How is the Covenant of Grace Gracious?
Words are such a delicate thing. The weakest word can communicate the most powerful truth. Yet strong words can also become impotent. This can happen when we use words as clichés so often that their impact is lost upon our minds and affections. One such term is grace; one such cliché is covenant of grace. How often do we debate the definition of a covenant? How often do we distinguish different kinds of covenants? Yet in these necessary tasks we can so easily forget the meaning of that little word, grace.
The issue in Q&A 32 of the Larger Catechism is not whether there is a covenant of grace or what it is, but rather, “How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant?” How is the Covenant of Grace Gracious? I want us to feel the impact of that word grace in relation to the covenant God makes with us sinners.
In its Provision of the MediatorThe covenant of grace is gracious in its provision of the Mediator. As the Catechism says, “he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him.”
Unlike the covenant of works between God and Adam, in which there was no mediator, after humanity took the plunge into sin the Lord God provided a Mediator between himself and our sinful race. What is a Mediator? It is a person who comes between two opposing parties. And so we read that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). In the covenant of grace God provides Jesus Christ to be our Mediator between God and us freely. He is “between” us as Jesus steps into the gap between a holy God and a sinful people, in order to bring them together in reconciliation. Jesus is very simply “the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 9:15; 12:24). God provided this mediator for us freely, meaning, that God was not constrained to do this. For example, after threatening death to Adam for disobedience we read of the Lord God freely providing a sacrifice of animal skins to cover the sins of the first family (Gen. 3:21).
In the covenant of grace God also offers Jesus Christ to be our Mediator between God and us. It’s not just that God provides him out there, but he offers a Mediator to us here. This offer is expressed so beautifully in these words:
Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price. (Isa. 55:1)
This Mediator is offered to “all nations” (Matt. 28:19), to “the whole creation” (Mark 16:15; KJV), and to “every nation…all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9). This is a serious and sincere offer of life and salvation, reconciliation with God through this Mediator. As Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
In its Provision of the Holy Spirit
The offer must be received, though. Thus in the covenant of grace, God “requir[es] faith as the condition to interest them in [Christ].” We must have an “interest,” meaning, a communion and participation in the Mediator who is offered. But how is it gracious to require us to do something to receive Christ?
That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. The covenant of grace is gracious also in its provision of the Holy Spirit. God “promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect.” This is important to grasp just how gracious all of this is. God graciously offers his Son as a Mediator and God also graciously provides the Holy Spirit so that we receive the offer. In a sense, God holds out Christ to us in his hand and the Holy Spirit enables us to grasp Christ with our hand. That hand is metaphorical of our faith.
The Spirit has been given to us for this purpose: “to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces.” As Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). Whether “this” refers to salvation in general or faith in particular is inconsequential, as Paul’s point is that everything God requires for salvation, God provides; it is gracious; it is a gift; it is free. In particular, the necessary condition of faith is given to us as a gift. Again, in Paul’s words, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). Notice that. It’s almost as if Paul is saying faith as a gift is a given; it’s suffering that he goes out of his way to prove is granted by God.
Just as the Spirit was given to us for the purpose of enabling us to embrace Christ for justification, so too he was given to us for sanctification: “to enable them unto all holy obedience.” One of the promises of the new covenant according to the prophet Jeremiah was just this. As the Lord himself said, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33).
This obedience is “the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God.” As James said, our good works are the evidence of our faith: “I will show you my faith by my works” (Jas. 2:18). Our good works are also an expression of our gratitude to God for his saving us from sin. We “who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart” (Rom. 6:17).
This obedience is also “the way which [God] hath appointed them to salvation.” Our obedience cannot be said to be necessary for our justification, as it is impossible for dead sinners to hear and obey God. Yet, obedience is necessary for the justified believer as “the way…to salvation.” What the Catechism is doing here is to use “salvation” in its broad denotation. It is not speaking of justification. Justification is not the whole of salvation; salvation encompasses justification and sanctification, and ultimately glorification. Obedience, then, is the heartfelt response to the grace of God by the child of God who is on his or her way to eternal fellowship with God.
Grace, my friends, is no weak word, and the covenant to which it is attached is no cliché. These are the words of life to us, mere beggars.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde
Pastor, Oceanside United Reformed Church