FIFTH QUESTION: THE UNITY OF THE COVENANT OF GRACE
Was the covenant of grace one and the same as to substance under each dispensation?
We affirm against the Socinians, Anabaptists and Remonstrants
I. This most important controversy is waged by us with the ancient and modern Pelagians (to wit, the Socinians, Remonstrants, Anabaptists and others who deny the identity of the gratuitous covenant). They hold that the fathers of the Old Testament were not saved by the gratuitous mercy of God in Christ, the Mediator (God-man, theanthrōpō) through faith in him about to come.
Opinion of the Socinians.
II. The Socinians express their opinion in the Racovian Catechism where they assert that in the law of Christ two promises are contained (which were not contained in the law of Moses)—eternal life and the Holy Spirit, “Nowhere will you discover in the law of Moses, either eternal life or the gift of the Spirit promised to those obeying the precepts of the law, as it is evident they are promised in the law given by Christ” (Racovian Catechism 5 , p. 113). Socinus clearly confirms this: “We say, therefore, that the new covenant brought most openly to us the promise of eternal life; moreover the promise of remission of sins. Finally the promise to be obtained by all believers, of the Holy Spirit. Since that old covenant wants and wanted all these and proposed earthly happiness, it is easy to recognize the superiority of the new covenant in this respect” (de Officio Christi+). Volkelius labors to prove the same thing by various arguments (De vera Religione 3.11 , pp. 56–72) and also Smaltzius (De Divinitate Jesu Christi 2 and 7 , pp. 3–7 and 25–29). Still they do not deny that the fathers of the Old Testament were saved or would be saved in eternal happiness. “Not to be guilty of dissimulation,” says Smaltzius, “we firmly maintain, even if no open promise occurs of eternal life in the old covenant, that it would be given at some time or other to all those, who ever trusted in God and obeyed him” (ibid., 7, p. 27). Volkelius agrees with him (ibid.). Nor do they deny that God pardoned their sins, although he had not promised it nor signified his intention to do so (Socinus, De Iesu Christo Servatore, Pt. III. 2 , pp. 228–50; “Tractatus de Justificatione,” 3* Opera Omnia , 1:604–9), and that the fathers had some knowledge and hope of eternal life, although not promised to them (Smaltzius, De Divinitate Jesu Christi 7 , pp. 25–29); that Christ and grace and salvation in Christ had been preached under the Old Testament. Socinus in his Praelect.+: “Now it is certain, that Christ not only really was and is our savior, but it was also predicted by the prophets, as we learn, among other passages, from chap. 23 and 33 of Jeremiah.” But on this account, they do not hold either that the ancients looked to Christ or were saved in the hope of his coming. The same one: “In this I disagree with you, that you seem to concede, that the pious under the Old Testament, looked to Christ in those ceremonies and sacrifices in which he was typified, and were saved in the hope of his coming, a thing of which I can in no way persuade myself” (Socinus, “Ad amicos epistolae: ad Matthaeum Radecium,” Opera Omnia , 1:377). Hence they distinguish between the faith of those times and ours, so that that was a faith in God simply and this a faith also in Christ. Smaltzius: “Nor was that faith in Jesus Christ, but in God and his promises” (Refutatio Thesium D. Wolfgangi Frantzii, Disp. 12 , p. 459); and Volkelius holds that the faith of the ancients and ours differs in three things and especially “that now we are commanded to believe as much in Christ as in God; but that formerly such a faith by no means was exercised is evident even from the fact that Christ was not then manifested” (De vera Religione 4.3 , p. 176).
Of the Remonstrants.
III. The Remonstrants do not differ from the Socinians. Arminius indeed properly places the agreement of both testaments in the one and same matter of both (to wit, the obedience of faith required in both and the inheritance of eternal life promised through the imputation of the righteousness of faith, and the gracious adoption in Christ) (“Disputation XIII: On the Comparison of the Law and the Gospel,” Works , 1:539–48). The one object is Christ. The difference is in some accidentals which detract nothing from the substantial unity. But his followers speak differently. The apologists call the question concerning faith in Jesus Christ (“whether and how it had a place under the Old Testament”) “absurd, ambiguous and useless and there is certainly no passage where it appears that that faith was commanded or flourished under the Old Testament” (“Apologia pro confessione sive declaratione … Remonstrantes,” 7 in Episcopius, Operum theologicorum , Pt. II, p. 155). At length they distinguish the manner of revelation (clear or obscure) and say that faith in Jesus Christ was taught in the Old Testament neither openly and directly, but yet indirectly and obscurely comprehended and involved in the faith of the general favor and grace of God. They say the same thing concerning the promise of eternal life: “From this it is easy to gather what must be determined concerning the famous question, did the promise of eternal life have a place in the old covenant or rather was it comprehended in the covenant itself? For if special promises seem to be expressed in that old covenant, we must confess that no clear promise of eternal life can be found in them. If anyone thinks differently, it is his place to point out where it can be found, which I think cannot be done. But if there seem to be general promises, it must be confessed on the other part that they are such that the promise of eternal life should not only seem to come under, but also by the intention it ought to be believed to have come under them” (Episcopius, “Institutiones theologicae,” 3.4.1 Opera theologica , p. 156).
Of the Anabaptists.
IV. Many Anabaptists fall into the same error, as is evident from the Frankenthal Colloquy where they speak of the Israelite people as if they were a herd of swine, whom they jestingly say were fattened on this earth by the Lord without any hope of heavenly immortality (Protocoll … Frankenthal, Art. 15, 16 [J. Meier, 1573], pp. 292–335). They maintain that only temporal goods and earthly promises were granted to them. This was also the impious notion of Servetus, against whom Calvin solidly disputes (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.10 pp. 428–49).
Statement of the question.
V. From these things the state of the question can clearly be gathered. The question is not: (1) whether the covenant of grace was various as to accidentals and the different modes and degrees of dispensation and manifestation (for we confess that under this relation [schesei] there is a multiple difference between the Old and New Testament or the old and new economy, as will be proved in its proper place). Rather the question is whether it was the same as to substance and the essential parts of the covenant, i.e., both as to the covenanted themselves and as to the federal pact consisting in the mutual obligation of the parties. Whether the same Mediator (Christ) in both; the same faith in Christ; promises of the same spiritual and heavenly blessings; the same way of reconciliation and salvation—the economy and administration only of the covenant varying. This our opponents deny; we affirm.
VI. The question is not whether the fathers of the Old Testament were saved, whether their sins were pardoned, whether they had any hope of eternal life, whether Christ was predicted to them. Most of our adversaries do not dare deny this. Rather the question is whether they looked to Christ and were saved in the hope of his coming. Whether promises not only temporal, but also spiritual and heavenly concerning eternal life and the Holy Spirit were given to them. And whether the same covenant entered into with us in Christ had already been contracted with them, although more obscurely and reservedly. This they deny; we assert. We maintain that Christ was not only predicted but also promised to the fathers and by his grace they were saved under the Old Testament no less than we are saved under the New; nor was any other name given under heaven even from the beginning from which salvation could be hoped for (Acts 4:12) and that too according to the inviolable promise of the gratuitous covenant.
The identity of the covenant is proved: (1) from the Scriptures.
VII. The reasons are: First, in general, the Scriptures teach that the covenant of grace (which God contracted with us in the New Testament) is the same with the covenant previously made with Abraham. Hence Zachariah says in his song, “God visited and redeemed his people, as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began: to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; the oath which he sware to our father Abraham” (Lk. 1:68, 70, 72, 73). And Peter addressing the Jews concerning the days of Christ (which had been predicted by all the prophets) says, “Ye are 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). Paul mentions by name the promise of the gospel: “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). Hence he brings forward the justification of Abraham by faith as an example for us (Rom. 4:3) and exhibits him as “the father of the faithful” to the Jews as well as the Gentiles (which could not have been done if the covenant was not identical). This is confirmed by the fact that he calls the promise given to Abraham “the covenant that was before confirmed of God in Christ” (diathēkēn prokekyrōmenēn hypo tou Theou eis Christon, Gal. 3:17).
2. From the identity of the covenant of grace.
VIII. Second, in particular, from all the parts of the covenant of grace which were the same in both cases. Such is the clause of the covenant that God will be our God and the God of our seed; for as it had already been proposed to Abraham (Gen. 17:7) and renewed to Moses in a vision (Ex. 3:15) and frequently in legislation, confirmed in the captivity and after it (Ezk. 36:28), so no other was proposed in the covenant of grace as the foundation of all blessings, spiritual as well as celestial (Mt. 22:32; 2 Cor. 6:16; Rev. 21:3).
3. From the identity of the Mediator.
IX. Third, the identity of the Mediator (given in the Old and New Testament), the foundation of the covenant. He is the blessed seed of the woman who would bruise the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15 compared with Heb. 2:14 and Rom. 16:20), the seed of Abraham in whom all the nations of the earth were to be blessed (Gen. 22:18, viz., Christ—cf. Gal. 3:16); in the Old Testament “the angel of Jehovah’s presence” (Is. 63:9), “the angel of the covenant” (Mal. 3:1), “a covenant of the people and of the Gentiles,” i.e., its Mediator (Is. 42:6; 49:8), who bore the griefs of his people and was smitten for their sins (Is. 53:5, 6). In the New Testament, he is the Mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5); the Mediator of the New Testament and of a better covenant (Heb. 8:6; 9:15); “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8); by whose grace the fathers, no less than we, were saved (Acts 15:10, 11); to whom all the prophets bore testimony (Acts 10:43); the one sole name given under heaven by which we can be saved (Acts 4:12); the Way, the Truth and the Life, so that no one can come to the Father except by him (Jn. 14:6).
X. The objection to Heb. 13:8 is vain. Christ is said to be “the same yesterday, today and forever,” and it is supposed either that it treats of his doctrine, not concerning his person and the covenant made in it. If a doctrine is eternal, therefore also the person who delivers it and the covenant proposed in it is eternal. Or it is supposed that “yesterday” denotes the day of his flesh before his ascension and “today” the time after his ascension. This is repugnant to the aim of Paul, which is to exhort to constancy of faith, the argument being drawn from the identity and perpetuity of the gospel doctrine, of which Christ as Mediator is the object. Or that by “today” and “yesterday” is denoted a thing new and recent which commenced not very long ago (as men are said to be of “yesterday” in Job 8:9 and among the Greeks ephēmeroi [“beings of a day”] on account of the shortness of their lives). The expressions are very dissimilar. To be mthmvl (“from yesterday and the day before”) depresses human nature. But here Christ is said to have been yesterday and to be today and forever through all the differences of time, to denote his glory and eternity. Nor is he only said to be yesterday, today and forever, but the same, i.e., not different, either now or then or afterwards; but always and everywhere the same Jesus Christ. This could not be said if Christ had not even from the beginning been the Mediator of the covenant of grace and the Prophet and teacher of the church.
XI. Acts 15:11 cannot be understood of the apostles compared with the converted Gentile believers and not with the fathers of the Old Testament (as they maintain). For Peter had spoken proximately of the fathers and so the following words are fitly referred to them—“But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, we shall be saved, even as they (kath’ hon tropon kakeinoi).” (2) The design of Peter demands this. He wishes to prove that the yoke of the ceremonial law is not to be placed on the necks of the Gentiles for this reason—that the fathers themselves could not bear it, but were saved by the same grace of Christ as we. (3) If the apostles had wished to join themselves with the Gentiles in the manner of salvation, they would not have said we believe that we are saved even as they; but rather vice versa, they even as we. It did not become the apostles to follow the Gentiles and to set these before themselves as an example in the manner of salvation, but the contrary. (4) Nor is it absurd for Peter (discoursing concerning the manner in which the Gentiles should obtain salvation) to end with an argument taken from the fathers, because there is one method of salvation for all. If the yoke of the law was insufferable (abastakton) to the fathers, it is rightly inferred that the Gentiles are not to be subjected to that yoke.
XII. It is also falsely alleged that the words “There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) refer only to the time in which Christ was manifested and cannot be extended to the past. The words themselves disprove this interpretation. They do not assert that there is now no name given to men whereby they can be saved, but that no name is given among men (en anthrōpois) in all time. The thing itself demands this. For since no salvation can be granted to the sinner without a mediator (and there is no mediator except Christ), it follows either that the fathers had no salvation or that they were saved by Christ. Nor if the words are used in the present, are the past or the future excluded; but this is done that the truth of the mediation of Christ may be predicated of all time.
XIII. The words “from the foundation of the world” (apo katabolēs kosmou, Rev. 13:8) are not to be separated from those which immediately precede (“the Lamb slain”) and to be joined with “the book of life” by transposition (as is the case in Rev. 17:8). (1) There is no necessity for such a transposition doing violence to the series of the discourse, which flows far more smoothly when we thus read—“whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”—than according to the wish of our opponents—“whose names are written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb slain.” For as the book of life is said “to be the book of life of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:27), it ought not to be torn away from the words “of the Lamb slain” (arniou esphagmenou). (2) “The Lamb slain” is nowhere put by itself, but mention is always made either of the time from which or of the persons for whom (or for what causes) he was slain. (3) It is most properly said “slain from the foundation of the world”; not in himself, but intentionally, in the decree of God; objectively, in the promises of the word and the faith of the fathers; typically, in sacraments and sacrifices. (4) Even granting that the words are to be so explained, the force of the argument is not destroyed because no one can be written in the book of life, except in Christ slain (or in his death).
Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–97), 192–96 (12.5.1–13).
Thanks for these theological gems from the Reformation. They prove that the Reformers also struggled against those who would see God as dealing with his people differently, in the administration of a works covenant in the OC and the grace covenant only in the NC. Since God the Father gave a people to Christ, the Son, all things have been ordained to establish his preeminence. As the Saviour of all time. The Reformed understanding of the covenant of grace that unites all of redemptive history does just that. Clearly the Reformers saw it as central to the Reformation. That is why they insisted that the covenant sign, although the element was changed from blood to water since the blood had been shed, ought to be administered, “to you and to your children”.
“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Hebrews 13: 8
“He is the the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created….For God was pleased to have His fullness dwell in Him and through Him to reconcile all things all things, whether on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood shed on the cross. Col. 1: 15-19