Covenant and Inheritance

A Lecture Given at Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, Pennsylvania, October 15, 2003

by the Rev. Peter J. Wallace

I. Introduction:

The Reformed churches today are deeply divided over one of our most prized doctrines-the doctrine of the covenant. Many agree that the issue at stake is a question about theological models--one based on a works/merit paradigm, the other based on a grace/faith paradigm. Which is the basic theological image? Is covenant primarily a treaty or is it primarily a gracious promise. Which comes first, the forensic or the relational? Westminster Theological Seminary has the honor of having produced the champions of each of these paradigms: Meredith Kline and Norman Shepherd.

Another area of division today is in the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology. Some fear that a redemptive-historical hermeneutic is leading to increasingly fuzzy formulations of traditional Reformed theology. The advocates of biblical theology often find themselves on the horns of a dilemma: if biblical theology doesn't add anything to our traditional dogmatic formulations, then what is the point of biblical theology? But, if it does add something to our traditional dogmatic formulations, then it is considered suspect! The key, as you first-year students are learning from Dr. Gaffin right about now, is that our systematic theology must continue to influence and inform our biblical theology, even as our biblical theology brings clearer light to our systematics.

My goal for today is to bring our Trinitarian theology to bear on our doctrine of the covenant. In particular, I would like to suggest that our understanding of the covenant would be improved if we looked at covenant through the lens of sonship. I am not suggesting that sonship is the most common biblical image for covenant (it is not), but rather that sonship and covenant intersect in important ways both in scripture and in our dogmatics. I will suggest that the aspects of treaty and of promise found in the covenant are both rooted in a filial context based on the intra-trinitarian relationship between Father and Son. There are still other images that should be taken into account, such as marriage and kingdom, but I will suggest that the filial paradigm provides a strong basis for integrating the various images that surround the covenant. (And if many of the faculty hear echoes of your lectures, that is your fault for being so convincing; if you hear distortions of your lectures, that is my fault for not listening well enough!)

Meredith Kline and other biblical scholars have explored the connections between the biblical covenants with the covenant-making that was common in the Ancient Near East. Kline's 1963 volume, Treaty of the Great King showed that Deuteronomy follows the basic pattern of treaty/covenants made by Ancient Near Eastern kings. Kline is undoubtedly correct in seeing this treaty pattern present in the scriptures. But it does not explain everything. Was it simply a convenient rhetorical tool that God chose from the surrounding cultures? Or is there something about covenant that is rooted in creation itself-or even beyond the creation? After all, from the beginning God intended to be something considerably more than our King. He also desired to be our Father. And I would suggest that the covenantal language of the Scriptures connects to the language of sonship precisely because the covenant reflects the eternal relationship between Father and Son.

I will not give you an abstract definition of covenant-in-general, but of God's covenant with man in particular. God's covenant is the historical analogue of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son, in which man is brought into an inheritance through conformity to the image of God.

II. Covenant and Sonship

1. The Image of God

As recorded in Genesis 1:27 God created man in his own image and likeness. What does it mean to be created in the image and likeness of God?

When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God....When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. (Genesis 5:1, 3)

Just as Adam was in the image of God, so Seth was in the image of Adam. The connection between image and sonship is seen especially in the connection between sonship and kingship.

Adam was given dominion over the creation to rule on God's behalf. As God's vicegerent, Adam is like God. Therefore to be in the image of God is to be the royal son of God.

This is given more specific content in Psalm 8, which reflects on Genesis 1:26-28. What is man (enosh)?...the son of man (ben-adam)? You made him a little lower than elohim (the divine beings), crowned with glory and honor (cavod v hadar-divine attributes, which man shares precisely in his royal service). This speaks especially of the Davidic king, who rules over the works of God and thus shares at a distance his divine glory and honor.

Psalm 2 extends this image. "I will tell of the decree: the LORD said to me, 'You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel" (2:7-9). The Davidic king is the Son of God who brings the nations to judgment. He has dominion over the whole earth, and serves as God's vicegerent because he is the faithful image and likeness of God.

Paul, of course, connects the language of "image" with "firstborn" in Colossians 1:15 ("He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,...the firstborn from the dead"). To be in the image of God is to be the son of God. (Cf. 2 Cor. 4:4). Paul also explicitly connects our bearing the image of the heavenly man to our inheritance. In 1 Corinthians 15:49-50, he says:

"Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God..."

Those who belong to the Adamic order cannot inherit the kingdom of God. It is precisely as we bear the image of the man of heaven that we will inherit the kingdom of God. Image and sonship are intimately connected, as Kline argues in Images of the Spirit: "the eternal, firstborn Son furnished a pattern for man as a royal glory-image of the Father."(1)

2. Sonship and Inheritance in the Covenant-Makings of the Old Testament

To return then to Adam: Adam is created in the image of God-therefore Adam is created as the son of God. In other words, Adam was created to look like God. Adam was to reflect the holiness and righteousness of God. God created him to participate in the fellowship and communion of the Trinity. And Adam's fellowship and communion with God was expressed in the terms of a covenant. While the word "covenant" is not used, the idea is certainly present. Covenant, in Genesis 1-2, is the expression of the relationship between father and son.

This may help explain why the covenant with Adam is expressed only in the negative. God tells Adam that in the day he eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he will surely die. Why didn't God say that if you obey me you will live forever? He didn't need to. Adam was his son. The son is the image and likeness of his father. The son knows that he will receive the inheritance of his father. The covenant with Adam is implicit in his very relationship as son to father. If the son continues in the fellowship and communion of the father, then he will receive the inheritance. If he continues to reflect the father, then of course he will live forever! That is inherent in the relationship of father and son. God gives only a warning: if you break covenant-if you disobey me-in other words, if you fail to reflect my glory, then you will die. If you do not live like my son-then you will not receive the inheritance. Or more precisely, you will inherit death from your new father-the devil. (Recall how Jesus spoke in this fashion to the Pharisees -you are of your father, the devil.) And recall how in the curse that God proclaims he distinguishes between the seed of the woman and seed of the devil. You will either be a son of God or a son of Satan.

Genesis 6 refers to this when it says in verse 2 that the sons of God began to intermarry with the daughters of men. Some have come up with fanciful interpretations that speak of angels intermarrying with humans-but this misses the whole flow of Genesis 1-11. Rather, chapter 5 has just told us that Adam's son Seth was in his image-just as Adam was in the image of God. Therefore we ought to see the godly line of Seth-and particularly the rulers of that line (those who are bearing the image of Adam the vicegerent)-as the sons of God referred to in chapter 6. (Luke makes this explicit in Luke 3:38, when tracing the genealogy of Christ to Adam, the son of God.) But the godly line-the sons of God-are not reflecting the image of God. Therefore God brings judgment upon the wicked through the Flood, saving only Noah-the one who alone reflected the righteousness of God. Noah alone "found favor in the eyes of the LORD" because he "was a righteous man, blameless in his generation." (6:8-9). Noah reflected his Father.

The Flood then destroys the earth, bringing about a new creation. In Genesis 9:1 Noah is given the same blessing that Adam had received. In this 'new creation' will Noah, the son of God, succeed where Adam failed? God makes a covenant with Noah-in which he echoes the covenant of creation: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth." Will Noah be a true son of the Father? You know the story. Noah fails just like Adam.

And yet in God's mercy the holy line is continued until we come to Abraham. Now Abraham is never called "the son of God." But the blessing God gives him in Genesis 12 is very clearly Abram's adoption, as it were.

Now Yahweh said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Gen 12:1-3)

God first removes him from his father's house-thereby establishing himself as Abram's father. Then he also promises Abram an inheritance. Abram was the firstborn of Terah, and therefore would have expected to receive the blessing and birthright of the firstborn. But God calls Abram to be his son, and to look for an inheritance from Him. Therefore God also gives him a new name-Abraham, the father of a multitude. And as Paul tells us in Romans 4:13, the promised inheritance was not merely a piece of real estate in the middle east, but consisted of the whole world. The fact that Paul says that Abraham was promised the inheritance of the whole world ought to convince us once and for all that Abraham is indeed a son of God. He is no longer merely the firstborn of Terah, he is now the firstborn son of God.

But God wants to make it clear that HE is the one who chooses his own son. To be a firstborn according to the flesh is not sufficient. Abraham had a son before Isaac but Ishmael was born according to the flesh and not according to the Spirit (Galatians 4). Therefore Isaac was chosen to continue the covenant blessing. Likewise Isaac had two sons-and Esau was the firstborn; but God chose Jacob to be His son. Indeed God renamed Jacob "Israel," and when God spoke through Moses to Pharaoh, saying "Israel is my son, my firstborn," He was claiming Jacob (and all who belonged to his house) as his son. (Ex. 4:22)

There is nothing that Israel did to earn or deserve this relationship. God did not choose Abraham, Isaac and Jacob because of their goodness. God chose them out of his mere good pleasure. And when God sent Moses to bring his people out of Egypt, it was not because of the righteousness of the Israelites. Rather, as Exodus 2:24 says: "So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob." God remembered his promises. He remembered the covenant that he had made with his son. And now he called to Pharaoh: "Israel is my son, my firstborn. So I say to you, let my son go, that he may serve me!" (4:22-23). Israel cannot live like the son of God so long as he is in bondage. As long as the Israelites are slaves, they cannot serve God in the manner that he desires. Because a son is supposed to serve his father-not a foreign king. The Son of God is supposed to rule the nations as God's vicegerent-and that cannot happen so long as he remains as a thrall.

So God says to Pharaoh, let my son go, that he may serve me. What is the service that God requires of his son? This is explicitly stated to be nothing else than the service of worship (Ex. 5:1). If being in the image of God is to be the son of God; and if covenant is the relationship between father and son; then service/worship is the response of the son to the father. God calls Pharaoh to let Israel go, so that Israel may sacrifice to Him in the wilderness. The sticking point in the negotiations with Pharaoh always comes back to the fact that God demands that the whole of the congregation of Israel (not just the men) sacrifice to him in the wilderness (not in Egypt). Sure, it is plain to Pharaoh that Moses really intends to lead the Israelites out of Egypt never to return. But in all the negotiations, that is never explicitly stated. The whole point is that Israel is called to worship Yahweh, in the place and in the manner that Yahweh has determined; and so long as they serve Pharaoh they cannot serve God properly. The son of God cannot serve two masters.

And so in Exodus 12 we have the final plague of Egypt-the death of the firstborn of all the Egyptians. Those who would withhold from God his firstborn, will lose their own firstborn. And in Exodus 13 God insists that all the firstborn of Israel, whether human or animal, belong to him. [expand?]

Having delivered his firstborn son from bondage in Egypt, God establishes his covenant with Israel. Now, when God covenants with Israel, what does he promise? Wages for their service? No, an inheritance. hflAxn (nahalah) is used more than 70 times in the Pentateuch to refer to what was promised to Israel, and another 50 times in Joshua. God promised an inheritance to Israel, his firstborn-the same inheritance that he had promised to Abraham their father. Now nahalah can simply mean "portion," and there are several places in those 120 references that use nahalah in that more general sense. But in light of God's identification of Israel as his son, and his insistence that he will be their Father (cf. Dt. 1:31; 32:6), it is plain that he has promised them his inheritance-the portion of sons.

So we have seen that the language of sonship and inheritance is at the heart of every covenant-making in the Pentateuch. It is also at the center of God's covenant with David.

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son." (2 Samuel 7:12-14).

While we are not looking at worship today, I do want you to see how sonship, covenant, and service/worship are bound together in this passage as well. The son, in his covenant relationship to God, establishes and maintains the true worship of his heavenly Father. Service/worship is the expression of the covenantal relation between father and son. But here God promises that the Son of David will be his son. And throughout the era of the kings, the Davidic line maintains this Messianic character typologically, as many of the Psalms suggest. And of course all of this, as Hebrews 1-2 tells us, was pointing us to Christ.

Someone out there has been getting antsy. "But Mr. Wallace, you have taken the subordinate point and made it the main point! Sure, sonship is present in OT covenant-makings, but that is because sonship is an aspect of vicegerency. Ancient kings regularly called their vassals 'sons.' It has nothing to do with inheritance and everything to do with treaty. You have turned the ancient covenantal/treaty language on its head!"

Someone else may be wondering, "Why privilege sonship? You could do a biblical theological survey of kingship, servanthood, or marriage, and each time claim that it is central! Why do you say that the filial image takes precedence over the rest?"

It is precisely at this point that we need to allow our systematics to regulate our biblical theology. If covenant were original to the Hittites, then perhaps sonship would be simply a metaphor. If all of this covenantal language is merely literary conventions and metaphors, then I am simply chasing a phantom. But what if covenant has a different origin, which even the Hittites were trading on? What if there is an ontological basis for covenant? What if covenant is the temporal expression of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son before the foundation of the world?

3. Covenant and Sonship in Hebrews

Anyone who wants to understand covenant and sonship must turn to Hebrews, the epistle of the diatheke, as Vos has rightly called it. Hebrews 1:1-4 makes the same connection between image and sonship that Paul does in Colossians 1. While God spoke to the fathers in many parts and in many ways,

"in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the ages. He is the radiance (or the shining) of the glory of God and the stamp of his substance, and he upholds all things by the word of his power." (Hebrews 1:2-3)

So Hebrews starts us off by stating that Jesus Christ is none other than the eternal Son of God. The Son is the one through whom the Father created the ages, and through whom he upholds all things. While he does not use the word "image," the same idea is communicated by calling him the radiance of the glory, and the stamp (charakter) of his substance. It is this Son whom he has now appointed as the heir of all things.

Hebrews 1 gives us in a nutshell the three types of sonship that Christ possesses. He is the eternal Son through whom God created the ages. He is also the incarnate Son who has revealed the Father. And finally he is the eschatological Son who has now inherited the name that is exalted over Moses and the angels. Murray, following Vos and others, distinguishes between the Theocratic sonship of the Old Testament, and the Adoptive sonship of the New Testament (what I have called the eschatological sonship). Murray admits that these two are principially the same-the only difference being that the theocratic sonship is the juvenile era of the OT, while adoptive sonship is the maturity of the NT. It is the same sonship under two different stages.

According to his divine nature Christ is the eternal Son of God. But according to his human nature he has a created and adoptive sonship (expressed both in his incarnation and in his resurrection and ascension). Let me be very clear on this! The fact that he has two different types of sonship, does NOT make him two sons! The fact that his created sonship is adoptive, does not mean that he was adopted. Jesus is the adoptive Son of God, according to the properties of his human nature, from the moment of his incarnation. He is the Son of God-but in two different respects. As respects his divinity, he has a natural sonship. As respects his humanity, he has an adoptive sonship.

And throughout the rest of the first two chapters Hebrews takes several of the Old Testament passages we looked at earlier (Psalms 2 & 8, 2 Samuel 7:14, etc.) and applies them to the eternal Son. As 1:4 puts it, the eternal Son has now inherited a sonship that he did not previously possess. And as Hebrews 5 says, that adoptive sonship involves his office as a high priest:

So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, 'you are my Son, today I have begotten you'; as he says also in another place, 'you are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.'...Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5:5-10)

Through the obedience of suffering, the eternal Son becomes the high priest of our salvation, and therefore enters into the inheritance of the Son of God. So not only the kingly office, but also the priestly office is seen as a filial relation. Chapters 7-10 of Hebrews are rooted in this statement in Hebrews 5. In other words, the most full, explicit scriptural treatment of the new covenant and its superiority to the Mosaic covenant, insists that the mediator of the new and better covenant is none other than the Son of God. It is because he was the Son that he was suited to become the high priest. Why? Because worship-and after the fall you cannot talk about worship without a sacrifice-worship is the covenantal service of the Son to his Father. So in order for Jesus to be the pure and unblemished high priest-as well as for him to be the pure and unblemished sacrifice-he must be the Son (we don't have time to get into that, but let me just point out that the physical characteristics required for a priest to serve at the altar in Leviticus 21-22 are also required for any sacrifice that is to be placed on the altar; likewise, just as the male child must be circumcised on the eighth day, so also the priests' consecration lasts for eight days, and an animal can only be sacrificed after it is eight days old. There is a very intentional symbolism in the parallels between son/priest/sacrifice).

4. Paul's History of the Son

The apostle Paul also understands the covenant in terms of inheritance. In Galatians 3-4 Paul portrays the whole history of redemption as a history of the son of God.

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise. I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 3:21-4:7)

The history of the Old Testament is the history of the son of God in his minority. Israel was the son of God-the true heir of God; but so long as he was a child, he was no better than a slave. The law was a pedagogue-a servant employed to discipline the children. The very law that had been given to Israel as they came out of bondage in Egypt into the liberty of the sons of God, itself held Israel in a sort of bondage. Yes, Israel was the heir of all things. But Israel was a child, and because Israel turned out to be no better than Adam, Israel did not receive the promised inheritance. Yes, as Hebrews 11:33 says, through faith they did indeed "conquer kingdoms, enforce justice, obtain promises," and much more, but while they obtained certain promises which foreshadowed the promised inheritance, Hebrews 11:39-40 declares that the Old Covenant saints "though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect."

So long as Israel is a child, he cannot receive the fullness of the inheritance. Israel must grow up! And so in the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman (the promise of the seed of the woman), born under the law so that he might redeem those under the law. He is the faithful son-the true Firstborn Son of God, who now has redeemed us that we might receive the adoption as sons. He is the embodiment of Israel-the son of God par excellence. Jesus is all that Israel was supposed to be-all that Adam was supposed to be-and then some!

Therefore, Paul says, all those who are baptized into Christ are sons of God through faith in him. You are Abraham's seed-according to the promise. You have been adopted among the true sons of God, you have been grafted into the true vine. If Israel was the son of God in his minority, Jesus is the Son of God come of age. And if you are in Christ, then you are also come of age, because you have received the firstfruits of the eschatological inheritance-the gift of the Spirit of his Son (Gal. 4:6; cf. Eph. 1:14). And this is why Paul insists that there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Before Christ, only the free Jewish male can inherit the promises. Gentiles, slaves, and women only inherit the promises through their free, Jewish males. But Jesus Christ IS the free Jewish male, he is the last Adam, the true Israel, and he has included ALL of his people in his inheritance, regardless of gender, race or class.

Paul does the same sort of thing in Romans. The epistle opens with a statement of the gospel of the Son, "who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead." (1:3-4). The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the declaration of the eschatological Sonship of Jesus-that he has entered into the inheritance promised to Abraham. After all, what is the point of this passage? Paul is using the eschatological Sonship of Christ to demonstrate that the blessing of God has come to the nations: "through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations." (1:5) Romans 8 likewise starts by showing us how Jesus is the Son of God come in the likeness of sinful flesh, so that he might fulfill the "righteous requirement of the law" in us who walk "according to the Spirit" (v3-4). But now "all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God." If we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, then "the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs-heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him." (8:16-17). Verses 18-30 then show us how the coming of the sons of God is the coming of the new creation. (Cf. Hebrews 2:10-18). Adam was created as the son of God, therefore the whole point of the new creation is the restoration of sonship. As Paul puts it in Romans 8:29, "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers."

5. John's Exposition of the Relationship between Father and Son

Sinclair Ferguson rightly says that sonship expresses the newness and fulness of the New Covenant in Christ. And of course no New Testament author explores the meaning of Christ's sonship more fully than John. From John 5 through John 17, the central focus is the exposition of the relationship between the Father and the Son, first as Jesus deliberately provokes controversy in Jerusalem by calling God his own Father (chapters 5-12), and then privately with his disciples as he reveals the Father's will (chapters 13-17).

It is here in the gospel of John that we catch some distinct glimpses of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son. Jesus declares that "as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself." (John 5:26). This is explicitly connected with the Son's authority to execute judgment, and to give life to whom he will (verses 21, 27). The Son's covenantal authority as the mediator of the new covenant is explicitly tied to his having life in himself as the eternal Son of God. Jesus opens this discourse by identifying himself as one who does what he sees his Father doing-which is "image" language (which is everywhere in John's Gospel). As the image of the Father, as the righteous Son of the Father, he imitates what he sees his Father doing. So the covenantal, in history, relationship between the Father and the Son is rooted in their eternal relationship as Father and Son. The intra-trinitarian relationship between God the Father and God the Son is the basis for the covenantal relationship between the Father and Jesus in history.

And John suggests that this covenantal relation between Father and Son now comes to us through our union with Jesus Christ by faith. John opens his gospel with a statement that those who believe in Jesus receive the right to become children of God (1:12), and he concludes with Jesus' statement that he is returning to "my Father and your Father." In the middle, there is a strong emphasis on the unique nature of Jesus' sonship, and throughout these middle chapters of John's Gospel, Jesus never refers to God as "your Father." It is always "my Father." Only at the end, after the resurrection, does Jesus say that he is "ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." (20:17). Also while Jesus raises his disciples from servants to friends in John 15:15, he only calls them brothers for the first time in 20:17. But in 14:19-21 Jesus explains this to his disciples:

"Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him."

"In that day you will know." When Jesus is exalted to the right hand of the Father-when he sends the Holy Spirit (14:16-17)-then his disciples will know the Father in a new way. As John makes clear in his prologue, then they will receive the right to become children of God. And in his first epistle, John remarks on the marvelous new reality that we should be called children of God. (1 John 3:1-2).

III. Sonship and Christology

How does this biblical theological picture of covenant and inheritance connect with our systematic theological reflections on Christology and Covenant?

At this point someone may be wondering: if sonship and inheritance is so central to the biblical understanding of covenant, why has this not been more prominent in Reformed theology? We need to remember that systematic theology is not an abstract project. It happens in an historical context. The medieval and early modern concept of covenant was not simply a theological concept. It was a familiar economic, political and legal term. Therefore the Reformers resonated with those biblical images surrounding covenant, and so the Reformed doctrine of the covenant developed on a legal and contractual plane.

But they were too astute to miss the filial aspect. While it remained underdeveloped, you even see it in the Westminster Confession.

Confession of Faith 7:3-4

"III. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, 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, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

IV. 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."

In this latter section, the Divines betray the way in which covenant and inheritance had become detached in their day. They recognize that inheritance is a central category in the scriptural understanding of covenant, but since "covenant" was more of an economic and political term in the early modern period, they insist that the covenant of grace partakes of the qualities of a testament in order to ensure that the emphasis on inheritance is retained. Vos and Murray are no doubt correct that there is really only one place (Hebrews 9) which refers to the covenant as a testament, but the point of the Confession is exactly correct: the covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture in terms of inheritance. And in their language that means "testament" because in the seventeenth century a testament had to do with inheritance. But the point I want you to see is that the Westminster Confession insists that inheritance is a central covenantal category.

It is therefore no accident that chapter 8 of the Confession then goes on to speak "Of Christ the Mediator," identifying the eternal Son of God as the one who is the mediator of the covenant, and who "by his perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He, through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him." (8:5)

Note here that the Confession insists upon a Trinitarian account of the covenant, with a focus upon the relationship of Father and Son resulting in an everlasting inheritance. It is also worth pointing out that the Son offers his sacrifice "through the eternal Spirit," a point to which we will return.

The choice of the word "purchase" again reflects the way in which covenant had become an economic and contractual term in the early modern era, but their point is right on the mark. The Son of God has obeyed his Father in all things. He is the true image of his Father who has succeeded in all things where all previous sons of God had failed. Therefore on account of his whole obedience (active and passive) he does indeed deserve the inheritance that God had promised to his Son. Thus, while the Confession speaks in terms of Christ as the Mediator of the Covenant, the Larger Catechism rightly speaks of Christ as one of the parties of the Covenant:

Larger Catechism 31

"The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed."

Reformed theology has historically spoken of a pactum salutis, a covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son which undergirds the covenant of grace. This points us in the right direction. But what about the covenant of life/works? I am suggesting that God's initial covenantal relationship with Adam was also rooted in the eternal relationship between Father and Son.

Of course, we must see this in analogical terms. Covenant is not identical to the relationship of Father and Son. So just as Adam was created after the image of God, so also was Adam's historical covenant relation to God an image of the eternal relationship between Father and Son. Analogies are never identical. As an historical character, Adam had an eschatology-he had an inheritance that was promised. Historical relationships can never be more than analogies of eternal relationships. In history Adam was to become the eschatological Son, reflecting the glory of the eternal Son. His failure was the occasion for the eternal Son to become the eschatological Son, thereby raising Adam's fallen race to glory.

Rowland Ward has drawn attention to the importance of the covenant of redemption (or the pactum salutis):

Distinguishing the covenant of redemption enables greater clarity in understanding God's eternal purpose and the entry into covenant with God of the believer in time. It also follows that, as what God does in history reveals what he is in himself, it is proper to say that the trinitarian relationships are covenantal quite apart from the provision of redemption. In short, the Trinity means God is relational, God is characterised by mutual self-giving, God is love. In the interpersonal relationships we have commitment, commitment to all that is good and true, to self-giving in love, with the associated delight and joy in the other. These are of the essence of covenant relationship and the contractual element must be understood in that light.(2)

Which comes first, the contractual and legal? Or the relational and filial? Of course Kline wants to say that it is the legal. Kline and Irons insist that "the covenant is the revelation of God's justice."(3) Lee Irons argues that "the very fact of creation itself has already constituted man in a covenant relationship with his Creator. This formulation of the mutual reciprocity of creation and covenant shows more clearly than ever that the covenant of works is not a matter of grace but simple justice toward the creature made in God's image."(4)

Certainly the covenant is the revelation of God's justice, but by stopping there, Kline and Irons actually fail to take their own premise far enough. Irons complains that the medieval nominalists defined covenant simply in terms of God's will and power, and rightly insists that a proper definition of covenant must take into account the whole character of God. But then Irons turns around and defines covenant strictly and solely in terms of the justice of God. If legal benefits, such as justification, were the only benefits of the covenant, then perhaps this would be adequate, but Scripture does not make the legal aspect the central covenantal theme. Our Confession rightly says that justification, adoption, and sanctification are all co-ordinate benefits, flowing from our union with Christ in our effectual calling.

But neither is Shepherd's definition of covenant entirely adequate. Shepherd defines covenant as "a divinely established relationship of union and communion between God and his people in the bonds of mutual love and faithfulness."(5) While Shepherd offers a helpful corrective to Kline's strictly legal definition, his grace/faith paradigm does not give enough place to divine justice. Shepherd rightly sees that the relational is the basis for the legal, but by failing to define the relational as the relationship between Father and Son, he does not sufficiently ground covenant in the Trinity.

From the perspective of a filial paradigm, we can affirm wholeheartedly Kline's concern for God's justice. The covenant is in fact the revelation of God's justice in the context of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son. You cannot divorce God's justice from the rest of the divine attributes any more than his will or power. God is indeed just, and therefore he will give his Son his inheritance at the proper time-if indeed his Son continues to reflect his image (the condition of perfect, perpetual obedience).

Even the language of the covenant of works is appropriate, because the Son must do what he sees his Father doing. But the reward for his obedience is not a wage, but an inheritance. In that limited sense it is correct to say that Adam would have merited eternal life-in the same way that a son merits his inheritance. He does indeed deserve it. He is worthy of it-because he is the son of his father. In the same way, Christ merited eternal life for us-not as a wage that he earned, but as an inheritance that he has deserved by virtue of his faithful obedience to his Father.

Whether you wish to use the language of merit depends entirely on which of its many definitions you choose. Indeed, Turretin admits that if you define merit in the patristic sense as "a work imputable to praise," then we can all admit that not only Christ's works, but even our own works are meritorious, because, as Augustine put it, "he crowns his own gifts."(6) But Turretin calls this the broad and improper sense of merit. He insists that the proper definition of merit must remain within the realm of strict justice, and therefore he declares that "Adam himself, if he had persevered, would not have merited life in strict justice, although (through a certain condescension) God promised him by a covenant life under the condition of perfect obedience (which is called meritorious from that covenant in a broader sense...).(7)

All that Kline and Irons say about the justice of God revealed in the covenant is exactly right, if it is seen in the context of the filial relationship between God and Adam, which is modeled on the eternal relationship of Father and Son. In this relationship, all of God's attributes must be seen-his love, his justice, his holiness, his mercy, and yes, his grace. Now, in Kingdom Prologue, Meredith Kline claims that "Grace lives and moves and has its being in a legal, forensic environment."(8) Therefore for Kline grace is diametrically opposed to works, and cannot exist in the garden of Eden. But if we must see the legal and forensic in the context of the filial, then perhaps we can begin to understand why the Reformed have historically been willing to speak of grace before the fall.

Of course, we must be very careful what sort of grace we claim existed before the fall. We must remember that grace, in its most basic definition, simply refers to kindness and favor. If you say that grace is always used to refer to favor in the context of demerit, as Kline does, then you wind up with some real problems in Luke 2:52, where Jesus is said to have grown in wisdom and stature and in grace with God and men. The word "grace" simply does not mean favor in the context of demerit. This is why the Reformed have regularly affirmed that God's covenant relationship with Adam was a gracious condescension on God's part (and even though I agree with Kline that the covenant was implicit in the very act of creation, that merely renders the creation itself a gracious act). God's communication with Adam was gracious, and he gave Adam external grace through creation and providence, and through divine revelation. But it would be inaccurate to say that God gave Adam internal grace. While Adam was indeed created righteous and holy, Adam was not endowed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It is here that our Trinitarian understanding of the covenant must come fully into play. So far I have focused almost exclusively on the relationship between Father and Son-because it is that particular relationship that is the foundation for God's relation to Adam. But you cannot talk about the relationship between Father and Son without speaking of the Holy Spirit. Adam was created in the image of the Son. He was supposed to look like his Father. Adam's eschatology must have included the gift of the Holy Spirit in order to bring about the full consummation of the relationship between God and his created son. You can see a parallel between the work of the Holy Spirit in the creation of Adam and the work of the Holy Spirit in the incarnation of Jesus-the Spirit is plainly at work in this aspect of the adoptive sonship-but Adam does not receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in any way parallel to the baptism of Jesus.

But that is exactly what Jesus receives. As the second and last Adam, Jesus receives the gift of the Holy Spirit at his baptism. The Father gives his Son the gift that Adam did not have, so that Jesus will succeed where Adam failed. Whatever you say about the parallel between Adam and Christ, you cannot say that Christ succeeds under the same conditions as Adam. Adam was not given the Holy Spirit. There is an unequal parallelism between Adam and Christ. The gift of the Holy Spirit empowers Christ to fulfill his mission. If you are operating on the assumption that Adam and Christ are on an equal footing, then this gives Jesus an unfair advantage over Adam (and you could even ask, what had Jesus done to deserve this gift?).

But if you are operating on a Trinitarian basis, it makes perfect sense. The eternal relationship between Father and Son is bound together by the Holy Spirit. Therefore no historical covenantal relationship can truly reflect the Father and the Son without the coming of the Holy Spirit. But Christ is not merely the last and second Adam. As our survey of Old Testament covenant-makings demonstrates, he is also the seed of Abraham, the true Israel, and the son of David. Therefore the gift of the Holy Spirit is the sign that Jesus is indeed the eschatological Son of God, in whom the Trinitarian nature of the covenant comes to its full and final expression.


From this vantage point, I find myself in general agreement with the positive programs of both Meredith Kline and Norman Shepherd. I do not claim that I have figured out a full via media between our modern Scylla and Charybdis, but I would suggest that the path lies somewhere in the direction that I have charted this morning. Both the works/merit paradigm and the grace/faith paradigm fail to penetrate fully to the heart of the covenant. God's covenant is the historical analogue of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son, in which man is brought into an inheritance through conformity to the image of God.

Copyright 2003

1. Kline, Images of the Spirit

2. Rowland Ward to Peter Wallace, October 8, 2003.

3. Lee Irons, "Redefining Merit." I do not mean to suggest that Kline and Irons are identical. Much of the exegetical work that undergirds the argument of this essay can be found in Kline's early works (Images of the Spirit and By Oath Consigned).

4. Lee Irons, "Redefining Merit."

5. Shepherd, Call of Grace 12.

6. Turretin, 17.5.5.

7. Turretin, 17.5.7.

8. Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 112