The Covenant of Redemption (3)
In our discussion of the covenant of redemption, we have emphasized the truth that God’s covenant is never an agreement but a relationship. It is first and foremost the relationship between the Persons of the Holy Trinity. God is, in and with Himself, a covenant God. This truth is very humbling since it means that He does not need us to be a covenant God. He is all-sufficient to Himself.
It is also a wonderful truth in that His covenant with us, established first of all with Christ, is His taking us into that relationship in which He is the eternal Father and Christ His Son through the Spirit. That relationship is sovereignly realized and maintained. God makes us His covenant people and, when we show ourselves unfaithful and disobedient, sovereignly maintains that covenant in Christ. He does not cast off His people whom He eternally loved (Rom. 11:2), whether elect Jew or elect Gentile. He even promises to take the children of believers into that relationship, as the God not only of His people but of their seed (Mark 10:13-16; Acts 2:39). How great are His mercies!
That He establishes His covenant first with Christ, making Christ His “firstborn” (Ps. 89:27), in order to maintain and keep His covenant with His people, is God’s wonderful way of revealing the faithfulness and the graciousness of His covenant with His people. In the last News, we looked especially at Psalm 89 in that connection, for few other passages so wonderfully show what the covenant of redemption is.
We now focus on God’s covenant relationship with us, what we call the covenant of grace, especially in Genesis 15-17. We do this because God’s covenant with Abraham shows beyond doubt that His covenant is not merely an agreement but a sovereignly established relationship. These three chapters are beautifully instructive.
Genesis 15 begins with God’s affirming to Abraham His love and friendship in the face of Lot’s departure: “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward” (1). In light of Genesis 17:7, this can only be taken as an affirmation of God’s covenant with Abraham. It is really the great promise of the covenant, “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.”
Having spoken to Abraham of His everlasting covenant, Jehovah predicts the coming of Christ as the One through whom He would be forever the God of Abraham and Abraham’s innumerable seed. Galatians 3:16, a passage mutilated by many modern Bible translations, shows that the singular “seed” is a reference to Christ as the One in whom God would fulfil His promises and not merely to Isaac.
To show His covenant faithfulness and to assure Abraham of it, God tells him to prepare for an unusual ceremony, unusual to us, that is, though not to Abraham. Abraham had to cut several animals and birds in pieces, and lay the pieces of the animals and the birds in two rows, with a walk-way between the rows.
That ceremony was used in those days to confirm a covenant, so that the usual description of covenant making (also in Scripture) was “cutting a covenant.” When used by two men, it was a covenant in the form of an agreement, the two walking together between the pieces of the animals, consenting in some important purpose and showing that they would rather be cut in pieces than break their agreement.
In establishing His covenant with Abraham, God did not make an agreement with Abraham. Instead, Jehovah established His covenant by passing alone through the cut-up pieces of the animals and the birds, while Abraham was fast asleep (Gen. 15:12). Thus God took upon Himself all the penalties and punishments of covenant breaking. This was not, therefore, an agreement or transaction between God and Abraham, but God’s way of sovereignly taking Abraham to be His friend and sovereignly promising to remain Abraham’s friend forever.
Genesis 16 serves as a reminder of the impossibility, humanly speaking, of the establishment and keeping of the covenant by Abraham or by anyone, for Sarah was barren and Abraham’s efforts to see to the covenant by marrying Hagar were in vain. Only when Abraham’s own flesh was “dead” (Rom. 4:19) did God, by a miracle, see to the coming of the promised Seed and the fulfilment of His covenant promises. All this proves that the covenant cannot ever depend on man. It is God’s covenant and He alone is able to keep covenant with His people. The covenant cannot be an agreement.
Finally, in Genesis 17:1-8, before the birth of Isaac, God revealed to Abraham the fact that His covenant would be an everlasting relationship in which He would be Abraham’s God and the God of His seed. He speaks to Abraham of a seed that would include not only physical descendants of Abraham but people of all nations, and also hints of an everlasting inheritance of which the land where Abraham then lived was only a shadow. That seed, however, was Christ above all (Gal. 3:16)
Did Abraham understand these things? Indeed, he did. Jesus told the Jews, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56). This is what Abraham believed and hoped: “By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:9-10).
The sad thing is that many today do not see what Abraham saw. They see God’s covenant with Abraham as a temporal and temporary arrangement. They are so focused on the earthly land, which was only ever a picture of the heavenlies, that they still look for an earthly fulfilment of the promises, whether to the Jews or to both Jews and Gentiles. They think that the salvation of Abraham and his descendants was a matter of law-works. They do not understand that Abraham had the gospel of our Lord Jesus preached to him and that he was God’s covenant friend not by works but by faith in Christ.
Worst of all, many still think that God’s covenant is an agreement, not a sovereignly and graciously established relationship. Not only does this make the covenant a cold transaction, destroying the beauty of the covenant as a relationship with the Triune God Himself through Christ, but it also introduces into the doctrine of God’s covenant something that does not belong to any aspect of our salvation. Rev. Ron Hanko