Toward the end of my tenure at an evangelical megachurch, I met a young Dutch Reformed college student named Jason (he now serves as a pastor with me). We would sit and discuss dispensationalism and covenant theology. I distinctly remember wanting to rescue him from his obviously antisemitic “replacement theology.” He did not understand God’s promises to Israel. He was confusing the New Testament church with Old Testament Israel. He was also clinging to Papist doctrinal remnants like paedobaptism. This younger man was well-catechized and loved the Lord. He patiently pushed back against my arguments. At one point he asked me, “Have you ever read any covenant theologians? If you have not read their best thinkers, then how can you critique them so confidently?” I accepted that rebuke and began reading them.
After assiduously reading the works of various covenant theologians for about a year and working through their exegeses, I started to see the Bible’s continuity in a manner that stunned and delighted me. I began to see one glorious God who sent one gracious Savior to mercifully save his one elect people. I began to understand why my reformed brothers spoke of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace—they were distinguishing law and gospel under the federal heads of Adam and Christ.
Adam was the first federal head of God’s people. If he perfectly and perpetually obeyed God’s Law, he would merit eternal life for humanity. Sadly, Adam fell to the temptation of Satan, and transgressed God’s Law. In Adam’s fall, sinned we all. We are all guilty and corrupt in Adam. Thus, no man can keep the Law, and all men are condemned to die. We needed a second Adam to keep God’s righteous requirement for us, the one promised in Genesis 3:15. He was progressively revealed with greater clarity throughout the Old Testament Scriptures, particularly in each promised Old Testament covenant (Abraham, Moses, David, New). We see the fulfillment of all those promises in Jesus Christ. Christ kept the precept (active obedience) and the penalty (passive obedience) of the Law in our place. He fulfilled what Adam, Israel, and we could not. He paid the penalty of God’s just wrath for our sin. He died the death merited by our sin.
I finally started to get a grip on why we speak about the imputation of the active and passive obedience of Christ to us. I began to see how I was missing the distinction that Luther was aiming at with his “two words” of Law and Gospel. I saw how the covenant of works and the covenant of grace helped provide an overarching biblical structure for Law and Gospel. The Law is both a pedagogue that taught me my need for Christ. and a gracious guide that helped me walk in gratitude for the grace that was mine in Christ. Charles Spurgeon was right when he said,
The doctrine of the divine covenant lies at the root of all true theology. It has been said that he who well understands the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace is a master in divinity. I am persuaded that most of the mistakes which men make concerning the doctrines of Scripture are based upon fundamental errors with regard to the covenants of law and of grace.1
The unity of the Bible began to sing for me like never before. My expositional preaching shifted as I started to apprehend how to properly preach Christ in all the Scriptures. I was discovering the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, in a manner I had not before. Not only that, but my understanding of pastoral care and counseling was shifting as well. I knew what people needed above all else, was for their pastors to show them Christ in all the Scriptures. They needed to hear about their sin and misery, the grace of Christ, and be biblically instructed to walk in gratitude in Him.
This was an exciting time. Jason and I planted Sovereign Grace Church together.2 We wanted nothing more than to preach Christ to everyone who would listen. We were listening to the White Horse Inn and reading materials from Ligonier, Banner of Truth, and CCEF, as we were trying to figure out how to plant a “gospel-centered” church that honored the Lord and His Word. We read Michael Horton’s book, A Better Way, and started to shape a worship service in accordance with our newly discovered biblical convictions. Yet, we really had no idea where this was leading us. Well, maybe my young Dutch Reformed co-planter did.
1. Charles H. Spurgeon, “The Wondrous Covenant,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 58 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1912), 58: 517.
2. There was a whole team of people integral to that plant. Sovereign Grace is not the story of two men who planted a church. It is the story of a whole group of people whom the Lord captivated with his grace. We were a people experiencing a kind of reformation together.
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