Covenant of Grace or Plan of Redemption

by Archibald Alexander, D.D.


In this treatise, the word “covenant” is used in a wide sense, to correspond with the latitude which belongs to the original terms, of which this is a translation. Without attempting to give a very exact, or logical definition of the phrase “covenant of grace,” I would say, that by it is meant the whole plan of redemption, from its commencement to its consummation; or, that gracious method of bestowing salvation on elect sinners, which is revealed in the holy Scriptures.

The fall of man, by which God’s chief work on earth was ruined, was not an unexpected event which took the omniscient God by surprise; nor could it disconcert that scheme which had been originally conceived in the eternal mind. “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world,” (Acts 15:18.) Although God is not the author of sin, and can never look upon evil but with the strongest disapprobation; yet, having created man a free, accountable creature, and having endowed him with full ability to obey the law under which he was placed, he chose to leave him to the freedom of his own will, without exerting any direct influence on him, either to preserve him in obedience, or to cause him to fall. And, although he knew that man would fall into sin and ruin, yet he purposed to permit this, that is, not to hinder it; because he knew that he could make it the occasion of a more illustrious display of his attributes, especially of his justice and mercy, than could be made under other circumstances.

It is essential to just views of the covenant of grace, to assume it as an undoubted truth, that the condemnation of mankind, under the covenant of works, was just, and that the Ruler of the universe was not under any obligations to devise any plan of recovery for fallen man, any more than for fallen angels; for if it would not have been just to leave men under the curse which they had incurred, then that covenant or law, under which man was placed, was not a righteous constitution; and if it would not have been just to leave the human race in the ruin in which they were involved, then their deliverance would not be a matter of grace, but of justice. A difference of opinion may exist among the orthodox, as to the kind and degree of punishment to which the human race would have been subjected, if the law had been executed fully upon them, but there can be but one opinion respecting the justice of their punishment, by all who entertain correct opinions respecting the character and dispensations of the Governor of the universe. God was not bound to provide a Redeemer; this was a matter of mere grace and favour.

The origin of the covenant of grace was the unparalleled, incomprehensible love of God to sinners of the human race. The obstacles in the way of accomplishing the salvation of those whose death was demanded by law and justice, were apparently insuperable. It may be presumed, that if the problem, how God could be just and yet justify the ungodly, had been proposed to a conclave of the brightest angels in heaven, they could not have worked out a satisfactory answer: it would have baffled their utmost intellectual efforts. That God cannot cease to treat his creatures according to the principles of eternal justice is most evident; and that justice required that the sinner should suffer, according to his demerit, is equally evident. Where, then, is there any foundation for hope in regard to those who have once transgressed? And not only the justice, but the truth of God stood in the way of the sinner’s salvation. God had threatened the penalty of death, interminable death; and the Ruler of the universe must maintain the truth of his word, as it respects his threatenings as well as his promises: “God is not a man that he should lie; nor the son of man, that he should repent.” (Num 29:13.) But that which could not be discovered by the wisdom of creatures, was devised by the infinite wisdom of God. In the counsels of the adorable Trinity the plan was agreed upon. Between the Father and the Son, a transaction took place, which may strictly be termed a covenant, for, speaking after the manner of men, there were mutual stipulations entered into between the high contracting parties. The Father, as Legislator and Governor of the universe, appoints the Son to the office of Mediator, and, on certain conditions, gives to him a chosen people, elected from the common mass of fallen man, “according to his own good purpose.” [Eph 1:11] The Son willingly accepts the arduous office, and engages to comply with the proposed conditions; and the Holy Spirit consents to perform his part in the execution and consummation of the glorious plan. But, contriving and planning was not all that was requisite; the Mediator, in order to redeem man, must obey and suffer in his place; and this rendered it necessary, that he should descend to earth and be born of a woman, and made under the law. And this stoop of humiliation was not enough; the Son of God must suffer and die, in the room of the creature man. And, in order that he might exhaust the penalty due to man for sin, the Redeemer must not only die, but his death must be of the most bitter and accursed kind. To all this he consented, and covenanted on behalf of his chosen, to meet all the demands of law and justice against them.

If any should ask, what evidence we have of this covenant of redemption, we answer, in the words of the Mediator, “I appoint,” or, as the original word imports, “I give by covenant, unto you, a kingdom, as the Father hath given by covenant unto me.” Luke 22:29. Again, “As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.” John 17:2. “I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world; thine they were and thou gavest them me.” (John 17:6.) “I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou gavest me.” (John 17:9.) “Keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me.” And the solemn declaration in Ps 89:3, “I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto David my servant,” has always, by the church, been referred to the Messiah, to the spiritual David, David’s Lord, and David’s Son.

But why was this salvation confined to a certain favoured number, called the elect of God? This doctrine of the sovereignty of divine grace, has, from the beginning, been offensive to human reason. The selection of men, and not of angels, as the object of redemption, can be borne with; but that, out of the same mass, some should be taken, confessedly no better than others by nature; and that many should be reprobated or left, no worse than those elected, has ever been a stumblingblock to multitudes; and hence, however plainly the doctrine be revealed, they will not receive it; and frequently manifest great hostility to all who maintain and preach it, as did the Jews when our Lord inculcated it by reference to certain facts in the sacred history. But however offensive this doctrine is to human reason, since it is clearly revealed, and often expressed in the word of God, we are not at liberty to relinquish or conceal it. If God might justly have left all men to perish in their sin, certainly he may justly leave a part in that state of ruin into which they have fallen. As all men are by nature children of wrath, the redemption of a part cannot alter or affect the condition of the rest. Because the pardoning power in the State releases certain persons from the penalty of the law, this does not render it unjust to punish others who are under a sentence of condemnation.

The justice of God in this case is easily vindicated; but it is not so easy to reconcile this proceeding with his benevolence. If God could as easily have saved all as a part, why did he not manifest his goodness in doing so? To which it may be answered, that we do not know the reasons of the divine conduct, in this matter. He, as an absolute Sovereign, has a right to do as seemeth good with his own. He constantly refers election to his own good pleasure, to the counsel of his own will. He has infinitely good reasons; but as he has not revealed them, we have no right to inquire into them.

The manifestation of God’s gracious purpose, in the covenant of grace, began to be made immediately after the fall; first, in the sentence pronounced on the serpent, in which it was declared that the seed of the woman should bruise the head of the serpent, that is, of “the old serpent, which is the devil;” (Rev 20:2) and next by the institution of bloody sacrifices, and accepting the offerings of this kind made in faith, as in the case of Abel; and by various communications to the saints, until the time of Abraham, with whom God entered into a special covenant, and to whom he made many gracious promises, and granted peculiar privileges to his descendants, and separated the chosen race from all the world, and placed the seal of his covenant in their flesh.

But when the seed of Jacob had grown to be a great nation in Egypt, where they were held in abject and cruel bondage, God appeared unto Moses at mount Horeb, in the burning bush, and commissioned him to deliver his people, and by a series of wonderful miracles, to conduct them to Canaan, which land four hundred years before he had promised to Abraham. While in the wilderness, at the foot of mount Sinai, God appeared in dreadful majesty to all the people, and uttered his holy law in ten commandments, in the midst of thunder and lightning, and the sound of a trumpet, while the whole mountain burned with fire.

The moral law was binding on man by nature, but it had become so much obliterated, that it became necessary to republish it, that the people having the true standard of duty before them, might be convinced of their sins, and driven to seek refuge in the atoning blood, so copiously shed on the Jewish altar.

Besides the moral law, which was not only proclaimed by the voice of God, but engraved by the finger of God on two tables of stone, he gave many ritual laws to be observed, instituted a priesthood, and consecrated the family of Aaron to this service, and directed Moses to erect a tabernacle for worship, exactly according to a pattern showed him on the mount, where he remained in the presence of God forty days, without eating or drinking, at two different times. All these institutions, of a ceremonial kind, were intended to be a shadow of good things to come.

This dispensation, administered by sacrifices, by types, and prophecies, continued, without essential change, until it was superseded by the more glorious dispensation of the gospel, introduced after the advent of the Messiah; who being the Mediator of the new covenant, and having answered all the types and fulfilled all the prophecies, brought that dispensation to an end. And the New Testament dispensation, with clearer light, greater liberty, more of the spirit of adoption, and a spiritual worship not confined to any particular place, nor burdened with external forms and rites, it is believed, will continue until the second advent of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.


Archibald Alexander was a Presbyterian clergyman and first professor in the Princeton Theological Seminary. He was born about 7 miles east of Lexington, in Augusta (later Rockbridge) County, Virginia, on April 17, 1772. He received as good an education as the place and time afforded, including attendance from the age of ten at the Liberty Hall Academy of the Rev. William Graham, near Lexington. He was converted in the great revival of 1789, studied theology with Mr. Graham, was licensed in 1791 and ordained to the ministry in 1794. Two years later he became president of Hampden Sydney College. In 1806 he began serving as the pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church (Pine Street), Philadelphia. And in 1812 he was entrusted by the General Assembly with the organization of the Princeton Theological Seminary. For the first year he taught all departments, but as other professors were added he confined himself to pastoral and polemic theology. He died at Princeton on October 22, 1851.

This article is Chapter 17 in Alexander’s, Brief Compend of Bible Truth.

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