by Dr. J. Ligon Duncan
The phrase, The Covenant of Redemption (and I am not speaking of Robertson’s Covenant of Redemption, no), historically in the Reformed tradition refers to the intertrinitarian covenant, especially the covenant between the Father and the Son before the foundation of the world. It took place in eternity and is the plan by which election would be elective. Berkhof defines it this way, “the Covenant of Redemption is the agreement between the Father giving the Son as head and redeemer of all the elect and the Son voluntarily taking the place of those whom the Father has given Him.” And so the Father, foreseeing the fall, in His grace effects a covenant with the Son in which He gives all the elect to the Son and the Son says I will take their place. Now where in the world did the Covenant Theologians get this? Well, we are going to look at this very closely later on. But let’s look at some of the outline.
First of all, they found it in the Messianic Psalms—Psalm 2:7-9—where we have a picture of God speaking to the king: “I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘Thou art My Son, Today I have begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Thine inheritance, And the very ends of the earth as Thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, Thou shalt shatter them like earthenware.’”
Now in that Messianic Psalm (and by the way, that is a Psalm and that is a passage in that Psalm that is directly identified as messianic in the New Testament; we’re not doing this by implication; it is directly quoted as a Messianic Psalm in reference to Christ, so there is no speculation involved here), the Covenant Theologians say, “What is happening there?” God the Father is giving to the Son the nations as His inheritance and is appointing the Son in that phrase, “Thou art My Son, this day I have begotten Thee.” That doesn’t mean that Christ is coming into being that day. That is the language of the royal enthronement. “Thou art the Son, today I have begotten Thee.” It is as if the king of Israel has just ascended the throne now. And the Father is saying I have appointed you now as the monarch over all your inheritance, all the chosen people. And so the Son takes the role of Mediator and of head. You see this also in Psalm 40:7-9 which is another royal Psalm. You see it in Psalm 89:3 and again it is picked up in Hebrews 10:5-7 and elsewhere, applied to Christ.
The Covenant Theologians also noticed that in the Gospels Christ emphasizes that the Father had given Him work to do. The language in John 5:36 is interesting, isn’t it? The Father gave Me a work to do. And so elsewhere in the Gospels, Matthew and Mark, you will find Jesus saying things like, “It is my food to do the will of Him who sent Me.” Over and over we see the Son openly subordinating His will to the Father’s will. A classic example is in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Nevertheless, not My will, but Thy will be done.” And the Covenant Theologian basically pulls back from that and says, “Wait a second, we’re Orthodox Trinitarian Christians, we believe that the Son is very God, a very God. He is equal in power and glory with God the Father. What is the Son doing saying, ‘nevertheless not My will, but Thy will be done?’” He is referring to the obligations of the covenant which He voluntarily took on Himself in order to save His people. And the Father said, “Son, if you are going to be the surety of Your people, this is what You must do.” And the Son says to the Father, “That is what I want to do, Father, so that You will be glorified and that they will be saved.” Now we will build a foundation for this as we go through it.
Theologians have quibbled over whether to call this a covenant. Okay. All Reformed Theologians believe in a decree. They believe that there is a plan that God has instituted from eternity for the saving of His people. Covenant Theologians simply say, “You really can’t understand that decree, especially as it regards to our redemption, until you understand the covenant aspect of it.” And the covenant aspect is the Covenant of Redemption. It is that eternal covenant--that covenant which is prior to time, in which the Son undertakes to be our surety and our mediator and the Father undertakes to give to the Son all the elect because of the Son’s perfect obedience.
Hear that clearly. In the Covenant of Redemption, the Son buys you by right. You hear that? Last week we said the whole function of Covenant Theology is to do what? Build the assurance of God’s people in His promises. Now the Covenant of Redemption tells you that when Christ dies for you, it makes your salvation absolutely certain. Why? Because the Father has promised the Son, “If you will take that man’s place, I will give him to You.” The whole point is that the Father cannot renege. He has promised the Son in the Covenant. So there we have the Covenant of Works and The Covenant of Redemption.
Excerpt from History of Covenant Theology by J. Ligon Duncan