you.” God had already established a blessed state for Adam and his wife. There were no conditions, and thus no covenant. The text of inspired Scripture indicates that God blessed them (Genesis 1:28) and that was not contingent upon obedience. They already had it! It was the will of God. Once again, since nowhere in the text is there indication of conditions for blessing or access to the tree of life, then there is no covenant. Covenants are based upon conditions. Even unilateral covenants, such as with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 17:4-6), require a certain attainment of righteousness, albeit provided by Jesus Christ. However, all we have in the actual text of Scripture in Genesis 1-2 is God creating and giving freely to the man, the woman, and their children of His provision without cost or covenant. To say that the command to not eat from the tree presupposes a covenant is reading into the text to a detrimental degree. If anything, the command of God to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a demonstration of the desire for Christ-like obedience from Adam since he was made in the image of God. How? Because the obedience would have been generated from love and subjection to the Father in the same way that the Son loves and subjects Himself to the Father (John 15:10; 1 Corinthians 11:3). Again, love does not need a law (Galatians 5:22-23). This is why Luke describes Adam as a “son of God” (Luke 3:38).

Since the influence of CT is widespread, especially throughout the Young, Restless, and Reformed people, there needs to be accountability for the mishandling of Scripture in such a fashion as is demonstrated by Covenant Theology. From beginning to end, it is not based upon proper exegesis of the actual text of Scripture, but rather the philosophical musings of men throughout the centuries which have dealt a harmful blow, overall, to the Scripture. Although the gospel itself was recovered by the Reformers, the need to continue a reformation stands. There needs to be a recovery of the authority of the Scripture once again. This authority is only understood and perceived through a hermeneutic of the grammar of a text and the historical context in which the text exists. Once the foundation of CT is laid down as truth, the Scripture cannot hardly be recognized since, by and large, its veracity and literality is compromised many times over, especially in such areas as creation, and eschatology. Both the beginning and the ending of God’s Word suffer a harmful blow by the likes of CT to the degree that we do not understand from whence we came, nor for what we have to look forward. Let us truly “keep reforming” and return to a proper, text-centered, study of God’s holy, inerrant, and precious, Word.

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