What Are the Most Important Characteristics of the Covenant of Grace?

   by Geerhardus Vos

  a)      It is a gracious covenant. The grace consists of the following: (1) that God permits a surety; (2) that the surety is God Himself, so that God in His own person executes the ministry of the covenant; (3) that the fulfillment of the covenant obligation on the side of man comes about through grace, that is, through the Holy Spirit. Thus, here again it is God who upholds the covenant. So from beginning to end, everything is grace, a work of God par excellence.
    When we say that it is a covenant of grace, then we must consider specifically the relationship of guilty man before God in this covenant. When one considers the Mediator of the covenant, then naturally no grace is shown to Him. Considered in Christ, everything is a matter of carrying out the demands of the covenant of works according to God’s strict justice, though in another form. Grace never consists in God abandoning anything of His justice, taken in general. But He does in that He does not assert His justice against the same person against whom He could assert it. God shows grace to us when He demands from Christ what He can demand from us. Considered in Christ, everything is strict justice; considered in us, everything is free grace.
    As a covenant of grace, this covenant also has a Trinitarian character. The entire Trinity is active in it. It flows from the election of the Father, is founded in justice by the suretyship of the Son, and finds its complete realization through the application of the Holy Spirit (Eph 2:8; John 1:16).
    b)      It is an eternal covenant and primarily a parte post [with reference to the future] (cf. Gen 17:19; 2 Sam 23:5; Heb 13:20). In this eternity, permanence is also implied, because in Scripture these two concepts are interchangeable. This is one of the reasons why the designation “testament” can be applied to the covenant of grace. Taking this together with what has been said earlier, we thus obtain as grounds for usage: (1) that the benefits of the covenant are an inheritance granted from the Father to His children; (2) that these covenant benefits are accomplished through the death of Christ; (3) that the covenant, like a testament, is fixed and unmovable. Hebrews 9:17 combines the latter two of these viewpoints.
    Of course, the eternity of the covenant of grace must be related to the fellowship of the covenant. The covenant bond in itself, if it does not pass over into covenant fellowship, is not eternal, but becomes broken.
    c)      It is a particular and not a universal covenant. This means:
      1.      That it is not realized in all, as universalists maintain, and also that with the will of the decree God did not will that it would be realized in all, as is held by the Pelagians, Lutherans, Remonstrants, and others.
      2.      That even as a covenant relationship, it does not extend to all to whom the gospel is preached, for not all accept being taken into the proffered covenant.
      3.      That the offer of the covenant does not come to all, because there have been and will be many peoples and individuals who will die without knowledge of the covenant of grace.
    In other words, there is an election of peoples as well as individual election. In contrast, the Lutherans and some (German) Reformed maintain that the covenant of grace in this sense has a universal purport, since at various points in time it is offered to the entire human race, and it would thus have depended only on the covenant faithfulness of those persons living at that time for the covenant to be kept universally. This happened in Adam, Noah, and even later through the apostles. We say: There is no basis to make Adam and Noah representative recipients of the offer of the covenant in this manner. Neither is there proof that Adam treated Cain less faithfully than Abel, or that Noah fulfilled his covenant obligation to Ham less faithfully than to Shem. Here one must simply acknowledge God’s sovereignty, which is righteous but is in no sense to be explained by the actions of man. Already in the first promise by which the covenant of grace is revealed, there is a prophecy of a separating between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. In this, the particular character is implied. Finally, one gains nothing with this abstract universality. To be sure, one must acknowledge that for numerous persons and peoples to whom the covenant was offered for the first time in Adam or Noah, there was a second offer added at a later time, while for other persons and peoples this offer was lacking. So, for the one group, a universal offer plus no offer later; for the other, first a universal offer plus a repeated offer later. That is to say, regarding the second offer, it is yet again a particular offer.
    We must distinguish this universality of the covenant of grace in the proper sense from another that was taught by some older Reformed theologians. Szeged in Musculus, Polanus, Wollebius, and others make a distinction between the foedus generale, the general covenant, which God established with all creatures, animals as well as men, and the foedus speciale ac sempitemum, the special and eternally enduring covenant that is made with the elect. For the first, the covenant with all creatures, one can appeal to God’s covenant making with Noah. With that, God promised that the orderings of heaven and of earth would not again be disrupted by a flood and placed the rainbow as a sign and a seal of it.
    Finally, one can also say that the new dispensation of the covenant of grace is universal in distinction from the old, which in a particularistic fashion was limited to the Jews.
    d)      The covenant of grace is one through all its dispensations, however the form in which it is administered may change. This is contested by all those who teach that the Old Testament saints were saved in a different manner than those of the new day; for example, the Pelagians, the Socinians, the later Remonstrants, the Roman Catholics, who thought the fathers to have been in limbo until the descent of Christ into hell, and in principle the Cocceians, when they have these believers existing under a paresis. Many modern theologians regard Christianity as something specific and new that transcends Judaism.
    Recently, however, more emphasis has again been placed on their affinity, although naturally for most the tie is taken as entirely evolutionary and natural, and one grants a supernatural origin as little to the religion of Israel as to Christianity.
    That the covenant of grace is one is shown by the following evidence:
      1.      It was demonstrated explicitly by the Apostle Paul against the Judaizers that one and the same rule held for Abraham as held for the Christians from the Jews and the Gentiles under the new day (cf. Gal 3:7–9, 17–18). Also, in other passages it is called the same covenant that was established with the fathers—for example, Luke 1:72, “[S]o that He would remember His holy covenant”; Acts 3:25, “You are children of the prophets and of the covenant that God established with our fathers.”
      2.      As a summary of the covenant of grace in both Old and New Testaments, the expression occurs, “I am your God” (Gen 17:7–8; 2 Cor 6:16; Rev 21:3). Everything is contained in this summary. In His answer to the Sadducees, Christ proves from the expression “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” that these patriarchs must possess eternal life since God is not a God of the dead but of the living [Matt 22:32; Mark 12:27; Luke 20:38].
      3.      Scripture teaches that there is but one gospel by which one can be saved, and inasmuch as the gospel is nothing other than the revelation of the covenant of grace, there can be only one covenant of grace. This gospel was already present in paradise. Paul says that it was proclaimed to Abraham (Gal 3:8), and curses those who, in a Judaizing manner, would wish to place another imagined Old Testament gospel in opposition to it (Gal 1:8–9). Scripture also calls it, in brief, the eternal gospel (Rev 14:6).
      4.      The Mediator of the covenant is the same yesterday and today and into all eternity [Heb 13:8]. Salvation is in no other, and there is no other name under heaven given among men through which one can be saved (Acts 4:12). He is the seed of the woman already promised in paradise; likewise, the seed promised to Abraham (Gal 3:16). All prophecies look toward Him.
      5.      The way and the condition of the covenant are the same, namely faith and repentance (Gen 15:6; cf. Rom 4:11; Matt 13:17). That was likewise true for the promise of the covenant (Acts 3:25–26; Gen 15:6; Psa 51:10; Ezek 36:26). Finally, the sacraments of the covenant are changed in form with the change in dispensation, but in essence have remained the same (Rom 4:11–12; 1 Cor 5:7).

Vos, G. (2012–2014). Reformed Dogmatics. (A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, & A. Janssen, Trans., R. B. Gaffin, Ed.) (Vol. 2, pp. 71–73). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

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