The Covenant of Redemption (1)
A reader writes, “I would like Rev. Hanko to discuss the traditional ‘covenant of redemption’ theory in a future News, particularly the various versions of it:
1) an agreement between the Father and the Son;
2) an agreement between the three divine Persons;
3) an agreement between the Triune God, as represented by the Father, and Christ.
Some say that the covenant of grace in time is a mirror image of this eternal contract; others say it is something separate and different. Various texts are used for this theory.”
The idea of a covenant of redemption (Latin: pactum salutis) or “counsel of peace” (Zech. 6:13) dates back to the seventeenth century, with the term “covenant of redemption” first appearing in 1638 in a speech by the Scottish theologian David Dickson. Men such as Herman Witsius, Patrick Gillespie and James Durham developed the idea in detail. Though many consider the notion of such a covenant as speculative and unbiblical, it continues to have its defenders.
There are different ideas about the parties in this covenant, nicely enumerated above by the friend who sent in the question. Most often, the covenant of redemption is considered to be an agreement between the Father and the Son, to bring about the redemption of the elect through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. Louis Berkhof, for example, defines the covenant of redemption as “the agreement between the Father, giving the Son as Head and Redeemer of the elect, and the Son, voluntarily taking the place of those whom the Father had given Him” (Systematic Theology, p. 271).
Biblical basis for such a covenant of redemption is sought in the many scriptural passages that describe the salvation of the elect in terms of a purchase, implying, so it is said, a previous agreement, either between the Father and the Son or between the Triune God and Christ. Likewise, the word “propitiation” in Romans 3:25 and I John 2:2 is assumed to imply a transaction of some kind between the Father and Christ. All the references to Christ’s coming in obedience to the Father, fulfilling God’s will, doing His Father’s business and saving those whom the Father gave Him, are cited as proof of such an agreement or transaction between God and Christ.
An important text to those who teach a covenant of redemption is Zechariah 6:13, which speaks of “the counsel of peace” which “shall be between them both.” This passage, however, has nothing to do with any kind of pre-temporal inter-Trinitarian covenant or a covenant between God and Christ. It refers to the union of the priestly and kingly offices in Jesus who is “a priest upon his throne.” In other words, the text speaks of the reconciliation of justice and mercy in Christ who is both King and Priest, not a covenant of redemption.
We are among those who find the theology of a covenant of redemption to be speculative and unbiblical. Our objections to such a covenant, however, have to do not only with the interpretation of various passages but also with the fact that those who hold to a covenant of redemption begin with an unscriptural view of the nature of a covenant. They all define a covenant in terms of an agreement, a contract or a transaction, whether it be a covenant between all the Persons of the Trinity, between God and Christ, between God and Adam or between God and His elect people. This agreement, so it is said, has promises, conditions and stipulations, as any agreement would. After starting with that wrong idea that the covenant is an agreement, those who hold to a covenant of redemption find proof for such a notion in the passages mentioned above.
We have three objections to such a presentation of the covenant. First, such a view of the divine covenant is not to be found in the Bible. Scripture always presents the divine covenant as a relationship, not an agreement. The formula for the covenant between God and His people reveals the covenant to be a relationship. That formula, though expressed in different ways, is essentially, “I will be your God, and ye shall be my people” (Lev. 26:12). We will write more of the covenant as a relationship in another article.
Second, if the covenant is an agreement, then God and man, whether Adam, the elect or Christ as man, act on equal terms. That is a denial of God’s sovereignty. In His works and ways with man, God never acts as equal but as sovereign. Even in the incarnation, Christ as man is subject to the Father, sovereignly chosen, equipped, sent into the world and assigned the work of redemption (Act. 2:36). As the Servant of God (Isa. 49:6), His work was subject always to God’s judgment and approval (Matt. 3:17).
The covenant relationship between God and the elect never depends on the elect agreeing to be God’s people or even on Christ agreeing on their behalf. It is not a transaction or agreement. That would make God’s covenant dependent and conditional. God sovereignly chooses the elect to be His people, effectually redeems them in Christ and powerfully converts them by the Spirit. Thus the covenant between God and His people is never described in the Bible as an agreement, something dependent on the will and cooperation of the sinner, but as a relationship established and kept by God Himself. We call this a “unilateral” covenant, a covenant established and maintained by God alone. The covenant between God and His people, then, is not bilateral or two-sided but one-sided. It is, most emphatically, God’s covenant.
Third, if the covenant is an agreement, it is not “everlasting” (Gen. 17:7). An agreement is always temporary, ending when its terms and conditions have been met. God’s covenant does not cease when the redemption of His elect people has been accomplished, but reaches its highest glory and splendour in eternity.
If we are going to speak, therefore, of a covenant of redemption, it is not an agreement between God and Christ, but the relationship between them, established through the incarnation, in which Christ, as God’s Son, becomes the One through whom and in whom God establishes His covenant with us. It is the relationship described in Psalm 89:26-28: “He shall cry unto me, Thou art my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation. Also I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth. My mercy will I keep for him for evermore, and my covenant shall stand fast with him.”
More must be said, however, and we will continue this discussion in another article, Lord willing. Rev. Ronald Hanko