GRACIOUS CHARACTER
OF THE DIVINE COVENANTS


We saw last week that, after the Fall, there are seven divine covenants which were initiated by God with His people (through a representative), viz.: Adamic Covenant, Noahic Covenant, Abrahamic Covenant, Mosaic Covenant, Davidic Covenant and the New Covenant. We saw that these divine covenants are, in fact, structurally united to each other, and carry the same theme: “I shall be your God, and ye shall be My people.” This means that each of the divine covenants must, in fact, be a progressive manifestation of the same everlasting covenant. We see that the promise of the Adamic Covenant is that a Messiah will die on behalf of God’s people so that the covenantal theme may be realised; the Noahic Covenant adds that the world will be kept from destruction until the whole number of the elect be brought under the Messiah; the Abrahamic Covenant adds a sacrament which distinguishes God’s people, including their children, from the rest of the people in the world; the Mosaic Covenant adds stipulations for covenant life, as well as another sacrament which directly points to the priestly ministry of the coming Messiah; the Davidic Covenant reveals the kingly character and office of the Messiah; and finally the New Covenant brings to culmination all that is promised.


In examining the theme of each of the divine covenants, we confirmed that each one has to do with the salvation of God’s people. In other words, it is not about building the nation of Israel as a nation, but as the covenant people of God. Indeed, God is not even primarily concerned with the whole number of the external, visible gathering of people who profess to be in league with God. He is rather, primarily, concerned with the “children of the promise” or His elect. The external, visible people are called “His people” only because the visible people is viewed organically as one with the whole being identified according to the better part. In other words, as the children of the promise or the elect were found largely in the nation of Israel under the Old Covenant, the nation was known as the covenant people of God or as the elect nation.


In this article, we add a further proof to the unity of the covenant, and the reality of a Covenant of Grace spanning redemptive history from the Fall to the consummation of all things. As it is our thesis that the Covenant of Grace or the everlasting covenant manifests itself in subordinate covenants, we may accomplish our purpose by showing that each of the divine covenants manifests a gracious unconditional character pertaining to salvation. In other words, we want to show that there is only one way of salvation, namely by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Eph 2:8–9; Rom 1:17), throughout the span of redemptive history.


It is sufficient for us to examine the covenants under the old dispensation, as few would doubt the gratuitous character of the New Covenant.


Adamic Covenant


The Adamic Covenant is most assuredly gratuitous. Adam had just broken the Covenant of Works and had fallen into an estate of sin and misery. While the natural mind might expect God to punitively impose an exacting requirement of conformity to a plethora of laws and ordinances in order for man to be saved, the Bible strikingly reveals that this was far from the case. Adam, and the whole human race, which he represented, is indeed punished for his sin, but salvation as declared in the protevangelium would come not by his own effort but by a Saviour whom the LORD would send. Notice that no condition at all is given to Adam or to his seed in order to the fulfilment of the promise.


Adam understood this gracious provision for his and his children’s salvation and demonstrated his faith in the promise when he called his wife Eve, because she was mother of all living (Gen 3:20). Furthermore, by providing coverings for Adam and Eve’s nakedness, made with the skin of a slain animal, God was in fact typically prefiguring His atoning grace through the cover for sin that the death of Christ would provide. Salvation for Adam and Eve and their posterity, in other words, was gratuitously initiated by God under the Adamic Covenant.


Noahic Covenant


The gracious character of the Noahic Covenant is even clearer than in the Adamic Covenant. Genesis 6:5–7 declares that the depth and extent of the wickedness of man had provoked God in His decision to destroy him from the face of the earth. But in sharp contrast to this solemn declaration of condemnation, Genesis 6:8 declares that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.” This is a most significant statement within the inaugural context of the Covenant and is illustrative of the nature of the Covenant itself. But could the statement mean that Noah merited grace? Robertson’s exposition is most helpful and succinct here:

It may be that God’s grace had kept Noah from sinking to the levels of depravity found among his contemporaries. But nothing indicates that Noah’s favoured position arose from anything other than the grace of the Lord himself. The term “grace,” which describes God’s attitude to Noah, occasionally refers to something other than a response of mercy to a sinful situation (cf. Gen 39:4; 50:4; Num 32:5; Prov 5:19; 31:30). But when describing God’s response to fallen man, “grace” depicts a merciful attitude to an undeserving sinner. In Noah’s day, every initial formation of the thoughts of man’s heart… were only evil all the day. But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.


Although Genesis 6:9 affirms that Noah was a “righteous man,” structural considerations characteristic of the book of Genesis forbid the conclusion that Noah received “grace” because of a previously existing righteousness. The phrase “these are the generations of…” which begins Genesis 6:9 occurs 10 times in Genesis. Each time the phrase indicates the beginning of another major section of the book. This phrase decisively separates the statement that “Noah found grace” (Gen 6:8) from the affirmation that Noah was a “righteous man” (Gen 6:9). God’s grace to Noah did not appear because of this man’s righteousness, but because of the particularity of God’s program of redemption (Op. Cit., 112–3).


Despite this clear exposition, it may be argued that if the preservation of Noah and his family is a picture of salvation, then Noah did work and was saved by work after all, he built the ark. But this argument falls apart when we begin to consider the fact that ark itself would not save Noah and his family were it not for the supernatural protection of the LORD as intimated by the phrase “the LORD shut him in” (Gen 7:16). The building of the ark was rather a message to the unrepentant people living during the days of Noah (cf. Heb 11:7).


A further and most remarkable indication of the gracious character of the Noahic Covenant may be found in the reason given by the LORD for its establishment:

And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done (Gen 8:21).


This reason given seems almost incongruous. If the imagination of man’s heart is evil continually, should not the LORD continue to destroy the earth for the wickedness of man? Commentators have long struggled with this issue, and newer translations of the Bible have replaced the word “for” with “although” (NKJV) or “even though” (NIV). But however it is translated or explained it is clear that man does not deserve God’s promise of preservation at all. If he deserves anything at all, it is continual destruction. Indeed then, the Noahic Covenant is fully gracious. This is further confirmed by the fact that no condition is actually attached to the fulfilment of the Covenant.


Abrahmic Covenant


The gracious character of the Covenant of Grace finds its full expression in the Abrahamic Covenant through God’s dramatic act of ratification of the Covenant as recorded in Genesis 15:8–18. This act should best be interpreted as a self-maledictory oath (cf. Jer 34:18–20), in which God anthropomorphically calls upon Himself a curse of dismemberment if He fails to fulfil His promise to Abraham (see Murray, Covenant of Grace, 16). We note also that Abraham was not called to pass through the pieces at all, which clearly indicates that the Abrahamic Covenant, and so the Covenant of Grace, is not merely a mutual compact or agreement between two equal parties. Rather, it is a unilateral “bond-in-blood sovereignly administered.” The fulfilment of this covenant is therefore not dependant on man’s keeping it at all. It rests entirely on the LORD and therefore is totally gratuitous.


It may be argued that a condition of circumcision seems to be attached to the fulfilment of the Covenant, therefore annulling its gracious character. This is particularly seen Genesis 17:14, “And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.” To answer this object, it must first be admitted that Genesis 17:14 does indeed specify a condition. But at the same time, it must be categorically denied that this is a condition of the Covenant. To say that it is a condition of the covenant is to understand that “the covenant is not to regarded as dispensed until the conditions are fulfilled and that the conditions are integral to the establishment of the covenant relation” (Murray, Covenant of Grace, 19). To do so would be to deny the immutability of the promise of God, which the author of Hebrews alluded to when commenting on God’s cutting of the covenant with Abraham (Heb 6:13–18). How then should we understand the condition in Genesis 17:14? Murray answers this question cogently:

The continued enjoyment of this grace [which is dispensed in the covenant relationship] and the relationship established is contingent upon the fulfilment of certain conditions. For apart from the fulfilment of these conditions the grace bestowed and the relationship established are meaningless. Grace bestowed implies a subject and reception on the part of that subject. The relation established implies mutuality. But the conditions in view are not really conditions of bestowal. They are simply the reciprocal response of faith, love and obedience, apart from which the enjoyment of the covenant blessing and of the covenant relation is inconceivable. In a word, keeping the covenant presupposes the covenant relation as established rather than the condition upon which its establishment is contingent (Ibid, 19).


Murray’s argument finds a strong biblical support from Moses himself in Deuteronomy 9:4–5, where he no doubt refers to the Abrahamic Covenant:

Speak not thou in thine heart, after that the LORD thy God hath cast them out from before thee, saying, For my righteousness the LORD hath brought me into possess this land: but for the wickedness of these nations the LORD doth drive them out from before thee. Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may perform the word which the LORD sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (italics mine).


Indeed, it is because of the gracious character of the Abrahamic Covenant, that we find the Apostle Paul arguing for “salvation by grace through faith,” by the fact that Abraham was declared righteous and so experienced the covenantal relationship even before he was circumcised (Rom 4:1–25).


Mosaic Covenant


While it is generally agreed that the Abrahamic Covenant displays its gracious character very vividly, the same is not usually said of the Mosaic Covenant. In fact, the Mosaic Covenant is generally not recognised by Dispensational theologians as being gracious at all.


Perhaps the reason for this failure to see grace in the Mosaic Covenant can be found in the interpretation of the introductory statement of the Mosaic Covenant found in Exodus 19:5, “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine.” On the surface, this statement seems to make the Covenant conditional upon obedience, but Murray correctly observes that the verse does not say, “If ye will obey my voice and accept the terms stipulated, then I will make my covenant with you” (Murray, Op. Cit., 24). Rather, the Covenant is presupposed, and Israel is called simply to keep it. Of course, the fact that Exodus 19:5 does carry a conditional element cannot be denied, but what is conditioned upon obedience is not the covenant relationship itself but the enjoyment of the blessings which the Covenant contemplates.


In the same way, a false interpretation of Exodus 24:7–8 may suggest that Moses inaugurated the Covenant on the basis of the obedience of the people:

And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words (Ex 24:7–8).


Once again, the error lies in the assumption that the Covenant has not already been established despite the fact that the text says, “the covenant, which the LORD hath made.” The point is: the Covenant had already been established and Moses was merely ratifying and sealing it by the sprinkling of blood.


The Davidic Covenant


We have already seen that the Davidic Covenant is most clearly referred to in Psalm 89. It is also in this psalm that we see the unconditional and therefore gracious character of the Davidic Covenant most clearly:

My mercy will I keep for him for evermore, and my covenant shall stand fast with him. His seed also will I make to endure for ever, and his throne as the days of heaven. If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless my lovingkindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail. My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips. Once have I sworn by my holiness that I will not lie unto David. His seed shall endure for ever, and his throne as the sun before me (Ps 89:28–36).


Essentially, God’s promise is that no matter what happens, David’s seed will remain on the throne. This promise of God is referred to again and again throughout the history of the Kingdom of Judah. When Solomon went astray towards the end of his reign, the Lord warned him that all the tribes saved one would be rent away from him, and the reason for that one exception is the covenant He had made with David (1 Kgs 11:12). Solomon’s son Rehoboam was an evil king, yet the Lord allowed him to sit on the throne, for David’s sake (1 Kgs 15:4). King Jehoram was a friend of Ahab. He was not a good king at all, and God could have destroyed Judah for his wickedness, but He refrained for David’s sake (2 Kgs 8:19).


From this, it may be seen that the Davidic Covenant is unconditional. But two questions may be asked. Firstly, if it is entirely unconditional, and God will not revoke His promise, then why is it that after Zedekiah in 586 BC, no child of David continued to sit on the throne? The answer to this apparent inconsistency is to be found in the fact that the descendants of David, under the Old Covenant, were only fulfilling the promise of the Davidic Covenant typically just as the conquest of Canaan only fulfilled the promise of the Abrahamic Covenant typically. It was only when Christ was ascended on high after His resurrection and was seated on the right hand of the throne of God that the promise of the Davidic Covenant was truly fulfilled.


But secondly, it may be asked: How does the Davidic Covenant teach salvation by grace through faith? To answer this question, we must realise, first of all, that the Davidic Covenant does not stand alone, but is a development of the earlier divine covenants. But the fact that the redemptive element is still in focus can be seen in Isaiah 55:3, “Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David.” The individual who is included in the Davidic Covenant, comes into active participation in the Covenant by faith, and enjoys the benefit of the deliverance and kingship of Christ.


Conclusion


We have shown that each of the divine covenants under the Old Dispensation is indeed gratuitous. This, together with the fact that they do not stand independently, but are structurally and thematically united, shows that they are in fact manifestations of the one Covenant of Grace which is developed progressively over the ages according to God’s infinite wisdom. Covenant Theology is not a theological framework imposed upon the Scripture. Neither is it to be derived only from a few verses in Scripture, such as Romans 5:12–21, though it would have been sufficient were it so. It is, rather, a theology of redemption progressively revealed in the Word of God, like a flower opening a petal at a time until it is at full bloom with the incarnation of Christ and the inauguration of the New Covenant.


JJ Lim