Articles, Tracts and Letters

More Articles, Tracts and Letters from past issues of the Presbyterian Standard are available online here.

The Immovable Covenant

by Rev. W.J. Grier

The following piece first appeared in "The Irish Evangelical" of March, 1954, of which publication Rev. Grier was editor. The Covenant is surely a central teaching of Holy Scripture, bound up as it is with Christ its Head, Mediator and Messenger. David spoke of it in elevated terms: "this is all my salvation, and all my desire"; we would not speak more highly of the Lord Himself.

The Church today would do well to restore this precious truth to its proper place in her teaching and practice.

This article was published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue No. 4, October-December 1996.

T HE idea of a covenant – in the matter of our salvation – is prominent in the Bible. The blood of Christ is termed "the blood of the everlasting covenant," and when our Lord instituted the precious ordinance of the Supper He said "This is my blood of the new covenant." The Lord Jesus is described as the Mediator and Surety of the covenant. In fact, He is called "the covenant" (Isa. 42:6, 49:8), for its blessings are summed up in Him. When He invites sinners to Himself He does it in terms of the covenant: "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" (Isa. 55:3). When sinners ask the way to Zion in real earnest, it is with the words of mutual encouragement: "Come and let us join ourselves to the Lord in a perpetual covenant that shall not be forgotten" (Jer. 50:5). When a dying David sought comfort it was in reflection on the sure and ordered provisions of the everlasting covenant: "He hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure" (2 Sam. 23:5). When the hearts of God's people are troubled as they look on the dread evils of a sin-disordered world, they find relief in pleading at the throne of grace, saying, "Have respect unto the covenant" (Psa. 74:20).

I. The Same Covenant in all Ages.

C.H. Spurgeon said: "It has so pleased God to arrange it that He will not deal with us except through a covenant, nor can we deal with Him except in the same manner." The truth of this will be seen if we survey His dealings. When God created man He entered into a covenant with him, promising life on condition of perfect obedience. This covenant is sometimes called the covenant of life, because it promised life, and sometimes the covenant of works, because it demanded obedience. This covenant Adam broke and the penalty of death fell upon him and his descendants whom he represented. But immediately after the fall, trace of another covenant begins to appear – the covenant of grace. The seed of the woman is to bruise the serpent's head, and from Adam's race there will be those linked with God and at enmity with Satan (Gen. 3:15). The covenants with Abraham, Moses and David are not still other covenants – different from the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace is essentially the same in all ages, though the form of its administration may vary.

The covenants with Abraham, Moses and David are administrations of that covenant. There is thus a harmony in God's dealings with His people in all ages. The covenant with Moses and the children of Israel was a fulfilling of the covenant with Abraham (Exod. 6:4-8), and the "new covenant" of the New Testament was the fulfilling of the covenant promises to Abraham (Luke 1:55,73; Gal. 3:15,16). What was in the bud in the covenant with Abraham is now in full flower.

It is worth noting that the Lord Jesus is the surety of the covenant of works, as well as of the covenant of grace. There lies upon our fallen race the curse of the broken covenant – even the fearful curse of God. But Christ has fulfilled the requirements of that covenant for His own people; He has rendered perfect obedience in their stead and now there's no curse for them. It was this Oliver Cromwell had in mind when on his death-bed he spoke of the two covenants – the covenant of works and the covenant of grace – as being made one. "They were two," he was heard ejaculating, "two but put into one before the foundation of the world." "It is holy and true, it is holy and true, it is holy and true. Who made it holy and true? The Mediator of the covenant. The covenant is but one. Faith in the covenant is my only support."

II. Devised and Determined by God.

God spoke to Noah saying, "I am establishing my covenant with you." And He set the sign of the fulfilment of it in the sky. He did not consult with Noah as to its terms. He promulgated it in sovereign grace. As Dr. Machen said: "When the Bible speaks of a covenant in a connection like this, where God was one of the parties, it does not mean exactly what we often in ordinary parlance mean by that term. We mean a contract, an arrangement which either party is free to enter into or not as it pleases. ...But man has no power to say to God, 'No, I refuse to enter into such an arrangement with you; here is what I propose instead; you can take the contract that I offer you, or else we shall just make no contract at all.' He might say that to some human contracting party, but he cannot say that to God. No, God remains absolutely sovereign, in His covenants as in everything else that He does. Man does not contract with Him on anything in the remotest degree resembling equality. The covenant is an expression of God's will, not man's, and man must listen to its terms, trust God that they are holy and just and good, and order his life accordingly."

So this covenant is marked by sovereign grace. God devised and instituted it, and in the administering and fulfilling of it, it is all of grace. In Psalm 89, which speaks much of God's covenant and His covenant dealings with His people, there is a strong emphasis on His mercy. The Psalmist begins: "I will sing of the mercies of the Lord for ever. ...I have said, mercy shall be built up for ever." In His covenant dealings, His mercy is built up, says Dr. W.S. Plumer, "like a glorious edifice, not begun and finished in a day, but stone after stone added, till the topstone shall be laid with shoutings."

III. The Security of the Covenant.

God's all-glorious Son, Jesus Christ, is the Mediator and Surety of the covenant. On behalf of His people He fully satisfied the claims of divine justice by His obedience and sacrifice of Himself, and as Priest- King at God's right hand He dispenses its blessings to them. It depends on Him and so its provisions cannot fail.

Scripture dwells upon the absolute security and certainty of the covenant. In Genesis 15, when God made a covenant with Abraham (vv.17,18), He passed in the form of a smoking furnace and a burning lamp between the pieces of the slain animals. It is plain from Jer. 34:18,19 that when men made a covenant it was a custom with them to pass between the pieces of a sacrifice, and by doing so they invoked the fate of dismemberment on themselves if they broke the covenant. So God in walking alone between the pieces "literally invoked on Himself the fate of dismemberment in case He should not keep faith with Abraham" (Vos). It would be difficult to conceive of a more vivid way of emphasising the sureness of the covenant-promises.

The 89th Psalm rings the changes not only on the mercy displayed in the covenant, but also on the faithfulness of God to His covenant-promises. "Thy faithfulness shalt thou establish in the very heavens" – as firm and as conspicuous as the heavens themselves. "My covenant shall stand first...My covenant will I not break" – is His solemn declaration. His people may offend and He will visit them with the rod, but His loving-kindness He will not utterly take from them nor suffer His faithfulness to fail.

In Isaiah 54:9 God refers to His oath-bound and oath-certified covenant with Noah, and goes on to say, "For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall my peace-giving covenant be removed." His covenant is more stable than the everlasting hills. His covenant-promises are confirmed by an oath (Heb. 6:17) and are therefore unbroken and unbreakable.

IV. The Blessings of the Covenant.

The dying Cromwell said to his weeping wife and children, "I leave you the covenant to feed upon." What a boundless provision! The covenant-promises are exceeding great and precious, but they are summed up in this: "I will be a God unto thee"; "I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people" (Gen. 17:7; Heb. 8:10). This promise includes all others. If He be ours, then all things are ours and all things will work for our good.

A friend said to Ebenezer Erskine in his last illness: "Sir, you have given us many good advices, pray what are you doing with your own soul?" "I am doing with it," said he, "what I did forty years ago. I am resting it on that word, 'I am the Lord thy God,' and on this I mean to die." To another Mr. Erskine said, "The covenant is my charter, and if it had not been for that blessed word, 'I am the Lord thy God,' my hope and strength had perished from the Lord."

Reader, can you say of this God – the God of the covenant – that He is your God for ever and ever? It is His will that everyone that seeth the Son and believeth on Him should enjoy the wondrous blessings of the covenant, should have everlasting life and be raised up in glory (John 6:40). Do you believe on the Son of God?