What Is The Substance Of The Covenant Of Grace?

For most of 2,000 years the Christian church was universally agreed that there is one way of salvation, that the history of redemption was essentially unified. In the post-apostolic church this consensus began to develop very early in the 2nd century in response to the challenge of various heretical movements and most particularly the Gnostics, who sharply distinguished between the “god” of the Old Testament and the God of the New. Indeed the orthodox Christians reacted so strongly they began describing all of Scripture as law. The Old Testament was the “old law” and the New was the “new law.” This is not to say that there was no recognition of diversity in the history of redemption, there was, but the emphasis was strongly on the unity of salvation between the old and the new.

The Reformation inherited and continued to value the fundamental unity of salvation history in Scripture even as they described that unity in different terms. Thus, Adolf von Harnack’s quip that Luther was the first theologian to understand Marcion was most certainly false. The Protestant hermeneutical and theological distinction between law and gospel did not reintroduce the Marcionite juxtaposition of the OT “god” v. the NT God. The Reformed churches, partly in response to what appeared to them to be a movement back toward Marcion by the Anabaptists, developed a reading of redemptive history that explained the unity and diversity of Scripture in terms of the covenants that God had made before history and in history. Again, this was not new. The 2nd and 3rd century fathers, in response to the Gnostics and other dualists (e.g., Marcion) had done the very same thing. In the 5th century, Augustine would appeal to the covenant God made a covenant with Adam before the fall as if it were a given. The medieval church had also referred regularly, although not always happily for the gospel, to a sort of covenant theology.

In modern period of church history and particularly since the mid-19th century, however, the widespread and long-held conviction about the fundamental unity of salvation has been challenged and especially in the US. The 19th century saw a number of movements that emphasized the discontinuity between the old and the new. Chief among those was Dispensationalism but there were other movements too that stressed discontinuity. Nineteenth-century American evangelicalism looks a great deal like early sixteenth-century Anabaptist radicalism. For more on this see the essay “Magic and Noise: Being Reformed In Sister’s America.”

Since then there have been broader social and cultural changes that have made it more difficult for American evangelicals, who remain deeply influenced by those 19th-century changes in American Christianity, to appreciate and value the unity of redemption. Americans under 40 and certainly those under 30 have grown up in a culture, in a time, in which the one of the reigning philosophical assumptions is that the “many” are more important than the “one.” Those who lean toward “the many” emphasize diversity, that which distinguishes one thing from another. They’re all about the individual, the particular. They are suspicious of attempts to link one thing to another. It seems artificial. They don’t want to be pigeonholed. Having been raised in the wake of the Reagan prosperity, they assume a higher standard of living than their predecessors. They expect “options.” This preference for the particular is so powerful that they sometimes have difficulty making choices because it means picking one thing and bypassing another and that requires them to give up an option.

By contrast, those over fifty were probably raised in a culture where the emphasis cultural assumption favored “the one” or that which unifies over that which distinguishes. That generation had fewer choices and lower expect ions about personal autonomy. They were shaped by an ethos formed by the first half of the twentieth century which had seen not one but two world wars, the second of which was followed by the Cold War. Their economic assumptions were more influenced by those who had experienced the Great Depression. In that period America was not yet fully urbanized and suburbanized. They had more experience with rural cultures and unity was considered a virtue rather than a disguised form of oppression.

For these historical, cultural, and social reasons, Reformed Christians in America (and perhaps elsewhere in the west) face genuine obstacles as they try to explain the historic Reformed doctrine of the “substance of the covenant of grace.” There are other obstacles. Many evangelicals are unfamiliar with even the notion of a covenant of grace. Most of them and not a few Reformed folk think that the doctrine of predestination (that, from eternity, God has elected some to salvation and allowed others to remain in their fallen state) is the sum of Reformed theology.

It was not so from the beginning of Reformed theology. The Reformed writers assumed the ancient Christian view that there is one way of salvation. In the 1530s Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) wrote a treatise defending the essential unity of the covenant of grace in the Old and New Testaments against the Anabaptists. In the 1580s, Caspar Olevianus (1536–85) published On Substance of the Covenant of Grace, in which opened with a discussion of Jeremiah 31 and continuing to elaborate on the essential unity of the covenant grace while accounting for the progress of revelation and redemption in Scripture. Herman Witsius (1636–1708), in his great work surveying the Biblical teaching on the unfolding history of redemption and revelation, The Economy of the Covenants (1677), followed Bullinger, Olevianus, and the mainstream of Reformed theology to that point and in the next post we’ll begin looking at his account of the unity of the covenant of grace “as to its substance.”

Substance And Administration

Caspar OlevianusAs I mentioned above Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), in On the Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect (1585) began his explanation of covenant theology with an appeal to Jeremiah 31. This is interesting because, in our setting, which is largely dominated by Baptist assumptions about the nature of redemptive history, revelation, and hermeneutics, Jeremiah 31 is often assumed to be a proof text for the Baptist view that the new covenant is new relative to everything that went before it. If, however, we read Jeremiah 31 in its own context, as prophetic literature and interpret it the way the New Testament does, we come to a quite different reading. According to Jeremiah 31 itself and according to its NT interpretation, the contrast is between the new covenant and the Mosaic or old covenant.

Olevianus, then, began with Jeremiah 31 because he saw in it a re-statement of an even older promise. He wrote:

God promised through the prophet Jeremiah [31:31,2] that he himself would make a new covenant with us, not like that covenant that he came to regret with the fathers, when he led them from the land of Egypt. Because they made the covenant void. But this was to be the covenant: ‘I will put my law in your midst, and I will write my law in your heart and I will be your God and you will be my people.’ Because, he shall have been propitiated, he would no more remember our iniquities and our sins (Jeremiah 31; Hebrews 8). Likewise, this covenant promised to us knowledge of the true God that also embraces the free forgiveness of sins in Christ and also that he might beget from himself the renewal of man to the image of God.*

There are several interesting features about this section (1.1.1) of De substantia. One is that he understood implicitly there to be a distinction of kind between the Mosaic/Old covenant and the new. The Mosaic could be made “void” (irritum) but the new covenant, being more basic to God’s plan for redemptive than the Mosaic/Old covenant, cannot.

The next question is what Olevianus (and the rest of the Reformed mainstream) regarded as the substance of the covenant of grace? Before we answer that we must be sure to understand his categories and distinctions. Olevianus was a trained humanist as well as a theologian. He learned Aristotle at university and particularly the Organon. As part of his education he learned the traditional Christian appropriation of the distinction between the substance of a thing, i.e., its essence, and its accidents or external appearance.

We make this distinction all the time. If you have a smart phone you probably have some sort of cover. The cover is not the phone. It is accidental to the phone. The same is true of your computer. The outer shell that houses your computer isn’t actually the computer. Things like the motherboard, those are the computer. Reformed people distinguish every sabbath between the “elements of worship” i.e., Word (including the sacraments) and prayer (including our sung responses to God’s Word) and the circumstances of worship (time, language, and place). It is not the time, place, or language that makes worship what it is. It is the right administration of the Word and the right use of prayer that are essential to worship. The substance of a thing is what makes it what it is, the thing without which it doesn’t exist. The accidents or circumstances are the administration of the covenant of grace.

The Reformed understand that there has always been different ways of relating to the one covenant of grace at the same time. The OT prophets and the Apostle Paul clearly distinguished between those who had only external, outward relation to the covenant of grace and those who had an outward and an internal or inward or spiritual relation to the covenant of grace. In other words, it is possible to participate in the administration of the covenant of grace and not actually benefit from its substance of essence. As I’ve shown elsewhere (see the linked article above on the new covenant), in that respect, according to Hebrews, it is quite possible to participate in the administration of the New Covenant and yet trample under foot its essence—to one’s own destruction.

How did the Olevianus and others define the substance or essence of the covenant of grace? “I will put my law in your midst, and I will write my law in your heart and I will be your God and you will be my people.” Embedded in this prophetic articulation of the covenant of grace is essentially or substantially the same promise he had made to Adam, after the fall (Gen 3), to Noah (Gen 6), and to Abraham (Gen 17). Embedded in that re-articulation is the ancient promise to send a redeemer who would turn away the wrath we earned and to earn righteousness for all his people. This, Olevianus would go on to say is the first benefit of the covenant of grace: “free forgiveness of sins in Christ,” i.e., unconditional acceptance with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

The second benefit is also articulated in Jeremiah 31, “that he might beget of himself, the renewal of man to the image of God.” This is progressive sanctification, a Spirit-wrought grace that follows logically, necessarily from the first benefit, justification. When Olevianus said “renewal” (renovatio), he was thinking of the progressive, spiritual, and moral renewal of the believer, by the Spirit, who works through the use of the holy sacraments (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 65) in which believers, by grace, gradually put to death the old man and are made alive in the new (HC Q. 88–90).

At first glance, the phrase “substance of the covenant” might seem nebulous but it isn’t. It’s the most practical thing: free acceptance with God and being gradually conformed to Christ’s image. Nothing is more concrete or practical than that. When our theologians, whether Olevianus in the 16th century or Witsius in the 17th century, wrote about the “substance of the covenant” they were writing about the same way God has always saved and sanctified his people whether under Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David or Christ. There is a unified covenant of grace.

Part 3

DeSubstantiaFoederis-1A commenter remarked that the substance of the covenant of grace is not a formula but a person, Christ. I considered writing that. It is certainly true but there is a reason why writers such as Olevianus and Witsius did not immediately give that answer to the question, “what is the substance of the covenant of grace?” The reason is that when the covenant of grace grace was first articulated, it promised Christ but he was promised to us in words. In other words, to say simply “Christ” is to neglect the means by which he is offered and also to flatten out the textures of the history of redemption.

In De substantia 1.1.2, Olevianus linked the promised benefits of the new covenant to the administration of that promise in the history of redemption. His starting point was God’s simplicity. He is one. Because he is one he does not change and because he does not change, he cannot lie. He does not contradict himself. Therefore we must distinguish between the substance of the covenant of grace and its administration. When, through Moses, God said, “this is my covenant in your flesh” he was not saying that everyone who was circumcised had (ex opere operato) the substance of the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace is twofold (dupliciter). It has two aspects. In the first instance there is the substance of the covenant itself and in the second there is its administration.

There is no covenant of grace without administration. Perhaps the most persistent error in the history of Reformed covenant theology has been conflate the administration with its substance or to collapse the administration of the covenant of grace into its substance. If we say that anyone who participates in the administration has the substance, then we are sacerdotalists. We’ve turned the covenant of grace into magic. This is the error of the Romanists and the Federal Visionists. If we allow the substance to swallow up the administration, then we lose the administration. This is what Baptists do with the new covenant. They divorce it from the history of redemption. Galatians and Hebrews 6:4 and 10:29, however, are all about not confusing the the administration of the covenant of grace with its substance. The Galatian Judaizers thought that, since they had participated in the administration, they necessarily had the substance. Some in the congregation of Christian Jews, to whom Hebrews was written, participated in the administration of the new covenant but did not mix that participation with faith and thus fell under anathema. The writer accused them of falling away and of trampling underfoot the Son of God and of profaning the blood of the covenant. The administration of the covenant of grace is real. It matters. God uses the process of the administration of the covenant of grace to bring his elect to faith.

Only the elect, however, have the substance of the covenant of grace. They have it through the administration but only they have it. Those who only participate in the outward administration, in the visible assembly, never have it even though they may seem to be believers. That is why they are called “hypocrites.” There are false brothers and sisters and it is quite shocking when they do fall away.

The substance of the covenant of grace was promised through a typological and shadowy administration under Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. When Deuteronomy 30:6 said, “God will circumcise your heart and that of your children” and “my covenant will be in your flesh” he was binding together the substance of the covenant of grace with its administration. This is why the Reformed confessions and churches have distinguished them while refusing to separate them. The substance is ordinarily only found in the midst of the administration. This is why we confess what we do about the necessity of the visible church in Belgic Confession chapter 28 that, ordinarily (i.e., by divine ordination and in the ordinary providence of God) “there is no salvation apart from it….”

Yet, it is undeniably true that though many heard to preaching of the law and the gospel only 8 persons were saved in the ark, that of those circumcised under Abraham and Moses, as Olevianus wrote, “not all of their hearts were circumcised.” Yet, salvation was, he wrote, “offered” to them in the administration of the covenant of grace. Those who did not receive Christ and his benefits (justification and sanctification), “personally, maliciously, rejected the gracious offer of the covenant….”

That is why he wrote that the essence of the covenant of grace is “a sworn oath promised by God” of free, unconditional acceptance with God and of his ongoing, gracious work in the justified by the Holy Spirit, through the means of grace, gradually, progressively to conform believers to Christ. That substance, that promise, that oath, however, was administered through “the testimony or call of the Royal word” that calls us out of darkness, (“of which darkness one is convicted by the law partly natural and partly written”) and through that efficacious call, which is administered outwardly and visibly, the elect are given grace to receive “the Son of God offered in the gospel with the double benefit truly, free righteousness…and renewal to the image of God or the spirit of holiness for sharing in the heavenly inheritance.

So, it is true that Christ is the substance of the covenant of grace but he is not presented to us, as it were nakedly, apart from the administration of the covenant of grace or apart from the history of redemption, through types and shadows. It is Christ who is offered in the gospel, whether in types or in the reality of the New Covenant, but he is always offered in the visible covenant assembly and it is in the administration, i.e., in the church where we live out our new life in Christ. Another way to put this is to say that it is possible to have the forms and the words without Christ but it is not ordinarily possible to have Christ without the forms and the words.

Profaning The Blood Of The Covenant

sacrificial lamb Hebrews 10:29 contains an arresting expression, “profaned the blood of the covenant.” It is parallel to the equally strongly worded warning, “spurned the Son of God.” These two expressions are part of a warning to those in the congregation who are in danger of giving in to the temptation to turn their backs on their profession of faith in Christ and to return to Moses and to Judaism.

The pastor to these Jewish Christians, who were being tempted to go backwards in redemptive history to the types and shadows, had already explained in Hebrews chapter 6, that, by virtue of their initiation into the visible covenant community, they were under certain consequent obligations. In 6:4–6 he wrote:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and shave shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt (ESV).

The pastor is describing the implications of being initiated visibly, outwardly into the Christ-confessing covenant community. Being so initiated into the visible church carries with it a degree of jeopardy. We see the same principle at work in 1Corinthians 11:27–32, Paul warned the congregation about just this sort of jeopardy or danger:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

Paul was not describing believers who had eaten and been judged. Believers are chastised in this life but they are not judged because they have already been judged, as it were, on the cross. Jesus said, “It is finished!” Paul wrote, “There is, therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) were not believers but they were members of the visible church and participants in the administration of the covenant of grace. Paul described the same phenomenon in 1Corinthians 10:1–5:

For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and fall drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for gthey were overthrown in the wilderness.

Notice that Paul teaches that they were “baptized into Moses” and “ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink” and, lest someone miss the point, he spelled it out: “That rock was Christ.” Nevertheless, some of those who ate and drank, who participated in the administration of the covenant of grace were not believers and thus God was not pleased with them and they died in the wilderness.

So, with that context in view, we return to the question: Is it possible to profane the covenant of grace? We must answer yes. The writer to the Hebrews clearly warned against the danger of “being enlightened” (which, if we trace the LXX use of this phrase, seems to be a reference to the intellect rather than to baptism) and “tasting of the powers of the age to come” and yet falling under judgment. In chapter 10 he compared the judgment that those experienced under Moses and explained that the judgment for rejecting Christ is even greater. Who are those who “spurn the Son of God” and “profane the blood of the covenant”? It is they who have participated in the visible covenant community, who have been baptized, who have come to the Lord’s Table, who have sworn covenant oaths before Christ and his congregation and who, nevertheless, have turned their back on Christ.

He was not warning about those outside the congregation. They are not profaning the blood of the covenant. That is the language of covenant making and covenant breaking. It is not possible to be outside the visible people and profane the covenant. One must be in a marriage in order to commit adultery. The pastor to the Hebrew Christians was invoking the fearsome OT language and imagery of covenant breaking in order to help them see the gravity of the situation. To break covenant in the Ancient Near East, in many cases, meant death and destruction. The oaths that were sworn were blood oaths, such as circumcision or oaths made over the dead bodies of animals. The participants were saying, “May it be to me as it is to this animal” (or, as the case may be, “to this foreskin”) if I break this covenant. This is why the Lord himself passed between the pieces in Genesis 15. He was swearing an oath agains his own life. This how Hebrews6:16–17 explain this process and its implications:

For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath….

So, yes, it is possible for members of the visible covenant community to profane the blood of the covenant, to spurn the Son of God and by doing so to place themselves in grave jeopardy. This is why our Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 82 says:

82. Are they then also to be admitted to this Supper who show themselves by their confession and life to be unbelieving and ungodly?

No, for thereby the covenant of God is profaned and His wrath provoked against the whole congregation; wherefore the Christian Church is bound, according to the order of Christ and His Apostles, to exclude such persons by the Office of the Keys until they amend their life.

The elect can never fall away. No one can snatch them out of Christ’s hand but there are always two aspects to the covenant of grace: substance and administration. We must take account of both. It is not possible to have the substance without participating in the administration but is possible to participate in the administration of the covenant of grace without having the substance (Christ, his gospel, and the benefits) of the covenant of grace.

* Translation of Olevianus, De substantia ©2013 R. Scott Clark. All rights reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Those who speak in “broad strokes” tend to be predictable, because they always do the “one and the many” number, and then situate themselves in the balanced middle, the theocrats on one side and the “anabaptists” on the other (call them “nominalists” or “inductivists”, and remember that we are not describing any one of them in particular but a “broad type”).

    But things get a little more complicated when we realize that those in the middle have to practice two kinds of “baptism” to stay there.

    On the one hand, Scott Clark writes: “Fundamentally, baptism is to strengthen our faith, not replace it. It is a seal to those who believe, that what baptism promises is actually true of them.” (p 8, “Baptism and the Benefits of Christ”, Confessional Presbyterian 2, 2006)

    p 12: “Paul’s interest is not to argue that baptism confers Christ’s benefits, but rather to appeal to it as illustration of the union that already exists.”

    mark: So, on this one way of viewing baptism, the water is not only about the promises of the objective gospel, but is indeed also about the persons ‘baptized”. But to stay in the center (and to avoid the federal vision), Scott Clark cannot say that “baptism” is always one thing God is doing. He has two different kinds of baptism.

    p 14: “The covenant child is properly the recipient of initiation because he or she is already a member of the covenant of grace and ritually sanctified. The mature convert (Abraham) is baptized in recognition of his faith.”

    mark: Think about the second sentence first. There is no idea of this being like a sermon, something that could be done with any sinner in the world, something only objectively true. No, this second kind of baptism is about the person being watered. It’s about our possibly mistaken judgment about this person being a believer.

    Now go back to the first kind of baptism (the kind more often practiced in Reformed congregations). Infants are in “the covenant of grace”. This of course does not mean that they are “substantially” in the covenant of grace. And I thank God for that qualification, because it does indeed save those in the middle from the federal vision’s denial of justification by Christ’s imputed righteousness and from the federal vision’s idea that the elect become non-elect.

    But what if we only had one kind of baptism? What if we did not view election through this concept of “the one covenant of grace”? Or what if we even said that every sinner (not only the infants born to one Christian parent) was in this “one covenant of grace”? What would we have lost? Would we have lost the idea that there is and has been only one gospel? No.

    Would we have lost the second kind of baptism, the one which is a “recognition of faith”? Would we have lost the idea of discipline for those who were baptized on recognition of profession of faith? No. Would we have lost any idea of a distinction between the visible and the invisible? No. Would we have all become “nominalists”, without any notion of the “one and many”? No.

    p 15, Clark: “Reformed confessions have used ‘seal’ in two senses in two different circumstances. To the baptized infant, who has not yet made a profession of faith, baptism is a promise that if and when he believes everything baptism signifies shall be true of him.”

    mark: Then why not baptize every sinner we can, as we would preach the gospel to every sinner we can?

    p 15, Clark: “When, however, in the second instance, the baptized person trusts Christ, the seal is not only a promise, but a guarantee that what baptism signifies and promises really is true of the believer.”

    mark: And of course we all agree that none of us can be certain for sure that this specific person being baptized is truly a believer. We can agree that we are saying that “union with Christ’s death to the guilt of sin” is true of the believer, as many as are believers, whoever the Lord has effectually called by the power of the gospel.

    • Yes Mark, not all Israel is Israel, a Jew is one who is a Jew inwardly.

      Nevertheless, according to God’s command to initiate all the children of covenant parents into the church and according his promise to save his elect, we don’t try to outguess God before applying the sign of initiation.

      We obey God. We baptize. We trust his promises. We pray. We instruct. When the covenant child makes a profession of faith we admit him to the table.

    • Thank you for these helpful comments on extracted passages

      Why do we insist that one parent must actually be a believer? I was paedo-baptised but for social reasons in that neither parent was a believer. But the gospel was (presumably) preached, to those attending and indeed to my parents. Yes, they presumably promised to bring me up in the Christian faith and I can’t say that happened although they probably persuaded themselves that they were doing ‘enough’

      Wasn’t that all more satisfactory as an event within the visible church, without insisting that one parent must be part of the invisible church (which is as hard for us to be sure of as it is for adults coming forward for credo-baptism)?

  2. But until a wet circumcised “covenant child” is actually born of the Spirit into the covenant Substance, Jesus Christ himself, (Isa 42:6, 49:8), vitally united to Him and made spiritually alive, he/she remains in the flesh . . . “sons of disobedience . . . children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph 2:1-3).

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