Christ and the covenant of grace

A marriage covenant

The endearment and belovedness of the elect in God's sight is best expressed by depicting the divine-human relationship in terms of a marriage covenant. Marriage, as instituted by God, is a creation ordinance where a man seeks and finds true and lasting companionship with his partner, who is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

To a far greater and nobler extent, who transpires in human marriage is a reflection of the stronger bond that exists between Christ and his bride, the whole people whom he love and gave his life for. His cherishing and nourishing the church, giving his life for her, to sanctify her and present her to himself without spot is a high watermark of all revelation. Lost in wonder, Paul concludes by saying that this is a great mystery (Ephesians 5).

The unfolding of such a marvellous "diatheke" (covenant) is delineated by several of the prophets, who spoke the mind of Christ before his incarnation. In Isaiah 54:5-8 we read: "For thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall he be called. For the Lord hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth, when thou wast refused, saith they God. For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer."

Evidently, God's purpose is unshakeable, steadfast and sure, just like a husband who swears to his wife the he will be hers for ever. In God's inscrutable providence, oftentimes it appears that God has abandoned his people. When this happens it is because of our disobedience, when we provoke him, but he returns to us with "everlasting kindness." He has taken it upon himself to gather his people and bless them with peace.

Ezekiel 16 offers an extended version of God's dealings with his people. The covenant of grace is depicted thus: "Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness: yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord God, and thou becamest mine" (v.8).

Again, God's initiative is at the fore: he approached and initiated the marriage ceremony. We are at the receiving end; He is the giver of love, protection and mercy.

Jeremiah adopts the same language of marriage and the covenant several times. For instance: "Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the Lord; I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown" (2:2). The apostasy and obstinacy of God's people is made all the more heart-rending by reminding us of the covenant, with which we are bound to our Redeemer.

Hosea 2:14-23 is perhaps the most memorable among the prophets, where once again the restoration of Israel is seen under the terms of a marriage covenant. In this extended passage Israel calls her Maker, "Ishi," my husband. "And in that day I will make a covenant...And I will betroth thee unto me for ever" (v.18,19). After God's judgements there is still hope, a sure and infallible hope of restoration, not only for time but for all eternity.

A commercial bargain

"Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all the people; for all the earth is mine. And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (Exodus 19:4-5).

Before the establishment of the Mosaic covenant God spoke in such terms to Israel, reminding them of his grace in redemption and salvation from the yoke of bondage. Upon condition of their obedience ("if you will obey my voice indeed") they will remain his people, now that they have seen his outstretched arm working wonders and deliverance on their behalf.

Later on, when the covenant was ratified, we read: "And he (Moses) took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people; and they said, All that the Lord hath said we will do, and be obedient. And Moses took the book, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words" (Exodus 24:7-8). What covenant? The one established on Mount Sinai.

The ten commandments themselves are the treaty stipulations. God is Israel's Suzerain-King, to whom the people owe complete allegiance. He gave terms summarising the proper human response to God's gracious covenant (Genesis 17:2). The phrase "keep my covenant" always refers to fidelity to a previously revealed covenant. Since 6:4 has referred to the Exodus as the fulfilment of the patriarchal covenant, the revelation at Sinai must also be seen as an extension of the Abrahamic covenant. The whole earth is the Lord's and all it contains. The covenant God established with me is one-sided: God makes the terms, and obliges man to accept the terms. Contrarily, in a commercial bargain, two men discuss and amend the terms of agreement before finalising it. This can never be so in God's dealings with men; yet the terms and stipulations are certainly there.

A commercial bargain is best indicated in the dealing of Boaz with his nearest relative, so that he could marry Ruth. The narrative is a historical type of Christ, the Kinsman-Redeemer, who did whatever was necessary to acquire a bride for himself.

A last will and testament

"For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator liveth" (Hebrews 9:16-17).

Christ death inaugurates the new covenant, even as it brings redemption from the curse that rested on violator of the first covenant. The Greek work for "testament" (diatheke) is the same word translated "covenant" in this passage and elsewhere. Is signifies a disposition, an arrangement.

The point being made is that a death is required in order to secure what God promised to do. If the writer is not speaking of a last will, he is probably referring to the ratification of a covenant by means of a representative sacrifice such as is found in Genesis 15. The mention of the "testator" is strong proof that it is the death of Christ, not his life, which put into effect the new covenant with all its blessing. His sinless life qualified him to be the suitable sacrifice for sin, but it was his death that made the payment for sin. It could be that "testament" in v.16 corresponds closely to that of our present-day will. A will does not take effect until the one who made it dies. Until that time, its benefits and provisions are only promises, and necessarily future: the facts mentioned are simple and obvious.

But when God gave a legacy, an eternal inheritance to Israel in the form of a covenant, it was only a type of promissory note until the provider of the will died. At this point, no mention is made of who the testator is or how Christ fills that role in life and death. All this indicated the unity of the historical covenants: they are one, a later covenant always embellishing and making clearer an earlier one. The Davidic built on the Mosaic and the Mosaic on the Abrahamic. The New Covenant is the fulfilment of all: for at the commencement of the New Covenant (promised in Jeremiah 33) the necessary death occurred (the testator's death) and the promises found their yea and amen.

All covenants are but the outworking of the eternal covenant of grace.

Christ undertook His work in the interests of the covenant

First of all, we need to establish from Scripture the truth and reality of such a covenant. The plan of redemption was included in God's eternal decree. (Ephesians 1:4ff; 3:11; 2 Timothy 1:9). Christ refers to promises made to Him before he tabernacled among us, and often speaks about a commission which he received from the Father (John 5:30,43; 6:38-40; 17:4-12). Definitely He is a covenant head, just as Adam was (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:22).

In Psalm 2:7-9 the parties of the covenant are mentioned an a promise is indicated, and in Psalm 40:7-8 the Messiah expresses his readiness to do the Father's will in becoming a sacrifice for sin. Such an important doctrine (like the doctrine of the Trinity) is found throughout Scripture; it undergirds all God's dealings with man. What role does Christ fulfil in this covenant? He is not only the Head but also the Surety of the covenant of redemption (Hebrews 7:22). A surety is one who takes upon himself the legal obligations of another. Christ took the place of the sinner, to bear the penalty of sin and to meet the demands of the law for His people. By so doing he became the last Adam, the life-giving spirit (1 Corinthians 15:45).

For Christ this covenant could be spoken of as a covenant of works, for he met the requirements of the original covenant. For us it is all grace; for he did on our behalf what we could never do for ourselves. We receive the benefits which Christ merited by his active and passive obedience. We obtain the redemption and inherit the glory which Christ merited for sinners. Whatever Christ did he did as covenant head and representative of his people. "In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed."

In Paul's interpretation, seed refers to one, i.e., to Christ, as it is found in Matthew's opening of his Gospel: "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of Abraham..." He is prophet, priest and king for and over his people. Thus the Father required of the Son that he should assume human nature with its present infirmities, though without sin (Galatians 4:4-5; Hebrews 2:10-11,14-15; 4:15).

As we confess in the Creed, "He became man FOR US and for our salvation."

Furthermore, that he should place himself under the law to pay the penalty that we deserved and to merit eternal life for the elect, which they could never merit for themselves (Psalms 40:8; John 10:11; Galatians 1:4; 4:4-5). On behalf of the elect he assumed and fully discharged all violated conditions and incurred liabilities of the covenant of works (Matthew 5:17-18).

He accomplished this by rendering a perfect obedience to the precept of the law (Psalms 40:8; Isaiah 42:21; John 9:4-5; 8:29; Matthew 19:17).

Furthermore by suffering the full penalty incurred by the sins of his people (Isaiah 53; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; Ephesians 5:2).

This done, Christ was to apply his merits to his people by the renewing operation of the Holy Spirit. In this way he secured the consecration of their whole life to God (John 10:28; 17:19-22; Hebrews 5:7-9).

In no uncertain way Scripture speaks of Christ as our whole righteousness, wisdom, sanctification and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30). He underwent humiliation for this very purpose, to purchase us and make us co-heirs with him of glory.