Article of the Month
Carl W. Bogue
The student of John H. Gerstner is never adequately designated as a "former student." Many of us have been instructed and inspired in the classroom and since by this servant of God. It was he who first directed my attention to the stature of Jonathan Edwards as a giant among theologians in general and Reformed theologians in particular. I was not disappointed. The privilege to contribute this essay in honor of Dr. Gerstner reflects, by the very nature of the case, the far greater honor on myself. That the exact opposite is my desire I can only ask the reader to accept as my deepest intention.
The covenant of grace, as a way of describing the saints' relation to God, is a doctrinal feature that has been present in differing degrees of elaboration throughout the history of Reformed theology. In this article we will affirm Edwards' rightful place among Reformed theologians and his acceptance of the scriptural correlation between divine sovereignty and human responsibility represented by that tradition. We will see that Edwards not only maintained the doctrine of the covenant of grace, but did so within the framework of distinctive Reformed or Calvinistic doctrines. One must be alerted to the fact that Edwards distinguished three covenants (grace, redemption, and works), though in one sense he treated them as three aspects of one covenant. The covenant of grace between Christ and the believer, while a distinct covenantal relation, is an historical manifestation of the covenant of redemption (trinitarian). And since in the covenant of redemption Christ is fulfilling the condition of righteousness, there is a sense in which the covenants of grace and redemption are but aspects of the covenant of works. This relationship among the covenants, however, in no way invalidates for Edwards the distinctive doctrine of the covenant of grace.
Jonathan Edwards, with all his intellect, creativity, originality, and historical environment, is clearly what we understand by the designation "Calvinist." He shared with the Reformed and Calvinistic tradition in which he stood the strong emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God. An irresponsible error too frequently promulgated in discussions on the covenant of grace is that such an emphasis precludes human responsibility. Jonathan Edwards was sensitive to the pulse of Scripture which honors the human activity no less than the divine sovereignty. He saw, as his Calvinistic forefathers saw, that the covenant was a biblical idea capable of expressing the correlation between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The unfortunate plight of discussions around Edwards on the covenant of grace is the frequency with which false presuppositions concerning such a correlation preclude a fair hearing of Edwards himself.1
While a complete evaluation of Edwards' position necessitates dealing with the rightness or wrongness of such presuppositions, we must limit this article to outlining Edwards' explicit teaching on the covenant of grace. It is significant that Edwards, as a Calvinist, wrote and preached about the covenant of grace most frequently in the context of distinctly Reformed doctrines. When Edwards preached a series of sermons on Romans 4:5, they not only sparked a revival but exhibited Calvinism's (Scripture's) attack on Arminianism as clearly and purely as any author has. Subsequently published in expanded form, this discourse concludes with a treatment of the importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and Edwards states: "It is in this doctrine that the most essential difference lies between the covenant of grace and the first covenant."2 This pattern prevails throughout the writings of Edwards. Whenever he speaks of the covenant of grace, it is never as an appendage to his Calvinism; the covenant of grace is always integrally related to the great doctrines of Reformed theology.
Edwards' doctrine of the covenant of grace cannot be understood apart from his view of the covenant of redemption. According to Edwards the covenants of redemption and grace are essentially one, yet distinguished. In a manuscript sermon on Hebrews 9:15-16, Edwards writes that the covenant of grace as Christ's last will and testament "is a twofold covenant of God relating to the salvation of men by Christ that ought not be confounded but carefully distinguished."3 The one is a "covenant that God the Father makes with Christ . . . wherein believers are looked upon as in Christ"; the other is "the covenant that is between Christ and believers themselves."4 In his sermon on Hebrews 13:8 Edwards refers to the one as "the covenant of redemption, or the eternal covenant," and the other he identifies as "the covenant of grace."5
The covenant of redemption, with qualifications, contains the covenant of grace within its boundaries.6 Regarding covenant in the broader sense, as the eternal covenant of redemption, Edwards states: "The excellency of this covenant and the great desirableness of an interest in its blessings is set forth here by two things: 1. that it is an everlasting covenant, 2. that the mercies promised in it are sure."7 The comfort of the covenant of grace is anchored in this covenant of redemption. In this same sermon on Isaiah 55:3 Edwards contrasts the covenant of redemption, or "everlasting covenant," with "the covenant that God made with Adam," and the excellency of the covenant of redemption is that it is "made with . . . an eternal person . . . from eternity . . . to eternity."8 Furthermore, "the surety that is intrusted with the fulfillment of this covenant is everlasting and unchangeable in his fidelity.9 The certainty stems from the fact that God established the covenant involving "each of the persons of the Trinity," that it was engaged "by promise and oath," and involves among other things "seals" and "pledges" of fulfillment.10
The certainty of the covenant of redemption is relevant to the believer because the believer in one sense participates in that covenant. "There is a covenant that God the Father makes with Christ . . . wherein believers are looked upon as in Christ."11 Christ and believers "are considered together as one mystical person," and this mystical person (Christ and believers) is the "one party in the covenant" to whom promises are made, and "God the Father" is "the other party."12 Christ and His church are together one party in the covenant.
As far as sinners are concerned, the covenant of redemption is the eternal basis for the covenant of grace. For Christ, however, the covenant of redemption is a covenant of works rather than a covenant of grace. Righteousness and justice are no less eternal attributes of God than His love and mercy. In one of the earlier "Miscellanies" Edwards makes it very clear that eternal life is merited, though not by man.
The covenant of grace for sinners is but the covenant of works fulfilled by Christ as the covenant head, meriting eternal life for those united to His mystical body.
The concept of covenantal obligations by means of covenant heads is brought out in a manuscript sermon on Psalm 111:5. Edwards mentions two kinds of covenant engagements: "1. Those that he enters into with the covenant head . . . wherein promises are made to man indirectly in their representatives, or 2. those that he enters into with men. . . ."14 Of the first sort Edwards cites two examples: "That which was made with the first Adam" and "that which was made with the second Adam" (the covenant of redemption) .15 According to Edwards "they are both covenants of works" and are both related to the "eternal rule of righteousness."16
In his "Miscellanies" notebook Edwards provides a good summary of the notion that the covenant of grace is not a "new" covenant in contrast to the covenant of works made with Adam:
The relation of believers to Christ as their covenant head is seen in an important "Miscellanies" entry on "Covenant of Redemption and Grace."
The distinctive feature of the covenant of grace is in its historical manifestation of the eternal covenant of redemption. It is not new in a substantive way.
It is particularly in the "Miscellanies" that Edwards relates the two covenants which "are by no means to be confounded," yet are essentially one covenant. In one instance where he is simply identifying the two covenants he calls one "the covenant of God the Father with the Son and with all the elect in him" and the other a "marriage covenant between Christ and the soul, the covenant of union . . . whereby the soul becomes united to Christ."19 These are indeed distinct relations: God the Father and Christ; Christ and believers.
May we then speak of a covenant of grace between God the Father and men? This by-passes the distinction just made, and Edwards says if that is what we understand by the covenant of grace, it "is no other than a revelation of part of the covenant of redemption to men, even that part of (it) that contains promises of blessings to men . . . as in Christ."20 Here too he calls the covenant between Christ and believers a "marriage covenant," but "the covenant between God the Father and believers is in some respect the same with the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son."21 In another "Miscellanies" entry Edwards mentions the frequency in Scripture where God speaks of making a covenant with his people and compares it to "the covenant between husband and wife." According to Edwards this covenant is "the covenant between Christ and his people,"22 which has already been identified as the covenant of grace.
Edwards is clearly as concerned to keep the twofold covenant distinguished as he is to insist upon its essential unity. While Edwards declares that the promises of both covenants are "conditional," he points out their conditions differ: the condition of the covenant of redemption is Christ's redemptive work, and the condition of the covenant of grace is that man "should close with" Christ and "adhere" to Him (i.e., faith).23 A Calvinist is immediately aware of the dangers of speaking of a conditional covenant within a framework of unconditional election.
Edwards himself was critical of calling faith the condition of salvation;24 yet all things considered he opted for such a designation.25 "All the promises of each of these covenants are conditional," and, according to Edwards, "to suppose that there are any promises of the covenant of grace, or any covenant promises that are not conditional promises seems an absurdity and contradiction."26 The conditions are clearly different, however.
The contrast is between "doing," with its suggestions of working, earning, or meriting, and "closing" with Christ, implying receiving, accepting, or in biblical terms, faith. In a sermon on Hebrews 9:15-16 Edwards says the condition of the covenant of redemption "is all that Christ has done and suffered" for our redemption and "is wholly performed by Christ," but the condition of the covenant of grace "between Christ and his people . . . is to be performed by believers and is faith in Jesus Christ."28 Edwards was convinced that "condition" could be used in a non-meritorious way, and no one more vigorously opposed making faith a meritorious work.
There are also different promises contained in the covenants of redemption and grace which correspond to the different conditions.
On the one hand the covenants are closely related; on the other they are "entirely different and not at all to be confounded."
The significance of the marriage covenant is that the persons covenanting give themselves and all that they possess to each other. This union between Christ and His bride has tremendous soteriological implications. Edwards writes:
The crucial implications for Christ are seen in the latter part of this quote. If the righteousness of Christ with its merited blessings belongs to believers by means of this covenant, it is also true that the believers' sin with its merited punishment belongs to Christ. That is the way Christ took our sins upon Himself. The sinner's debt became Christ's debt in their marriage, and the cross was where Christ paid off the debt in full.
Had there been no covenant of redemption, there would be no covenant of grace. The new covenant which God makes with men is an everlasting covenant, whose efficacy is anchored in the eternal covenant between the persons of the Trinity. We rightly say salvation is by faith alone, and faith is the entry into the covenant of grace. But it is the covenant of redemption that provides the faith and its application by the Holy Spirit, as well as the surety for the performance of all the promises of God relating to salvation.
One of the factors that qualifies the covenant of grace as not eternal in an absolute sense is that man is a participant in that covenant. The temporal aspect of the covenant of grace necessitates its completion in time. Edwards states that the "offer of the gospel is not properly called a covenant till it is consented to," even as an offer of marriage is only an offer and not the covenant of marriage itself.31 In another "Miscellanies" entry he writes:
It is this aspect of "becoming" a covenant which in part distinguishes the covenant of grace from the covenant of redemption.
The covenant between the Father and the Son concerns the Son's "future spouse," who obtains the covenant promises only after she is united with Him. It is the same covenant, however, between God the Father and Christ with His bride, whether viewed from eternity before the bride has actually been united in the marriage covenant with Christ or after that union. When it is remembered that Edwards, as well as other covenant theologians, referred to believers united to Christ by faith as promises given to the Son in the eternal covenant of redemption, it becomes clear that the Son's "future spouse" will infallibly exist and that the promises made to her in Christ are from the divine perspective made as though the union were already actual.
The hope for sinners is founded in the relationship between the two covenants. In a manuscript sermon of II Samuel 23:5 Edwards states: "The covenant of grace is every way so ordered as is needful in order to its being made firm and sure."33 The basis of this, according to Edwards, is the eternal covenant of redemption. Without the covenant of redemption there would be no covenant of grace. Whether the covenant of grace is "firm and sure" is an irrelevant question if there is no covenant of redemption. It is equally true that the covenant of redemption without the covenant of grace would be a charlatanic doctrine as far as man's hope of salvation is concerned. It would be a plan to accomplish redemption without a plan to apply that redemption. Consequently, the fact of the covenant of grace- call it by whatever name you will-is fundamental in the revelation of the gospel of salvation.
The absolute sovereignty of God and man's responsibility meet in the covenant of grace. Both represent true biblical data and must not be played off against each other, since in Scripture they are inter-related. Edwards clearly taught that man is involved in "owning" the covenant of grace. He states unequivocally that there is no covenant without the consent of both parties.
As with his theological ancestors Edwards' insistence on the necessity of faith is not in conflict with his proclamation of salvation by grace, but it stands instead in closest harmony with the gospel of grace. In a sermon on the text "Therefore it is of faith that it might be by grace" (Rom. 416), Edwards expounds this doctrine: "That the grace of God in the new covenant eminently appears in that . . . it proposes justification only by faith."35 In this sermon Edwards teaches that the "great and main design of God in the gospel" is "to magnify the riches and sovereignty of his grace." The means to that end is salvation by faith alone, and persons trusting in their own righteousness "exceedingly derogate from the glory of the gospel or new covenant.36 If the new covenant, which Edwards calls the covenant of grace in this sermon, were not of pure grace, if faith as the condition of the covenant implied any merit at all, Jonathan Edwards would disown the doctrine of the covenant of grace of the basis of this sermon. That he did not disown the covenant of grace as a theological doctrine illustrates the firm conviction of Edwards that this doctrine in no way conflicts with the biblical theme of sola fide.
Man's role in the covenant is to believe, but Edwards never suggested that occurred outside the divine initiative in which God granted the elect the gift of faith. It is a gratuitous assumption which sees in the "naked sovereignty" and "unconditional election" of Calvinism an exclusion of the covenant of grace. Those who maintained the covenant doctrine were often the most insistent upon the absolute sovereignty of God. Edwards clearly belongs to this tradition. He stressed more vigorously than most the need for active response on man's part. But who more clearly than Edwards articulated the absolute sovereignty of God. In this light it should not be surprising that some will see Edwards as neither inconsistent, nor as choosing for one side or another, but as a "predestinarian evangelist" who "was himself a covenant theologian and saw in it no compromise whatever with Arminianism.37
At the time of the writing of this article, Carl Bogue was pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Akron, Ohio. Dr. Bogue received his B.A. from Muskingum College, his B.D. from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and his Th.D. from the Free University of Amsterdam.
The article is taken from SOLI DEO GLORIA: Essays in Reformed Theology, published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Nutley, New Jersey (1976).
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