The Confession of Faith: A commentary on The Westminster Confession of Faith
Of God's Covenant With Man
SECTION 1: THE distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he has been pleased to express by way of covenant.(1)
SECTION 2: THE first covenant made with man was a covenant of works,(2) wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity,(3) upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.(4)
Scripture Proof Texts
(1) Isa. 40:13-17; Job 9:32,33; 1 Sam. 2:25; Ps. 113:5,6; 100:2,3; Job 22: 2,3; 35:7,8; Luke 17:10; Acts 17:24,25. (2) Gal. 2:12. (3) Rom. 10:5; 5:12-20. (4) Gen. 2:17; Gal. 3:10.
Here we come to the duty which an intelligent creature owes its Creator, that it is essential and inalienable of the creature's being. Moreover, the enjoyment of the creator by the creature is wholly a matter of sovereign grace, manifest to man through the conditional promises (covenants) of God-the first of which concerned Adam, wherein the promise was life and the condition perfect, personal obedience.
1. The duty which an intelligent creature owes to its Creator is inalienable, and springs necessarily,-(1) From the absolute, imperative obligation which is of the essence of all that is morally right-which exercises authority over the will, but does not receive authority from it; and (2) From the relation of dependence and obligation involved in the very fact of being created. To be a created, intelligent, moral agent, is to be under all the obligation of obeying the will and of living for the glory of the absolute Owner and Governor.
2. The very act of creation brings the creature under obligation to the Creator, but it cannot bring the Creator into obligation to the creature. Creation itself, being a signal act of grace, cannot endow the beneficiary with a claim for more grace. If God, for instance, has created a man with an eye, it may be eminently consistent with the divine attributes, and a ground of fair anticipation, that at some time he who has given eyes will also give light; but, surely, the creation of the first can lay the foundation of no right upon the part of man for the gift of the second. And, of course, far less can the fact that in creation God endowed men with a religious nature lay the foundation of any right on their part for the infinitely more precious gift of the personal communications of his own ineffable love and grace. God cannot be bound to take all creatures naturally capable of it into the intimacies of his own society. If he does so, it is a matter of infinite condescension and sovereign will.
3. In the case of men and angels, God has been pleased to promise this transcendent benefit upon certain conditions; which conditional promise is called a covenant. There can be no doubt that this amazing gift of God's personal love and life-giving society had been offered to angels, and at the beginning was offered to the first human pair, upon conditions. Some object that the conditional promise made to Adam in the garden is not explicitly called a covenant, and that it does not possess all the essential elements of a covenant, since it was a constitution sovereignly ordained by the Creator without consulting the will of the creature. It is a sufficient answer to these objections-(1) That although Adam's will was not consulted, yet his will was unquestionably cordially consenting to this divine constitution and all the terms thereof, and hence the transaction did embrace all the elements of a covenant. (2) That instances of analogous transactions between God and men are expressly styled covenants in the Bible. If God's transactions with Noah (Gen. 9:11,12) and with Abraham (Gen. 17:1-21) were covenants, then was his transaction with Adam in the garden a covenant.
The analysis of a covenant always gives the following elements: (a) Its parties. (b) Its promise. (c) Its conditions. (d) Its penalty. As to its parties, our Standards teach-
In the first covenant that concerned mankind God dealt with Adam as the representative of all his descendants. The parties, therefore, are God and Adam, the latter representing the human race. That Adam did so act as the representative of his descendants, in such a sense that they were equally interested with himself in all the merit or the demerit, the reward or the penalty, attaching to his action during the period of probation, has already been proved to be the doctrine both of our Standards and of Scripture. (Ch. 6., ss. 3, 4.) As to the further nature of this covenant, our Standards teach-The promise of it was life, the condition of it perfect obedience, and the penalty of it death. (L. Cat., q. 20; S. Cat., q. 12.)
This covenant is variously styled, from one or other of these several elements. Thus, it is called the "covenant of works," because perfect obedience was its condition, and to distinguish it from the covenant of grace, which rests our salvation on a different basis altogether. It is also called the "covenant of life," because life was promised on condition of the obedience. It is also called a "legal covenant," because it demanded the literal fulfillment of the claims of the moral law as the condition of God's favor. This covenant was also in its essence a covenant of grace, in that it graciously promised life in the society of God as the freely-granted reward of an obedience already unconditionally due. Nevertheless it was a covenant of works and of law with respect to its demands and conditions.
(1) That the promise of the covenant was life is proved-(a) From the nature of the penalty, which is recorded in terms. If disobedience was linked to death, obedience must have been linked to life. (b) It is taught expressly in many passages of Scripture. Paul says, Rom. 10:5, "Moses describes the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which does those things shall live by them." (Matt. 19:16,17; Gal. 3:12; Lev. 18:5; Neh. 9:29.)
That the life promised was not mere continuance of existence is plain-(a) From the fact that the death threatened was not the mere extinction of existence. Adam experienced that death the very day he ate the forbidden fruit. The death threatened was exclusion from the communion of God. The life promised, therefore, must consist in the divine fellowship and the excellence and happiness thence resulting. (b) From the fact that mere existence was not in jeopardy. It is the character, not the fact, of continued existence which God suspended upon obedience. (c) Because the terms "life" and "death" are used in the Scriptures constantly to define two opposite spiritual conditions, which depend upon the relation of the soul to God. (John 5:24; 6:4; Rom. 6:23; 11:15; Eph. 2:1-3; 5:14; Rev. 3:1.)
(2) That the condition of the covenant was perfect obedience is plain from the fact-(a) That the divine law can demand no less. It is of the essence of all that is right that it is obligatory. James says, that "whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." James 2:10; Gal. 3:10; Deut. 27:26. (b) That the command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, relating to a thing indifferent in itself, was plainly designed to be a naked test of obedience, absolute and without limit.
(3) That the penalty of this covenant was death is distinctly stated: "In the day thou eatest thereof, dying thou shalt die." Gen. 3:17. This denoted a most lamentable state of existence, physical and moral, and not the cessation of existence or the dissolution of the union between soul and body, because-(a) It took effect in our first parents hundreds of years before the dissolution of that union. (b) Because the Scriptures constantly describe the moral and spiritual condition into which their descendants are born, and from which they are delivered by Christ, as a state of death. (Rev. 3:1; Eph. 2:1-5; 5:14; John 5:24.)
This death is a condition of increasing sin and misery, resulting from excision from the only source of life. It involves the entire person, soul and body, and continues as long as the cause continues.
SECTION 3: MAN by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second,(5) commonly called the covenant of grace: whereby he freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved;(6) and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.(7)
SECTION 4: THIS covenant of grace is frequently set forth in the Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.(8)
Scripture Proof Texts
(5) Gal. 3:21; Rom. 8:3; 3:20,21; Gen. 3:15; Isa. 42:6. (6) Mark 16:15,16; John 3:16; Rom. 10:6,9; Gal. 3:11. (7) Ezek. 36:26,27; John 6:44,45. (8) Heb. 9:15-17; 7:22; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25.
Since Adam forfeited for himself and his entire race the original promise of life upon the condition of perfect obedience, and incurred the penalty of death attached to disobedience, it follows that, if the old constitution is left without supplement or modification, man is lost. If mankind is to be saved, there must be a new and gracious intervention on the part of God. And if God intervenes to save men, it must be upon a definite plan, and upon certain definitely proclaimed and accurately fulfilled conditions. That is, a new covenant must be introduced, rendering life attainable to those who are to be saved on conditions different from those offered in the preceding constitution. The question, then, relates to what is revealed in the Scriptures as to the parties to whom the promise is made, and the conditions upon which it is suspended.
The Arminian view is, that Adam having lost the promise and incurred the penalty of the covenant which demanded perfect obedience, Christ's death having made it consistent with the claims of absolute justice, God for Christ's sake introduces a new covenant, styled the covenant of grace, offering to all men individually the eternal life forfeited by Adam on the lowered and graciously possible condition of faith and evangelical obedience. According to this view, the new covenant is just as much a covenant of works as the old one was; the only difference is that the works demanded are far less difficult, and we are graciously aided in our endeavors to accomplish them. According to this view, also, faith and evangelical obedience secure eternal life in the new covenant in the same way that perfect obedience did in the old covenant.
This view is plainly inconsistent with the nature of the gospel. The method of salvation presented in the gospel is no compromise of principle, no lowering of terms. Christ fulfills the old legal covenant absolutely; and then, on the foundation of what he has done, we exercise faith or trust, and through that trust we are made sharers in his righteousness and beneficiaries of his grace. Faith is not a work which Christ condescends in the gospel to accept instead of perfect obedience as the ground of salvation-it is only the hand whereby we clasp the person and work of our Redeemer, which is the true ground of salvation.
The Calvinist view, therefore, is, that God having determined to save the elect out of the mass of the race fallen in Adam, appointed his Son to become incarnate in our nature; and as the Christ, or God-man Mediator, he appointed him to be the second Adam and representative head of redeemed humanity; and as such entered into a covenant with him and with his seed in him. In this covenant the Mediator assumes in behalf of his elect seed the broken conditions of the old covenant of works precisely as Adam left them. Adam had failed to obey, and therefore forfeited life; he had sinned, and therefore incurred the endless penalty of death. Christ therefore suffered the penalty, and extinguished in behalf of all whom he represented the claims of the old covenant; and at the same time he rendered a perfect vicarious obedience, which was the very condition upon which eternal life had been originally offered. All this Christ does as a principal party with God to the covenant, in acting as the representative of his own people.
Subsequently, in the administration and gracious application of this covenant, Christ the Mediator offers the blessings secured by it to all men on the condition of faith-that is, he bids all men to lay hold of these blessings by the instrumentality of faith, and he promises that if they do so they shall certainly enjoy them; and he, as the mediatorial Surety of his people, insures for them that their faith and obedience shall not fail.
For the sake of simplicity, some Calvinist theologians have set forth the divine method of human redemption as embraced in two covenants The first, styled the "covenant of redemption," formed in eternity between the Father and Christ as principal, providing for the salvation of the elect; the second, styled the "covenant of grace," wherein life is offered to all men on the condition of faith, and secured to the elect through the agency of Him who, as "surety of the new covenant," insures the fulfillment of the condition in their case.
Our Standards say nothing of two covenants. They do not mention the covenant of redemption as distinct from the covenant of grace. But evidently the several passages which treat of this subject (Conf. Faith, ch. 7., s. 3; L. Cat., q. 31; S. Cat., q. 20) assume that there is but one covenant, contracted by Christ in behalf of the elect with God in eternity, and administered by him to the elect in the offers and ordinances of the gospel and in the gracious influences of his Spirit. The Larger Catechism in the place referred to teaches how the covenant of grace was contracted with Christ for his people. The Confession of Faith in these sections teaches how that same covenant is administered by Christ to his people.
The doctrine of our Standards and of Scripture may be stated in the following propositions:
1. At the basis of human redemption there is an eternal covenant or personal counsel between the Father, representing the entire Godhead, and the Son, who is to assume in the fullness of time a human element into his person, and to represent all his elect as their Mediator and Surety. The Scriptures make it very plain that the Father and the Son had a definite understanding (a) as to who were to be saved, (b) as to what Christ must do in order to save them, (c) as to how their personal salvation was to be accomplished, (d) as to all the blessings and advantages involved in their salvation, and (e) as to certain official rewards which were to accrue to the Mediator in consequence of his obedience.
(1) The Scriptures expressly declare that the Father has promised the Mediator the salvation of his seed on condition of "the travail of his soul." (Isa. 53:10,11; 13:6,7; Ps. 89:3, 4.)
(2) Christ makes constant reference to a previous commission he had received of his Father (John 10:18; Luke 22:29), and claims a reward conditioned upon the fulfillment of that commission. (John 17:4, 5.)
(3) Christ as Mediator constantly asserts that his people and his expected glory are given him as a reward by his Father. (John 17:2,24.)
2. The promise of this covenant was-(1) All needful preparation of Christ for his work. (Heb. 10:5; Isa. 13:1-7.) (2) Support in his work. (Luke 22:43.) (3) A glorious reward (a) In his own Theanthropic person as Mediator. (John 5:22; Ps. 110:1.) (b) In committing to his hand the universal administration of all the precious graces and blessings of the covenant. (Matt. 28:18; John 1:12; 7:39; 17:2; Acts 2:33.) (c) In the salvation of the elect, including all general and special provisions of grace, such as regeneration, justification, sanctification, perseverance, and glory. (Titus 3:5,6; Jer. 31:33; 32:40; Isa. 35:10; 53:10,11.)
3. The condition of this covenant was-(1) That he should be born of a woman, made under the law. (Gal. 4:4,5.) (2) That he should assume and discharge, in behalf of his elect, all the broken conditions and incurred liabilities of the covenant of works (Matt. 5:17,18),-(a) rendering that perfect obedience which is the condition of the promise of the old covenant (Ps. 40:8; Isa. 13:21; John 8:29; 9:4,5; Matt. 19:17), and (b) suffering the penalty of death incurred by the breaking of the old covenant, (Isa. 53:; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13; Eph. 5:2.)
4. Christ, as mediatorial King, administers to his people the benefits of his covenant; and by his providence, his Word, and his Spirit, he causes them to become severally recipients of these blessings, according to his will. These benefits he offers to all men in the gospel. He promises to grant them on the condition they are received. In the case of his own people, he works faith in them, and as their Surety engages for them and makes good all that is suspended upon or conveyed through their agency. In the whole sphere of our experience every Christian duty is a Christian grace; for we can fulfill the conditions of repentance and faith only as it is given to us by our Surety. All Christian graces also involve Christian duties. So that Christ at once purchases salvation for us, and applies salvation to us; commands us to do, and works in us to obey; offers us grace and eternal life on conditions, and gives us the conditions and the grace and the eternal life. What he gives us he expects us to exercise. What he demands of us he at once gives us. Viewed on God's side, faith and repentance are the gifts of the Son. Viewed on our side, they are duties and gracious experiences, the first symptoms of salvation begun-instruments wherewith further grace may be attained. Viewed in connection with the covenant of grace, they are elements of the promise of the Father to the Son, conditioned upon his mediatorial work. Viewed in relation to salvation, they are indices of its commencement and conditions sine qua non of its completion.
The present administration of this covenant by Christ, in one aspect, evidently bears a near analogy to a testament or will executed only consequent upon the death of the testator. And so in one passage our translators were correct in so translating the word diatheke. (Heb. 9:16,17.) But since Christ is an ever-living and constantly-acting Mediator, the same yesterday, today, and forever, this word, which expresses his present administration, should in every other instance have been translated "dispensation," instead of "testament." (2 Cor. 3:6,14; Gal. 3:15; Heb. 7:22; 12:24; 13:20.)
SECTION 5: THIS covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel;(9) 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,(10) 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,(11) by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.(12)
SECTION 6: UNDER the gospel, when Christ the substance(13) 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;(14) 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,(15) to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles;(16) and is called the New Testament.(17) There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.(18)
Scripture Proof Texts
(9) 2 Cor. 3:6-9. (10) Heb. 8:, 9:, 10:; Rom. 4:11; Col. 2:11,12; 1 Cor. 5:7. (11) 1 Cor. 10:1-4; Heb. 11:13; John 8:56. (12) Gal. 3:7-9, 14. (13) Col. 2:17. (14) Matt. 28:19,20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25. (15) Heb. 12:22-27; Jer. 31:33,34. (16) Matt. 28:19; Eph. 2:15-19. (17) Luke 22:20. (18) Gal. 3:14,16; Acts 15:11; Rom. 3:21-23,30; Ps. 32:1; Rom. 4:3,6,16,17,23,24; Heb. 13:8.
These sections teach us concerning the covenant of grace as it has been manifest in both the old and new dispensations.
1. The Covenant administered has from the beginning remained in all essential respects the same, in spite of all outward changes in its mode and administration. (1) Christ was the Savior of men before his advent, and he saved them on the same principles then as now. He was "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world," (Rev. 13:8); "a propitiation for the sins that are past," (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 9:15). He was promised to Adam and to Abraham as the Savior of the world. (Gen. 3:15; 17:7); 22:18. He was symbolically exhibited and typically prophesied by all the ceremonial and especially by the sacrificial system of the temple. (Col. 2:17; Heb. 10:1-10.) He was especially witnessed to as the Savior from sin by all the prophets. (Acts 10:43.) (2) Faith was the condition of salvation under the old dispensation in the same sense it is now. (Heb. 2:4; Ps. 2:12.) The Old Testament believers are set up for an example to those who are called to exercise faith under the New Testament. (Rom. 4:; Heb. 11:) (3) The same gracious promises of spiritual grace and eternal blessedness were administered then as now. (Compare Gen. 17:7 with Matt. 22:32; and Gen. 22:18 with Gal. 3:16. See, also, Isa. 43:25; Ps. 16:; 51:; 73:24-26; Ezek. 36:27; Job 19:25-27; Dan. 12:2,3.)
2. Under the old dispensation the covenant of grace was administered chiefly by types and symbolic ordinances, signifying beforehand the coming of Christ, and thus administration was almost exclusively confined to the Jewish nation with constantly increasing fullness and clearness- (1) From Adam to Abraham, in the promise to the woman (Gen. 3:15); the institution of bloody sacrifices; and the constant visible appearance and audible converse of Jehovah with his people. (2) From Abraham to Moses, the more definite promise given to Abraham (Gen. 17:7; 22:18), in the Church separated from the world, embraced in a special covenant, and sealed with the sacrament of Circumcision. (3) From Moses to Christ, the simple primitive rite of sacrifice developed into the elaborate ceremonial and significant symbolism of the temple service, the covenant enriched with new promises, the Church separated from the world by new barriers, and sealed with the additional sacrament of the Passover.
3. The present dispensation of the covenant is superior to the former one-(1) Because while it was formerly administered by Moses, a servant, it is now administered visibly and immediately by Christ, a son in his own house. Heb. 3:5,6. (2) The truth was then partly hid, partly revealed, in the types and symbols; now it is revealed in clear history and didactic teaching. (3) That revelation has been vastly increased, as well as rendered more clear, by the incarnation of Christ and the mission of the Holy Ghost. (4) That dispensation was so encumbered with ceremonies as to be comparatively carnal; the present dispensation is spiritual. (5) That was confined to one people: the present dispensation, disembarrassed from all national organizations, embraces the whole Earth. (6) That method of administration was preparatory: the present is final, as far as the present order of the world is concerned. It will give way only to that eternal administration of the covenant which shall be executed by the Lamb in the new heavens and the new earth, when there shall "be gathered together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth." (Eph. 1:10.) More than this is not yet made known.