Wilhelmus à Brakel
The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1
The Existence of an Additional, External Covenant with Men Denied
Question #2: Did God, either in the Old or New Testament, establish a different, external covenant in addition to the covenant of grace?
Answer: Before we answer this question it is necessary to define what an external covenant is.
(1) An external covenant is a relationship between God and man; it is a friendly covenant, or association.
(2) The parties of this covenant are, on the one side, the holy God who is of purer eyes than to behold evil (Hab 1:13), who has no pleasure in wickedness, with whom evil shall not dwell, in whose sight the foolish shall not stand, who hates the workers of iniquity, who shall destroy them that speak leasing, and who abhors the bloody and deceitful man (Ps 5:5-6). The other party is the unregenerate, whose throat is an open sepulchre, whose tongue use deceit, who have the poison of asps under their lips, whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness, whose feet are swift to shed blood, whose ways are destruction and misery, who do not know the way of peace, and who do not have the fear of God before their eyes (Rom 3:13-18). As long as they remain in this condition, they are the children of wrath (Eph 2:3), and vessels of wrath fitted to destruction (Rom 9:22). These would have to be the parties of this covenant.
(3) The promises of such a covenant merely relate to physical blessings, be it the land of Canaan, or in addition to that, food and clothing, money, delicacies, and the delights of this world.
(4) The condition is external obedience, merely consisting in external observance of the law of the ten commandments and the ceremonies, church attendance, making profession of faith, and using the sacraments, participation being external and without the heart.
(5) Such a covenant would be without a Mediator, being immediately established between God and man.
(6) In the Old Testament this would be the national covenant established only with the seed of Abraham. This covenant would have been an exemplary covenant to typify the spiritual service in the days of the New Testament. In the New Testament it would be a covenant to establish the external church. All of this would constitute an external covenant, it being essentially different in nature than the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.
Upon closer examination of such an external covenant (even though proponents of such a covenant do not perhaps appreciate such a close examination), the question is whether there is such an external covenant? Some deny that such is the case in the New Testament, but claim it existed in the Old Testament. Others maintain that such a covenant also exists in the New Testament. We, however, make a distinction between external admission into the covenant of grace, and an external covenant. We maintain that there have always been those who externally have entered into the covenant of grace, and who, without faith and conversion but without giving offense, mingle among the true partakers of the covenant. Their external behavior, however, does not constitute an external covenant. God is not satisfied with such an external walk but will punish those in an extraordinary measure who flatter Him with their mouths and lie to Him with their tongue. Thus, there is an external entrance into the covenant of grace, but not an external covenant. This we shall now demonstrate.
First, the person who joins himself to the church or ever has joined the church never has had such a covenant in view by which he would merely obtain some physical benefits. He has salvation in view. Thus, such an external covenant would be without partakers. This is not to suggest that man does not desire physical benefits, but he does not seek to obtain them by way of such a covenant. Man is neither acquainted with nor believes in such a covenant. There is no such covenant proposed to man, nor is he wooed or enticed to enter it. There is not one text in the entire Word of God supporting such a covenant. Therefore, whatever is neither offered nor pursued does not exist.
Secondly, it is inconsistent with the holiness of God that God, as we have expressly described Him to you, could enter into a covenant of friendship with man, who is as we have just portrayed him. It is inconsistent with God’s nature that He would find pleasure in external religion, without the involvement of the heart. God demands the heart, even when He promised Canaan and other external blessings. “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul. And it shall be, when the Lord thy God shall have brought thee into the land,” etc. (Deut 6:5,10). God expresses a dreadful threat to those who serve Him without the heart. “Forasmuch as this people draw near Me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour Me, but have removed their heart far from me … therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder” (Isa 29:13-14). Thus, it can neither be consistent with God’s nature that He be satisfied with external obedience, nor that He by virtue of a covenant of friendship would bestow external blessings upon external obedience. Furthermore, how can it be consistent with the veracity of God to exercise external friendship and yet internally be filled with holy hatred, to bless externally by virtue of a covenant and yet inwardly be truly inclined to condemn the sinner, for the sinner to belong externally to God in a friendly relationship and yet internally be truly a child of His wrath? If men were to interact in this manner among themselves and establish covenants in this manner, would such a practice not be despised by the ungodly? “Far be it from the Almighty that He should commit iniquity” (Job 34:10). And even if it could be consistent with God’s nature, which it cannot, it would be a covenant of works and thus be imperfect. Human activity would be the condition, and the promises would relate to the physical. However, God cannot establish a covenant of works with the impotent sinner, which we shall demonstrate at the appropriate time.
Evasive Argument: God bestows external blessings upon many because of correct, external behavior. This can be observed in Ahab, the ungodly king of Israel. “seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before Me? because he humbleth himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days: but in his son’s days will I bring the evil upon his house” (1 Kings 21:29).
Answer: It is one thing to maintain that God, by His common grace and in certain situations, bestows external blessings upon the ungodly. This we readily admit, for, “The Lord is good to all: and His tender mercies are over all His works” (Ps 145:9). However, it is another thing to maintain that God does this by virtue of an external covenant, and thus, due to a relationship with the unregenerate and the ungodly, bestows external blessings upon them on the basis of externally good behavior. This we deny vehemently. The example of Ahab is no proof whatsoever, for the blessing bestowed upon him in response to his external manifestation of humility did not proceed from an external covenant (this being the point of contention here which needs to be proven), but by virtue of God’s common grace and longsuffering.
Thirdly, if God could establish a covenant of friendship with the unregenerate without a Mediator of reconciliation, as is claimed by some, this necessarily being the proposition, there would be no need for the Surety Jesus Christ and one would be able to be saved without satisfaction of the justice of God. If God is able to establish a covenant of friendship with a sinner for the purpose of bestowing external blessings upon external obedience, doing so apart from a Mediator of reconciliation, God would likewise be able to establish a covenant unto salvation without a Mediator of reconciliation, thus promising eternal life to all the godly by virtue of their sincerity. If that were possible, there would be no need for Christ, for all of this could then transpire without Him. This, however, is impossible, as will be shown in the next chapter, and therefore it is also impossible for such an external covenant to exist. From this it is at once evident that holding to an external covenant undermines Reformed truth and gives
opportunity for dissension.
Fourthly, such a covenant either has sacraments or has none. If there are none, then it is not a covenant, for God
has never established a covenant without seals. If there are sacraments, which are they? Circumcision and the Passover in the Old Testament and baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament? This cannot be, for then the same sacraments would be of two essentially different covenants, which is an absurdity. Besides, the sacraments of the covenant of grace only have reference to Christ, and are signs and seals of the righteousness of faith (Rom 4:11). Since this covenant would neither have Christ as its Surety nor spiritual promises and the righteousness of faith, these seals cannot be sacraments of an external covenant. In addition to this, no one has a right to partake of the seals of the covenant of grace unless he is a true believer, since they are seals of the righteousness of faith. This position, however, maintains that the unregenerate are true members of this external covenant, who nevertheless may not partake of the sacraments. Therefore, the sacraments cannot be seals of this external covenant, from which follows that there is no such covenant.
Fifthly, whatever one proposes concerning this external covenant (such as external obedience) is comprehended in the covenant of grace. This obedience, however, proceeds from and is in harmony with an internal, holy spiritual frame. The covenant of grace includes of necessity all the external as well as the spiritual promises requisite unto salvation. Both aspects are confirmed in the following passages. “For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor 6:20); “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God” (Rom 12:1); “And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God” (Gen 17:8); “Godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (1 Tim 4:8).
Since the covenant of grace also obligates us to external obedience, and also has external promises, there is no need for an external covenant, which would require and promise all matters and benefits already comprehended in the covenant of grace.
Evasive Argument: One may suggest that all these reasons are not compelling since this external covenant presupposes the covenant of grace and coalesces with it.
Answer: (1) This does not confirm the matter, since this covenant must be viewed as being of an entirely different nature. It must therefore be considered independently. Thus, all these reasons remain in full force.
(2) The unregenerate, even though they externally enter into the covenant of grace, are not essentially in the covenant. With an external covenant, however, they would be actual and true members (and thus would be true partakers) of it without any reference to the covenant of grace. Thus they, not being true members of the covenant of grace and therefore without Christ and the promise, would be considered as true members of this external covenant. The covenant of grace is therefore not the issue here at all. Hence, the suggestion that an external covenant, which presupposes the covenant of grace, is established with the unregenerate holds no water. Thus, this evasive argument is without substance and our proof remains in force.
Objection #1: In the Old Testament the entire nation, head for head, the godly and the ungodly, had to enter into the covenant. They were all required to partake of the sacraments, were all in this covenant and used the sacraments, and many broke the covenant. There was thus an external covenant which in its essential nature was entirely different from the covenant of grace. For this covenant has been established with believers only and thus cannot be broken.
Answer: (1) The covenant of grace is an incomprehensible manifestation of the grace and mercy of God. When God offers this covenant to someone, it is an act of utmost wickedness to despise it, and to refuse to enter into it. Therefore everyone to whom the gospel is proclaimed is obligated to accept this offer with great desire and with all his heart, and thus to enter into this covenant. This fact is certain and irrefutable. Thus, the obligation to enter the covenant does not prove it to be an external covenant.
(2) The ungodly, being under obligation to enter into the covenant of grace, were not permitted to remain ungodly, for the promise of this covenant also pertains to sanctification. They were to be desirous for sanctification, and this desire was to motivate them to enter into the covenant. Therefore, if someone remained ungodly, it would prove that his dealings with God were not in truth—as ought to have been the case. It would confirm that he had entered into the covenant in an external sense, as a show before men, and that he was not a true partaker of the covenant.
(3) They were required to use the sacraments in faith. If they did not use them in this way, they would provoke the Lord. Neither in the Old nor New Testament do the ungodly have a right to the use of the sacraments. Unto such God says, “What hast thou to do to declare My statutes, that thou shouldest take My covenant in thy mouth?” (Ps 50:16).
(4) Just as the ungodly merely enter the covenant under pretext, so they likewise break it again and their faith suffers shipwreck. Thus they manifest by their deeds that they have neither part nor lot in the word of promise. Their breach of covenant was not relative to an external covenant but relative to the covenant of grace into which they entered externally. The manner whereby they entered into this covenant was thus consistent with the breach of this covenant. With all that was within them they destroyed the covenant of grace by changing it into a covenant of works.
(5) In a general sense God established this covenant with the entire nation, but not with every individual. Everyone was to truly enter into this covenant by faith.
Objection #2: In the New Testament the church consists of believers and the unregenerate, the latter being by far the majority. The unregenerate are not in the covenant of grace, and yet they are members of the covenant. Consequently, they are in an external covenant, in view of which there is also an external or visible church. Children of believers, who as they grow older manifest themselves as being ungodly, are thus called holy (1 Cor 7:14). This can only be the holiness of an external covenant. From this it follows that there is such an external covenant.
Answer: (1) The unregenerate are in, but not of the church. They are not true members constituting the church, but are merely parasites. All who are present in someone’s home do not necessarily belong to this home and the family members. The unregenerate have externally gained entrance into the church, but the external entrance into the covenant of grace does not constitute an external covenant.
(2) There is only an external church as far as the external congregation in its totality is concerned, but not relative to individual members where the evil intermingle with the good.
(3) The children of believers are called “holy” not in reference to an external covenant, but in reference to the covenant of grace, into which the parents, be it externally or in truth, have entered, and to which they may also entrust their children, doing so by virtue of their baptism. They also have no other covenant in view than a covenant by which they and their children can be saved. Thus, we have presented the covenant of grace in all its ramifications to you, and it is our wish that everyone would be endeared to it and truly enter into it. Amen.