One sure sign of the enduring significance of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is the frequency with which its first question is answered in even non-confessional circles: "The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." As recent surveys by Barna, Gallup, and many others have demonstrated, even most Christians today regard self-fulfillment as the main purpose in life, and that, I think, measures what Columbia University historian Eugene Rice calls "the gulf between the secular imagination of the twentieth century and the sixteenth century's intoxication with the majesty of God." "We can," writes Rice, "exercise only historical sympathy to try to understand how it was that the most sensitive intelligences of an entire epoch found a total, supreme liberty in the abandonment of human weakness to the omnipotence of God."
The great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, asserted, "Man's ultimate felicity consists only in the contemplation of God," and such definitions led the Reformed theologian H. Richard Niebuhr to conclude that Roman Catholicism and Reformation Christianity disagreed not only over the question of how one is saved, but over the very purpose of life itself. Medieval religion, says Niebuhr, was focused on contemplation and lived off the premise that grace was improving nature, as the believer ascended the ladder of mystical contemplation or speculation. In contrast, the Reformation was concerned with the kingdom of God, which was not a product of individual or corporate achievement, but the miraculous intervention of God alone. "The term 'kingdom of God' puts all the emphasis on the divine initiative," wrote Niebuhr.
What is the meaning of it all? Why are we here? In one sentence, wonderful in its pregnant brevity, the Westminster divines offer their two-fold reply: "to glorify God and to enjoy him forever."
To Glorify God
How on earth do we, rebels against God's majesty, we whose best works in this life are still stained with sin, bring anything of value or worth to God? How can we be said to "glorify" God? To answer this question, we must first realize that our glorification of God does not actually contribute anything to God's essence or character. In other words, we do not make him happier, more satisfied, or majestic than he was before our existence. God can get along quite well enough without us. Nor is there anything intrinsic to us that glorifies God--even in Christians, which itself adds to God's praise. Everything we have of any worth that may be said to glorify God is the direct product of God's own gift and activity.
First, our creation brings glory to God. In Eden, God created the human being and gave both male and female his divine image. God took extreme pleasure in this image-bearing creature and in the Garden, before the Fall, Adam and Eve both glorified God in their righteousness, perfection, obedience, worship and also enjoyed him as he indeed enjoyed them. Second, even after the Fall, God was glorified in his providence as he preserved humanity despite its rebellion. But supremely, God glorified himself in the institution and execution of the Covenant of Grace, and that is where I want to spend the remaining space of this introductory article.
The Covenant of Grace Defined
We are familiar with covenants or treaties between nations, in which, especially in laying down the terms of peace, each nation lays down certain conditions and offers mutual obligations. Or in private affairs, one's last will and testament settles the assets in a trust and designates heirs. Both these images are employed in Old and New Testament descriptions of the covenant. Deriving from the Greek word diatheke, and its Latin translation, foedus, the scriptures frequently refer to the notion of "covenants." Richard Muller, in his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, observes that "covenant" is synonymous with "pact."
The Covenant of Grace Executed
While the seminal notions of "covenant theology" are drawn from the scriptures by the church fathers, Augustine, and the reformers, it was left to the heirs of the reformers, and especially the Puritans assembled at Westminster, to give more precise definitions. Question 70 in the Shorter Catechism marks the arrival at this summit: "Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?" This is the question that provokes discussion of the covenant. It is not a question of the being of God or philosophical speculations, but the matter of salvation that brings these eminent theologians to explain the covenant of grace. Notice that it is not even the consideration of predestination, as important as it is, that leads into this topic. It is the salvation question and its Christ-centered focus, with the chapter titled, "The Covenant of Grace and Its Mediator."
First, it is impossible to read the Old Testament without noticing, as early as Genesis three, that God placed Adam in the position of representing the human race. This is implicit in Genesis, and explicit elsewhere, as in Romans five. The terms are clear: Glorify God by perfect obedience and enjoy him forever by receiving the good gifts of the garden as tokens of his favor and fatherly pleasure. By eating the forbidden fruit, in the presence of such abundant, luxurious, and liberal provision, Adam rejected his God-given freedom and meaning and instead sought to define freedom and meaning for himself and for his posterity. The reformed theologians who called this arrangement in the garden a covenant of nature or covenant of works were merely giving a name to it. When Paul states that "...the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, ..." and "...through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners..." (Rom 5:1819), the covenant theme comes into sharp focus.
In the Garden, the covenant of nature or works included conditions (refraining from eating the forbidden fruit), with an accompanying blessing (eternal life) and curse (death). The tree is often seen as a sacramental sign and seal of this covenant; the tree of life promises eternal life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil promises judgment. By choosing to eat from the latter, Adam, representing the entire human race, plunged humanity into rebellion and the corresponding curses. In other words, Adam violated the covenant of nature or works and brought himself and his posterity under God's wrath.
It is against this tragic backdrop that God makes a new covenant with Adam after the Fall, and invites the rebels back into his favor. The problem, of course, is that now men and women are "by nature children of wrath" (Eph 2:3), spiritually dead, and incapable of fulfilling the covenant of works. They cannot recover the righteousness lost in the Fall, nor can they even pursue that righteousness. And that is why the Shorter Catechism begins its discussion of the covenant of grace with the question, "Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?" Answer: "No! He entered into a covenant of grace to deliver the elect out of that state, and to bring them into a state of grace by a Redeemer."
In spite of their sin, Adam and Eve were reconciled to God and were promised a redeemer, God himself replacing their fig leaves with the skins of an animal he sacrificed in order to cover them--of course, foreshadowing the Lamb of God. While Cain and his descendants pursue the covenant of works, ending in death, Seth and his descendants are heirs of the covenant and promise of grace. As early as Genesis 4, "men began calling of the name of the Lord." Much later, God appears to Abraham and promises, "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." (Gn 12:23) Thus, the nation of Israel is founded on this promise or covenant of grace. Israel looks forward to the coming Redeemer, foreshadowed in the sacrificial, legal, and ceremonial life of Israel.
And yet, even in this covenant community, not every Israelite is necessarily elect. "For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendents are they all Abraham's children. ...In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring," Paul explains. In fact, the apostle goes on to demonstrate that even though Ishmael was as much Abraham's natural son as Isaac, God elected the latter and rejected the former. The same was true, Paul says, of Isaac's sons Jacob and Esau. The former was chosen, the latter rejected, "before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad--in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works, but by him who calls." (Rom 9:613)
In other words, God wanted all the glory for redemption. There is nothing in us that moves him to save us; rather, he is moved by his own character--his freedom, love, mercy, justice, wrath, kindness. "Not of works, but by him who calls:" that is the theme of this covenant. How different is this covenant of grace from the initial covenant of works! God elects apart from any conditions either present or even foreseen in us. It is an everlasting covenant, because it is founded on the mediation of Christ and his perfect righteousness (Is 55:3); it is a covenant of peace (Ez 37:26), because it reconciles sinners to God, and it is a covenant of grace because all the merit, working, and terms are fulfilled on God's side. Even the faith with which we accept this treaty of peace is itself included in the covenant.
This does not mean, however, that God's justice is sacrificed for his mercy. We are still justified by works, but not our own. We are saved because the Second Adam, Christ, became the trustee for the estate and, unlike Adam, fulfilled all obedience due to God's law. In his perfect obedience, sacrificial death, triumphant resurrection, and present mediation in heaven, Christ our Mediator has won for us full title to the inheritance lost by Adam. "Just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Rom 5:1921) Jesus said, "For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day." (Jn 6:3839) Before the creation of the world, we are told in scripture, God chose us in Christ. (Eph 1:4) So, even before there was a fallen world, God had already planned a way of salvation and had appointed Christ as the mediator of this covenant of grace. Just prior to his death, Jesus prayed, speaking of himself in the third person, "For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him." The Father gave a people to the Son before the creation of the world. "I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours." (Jn 17: 2, 9)
How Do We Receive The Benefits of this Covenant?
As the Old Testament promised and the New Testament fulfilled, Abraham has become the father of many nations. His offspring include Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, since ultimately the promise depended on his seed (singular, as Paul points out so sharply in Galatians), namely, Christ. It did not depend on the faithfulness of the nation Israel, but on the faithfulness of the true Israel, Christ.
But how do we receive the benefits of this covenant, especially if we are not Jews? This is the problem Paul takes up throughout his epistles. It is on the same condition, from Genesis through Revelation: faith in Christ. The covenant of works commanded, "Do this and you shall live;" the covenant of grace proclaims, "Believe and you shall live." The Puritan Thomas Watson explains why faith was selected as the means of receiving the benefits of Christ: "To exclude all glorying in the creature...If repentance or works were the condition of the covenant, a man would say, ŒIt is my righteousness that has saved me;' but if it be of faith, where is boasting? Faith fetches all from Christ, and gives all the glory to Christ."
Faith does not set out to merit God's favor. It does not try to appease God by vain promises of better performances in the future, nor does it take anything to itself. Faith does not even look to itself as the one "little work" one performed for salvation. For we are saved by Christ, not by faith; faith simply receives everything that was already accomplished completely by the Second Adam and rests in his fulfillment of the covenant of works.
Even though the elect alone were given to Christ, the invitation is given to all men and women everywhere. Is that contradictory? Not at all. We do not know the number or identity of God's chosen and there are many who are within this covenant of grace who, as in Israel of old, are not true children of Abraham. So the gospel goes out to everyone, inviting all to receive the benefits of Christ. Only by trusting in Christ can we be sure that we are one of the elect, one of those many people whom God chose and for whom Christ became the everlasting mediator. And of this every believer can be certain: If Christ was made your mediator before earth's creation, and fulfilled his office with the price of his own blood, you can be certain that he will save and keep you, for "of all that he has given me, I shall lose nothing." (Jn 6:39)
What Are The Signs & Seals of This Covenant?
As the tree of life held out the fruit of eternal salvation, so Christ offers himself. God has not only promised us eternal life through faith in Christ; he has even gone the extra step of promising us the very faith itself through which we will take hold of Christ. The Westminster divines were convinced that the scriptures made just such a use of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Just as circumcision was the bond of this covenant in the Old Testament, baptism is its bond in the New. We are promised Christ even before we utter our first sentence! He comes to us, and to our children, saying, "I will be your God, and you will be my people." As Peter declared at Pentecost, "The promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call." (Acts 2:39)
And then, when we are able to confess Christ for ourselves, God has even provided a means for the strengthening of our faith in the storms of adversity and doubt. Alongside the Word, the Lord's Supper confirms our faith in the sufficiency of Christ's atoning work. It is not merely a symbol, a bare and empty memorial of what God did for us in the past, but the ongoing renewal of God's covenant faithfulness to us in the present.
What Are The Effects of Being In This Covenant?
The most obvious benefits of being members of the covenant of grace are our justification, redemption, adoption, inheritance, eternal life, and assurance of God's pardon and acceptance. But being members of Christ's body means that we also share in his life. Those who are truly united to Christ by a true and lively faith grow and mature both in their knowledge and their character, as the life of Christ produces repentance, love, and the works that flow out of these gifts, in the life of the believer. These gracious effects never become the basis for our justification or acceptance before God. They follow regeneration; the believer need not undergo a further experience or enter into a higher level of grace in order to enjoy these privileges and joys of new life. The inheritance of Christ does not come in pieces, as though God were holding a carrot above our heads in order to get us to jump through hoops. Rather, both gifts, justification and sanctification, new status and new life, are given the moment one trusts in Christ alone as the sufficient ground, mediator, and sustainer of the believer's righteousness before God.
God is glorified in his covenant of grace precisely because it is he alone who receives all the praise for its inception and execution. Only in this manner could he be true to his own character and, at the same time, glorify himself in our salvation. In the covenant of grace, God weaves his glory and our good into one common thread and only in this way could we who were "children of wrath" glorify God and enjoy him forever, both pursuits beginning right now.
Perhaps you are wondering, "How could I be accepted in this covenant? I never have been a terribly religious person and I've done too many things wrong in my life." Perhaps you are even a professing Christian and you are thinking, "I've wandered so far from God and every time I promised to change, nothing happened. I ended up digging my hole deeper, and I just don't think there's any use pretending I can pull it off." That, interestingly enough, is not the confession that bars you from eternal life, but the only confession that can secure it! Watson takes up this reply, "But I am not worthy that God should admit me into covenant," with this answer: "It never came into God's thoughts to make a new covenant upon terms of worthiness. If God should show mercy to none but such as are worthy, then must he show mercy to none. But it is God's design in the new covenant to advance the riches of grace, to love us freely; and when we have no worthiness of our own, to accept us through Christ's worthiness."
The tree of life, whose fruit Adam at first forfeited, is now offered to humanity again. Our Lord himself assures us that if we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we have eternal life and will not come into judgment. (Jn 6) That same tree of life that appeared in the Garden of Eden before the Fall reappears in this divine drama at the end of history. "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse." (Rv 22:13) And the children of the covenant cry aloud, "Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!".