The Covenants of the Scriptures
by W. STANFORD REID
I. THE COVENANT OF GRACE
Christianity is a religion of covenants. To most of us who are Presbyterians this may not be so strange as it is to others, for as we look back into the history of our church we even find people in it who were known as “Covenanters.” Then too, in the Bible itself we sometimes find the Old Testament referred to as the Old Covenant and the New Testament as the New Covenant. Even within the Old Testament we find a number of covenants mentioned at different times. They appear when God changed His method of revealing Himself to man. Thus throughout the Scriptures we find covenants had a large part in the thinking of the people of God.
At the time of the Reformation the same was true.
The Presbyterian reformers such as Calvin and Knox emphasized the covenant relationship greatly, so that their formulation of Christian theology was sometimes even referred to as the “covenant theology.” But we today have wandered far from the covenant idea, and our loss because of this wandering has been very great.
The articles of this series will attempt to take up a study of the Bible's covenants. The reason for doing this is twofold. In the first place it is not until we get back to the proper teaching of covenant theology that we shall comprehend Christianity in all its fullness. Then, in the second place, there is a sort of “covenant theology” current today which is most destructive of true Christian faith and piety. It is known as dispensationalism, and has done untold damage to the Christian Church. It is hoped that by these studies in the scriptural doctrine of the covenant we shall gain a greater knowledge of the infinite grace of God; and be protected from a modern heresy common among many so-called evangelicals today.
When we speak of a covenant in the scriptural
sense we do not mean the same thing as a human
covenant. We cannot go into a long discussion of
the various terms used for the word "covenant" in
the Bible, for we have neither the space nor inclination to do so. However, as we study the various
covenants of Scripture, we shall find that a covenant is simply an ordinance of God. It contains commandments which man must obey, and promises
of blessing as a reward for his obedience. At the same time man is frequently told of the dire results of forsaking or neglecting the covenant's decrees.
Thus the covenant establishes more completely than even God's creation of man, man's obligation to do God’s will in all his ways. In imposing a covenant upon man, God does not ask man’s permission, nor does He wait until man agrees to do His will. Rather, the covenant is given to man by God. He is to obey God simply because God is God; and because He requires man to do His will.
The first covenant to which we must turn is that known as the Covenant of Grace. It is the foundation of all the others, and the ultimate source of all their parts. Yet before we can actually study of the Covenant of Grace there are certain things to which we must give our attention. We must see what is behind the covenant.
The source of the Covenant of Grace, and for that matter of all the covenants, is the Tri-une God. The Scriptures teach us that there is not merely one God, but that “there are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance and equal in power and glory.” (Shorter Catechism Q. 6.) They are not three gods but one. The Father is the Father because He eternally begets the Son. The Son is the Son because eternally begotten of the Father, and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. This is as far as we can go in understanding this mystery of God’s existence. It is beyond our comprehension simply because God is God. Nevertheless, we must remember continually that there is but one God; and that in the Godhead there are three equal persons.
Along with the tri-unity of God, we must keep before us the fact that God is sovereign. If we forget this, as many do today, we shall lose all understanding of the Scriptures. We must remember that God exists from all eternity in His own perfection without the need of any creature. Therefore, when God chose to create, He did so, freely and according to His own plan; and determined how His creation should exist and be governed. This includes first of all the fact that He sovereignly set His love upon a great but definite number of the human beings whose creation He fore-ordained. At the same time, for all His purposes are one, He ordained that all His creatures should turn from Him in disobedience. This is incomprehensible to us, but it is a fact from which we cannot escape. God did not make man to sin, but that man did do it was according to His sovereign plan. While we cannot understand why God should do this, if we deny it we must reject the Scriptural teaching of God's sovereignty, and reduce God to a mere cipher.
But not only did the Tri-une God fore-ordain the fall of man, He also determined the salvation of His elect people. We know this because they were chosen in Christ even before the foundation of the world. (Eph. 1 :4). Those whom God fore-knew with special favour God not only hoped that they would be saved from their sins; He predestined them to both salvation and glorification. (Rom. 8: 28-30.) But in thus fore-ordaining their salvation, He also determined the way in which it should be made effective. It was to be accomplished through the Covenant of Grace.
When we turn to the Covenant of Grace itself we find first of all that it had certain parties to it. One was God, the Father, and the other was God, the Son. They were the two persons involved. We must not, however, think of God the Father as proposing the covenant and the Son accepting it. It was an eternal covenant made when time did not exist and when there was no such thing as succession. It was mutually determined and agreed upon by the God-head, for if we taught otherwise we would bring division within the divine essence itself.
God, the Father, on His part represented the
Godhead. His attitude towards the elect and also to
sin, was that of the other two persons of the Trinity; and we know that He was one of the parties of
the Covenant. This appears quite clearly in John
17 and Hebrews 1. The other party to the Covenant
was the Son who is the representative of men. He
was to act as the representative of the elect for
their salvation. No other one could do this, for no
creature could take the place of sinners under the
wrath of God and still survive. Nor could any
creature fulfill the necessary conditions of eternal
purity. The references to Christ as a party to the
covenant are manifold throughout the Scriptures.
We are told that the elect people of God were given
unto Christ as His own possession. (Jno. 17: 6;
Heb. 2: 13) In Romans 5 we are shown clearly how
He was to represent man; and then in numerous
other places we are told that He did this as the
mediator and surety of the Covenant of Grace (Heb.
7: 22; 1; Tim. 2:5). Thus the Covenant of Grace is made between God as God and God as the representative of the elect people.
But what was the purpose of this Covenant? We have already mentioned it: the redemption of God's chosen people. It was not to be merely a freeing of the elect from the wrath of God, and a forgetting of their sins. It was to be a "redemption" or a buying back from the condemnation of sin. Some of the older theologians used to think of redemption as a purchasing from the power of Satan. This, however, is not the real meaning. Redemption means the buying back from the penalties which God's righteous law inflicts upon those who transgress its commandments. It is the freeing of the sinner from the law of God by righteous means. This could only be done by a representative suffering for the sinful people that their punishment might be laid upon Him, so that He could "bear our griefs and carry our sorrows." (Is. 53: 4.)
The work of fulfilling the duties of representative for His people was assumed by Christ. He had
to take the place of those who were given to Him,
that they might be freed from eternal punishment.
Everything in the Covenant of Grace centers
around this point. The Son, the Second Person of
the Tri-une Godhead was to be the representative of
the elect people in order that they might be freed
from the punishment which a just God should lay
upon their shoulders. By this means/and this means
alone could God be "just and the justifier of him
that believeth in Jesus." (Rom. 3: 26.)
But in what way was Christ to represent His people? In the first place He had to do what they did not do. He had to fulfill the law of God in all its fulness. The first and great condition of acceptance by God is obedience to His will, for He is too holy to behold evil. He cannot accept the unholy and regard it as that which is without stain or spot. Therefore, the first thing which had to be done that man might be received was a complete fulfilment of the law. For this reason Christ was to come in His perfection to obey the law which man broke and which demanded death for such transgressions. "Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will O my God; yea thy law is within my heart." (Ps. 40, 7, 8.) As the Mediator, the God-man, man's appointed representative, He could thus fulfill the law on man's behalf. This was the first condition of the covenant.
The second condition was that He should suffer for man's sins. Not only was man required to be holy and righteous before God could accept him, he also had to be purged from his sins by paying the penalty for them. If man were to be punished himself for his sins, as many will yet be, then only destruction could result. "The wages of sin is death." (Rom. 6: 23.) Christ, therefore as the representative of the elect was to assume their position in God's wrath. He was to suffer in their stead, that they might be freed. God, in His mercy, did not require that every man should bear his own sins. Although the law demanded that each one should die for his own transgressions (Ezek. 18: 20); yet God, the lawgiver, in His mercy allowed a substitute to come that He might take the elect's place. In His character as both God and man Christ, through His infinite person, could thus stand for all His people. This was the second condition to the covenant which had to be fulfilled by the Son.
But the Son could not fulfill these conditions simply as a spirit. How could He represent man?
How could He fulfill the law and suffer for man? He must needs become man if He was to take man's place before God. Therefore, there was promised unto Him by the Father a human soul and body which He was to take unto Himself. "A body hast thou prepared me." (Heb. 10: 5.) "The Lord hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name." (Is. 11 : 2.) In this way the Son was to become true man. He was to take unto His divine person a true human body and soul. The divine and human were not to be divided nor mixed, but were to be united so that the Son would be both God and man in one person. By this means He would be fitted to carry out His work as the representative of God's people. Along with a human nature the Father was also to give the Son power and assistance in overcoming sin and in attaining the victory. With fullness of the Holy Spirit upon Him, He would be enabled to go forward even unto the death of the cross without failing. (Is. 12: 1, 4, 6, 7.) These promises were given to the Son that He might complete the work set before Him.
At the same time, however, the Father promised Him, as the mediator, a great and wondrous reward on His completion of the Covenant. He was to be exalted above all for His saving work. "I will make my first-born higher than the kings of the earth." (Ps. 89: 27.) To His name every creature would bow and confess that He was lord and king. Then too, God promised that the elect for whom He was to die would be redeemed. The work which He was to do would accomplish the purpose for which it was performed. "He shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand." (Isa. 53: 10.) His death and suffering would bring to His people eternal life. This was His reward.
But the promise to the Son that His people would be saved from eternal death was at the same time an assurance to them that they would have eternal life. (Jno. 6: 37.) Thus God not only guaranteed certain things to the Son, but through Him also to the elect. They can thus have the confidence that the promise will be most certainly fulfilled for it is given to the Son by the Father. It is not just based upon God's relation to man, but is involved in the eternal covenant within the Godhead.
Included in this guarantee of eternal life is first of all the promise that all the Son's people would be brought to Him. (Jno 6: 37; 65.) It means the implanting of a new heart within the elect sinner. The Holy Spirit is sent forth upon God's people to apply unto them the promises made unto the Son. "This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws in their mind and write them in their hearts." (Jer. 31 : 33.) Then too, the work of the Holy Spirit is to keep the people of God and sanctify them, so that they remain steadfast in their faith even unto the end. Though their faith in Christ may at times be weak, and sickly, yet they will be kept by the Holy Spirit and trusting solely in Christ will eventually enter into glory. This is the guarantee made to Christ, and through Him to the elect whom He represents.
Such is the Covenant of Grace. It is the one sure
and solid basis for our faith, for it is an eternal covenant. It has been made between eternal persons
who cannot change for they form the United God-head. What is more, its conditions and promises
are eternal. All the promises of God in Christ are
yea and amen. There is no danger that they will
suddenly be abrogated or changed from week to
week. But what is more, it means that there is no
other way, nor has there ever been any other way
of salvation, than through the work of the Saviour. Never has man been saved by doing righteously nor by fulfilling the law, for no man can satisfy
God by His works. Only through the Covenant of
Grace can salvation be attained. When it is attained by that means the results are certain. The promises of God are made effective to those who are
the elect, and since they are eternal, their effects
are likewise eternal. "My sheep hear my voice . . .
and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall
never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand." (Jno. 10: 27-29.)
But how do the elect come to be joined to Christ? How do they receive the promises which come to them through Him? This they do by faith. Therefore, throughout the Scriptures we find the promises of the Covenant of Grace offered unto men that they might lay hold of them by faith. Yet in all these offers we notice a very specific development. At first, when sin had not worked out its full consequences we find that the meaning of sin was not so fully understood by men, but as time passed sin appeared more and more in its sinful character. Parallel with this development there went a similar unfolding of the Covenant of Grace so that man might the more easily lay hold upon the promises of salvation through the Saviour.
The knowledge of the Covenant was given to man by means of subsidiary covenants. In them were set forth for man both the conditions and the promises of the Covenant that man might lay hold by faith upon the Surety and Mediator of the Covenant, thus obtaining forgiveness of sin. It is these subsidiary covenants given to men at different times in sacred history, to which we shall next direct our attention.
II. THE COVENANT OF WORKS
In our last discussion of the covenants we dealt with the eternal Covenant of Grace. Now, however, we turn from the scene of eternity to that of time, in which God made subsidiary covenants, by these the Covenant of Grace was to be brought to fruition in the world.
The first of them was the Covenant of Works. It was a temporal covenant by which man for the first time came into really intimate contact with God. Yet it was also different from all subsequent covenants, for man was not yet a fallen creature. He was in a state of innocency. Therefore, God could make with him a covenant differing from any which He might make with man as a sinner.
Man had been created by God. He was the product of God's sovereign council and wisdom (Gen. 1: 26), not the product of blind physical forces. He found his existence through the creative activity of God. Moreover he was created in the image of God. He had true knowledge, righteousness and holiness. He saw himself as God's creature whose duty was obedience to the Creator. He desired to do God's will and did it with all his heart, transgression in no way God's sovereign law. Then too, he had dominion over all God’s creation as God's representative upon earth.
To climax all this, God placed man in a garden. There he was to live and tend it as God's husbandman. He was thus not only perfect in nature, but also placed in a perfect environment where he could live without sin and in communion with God. There was nothing either in himself or in his world which should have taken man away from his Creator and His service.
This was the way in which man was related to God as creature to creator. He was not God, but his life was sustained and maintained by God's providence. At the same time he had a special relationship to God as the head of creation. He represented creation to God, for he was given dominion over the creatures who even received their names from him. Yet with all this God and man were not as closely linked as they could be. There was apparently no connection of loving obedience on the part of man who could choose to do or not to do God's will. Nor was there the gracious satisfaction of God towards His creature who from love had chosen to do the divine will, rather than disobey. Man did not know what sin was, therefore, he could not be rewarded for choosing that which was right. Man had to be given an opportunity to reject sin for righteousness before he could truly "glorify God and enjoy Him forever."
It was for this reason that God made with man a covenant. By it God and man were to come together in a new way. They were to be related to each other, not merely as creature and creator, but as parties to a mutual covenant. Of course, we do not mean by this that God offered to Adam a covenant, which he could accept or reject. God, instead, gave unto Adam this covenant; and Adam, truly thinking God's thoughts after Him, would joyfully accept it as a manifestation of God's love ' towards him.
Through this covenant man could now make a direct manifestation of his love for God by fulfilling its conditions. Not merely obeying God because it was his nature to do so, he could now do it in meeting a definite test. By his choice of obedience rather than disobedience he could manifest his great and true love for God, his creator and sustainer. At the same time, in return for fulfilling the covenant conditions, God would be able to manifest His grace to man, not merely as Creator, but as a loving God rewarding an obedient creature. In this way man and God would be brought together on a new and more intimate basis.
While the dealings of God with Adam are not stated by the Scriptures to be in the form of a covenant at this point, yet it would seem clear that there was a covenant. In Hosea 6: 7 we are told "they like Adam have transgressed the covenant." (Am. Rev. Version) Here it is said that Adam broke the covenant, which is obviously the one to which we are here referring. Moreover, Paul continually compares the work of Christ under the Covenant of Grace with that of Adam. (Rom. 5: 12-21) Coupled with these pieces of evidence, we find all the necessary parts of a covenant in the transactions between God and Adam in the Garden. Thus there is very good reason to believe that a covenant was made. In theological parlance it is known as "the Covenant of Works."
In any covenant we first of all have the parties involved. In this case they were God and Adam. By saying that God was one of the parties, we mean that the covenant was made by the Tri-une God. The whole Godhead took part in the Covenant of Works. If Adam obeyed he would receive the blessing of the Tri-une God. If he disobeyed he would likewise come under the wrath and displeasure of all three persons of the Trinity. It would not be only the Father, nor only the Son, nor only the Spirit who
would reward or punish. All three persons, being of the same substance and equal would have the same attitude towards Adam's actions.
The other party to the covenant was Adam. He was given the covenant and accepted it. Yet he did not accept it merely for himself. He was the representative of all those who should descend from him by ordinary generation. Thus if he should fulfill or fail to fulfill the conditions of the covenant, he would do it for his posterity as well as for himself. Even as in the Covenant of Grace Christ represented all those who were His, so Adam in the Covenant of Works represented all those descending from him. (I Cor. 15:22)
The condition of the covenant was that of obedience. Man had always obeyed God since his creation. In his heart had been written the law of God in all its fullness, and he fulfilled it from the heart. Yet God wished to put man to a test by which man could have the opportunity of obeying God, simply because he loved God, and desired to obey merely because God commanded it. It is not much of a trial if we obey because we know that it is to our advantage to do so. The true test comes when we are asked to obey, simply because the order has been given by one we trust.
The way in which the test was to be brought to Adam was simple and direct. This would be necessary as Adam was morally a child, not knowing good from evil. God, therefore, forbade Adam to eat of a certain tree in the Garden of Eden. Called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil it was to be the means of testing man's wholehearted obedience to God. In this way all of Adam's moral responsibility and strength would be brought to its test around this one specific divine commandment. By this means it would be determined whether or not he would obey God's commands merely because he trusted God's wisdom and goodness.
If Adam obeyed God's command and did not eat of the fruit of the tree; then he would have knowledge of both good and evil. He would know what it is to be good without sin, and at the same time he would see and understand the evil from which he had escaped. Thus through obedience to God's command regarding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil he would obtain a knowledge of the contrast between sin and righteousness. But he would obtain even more. He would gain eternal life. In the garden was placed the Tree of Life of which man could eat. This was apparently a sacrament. If man withstood the temptation God would give him as a result, eternal life.
Thus obedience would bring not only a knowledge of good and evil, it would bring the fullest blessedness to man. He would be united to God as a loving and obedient creature who had obeyed God simply because He had commanded him to do so. At the same time he would receive, as a sign of God's gracious favour for his obedience, the gift of eternal life. In this way man would come to the full enjoyment of his Creator and Covenant God. But on the other hand, man could disobey. He could eat of the forbidden fruit. Such an act would also give him a knowledge of good and evil. But his knowledge would be different from that obtained through obedience. It would be a knowledge obtained by the loss of original righteousness. Adam would be able to look back to his former happiness in Paradise and compare it with his later helpless, sin-ridden condition. It would be knowledge obtained at the expense of loss and pain.
His acquirement of understanding, however, would not be the only result. God told Adam that in the day in which he ate of the fruit of the tree, he would die. This did not mean that he would drop dead from poison contained in the fruit. It meant that the seeds of death: spiritual, mental and physical would enter into him.
He would die spiritually, being unable to do God's will in any way. Moreover, he would die intellectually for he would lose his true knowledge of God. God would give him up to his own lusts so that a true comprehension of God's will and sovereignty would be impossible for him. (Rom. 1: 22-26.) Along with these forms of death, would go also physical destruction. No matter how long man would live, he could but come to one end —the grave. “The wages of sin is death.”
Thus Adam for disobedience would be barred from God's life-giving presence, while on the other hand, for obedience he would receive God's blessing of eternal life. This, however, applied not only to Adam, but also to his seed after him. If he fell the curse would come upon all men, while if he obeyed both he and his seed confirmed in righteousness, would be given eternal life. In this covenant, therefore, there were at stake the eternal destinies of Adam and those who would descend from him.
What the outcome of the covenant was, is known to all. Adam sinned against God. The serpent in the Garden was taken possession of by Satan who tempted Eve to disobey God's command. (Gen. 3:1; cf. Jno. 8: 44: Rom. 16: 22; I Jno. 3: 8; Rev. 12: 9.) He declared that when God had promised death for disobedience He had been lying. It was simply God's jealousy lest Adam and Eve should become His equals in wisdom and understanding. The serpent, therefore, urged Eve to disobey God by eating in order that she might attain to godhood also. Eve looked upon the fruit. She saw that it was pleasant to the eyes, good for food and desirable as a source of knowledge. Moreover, had not the serpent told her that God's motives were bad in keeping her from this delicacy? She believed the creature rather than the Creator. She forgot that God was her Maker and sustainer. Instead she regarded Him as an unjust and hateful being, disobedience to whose command would bring life and happiness. Consequently she partook of the fruit of the tree; and death came upon her. Adam did the same; and he received a like punishment.
This fall of man put the fulfillment of the Covenant of Works beyond man's reach. Yet it was all according to the eternal plan of God. From all eternity He had fore-ordained that man should sin against Him. Why this should be we are not told. If it is not so, however, we must then admit that sin is outside the power of God. If such were the case even our own salvation from sin would be put in jeopardy. But we know that as there is nothing outside of God's plan and control, so even the Fall of Man was according to His inscrutable wisdom and for His glory.
Yet we must also maintain that man sinned freely. God did not force man to disobey His command. Man broke God's law freely and willingly. He exercised his free-will fully, choosing to obey Satan rather than God. Therefore, Adam and Eve were both responsible for their own deed and were guilty of transgressing the command of God. For this they were to receive the full punishment for their sin, even death.
Yet this punishment was not limited merely to our first parents. Since Adam was representative of all his descendants, the punishment came upon them also. “Through the offence of one many be dead,” and “by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation.” (Rom. 5: 15, 18) Upon all those descending from Adam by ordinary generation, sin in all its guilt and power has come. Death, the punishment for Adam's disobedience has afflicted the whole race.
This death means spiritual death, the inability to do God's will. All men are born in sin. (Ps. 51 : 5.) Of themselves they will not, nor can they, either obey God’s law or accept Christ as Saviour. All men are totally depraved even from birth. The only thing which restrains their evil from becoming completely manifest, is the grace of God. Man, therefore, can no longer fulfill the demands of the Covenant of Works. Although God still requires perfect obedience in order that man may be received by Him, man does not and cannot meet with these requirements for he is a fallen creature.
Yet God in His grace had already planned in eternity how His elect people should be restored. As they had fallen through Adam their first representative, they were to be restored through a second
one. As the Covenant Head He was to obey God's
law for them even as it had been broken by Adam.
Moreover, he was to pay the penalty due to them
for their failing to meet God's righteousness requirements. When He had done that, the Father
would then draw His people to receive and trust
in the divine representative. They would look to
Him as the one acting in their behalf. Thus the successive covenants which followed the Covenant
of Works were all for one purpose. They were to reveal to man the way in which the Tri-une God
would restore them to, yes even beyond, the blessedness which they knew before the Fall.
III. THE COVENANTS OF EDEN
In our study of the Covenants of the Scriptures we have discussed two: the Covenant of Grace and the Covenant of Works. They were of two distinct types. One was eternal, the other temporal; one was made between the persons of the God-head, the other between God and man; and one was for the salvation of man from sin while the other brought the promise of punishment if man did sin. With the fall of man we enter upon another stage of covenant-making; and these covenants made with man after he had transgressed are again different from the two which we have already studied.
These new covenants like that of Works are made with man and are temporal. At the same time they are covenants made between God and man. Or perhaps we might say “by God with man.” They are covenants instituted by God for man at different periods of man's religious development. By them man is drawn back to God and made acceptable into Him.
Yet at this point we must make one thing very clear. These covenants are different from either of the first two because there is no condition laid down by which man can earn the blessings included in them. We might say, therefore, that in that sense they are not real covenants. They are instead promises made to man by God. But at the same time they are covenants for God guarantees what He promises by His own truthfulness and His own holiness. Here is the great mistake of many Christians. It is frequently taught that God makes a covenant with man by which the latter is able to attain unto eternal life. Such an idea is absolutely contrary to Scriptural teaching. It is continually repeated that man cannot earn eternal life, for he is dead in sin. If he is to be saved at all, he must be saved by the sovereign grace of God.
For this reason the covenants made with man after his fall do not demand that man fulfill certain conditions. Even the demand of faith is not a condition, for that is the gift of God. (Eph. 2:8). The covenants with man are really dispensations of the Eternal Covenant of Grace. They are God's way of making effective the Covenant of Grace to men. Through them God reveals to men that He has already provided a way of salvation for them. If they lay hold upon that provision they shall have both the penalty and power of sin removed. Thus the succeeding covenants throughout the Old Testament are simply revelations of God's plan of salvation for His people, coupled with demands for their obedience to Him.
Because of this fact the covenants of Scripture do not conflict with each other. There is no record in the Bible that the teachings of the Scofield notes are correct in this matter. These notes which would divide time into seven dispensations with different principles of salvation working in each are thoroughly misleading and can only damage Christian faith. There is only one principle of salvation known to the Scriptures and that is grace. As we shall see during our further studies this was the basis of each covenant. At the heart of every one stands the promise of God-given salvation.
Yet at the same time we must remember that these covenants form an historic progression. The earlier covenants were not as clear, nor as understandable as were the later ones. The promise given to Adam and Eve was not as easily understood as were those given to Moses or David. Only gradually did man realize the terrible sinfulness of sin, and therefore his own utter inability to make himself acceptable to God. Moreover, because of this very sinfulness man had to be gradually instructed in the means by which God was going to accomplish salvation. An immediate revelation of the whole truth would only have confused rather than enlightened.
While these covenants are progressive, they are not progressive simply for the purpose of progression. They all head in one direction. Their sole purpose is that of preparing the way for the preliminary fulfillment of the Eternal Covenant of Grace through the Incarnation, Life, Death and Resurrection of the Son of God. This, the greatest event of history, is accompanied by a "new covenant which will find its consummation in the complete redemption of all God's chosen people. When that has taken place the Covenant of Grace will have been finally fulfilled. God's people at last redeemed from both the guilt and power of sin will live before Him through all eternity. Thus not only will the Covenant of Grace be completed, but also all those given unto men throughout the course of human history. For this reason all history is important to the Christian for it manifests the working out of the divine plan for our salvation.
With this understanding of the covenants which came after the fall of man, let us turn back to what seems to be the first of the covenants, i.e. that made with Adam and Eve after their sin.
Now we may be faced with the problem at this point as to whether this is a covenant or not. Why do we hold that the revelation made to our first parents is a covenant? We do this for a number of reasons. Although it is not said that there was a covenant made we do have the various parts of a covenant, such as those contained in 'the other promises. There are the parties to the covenant, the curses and the promises of the covenant, and finally the signs of the truth of the covenant. Moreover, since God seems usually to deal with man by means of covenants, on general principles it is only reasonable to believe that His dealing here was of that kind. The author of the covenant was God, Himself. But what is of equal importance it was God who had been disobeyed by man. He had laid His commands upon Adam who had disobeyed those commands, regarding the words and the views of the creature worthy of more credence than those of the creator. It was also the God who had warned Adam' that if he broke the commandments given to him he would die. Therefore, God in His character of a just God and the judge of all the earth would be required to inflict this punishment of death upon the transgressor of His law. Pure justice and righteousness could not but give the reward promised, to those who had transgressed.
Yet in spite of what we might expect, God gave a promise to man. He told man that He would take action to see that the ultimate end of the human race would not be death but eternal life, in spite of the fact that men were worthy of everlasting punishment. Man did not take the initiative and plead with God for mercy. Man ran away to hide himself from God who had promised death for sin. It was the sovereign and righteous God who took the step. He approached sinful man, man who had disobeyed. He freely and graciously granted unto man this covenant, and bestowed upon him the promises which pointed to eternal life.
Here we see quite clearly the grace of God* made manifest. Man could not and would not seek God in his fallen state. He had died spiritually as a result of his sin, and so could not approach unto God. Yet almighty God in His infinite grace came unto man. He knew that all this would take place. Man had freely sinned, but it was all in the plan of a God who had already provided in the Covenant of Grace a way of salvation. Therefore, God came to man with the offer of grace in his hand. Nay He came with more than an offer. He came with a promise and guarantee of grace.
Here we must emphasize one very important
fact. God came with a promise and guarantee of grace to sinful man. He came to Adam and Eve
who had broken His command. They had not
merely fallen short in some unimportant matter.
They had actually broken a specific commandment
of God even though they had been warned that
death would be the result of so doing. They had
taken the word of the creature rather than the
word of the creator, thus declaring God to be a liar. What greater insult could have been given to the divine majesty? The creator, the one who made them and gave them all things richly to enjoy had been called a lying tyrant to His face. This is the case in all sin, but how much more flagrant was it in the case of the first sin. Yet God came to man with grace and redemption.
It was absolutely necessary that this should be the case if man was to be saved from the consequences of his iniquity. The reason for this was that when sin came in man died. True he did not die physically, but he died spiritually. He lost both the desire and the power to do good. Sin brought powerlessness into his ethical life with the result that instead of seeking God's presence and fellowship man ran away from it. As Paul tells us, he was dead in sin. Because of this man could not seek for salvation, for he had no desire for it. This is true even today. The result of sin is always death which completely paralyzes a man spiritually. Therefore, if man is to be saved, even as at the beginning, God must take the initiative. Man cannot possibly save himself from the grip of sin.
But the effects of sin were by no mean limited to the ethical and moral sphere. As we are told in the early chapters of the Epistle to the Romans sin affected every phase and sphere of human life. It affected man's thinking for he no longer regarded the universe as God-centered but as man-centered. Sin also brought physical death. Its seed bore the bitter fruit of disintegration which could not but lead to the ultimate return of the body to the dust from which it came. In this again we see the wondrous and marvelous grace of God that in o come to man with a covenant of life.
Yet when we actually turn to a study of the covenant there at first seems to be little ground for saying that it was a covenant of life. It consists almost entirely of curses. There is the curse upon the serpent, upon Eve and upon Adam. There seems to be little reason for believing that it was a manifestation of divine grace.
In a way, such a view is correct. The revelation which God gave to the three actors in this tragedy was one of judgment. He desired to make it very plain that the reason for His action was that they had sinned against Him and broken His law. Therefore, the revelation came in the form of curses. Adam and Eve were to realize that their evil condition, their estate of sin and misery, had come upon them as a punishment for their sins and their disobedience. Moreover, He wished them to realize that the consequences of their transgressions as they appeared in their descendants resulted from the same cause. Thus God's revelation was in the form of a curse.
Yet at the same time some of the curse meant grace, although at first perhaps not seen as such. While God's curse was a punishment, at the same time it was a means of curtailing and restraining sin. Coupled with this is the curse which was passed upon the serpent, the tempter. The fact that he was cursed, must automatically mean blessing for those whom he had led astray. Thus although judgment seems to be the sole theme of the first revelations given after man's Fall, grace is really at its base. Let us look at the triple curse to see how this can be.
There was first of all the curse upon the serpent. He was to be degraded from the position of the most beautiful beast of the field to one which crawled upon the earth. Now, we know that the serpent as such was not the one guilty of tempting Adam and Eve. Apparently he had been taken possession of by Satan who used him as an instrument. Nevertheless God degraded the serpent as a sign of His righteous judgment upon the tempter who had caused man to transgress. The curse was likewise passed on to the serpent's seed thus making it a sign for all time of the wrath of God against sin.
The second part of the curse upon the serpent
was that in which God put enmity between the
seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent.
This may be interpreted in a two fold sense. First
there is the natural enmity between man and the
seed of the serpent, but that is of comparatively
little importance. The real significance is that God
placed enmity between the seed of the woman and
the seed of the serpent in a Spiritual sense. He
ordained that there was to be a continual warfare
between the seed of righteousness and the seed of
evil. It would seem that the seed of the woman
means here very definitely the elect people of God
who find their great King and captain in Jesus
Christ. While Adam and Eve could not of. course
understand this fully, yet they were made to realize
that the battle was not lost, but would continue for a long time between their righteous seed and the forces of evil.
But God did not stop merely with the promise
that the battle would continue. He also gave the
assurance that victory would eventually come to
the seed of the woman. The serpent representing
the power of sin would finally be brought low and
destroyed, although only through much pain and
suffering to the destroyer. Here we have God's promise of grace and redemption. Out of the seed
of the woman would come one who would bring
redemption through the destruction of the serpent
and his seed. The curse of the serpent meant the
eventual victory of man. That was God's manifestation of grace to man. The power of sin would be
brought low and ultimately defeated by the seed
of the woman. And it would seem that Eve took God
at His word, for when she gave birth to her first
son, Cain, she said, “I have gotten a man from the
Lord.” It looks as though she expected him to be
seed who would gain the victory. While this was a
mistake, yet we see by Eve's statement that she
had consciously embraced God's promise of ultimate salvation through her descendants.
While there was a curse placed upon the serpent, there was also one put upon Eve herself. It was ordained that her child-bearing should be with pain and travail, and that she should be subordinate to her husband. While we may say that this had nothing but the purpose of punishment, we must remember that God may have ordained this in order that sinful desires might be restrained. It was a natural means of curtailing the power of sin in Eve and her descendents. Thus while there was the element of punishment, there was also the element of grace in that God by means of the punishment restrained sin so that it could not work out its full consequences in the life of woman.
Her subordination and dependence upon her husband may have had much the same purpose. As the life of woman was to be one of difficulty and sorrow, it was well that there should be one who would protect her and supply her needs. While many today laugh at such an idea, it is quite possible that we may be brought back to it as a result of the war's destruction of our home life. Woman was to be dependent upon man as her supplier and supporter of life. Here again God in His curse made provision for the proper relation in family life. He ordained that the restraints introduced for the mitigation of sin and its effects, should be made complete. Through the wife's new relation to her husband, sin was to be restrained until the seed of the woman should bring final victory.
Finally there was the curse upon Adam. He was forbidden to eat of the Tree of Life and at the same time the ground was cursed. Therefore, man could only live as a result of hard and strenuous toil and labour. This again was punishment. Man was deprived of his life of ease and joy, being given instead trial and tribulation, blood, sweat and tears. That was the consequence of sin and its punishment. Labour thus from the beginning became man's lot upon earth for the world was cursed because of his sin.
Yet while we think of this as a punishment and a curse we must also realize that it was grace. If man had been allowed to eat of the Tree of Life, and had been given nothing to do, what terrible results would have come! Sin would have increased in power and might with the result that there would soon have been chaos. As God’s instituted the new relationship of husband and wife to restrain sin, so He introduced work and toil for the same purpose. In a very real sense “the Devil finds things for idle hands to do.” Therefore, God gave man trial and labour in order that man might be so busy that he would not be able to turn to sin and to the transgression of God’s law. The curse was punishment, but at the same time it was grace, for it restrained the power of sin.
The last part of the curse upon Adam was that he should ultimately die physically. His toil and labour was not to last forever, but he should lose his life, his body returning to the dust whence it came. Here again is the curse and the blessing. Death came as a punishment for sin, but at the same time even death was to be a relief from the toil and labour of this life. Death would bring the seed of the woman to victory and finally to rest. Thus the curse became a blessing in the end.
As we look back over the curses we see that the latter two are based really upon the first. God promised that victory would ultimately come to the seed of the woman. It was His purpose to destroy sin, and the other two curses guaranteed restraint of sin until that final destruction should be brought about. True He did not say who would be classified under the “seed of the woman” or under “the seed of the serpent.” Those matters were left to later covenants. But He did make it perfectly clear that the seed of the woman would win the battle.
There were also guarantees of this covenant. The first one was that man was put out of the Garden of Eden. This guaranteed that man would have to work for his living and that ultimately he would be brought low in death. He was to be prevented from partaking of the Tree of Life by his ejection. Moreover, to make more certain that we would not break in, the angels of God were set as guardians at the gate that man might no more reach the Tree of Life. Only when the Covenant of Grace has been finally completed will the way to the Tree of Life will be opened. (Rev. 22: 2). But even the closing of the garden showed that the covenant was to be carried out as God had said.
But there was also a second guarantee or confirmation of the covenant. That was in the birth of Cain. Eve seems to have held this view. She felt that God had definitely given unto her a guarantee that His promise of the final victory of her seed over that of the serpent would be kept. Thus Adam’s descendents were in the eyes of the original parents proofs that God was going to bring victory out of what appeared to be absolute defeat.
The covenant of Eden demonstrates very clearly to us the basic truths which appear in all the later revelations. There is the combination of both justice and mercy, and the drawing of a distinct line between those acceptable unto God, through sinners, and those who were rejected by Him. It also points onward, acknowledging that it is not the completion, but rather only the beginning of the process whereby both the justice and the mercy of God should be vindicated and brought to fruition. Further covenants would consist of elaborations and clarifications of this basic revelation which took place at the fall of man.