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The Covenant of Grace in the Old Testament

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    The Covenant of Grace in the Old Testament

    by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

    We continue now with our consideration of the biblical doctrine of redemption or salvation. We have seen that man, having failed to keep God’s law and commandment, became the slave of Satan, dead in trespasses and sins, and that had he been left to himself his condition would have been entirely hopeless. But God, in His infinite grace and love and mercy, looked upon man in pity, and informed him of His great plan of salvation. And we have considered the general character of this great plan of redemption. I ended by saying that God revealed it to man in the form of a covenant that He made with man. This is commonly called the covenant of redemption or the covenant of salvation, and that is to be our special theme now—the way in which God has made known His gracious purpose to save man from the guilt and pollution which resulted from listening to the suggestion of Satan.

    Now the great word we must consider is this word covenant. It is a word that God used when He was speaking to Abraham (Gen. 17). What is a covenant? Well, it can be defined as an agreement or a pact which is entered into by two parties, the two parties generally being more or less of equal standing. People often make covenants today; they make them, for example, with respect to giving gifts towards good causes. There is also the Covenant of the League of Nations or the Covenant of the United Nations. A covenant is generally confirmed by some kind of solemn ceremony—you take an oath, or there is perhaps a religious service. And in the covenant the two sides bind themselves to the fulfilment of certain promises given on the basis of certain conditions.

    In the Bible you will find covenants made between men—David and Jonathan made a covenant, and it was on the basis of equality. But when you come to God and man, clearly there is of necessity a difference; the idea of covenant undergoes some modifications. This difference appears especially in the Authorised Version of the Bible in this way: the word is sometimes translated as ‘testament’ and not as covenant. So we talk about ‘Old Testament’ and ‘New Testament’; and you will find the word ‘testament’ in 2 Corinthians 3:6 and also in other places.

    Now it is generally agreed that the word which stands for this idea should always be translated as covenant except in one instance, and that one exception is Hebrews 9:16–17, where clearly it must be translated as testament for it refers to a person dying and making a will. But apart from that one instance you will find that the other translations, the Revised Standard Version, for example, always translate it as covenant rather than as testament.

    I emphasise that for this reason: the translators of the Authorised Version had a very definite object in view when they used the word ‘testament’. Their purpose was to emphasise the priority of God. When God makes a covenant with man, there are not two partners of equal standing, but God is giving, as it were, His covenant to man. So the translators thought that it was more like a testament than a covenant, and chose to use that word. Strictly speaking, they were wrong, but they certainly did emphasise this idea of the priority of God over against the idea of man as an equal. They did it also because they could see very clearly that in Hebrews 9 the word means a testament, and as it can be argued that ultimately all the blessings that come to us under the covenant of grace come as the result of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, there is a sense in which we do inherit everything as the result of His last testament. So there was that much at least to be said for their translation. Furthermore, they were undoubtedly partly influenced by the fact that the Latin word for all this is testamentum, and they were dependent partly upon the Latin translations of the Scripture.

    However, the thing that we must keep in mind is that the priority of God must be emphasised. The covenant is a gift from God which has been ushered in by the death of Christ, and because it comes from God it is something which is certain, and inviolable, and unbreakable. And yet we must hold on to this idea of a covenant, because God in His wonderful love and grace and condescension chose to reveal Hispurposes in this particular way. He called man to Himself and He chose to make an agreement with man. God need not have done that, but He has done so. In spite of human rebellion, sin and arrogance, God, as it were, called man in and said, ‘I want to make an agreement with you.’ In a way, there is nothing that so displays the wonderful love and grace and kindness and condescension of God so much as this teaching in the Bible with regard to His making covenants with men.

    Now we have already seen that God originally made a covenant with Adam. You remember that He put him into the Garden and told him that if he did certain things he would have a certain reward. That is called a covenant of works, because Adam’s inheritance of this promise was entirely dependent upon his works, upon what he did. But, you remember, Adam broke the covenant; he failed, and landed himself and his posterity in the terrible plight that we have been describing. So, from there on God has made a new covenant, which is called thecovenant of grace.

    Clearly, as we have seen, God could not make another covenant of works with man. If man, in an ideal position and while perfect, could not keep the covenant of works, what would be the object of making another covenant of works with fallen man? So the Bible tells us that God did not do this but that He made the covenant of grace. And yet in this covenant, God has introduced a condition. He has made His promises. He has told us what He is making possible for us. But He does make a demand upon us. He tells us that we are only going to receive and enjoy these promises if we have faith, and we have to accept this condition voluntarily before we will enjoy the blessings. But furthermore, God has also told us in the covenant that He Himself is going to do something which makes it possible for us to derive these benefits, and that is why it is called the covenant of grace.

    Now let me divide that up a little. God, I say, has made certain promises, so what is the great central promise that He has made in the covenant of grace? Well, it really can be put in this way: He has promised to be a God unto man. That is the great promise—‘I will be to you a God.’ You see the importance and the significance of this? God had been the God of Adam, but Adam sinned against Him and fell; he became the slave of Satan and broke the connection with God. And the remarkable and astounding thing is that God turned to man and assured him in the covenant of grace that He would find a way, that He had a way, whereby He could still be a God to man. ‘I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God’ (Exod. 6:7).

    Make a note of that because as you go through your Scriptures you will find that that is the great promise that is repeated time and time again. You will find it in Jeremiah 31:33; 32:38–40. You will find it in Ezekiel 34:23–5; 36:25–8; 37:26–7. You will find it in 2 Corinthians 6:16–18, in Hebrews 8:10; and, in a marvellous way, in Revelation 21:3 where we read this: ‘The tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them.’ That is the final state. So you see that that is the very essence of God’s promise in the covenant of grace—that what had been broken by sin and the fall was going to be restored. And the supreme blessing therefore, the ultimate blessing, the blessing of blessings, is that God is my God, and that I have a right to say ‘my God’. And the whole of salvation is included in that.

    I must not stay with that now, but how often do we forget that? How often do we tend to define salvation in terms other than that? Yet the greatest thing a human being can ever say since the fall is this: ‘God is my God.’ And the greatest blessing of all is to know for certain that God is saying to you, ‘I am your God’; ‘I will be to you a God.’ That is what He has promised.

    But the covenant also includes certain other things. God has promised certain temporal as well as spiritual blessings. He especially promised those under the old dispensation, and let us never forget that the temporal blessings are meant to be pictures of, and to symbolise, the spiritual blessings.

    He has also promised, obviously, a way of justification. God cannot be my God, and I cannot say ‘my God’ unless I am justified, unless my sin is forgiven, unless my sin is removed, and unless I am adopted and made a child of God. This is all implicit in the promise that God is to be my God. Indeed, it includes the promise of life eternal, the giving of the Spirit, and the full application and working out of redemption in my sanctification and ultimate glorification. The promises in the covenant of grace include all this, and we are called upon to respond by faith, by the desire for all this, and by faithfulness and obedience to God in these new conditions.

    So I have tried to give you an omnibus definition of what we mean by the covenant of grace. We can put it like this: the covenant of grace is that arrangement between the triune God and His people, whereby God carries out His eternal purpose and decree of redemption by promising His friendship. The promise is full and free salvation to His people upon the basis of the vicarious atonement of the Lord JesusChrist, who is the mediator of the covenant, and His people accept this salvation by faith. It is the promise of God’s friendship, of His being our God, of entry into intimate relationship with Him, and knowing Him, and it is all made possible by Jesus Christ.

    But the thing I want to consider now is this: this great covenant which God has made with man, this covenant of grace, can be divided up into two dispensations, or, if you prefer it, two administrations. This one great covenant has been administered in two different ways, the way that is described in the Old Testament and the way that is described in the New Testament. You notice what I am saying? There is onlyone covenant of grace and I hope before we finish this study to prove that to you.

    What, then, are the ways in which the covenant of grace has been dispensed under the old dispensation? Well, you go first of all to Genesis 3:15. If you are interested in the technical term, it is generally called the protevangel. In other words, there is a kind of foreshadowing of the whole gospel in Genesis 3:15. Now to me this is one of the most fascinating and thrilling things anyone can ever encounter. Here is this great book; we divide it up and we call it the Old Testament and the New Testament and we all know what we mean by that. But, you know, if we were to be strictly accurate we would not describe it in that way. The real division of the Bible is this: first, everything you get from Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 3:14; then everything from Genesis 3:15 to the very end of the Bible. What you have up untilGenesis 3:14 is the account of the creation, and of God’s original covenant of works with man, and of how that failed because man broke it. Beginning with Genesis 3:15 you get the announcement of the gospel, the covenant of grace, the way of salvation, and that is the whole theme of the Bible until you come to the last verse of the book of Revelation. That is the real division of the Bible.
    But, of course, we talk about the Old Testament and the New Testament because we want to emphasise the two main ways in which this one great covenant of grace has been administered, and here it is beginning in Genesis 3:15—‘And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.’ Now the whole of the gospel is there. It is there in this almost cryptic form, in this very undeveloped form, but it is there.

    Let us work it out. What does God tell us in Genesis 3:15? Well, first of all that He was going to put enmity between the serpent, and the woman and her seed. Hitherto, you see, there had been no enmity between them; but the serpent had beguiled Eve, so they were very friendly together, and the woman was now under the dominion of the devil. Had God not done something, that would have been the end of the story. But God came in and He said, ‘Now I am going to break that friendship; you were meant for friendship with me, not with the devil, so I am going to put enmity between you and the devil, and between the devil and you.’ That was the first announcement of salvation; man cannot be saved while he is a friend of the devil and an enemy of God. He must be a friend of God; therefore he must become an enemy of the devil.

    The second thing, therefore, that is implied is that God was going to give man power and grace to fight the devil. Man had already been defeated by him, and was his slave. Man must have help and strength, and God promised him that. God promised to be on man’s side in this fight against the enemy. He applied the promise also to the ‘seed’—‘between thy seed and her seed’. That is most important. It was not a temporary promise given there in Eden; it was to continue until it had achieved its ultimate purpose.

    You notice also that God said that the quarrel was to go on not only between woman and her seed, and the devil, but also between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. In other words, mankind was here divided into two sections—those who do not belong to Christ belong to the devil, they are the children, the seed of the devil. So humanity can be divided into the seed of God and of Christ, and the seed of the devil, and there is a fight between them—all announced in Genesis 3:15.

    Then you notice that we are given the promise there of the certainty of the triumph of God and His way. The serpent was going to be bruised, his head would be bruised, he would be destroyed. Cannot you see that there is the prefiguring of Calvary? It was there he was put to an open shame, it was there he was defeated—all promised in the protevangel. And ultimately there is this idea which we can see so clearly in the light of subsequent Scripture, that the real seed of the woman is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ Himself (Genesis 3:16). Now there was the first announcement of this covenant. God did not call it a covenant at that point, but it was a foreshadowing of the covenant that later was made more explicit.

    But, second, let us come to the covenant made with Noah. You will find that described in the ninth chapter of the book of Genesis, afterthe flood. God promised here that He would never again destroy the earth and all flesh by means of water, by the return of such a flood. He furthermore guaranteed that there would always be a succession of seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night. God promised that that would continue, come what may. He also promised that the forces of nature would be bridled. In other words, the effects and results of sin and the fall were checked, they were held in balance in the covenant made with Noah.

    In the same way, the powers of evil were put under a greater restraint, and man was not allowed to be as violent as he had been, and as he would like to be, against other men. Man was protected against the violence both of man himself and of beasts. Read it for yourself inGenesis 9. And it was all confirmed and sealed by the sign of the rainbow in the cloud.

    Now the thing I want to emphasise here is this: the covenant made with Noah was not a new covenant of grace. The covenant of grace was adumbrated in Genesis 3:15. This did not interfere with that at all, but simply introduced certain subsidiary promises and ordinances. The covenant with Noah was not a new covenant in the ultimate sense of grace and redemption. It was simply a temporary legislation, it was what is sometimes called common grace, as distinct from the special grace which ensures our spiritual salvation.


    Then, thirdly, there was the covenant made with Abraham. That is what you find in Genesis 17, and it was here that God first explicitly and clearly stated His purpose of redemption in the exact form of a covenant. What do we find here? Well, we find that here for the first time, in any definite manner, we have the beginning of a kind of church. There was a separation between the people who belonged to God and those who belonged to the world. There had been a kind of family worship before, in houses or tents, and so on, but something new was introduced in the covenant with Abraham. God chose a particular man, a particular family, and made a promise to Abraham and his descendants—and to nobody else. There was this separation; there was the formation of a unique body, a special people of God.
    This is most important. Notice also the emphasis placed upon Abraham’s faith, upon his response. It was by his faith that he entered into the covenant and began to receive the benefits and the blessings. And notice, too, the spiritual character of the blessings that were promised to him. Over and above the promise concerning the land, etc., there was the great promise of a spiritual seed, that all the nations of the world were going to be blessed in him.

    Now if you want to work that out, just read the epistle to the Romans, chapters 3, 4 and 5, and the epistle to the Galatians, chapter 3, which I shall quote shortly. You see that in his covenant with Abraham, God was giving Abraham justification. We are told in the epistle to the Romans that Abraham was justified by faith, justified in a spiritual sense—justified from sin, he was forgiven, he was adopted into God’s family, and made the father of the faithful, the father of all believers. And then, in addition to that, there were also temporal blessings. We can never place too much emphasis upon the covenant made with Abraham. If you keep your eye on the references to Abraham in the subsequent parts of the Bible, you will find that this covenant is absolutely crucial. It is the great, explicit, original promise which God adumbrated in Genesis 3:15, but here stated explicitly.

    Then we must move on, of course, to the covenant at Sinai, the Sinaitic covenant, the covenant made through Moses, which you will find in Exodus 19 and following. Now this is most important. Here the emphasis is placed especially upon the fact that this covenant was anational covenant, and from here onwards the church and the nation became one. So to belong to the nation of Israel was to belong to the church, and you could not be put out of the church without being put out of the nation. A man who transgressed the law was put to death. He was not merely punished in a spiritual sense, he was literally put to death, put out of existence, put out of the nation as well.

    Then, of course, at Sinai great prominence was laid on the giving of the law. But I do want to make it very plain that the giving of the law did not mean that, in any sense whatsoever, God was re-establishing a covenant of works. I have already shown you the sheer impossibility of that. What is the point, I ask again, of making a covenant of works, of telling a man that he can save himself if he does certain things, when man had failed to do that in Paradise! No! The giving of the law did not mean a return to a covenant of works. The children of Israel made the terrible mistake of thinking it did; that was their error. It did not mean that. It was simply given in order that the life of the nation should be regulated in certain respects, and also for certain other reasons.

    In the covenant at Sinai God gave to Moses the ceremonial law and all the typical sacrifices and services in connection with the Temple—the burnt offering, the various other offerings, and the appointment of certain people set apart as priests. And we have also thepromulgation of the fact that the gospel, the great covenant of grace, was to be preached now in symbols and in types. These are meant to show us the demands of God upon us, and also, at the same time, to remind us of God’s great promise of forgiveness and of salvation.

    The law as a rule of life you can divide in a threefold manner—the moral law, the civil law and the ceremonial law, that is, the certain great, fixed principles of morality, the special legislation for the life of the nation, and the laws governing the ceremonies and the ritual. Now I want to emphasise that the making of this subsidiary covenant with Moses on behalf of the children of Israel at Sinai in no way whatsoever interfered with the covenant of grace that had already been given to Abraham, and that had previously been hinted at in the Garden of Eden. Now let me explain that, because there are some people who regard this as an entirely new covenant. But it was not; and I prove it in this way: in Romans 4:13 we read, ‘For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.’ This is most important. Listen again to Galatians 3:17: ‘And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.’ In other words, Paul’s great argument in Romans and Galatians is that the subsidiary covenant made with Moses at Mount Sinai, did not interfere to the slightest extent with the great covenant of promise and of grace that God had made with Abraham.

    ‘But,’ says someone, ‘what about Galatians 4:21–2 where we read, ‘Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman.’ And Paul goes on to say that this is an allegory, for these are two covenants. Does that not teach that there was a subsidiary covenant? To which the answer is this: it cannot mean that, because if it did, it would mean that in Galatians 4 Paul contradicts his own great argument in Galatians 3 and in Romans 4.

    But quite apart from that, the context surely makes it quite clear. Paul’s only purpose in Galatians 4 is to differentiate between the natural Israel and the spiritual Israel. It is his way of denouncing the wrong understanding of the Jew, who argued that to belong to Israel in the flesh meant that of necessity you belonged to the true seed of Abraham. But it does not. There was an earthly agreement, and there was a heavenly agreement, and it is the heavenly agreement that saves. After all, the promise God made to Abraham, in a sense, included Ishmael and Esau, did it not? All these people were circumcised, yes; but they were not the children of faith, they were not the true children of promise. They belonged to the realm of the flesh. God explained that to Abraham even in Genesis 17.

    Very well then; the covenant made through Moses when the law was given, did not in any way interfere with the covenant of grace, but was simply meant to do two things. First, it was meant to increase the consciousness of sin, it was meant primarily to do that. ‘Moreover,’ says Paul, ‘the law entered, that the offence might abound’ (Rom. 5:20). He makes the same point in Romans 4:13: ‘For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.’ And in Galatians 3:17 Paul says, ‘And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.’ So that is the first great argument—that the law was given in order to show the exceeding sinfulness of sin, in order to convict the nation, and all nations, of the utter hopelessness of a man dealing with his own sinfulness.

    So the second purpose of the law we can put as Galatians 3:24 puts it: ‘Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.’ You see, the original covenant was the covenant which teaches justification by faith; that was the covenant God made with Abraham and his seed. That is the fundamental thing. What was the point of the law? It was to bring us to that, to act as a kind of teacher, a pedagogue, to act as a coach—it showed us the utter necessity of Christ and our absolute need of him. The law was never given as a means of salvation in itself.

    You notice that I am emphasising this with considerable feeling, and I do so because you will find certain Bibles with notes, and certain books on the Bible, which would teach that God told the children of Israel that they could save themselves if they kept the law, that He provided the law in order to give them another way of saving themselves. But as we have seen, that is an utter contradiction of the teaching of Scripture.

    We have, then, been dealing with the ways in which the great covenant of grace was administered and revealed to the people under the old dispensation. That leads on, of course, to the new dispensation which is the way that God has revealed and perfected, re-ratified and fulfilled the promise, and all that is contained in the covenant in and through His Son our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

    So let me try to summarise, therefore, what we have been considering thus far. First of all God made with man—perfect man, man in the image and likeness of God—a covenant of works. Man was to inherit eternal life, with the possibility of communion with God, if he kept the commandment, the law. Man fell—he broke God’s law; sin, pollution, and degradation followed.

    Now since then God has only made one fundamental covenant with man, it is the covenant of grace; and He revealed that great covenant of grace in the Old Testament in the ways that I have been describing. So I think we have all probably learnt one thing, and I trust have seen it more clearly than we have ever seen it before. Christian people have often expressed surprise that the early Church decided to incorporate the Old Testament with its new literature, and they say, ‘I do not see why, as a Christian, I need to be bothered about the Old Testament.’ Well, if anybody still feels like that, I have failed and failed lamentably, because I have tried to show that the same great fundamental message is there in the Old, as in the New. And if we want to know about God’s great purpose, we must delight in tracing it from the very beginning in the Garden of Eden, right the way through until we come to our Lord. We must see the marvellous plan of God as it unfolds in the old administration of the covenant of grace, and the new administration of the same covenant. The gospel begins, not in Matthew 1:1, but in Genesis 3:15. Let us never forget that, and so let us go to our Old Testament and look for the gospel. You will find it there almost everywhere in a most astounding manner, and it is our business, as well as our privilege, to seek it and to rejoice in it as we find it there.
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