1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant (Isa. 40:13–17; Job 9:32–33; 1 Sam. 2:25; Ps. 113:5–6; 100:2–3; Job 22:2–3; 35:7–8; Luke 17:10; Acts 17:24–25).
We must always recall the Creator/creature divide, a divide which exists in the very nature of things quite apart from the issue of sin. Our sinfulness is one thing, and our finitude another, and the two things must not be confounded or confused. It is not a sin to be a creature. At the same time, there are ramifications to being a creature. The first is that there is a natural duty to render obedience to God—a certain necessity attends it. At the same time, no external necessity requires that God stoop to bless us through His presence, other than the necessity resulting from the graciousness of God’s character. When God condescends to commune with us as creatures, He does so by way of covenant.
2. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works (Gal. 3:12), wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity (Rom. 10:5; 5:12–20), upon condition of perfect and personal obedience (Gen. 2:17; Gal. 3:10).
Periodically, great Homer nods and I believe that is the case here. While there is no necessary problem with the doctrine, the Westminster divines have badly named this covenant. To call this covenant with Adam a covenant “of works” leads people to confuse it either with the Old Testament economy, or with pharisaical distortions of the law. This misunderstanding is evident in the scriptural reference given for this point. To call it works opposes it, in the scriptural terminology, to grace. But the covenant given to Adam prior to the Fall was in no way opposed to grace. It would be far better to call this pre-Fall covenant a covenant of creation. In this covenant, life was promised to Adam and his descendents as the fruit of perfect and personal obedience. But notice the word fruit—as a covenant of creation, grace is not opposed to it, and permeates the whole. If by “covenant of works” is meant raw merit, then we have to deny the covenant of works. But if this covenant made with Adam was inherently gracious (as many Reformed theologians have held), then the only problem is the terminological one. And, with regard to whether the covenant was gracious, a simple thought experiment will suffice. If Adam had withstood temptation successfully, would he have had any obligation to say “thank You” to God. If not, then it is not a gracious covenant. If so, then it was.
3. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second (Gal. 3:21; Rom. 8:3; 3:20–21; Gen. 3:15; Isa. 42:6), commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved (Mark 16:15, 16; John 3:16; Rom. 10:6, 9; Gal. 3:11), and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe (Ezek. 36:26–27; John 6:44–45).
Since the first covenant was broken, another covenant was necessary. It is also necessary not to confuse this first covenant with the Old Covenant and the second covenant with the New Covenant. The first covenant under discussion is the ante-lapsarian covenant; the second covenant spans all human history after the Fall. In this second covenant, a covenant of grace, God offers salvation and life to sinners through Jesus Christ. As the message of this covenant comes to a sinner, God promises salvation through faith. In this covenant, God also commits to grant His Holy Spirit to all those ordained to eternal life. When this gift is bestowed, the Spirit makes the sinner willing and able to believe. When he believes, God hears his cry for salvation. God requires faith of the sinner, and gives what He requires.
4. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed (Heb. 9:15, 16–17; 7:22; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25).
This covenant of grace is described in Scripture as a testament. As a testament, we find ourselves more than just parties to a covenant. We are also set forth as heirs. The fruit of the covenant is directly related to the death of the Testator.
5. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel (2 Cor. 3:6–9): under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come (Heb. 8, 9, 10; Rom. 4:11; Col. 2:11–12; 1 Cor. 5:7); which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah (1 Cor. 10:1–4; Heb. 11:13; John 8:56), by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old Testament (Gal. 3:7–9, 14).
This covenant of grace has undergone differing administrations. In the time of the law, the covenant of grace was administered with a view to the future. The saints of the Old Testament looked forward in faith to the fruition of all the promises, prophecies, etc. Everything in the Old Testament looks forward. By the grace of God, the gospel presented in this fashion was “sufficient and efficacious” through the Spirit to establish the elect of God. The elect in the time of the law had full forgiveness of sin, and were partakers of the gift of eternal life. The covenant of grace under this administration is called the Old Testament. It is important to emphasize that according to the Westminster Confession, the Mosaic economy was an administration of the covenant of grace, not an administration of the covenant of works. The language is very plain here: the covenant of grace was administered one way under the law and another way in the time of the gospel. Those who want a recapitulation of the covenant of works within the Mosaic economy are either running the grave risk of blurring the two covenants, which is problematic, or they are denying the teaching of the Confession here and saying that the Mosaic economy was a covenant of works, which is dangerous.
6. Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance (Col. 2:17), was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 28:19–20; 1 Cor. 11:23–25): which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy (Heb. 12:22–27; Jer. 31:33–34), to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles (Matt. 28:19; Eph. 2:15–19); and is called the new Testament (Luke 22:20). There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations (Gal. 3:14, 16; Acts 15:11; Rom. 3:21–23, 30. Ps. 32:1; Rom. 4:3, 6, 16–17, 23–24; Heb. 13:8).
Under the time of the gospel, this one covenant of grace receives a different and simpler administration. The substance of the covenant has come, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the ordinances and sacraments are therefore altered—necessarily so. The ordinances of this administration are the preaching of the Word and the administration of the two sacraments Notice that the covenant is “dispensed” through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. The sacraments here are not called reminders, but rather dispensers.
The things we are called upon to do in this administration are simpler, and have less “less outward glory.” But in the gospel economy, the last are first, and this diminution of glory results in greater glory. In the simplicity of Christian worship, the gospel comes in power to all nations, both Jew and Gentile. This manner of worship is called the New Testament.
The division between the covenants, therefore, does not come between Malachi and Matthew. The two testaments simply describe one and the same covenant of grace. The sin of pharisaism is not a separate covenant made by God at all, but rather a distortion of the covenant of grace as it was given in the time of the law. God never commanded men to save themselves. Salvation has always been by grace alone through faith alone.