Category Archives: Covenant Theology

Law and Righteousness in Scripture and Confession

Law and Righteousness in Scripture and Confession

Address as Incoming Moderator of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia
7 May 2007 by Rev Dr Rowland S. Ward

1. Consensus
It is obvious but often overlooked that the Westminster Standards, intended for the Christian Church in England, Scotland and Ireland, are very much consensus statements. That is, they endeavour to avoid deciding between different schools of thought which fall within the acceptable bounds of the Reformed faith, and they are often content to agree in practical conclusions even if there are different theoretical underpinnings.

Let me give you some examples:
(1) In framing the Form of Presbyterial Church Government it was not found possible to agree about the theory of eldership since most of the English had no experience of eldership. Passages we think are a biblical basis for eldership were applied exclusively to the pastors. Consequently, the compromise was reached which gave a place to elders without requiring that they be regarded, as they were by the Scots, as true presbyters.
(2) When preparing the Directory for the Public Worship of God the longest and most difficult debate was over whether it was essential to the observance of the Lord’s Supper to be seated at a table. The Scots insisted on this, the English thought sitting in the pews was in order, and neither gave way. So, after more than two weeks debate (!), they agreed a compromise. The relevant section of the Directory reads: “…the table being before decently covered, and so conveniently placed, that the congregation may orderly sit about it, or at it, the minister is to begin the action…” The words ‘about it’ allowed for reception in the pew, and the words ‘at it’ for reception at the table.
(3) In framing the Confession the approach appears to reflect the infra-lapsarian order of decrees, that is, God’s election logically follows the decree to permit the fall. However, the supra-lapsarian position of some members, which viewed election as logically prior to the decree to permit the fall, and thus emphasised God’s sovereignty but ran the risk of suggesting God created men in order to damn them, is not condemned. [In fact, as Derek Thomas has shown, the language is deliberately framed so as to allow each party to have its own sense.]
(4) Similarly, while justification has two parts – the non-imputation of sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness – the phrasing of WCF 11.1 allows for some difference of view on imputation since the Reformed did not always express this in terms of the imputation of Christ’s life of law keeping (active obedience). Among other ways of stating it was the view that we are counted righteous by virtue of union with Christ in his sacrificial death and justifying resurrection without reference to Christ’s own perfect life (although of course that  qualified him to be the perfect sacrifice for us).1
(5) In the basic structure of the covenant theology enshrined in the Confession there is some variation. WCF 7.1 seems to suggest man was created in an uncovenanted state and after his creation received the covenant of works/life, but WCF 19.1 appears to conflate the law written on the heart and the covenant arrangement of Genesis 2 as if he was created in covenant. Similarly, WLC 93 suggests a promise of life is attached to the keeping of the law written on the heart, but WCF 7.1 suggests the reward could only come by God condescending to enter into a post-creation covenant.  Even the question of the covenant of redemption distinct from the covenant of grace is left undecided by the WCF.  These studied ambiguities reflect the fact that a developed covenant theology was only 50 years old and would need another 30 years to reach a greater clarity on some points. It was sufficient for the purpose of a consensus creed in the 1640s to maintain the basic contours. Richard Muller puts it this way: ‘…the brief definition found in the Westminster Standards represents not a strict finalization of a dogma rigidly propounded, but a historical marker in an ongoing development. The formulators of the doctrine allowed for a significant flexibility in terms and definitions…’ 2
(6) Incidentally, while the precise nature of the creation days was not under any discussion in the 1640s, and no challenge from wider knowledge had arisen to give cause for it, one can note the careful lack of definition of the length of the days beyond the language of Scripture.

These remarks are useful I think as they serve to keep us from a kind of approach that treats the Confession as the final word or the always adequate word. The Confession is not Scripture. Nevertheless, we confess that its doctrine is Biblical.

2. Commitment
However, just because the Confession is a consensus creed does not mean that we can take bypaths off the highway it represents. It hardly accords with belief in a consensus creed to be magnifying issues not in it, something I hope our experience a generation ago with versions of Scripture has taught us. By the same token, what is in a Confession is what is important, and we need to be much in the main things it sets forth. If we affirm doctrines as Scriptural we need to maintain them. This is not to anathematise those Christians who differ from us, or even to regard as not Reformed those who have a different viewpoint on some matters which we hold, but it is to uphold the integrity of those who have taken vows before the Lord.

To ensure this we must train our students well, not simply in systematic doctrine but in historical context. Our Confession and Catechisms must not be museum pieces, reverenced but not used. Some 50 years ago the late Rev Arthur Allen of Sydney PCEA did much to contribute to recovering our self-conscious Reformed character by importing copies of our Standards which were not then readily available in Australia. We had slipped a bit and it can happen again.

If the passing of time can also result in various traditions about the Confession’s meaning arising, it is also important to be aware of how people can use some perfectly proper lack of definition to bring in, inadvertently or deliberately, revisions of the doctrines we confess.

In the conservative Presbyterian churches in the United States there has been considerable ferment on the subject of justification and related doctrines. The controversy is complicated by a lack of adequate understanding of the Confession and of Reformed orthodoxy from the classic period. You have a man like Dr Meredith Kline seeking to uphold the Confession’s teaching of a covenant of works yet explaining that covenant in terms of a merit based legal scheme foreign to the Westminster Divines. You have Norman Shepherd rightly wanting to emphasise the filial relationship between God and Adam yet denying the legal and a covenant of works. In some respects they divide the truth between them. Add into the mix the debate over the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), and the recent prominence of Federal Vision teaching, and you can see how confusing things can get. Discussion is made no easier by those who are motivated by a bitter hostility to the OPC for other issues and see the current issues an easy target for more of the same. Again, ordinary believers may be easily alarmed either because they do not adequately grasp that the faith that alone justifies is never alone, or because they see that there is indeed a very real threat to the stability of a crucial Christian doctrine.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has published a Report on Justification received by its 2006 General Assembly, while the Presbyterian Church in America has prepared a Report for their General Assembly later this year. In Australia the influence of N.T.Wright’s advocacy of a new perspective on Paul, particularly in Anglican circles, is evident. In Hobart one Presbyterian congregation recently lost several families who among other things have been influenced by the Federal Vision. It is probable that the impact will be less in rural areas, but we can expect some impact even in our own circles. The Presbyterian Church of Victoria discussed the New Perspective at its Commission last week. We can expect to hear more of it in coming days.

I thought therefore to try and outline some of the issues connected with the present ferment, with a view to gaining some benefit from the challenge to long established doctrine. It does not hurt us to think through our doctrines in the light of challenges which come from other believers, however mistaken we may consider them. In this way we may extract some advantage from controversy, even though in most respects the challenges were raised centuries ago and refuted then.

3. Contendings
Particularly over the last 30 years there have been voices raised suggesting a new look at Paul’s theology which has resulted in the school of thought known as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) although there are variations so we might more accurately speak of new perspectives. The more relevant formulation of the NPP for us is that advanced by N.T.Wright, currently the Anglican Bishop of Durham, and a man who far from being a liberal actually has definite evangelical and Reformed credentials and is surely on the side of the angels, even if we think him muddled or plain wrong on some matters.

The main features of the NPP may be summarised the following way.

Luther read Paul in the light of his controversy with Rome’s teaching on merit and his own troubled conscience, and the Protestant church has tended to read Paul through Luther ever since. But Paul was not concerned with teaching on merit, since Judaism was not a merit-based religion, nor was Paul troubled by an introspective conscience.

Reading the NT against his understanding of Judaism in that period, Wright claims that the big question was, ‘How would God vindicate the covenant people of God seeing that they lived as it were in exile under Roman rule rather than ruling over the nations as God had promised Abraham?’ Justification for such a person carried the meaning of ‘being vindicated’ or ‘in the right’, and God’s ‘righteousness’ meant his ‘covenant faithfulness’ and ‘righteousness’ in regard to a human being means ‘membership in the covenant.’

For Wright, God had showed his faithfulness in Jesus who fulfilled the covenant promise God made to Abraham and took the curses of the covenant due to Israel. Jesus was the faithful representative Israelite who dealt with sin by paying the price for it. Before Jesus’ resurrection loyalty to God’s covenant was seen in faithful observance of boundary markers such as circumcision, food laws and Sabbath, not in a legalistic self-righteous way. Now it is seen in faith in the risen Jesus, thus opening the way for the inclusion of Gentiles. Those with such faith are among the people of God who will be vindicated before the world at the climax of history. The problem Paul confronted was not self-righteous legalism on the part of the Jews but their insistence that Gentiles observe the Jewish boundary markers of the ceremonial law.

For Paul justification was not about one’s position before the bar of God’s justice but about one’s inclusion among the people of God. The judge was addressing the question ‘Who are God’s people?’ not, ‘Who is righteous in God’s sight?’  It was an ecclesiastical issue not a matter of declaring a person righteous before God. Further, in the law court the judge does not acquit a guilty person by reckoning someone else’s righteousness to him. If he is in the right he is declared to be so. Thus, if he is among the covenant people he is in the right and will be vindicated on the basis of his entire life at the end. This vindication is not a declaration of moral uprightness but that the person is a true member of the covenant.

So far Wright and the New Perspective.

4. Critique
There are some things we can agree with right away.

(1) Judaism was/is not a merit based religion in the teaching of the OT. God set his love on Israel according to his gracious election and not according to what Israel deserved. The law was given to a redeemed people.3 Jews did not doubt they were God’s people. The chief issue in their eyes was remaining in his covenant with him – staying saved, if you will.

(2) We readily acknowledge the great significance of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God without the necessity of observing Jewish distinctives. The true Israel is not replaced but expanded by the inclusion of believing Gentiles. This was indeed the mystery hidden in earlier times (Eph 3:6).

(3) We need to recover an emphasis on the significance of the resurrection of Jesus for Christian faith and life and not treat it as a mere appendage to the atoning death of Jesus.

(4) We should not underestimate the excessive individualism in much of evangelicalism today which discounts the importance of the church as the people of God and fosters an inner-personal religious experience neglecting the call to loving communal service here and now. (Indeed, without denying the element of truth in the terms the NT does not call on people to receive Christ as ‘personal Saviour’, but calls on us to turn from our own sinful ways and acknowledge Jesus is now Ruler of the world, the only source of life and salvation.)

But on certain key issues we reject Wright’s formulation.

(1) Although the OT faith of Israel was not merit based but rooted in the electing grace of God, the practical reality of law-keeping for salvation can easily be present, as we know in our personal experience and also from the NT. Roman Catholicism is not a religion of merit either, but emphasises the necessity of God’s grace, yet in effect human merit was very much to the fore in Luther’s day as it is in our own.  Neither Paul or Luther were combating those who held to a crass version of salvation exclusively by works. We need to be careful of caricatures, yet the NT is first hand evidence of attitudes, and much was clearly in the category of self-righteousness.

(2) The NT shows that Judaism was heavily influenced by the idea that law keeping was necessary to secure God’s intervention for the nation’s restoration. In this light, Paul’s quite opposite emphasis – that God has acted already in Jesus Christ so that the life of real obedience flows from the crucified and exalted Jesus – is naturally set in the sharpest contrast to law keeping as the means of salvation.4

(3) While understanding NT Judaism correctly is important, discussing justification in the context of vindication before the world rather than before the bar of God’s justice – which is the overall context of Scripture – is fundamentally flawed. Paul’s views are formed by Scripture and in fact there are no references to rabbinical sources from the Second Temple period is his writing. Thus Paul’s teaching of the pervasive depravity of humanity is not typical of NT Judaism or of Judaism today either. Further, neither the later Augustine or Luther or the other magisterial Reformers regarded Romans 7 as the struggle of a person with an introspective conscience seeking justification, but as expressive of the conflict in the already justified.5

(4) Ordinarily, ‘righteousness’ is what one ought to do, and is set over against sin, which is what one ought not to do. The one who does righteousness is righteous (1 Jn 3:7). The good spelled out in the law is what Jews and non-Jews alike must do and all will be judged accordingly (Rom 1:18-3:20). Understanding righteousness as covenant faithfulness just does not fit in many contexts.

(5) There is also a righteousness which is extraordinary. It is ‘from God’ (Rom 3:21; 1 Cor 1:30; Phil 3:9), it is a ‘gift’ (Rom 5:17) and enables God ‘to be just and yet the justifier of whoever believes in Jesus’ (Rom 3:25-26) since it is through the obedience of Christ that sinners are made righteous (Rom 5:19). Wright may say, as he does say, ‘Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas that can be passed around the courtroom.’6 Yet there we have it in Scripture as God’s gift grounded on Christ’s obedience, and all the cries of ‘legal fiction’ cannot remove it. Consequently, the reality of imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, however absurd it may seem, is not an unbiblical category although there may be different ways of stating it, some more adequate than others.

(6) In Scripture justify/justification is mostly law court language, a declaration one is righteous and thus it is the opposite of condemnation (Prov 17:15; Rom 5:16; 8:34). In salvation contexts it is not a declaration of righteousness at the end of a process of moral renovation, but it is the declaration of righteousness before the bar of God’s justice here and now. It is a once-for-all-time declaration of a right standing with God so that peace with God is enjoyed now (Rom 5:1), and the wrath of God will not be experienced in the future (Rom 5:9).

(7) If we speak, as we may, of a future justification, then it is only the public recognition of what is granted in God’s grace in this life now when we come to faith in Jesus Christ. Wright’s view appears to be that Christ’s death and resurrection sets his people free from the guilt and power of sin, and the work of the Spirit enables them to conform to the God’s law so that in the end a favourable verdict is secured and they are vindicated in the Judgement. While Wright rejects the merit of the believer’s life since his good deeds are wrought through the Spirit, yet it is hard to escape the view that in the last analysis the focus is on our own covenant keeping.7

In reviewing the NPP Michael F. Bird’s summary is very much to the point: ‘Paul’s entire conception of Christ, the law, and salvation is mystifying apart from the assumption that he also attacked a form of grace-works synergism that was implicit in the attempt to force Gentiles to adopt a Jewish lifestyle.’ 8

It is also helpful in discussing these issues to recognise the value of biblical theology so that we do not tend to treat the benefits received from Christ as successive links in a chain, as we sometimes seem to do in our systematic analysis.9 Rather, the union and communion the believer has with Christ is manifested in many benefits, as the Larger Catechism puts it. These are not links in a chain accessed one after the other but are complementary – distinct from each other yet inseparable, since Christ cannot be divided and those united to him share in all his benefits.10 To the same effect is Calvin’s comment concerning union with Christ: ‘We do not’, he says, ‘contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body – in short because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.’11

This approach enables us to more convincingly say that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer is not a legal fiction but a benefit of union with Christ, and that justification by faith does not render sanctification unnecessary, since both justification, including imputation of righteousness, and sanctification are each among the benefits that are ours by virtue of our union with the crucified and risen Saviour. Thus, John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan rightly states: ‘Justification by faith is the meeting-point of many doctrines, a rallying centre of theology; but it is not the foundation doctrine.’12 That it is the meeting point of many doctrines makes the NPP so significant in its potential impact. Duncan also says that the Person of Christ is fundamental, and we might add, that union with Christ is at the heart of any Biblical doctrine of salvation. We ever need to remember that we are not saved by believing in justification by grace through faith, but we are saved by believing in a Person.

Norman Shepherd
Another part of the current confusion relates to the teaching of Norman Shepherd who was groomed as the successor to Professor John Murray at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and taught there 1962-81. Shepherd noted that Murray had not dealt with the statements about being justified by works found in the Epistle of James. His own endeavour to deal fairly with this material led to a significant reworking of the traditional understanding of covenant and justification.13 I think it rather clear that the influence of Berkouwer, under whom Shepherd did some post-graduate studies, is evident, since Shepherd came up with the idea, that is found in some Dutch Reformed theology, that the covenant of works is wholly gracious and that any concept of work or merit in the covenant relationship, whether with Adam, Christ, or believers is alien to Scripture. Like the Torrance brothers he stressed the filial and the obligation of love and faithfulness on the part of both God and man in the covenant. He rejected a covenant of works and posited a covenant of grace. The life Adam received and the life he was promised are not clearly connected with an obedient probation. The obligation in the covenant today is the same obligation Adam pre-fall. In short Christ has achieved forgiveness by his death, but it is easy to suppose we are put in the situation where our covenant faithfulness is the way to salvation. Shepherd does not affirm the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, while his faith/faithfulness language makes it east to suppose a dual instrumentality of faith and works for salvation. It’s not a very satisfactory formulation.

Federal Vision
The Federal Vision (also known as the Auburn Avenue theology from the church in Louisiana where it came to prominence at a pastors’ conference in January 2002) has many similarities with NPP and with Norman Shepherd. Leading persons include Steve Wilkins, Doug Wilson, Rich Lusk, James B. Jordan and Ralph A. Smith. It is not a monolithic group, but generally shares an interest in the Trinity as the pattern for the divine-human relationship. As with Shepherd there is one covenant of grace beginning pre-fall with Adam. There is a high church emphasis, including in liturgy and sacramental practice, which deviates in some measure from Presbyterian principles.14

5. Conclusion
Looking now to a review of these teachings it is easy to see that one’s view of the God’s relationship with Adam pre-fall impacts on our understanding of justification. That some have rejected a covenant of works altogether may in part be attributed to reaction from poor formulations. While our Confession is not full it does give the major contours. In regard to the first covenant with man, we affirm that it was one arising from the divine benevolence and required the obedience of Adam as the pathway to life. We should not represent that relationship as one in which Adam was a servant who could attain sonship by obedience,15 any more than we should represent it as working for wages.16 Rather, Adam was the created son of God (Luke 3.38) who would receive his inheritance of life in the pathway of obedience, not because he deserved it but because God is good and desires to crown his son’s life with abiding blessing.

Adam’s disobedience plunges the race into misery. To bring redemption both full satisfaction for sin and the accomplishment of perfect obedience will be necessary. We cannot do this but Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God in our nature, can and does, so that we may receive in him the promised inheritance as a free gift. Our sins are not counted against us but are imputed to the sinless Christ and he pays the price for them, while his righteousness is imputed to believers.

We may locate this imputed righteousness in the obedient law-keeping of Jesus Christ (what has been called his active obedience) rather than in his obedience in his death (what has been called the passive righteousness since it involved suffering). This is the traditional form enabling us to say that justification is not simply God treating us “just as if I’d” never sinned but also “just as if I’d” fully obeyed, which, in Jesus, is true. We may speak of this as an alien righteousness, wrought outside of us by Christ, so long as we also remember that this alien righteousness is ours along with all other saving benefits by virtue of union with Christ.17 Theologically we are on the mark but biblically we should locate Christ’s righteousness in the vindication he received in his resurrection. The crediting of righteousness is intimately lined with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead in Rom 4:24 and so we immediately go on to read that ‘he was handed over to death because of our offences and raised to life for our justification’ (Rom 4:25). If Adam brought condemnation for all through his one act of disobedience, Jesus by his one act of righteousness/obedience – his obedience to the command to die which summed up the whole course of his life – has gained justifying life (Rom 5:18-19). Rejected of men, but accepted by the Father, he is now the Righteous One.   ‘God made him who had no sin was made sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor 5:21).

This is our faith. Here is our confidence.


1 The omission of the word ‘whole’ before ‘obedience’ when the Assembly was revising the Thirty-nine Articles in 1643 was regarded as leaving room for such views. While not accepted at that point, the word is omitted in the corresponding section (11.1) of the Confession in 1646.  Note Chad B. Van Dixhoorn’s (reluctant) conclusion that the consensus was intended in his PhD noted in J.R.Daniel Kirk, ‘The Sufficiency of the Cross’ SBET 24.1 (2006) 35-39; also in Justification: A Report from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Willow Grove, 2007) 141-145, in which, while recognising Van Dixhoorn’s conclusion, reliance is also placed on the customary sense given in the OPC as determining that the imputation of Christ’s active obedience is required in the OPC. (J. Gresham Machen’s famous dying words, ‘Thank God for the active obedience of Christ, no hope without it’ are relevant, as he was the key leader of those who founded the OPC.) Note the interesting debate on justification in September 1643 outlined in Chad B. Van Dixhoorn, A Day at the Westminster Assembly (London: Congregational Memorial Hall Trust (1978) Ltd, 2005), especially p. 23. In the Independents’ revision of the WCF called the Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order (1658) one sees a very explicit insistence on the imputation of Christ’s entire life of obedience as well as his death.
2 Richard A. Muller in R.A.Muller & R.S.Ward, Scripture and Worship (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2007) 70.
3 Cf. the answer to Shorter Catechism 44: ‘What does the preface to the ten commandments teach us?’
4 This point is well made by a former supporter of the NPP in Francis Watson, “Not the New Perspective” – an unpublished paper delivered at the British New Testament Conference, Manchester, September 2001. accessed 5 Jan 2004.
5 One might note the essentially similar positions on justification in Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Wesley outlined in Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 3-87.
6 N.T.Wright, What St Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1997) 98.
7 Notice the comment of Herman Ridderbos: ‘Every attempt to make certain reductions from the absolutely unanalytical character of this justification of the ungodly, whether understanding justification as an anticipatory pronouncement on the ground of the subsequent ethical transformation of the ungodly, or by looking on the judicial aspect of the work of God in justification in unity with the ethical aspect of the work of God in sanctification, indwelling, etc., must be rejected as a violation or obscuring of the specific significance of Paul’s pronouncement.’ Paul: An Outline of his Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 174-175:
8 Michael F. Bird, The Saving Righteousness of God (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007) 112.
9 Hugh Martin (1821-85) sagely observes: ‘Now it is surely injudicious and impolitic for defenders of the faith to discuss any scriptural doctrine, and particularly to profess to do so fully and exhaustively, outside of any greater category to which the doctrine properly and natively belongs. For by doing so they place it in a position of unnecessary danger, and assign to themselves a greater difficulty in defending it than Scripture assigns to them. The Atonement in its Relation to the Covenant, the Priesthood, the Intercession of our Lord (Edinburgh: Knox Press, 1976) 9-10.
10 So Richard. B. Gaffin, Jr, ‘Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards’ in WTJ 65 (2003) 173ff.; also Robert Letham, The Work of Christ (Downers Grove 1993) 177ff
11 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion [trans F.L.Battles] (Philadelphia: Westminster 1960) 3.11.10.
12 John M. Brentnall, ‘Just a Talker’ Sayings of John (‘Rabbi’) Duncan (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1997) 102.
13 In a letter to Allan M. Harman 19 December 1980 Shepherd so explains the origin of the controversy that began in 1975.
14 On true Presbyterian principles of baptism see my review of L.B.Schenck’s The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant in The Confessional Presbyterian 2 (2006) 181-184. On worship see my essays on The Directory for the Public Worship of God in R.A.Muller & R.S.Ward, Scripture and Worship (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2007) 85-140.
15 As in the theologies of J.H.Thornwell and of  R.L.Dabney.
16 As in Charles Hodge and Abraham Kuyper.
17 R.B.Gaffin, op. cit., 178

Review: The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant

REVIEW: Lewis Bevans Schenck, The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant

(Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing 2003). lge. pbk., xx + 188 pp.


Reviewed by Rev Dr Rowland S. Ward, minister of Knox Presbyterian Church, Melbourne, Australia.
This review appeared in the Confessional Presbyterian, Vol 2 (2006) pp 181-184


The republication of this historical study of the significance of infant baptism in the Presbyterian Church should be welcomed by conservative Presbyterians even if they find cause to disagree with some of the author’s arguments, and are less than satisfied by aspects of his historical reconstruction and arrangement. The modern introduction by Frank A. James III enhances the volume, and there is a useful bibliography and an index.

Dr Lewis Bevans Schenck (1898-1985) was a North Carolina man descended from German stock and brought up in an Episcopal home. He joined the Presbyterian Church as a young man, trained for the ministry at Union Seminary, Virginia, was ordained in 1924 and served in West Virginia as an assistant pastor. Realising his call to teach rather than pastor, he earned a ThM from Princeton in 1926, and taught at Davidson College, North Carolina 1927-66. The book now reviewed was first published in 1940 as a revised form of his 1938 Yale doctoral dissertation.

Schenck held that the place of children in the Presbyterian Church had become confused through the impact of revivalism so that the key role of the nurture of the church and family was neglected because of the excessive emphasis on a conscious conversion experience. I would imagine that Dr Schenck may have been influenced by neo-orthodoxy in his overall teaching career, but his book draws almost exclusively on orthodox Presbyterian theologians to illustrate its thesis, and should be judged on its merits.

The first chapter (pp. 3-52) is foundational, for it seeks to answer the question, ‘What is the historic doctrine of the Presbyterian Church concerning children in the covenant?’ Schenck shows that Calvin taught that (1) the Abrahamic promise – ‘I will be God to you and to your seed after you’ – was a spiritual covenant including the promise of eternal life; (2) baptism for both adults and children had the significance of a seal of purification and forgiveness of sins as well as a seal of ‘regeneration’, by which term Calvin meant not only the inception of new life but its outworking in sanctification throughout life; (3) children are not baptised to make them children of the covenant but because they are already in covenant according to God’s promise; (4) as Jesus embraced the little children brought to him, we would need a good reason to refuse to admit children of believers to baptism, since baptism is a symbol of our communion and association with Christ; (5) admission to church membership is always on the basis of a credible profession of faith on the part of older persons but their children also have the right of church membership by virtue of God’s promise; both classes are presumptively Christians in the judgment of charity, and should be treated accordingly so as to grow and develop in Christian character; (6) baptism is not a mere empty sign, nor does it automatically convey grace; rather, it confirms and seals what is already true in the promise of God; (7) it is certain some infants are saved and therefore such infants must have been regenerated, and our inability to observe or understand this is no argument against it; indeed, the promise of God assures us that covenant children dying in infancy are saved; (8) against those who say only those able to profess repentance and faith should be admitted to the church, the response must be that only those who are presumptively Christ‘s children should be admitted, and this includes the children of believers, since the promise of God is a true pledge of adoption to them; further, the entirety of what is represented in baptism need not be present at the time the sign is administered to children, anymore than was the case with circumcision.

Schenck then more briefly reviews the teaching of Zwingli, Bullinger, Knox and the European Reformed Confessions, concluding with the Westminster Standards, and finds them in agreement with Calvin. One could note the Westminster Directory: ‘That the promise is made to believers and their seed; and that the seed and posterity of the faithful, born within the Church, have, by their birth, interest in the covenant.’ Again, ‘…they are Christians, and federally holy before baptism, and therefore are they baptised.’

In this lengthy first chapter there are a few matters one would express differently. For example, Schenck’s comments on Cocceius (pp. 33-34) are really out of sequence. Also, in the way common in earlier scholarship, they overstate the role of the German/Dutch theologian in formulating traditional covenant theology. Such was quite mature before Cocceius wrote his first work in 1648, and Schenck unconsciously concedes this in his references to the Puritans on page 43. In reviewing the Westminster Directory for Public Worship no notice is taken of the possible significance of the omission of specified questions for parents presenting their children for baptism from the final text. But these points do not affect Schenck’s basic outline, which, to my mind, fairly represents the historic Reformed doctrine. However, in view of the points developed in Schenck’s next chapter some elaboration of the early Reformed position would have been appropriate.

In his second chapter (pp. 53-79), Schenck considers the development of revivalism. His essential argument is that modifications of the traditional doctrine encouraged formalism and in reaction produced a stress on conscious crisis conversion as the only true evidence of salvation, an experience also demanded of children.

Strikingly enough, Schenck begins with Samuel Rutherford (1600-61) who advocated baptism of the children of all who would seriously attend on the preaching of the word irrespective of whether they professed saving faith. One has some question as to the appropriateness of the citation of Rutherford in this connection. (1) As one of the Scottish Commissioners at the Westminster Assembly, it should hardly be supposed without adducing argument that Rutherford varied from the Westminster Standards with whose formulation he had had so much to do. (2) Schenck does not seem to have read Rutherford except through his secondary source, John Macpherson’s fine work, The Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology (Edinburgh, 1903), Schenck even overlooks Macpherson’s references (p. 86) to many other writers, whom Boston sought to confute, who held similar views to Rutherford, nor does he consider that assertion of a principle, as in Calvin and the Confessions, need not exclude some modifications found needful in the complexity of practical application. For example, in 1570, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland decided that children of excommunicated persons might be baptised if presented by a faithful member of the church. As for other writers, William Bucan (d. 1605) of Lausanne argued for the baptism of the infants of the faithful and those born of baptised parents, even those who are unfaithful, since the sins of the fathers should not be visited upon the children and their seed is contained in the covenant promise. He adds, ‘Neither is the piety of the next parents to be considered so much as the piety of the church in which they are born, and which is, as it were, their mother; as likewise their ancestors who lived godly.’ He cites Romans 11:16, ‘if the root be holy,’ that is, the first parents, ‘so are the branches,’ and supports the baptism of the children of the excommunicated and also of the children of Papists, noting that the children of unbelieving Jews were still circumcised. So Rutherford was not quite the innovator Schenck suggests.

When we further consider the careful discrimination of the old Reformed in their insistence that the distinction between the visible and invisible church must be consistently maintained, and thus only visible profession is essential for the one and invisible grace for the other, we can understand better where Rutherford and others are coming from. However, this is not to deny that there was formalism in the church of the early 18th century, but the reason I think is more related to the greater laxity in practical oversight when compared to Rutherford’s day, although this is not to say that Rutherford’s view, shared by people like Richard Baxter, is beyond criticism. Macpherson suggests (p. 90) that Rutherford’s concern was for the salvation of sinners, that many were called to the privilege of hearing, and should be encouraged so that they might become of the elect. On the other hand, in the early 18th century Thomas Boston opposed Rutherford’s position, without naming him, out of the same concern for the salvation of sinners. He saw in the formalism and false peace of his day a hindrance to salvation. It’s probably fair to say that Rutherford at least tested the boundaries of Westminster doctrine in some respects, whereas Boston made some excellent points but ran the risk of advocating a visible profession that required a man to be a believer rather than a credible professor. Schenck seems to think Boston was a reversion to the original doctrine (p. 54), and that people like Bowles and Baxter agreed with him. Here he misreads Macpherson who says the very opposite (p. 86). In the sense that looking for marks of grace to qualify for church membership was characteristic of revivalism, we might look more to Boston for a precursor.

Schenck is on somewhat better ground in his references to the Half-Way Covenant in New England, although even here he does not trace the relevant matter of the interest in felt experience to its New England origins. The story is well known. In 1662 some Massachusetts Puritans agreed to a half-way membership status for those who had been baptised as infants but were not able to testify to a conversion experience. Such could still have their children baptised if they acknowledged God’s claims on their lives and accepted the church’s discipline despite their unwillingness to profess faith in Christ. A further step was taken in 1707 by Solomon Stoddart. He treated the Lord’s Supper as a converting ordinance and allowed the unconverted to partake. Much coldness and formality became characteristic of the churches of New England leading to eventual reaction.

My take on revivalism is to indeed recognise the impact of formalism, which was widespread, to note that the earnestness of the mid 17th century was missing in the early 18th century, and that to some degree the wrong use of the visible/invisible church distinction was to blame. But the inevitable reaction did not revert to the Westminster and early Calvinist doctrine, but to an emphasis on religious experience. Why so? In part it can be seen as a pendulum swing, somewhat like the rise of Pentecostalism in the face of 20th century liberalism. But it also can be seen as taking up the separatist idea of the church as comprised of a regenerate membership. The early Puritans had not required such a test of conversion. Edmund S. Morgan argues that this practice originated in Massachusetts, spread to Plymouth, New Haven and Connecticut and back to England. This is surely relevant in assessing the historical development, but Schenck does not refer to it.

In the 1730s and 1740s the first Great Awakening found fertile soil in the formal worship in many churches and among the many unchurched on the frontier. The emphasis on experience, and the revivalistic emphasis fostered at the Tennant’s Log College, impacted on Presbyterians. The reaction to formalism produced a stress on conscious, crisis conversion as the only true evidence of salvation, an experience also demanded of children. Thus the only way to God was popularly seen as involving terror and misery arising from conviction of sin preparatory to the experience of God’s love and peace. The 1741-58 Old Side/New Side division of Presbyterians resulted. After reunion there was a period of indifference until the Great Revival of 1800, which saw a renewed and rather lasting emphasis on revivalism. Schenck (p.78) quotes Dr Samuel Miller writing in 1832: ‘I confess I deeply regret that the use of camp meetings should be resumed in our body. To say nothing of the irregularities and abuses…they have always appeared to me adapted to make religion more an affair of display, of impulse, of noise, and of animal sympathy, than of the understanding, the conscience, and the heart….’

Schenck begins his 3rd chapter – The Threat of Revivalism – (pp. 80-103) by writing: ‘The disproportionate reliance upon revivals as the only hope of the church and the proclamation of the Gospel from the pulpit as almost the only means of conversion, amounted to a practical subversion of Presbyterian doctrine, an overshadowing of God’s covenant promise.’ He traces the neglect of infant baptism in Presbyterian churches in the 19th century, citing Charles Hodge’s survey (p. 84). This showed that in 1807 there was one child baptised for every 5 members but a steady decline had reduced the ratio to one for every 20 members in 1855. He cites the pleas of leaders such as Ashbel Green, Samuel Miller and J.W.Alexander, who sought proper care for baptised members, rather than that they be left without care as if they were not members of the church and had no obligations by virtue of God’s covenant.

Confusion in American Presbyterian thought is illustrated by a number of examples. Some took up essentially the notion involved in the half-way covenant. They distinguished two aspects to the covenant, one merely outward, ecclesiastical and legal, and the other spiritual, in a rather dualistic fashion so that the external covenant was not seen as ‘interpenetrated by the internal covenant’, to quote Louis Berkhof. Schenck asserts (p.86) that Dr Stuart Robinson even took the position that the Abrahamic covenant was actually not the covenant of grace at all, and T.E.Peck likewise. Thornwell and Dabney taught that baptism made a child a child of the covenant, meaning an ecclesiastical covenant by which the child had the right to instruction. Until they showed a new heart they were to be treated as unregenerate baptised children. The seal of God’s covenant was only a symbol until they had faith.

The differences came to a head in the debate on revision of the Book of Discipline at the General Assembly of 1859. Some, such as Charles Hodge, wished to retain the wording that said all baptised persons ‘are members of the church, are subject to government and discipline’ and when adult ‘are bound to perform all the duties of church members.’ Others, such as Thornwell, wanted to state that all baptised persons are under the church’s ‘government and training’ and to add that only those, however, who have made a profession of faith in Christ are proper subjects of judicial prosecution.’ With the Civil War, the church was divided. In 1863 the Northern Church adopted without dissent the disputed part as it was in the original book, while in 1879 the Southern Church adopted without controversy Thornwell’s draft. Thus a change had occurred from the historic Reformed doctrine, a change that in many respects adopted Baptist ground so far as the baptism of infants was concerned. Interestingly, in 1934 the Northern Church made a modification in line with the South without exciting any controversy, but Schenck does not mention this.

The Defence of the Doctrine forms the subject of chapter 4 (pp. 104-147). This chapter does not seem entirely aptly named as the first part is spent to show that the rise of the New England Divinity (which divided the church 1838-1869) impacted on the doctrine of redemption and regeneration, and therefore on the doctrine of baptism, because of its different doctrine of original sin. But as it proceeds we do come to read a positive exposition of the Reformed doctrine of infant baptism as held by the Old School. Schenck writes, ‘The theological system of Princeton Seminary was essentially that of John Calvin, received through the medium of Francisco Turretin and the Westminster Standards’ (p.132). He concludes that, over against the crisis conversion idea of revivalism, which tended to regard infants as unconverted pagans, Christian nurture was ‘the appointed, the natural, the normal, and the ordinary means by which the children of believers were made truly the children of God’ not, of course apart from ‘the regenerative act and effectual cooperation of the Holy Spirit’ (p.145).

A short chapter, The Resultant Confusion, completes Schenck’s book (pp.148-158), although it does not take the history beyond the 19th century. This would have been the ideal point at which to summarise his conclusions and lay out a charter for reform. As this is not done effectively, the ending is a bit limp. Having said this, don’t think this book is not of real worth. It deals with an issue of perennial importance and its concern to recover the emphasis on the promise of God sealed in baptism, and the corresponding obligations of the baptised, are issues of great practical significance.

Given the controversy over Abraham Kuyper’s presumptive regeneration position, one might well be rather discriminating in one’s language when speaking of the basis of Christian baptism. It seems better to emphasise the promise of God in his covenant as the warrant to baptise rather than presumed regeneration. Of course in the West today we do not face the high infant mortality of an earlier age. But an earlier age did place their confidence in family and Christian nurture in dependence on God’s Spirit, not in spurts of evangelical fads and fashions or spasmodic revival efforts. The promise of God gave incentive, and encouragement. In our individualistic age we need to recover the older Reformed doctrine. If Schenck’s work helps to stimulate a fresh treatment of the theme, brought up to date and dealing with some more recent aberrations, or if it otherwise stimulates a return to a more Biblical position, it will be well worthwhile.

God’s Covenant Unfolded: Creation to New Creation

God’s Covenant Unfolded: Creation to New Creation


Rowland S. Ward


Adam was made a king or ruler of the earth under God, and placed in a central sanctuary garden reminiscent of later priestly sanctuaries in Israel. Since the moment of Adam’s disobedience restoration to God’s fellowship by our obedience is impossible; we are shut up to reliance on another, Jesus Christ. He is in fact called the Last Adam (1 Cor 15:45) as well as ‘the first born from the dead and the Ruler of the kings of the earth’ (Rev 1:5). This is as much as to say that there have been several Adams after Adam who did not fulfil the promise of the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15). Eventually came one who did meet every requirement and who is not succeeded by any other. This one, Jesus Christ, brings the new humanity into its true position as ‘a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father’ (Rev 1:6).

Given Adam’s breaking of the covenant of works, the covenant of redemption operates to provide a covenant of grace for us. In accordance with the terms of the covenant of redemption with the Father, Christ was fully obedient and thereby fulfilled Adam’s covenant of works and secured the Holy Spirit for his people. Paul speaks of believers having been under the curse of a broken law but, he says, ‘Christ redeemed us by becoming a curse for us’ (Gal 3:13). ‘God sent his Son, who was born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those who were under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons’ and that the Holy Spirit might be given to us (Gal 4:5-6).

Here follows a basic outline of the theme of God’s covenant purposes.

1. Adam – the covenant of creation
In Genesis 1-7 God brings forth the earth from water, reducing chaos to order. He appoints Adam ruler of the earth. The goal of creation is to share God’s rest. God places man in his presence in a sanctuary garden, under his covenant, showing him how his dominion must be exercised to be effective. Adam disobeys. The nakedness of this sin God covers by coats of skins, and he is expelled to the east. One is promised who will destroy the works of the devil. Meantime, we see the fruit of Adam’s sin in his descendants, and the ultimate judgment of the flood, a reversal of creation, with a remnant saved in the ark.

In the promise to Adam (Gen 3:15) God continues his commitment to creation: the Serpent will be crushed by the woman’s seed. But Cain turns out not to be that seed: he is on the side of the Serpent. Even Seth does not prove to be the foundation of a better future: his line also descends into wickedness. Productive achievements in terms of livestock management, music and metal-working are noted (Gen 4:19ff), but are associated with spiritual decline – Lamech’s polygamy and arrogant sword-song.

The judgment of the Flood means that creation returns to something like the watery formless mass at its beginning. Noah’s Flood is a picture of the ultimate judgment at the end of the world that Enoch spoke about (cf. Jude 14). The New Testament uses it to point to the end of this order and the introduction of a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness (2 Peter 3:6-7,10-13).

2. Noah – the covenant of the rainbow
Genesis 8-11 is a redemptive re-enactment. The world is recreated out of the waters of the flood, reducing chaos to order. God appoints Noah (Gen 6:18; 7:1) head of this new creation and continues his creation covenant with him (Gen 8:15-20). Noah’s name is from the Hebrew root nuah, to rest (cf. Gen 5:29). Noah plants a vineyard where he sins in drinking to excess. The nakedness of this sin two of his sons cover with a garment. The fruit of Noah’s sin is seen in his descendants, particularly the wicked citizens of Babel who aim to make a name for themselves through cultural achievements. However, ultimate judgment is postponed for it is God’s determination to fulfil his covenant with creation.

It is ‘righteous’ Noah (6:6; 7:1) who heads up a new creation as a kind of new Adam, but it was because he found grace in God’s sight (6:5), not that he was inherently righteous. God pledges to continue his covenant with him (6:18). God preserves him and his family in the ark, ‘remembers’ his covenant with him (8:1) and so, by a strong wind reminiscent of the moving of the Spirit on the face of the waters in 1:3, dries up the waters so that dry land appears. When Noah steps out on a new and cleansed earth, the covenant of the rainbow is confirmed in terms which echo unmistakeably the blessing of creation in Genesis 1:28, and which speak just as clearly of God’s unilateral determination to continue his purposes to bring creation to its goal. The rainbow is to ‘remind’ God of his purpose, a powerful way of saying that God will act to ensure his purpose is fulfilled.

There will be no further Noah-like Flood since it cannot eradicate the sin in the human heart (8:21). Noah offers a burnt offering in sacrifice. However, between the reiterated blessing of human fruitfulness in 9:1 and 9:7 are several new points. They amount to provisions to advance respect for human life by protecting it (vv2, 4-6) and sustaining it (v3). They are laws to be obeyed that will not be irrelevant for the later system of sacrifices in Israel.

But Noah is himself part of the problem (9:20-21). He is not able to bear the weight of the world’s redemption. Noah cannot bring that rest of which his name speaks and which is creation’s goal. As Adam’s sin had resulted in division among his descendants, so does Noah’s sin. As Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened unaided, so Noah seems to know what had happened without being told. Whereas God judged Adam and Eve, Noah exercises the authority given in 9:6 and utters predictions in terms of a curse on part of his family and blessings for others. The Serpent was cursed and so was Cain. Now Canaan is cursed too. It is as if the Canaanite peoples represent the Serpent’s seed, and thus their historic overthrow by Israel is justified and is a picture of the ultimate judgment of all workers of evil.

The other two sons receive blessings but Shem is given the pre-eminence without anything stated as the basis of the preference. This points to the sheer unmerited favour of God. He chooses Shem, apparently the youngest son (10:21), rather than Japheth. Shem means name. But if Shem’s line is the favoured one, progress still seems to be downward. The Tower of Babel episode is a re-run of times before the Flood: man without God is a clever devil. Men suppose to make a name for themselves. In effect they think that they can reach up to God’s throne and access the power and authority of heaven and use it for their own glory. The desire for unity and a city is not of itself wrong. God has a plan for unity and for a city too, but it does not come on the foundation of human sin but through its overthrow and the establishing of righteousness. In mercy and in judgment, God limits the cruel power of man and scatters the builders. Yet Shem’s descendants end up in the Babel-like civilisation of Ur as idolaters (Josh 24:2). Only the fact of God’s commitment to his creation means that all is not lost. There will be another new Adam.

3. Abraham – the covenant of circumcision

Genesis 11:27-50:26 records a more developed redemptive re-enactment in the events in the family line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God’s choice of Abram occurs in the context of the disunity of humanity and the impression God’s creation covenant will fail. That would be a wrong impression for the choice of Abram is with a view to the fulfilment of the creation covenant. Abram and the descendants God gives him are to be a means of bringing the covenant blessings to the whole world.

Abram is like a dead man, his name (meaning proud father) a mockery, for he has no children and his wife is barren (Gen 11:30). But God calls into being things that are not (cf. Rom 4:17) and he commands Abram to leave his father’s house and go to a land he will show him. In contrast to the Babel builders, God will act to make Abram a great nation, to bless him, to make his name great, decide the fate of men on how they relate to him, and to bless the whole world through him (Gen 12:1-3). It will be 25 years before Abram has the child of the promise (Gen 12:4;17:1,21), and his faith was tested. Yet he believed the LORD and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6). The thought is not that faith is meritorious, but that the one in whom Abram trusted provides for him the righteousness he needs as the basis of fellowship, a righteousness he receives as God’s gift through faith.

A year before Isaac’s birth God formalises his promise in the covenant of circumcision. Abram’s name is changed to Abraham, father of a multitude, because God’s blessing will result in him being the father of nations and of kings (Gen 17:1ff). Whereas in 1:28 God had said to Adam and Eve, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’, and similarly to Noah and his sons in 9:1, the emphasis now is different. God says to Abraham, ‘I will make you very fruitful’ (17:6). The heart of the covenant is God’s total commitment: ‘I will be your God and the God of your children after you’. The New Testament does not provide any greater promise, but rather discloses the implications of God’s commitment. Abraham is also assured of possession of the land of Canaan as a free gift.

We find therefore no total lapse in Abraham. He is kept by the power of God. God does not favour him because he is worthy but because God is gracious and provides righteousness for him. He is promised greatness by God, not rewarded for already existing greatness. God’s total commitment to Abraham is shown ultimately in the gift of God’s son as the true and Last Adam.

Adam was given the whole earth to subdue whereas Abraham is promised the land of Canaan as God’s gift (15:7; 17:8). Nevertheless, all nations will be blessed through Abraham (12:3 cf. Gal 3:8). When the writer to the Hebrews speaks of Abraham looking beyond Canaan to a new creation (Heb 11:9-10,16), he writes perceptively, for Canaan has replaced the whole earth only temporarily and typically. Abraham is the inheritor of the creation covenant as a new Adam. As Paul puts it, Abraham inherits the world (Rom 4:13). The inclusiveness of the church composed of both Jews and Gentiles, which is so insisted upon in the New Testament, reflects the reality of all believers, all true children of Abraham, as God’s new human family.

There is a dramatised curse ritual in connection with the covenant with Abraham. It is seen in Genesis 15 when God confirms his promise of the land (15:8-20). The Lord will be dismembered if he does not keep his promise! There is also obligation on Abraham. He is to walk before God Almighty and be perfect (17:1), and the rite of circumcision is the sign of God’s covenant, the expression of his obedience and the call to continue walking before the LORD.

The creation covenant formalised with Abraham continues through Isaac (26:3f) and on to Jacob (35:11). The continuation of the covenant is of God’s grace, for Isaac’s wife is also barren (25:21) and so is Jacob’s wife, Rachel (29:31), ultimately the mother of Joseph; it is also contrary to nature since the birthright is carried on by the younger: Jacob not Esau, Joseph not Reuben, Ephraim not Manasseh.

In Joseph’s life in particular, there is the beginning of a provisional fulfilment of the promise to Abraham: God is with Joseph in everything (Gen 39:20-23). Although he has many trials and his name seems to be cut off, yet his name is made great, and he becomes a blessing to the nations of ‘all the earth’ (Gen 41:56-57). Reckoned as the first born of his many brothers (49:22ff), he delivers and protects the children of Abraham. But as yet they are a nation only in embryo. Nevertheless, they prosper numerically and materially during their time in Egypt (47:27; Ex 1:7) until a Pharaoh came to the throne who cared nothing for Joseph’s work. He makes the Hebrews slaves, and orders their male babies to be killed at birth. It looks like the end. But then there is another new beginning. God’s covenant word brings hope.

4. Moses and the covenant at Sinai
The Book of Exodus speaks of God’s acts in terms of a new creation. Moses, like Noah, was saved in an ark from drowning so as to bring salvation to others. [The rare Hebrew word teba is used only of Noah’s boat and Moses’ basket.] Israel is God’s firstborn son (Ex 4:22) like Adam (cf. Luke 3:38), created by God (Isa 43:1) and saved from the waters of judgment that engulfed the Egyptians at the Red Sea after the plagues had reduced their ordered world to a waste (cf. Gen 12). Israel is God’s new Adam, God’s new humanity.

We read that God ‘remembered’ his covenant with Abraham (Ex 6:5), and therefore delivered the Israelites from their oppressors in Egypt: he cursed the Egyptians but blessed his people. It is important to note that this act of grace was not apart from the provision of a sacrifice in the Passover lamb. In the houses of the Egyptians the first-born died; in the house of the Israelites a lamb dies. Israel as a whole, God’s firstborn son, exits the bondage of Egypt into freedom under God.

The initial goal of their journey is Horeb or Mt Sinai (Ex 3:1,12). When they arrive Moses receives God’s law, which the people affirm they accept and will obey. Then the people are sprinkled with the blood of the covenant (Ex 24:1-9). Those who are already covenant people are thus committed to God’s law, but their inevitable failure in obedience will not overthrow the covenant because of the provision of the sprinkled blood.

God brought them to the land he had promised to Abraham generations before, giving them victories over the Canaanites so that they could settle in the land and experience rest (Deut 12:10; Josh 21:43-45). The curse of Canaan is being worked out, and God’s determination to put emnity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent is demonstrated (Gen 3:15), as also his determination to make for Abraham a great name and a great nation. It is all of grace.

Prior to Exodus 19:3 Scripture is a kind of prologue to the covenant then made at Sinai by which Israel, already belonging to God, is committed to become a kingdom of priests, a fully sanctified nation Ex 19:4-6). A detailed system of ritual or ceremonial law was also imposed, including a system of symbolic sacrifices to deal with sin. Strikingly, there appear no sacrifices for wilful sin, sin ‘with a high hand’, such as David’s adultery. For these there was nothing but the covenant mercy of God (Ps 51:1), which in fact underpinned the entire life of the nation.

A generation later the covenant is renewed before entry into the Promised Land. The book of Deuteronomy reviews the past (chs. 1-4), reiterates the Ten Words we commonly call the ten commandments (5), expounds and applies them in order (6-26), provides for reaffirmation of the covenant (27-30), and for its continuation (31-34). The commandments given to Israel by God cover all aspects of life, not just narrowly religious matters, and they are to be kept in the context of response to God’s gracious deliverance of his people. Obedience is a necessary fruit of the covenant relationship with God, not a means of establishing it. For Israel it is all of grace because God is faithful to his covenant.

As the new Adam, Israel (= Prince with God) is brought into the new Eden, entering it from the east which was guarded by a mysterious angel with a sword (Josh 5:13). This reminds us of the cherubim on the east of Eden who guarded the way to Paradise (Gen 3:24). The new Eden is a land flowing with milk and honey where the new Adam is to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28; Deut 6:3;8:6ff), living under God’s covenant.

At this point a difficulty is sometimes felt. The new Adam’s continuance in the land of Canaan depends on his obedience to that covenant as did the first Adam’s continuance in Eden. There are blessings for obedience, and curses for disobedience (Deut 28); ‘life and prosperity, death and destruction’ is set before Israel (Deut 30:15). If Israel disobeys she will be expelled to the east once more, to Babylon, or returned to captivity in Egypt. ‘Is not Israel actually under a covenant of works?’ one may ask.

However, as we have seen, it is fundamental that Israel is not received into God’s favour because of obedience but because of God’s gracious covenant with Abraham. The law of Moses has not overthrown the covenant promise of God to Abraham (Gal 3:17). Covenant and law are differently related. Noah, saved from the Flood by God’s grace, received God’s law (Gen 9:1ff). Abraham, justified through faith, was to walk before God and be perfect (Gen 17:1). Similarly, redeemed Israel receives God’s law, although in much more elaborated form than previously, so that she might be a holy nation (Ex 19:6). The exhortation to New Testament believers by the One greater than Moses is the same: ‘Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt 5:47). The giving of law to the redeemed of God reflects the fact that obedience to the covenant Lord is always the appropriate response of the redeemed. The demand of law, and the pressing toward the mark, does not imply that in this life perfect obedience will be achieved, or that we are justified on the basis of works.

Israel is the subject of grace just because it is impossible for righteousness to be obtained by Israel’s obedience. The addition of the Mosaic law instructs the people in God’s character, but multiplies the opportunities for sin, convicts and restricts with a view to preparing the people for the One who would crush the Serpent’s head (Gal 3). In this sense the Mosaic covenant is both gracious and burdensome (cf. Acts 15:10). At the same time the law holds out the promise of life for perfect obedience. ‘If you would enter into life keep the commandments’ is a faithful saying (Matt 19:17), even if it is only a theoretical possibility for sinners. Paul rightly stresses: ‘If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing’ (Gal 2:21).

There was a special peculiarity for Israel since her existence as a nation provided a pattern and a portrayal on the physical level of the reality of the Kingdom of God to be realised in Jesus Christ. Canaan as a picture of the heavenly country (cf. Heb 11:16) cannot continue to be possessed by a covenant breaking people. Hence on the temporal level the fortunes of Israel are tied to her spiritual faithfulness. This feature also emphasises the necessity of perfect obedience in order to inherit God’s rest, and so encourages the expectation of the promised seed of Abraham, the true Passover Lamb.

Adam had been made as ruler of the earth, and God’s purpose is that the goal of creation will be fulfilled despite the entry of sin. So humanity must again rule effectively. Israel was to be a kingdom of priests (Ex 19:4-6), ruling for God in fellowship with him, but in the absence of a king each person did what seemed right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6; 21:25. They fell into religious syncretism (Judg 17) and Sodom-like depravity (Judg 19:16ff cf. Gen 19:1ff), and their enemies plundered them. Only through God’s gift of kingship could God’s purpose be realised.

5. David and the Kingdom covenant
But the Lord in mercy (Judg 9:16) yields to the people’s wrongly motivated desire for a king by giving them one (Saul) who outwardly appeared ideal, but who was a failure. David, God’s replacement for Saul, was not the likely choice. Even Samuel thought David’s older brother was the obvious candidate (1 Sam 6:6-7). But David was a man who feared the Lord and hoped in his mercy. To him God continued his covenant. The lesson: man’s choice leads to disaster; God’s choice leads to salvation.

The arrangement with David as recorded in 2 Samuel 7:1ff is not in fact described as a covenant. However, like the arrangement in Eden, it has all the features of a covenant, and is described as such elsewhere in Scripture (eg. Psa 89:3). It is also noteworthy that the unusual form of God’s name (LORD God) found in Genesis 2 is also found in 2 Samuel 7.

God’s promise to David includes terms which bring the previous promises to mind: the promise of a great name (7:9), a place for Israel to call home (7:10), freedom from oppression and rest from all enemies (7:11-11), a future seed (7:12) who will be God’s son (7:14), and the linking of the choice of Israel as God’s own with the establishing of David’s kingdom for ever (7:24,16). Clearly, God’s blessing to Abraham is to be fulfilled through David’s line. As the formless and empty earth had been formed and filled by the Great King, with his son Adam placed in it as image and ruler, so God will make a house for David that his son may rule in peace and righteousness. In turn, David’s son will build God’s House where God may dwell in the midst of his people. God will relate to him as a father to his son. Individuals may be chastised but David’s dynasty and kingdom will be eternal.

David’s reaction is striking. The difficult phrase in 7:19 is commonly translated ‘Is this your usual way of dealing with man, O LORD God?’ The verse is David’s response to God’s revelation, and reads literally, ‘This is the law (or charter) [torah] of humanity, O LORD God’. This fits the context perfectly. David recognises that God’s promise through him secures the future of humanity. One will arise from David’s line to fulfil the promise made to Abraham, overthrow the Serpent and bring about the goal of creation, God with his people for ever.

Several passages in the Psalms point to God’s special son as the true occupant of David’s throne (eg. Ps 110:1; 45:7). Indeed, David’s throne was really God’s throne (1 Chron 29:22). A preliminary fulfilment comes in David’s son Solomon, who has a reign of outward splendour and peace (ca.970-931 BC), and who is acknowledged among the nations for his wisdom and the glory of his kingdom. Yet he is not the perfect king, and his successors still less, and they experience the promised chastisement. The true fulfilment awaits the coming of David’s greater son who is in a very special way God’s son, and so also David’s Lord (Psa 110:1 cf. Matt 22:41-45).

The decline of the nation continued. Two hundred years after David, Isaiah anticipates the defeat of the people and their exile to a foreign land, He also speaks encouragingly about a remnant returning from captivity as the nucleus of a new Israel through the Lord’s anointed one/messiah, Cyrus (45:1), whose work provides an illustration of the work of the true anointed one/messiah. Strikingly, around 732 BC Isaiah speaks to the house of David of a child born of a virgin who will be called Immanuel, God with us, and who will rule on David’s throne for ever (Isa 7:13-14; 9:6-7). He also speaks of a righteous servant, equipped by God’s Spirit, who brings justice to the nations (42:1-6). This servant is identified with God yet distinguished from him (50:1-3, 14-17). Nor is he identified with Cyrus, who is plainly stated to be an unbeliever (45:4). The servant will suffer for the sins of the unfaithful people to remove their guilt. Here, surely, is the seed of the woman who will overthrow the Serpent.

In 722 BC the ten northern tribes, who had rebelled against the Davidic dynasty after Solomon’s death, were defeated by the Assyrians and many of the people forcibly resettled elsewhere in the Assyrian Empire. The two remaining tribes (Judah and little Benjamin) did not follow the LORD rightly either. Things were going from bad to worse. Where is the promised King, the promised son of God? Where is the faithful servant, the redeemer from sin?

From about 626 BC the prophet Jeremiah spoke God’s word to the people although it was not well received. Beginning about 605 BC the people of Judah came under the control of the Babylonian Empire. Some, like Daniel and Ezekiel, were deported to Babylon. Jerusalem itself was destroyed in 587 BC, and many more Jews taken into captivity. The principle was simply that Israel had not kept God’s covenant law, and the land had not enjoyed its sabbath rest for 490 years, so it would now have 70 years of enforced rest (2 Chron 36:21) in line with the principle of Leviticus 26:43. Thus Israel was banished from the land for her sins, just as Adam and Eve had been banished from the Garden. Apart from the promise of God all again seemed dark and hopeless. No temple, no king, no land. Who would save the remnant of God’s covenant people?

6. Cyrus and the promise of a new covenant
Jeremiah, like Isaiah, recognises the failure of the theocracy; her day of earthly glory is past. The fundamental relationship of God to Israel will be realised somewhat differently in the future, and it depends upon God’s work. Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant which God would make with his people which would ensure God’s law was written on their hearts. He spoke about return from captivity (Jer 30:1ff), and the rebuilding of a Jerusalem that would be truly holy (Jer 31:38ff), of a reconstituted house of Judah and house of Israel under a new covenant (31:31).

Daniel in Babylon, read Jeremiah’s writing (Dan 9:2), and prayed accordingly. 2 Chronicles 36:21 explains that the number of years of exile corresponded to the number of years the land had not enjoyed the sabbath it was due each seven years (Leviticus 25). The prayer (9:3-19) is the prayer of one who knows the nation has lost the privileges of the covenant – the temple and sacrificial system, the city of Jerusalem and life in a land flowing with milk and honey – because of covenant disobedience. ‘But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers…I will remember my covenant….I will remember the land’ (Leviticus 26:40ff. cf. Deut 30:1ff.).

Their human deliverer was in fact the ruler of the Medes and Persians, a man named Cyrus, just as predicted by God through Isaiah (45:1). He and his men overthrew the Babylonian Empire in 538 BC, and allowed the resettled peoples to return to their own lands. It was a new beginning, life from death. Cyrus was not the promised seed of the woman but he provided a picture of the promised seed in the way in which he brought God’s people’s bondage to an end and allowed them to return to their own land. By 516 BC the temple had been rebuilt under Haggai (Ezra 6), and eventually Jerusalem was also rebuilt in the time of Nehemiah.
Psalm 126 sings:

1 When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion,
we were like men who dreamed.
2 Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
‘The LORD has done great things for them.’
3 The LORD has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.

The return from exile is certainly fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prediction (Jer 30:3), as is the rebuilding of Jerusalem (Jer 31:38-40). But Jerusalem does not turn out to be fully holy in terms of the prediction, nor, despite religious renewal under Nehemiah, were all the people sincere believers – although their fondness for idolatry was curbed. The pious knew that the prophesied time of God’s complete redemption had not yet come. The prophecies of Ezekiel about the restoration and blessing of God’s people through an eternal covenant of peace (34:25; 37:26) were not fulfilled either. Psalm 126 continues:

4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD ,
like streams in the desert.
5 Those who sow in tears
will reap with songs of joy.
6 He who goes out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with him. [NIV]


The return from exile is not the ultimate fulfilment of Jeremiah’s new covenant prediction, but it began with the reconstitution of the remnant of God’s people from both Israel and Judah (Jer 31:31ff). They have been brought back from the dead (Ezekiel 37) to again be God’s people in God’s land under his Lordship and with a true priesthood. Yet the prophecies of Zechariah (ca 520 BC) show that the goal of the temple building of that time will ultimately lead to a Messianic era when priesthood and kingship will be combined in one person. The day of small things will give way to greater glory through God’s Spirit (Zech 4:6).

In Daniel 9:24-27 we find a remarkable prophecy in which the seventy years of captivity in Babylon complete a cycle but also introduce a further period of ’70 sevens’. During this period events which achieve the goal of history will be realised by the true Messiah, the Last Adam.

24″Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy. 25 “Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. 26After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. 27He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing [of the temple] he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.” NIV

The passage tells us that the end of the 70 years of exile (Jer 25:8-14; 29:10) will introduce a new period of 70 units of seven. The exile was closed by Cyrus as God’s “Anointed One” (Isaiah 45:1) who allowed the Jews to return. The new period will be climaxed by the true Anointed One who will deal with the sin problem that had caused the exile in the first place; in fact, all sin would be so effectively dealt with that further sacrifices would not be needed.

The sabbath and numerical symbolism in the passage is important, more so that any precise calculation of time. The 70 sevens is a complete and perfect period during which the perfect plan of God will be realised in effective dealing with sin and deliverance from sin’s bondage (v24) through Messiah’s death (v27) which causes God’s covenant to prevail. The end point of the 70 sevens is therefore the eternal sabbath, the goal of history.

Notice the 3-fold division:
seven sevens – the city will be rebuilt but no 50th jubilee year follows (Lev 25:8-13) since true liberty will not follow the rebuilding of Jerusalem; this comes only with the Messiah.
sixty-two sevens – an odd or broken period as if to convey the idea that the period from the rebuilding until the coming of Christ (the first time) is uncertain to us, and a period which even with what has gone before is still incomplete.
one seven – the last seven is itself complete, a single seven. Like creation it suggests a new and complete work of God (cf Gen 1:1ff), but also completes the perfect plan of God (70 sevens). In the middle (not at the end) of this seven Jerusalem is destroyed [which it was in AD 70] through the application of the curses of the covenant, leaving three and one half to the end of history. This broken period appears to be a symbol of the Christian dispensation – a period of trial and persecution but also a period which ends in triumph. [The same period is expressed as 42 months in Rev 11:2; 13:5 and 1260 days in Rev 11:3; 12:6.]

So Daniel learns that the city will be rebuilt but eventually destroyed in order that God’s covenant may prevail through Messiah’s death so that its full benefits will be realised in the building of the spiritual temple and the establishing of the kingdom which will have no end. The earthly city/temple is not the key: it was always only a symbol of God’s presence. Messiah is the key for the future, the seed of the woman, the one who defeats the Serpent. Already anticipated as Immanuel, he guides the destiny of Israel in the absence of the king on David’s throne, and will come to be personally present with his people.

Significantly, the last of the Old Testament books, Malachi (ca. 430 BC), speaks of the messenger of God’s covenant, the Lord whom you seek, coming suddenly to his temple (3:1). Only such a one can fulfil the promise to Abraham, only such a one can fulfil the purposes of God in creation.

7. Jesus and the new covenant
Matthew traces the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham through David (Matt 1:1), while Luke traces it back to Adam the son of God (Luke 3:31). Both Mary and Zacharias recognise the coming of Jesus is the fulfilment of the covenant promises to Abraham (Luke 2:55,72-75). John notes that the law came through Moses but grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). The idea is not a contrast between what is false and what is true, for indeed the law came through Moses from God, but a contrast between old and new, shadow and reality, and between one who was a messenger and one who was the very embodiment of the message.

The clear portrayal of Jesus as the Last Adam in the temptation should be noted. Jesus’ temptation at the beginning of his public ministry is in a setting of social and environmental deprivation – in the desert among wild animals (Mark 1:12-13), not in a garden. It comes from outside of him, from Satan, and it aims to overthrow Jesus’ trust in the Father’s love and care. But the Last Adam worships and serves the LORD his God according to every word of God. No one is ever able to convict him of sin, and so death should not be his lot. His death is explicable only on the principles of the Father’s redemptive purpose: he will yield his son, his only son, whom he loves, Jesus, to bear the sin of others as representative and substitute. He is the Servant of the Lord, the true Passover, the Lamb of God. Here in Christ’s sacrifice is the ultimate implication of God’s commitment to Abraham to be his God.

In Luke 24:25 the risen Jesus begins at Moses and all the prophets, explaining to the disciples what was said in the Scriptures concerning himself. He also speaks (v.44) of everything written about him in the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms (terms standing for the three great divisions of the Hebrew Bible) having to be fulfilled. Here we have the origin of the Apostolic use of the Old Testament in the early church.

Jesus expressly identifies his sacrifice as ‘the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you’ (Luke 22:20), and the New Testament proclaims and applies this reality. Jesus is the Last Adam, the obedient son through whom sinners are redeemed and made the people of God (Rom 5:12-21). He is the one now enthroned on the true throne of David exercising his rule so as to put down all his enemies (1 Cor 15:20-28), whose glory will be revealed in the new creation when his task is complete.

The old (Mosaic) covenant is superseded because fulfilled by Jesus (Matt 5:17). Yet the righteousness requirements of the law are fulfilled in Christ’s people, for they live according to the Spirit and not the sinful nature (Rom 8:4). Here again is the internalisation of the law which was to characterise the new covenant referred to by Jeremiah. The moral law of love for God and neighbour, which of old was expressed in the ten commandments rooted in the redemption from slavery in Egypt, is now commended to us by the one who embodied it perfectly, and whose sacrifice as the true Passover Lamb provides the foundation of the ‘new’ commandment of love ‘as I have loved you’ (John 13:24).

Yet the promised accomplishment of the new covenant in a universally holy people is not yet fully realised among the people of God. It still remains that they are not all Israel who are of Israel. The professing people of God are not all regenerate. It still remains that they are not all perfectly sanctified.

The ultimate fulfilment of the new covenant is in the final and glorious manifestation of the kingdom of God already established in Jesus. The Book of Revelation reminds us that God will be with his people in an unparalleled way (21:3); there will be no sin in the new creation (21:8,27), no tears, no death (21:4) no curse (22:3). The redeemed will be sons who inherit all this (21:7), servants who serve (22:3), kings who reign (22:5). Conditions in the new creation remind us of Eden, yet far exceed them (22:1ff). The garden becomes a city of light and glory in God’s presence for ever and ever. God’s purpose in creation is realised in a world of love and righteousness.

In conclusion, it is worth noting, as Donald Macleod puts it: ‘that the familiar words of the great Commission of Matthew 28 are cast in the form of an ancient covenant. There is a preamble, “All authority is given to me in heaven and in earth.” There is a stipulation, “Go, teach the nations.” And there is a promise, “I am with you always.”If we divorce the promise from the stipulation, there is no presence. It is the going church which alone enjoys the promise of the presence of God.’

Creation & Covenant: Covenant Theology in Outline

Creation & Covenant: Covenant Theology in Outline


Rowland S Ward

The Presbyterian Banner
, October 2002.

Covenant theology in outline
The Bible is a covenant book, and its two parts could be better described as the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The intended contrast is between the covenant with Moses at Sinai and the covenant fulfilled in Jesus Christ 1500 years later, which the old covenant foreshadowed. However, there are other covenant arrangements in the Bible to be considered as well.

Covenant theology understands that God’s relationship with humanity always involved a personal, loving, covenant bond, and that God’s intention in creation was the rich blessing of the creature he had made in his image. That blessing would come by way of obedience to God’s word, although the blessing would be of grace, not wages for work done. The covenant with the First Adam (generally called, if not entirely happily, the covenant of works) was broken, affecting not only Adam but those descending from him in the ordinary way, since humanity forms not merely a physical unity but a spiritual and ethical one also. Adam transmitted a corrupted nature but his sin was also imputed to his posterity. It was therefore necessary that the obligations of the covenant be met by another if God’s purpose for humanity was to be realised. The suitable substitute was Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Last Adam. This was in accordance with the agreement or pact among the members of the Trinity (cf. John 6:37-40;17:1ff), usually called the covenant of redemption. It is the foundation of the covenant of grace made with believers by which, through faith in Christ, they are received back into God’s favour – not simply as if they had never sinned but as if they had fully obeyed, as indeed, in Christ they have.

This covenant of grace is God’s doing but on man’s part it calls for the response of repentance and faith issuing in obedience. Nevertheless, these requirements on man’s part are not strictly conditions in the sense of things supplied by man to obtain God’s blessing as a kind of business contract. Since we are dead in sin we cannot supply them anyway. Rather, they are themselves blessings of the covenant given to the elect on the basis of the work of Christ. The ground of salvation is thus Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the obedient Servant, crucified Saviour and risen Lord. Faith in this Christ is the instrumental cause of salvation, the means of receiving it; and good works are fruits of the new relationship, not means of establishing it.

The unfolding of God’s gracious covenant is progressive. Covenant theology at its best is keen to pay attention to this historical unfolding of God’s purposes. The covenant of grace was given in promise to Adam immediately after he sinned (Gen 3:15), was continued through Noah (Gen 6:18; 9:1-17) and formalised with Abraham in the covenant of circumcision (Gen 17). All believers are beneficiaries of the covenant with Abraham (Gal 3:7), and the special administration adopted in the covenant with Moses (Ex 19), did not annul the Abrahamic covenant or alter its gracious character (Gal 3:17ff). The covenant with David to establish his throne for ever (2 Sam 7:12) is also important, as is the promise of a new covenant made in Jeremiah’s time (Jer 31 & 33). Then Christ came in accordance with the everlasting covenant and ratified the new covenant in his blood (Luke 22:20), which brought to fulfilment the ancient promises.

The relationship of Adam and Christ is often poorly perceived today. Under pressure from currently popular scientific world-views, the account of Adam and Eve is regarded as a fictional story without historical basis, or else something a bit difficult to discuss for fear of embarrassment. On the other hand, many conservative Christians have a very exaggerated view of the original state of creation. They read the early narratives as if it they were designed to counter 21st century scientific atheists rather than to provide an historical prelude to God’s covenant with Moses in the 15th century BC. The Bible is not an encyclopaedia of the sciences but a distinctly covenant book to teach us the ways of God with humanity. The creation covenant or the covenant of works (or whatever we choose to call it) is a very clear indication that Adam’s perfection was not an absolute perfection. He did not yet possess eternal life. He was made as God intended and free from moral evil, but there was glory and honour in prospect too (cf. 1 Cor 15:44ff).

Let us now look at our subject theologically.

1. Kinds of covenants
Agreements in human society which enable close relationship and the discharge of mutual obligations may be called covenants. Perhaps we may divide these agreements into two kinds, some more suitably called contracts and the others covenants. Contracts may imply a certain degree of mistrust and may not imply friendship between the parties. Covenants can be thought of as agreements between friends who love each other. Thus, marriage is best described as a covenant rather than a contract. Doing so does not deny the obligation in the pledges made, but suggests a more adequate context for understanding the relationship as one of personal loving commitment.

Covenant is a term that also may be used to describe the relationship between God and his creation. It is used of God’s unconditional promise to Noah, and to the birds, livestock and wild animals with him in the ark, in the covenant of the rainbow (Genesis 9:12ff). It is also used of God’s commitment to the fixed order of day and night established at creation (Jeremiah 33:20ff. cf. 31:35). It is more commonly used of God’s commitments to people, and calls for appropriate response on their part. The term becomes one of the most significant words in the language of the Old Testament. The climax of a ‘new covenant’ is reached in Jesus. Indeed, the very terms Old Testament and New Testament are more accurately translated Old Covenant and New Covenant. The Bible is unique is this since other religious traditions do not speak of God making covenant with his creatures.

2. The Trinity and Humanity
God does not exist in a vacuum eternally alone. Love, fellowship and faithfulness are at the heart of God, for he eternally exists in a communion of love as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Made in his image, humans therefore are made to express their lives in love, fellowship and faithfulness to God and their fellow image-bearers. Such is the Christian confession.

Religions drawing from the Bible yet rejecting the Trinity have no consistently logical basis for these qualities of love, fellowship and faithfulness since, on their view, they are not reflections of what is true of God. For they will admit that God is not dependent on his creation. Creation is not eternal. Now if God has no eternal relationship with another, no one outside of creation to love, then love, fellowship and faithfulness cannot be among his essential attributes, and to be like God is to have a life without them. Hence, vital Christianity has always had an instinctive recognition of the Triune God, whatever difficulties in formal expression of the doctrine. Thus also she has always recognised the significance of human personality as reflecting the ultimate reality in God himself.

The Bible speaks of the three persons of the Trinity in terms of love and fellowship and faithfulness. In God himself there is an ordered relationship, a personal commitment of love, a covenant bond between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Scripture assures us that this relationship issues also in binding agreements between the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Jesus speaks of an agreement with the Father in accord with which he has come into the world (John 6:37ff cf. Psalm 40:7-8, Hebrews 10:5ff). He also speaks of the Holy Spirit who is sent from the Father and the Son as a consequence of Son’s atoning work with a view to rendering it effective in the lives of those whom the Father gave him (John 16:7ff). All that he said and did reflected his undertaking with the Father (John 5:36; 17:4). The Son was ever in a loving relationship with the Father, but he also entered into binding undertakings with him. You have the familial but you also have the legal in what for substance is a covenant relationship, although the actual term is not used.

3. God’s covenant with creation
If we put the question, ‘At what point does God begin the covenant relationship with his creatures?’ we could answer in the following way:
When the first world is to be cleansed by a Flood so as to begin anew in Noah, God promises that he will ‘confirm’ his covenant with Noah (Genesis 6:18). The Hebrew term [heqim] in this context is that for continuing a relationship not commencing a new one.1 So there was already a covenant before Noah. When did that covenant begin?

(1) That covenant began with creation for, in the aftermath of Noah’s Flood, the words of blessing at creation (Genesis 1:28) are repeated (Genesis 9:1-7). By the judgment of the Flood God has given an illustration of what sin brings, and has begun again with Noah, a kind of second Adam, on a new and cleansed earth like that which had emerged from the waters in creation (Genesis 1:2ff). Hence the original promise in creation is repeated, and is described specifically as a covenant.

(2) To the same effect is Jeremiah’s reference to God’s ‘covenant for day and night’ (33:20ff). This passage refers back beyond Genesis 9:8 to Genesis 1 and God’s blessing of his good creation, as Jeremiah 31:35 makes clear. Thus we see God’s covenant commitment at the very beginning of creation.

(3) God has a plan for his creation, he is committed to it and he is its Ruler. Covenant in the sense of committed relationship applies to creation as such, and it comes to a specially focussed expression in the case of humanity.

We must not think of creation in the beginning as a natural order to which is added a supernatural order subsequently so that man can relate to God. A nature/grace dualism is not to be thought of. Rather, all creation is in a dependent relationship to God as its Sovereign, King and Lord. This is the same as saying creation as such is in a covenant relationship since all creation is to live in accordance with the charter given. For humanity, all of life is fundamentally religious because all is lived before the face of God, either obediently in his service or disobediently in the service of an idol.

There is an absolute difference between the Creator and the creation. God is its Originator and Ruler, and it is accountable to him. God administers his rule by way of covenant. As God was not under any obligation to create, and his decision to do so was an absolutely free one, we can speak of a voluntary condescension on God’s part. Many older writers, following a view suggested by the Westminster Confession (1646), refer God’s voluntary condescension to the act of entering into a covenant with humanity post-creation. This approach could imply humanity was created in God’s image but not in covenant, and that God could have withheld his covenant blessing from the creature. I think this would be a somewhat speculative construction that does not mesh well with a careful assessment of Scripture. It risks thinking in terms of a dualism unwarranted by Scripture.

4. Humanity’s unique position
Humans are created in the image and likeness of God, both male and female. In the world of Moses’ time the word ‘image’ can refer to a statue which represented the one imaged. It can also refer to the king as the adopted son of a god fulfilling the role of representing the god in a portion of his kingdom. Genesis shows that the humans are God’s in fact vice-regents of a sort2, called to represent God and to rule over his creation and subdue it to bring out its full potential. The first man is thus correctly recognised as the son of God (Luke 3:38), not his slave. Further, all humans are recognised as bearing God’s image, not just the rulers or the nobility. The image or likeness (the terms appear to be interchangeable) is not some spiritual part of man only, but his totality. Note the way Jesus is described as the express image of the invisible God (Hebrew 1:3).

The unique relationship with God involved in being God’s image, finds expression in the blessing in Genesis 1:28. The ordinance of work and rest provides for humanity’s proper relationship to the creation and to the Creator. Labour in God’s creation is a blessing not a necessary evil, and the day of rest is a blessing also (Genesis 1:28; 2:3), being made for man (Mark 2:27). Labour has a purpose, and creation has a goal. The seventh day shows that work is not an end in itself, but has its proper place when it is consecrated to God as we subdue the earth in his name. The seventh day represents the goal of history when humanity’s work is done and God’s rest is entered.3

5. Adam’s limitations

Creatures other than man are made of the dust of the ground (Genesis 1:24; 3:19) and have the breath of life (7:22) so that they are living beings (1.20; 9:10) as he is. The description in Genesis 2 of the making of the human does highlight the unique position of the man. Still, being from the earth he remains dependent on it. He needs and receives food as surely as fresh air. He needs and receives daylight for labour and night for sleep. He needs and receives a place of sanctuary, where he may worship and obey the LORD so that he may fulfil his task properly in the world beyond the garden with all its rich potential (2:8-15).4 He needs and receives direction for his life (2:16-17). He needs and receives a woman as a companion and covenant partner (2:18-25). The two become one and the race is multiplied. All these are rich blessings, but these blessings also speak of limitations, of that which is temporary in contrast to the promise of eternal life.
* The body of dust is capable of dissolution, unlike the incorruptible body of future glory, so in the final kingdom of God the perishable must be supplanted by the imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:50).
* The need for food will not exist in God’s ultimate order (1 Corinthians 6:13).
* The regularity of six days of work and one of rest will be superseded when humans enter God’s eternal rest that is creation’s goal.
* In the promised glory the possibility of disobedience, sin and death will not be present.
* Nor will there be marriage or procreation (Matthew 22:30).
Adam is at the beginning of a history with obedience to be given and a reward to be gained. What is natural is first, only later the spiritual (1 Corinthians 15:46-47). We must not idealise conditions in the world before sin. The state of innocence in paradise is far surpassed by the state of glory in the new Jerusalem. Put another way, we can say there was an eschatology before there was sin, that is, a glorious destiny was in view of which the tree of life in Genesis 2 was also a token. Creation at the beginning was not like it will be in the end, when it will be richer and more enduring.

6. God and the righteous Adam
The first Adam was created innocent and holy, in the image of God, with the law of God written on his heart, and therefore God delighted in him and loved him, and the creature likewise delighted in God. Likeness is the basis of fellowship and love. God cannot help loving such a creature just as he cannot but delight in himself. God wants that creature to be a close confident, a friend, a lover. Once he had determined to create such a creature he could not but desire to share his riches with him. God’s purpose with the man was always that there be a committed relationship of love. This kind of relationship is not something incidental or peripheral.

The covenant is the means by which God relates to his creation. The category of love is fundamental but so is the category of law. These categories are not mutually exclusive but complementary. Jesus as God’s Son speaks of the mutual love between himself and the Father at the same time as he speaks of obedience to the Father’s will. It is not suitable to describe the original relationship of God and Adam as one of love without law nor can it be described properly simply in contract terms. We do not make the separation in a marriage covenant, still less may we in the relationship with God. There are specific contract terms, and if there are blessings in Genesis 1, there is a curse threatened in Genesis 2. Yet the relationship is not and cannot be a mere formal and legal one. Adam had personal communion in righteousness with God from the beginning, and he was to be obedient in the covenant relationship.

The covenant relationship at creation is expressed in a highly focussed form in a specific arrangement with Adam described in Genesis 2:16-17. In this arrangement the common idea is present of a covenant as an agreement involving mutual faithfulness to the stated obligations, and for the lesser party (man), to receive a blessing of great richness from the greater party (God). It is true that the promise is not explicit in these verses, but the threat of death for disobedience implies the promise of life for obedience, and several features already noted in the context say the same. These include the blessing of humanity at creation (Gen 1:28), the blessing of the seventh day as representing creation’s goal, and the tree of life in the garden. One could add to them the remarkable use of the term LORD God (20 times) in Genesis 2/3. This is used only 16 times elsewhere in the Old Testament. The emphasis of the name is that the Creator (God) is also covenant partner of his people (LORD).5

One can look at the relationship from different angles. As the original relationship it may be called the covenant of creation. As it was to be fulfilled by man in the strength with which he is endowed it may be called the covenant of nature. Being made with Adam before sin it may be called the covenant of innocence. As made between parties who were friends it may be called the covenant of friendship. The blessing in view may lead us to call it a covenant of life, while the requirement of obedience to God suggests the term legal covenant, covenant of obedience or covenant of works. Consideration of the tender love and generosity God showed may suggest the term covenant of favour. A more neutral term could be Adamic covenant.

I remain mindful of the problems of terminology, but the terminology is not the issue. The distinctive significance of the Adamic covenant is the issue, and it must be seen as one requiring obedience to the covenant terms as the principle required in order to the blessing. In Protestant theology covenant of works has been the common expression and is contrasted with the covenant of grace instituted after the entry of sin. The covenant of grace is not a separate covenant so much as that development necessitated by the fact that God, confronted by sin, does not abandon his covenanted commitment to his creation but relates to it redemptively.

7. God’s direction to Adam
Although the creature was very good, that is, just as God intended, it was possible for Adam to turn aside from his holy state. Life and death were set before him, blessings and curses, as we have seen. The other class of moral beings of which we have some knowledge, the angels, were in the same position too. However, they were not created as a race but as individuals. In their testing some fell and some stood firm (2 Peter 2:4). This suggests that a creature with a moral nature must freely say its ‘Amen’ to God if it is to be confirmed in its relationship to him. Put another way, we may reverently say that, so far as we are aware, God could not create a moral creature free from the possibility of disobedience. God is motivated by love: ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:6). The creature made in God’s image in turn responds to God not through force but in love and freely. But if the creature is free the possibility of disobedience exists.

How can humans be brought to a position where the possibility of disobedience no longer exists? Those who are required to obey God perfectly anyway, can never bring God under obligation. In this light, when the creature has done everything, he has, as it were, earned his keep but he has not put God in his debt. A long course of obedience would still leave the creature with the possibility of disobedience, so ultimate security and bliss could never be certain.

Now if God as the supreme Lover desires the best for the one he loves, an intimate and lasting friendship crowned with all the blessings he can bestow, he could grant a reward of eternal fellowship as a consequence of obedience to the covenant terms. For although we grant that man can never stand before God in his own merit as if he has acquired rights, he can stand before God as an obedient covenant son and claim the reward God promised when he bound himself to the man in covenant.

Suppose a father says to his son that although he is obliged to be obedient to him he will give him a special benefit if he is careful to be good during the holidays, has he done something unjust? He has not promised something as of right as a reward, but he has promised a reward in terms of a covenant. Has he acted in an arbitrary way? No, for a father loves his son and wants the fullest blessing for him. Just so, the Heavenly Father wants his son, made in his image, to have the fullest blessing. If the desire of the Father to bless his son is complemented by the son’s desire to please his father, then the covenant obedience is crowned by the promised blessing.

God love was met by Adam’s rebellion, and in him we also are condemned. But God remained committed to his purposes in creation. In his Son, the Last Adam, Jesus, he provided a substitute who fulfilled all righteousness and endured the curse due to us for our sin. In him we are freed from condemnation; in him we are made the righteousness of God; in him we can fulfil our calling in every area of life; in him we know the purposes of creation will be realised in the goal of that blessed rest with God. Christians have the sure promise of glory in a world that is the home of righteousness, serving God with joy and gladness for ever.

1 W.J.Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1984) 25-26 offers a succinct case for this position.
2 More accurately one could use the term vice-gerent (vice-manager/ruler).
3 Karl Barth has at least this point right when he states: ‘the goal of creation, and at the same time the beginning of all that follows, is the event of God’s Sabbath freedom, Sabbath rest and Sabbath joy, in which man, too, has been summoned to participate.’ – Church Dogmatics III/1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958) 98.
4 The fitting translation in 2:15 is ‘to worship and to obey’ rather than ‘to work and to keep it’. The standard Hebrew text reads ‘to work her and take care of her’ and the ‘her’ cannot be the garden since that is a masculine word. However, some Hebrew manuscripts lack the dot (mappiq) in the last letter and that makes the translation infinitive – ‘to work and to take care’ [See U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1961) 122-123]. The usage of the two words for priestly duties – ‘to worship and to obey’ – is recognized by commentators such as Gordon Wenham although its significance is not always followed through adequately.
5 See the discussion in Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary 1: Genesis 1-15 (Waco: Word Books, 1987) 56-57. Note that neither the serpent nor the woman use this name in Genesis 3:1-5 when God’s faithfulness is being questioned.

Covenant and Justification #3 (N.T.Wright)


N.T.Wright and the ‘new perspective’ on Paul

Rowland S. Ward


One of our younger adult members/readers asked for something on a matter of current discussion in Anglican circles in Sydney and which will have its impact on everyone in due time. Here’s my effort to explain the issues in brief.

‘Justification is an act of God’s free grace in which he pardons all our sins
and accepts us as righteous in his sight for the sake of the righteousness
of Christ alone, which is credited to us and received by faith alone’ (
Shorter Catechism, 33).


The term ‘new perspective’ was coined by J.D.G.Dunn in 1982 to describe the new approach to Paul’s theology he was advocating which was built on the work of several earlier scholars such as E.P.Sanders in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 1977. It now is embraced by quite a range of scholars. One world-renowned Pauline scholar and articulate Anglican evangelical, N.T. (Tom) Wright (b. 1948), the current Canon theologian of Westminster Abbey is well known. For the purpose of this article the position Wright takes will be considered as explained in his numerous books including What St Paul Really Said (Oxford, 1997).

What is the new perspective?
The claim of the new perspective is that first-century Judaism was not a merit -based religion but a covenant community created by God’s grace. Far from suffering the affliction of an introspective conscience, and a struggle to keep the law by works-righteousness, mainstream Judaism understood that through God’s covenant they were already right with him. The law (nomos) was not a means of getting saved but of staying saved. Keeping God’s law was the appropriate response to God’s covenant mercy.

Paul’s problem with Judaism was not works-righteousness in the sense understood by the Protestant Reformers, but the insistence on a covenant status for Jews and Jews alone. This insistence effectively denied that Jesus was the promised Messiah who fulfilled the Old Testament promise of salvation for Jew and Gentile. It was illustrated by Jewish insistence on the symbols of ethnic privilege, which the new perspective regards as Paul’s ‘works of the law’, namely, circumcision, the sabbath and the Mosaic code. Hence Paul’s affirms the full status in the church of the Gentile believers in Galatia apart from such requirements.

Wright: What Paul really said
Wright’s understanding of Paul is somewhat as follows: Paul teaches the representative and substitutionary work of Christ in propitiating the wrath of God. Jesus recapitulates Israel’s history so as to fulfil all God’s covenant promises. As .he Last Adam he inaugurates a new humanity. God’s justifying verdict on Jesus in his resurrection is passed upon believers now in anticipation of the final acquittal in the Day of Judgement. That final acquittal, or future justification of believers, will be in accordance with the whole life of grace led under the Spirit’s leading.

God’s grace operates by the powerful working of God’s Spirit through the preaching of the gospel, transforming hearts and minds and producing faith in Christ as the risen Lord.

The difference between a first century Jew and a first century Christian was not so much their attitude to salvation. Both held that salvation is through God’s gracious covenant, and that good works are the result of faith working through love. Both aim to serve God with a clear conscience and look for ultimate acquittal at God’s bar of justice following God’s review of the deeds of this life. The difference lies in their attitude to Jesus. The Jew rejects him as the Messiah and insists on covenant status for the Jew only, complete with its badges of circumcision, the sabbath and the food laws, ‘the works of the law’ in Paul’s phrase. The Christian believes Jesus is the Messiah who brings the promised vindication of God’s people, establishing his church among all nations, and rendering the distinctive old covenant requirements superfluous. Faith in Jesus is enough.

Justification is not the exercise of mercy, a description of how one is saved, but a declaration about someone who has already received mercy, who is already a member of the renewed- covenant community


We may find value in aspects of the new perspective, particularly in its reminder we should consider Paul’s letters in the first -century setting and not simply read them through Luther’s or Calvin’s 16th century eyes. The Jew-Gentile conflict was a very relevant issue. However, significant problems exist for the new perspective.

1. First-century Judaism
The claim about first-century Judaism is r certainly not without apparent credibility in the light of the Old Testament. The Abrahamic covenant is gracious. The covenant God made with Israel was also gracious, given to a redeemed people to be kept as their appropriate response of gratitude, whatever we might say about other aspects to it. The Jews had no occasion to claim their privileged position was deserved or merited by them.

However, the question is, ‘Was this non-meritorious law keeping in the context of a gracious covenant, really the dominant form of Judaism in Paul’s day?’ Significant academic contributions I from a variety of viewpoints are critical [eg D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien & Mark Seifrid (eds), Justification and Variegated Nomism, v. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism].

Indeed, we might assume that as common experience shows an inveterate tendency in religious people of whatever persuasion to look to who they are or what they do as the basis on which they expect God to deal kindly with them, that this was so in first-century Judaism too.

But don’t assume: let’s go no further than the Bible itself. First, the ordinary reader of the Bible sees that the majority of Jews rejected Jesus as ‘the messenger of the covenant’ (Mal 3 :1), its very substance (Is 42:6), which thus meant a repudiation of that covenant.

Second, he sees that the majority of Jews did have an emphasis on works-righteousness however disguised by assertions of God’s mercy. ‘We are God’s children through his gracious covenant with our father Abraham’, might be and was the claim, and in the next breath it might be negatived by conduct and shown never to have been properly understood. The Old Testament prophets had a fair bit to say on this, and the New Testament likewise. The very privileges of the Jewish people became the stumbling block. The real problem was the self -sufficiency in their hearts behind such confidence in the badges of racial descent or other distinction. It was not enough to claim Abraham as one’s father (Lk 3 :7ff). Indeed, OT and NT alike distinguish between spiritual Israelites and physical Israelites. ‘They are not all Israel who are of Israel.’

In the same way as much of Judaism, Roman Catholicism was and is a religion emphasising salvation by grace through faith. But closer examination shows that human merit is not excluded. Traditions God never gave us to keep, and practices inconsistent with a gracious salvation, are required and regarded as instrumental causes of salvation along with faith in Christ. That’s even written into the theory since the Council of Trent (1545-63), and it is certainly intertwined in popular grass-roots Catholicism, even today.

2. Justification
There can be distortions on the subject of justification arising from imbalance in our Gospel understanding. Certainly we are not justified simply by believing in justification by faith alone, but through real faith, that is, self-abandoning trust in Jesus Christ ‘who was raised for our justification’. Luther had a negative attitude to the epistle of James because he thought it conflicted with his favourite doctrine, while there are many who down-play the law of God as a rule for believers in the interest of an approach to grace that easily drifts into a divorce between faith and conduct.

It is our own Scottish Presbyterian ‘Rabbi’ Dr John Duncan (1796-1870) who said ‘the Person of Christ is fundamental’. He adds: ‘Justification by faith is the meeting-point of many doctrines, a rallying centre of theology; but it is not the foundation doctrine’ [J.M.Brentnall (ed.), ‘Just a Talker’-
Sayings of John (‘Rabbi)’ Duncan
(Edinburgh 1997, p. 102]. To the extent that the centrality of Christ and union with him by faith is brought out, I think we have a healthy corrective to some popular presentations of the Gospel. However, is the classic definition of justification correct, or is it not? It does not exhaust everything that may be said, but I cannot see that the indictment in Romans 1-3 of all humanity, both Jew and Gentile, provides us with any: opportunity to limit ‘the works of the law’ simply to Jewish distinctives. The application must be extended to all that God requires whether we are Jews or Gentiles. God’s demand has always included spiritual and ethical righteousness. That is why all of us fail (Rom 3:19) and need the righteousness of God found in the Messiah, ‘the Lord our Righteousness’ (Jer 23:6; Rom 3:21ff.) imputed to us. Any working is regarded by Paul as antithetical to salvation through faith (Rom 4:5), while Paul discards everything he could have through law-keeping so as to have the righteousness which is through faith in Christ (Phil 3:9). To soft-pedal ‘transfer’ language, and thus not affirm the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the ungodly, and to speak of righteousness primarily in terms of God’s covenant faithfulness, is a serious shift that has repercussions all down the line.

The traditional Protestant law/gospel contrast is to the point, even if Paul’s immediate concern in some contexts relates to how the gospel creates the one people of God rather than to how an individual is saved. Justification is the status of everyone who trusts in Jesus. Membership in God’s family flows from justification but is not its meaning.

3. Faith and works
In the classic view, justification is grounded on what Christ has already done, and the Day of Judgement will confirm and declare it. However, Wright says, “Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly (according to [Rom.] 2:14-16 and 8:9-11) on the basis of the entire life” (WSPRS, p. 129). On this language it is rather hard to avoid the idea of justification as involving faith and works in a way that does not match Paul’s teaching on grace and the justification of the ungodly. It seems dangerously close to teaching a dual instrumentality of faith and works as held by traditional Roman Catholicism, especially if it is said, “God gets us into his covenant but we keep ourselves there by non-meritorious works through the Spirit’s enabling.”

All true Protestants stress that faith ‘is never alone in those justified but is always accompanied by all other saving graces; it is not a dead faith but works by love’ (WCF 11:2). We are not suspicious of good works, but we put them in their proper place as fruits of the new relationship. We broke God’s law and came under its condemnation; Christ fulfilled God’s law for us and bore our condemnation. We cannot think of our acceptance with God in terms of our faithfulness to the covenant, but in terms of Christ’s obedience as our representative head.

Thus, the meritorious ground of justification, of which the resurrection of Christ is declarative, is Christ’s death, the instrumental cause of justification is faith, and good works justify evidentially, as the proof and demonstration of God’s saving act. Rewards are not due as wages earned, but through the grace of God in Christ crowning not our merits but his freely given gifts. These are important distinctions. As Edward Mote put it:
My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

When he shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, then may I in him be found;
Dressed in his righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.


The new perspective offers some good insights but seems to introduce its own distortions. Of course all our traditions must be judged by Scripture, and we are all creatures of our own age.

The new perspective seems to react to the excessive individualism among many Protestants. It has reflected with some sense of guilt, and rightly, on Christian complicity in the Holocaust, and it recognises the importance of Christian unity, bewailing, again rightly, the Protestant/Roman Catholic divide in a spiritually needy world. Its interpretations seems more influenced by such factors at crucial points than by what Scripture actually says.

The Presbyterian Banner, May 2002

Covenant and Justification #2 (Some modern views)


Rowland S. Ward


The Presbyterian Banner – April 2002

In the previous issue I outlined the concept of a covenant with Adam requiring obedience to the obtaining of eternal life. Adam’s failure in this covenant plunged the race into ruin, but through the obedience of the Last Adam, Jesus Christ, salvation is achieved. In justification we are not simply treated as if we had never sinned but as if Adam had fully obeyed.

The Adamic covenant and merit
It is common to describe Christ, the last Adam, as ‘meriting’ our salvation by his obedience. The parallel suggests to some that Adam would likewise have merited eternal life if he had obeyed in the covenant. Indeed, it might be said that if Adam could not have merited eternal life then neither could Jesus, in which event the foundation of salvation is destroyed.

The term ‘merit’ as used in Christian theology has more than one meaning. In particular, it can mean ‘gain’ or it can mean ‘earn’ (see this distinction well made in the 17th century by Turretin, Institutes, Vol 2, p.710). All human words can be misapplied, but the term ‘covenant of works’ in useful as conveying the correct idea that life was promised to obedience and therefore it was a just reward even if, with the generality of Reformed theologians, we think it a reward not deserved in justice as if man could demand over against God (cf. Luke 17:8), but a reward by reason of God’s covenant promise.

Pretty well the entire Reformed tradition avoided a merit-as-earning construction for Adam. Thus Robert Rollock, one of the early covenant theologians writes:
“It is a question here, whether in the first creation, good works in the covenant of works, were required of man as meritorious for the promised life? I answer, not so. But they were due in the creation as pledges of thankfulness in man to his creator, for that excellent work of his creation, and to glorify God his creator.” [Treatise on Effectual Calling, London, 1597]

The Torrance School
Accordingly, (1) when the Torrance school of neo-Barthians argues that the Adamic covenant as historically understood is one that gives priority to law rather than grace, it seems to forget that grace only has its proper meaning in the context of disobedience. (2) When this school claims that merit is not an appropriate category in the Adamic relationship it misconstrues the historic position in reformed theology. (3) When it stigmatises the traditional formulation as a mere contract, it forgets that the contract idea is inherently involved in a covenant, which is an agreement with mutual obligations, even if it cannot exhaust the nature of the covenant as a bond between friends and lovers.
Stam and The Covenant of Love
Clarence Stam of the Canadian Reformed Churches produced a simply written and pastorally sensitive treatment of covenant theology entitled The Covenant of Love in 1999 which is now in its second printing (Premier, 2001, 197pp). I have had the book for review for some time, and could wish that I was not in the position of expressing my disappointment with it. Stam acknowledges God’s covenant with Adam but he rejects the notion of a covenant of works. He seems to suppose that such a covenant would involve eternal life as something earned by man (p. 48), whereas, as noted above, virtually the entire covenant tradition, from Robert Rollock in 1597 to Herman Bavinck in 1897, stresses the reward was a gift not earned as wages but promised by covenant. [The great Charles Hodge is the lone, relatively undogmatic, advocate of the merit-as-earning viewpoint as far as I can see (Systematic Theology, 3:364-5).] Stam is not unfamiliar with the literature (the book has an extensive bibliography) but it appears he has not represented it well at this point.

Stam also rejects the idea of probation or testing (pp. 49-50). He has no concept of the covenant as a means of advancing humanity to greater blessing, and actually rejects such an idea. There is no reference in his book to such a crucial passage as 1 Cor 15:40-49, and Stam supposes Adam was perfect in an ideal sense, not needing advancement.

Also, very strikingly, Stam does not explain the results of Adam’s sin in terms of imputation. Indeed, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the central truth of justification by his perfect obedience to God’s law are not given quite the emphasis one would expect either. There is no reference to Romans 5:12ff. Rather, we have a single covenant of love made with Adam, fulfilled by Jesus, the formal distinction of covenant of works and covenant of grace being discarded.

We broke God’s law and stood under its condemnation; Christ fulfilled God’s law for us and bore our condemnation. I know Stam believes that, yet his presentation does, I think, lead easily to thinking of acceptance with God in terms of our faithfulness to the covenant rather than in term of Christ’s obedience as our representative head.

Shepherd and The Call of Grace
A somewhat similar problem seems to lurk in Norman Shepherd’s recent volume The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism (P & R Publishing, 2000, pbk 110pp). Shepherd taught theology at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia from 1963-81 but in the aftermath of controversy over his views of justification his position was terminated and he continued ministry with the Christian Reformed Church of North America until his recent retirement. Cornelius Van Til supported Shepherd (which may explain in part why the strident Trinity Foundation, which promotes the work of Gordon Clark, does not), as did Dr J. Faber of the Canadian Reformed Churches, and Dr Richard Gaffin, senior professor at Westminster, Philadelphia. It would be a mistake to suppose these men supported every aspect of Shepherd’s thought but they considered Shepherd was within tolerable boundaries, and perhaps in general he was and is. However, Dr Robert Godfrey, currently President of Westminster Seminary in California, was a strong opponent, as was Dr Meredith Kline of the same Seminary. So there’s a bit of family polemics involved, Dr Mark Karlberg being an active participant.

Shepherd comes from an American Presbyterian tradition which has been modified by general evangelical thinking. It too often focuses merely on the five points of the Calvinist understanding of salvation rather than having an adequately balanced theology. Shepherd wants to bring Presbyterianism back to its Reformed covenantal roots, so that she recovers a proper preaching focus and evangelistic thrust, and so that godly obedience is not cut of from saving faith. So far so good.

In Reformed theology we speak of being justified by Christ meritoriously, by faith instrumentally and by works evidentially. (I well remember the late Rev W.R.McEwen making this analysis in his Irish brogue over 30 years ago.) Some seem to forget that the faith which alone justifies is never alone but is accompanied by all other saving graces (cf. WCF 11:2). Thus good works are necessary but they are fruits of the new relationship, not means of establishing it. There is no doubt that in an earlier period Shepherd used language that was particularly unfortunate in this area. Some who claim to be logically following out his presentation now reject the traditional formulation of justification by faith alone, which doesn’t help in a dispassionate review of Shepherd’s own position.

Shepherd’s book only covers part of the field. He is undoubtedly saying some important things but needs to say some other things too. This is the more so given the increasing lack of clarity on justification seen in the Joint Roman Catholic-Lutheran Declaration, as well as the ‘new perspective’ on Paul associated with writers like James D.G. Dunn and N.T.Wright. One of our younger adult readers asked me about the ‘new perspective’ recently. It is popularised in Wright’s book, What St Paul Really Said (Oxford 1997), currently circulating widely in Sydney Anglican circles. Perhaps next time I can offer an assessment.

The times call for more careful discrimination in the statement of the covenant and justification/sanctification. Polarised positions and personalities must not become the interpretative grid through which we read Scripture. There needs to be much more care to speak with clarity. A recovery of the law/gospel distinction in the framework of the covenants of works and of grace is greatly needed if the churches of the Reformation are not to lose their way, and if the comfort and assurance of the Gospel is not to be replaced by either legalism or antinomianism.

Covenant and Justification #1 (Covenant of works)



Rowland S. Ward


The Presbyterian Benner – March 2002


The origins of the doctrine of the Adamic covenant
In the early years the Reformation the relationship of God to Adam was not developed in terms of the covenant idea. It was recognised that through Adam sin and death had entered the world and that death had passed on all men since all had sinned (Romans 5:12). However, this was not understood at first to have involved a breaking of a pre-fall covenant in Eden but to have been a natural transmission to Adam’s posterity. The period following the fall of man was viewed as a period in which God related to his people through a covenant of grace, a covenant in germ in Genesis 3:15, and greatly elaborated in the covenant with Abraham which is fulfilled in Christ. The law given to Israel through Moses some 400 years after Abraham, was viewed as a particular administration of the covenant of grace.

The authors of the great Heidelberg Catechism (1562), Zachary Ursinus (1534-83) and Caspar Olevianus (1536-87) were important in the development of covenant thinking. As early as 1562 Ursinus spoke of a ‘covenant of nature’ in reference to the law of nature including the moral law given at creation. Olevianus also speaks of a ‘covenant of creation’ broken in Eden and renewed as a ‘legal covenant’ to Israel at Sinai. The gifted young Englishman Dudley Fenner (ca.1558-87), employs the expression a ‘covenant of works’ to describe the covenant with Israel. However, it is only in the 1590s that the covenant of works with Adam attains real clarity in Reformed thought. The Scotsman Robert Rollock was a pioneer in 1597.

The Adamic covenant is not a revolutionary departure from the views of early Reformers such as Calvin, since Christ’s work as the Last Adam is clearly a covenantal work. Jesus himself refers to ‘the new covenant in my blood’, and passages such as Romans 5:12ff, and 1 Corinthians 15:22, 44-49 draw parallels between Adam and Christ. It was thus an easy and logical step to recognise the First Adam as also standing in a covenantal relationship with God. Thus the covenant requiring obedience which was broken by Adam was seen as fulfilled by Jesus Christ, who obtained salvation for his people by his perfect obedience to the Father. The covenant with Israel at Sinai was seen as an administration of the covenant of grace, although not without aspects that illustrated the principle of inheritance of God’s blessing through obedience.

The nature of the Adamic covenant
The very idea of a covenant suggests an agreement involving mutual faithfulness to the stated obligations, and for humanity, the lesser party, to receive a blessing of great richness in which the world given to his care would share, a blessing not otherwise open to him. One can look at the relationship from different angles. As the original relationship, to be fulfilled through use of the endowments given him, it may be called the covenant of creation or of nature. Being made with Adam before sin it may be called the covenant of innocence. As made between parties who were friends it may be called the covenant of friendship or of love. The blessing in view may lead us to call it a covenant of life, while the requirement of obedience to God suggests the term legal covenant or covenant of law or of works. Consideration of the tender love and generosity God showed may suggest the term covenant of favour. A neutral term would be Adamic covenant.

The terminology is not the issue but the distinctive significance of the Adamic covenant, particularly that eternal life could only be had in the way of obedience. It is unhelpful and unwise in my opinion to speak of the pre-fall covenant as one of grace, since grace has its proper definition only in the context of human demerit. We should reserve that term to the post-fall reality of redemptive love.

In Protestant theology ‘covenant of works’ has been the common expression for the pre-fall covenant, and is contrasted with the covenant of grace instituted after the entry of sin. Since the moment of Adam’s disobedience salvation by works is impossible to us; we are shut up to reliance on another, even Jesus Christ, the Last Adam. His obedience is the ground of our righteousness before God. A living faith lays hold of Christ who has secured deliverance from condemnation, and an everlasting righteousness which is reckoned to the account of every believer.

The significance of the Adamic covenant
The concept of the covenant with Adam is not academic but highly significant.
1. It reflects the intimate bond of love between God and humanity. Emphasis on the stipulations by God and the obligations on humanity must not lead us to caricature the covenant as a mere commercial contract. This would be a gross distortion. God is love. He cannot help but love the innocent creature made in his likeness.
2. The covenant with Adam opens the way through God’s goodness for humanity’s full potential to be realised because it provides the means by which God may crown the creature made in his image with glory and honour such as he could never attain in any other way. After all, no creature can claim rights over against his Creator as if he could earn blessings. However, God can promise a rich inheritance by his covenant, and he does so.
3. God’s covenant relationship with creation and particularly with humanity assures us of a predictable world and a consistency in God’s relationship with it. The power of God as the Creator and his authority as Governor of all things might suggest insecurity, if there was no covenant relationship.
4. The covenant also more adequately accounts for the spread of sin to Adam’s descendants than natural transmission, for it operates on the principle of representative or federal headship and imputation, as is also the case with Christ and believers. ‘For just as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also by the obedience of one man the many will be made righteous’ (Rom 5:19).
Creedal expression
The covenant with Adam is implicit in the fundamentals of historic Christianity, but is explicit most adequately in reformed theology. While it is not explicit in the 16th century Reformed creeds it is largely implied in them. It is expressed in the Irish Articles composed by Archbishop Ussher in 1615, and is thoroughly elaborated in the Westminster Confession (1646). The Savoy Declaration (1658) of the Independents and the London Confession (1689) of the Baptists only slightly modify Westminster’s language. It also found a place in the Helvetic Consensus (1675), although for other reasons this Creed did not have the general acceptance of those already mentioned. It is referred to in the Articles of the Dutch Classes of Walcheren (Zeeland) in 1693, while an interesting statement of the doctrine is found in the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Confession of 1823. These statements each reflect the level of consensus at the time of their composition, and there is room for varieties within the species of covenant theology to exist legitimately. No doubt it is proper to avoid over-elaboration where Scripture is not explicit. However, the danger in our time is more likely to be an under-emphasis than anything else.