Excerpted from his book,
A Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism
OF THE COVENANT OF GOD
It has been shown, that a Mediator is one who reconciles parties that are at variance, as God and men. This reconciliation is called in the Scriptures a Covenant, which has particular reference to the Mediator, inasmuch as every mediator is the mediator of some covenant, and the reconciler of two opposing parties. Hence the doctrine of the Covenant which God made with man, is closely connected with the doctrine of the Mediator. The principal questions which claim our attention in the consideration of this subject, are the following:
I. What is this Covenant?
II. Was it possible without a Mediator?
III. Is it one, or more than one?
IV. In what do the old and new Covenants agree, and in what do they differ?
I. WHAT IS THIS COVENANT?
A covenant in general is a mutual contract, or agreement between two parties, in which the one party binds itself to the other to accomplish something upon certain conditions, giving or receiving something, which is accompanied with certain outward signs and symbols, for the purpose of ratifying in the most solemn manner the contract entered into, and for the sake of confirming it, that the engagement may be kept inviolate. From this general definition of a covenant, it is easy to perceive what we are to understand by the Covenant here spoken of, which we may define as a mutual promise and agreement, between God and men, in which God gives assurance to men that he will be merciful to them, remit their sins, grant unto them a new righteousness, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life by and for the sake of his Son, our Mediator. And, on the other side, men bind themselves to God in this covenant that they will exercise repentance and faith, or that they will receive with a true faith this great benefit which God offers, and render such obedience as will be acceptable to him. This mutual engagement between God and man is confirmed by those outward signs which we call sacraments, which are holy signs, declaring and sealing unto us God’s good will, and our thankfulness and obedience.
A testament is the last will of a testator, in which he at his death declares what disposition he wishes to be made of his goods, or possessions.
In the Scriptures, the terms Covenant and Testament are used in the same sense, for the purpose of explaining more fully and clearly the idea of this Covenant of God; for both of them refer to and express our reconciliation with God, or the mutual agreement between God and men.
This agreement, or reconciliation, is called a Covenant, because God promises to us certain blessings, and demands from us in return our obedience, employing also certain solemn ceremonies for the confirmation thereof.
It is called a Testament, because this reconciliation was made by the interposition of the death of Christ, the testator, that it might be ratified: or because Christ has obtained this reconciliation by his death, and left it unto us, as parents, at their decease, leave their possessions to their children. This reason is adduced by the apostle Paul, in his Epistle to the Hebrews, where he says: “For this cause he is the Mediator of the New Testament, that by means of death, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force, after men are dead; otherwise it is of no strength at all whilst the testator liveth.” (Heb. 9:15, 16, 17.) Whilst the testator lives he has the right to change, to take from, or to add any thing which he chooses to his will. The Hebrew word בְּרִית (Berith), signifies only a covenant, and not a testament; whilst the Greek word διαθήκη (diatheke), which is used in the Epistle to the Hebrews, signifies both a covenant and a testament, from which it is inferred (as some suppose) that this Epistle was written not in the Hebrew, but in the Greek language.
Obj. A testament is made by the death of the testator. But God can not die. Therefore his testament is not ratified; or this reconciliation can not be called a testament.
Ans. We deny the minor proposition; because God is said to have redeemed the Church with his own blood. Hence he must have died; but it was in his human nature, according to the testimony of the apostle Peter, who says of Christ the testator, who was both God and man, that he was put to death in the flesh. (1 Pet. 3:18.)
II. HOW COULD THIS COVENANT BETWEEN GOD AND MAN BE MADE?
This covenant could only be made by a Mediator, as may be inferred from the fact that we, as one of the parties, were not able to satisfy God for our sins, so as to be restored to his favor. Yea, such was our miserable condition, that we would not have accepted of the benefit of redemption had it been purchased by another. Then God as the other party, could not, on account of his justice, admit us into his favor without a sufficient satisfaction. We were the enemies of God, and hence there could be no way of access to him, unless by the intercession of Christ, the Mediator, as has been fully shown in the remarks which we have made upon the question – Why was a Mediator necessary? We may conclude, therefore, that this reconciliation was possible only by the satisfaction and death of Christ, the Mediator.
III. IS THIS COVENANT ONE, OR MORE?
This covenant is one in substance, but two-fold in circumstances; or it is one as it respects the general conditions upon which God enters into an engagement with us, and we with him; and it is two as it respects the conditions which are less general, or as some say, as it respects the mode of its administration.
The Covenant is one in substance.
1. Because there is but one God, one Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ, one way of reconciliation, one faith, and one way of salvation for all who are and have been saved from the beginning. It is a great question, and one that has been much debated, whether the ancient fathers were saved in a different way from that in which we are saved, which, unless it be correctly explained, throws much obscurity and darkness around the gospel. The following passages of Scripture teach us what we are to believe in relation to this subject: “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, to-day, and forever.” “And God gave him to be Head over all things to the Church.” “From whom the whole body fitly joined together,” &c. “No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” “There is none other name under heaven given whereby we must be saved.” “No one knoweth the Father but the Son, and he to whom,” &c. “No one cometh to the Father but by me.” “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life;” he means, I am the way by which even Adam obtained salvation. “Many kings and prophets desired to see the things which ye see,” &c. “Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it, and was glad.” (Heb. 13:8. Eph. 1:22; 4:16. John 1:18. Acts 4:12. Matt. 11:27. John 14:6. Luke 10:24. John 8:56.) All those, therefore, who have been saved, those under the law as well as those under the gospel, had respect to Christ, who is the only Mediator, through whom alone they were reconciled to God and saved. Hence, there is but one covenant.
2. There is but one covenant, because the principal conditions, which are called the substance of the covenant, are the same before and since the incarnation of Christ; for in each testament God promises to those that repent and believe, the remission of sin; whilst men bind themselves, on the other hand, to exercise faith in God, and to repent of their sins.
But there are said to be two covenants, the old and the new, as it respects the circumstances and conditions which are less general, which constitute the form, or the mode of administration, contributing to the principal conditions, in order that the faithful, by their help, may obtain those which are general.
IV. IN WHAT DO THE OLD AND THE NEW COVENANT AGREE, AND IN WHAT DO THEY DIFFER?
Since there is but one covenant, and the Scriptures speak of it as though it were two, we must consider in what particulars the old and the new covenants agree and in what they differ.
1. In having God as their author and Christ as the Mediator. But Moses, some say, was the Mediator of the Old covenant. To this we reply, that he was Mediator only as a type of Christ, who was even then already Mediator, but is now the only Mediator without any type; for Christ having come in the flesh, is no longer covered with types.
2. In the promise of grace concerning the remission of sins, and eternal life granted freely to such as believe by and for the sake of Christ, which promise was common to those who lived under the old covenant, as well as to us; although it is now delivered more clearly, for God promises the same grace to all that believe in the Mediator. “The seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head.” “I will be a God unto thee and thy seed.” “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.” “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, we shall be saved even as they.” (Gen. 3:15; 17:7. John 3:36. Acts 15; 11.) We here speak of the promise of grace in general, and not of the circumstances of grace particularly.
3. In the condition in respect to ourselves. In each covenant, God requires from men faith and obedience. “Walk before me and be thou perfect.” “Repent and believe the gospel.” (Gen. 17:1. Mark 1:15.) The new covenant, therefore, agrees with the old in that which relates to the principal conditions, both on the part of God, and on the part of man.
The two covenants differ,
1. In the promises of temporal blessings. The old covenant had many special promises in relation to blessings of a temporal character, such as the promise of the land of Canaan, which was to be given to the Church – the form of the ceremonial worship, and of the Mosaic polity, which were to be preserved in the land even to the time of the Messiah – the birth of the Messiah from that people, &c. But the new covenant has no such special promises of temporal blessings, but only such as are general, because God will preserve his church even to the end, and will always provide for it a certain resting place.
2. In the circumstance of the promise of grace. In the old covenant, the faithful were received into the favor of God, on account of the Messiah that was to come, and the sacrifice which he would offer; in the new, the same blessing is obtained for the sake of the Messiah who has already come, and for the sacrifice which he has already offered in our behalf.
3. In the rites, or signs, which are added to the promise of grace. In the old covenant the sacraments were various, and painful, such as circumcision, the passover, oblations and sacrifices. In the new, there are only two sacraments – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper – both of which are simple and significant.
4. In clearness. The old had types and shadows of good things to come. All was typical, as the priests, sacrifices, &c. Hence every thing was more obscure and unintelligible. In the new, we have a fulfillment of all these types, so that every thing is clearer and better understood, both in regard to the sacraments and the doctrine which is revealed.
5. In the gifts which they confer. In the old, the effusion of the Holy Spirit was small and limited; in the new, it is large and full. “I will make a new covenant.” “If the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more,” &c. “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” (Jer. 31:31. 2 Cor. 3:5. Joel 2:28.)
6. In duration. The old was to continue only until the coming of the Messiah; but the new will continue forever. “I will make an everlasting covenant with them.” (Jer. 32:40.)
7. In their obligation. The old bound the people to the whole law, the moral, ceremonial, and judicial; the new binds us only to the moral, and to the use of the sacraments of Christ.
8. In their extent. In the old covenant, the church was confined to the Jewish nation, to which it became all those who would be saved to unite themselves. In the new, the church is established among all nations, and is open to all that believe of every nation, rank, condition, or language.
Remark. The old testament, or covenant, is often used in Scripture by a figure of speech, called synedoche, (in which a part is taken for the whole,) for the law, with respect to that part which is especially treated of. For in the old covenant, the law was enforced more strenuously, and there were many parts of it. The gospel was also more obscure. The new testament, or covenant, on the other hand, is for the most part taken for the gospel, because in the new a great part of the law is abrogated, and the gospel is here more clearly revealed.