The Covenant of Grace
If you were here last week, you know that this summer we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. This morning, during our fellowship time after the service, please stay for a little while and join us for some birthday cake in celebration.
Besides cake, we are also celebrating God’s work through John Calvin by taking a look at some of the “Big Words of the Faith.” Last week we looked at predestination. That can be a pretty controversial and heavy topic—I’m glad to see some of you who were here last week came back. This week’s topic is probably not quite as controversial, at least right now.
There are outlines for you once again this morning. If you don’t have one already, raise your hand and someone will make sure you get one.
This week, we are looking at the word “covenant.” This is a pretty commonly used word, especially in Reformed churches like ours.
Many of you probably know of many reformed churches all over North America with the word “Covenant” in their name. I have had the opportunity to preach on numerous occasions at Covenant CRC up in Appleton. I made profession of faith, and Kim and I were married, at Covenant CRC in Sioux Center, Iowa. It is a common name.
Another context in which we see the word covenant is in relation to children. Many churches provide assistance to encourage and help parents to send their children to Christian schools. Those programs are often known as “Covenant Promise” or “Covenant Education” funds.
We also use the word covenant during baptisms and professions of faith. We refer to the babies we present for baptism as covenant children. We proclaim that baptism is a sign that they are a part of the covenant of grace. And when those children reach an age at which they are assured of the promises of the covenant and want to take on its responsibilities, they make profession of faith.
So this morning, let’s look together at this word—“covenant.” What is a covenant? How is the idea of the covenant an important part of what we believe as Christians? And what does the covenant mean to us?
Our text this morning comes from the book of Hebrews, chapter 8, verses 10-12. Hebrews is near the end of the Bible—after 1&2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon, but before James, 1&2 Peter, and 1, 2, &3 John.
This text is actually part of a much larger section of Hebrews dealing with the covenant. In fact, I think the key truth of the book of Hebrews is the unchanging nature of God’s covenant of grace and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
One other thing to know about our text this morning is that it is actually a quote. Starting with the end of verse 8, and continuing to the end of verse 12, the writer of Hebrews is quoting the prophet Jeremiah. When you get a chance, take a look at Jeremiah 31:31-34. You will see that those verses are quoted exactly here in Hebrews 8.
So hear the word of the Lord from Hebrews chapter 8, verses 10-12:
This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,'
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.
II. What is a Covenant?
Right at the beginning of our text comes the big word we are studying this morning—“covenant.” Before going further, let’s define exactly what a covenant is.
In its most general sense, a covenant is a solemn promise made by one party to another to engage in or refrain from a certain action.
A covenant is different from a contract. In a contract, two or more parties make promises to each other, and each is bound by the contract. Each side has an obligation to the other. If one or the other doesn’t follow through on the obligation, then the contract is broken, and the penalties written into the contract will be applied against the one who broke the contract.
In a covenant, only one party is bound by the promise. The one making the covenant might declare that promise will only be kept if those benefiting from the covenant do certain things. But if they don’t do those things, they aren’t necessarily violating of the covenant. They’re just choosing not to receive the benefits of the promise made in the covenant. They won’t receive any benefit from the agreement.
This definition of covenant is a key to understanding the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace is a solemn promise made by God to grant salvation and eternal life to mankind—so long as we believe and obey.
III. Covenant History—God’s story
This morning our focus is on the covenant of grace—that solemn promise of God to grant salvation and eternal life to us if we believe and obey.
To fully understand the meaning of the covenant of grace, though, we should understand “covenant history.” “Covenant history” is the story of God’s relationship with his people. “Covenant history” is really “God’s story” as God has revealed it in his Word. And it includes two other covenants of which God is or has been a part. These covenants have a tremendous impact on how we understand the covenant of grace today.
A. The Covenant of Works
The first act in God’s story was creation. As the very first words of the Bible say, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God created everything from nothing by His powerful word.
The high point of creation was when God created humans. Genesis 1:26 tells us that God created us as the pinnacle of His creation by making us in his own image, “crowned with glory and honor.” Then, Genesis 2 tells us that God made a covenant with Adam, the first human.
That first covenant is usually called the “covenant of works.” Some call it the “covenant of creation” because it was started at creation. Others call it the “covenant of life” because it was intended to give man not only earthly life, but heavenly life. In the covenant of works, God promised life to Adam and his descendants, so long as he obeyed God perfectly
God created us, so we naturally owed God our love and obedience. He didn’t need to enter into a covenant to create that obligation. And He owed us nothing in return for that love and obedience. Yet God willingly entered into the covenant of works. In doing so, he gave us a gift of grace, binding Himself to give life to humans. The only condition in that covenant was the obedience that Adam, and all his descendants, already owed to God. So while we call this first covenant “the covenant of works,” we see God’s grace to us from the very beginning.
In the covenant of works, God arranged it so that Adam would represent the entire human race. If Adam had fulfilled the conditions of the covenant, then all of his descendants would have lived forever with God in eternal blessedness. Remember, though, this was a covenant, not a contract. Adam could not earn salvation by obeying. Rather, his obedience was simply the condition for remaining within the covenant.
Unfortunately, even though he was capable of following God’s will, Adam broke the terms of the covenant of works. As a result, he was no longer under the covenant’s protection and promise. Since he could no longer claim the promise of life with God, he instead had only death—complete spiritual and physical death and separation from God
And since Adam represented us all, every one of us is incapable of receiving life under the covenant of works. Because of Adam’s sin, we all entered into the bondage of sin and death.
At this point, the story would have ended if it were not for God’s grace and mercy. But because of the covenant of grace, the story did not end!
B. The Covenant of Redemption
In Ephesians 2, the apostle reminds us of the misery we have because of being outside of the covenant of works. But then, in verse four, Paul uses two very small but very powerful words—“But God.” “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
At the very moment of Adam’s fall, God began to show his infinite mercy by withholding immediate physical death. And then he showed his amazing grace, announcing a new covenant: the covenant of grace. In that new covenant, God promised to send another to redeem fallen humanity from their plight.
Before getting too much further into the covenant of grace, there is one other covenant you should know about—the covenant of redemption. This is an agreement God the Son made with God the Father. In the covenant of redemption, the Son agreed to take on our obligations under the original covenant of works.
I am not going to spend a great deal of time on the covenant of redemption this week. We will talk about it more next week, God willing, when our “big word of the faith” is “justification.” Suffice it to say that the covenant of redemption is a key to the covenant of grace. Had there been no covenant of redemption, there could have been no covenant of grace with sinful humans. The covenant of redemption makes the covenant of grace possible.
C. The Covenant of Grace
We see the covenant of grace first in Genesis 3:15, when God tells the devil in the garden “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” The rest of Scripture, from this point on, is the story of God revealing his covenant of grace.
Since the fall of man into sin, there has only been one covenant, the covenant of grace. True, the way the covenant was administered has changed. The covenant became wider through time, starting out just with small families, like the families of Noah and Abraham. It widened at the time of Moses to include the entire nation of Israel. And it now covers a church that Revelation 5:9 tells us is made up of people “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” In the Old Testament the covenant was administered through types and shadows, such as sacrifices, the priesthood, and the temple. But those types and shadows all pointed to the promise of the covenant of grace, salvation through Jesus Christ.
So what exactly is the covenant of grace? The Westminster Confession describes it this way: “…the Lord was pleased to make a second [covenant], commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.”
In other words, the covenant of grace is God’s promise that his chosen people will receive the benefits of the original covenant of works—eternal life with God—despite our sin. We receive those benefits through the work of Jesus Christ, who freely took on and fulfilled our obligations under the original covenant. All we have to do receive these benefits is to have faith that we are saved. And not only that, as part of the covenant of grace, God promises to give those covered by this covenant the desire and the ability to believe.
The covenant of grace is indeed a covenant, not a contract. It is a solemn promise made by God, promising to grant salvation and eternal life to sinful humans. And there is a condition to that promise—the promise of salvation and eternal life covers us only so long as we believe in Christ and obey him as our King. But God also gives his chosen people the means by which we can fulfill that condition.
Under the covenant of works Adam could not earn salvation by obeying. Rather his obedience was required simply as the condition for remaining within the protections of the covenant.
In the same way, we cannot earn the salvation and eternal life won for us by Christ by believing in and obeying Jesus. Rather, our belief and obedience is simply the condition for remaining within the covenant of grace. And, thanks to God, He has given us the means to fulfill that condition through the Holy Spirit.
The most exciting part of the covenant of grace for us will be its consummation. The covenant of grace will reach its fullest expression when Christ returns to give the world second birth, when his people will be transformed into the likeness of Christ, and when all things will be restored to the way they were meant to be. That will be the time of the New Heaven and New Earth, when we will receive in full the blessing of God’s covenant promise to live in eternal blessedness with our Creator God.
The Bible, at its core is “covenant history.” It is the story of God’s relationship with his creation, especially us humans. And the covenant story comes to a head in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Through this covenant story, not only do we learn of how we can live in a glorious relationship with our Father, but we see God’s glory revealed through his work in all of history.
IV. What the Covenant means to us
The covenant of grace is God’s promise that his chosen people will receive the benefits of the original covenant of works—eternal life with God—despite our sin. Let’s take a look, through our text, at what it means for us humans to be within that covenant of grace.
A. God is a sovereign provider
Take a look at the last part of verse 10 of our text. There it says “I will be their God and they will be my people.” If there is one way to sum up the covenant promise of God to us his people, it is just that—he will be our God, and we will be his people.
This little phrase packs a lot of meaning in just a few words. We can sum it up, though, by saying that God is a sovereign provider. He is a sovereign provider.
Listen to what the catechism says in Lord’s Day 9. There the writers say that “the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence is my God and Father because of Christ his Son.” Do you see the covenant there—God promises to be our God, and he does this through Jesus Christ.
The catechism goes on to tell us what it means for us that he is our God. “I do not doubt that he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and he will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world.” He will provide whatever I need. He will turn to my good every adversity. What a promise!
In two weeks, we are going spend the entire service focusing on God’s providence, so I won’t go much deeper today. But in that covenant promise of God to be our God and that we will be his people, we have a promise that God is a sovereign provider.
B. God demands obedience from us
But not only is God a sovereign provider, he also demands obedience from us. God demands obedience from us. Jump back to the middle of verse 10. Listen to another promise from God’s covenant with us: “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.”
We have already noted that while we cannot earn salvation, God can withdraw the promises of the covenant from those who do not meet its stipulations. One of those stipulations is obedience. God demands obedience from us—even though we cannot be saved by following the law, God still demands that we obey his law.
Sometimes Christians misunderstand why we obey the law. We see our good deeds as a way of earning God’s favor. Or we point to our empty deeds as proof of our righteousness before God while ignoring the darkness of our hearts. Or we do our good deeds as a way of convince others of our goodness.
The apostle Paul dealt with this tendency when he criticized the Galatians at the beginning of chapter 3 of his letter to them. There he says “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Obviously, we don’t obey to earn God’s favor or the favor of others.
But on the other end, some Christians have a tendency just to forget the law. We’re already saved, after all. Why bother trying to obey the law if it gets us nowhere? We can rely solely on God’s grace.
Jesus Christ not only took on the punishment for our sin, but he lived a perfect life so that perfection could be imputed to us. And as a result we are grafted into the family of God, becoming one with the Son and he one with us. If we are becoming one with the Son, it follows that we will become more and more like him. And since the Son was perfect, following the law perfectly, it follows that we also will become more and more perfect, following the law of God.
At Mount Sinai, God wrote us his laws. Now, says our text, he writes them on our hearts. He gives us an understanding to know and to believe his law; he gives us the memory to retain it; he gives us the heart to love it and the conscience to recognize it; and he gives us the courage to profess it and the power to put it into practice.
Yes, it is true that we will not be perfectly obedient. Sin does that to us, but the Holy Spirit working in our hearts leads us to be more and more like Christ. And that means we are obedient to God’s law, just as he demands. We can only do this because of Christ’s work on our behalf and the Spirit’s power in our hearts. But God demands obedience from us. And it is through our obedience that we can see that we are members of the covenant, covered by the eternal promise of God.
C. God will judge those outside the covenant
Because God demands obedience, and because not all have been elected by God to receive salvation, there are some who remain outside the covenant of grace. God will judge those outside the covenant.
We talked in depth about this last week. Not everyone is covered by God’s covenant of grace. As humans, we are all subject to death, because our sin means we didn’t keep the stipulations of the original covenant, the covenant of works. But God in his grace provides a new covenant. That covenant doesn’t cover all of humanity—just those who believe and obey. The disobedient and the unbelievers have still received a measure of grace from God—they live on earth for a while, and many of them enjoy temporarily the blessings God bestows upon his creation.
But in the end, those outside of the covenant die. They are judged for their sin and suffer an eternal death, permanently separated from God and his blessings. God will judge those outside the covenant.
D. God will bless those who are faithful
Finally, God will bless those who are faithful. Listen to the last two verses of our text. “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
When we were outside of the covenant because of our sin, we were subject to death. But because God grants us the faith by which we can take on His covenant promises, God blesses us.
God blesses those who are faithful. We receive the comfort that comes from knowing that we belong to our faithful Savior. We receive the washing away of our sins by Christ’s precious blood. We are set free from slavery to sin. We are assured that the Father is actively caring for us, providing everything we need and ensuring that even the bad things of this world will be worked out for our benefit. We receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We receive the assurance of forgiveness that comes from recognizing the Spirit at work in us. And we receive eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth, where we will praise God together in joy forever. God will bless those who are faithful.
God’s story is the story of the covenant of grace—the solemn promise made by God to grant salvation and eternal life to mankind so long as we believe and obey.
Because of the covenant of grace, we can have comfort. We can turn from our fears because we recognize God’s mercy. One writer put it this way: “He has remembered his covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, and he has delivered us through the Redeemer, our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”
Serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness. If God is for us, who can be against us? When you are filled with fear, remember the promises of God in Christ Jesus.
Sometimes we turn the big words of the faith into abstract doctrines, with little application to our day to day lives. But the covenant of grace is not just an abstract doctrine. It is the guarantee of your relationship with God. It is the reason that you may serve him without fear.
In Jesus Christ, God makes good on his promise that he will be our God and we will be his people. God could not allow his covenant to fail. He even sent his Son to become a man and die rather than break his covenant. The Lord is faithful, his covenant endures forever.