The Covenant of Grace Identical in both Old and New Testaments
Question #1: When was this covenant of grace initiated?
Answer: Due to a misunderstanding concerning the nature of the covenant of grace, the Socinians and Arminians, who are in this respect like-minded, claim that it did not exist in the Old Testament. Although they admit that it was announced that a Savior would come at a given time, and that a covenant of grace would be established at a given time, they claim that there was no such covenant during the Old Testament dispensation. They claim that those living in that dispensation were not partakers of this covenant, did not receive any promises concerning eternal salvation, and did not receive eternal life by faith and hope in a future Savior. Instead, they received it by grace, that is, on the basis of their virtuousness. To this we respond that, although the administration of the covenant was very different in both testaments, this covenant, as far as essence is concerned, existed as well in the Old Testament—being initiated with Adam—as presently in the New Testament.
Proof #1: This is first of all confirmed by the fact that immediately after the fall this covenant was established in Paradise by way of the promise in Genesis 3:15, “It (the seed of the woman) shall bruise thy head (the serpent).” This Seed of the woman is the Lord Jesus, who without the involvement of a man was born of the Virgin Mary. Such never has been nor ever shall be true for any man. Christ alone, and no one else, has bruised the head of the serpent, that is, the devil. “That through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14); “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Christ, the Seed of the woman, who would bruise the head of the devil, is promised here, which can be deduced from the threat made to the serpent. This promise was not addressed to Adam and Eve, but only within their hearing. From this it follows that the covenant of grace was not established with Adam and Eve, and in them with all their descendants as was true for the covenant of works. Rather, Adam and Eve, hearing this promise, had to receive the promised Savior for themselves in order to be comforted, as every believer has done subsequent to the giving of this promise, which shall become evident in what follows.
Proof #2: The gospel, which is the offer of this covenant, is proclaimed in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament. “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Gal. 3:8). He said “in thee,” that is, in thy Seed, which is Christ. “He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy Seed, which is Christ” (Gal. 3:16). Abraham believed this good news, not for the heathen who still would come and believe, but for himself. It was to his personal benefit, it being unto justification, which is an acquittal from guilt and punishment, and a granting of the right unto eternal life. This is confirmed in Genesis 15:6, “And he believed (note: not “the LORD,” but) in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness”; “And the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the friend of God” (James 2:23).
That the gospel was proclaimed to him was not an extraordinary privilege afforded to Abraham alone. The church of the Old Testament had the identical privilege, which is evident from Hebrews 4:2a, “For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them.” It is proclaimed to us in order that we would receive it to our benefit, and thus likewise also to their benefit. The reason why many did not profit from this was not to be attributed to the fact that it was not offered unto them, but due to their not receiving it by faith. “But the Word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Heb. 4:2b). Thus, in the Old Testament dispensation Christ was proclaimed and offered in the gospel, and everyone was obligated by means of this gospel to believe in Christ unto justification as Abraham did. The covenant of grace therefore existed in the Old Testament.
Observe this also in reference to Moses. “By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward” (Heb. 11:24, 26). Moses knew Christ, believed in Christ, esteemed Christ as being precious, and had the promises in view through Christ. This chapter enumerates an entire register of Old Testament believers, and the benefits of which they became partakers by faith in Christ.
Proof #3: The Surety of the covenant was equally efficacious in the Old Testament as in the New, and thus this covenant existed then as well as now. “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever” (Heb. 13:8). “Today” refers to the present time, “for ever” refers to the future, and “yesterday” refers to the past. The apostle does not merely state that Christ was, is and shall be, but he says that Christ has always been the same; that is, unto reconciliation, comfort, and help. Therefore one ought not to faint under oppression. By “yesterday” we cannot understand the time immediately prior to Paul, that is, the period of Christ’s sojourn upon earth. It is very evident that the apostle exhorts the believers to be steadfast, since Christ at all times—that is, as soon as the church came into existence and as long as the church shall exist—is the same faithful Savior. “Yesterday” therefore refers to the time prior to Christ’s incarnation, which also is confirmed by the statement that Christ has been slain before the foundation of the world. “Whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). The words “from the foundation of the world” may not be made to relate to the words “whose names are not written in the book of life.” There is no need to go back to that earlier phrase, and Christ never is said to be slain without any modifying statement. Even if one were to interpret these words as such, namely, “whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb before the foundation of the world,” it remains an established fact that there was a book from before the foundation of the world in which the names of believers were written. This is the book of the Lamb, that is, of Christ, and thus Christ’s death is noted as being efficacious at that time, since no one can be written in that book except it be for the efficacy of His death by being slain. It is very simple and clear, however, that one should join the words as the apostle does: “the Lamb, slain from the foundation of the world.”
Question: But in what manner has Christ been slain since that time? The apostle appears to contradict this in Hebrews 9:26, where we read, “For then must He often have suffered since the foundation of the world.”
Answer: The apostle shows that the death of Christ had to occur but once, and that this one sacrifice was efficacious from the foundation of the world. He thus forcefully confirms that this one death of Christ already was efficacious then, this being such as if He both at that time and since that time had actually suffered. He thus confirms that Christ is the same yesterday and today. Christ was not slain in actuality from the foundation of the world, but rather as far as the efficacy of His sacrifice was concerned. From that moment believers believed in Him through the sacrifices, wherein they beheld the death of the Savior to come, and received Him by faith unto justification. This was true of Abel and Enoch, for we read, “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, for before his translation he had this testimony that he pleased God” (Heb. 11:4–5). Abel sacrificed in faith, Abel pleased God, and Abel was righteous. This expresses irrefutably that Abel saw Christ represented in his sacrifice.
Proof #4: Believers in the Old Testament had all the spiritual benefits of the covenant of grace, and thus they, as is true for us in the New Testament, had the covenant itself.
(1) God was their God and their Father. “I am the LORD thy God” (Exo. 20:2); “I am thy God” (Isa. 41:10); “But now, O LORD, thou art our Father” (Isa. 64:8); “Wilt thou not from this time cry unto Me, My Father?” (Jer. 3:4).
(2) They had the forgiveness of sins. “As for our transgressions, Thou shalt purge them away” (Psa. 65:3); “Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. Selah” (Psa. 32:5).
(3) They had the spirit of adoption unto children, “to whom pertaineth the adoption” (Rom. 9:4); “We having the same Spirit of faith” (2 Cor. 4:13); “Thy Spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness” (Psa. 143:10).
(4) They had peace of conscience with God. “Thou hast put gladness in my heart” (Psa. 4:7); “Truly my soul waiteth upon God” (Psa. 62:1).
(5) They had childlike communion with God. “When I awake, I am still with Thee” (Psa. 139:18); “But it is good for me to draw near to God” (Psa. 73:28).
(6) They were partakers of sanctification. “O how love I Thy law! it is my meditation all the day” (Psa. 119:97).
(7) After death they entered eternal bliss, for which they longed. “For he looked for a city which hath foundations. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly” (Heb. 11:10, 16). They were the recipients of this salvation. “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they” (Acts 15:11).
The apostle neither refers here to the heathen, nor does he elevate the salvation of the heathen above the salvation of the Jews, but his reference was to the fathers who could not bear the yoke and nevertheless were saved by faith. From this he affirms that their expectation of salvation was also by faith and not by the works of the ceremonial law. From this he concludes that one must not impose the requirement of circumcision and the keeping of the ceremonial law upon the Gentiles. From all this it is evident that believers under the Old Testament enjoyed the benefits of the covenant of grace, had the covenant itself and were partakers of the same covenant with us, having all eaten the same spiritual meat and having drunk the same spiritual drink (1 Cor. 10:3–4). Therefore the apostle Peter called the Jewish nation, “The children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed” (Acts 3:25).
Objection #1: In the Old Testament believers did not receive the promises, “not having received the promises” (Heb. 11:13).
Answer: The promises to which the apostle here refers have reference to the incarnation of Christ, which they saw from afar, believed, and embraced.
Objection #2: “For the law made nothing perfect” (Heb. 7:19).
Answer: The ceremonial laws to which the apostle refers here lacked efficacy of satisfaction, but did point to Christ. They were a stimulus for a better hope. By faith in a Messiah to come they were perfect in Him (Col. 2:13).
Objection #3: In Hebrews 9:8 we read “that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing.”
Answer: Christ is the way (John 14:6). Christ consecrated the way to God and to glory through the veil, that is to say, His flesh (cf. Heb. 10:19–20). The text states that as long as the ceremonies were still in effect, Christ had not yet actually paid the ransom, nor merited salvation for His own. When this occurred, however, these ceremonies no longer served a purpose. The apostle does not say that no one entered heaven during that time period, which is something most opposing parties would not dare to deny. Enoch, Elijah, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would rebuke them. Neither does the apostle state that the way to heaven was not known as yet, for whoever possesses faith, hope, and love, also knows the way. He stated rather that Christ Himself—who would accomplish that which the entire tabernacle service could not bring to pass, that is, the salvation of sinners—had not yet come in the flesh.
Objection #4: The apostle stated that Christ “hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). Thus light and life were not present prior to Christ’s incarnation.
Answer: The text indeed states that Christ is He who has brought life and immortality to light. It does not mention, however, that Christ did this only subsequent to His incarnation, and not prior to His coming. We have shown above that Christ, who is the same yesterday and today, was thus engaged in the Old Testament, the gospel having been proclaimed also during that time. This text, however, refers to the measure of revelation, and to the revelation of the gospel unto the Gentiles, which, prior to this, had only occurred in Israel. This is confirmed in verse 11, where we read, “Whereunto I am appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles.” The apostle states this expressly when he says, “Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed … that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs.… Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:5–6, 8). In like manner Acts 16:25–26 is to be understood, where we read, “… according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith.” From this it is evident that there is not a distinction between the Old and the New Testament as far as the way of salvation is concerned, but the distinction is between the Jewish nation, which at that time was the only recipient of revelations, and the Gentiles who now have the very same revelation.
Objection #5: Consider the following texts. “And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise, God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39–40); “Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things” (1 Pet. 1:12). It is evident from these texts that they who lived during the Old Testament period did not partake of these benefits.
Answer: These texts expressly refer to the incarnation of Christ, it being evident that these promises were not received while these saints lived. They proclaimed that Christ at one time would come, but that they did not expect Him during their time. In this respect they did not minister unto themselves but unto us who live subsequent to the coming of Christ, and may behold and enjoy the fulfillment of that promise. And thus we enjoy better things than they; that is, they are better since the fulfillment of the promise is better than the promise itself. It thus follows that these texts do not refer to the enjoyment of the benefits of the covenant, for they were partakers of this as much as we are (which has already been shown); the apostle pointed to this in the text itself when he stated, “that they without us should not be made perfect.” They thus were made perfect, not by the works of the law, but through Christ, whose coming they had in the promises of which we have the fulfillment. They were therefore not saved on any different basis than we, for we and they are saved by the very same Surety. The New Testament is superior to the Old Testament only as far as administration is concerned.
Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992), 451–57.
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