Should We Talk About Breaking The Covenant Of Grace?


Two correspondents have written in recent days to ask about whether those who confess the Reformed confessions (e.g., the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Standards) and the Reformed confession, which is a broader category that includes the orthodox Reformed theologians, should speak of “breaking” the covenant of grace or “covenant breakers” relative to the covenant of grace.

My response is a cautious, qualified yes. We may so speak but speaking this way requires qualification and explanation. The pedagogical issue is whether the yes needs so much qualification that it might almost be better to say no.

Essential Distinctions

One Covenant of Grace, Multiple Administrations

The first essential distinction is this: the Reformed understanding of redemptive history is that there is one covenant of grace with multiple administrations. We confess this in Westminster Confession chapter 7:

5. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.

6. Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.

When the Westminster Assembly adopted the word “dispensations” they were not anticipating Dispensational theology. In Reformed theology, the word meant (and means) administration. This commitment distinguishes Reformed theology from most versions of Baptist theology. For more on this see “House of Cards?” in On Being Reformed. There are prominent Baptist voices arguing explicitly that the Abrahamic covenant was a covenant of works and that the covenant of grace did not enter history until the New Covenant.

Works And Grace

Second, there are two kinds of covenants, works and grace. This is a basic biblical principle. Paul says, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom 11:6; ESV). This is why our theologians and churches spoke of a covenant of works and the covenant of grace. E.g., Zacharias Ursinus explicitly correlated the law with the covenant of works and the gospel with the covenant of grace:

36 Q What is the difference between the law and the gospel?

A: The law contains the covenant of nature established by God with man in creation; that means, it is known by man from nature, it requires perfect obedience of us to God, and it promises eternal life to those who keep it but threatens eternal punishment to those who do not. The gospel, however, contains the covenant of grace; that means, although it exists, it is not known at all from nature; it shows us Christ’s fulfillment of that righteousness which the law requires, and its restoration in us through Christ’s Spirit; and it promises eternal life freely on account of Christ to those who believe in him.

The covenant into which God entered with Adam as the federal head of all humanity, was not a covenant of grace but a covenant of works. The Belgic Confession (art. 7) calls it “the commandment of life.” The Westminster Standards call it the covenant of life and the covenant of works. Reformed theologians have called it a covenant of law and a covenant of nature. Again, the Westminster Confession, reflecting the development of Reformed theology to the mid-17th century, explicitly distinguished the covenant of works from the covenant of grace. In 7.2 we say:

2. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

Both covenants, works and grace, promise eternal life and blessedness but they do so on different conditions. Under the covenant of works eternal life and blessedness is received on the basis of and through obedience to the law. The law was summarized thus:

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’ (Gen 2:16-17; ESV).

That one law captured the essence of the Ten Commandments: love God with all your faculties and your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:37–40). This law, this “commandment of life” characterized that covenant. It was a “do this and live” (Luke 10:28) covenant.

The covenant of grace is not a legal covenant. It is a gospel covenant. The condition of the covenant of grace, to speak improperly, is faith. More properly, the faith is the instrument of the covenant of grace, because faith has no qualities of its own. Faith rests. That trusts. Faith receives. We are not saved or justified because of the quality of our faith. The power of faith is its object: Christ.

Grace is God’s free favor toward sinners. There are consequent conditions in the covenant of grace (see this resource page) but they are not the condition or instrument. We receive Christ, righteousness, and eternal life through faith alone (sola fide). We obey by grace and because of grace not in order to receive favor nor in order to be justified, nor in order to be saved. We obey because we have been saved. We obey out of gratitude and in union with Christ.


The third distinction that needs to be made is between the two ways of being in the one covenant of grace: internal and external. This is a plainly biblical distinction. Paul makes it in Romans 2:29: “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (ESV). There are Jews were are such only outwardly. They participate in the external administration of the covenant of grace. Paul spoke to this when he asked: “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom 3:1-2; ESV). There is great value in participating in the external administration of the covenant because this is how and where God the Spirit works to bring his elect to new life and to true faith.

Yet, there is a distinction to be made between those who participate in the covenant of grace only and those who participate in the covenant of grace also inwardly. Thus, Paul says,

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring (Rom 9:1-8; ESV).

Those who are elect, whom the Spirit sovereignly brings to new life are those who also participate inwardly. This is a distinction with which, it seems to me, my Baptist friends struggle and it is a distinction that is flatly rejected by others (e.g., the so-called Federal Vision theology). For more on this distinction see this booklet. See also these resources.

What We Mean By “Covenant Breaking”

First, what we do not mean. We do not mean to say that one who has been granted new life by the Holy Spirit, who is elect, who has been given all the benefits of Christ by grace alone, through faith alone may somehow do something wrong and thereby “break” the covenant and be disqualified. This is the very sort of understanding of salvation and the Christian life that we rejected in the Reformation. Such a notion is Remonstrant or Arminian. Such is the doctrine of the so-called Federal Visionists. It is not biblical doctrine. It is not Reformed doctrine. On this see the Fifth Head of Doctrine of the Canons of the Synod of Dort, including the Rejection of Errors. We receive the benefits of the covenant of grace by grace alone (sola gratia). We persevere and are preserved sola gratia. For more on the Canons of Dort, see this commentary. See also Bob Godfrey’s marvelous (and brief) introduction and commentary, Saving the Reformation.

What then might it mean it mean to speak of “breaking the covenant” of grace? It means to participate in the external administration of the covenant of grace, to attend to the preaching of the Word, to receive the administration of the sacraments, but to fail to receive the Christ, grace, and salvation freely offered in them. It is to have been initiated into the covenant of grace by baptism but to refuse what that covenant offers. The pastor to the Hebrews speaks of such:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have 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 (Heb 6:4-6; ESV).

The pastor is not, as some claim, speaking hypothetically. Redemptive history is replete with examples of those who did just this. Esau was in the covenant of grace but did not receive, sola gratia, sola fide the grace and salvation offered in it. Judas walked with Jesus for three years and betrayed him. Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5). It is not the case, however, that, as the Federal Visionists assert falsely, that Esau was temporarily elect, temporarily justified, adopted etc but lost those benefits because he did not obey sufficiently.

When people participate only externally in the covenant grace, when they do not receive sola gratiasola fide what is offered in it, then, according to the pastor to the Jewish Christians who were tempted to leave Jesus for Moses, they have “trampled underfoot the Son of God” and “profaned the blood of the covenant.”

How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people’ (Heb 10:29-30; ESV).

One who has no relation to the covenant (of grace) whatever (as some Baptists suggest) cannot “profane” the blood of that covenant. In order to do the things listed here one had to have some relation to the covenant of grace. The internal/external distinction explains that relationship.

This is how we should understand the warning passages generally. Believers, those who not only profess the faith but who, sola gratiasola fide have received what the covenant of grace offers, are not and cannot be lost. There is jeopardy, however, attached to the external administration of the covenant of grace. Those who are baptized, who never receive what baptism signifies will receive the judgment pictured by baptism. Paul reminded the Corinthian congregation that some of them had abused the Lord’s Supper and some had paid for it with their lives (1 Cor 11:30-32).


Yes, it is possible to break the external administration of the covenant of grace. It is not possible to break the substance of the covenant of grace. If we remember this distinction, then we may speak this way but that it has taken more than 2,000 words to explain it suggests caution in speaking this way.

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  1. Thank You dr Clark for this most helpful post. A question. In discussing protestantism with people not versed in theology I oftentimes struggle with describing the difference between lutheranism and reformed christianity. Is it permissible to treat the covenantal approach to theology in the reformed tradition as the most distinguishing feature?
    In Internal/External section the word “externally” seems to be missing after “only “, just before the quote from Romans 9.

    • One of the differences I have noticed between Lutheranism and Reformed covenantal theology is that Lutherans see baptism as bringing everyone into the church community in the same way. They do not see the distinction between those who are in the covenant outwardly and those who are inwardly in the covenant. The Formula of Concord has dealt with this by saying that unless you do your part to persevere, you can lose your salvation. That is the pitfall of all those who claim that the sacrament of baptism is not just the sign union with Christ, but actually unites us to Christ. In order to explain apostasy, they are forced to look to something that is caused by the lack of doing our part. Reformed, covenantal theology, which sees two ways of being in the covenant of grace, can explain apostasy as something that happens only to those who are outwardly in the covenant, through the covenant sign, but who have not been regenerated by the Holy Spirit.

  2. Indeed, extreme caution is definitely called for here, for the one breaking the covenant is identified within Reformed theology as the “external” member, a claim which is inherently hard to reconcile with the notion of God being the author of a person’s faith. If the latter is true, how can anyone hold responsible the person who is duly exposed to the covenant promises, yet never receives this gift? There are other ways to interpret Heb 6:4-6 BTW, as addressing regenerate believers who cannot be brought back to repentance while caught in the ensnaring vice of blatant, willful and unconfessed sins. Else the cross would not come into play for these individuals. This whole issue strikes at the heart of the question: who is responsible for a person’s unbelief? As I see it, outside the affirmation of Arminian ideas concerning our salvation, God’s sovereign role in this matter clearly remove any human ability to “break” this covenant. Let’s face it – if it weren’t for His gracious choice in the matter, we would all fail to embrace its promises.

    • William,

      Let’s not miss the distinction between Substance/administration and internal/external relations to the covenant of grace. God is indeed the one who brings us to faith but he does so through the administration of the covenant of grace. This is Paul’s doctrine in Romans 10. “How shall they hear” and in Romans 3 and 9 and I mentioned in the article. It’s also the teaching of Heidelberg 65.

      It’s one thing to participate in the external administration. It’s another to receive the substance.

      God is free to do as he will and he reveals himself as being displeased with those who participate in the administration of the covenant. He takes the external administration seriously. We should too. We don’t know whom God has elected or reprobated so we administer the means to all who have a right to and interest in them, as the old Reformed used to say. We let God do the electing and regenerating.

      This way we avoid both the mistake of the Baptist traditions (which unduly restrict the external administration of the sign of initiation into the visible covenant community) and the Federal Visionists (and Romanists and others) who attribute too much to the sign of baptism, turning it into the thing signified.

  3. I’m conversant with the distinctions, but my point was this: how can we ascribe culpability to those who participate in the external administration of the covenant, for something (i.e. faith) clearly the prerogative of God? In this instance, “breaking” the covenant is not the kind of language that has the ability to describe the condition in being deficient to that which God alone is responsible for. Sure, He may use the administration (Baptists would alternatively say advertisement) of the covenant as a means to draw a person into an intimate relationship, but the sovereign omission on the part of God being laid upon a helpless unbeliever plays directly into Arminian strongholds here, for they are somehow held responsible for this “breaking ” of the covenant. Baptist generally don’t distinguish between the unbelieving external “member” and the reprobate masses – God’s attested hand at work is the highlighted feature in baptism, avoiding the difficulty in ascribing any responsibility to the unbelieving, but churched individual.

    • What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

      You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Rom 9:14-24; ESV)

      The Baptist rejection of the distinctions that I made is why I addressed some of them. When I began to respond to the federal vision I found myself in conversation with Baptists, who seemed to agree with the federal vision on the denial of the two ways of being in the one covenant of grace.

      The classical Reformed account is that the external administration is important and not to be ignored but it works for the decree. Hence the Romans 9 quotation.

    • The SIGN of the covenant is given to you and to your children in the Abrahamic covenant. As a sign of promise it may be broken through unbelief. It is not a guarantee of what the sign promises unless God regenerates that person, so without God’s grace of regeneration, sealed by the Holy Spirit, the person who receives the sign is a covenant breaker. Meeting the condition of belief is not what we do, but what God does in us. The Holy Spirit, indwelling and causing belief is the seal that guarantees what the covenant sign promises.

    • We are saved by grace alone because, as God promised, when God alone walked through the pieces, it is God alone who meets ALL the conditions and suffers all the consequences of our covenant breaking, even the condition of faith, in His elect, through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 1-2

  4. Thank you Angela for that clarification on the sign. I have understood baptism as the sign and seal (Genesis 17;Romans 4) but was unsure what that meant for the people who received the sign and did not eventually come to faith.

    I also see where the Lutheran went wrong I’m missing that distinction. This was very edifying for me. Thanks to you and Scott for this post/comments.

    • Johnny, I agree! This was a fantastic piece with the comments providing even deeper insight.

      As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another

  5. DO besetting sins qualify as breaking ones standing in faith Alone/Grace Alone/In Christ Alone?
    I see so much attitude in church, people that think they are lost because of Not being
    what they should be as a Xtian? Gotta measure up.

    There are three guys so far. That I have heard about that tell people on there websites or books, that a Xtian that struggles with porn will goto hell.
    I found the book that was a D A Carson with a number of authors and sure enuf there it was.
    I figure that we can have a besetting sin of any kind that’s in too much (we allow) control.
    People at church/s that have been remarried for reasons outside of what scripture says…
    and say that’s ok, Im forgiven. Are there consequences for adultery or not?

    Are any issues like this and more, able to put one out of ones place in Christ.?
    There is a book that was set out to read on the church lobby table.
    The bulletin says about it:
    “Put sin to death or it will destroy you and others. This book is written out of the biblical conviction that continuing in sin IS a serious and dangerous matter.
    It is written out of the conviction that true believers will want to put sin to death.”
    A person with an already weak faith etc, that sees that, what does it do to them.
    Is that book really helping or hurting.

    AM I wrong to find that a book that says that, is unhealthy or not good.
    Sure we need to deal with sin. But put it to death – SO if one doesn’t ur toast.
    Let alone how much sin does one have to put to death before being saved then. Endless…
    If sin is in every part of our being and has to be dealt with everyday. How am I going to put it to death. Even if I do will that get one into heaven now, IF that person gives up that sin/s ??

    That’s why for me I find so many Books that steer people all over the place with different views, Etc etc that the authors set forth today. No wonder Heidelblog is great.

    Even the Video Dr Clark has on his site about Pastor Fonville and MacArthur, it sure makes one wonder about what is being said in churches that are a big, WHAT? did I hear that right.
    (I am saved because I love Jesus.) where des one go with that. Talk about a work.

    I hope I at least make some sense here. Due to my own issues and struggles I have and
    my lack of security because of ALL the different teachings/books/you name it.
    PCA church that turned out to be a FV Norm Shepherd church. Oops. Bad deal for me.
    Till I figured out what was going on there. Siouxland dealt with it to no avail I heard.
    The pastor now teaches at a so called Xtian college and never recanted. Nice!

    SO am glad Dr Clark keeps the HC/WCF/etc in VIEW, so that one knows what the faith is and is Not. YES!
    I am no MA/PHD guy. Just a simple minded Retired DAV vet trying to figure out half the time what is going on. With myself as well as what I share with others, what Dr Clark provides here for us to use and read and believe inspite of way too many bad teachers.

    I just need to read/re-read HC WCF more often and quit listening to the enemy.
    He knows where I lack and fail. And yet I keep at it anyway.
    I tried to quit 2x to give up the faith due my sin/s – didn’t work.
    I have not chucked the faith just because I am not like Calvin or Perkins who are great.
    Just keep on keeping on.

    One last thing Dr Clark.
    your input on Dad Rods : The Gospel for those broken by the church”

    Thanks All! for bearing with my input here – hope it makes sense! Oh! – Thanks Angela too.

    • From what I can see, you have had a very rocky road experience with moralists and perfectionists that teach salvation by faith and personal righteousness. And so have I! That is not faith in Christ alone. Remember, your righteousness is not because you are so successful at overcoming your besetting sin, but because Jesus Christ lived the perfect life you cannot live, and died to pay the price of death to satisfy God’s wrath against your worst besetting sin! Read Romans 7! Even the Apostle Paul struggled with besetting sin! Maybe that was his thorn in the flesh. God allows us to struggle with besetting sin, and may even use it to drive us to appreciate that it is not about what we succeed in doing, but in what Christ has done for us! I am very much convinced that you are a true Christian because of your sincere desire to please God and that that is why you struggle with besetting sin. Keep looking to Christ for your only acceptance with God. I think God is allowing you to be tested by your besetting sin to drive you to see that your own righteousness is filthy rags and you can only find real acceptance in Christ’s righteousness. That is the experience of Martin Luther! It was the moment he read and understood Romans 4:5 that was his breakthrough: God justifies the wicked! Meaning God justifies the worst sinner through the righteousness of Jesus Christ. That released him from the bondage of trying to be good enough so God would accept him. Now he could struggle against sin and obey God, not so God would accept him, but because he was sure God had already accepted him and that his struggles and obedience were pleasing to God as evidence of his love and gratitude for the righteousness that was imputed or reckoned/credited to him in Christ alone.

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