The Covenant of Grace
Riccaltoun (1691-1769) was the Church of Scotland minister at Hobkirk, Roxburghshire. His Sober Enquiry is a masterful review and adjudication of the issues debated in the Marrow Controversy. “Riccaltoun attempted to mediate, though making it clear that the Marrow Brethren had the better argument and faulting [Principal James] Hadow for widening breaches rather than seeking peace.” (The Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology) Riccaltoun corrects misrepresentations among opponents, examines the real import of the Marrow of Modern Divinity’s unfamiliar phrases, and points to the common ground held by all true sons of the Church of Scotland. Though the Sober Enquiry has never been reprinted, the book contains an exceptionally able treatment of the role of the mediator in the covenant of grace, and the instrumentality of faith.
From Robert Riccaltoun, A Sober Enquiry Into the Grounds of the Present Differences in the Church of Scotland, 1723, chapter IV: “Of the Testament of our Lord Jesus Christ, or the Covenant of Grace between God and Man by the Mediator.”
Hitherto we have considered the covenant of grace, as it was managed and carried on, between God and the mediator, representing the elect and standing in their room and stead; where we have seen how life and salvation, comprehending all that was necessary to their complete deliverance from that thralldom, bondage and misery which sin had brought them under, was purchased and secured for them in his hand, and that in such a manner, as God was well pleased with. We come next to consider this same covenant, as it is managed between the mediator acting in God’s name, and representing him; and these elect sinners; whereby this purchased salvation comes to be actually applied, and the covenant blessings, thus lodged in the surety’s hand, conveyed and made over to them.
This is one of these subjects, which, in themselves plain and easy, have been, by the learned labors of such as have employed themselves therein, made very intricate. And while every one molds it according to his own fancy, and the hypothesis he has taken to serve by it; it is become so overgrown with controversies, and these so embarrassed with quirks and subtleties, that it is no wonder, if a great many of these concerned in it are at a loss how to conceive of it: It is none of my design to entangle the reader in these learned mazes any further, than is just necessary to set the present questions in a proper light; the fittest method for accomplishing this, will, I think, be plainly and simply to present in one view what God has revealed unto us in his word, concerning the nature and method of this conveyance, as he has laid it to our hands, without any of that artificial coloring, and mixture of human learning and scholastic notions, which serve rather to amuse and mislead an inadvertent reader, than to any other good purpose, when interspersed with things so inconceivably above the reach of human understanding and reason.
That it is the mediator’s business then, and a part of his office, to convey life and salvation unto his people, as well as to purchase it for them, will, I think, be easily granted by all. As God’s honor would not permit him to deal with man without a mediator, to answer his demands first, and satisfy his justice by fulfilling the law; so, if one considers man’s degenerate state, it will be found, that he neither can nor will have any dealings with God. His weakness is such, that he cannot look upon God immediately, and without certain destruction; and such is his wickedness, that it is impossible he will hearken to bare proposals of peace, unless the same are seconded with a suitable power to secure a compliance with them; in one word, the man must be saved from sin, its power and dominion must be broken, and his nature healed, before he can either discern spiritual things, or comply with this new way of having life conveyed unto him.
Accordingly, we find our good and gracious God, in the provision he has made in this covenant, hath shown a due regard unto man’s low circumstances, by designing the same mediator, the man Christ Jesus, to deal with them in his name, and powerfully to dispense and give forth the same blessings unto them, which he has upon his purchase put into his hand; and for his purpose hath set him forth unto us, not only revealing this covenant, and the terms upon which life and salvation are to be had; but also making the same effectual, by subduing a peculiar people unto himself in the ministration of the gospel. And both these we have fully held forth unto us in that other view which we have given us of the death and sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ, as a testator disponing [assigning] unto his people all the benefits of his purchase, and ratifying his testament with his own blood.(1)
As I think it will not be questioned, that this testament, as it is held forth unto us in the gospel, is the same thing with the covenant of grace in this later consideration; we need only a distinct view of this, with what has been already said, to give us a complete draught of the covenant of grace. And in the account we have given us of this affair, we find distinctly held forth unto us, the benefits or good things there disponed [assigned], the testator’s power to dispone, a narrative of the causes inducing him to this, together with the original and progress of this whole affair, the disposition or conveyance itself with its order and means, and last of all a declaration of the result, effects and final issue of this same testament, both with respect to man in general, and the legatees in particular.
We shall not need to spend much time upon the first of these, having already seen what he has purchased at God’s hand, and that they are the very same things which are here disponed [assigned] and made over unto the same persons, for whom the purchase was made. All that fullness which was lodged in his hand, and which it pleased the father should dwell in him, eternal life, with all that is necessary for interesting one in, and preparing and making him meet for the privileges and enjoyments belonging unto it; the Holy Spirit with all his graces and operations, with all the communications which he makes of Christ’s fullness, are there comprehended and taken in; and in one word all the fullness of an all-sufficient Savior, which is no less than the fullness of the Godhead; an all-sufficient God, with all that is necessary for maintaining and keeping up communion and fellowship with him, are made sure in this covenant, and conveyed in this testamentary disposition.
And from hence one may easily see, how our Lord Jesus Christ must be clothed with full power to dispone [assign] and convey these same good things unto whom he pleases. Three things are necessary unto this; that the testator have a good right unto the things disponed; that he have them actually in his hand, and at his disposal, and that he have power to convey them unto such and such persons. I need not stand any further to clear his right and title, nor actual possession of them. And whatever incapacities were formerly upon the persons legatees, which might have made it unlawful to make any dispositions or conveyances of eternal life in their favors; now, that the demands of the law are all answered by their surety, they are also made capable of inheriting; and our Lord, having bought their freedom, may enrich them with what possessions he pleases to bestow. But this is not all, that he has a bare power to dispose of these things as his own, since all these things were given into his hand, not for himself, but with this very view, to be communicated and made over unto these same persons by God himself, the original proprietor and owner; and this testamentary conveyance is brought in only to subserve the more general design of a covenant between him and them; which, as things stood, could not be any otherwise completed and brought to take effect. And thus the testator himself bears the person of a trustee, and stands bound by a commandment from the Father faithfully to dispense and give forth these things, as they were designed and appointed in his eternal counsel. So that our Lord comes in this his testament, clothed not only with his mediatorial power, but with all the authority of God; and what dispositions he there makes, are really the promises of God himself, given forth by the mediator in his name, and in such a way as to secure the honor of his glorious perfections.
All this we have very fully opened in what we may call the narrative of this testament, by which I understand these accounts which we have given us of the rise and progress of this whole affair, together with the causes or motives which induced him to make this conveyance. And there we find the whole of this put upon the infinite mercy and lovingkindness of God, and the whole of it represented as a dispensation of grace from one end to the other, without anything in man, or any expectations from him to engage him unto it; “Not for your sakes, be it known to you,” we find engraven upon every part of this dispensation. One must transcribe a great part of the Bible, if he would give a just account of the particulars belonging to this head, as it comprehends and takes in all the declarations, which God has made of his own merciful and gracious nature, of man’s unworthiness and heinous provocations, the thoughts and purposes of love, which notwithstanding he has entertained toward them, the glorious provision he has made for them in a mediator, and the purpose he has of conveying and making over all these things unto them in and by him, together with what has been already done this way; and here it is, that the covenant of grace, as it is laid in Christ, comes to be manifested and made known unto us. These, it must be owned, are very comfortable views, and serve exceedingly to mitigate that despair which otherways must have overwhelmed the breakers of the law; but whether this revelation, had it been left here, would have served for a sufficient foundation for faith, I shall not take upon me to say, though it is certain, that, as things now stand, these are among the greatest and strongest encouragements one has to believing; and which many times serve to support a soul, which has nothing else to look to.
But that which principally deserves our notice here, and which is the main thing in this testament, and the only proper instrument of conveyance, is the disposition itself, wherein the testator, by that absolute power and authority with which he is invested, dispones [assigns], and makes over his property unto the persons therein specified; and this we find done in the promises, and offers of the gospel. I need not stand to observe, how variously these are expressed, while the disposition runs sometimes in the mediator’s, sometimes absolutely in God’s name; sometimes in words de praesenti, expressing a present gift and immediate conveyance of these things; sometimes again in the future, as what shall sometime or other be done; the reason of which one may easily gather from what has been said. But there is another difference of expression observable here, which has occasioned some very hot debates, that, viz. sometimes this conveyance is expressed absolutely, as what God will do, without any regard to the persons to whom they are given, or anything done, or to be done by them; sometimes apparently, at least, by way of condition, where the bestowing of the promised good things seems to be suspended upon some previous qualifications or duties to be done first, before they can expect the performance of the promise. Whence, it hath been much controverted from which of these the covenant should take its designation, and whether it shall be reckoned absolute or conditional.
I do not design here to interest myself on either side of this question, as I find it managed among judicious and orthodox divines, where, I believe, the difference will be found rather to consist in different apprehensions of the sense and meaning of some words, than any real difference in the things themselves, though in the meantime it must be owned, that both assertions have been lamentably abused and misimproven to the perverting of the gospel; but especially by a set of men, who have the conditionality of the covenant in such a manner, as to leave no discernible difference between it and a law, conveying life upon terms of duty; while some others have set up for the absoluteness of it in such a manner, as would seem to exclude all use of means, encourage idleness, and make God deal with rational creatures, as with so many stocks and stones. But these abuses the all-wise God has so fully guarded against, and withal sufficiently provided for his own faithfulness and credit in his promises, that, if we consider them, as he has laid them in his word, all these inconveniences may be easily avoided.
We have already observed the rise and original of all these promises, that they are owing altogether unto the goodness and mercy of God, without being in the least influenced by anything, either done or to be done by man. This is, without all question, to be carried along through every part of this covenant, and especially this which we are now upon, and which must be so designed, as to give evidence to the truth of these general declarations; and to confirm and establish the faithfulness of their author, by conveying the blessings of the covenant in the same way of free grace. Accordingly we find these same promises and offers conceived in the strongest terms that can be contrived, for satisfying all unto whom they are given, that he will not allow any man the least umbrage for boasting in himself, or anything done by him; that he will have the whole owing entirely unto God; and accordingly takes the beginning, carrying on and perfecting of man’s salvation entirely upon himself, without allowing the creature any the least interest therein.
And, as all the covenant blessings are thus designed to be conveyed, in a way of free grace; so are they held forth, and offered as already purchased, and bought up for all unto whom they are actually given. Nor is there anything in the promises, which is not already in Christ’s hands; and which is therefore already given by God to them, though it is not as yet come to their hands, but continues still in the surety’s. And, as hence it appears, with as much evidence as anything can do, that there is no more necessary to give anyone an actual interest in them, than to have communion and fellowship with him; they can never be suspended upon any other conditions in the promises, whereby they are conveyed. On the contrary, everyone is bound to look upon all the good things in the covenant, as purchased and bought with the blood of Christ, and that in such a perfect manner, as, that justice itself has nothing to object, why they may not be, at any time, bestowed upon the persons they were designed for.
But, though the promise does thus set an open door before all, who will, to enter freely; yet, as we are to take all God’s revealed truths along with us, we have no ground to imagine, that these absolute promises, which express what God will do, with respect to the salvation of sinners, and what he really does in all who are saved, should bind him to make these good unto all, who hear these promises proclaimed before them, and were thereby obliged to give the new heart to all the hearers of the gospel, to put his Spirit within them, and to cause them to walk in his statutes, to be a God unto them, and to make them his people. Certainly not; and when promises are as absolute as can be, yet, when the things contained in them are the fruits and effects of Christ’s purchase, such as are not common unto all the world, and the emanations of God’s special love in Christ; this is a tacit restriction, which confines these promises unto the elect, though no one of Adam’s posterity be excluded by name there, nor so described, as that he can on any rational grounds conclude himself shut out thence, until it appears by the event, that God hath not wrought these things in him, nor bestowed these blessings contained in the promise, and which he always does in these, for whom the promises are designed.
But neither is this the only thing that God has provided for salving his truth and veracity in his absolute promises. For, as all the promised blessings are in Christ the mediator’s hand, so are they all of them promised only in him; nor is there one promise in the gospel to warrant any body to expel the least covenant blessing otherwise, than by participation with him. Christ himself, the Savior, Redeemer and Mediator, is the great covenant promise, which comprehends and takes in all the rest; and with an eye to which, all of them are made; insomuch, that, as I already observed, where he is given, the covenant itself, and all the blessings of it, are so likewise; and, on the contrary, where he is not given, none of the covenant is so. And this brings us to consider the order, which God has established for bestowing the blessings of the covenant, with their relation one to another, as they lie in the covenant, grant and promise.
The order of the covenant blessings, and the relation which these bear one to another, are so nearly connected, that one cannot distinctly speak of one of these, without taking in the other also. That there is some particular order in the bestowing of these covenant blessings, cannot be denied; since they are neither designed to be given, nor are so actually, all at once: but some in this life, some only after death; some at one’s first conversion, and some afterward, as they grow up in grace. That there is also a certain relation of one of these to another, established in this disposition and covenant grant, is evident from these connections, which we find there stated, between one and others of them, in the conditional promises; and which, if carefully heeded, will contribute not a little toward the right understanding of that part of the gospel, which has been, through mistaken views of these, miserably perverted to the very reverse of what it was designed for.
The whole of these benefits, contained in the promises of the gospel, may be comprehended under two ranks and classes, as they regard man’s salvation, either as the means or the end; which yet must be so understood, as that the same, which are the means of one blessing, are many times the end of another, as the whole frame is concerted and adjusted by infinite wisdom, so, as that altogether shall contribute something toward the complement of the whole design, until it comes to be perfected in glory. And thus, as we are taught in the gospel, to look upon the whole of our religion in this life, as a part of that salvation conveyed in the covenant, and which therefore goes under the name of grace; so all this together is made subservient to glory, but not in the same manner. Some there are barely instrumental means of the other blessings; and so framed both in their nature and use, as to be merely subservient to eternal glory. And of this sort I take faith to be the chief, as it is its very nature to take in that revelation, which God has made of his mind and will in his word. Others again, though they are in themselves very material parts of our salvation, and either previously requisite unto, or certain approaches toward eternal glory, and thus are also a part of the end; yet as they are given in this life, they are also subservient unto, and means of attaining that which is in the world to come. And these we may reckon of two sorts, such, viz. as serve mainly to give a right, and administer access unto life and glory; and such as, being themselves a part of that life, dispose, fit and qualify one for the full possession of it. Of the first sort are reconciliation, justification, adoption, and, which should have been first mentioned, union with Christ, did it not also equally belong unto the second class; with all the other relative benefits and privileges of the covenant, which serve principally to make a change in one’s state and relations. Of the second, are all these benefits which we may call real, such as, union with Christ the head of influence, with the participation of his Spirit in regeneration, sanctification, and holiness, together with all that communion and fellowship with our Lord Jesus Christ, which believers are admitted to.
As it cannot be refused, that there are innumerable influences, wherein connections of this kind are stated; so, if we consider them any whit seriously in this light, it will be easy to see of what kind they are, and how such and such graces stand related unto, or are made to depend one upon another. We have already hinted how the whole of these covenant blessings depend upon union with Christ, and which, God willing, shall be more particularly cleared with respect to some of them in what is to follow. I only observe here in general, how both the relative and real blessings depend upon it, as both the one and the other are only to be had from him. It is an interest in him, which gives one an interest in his purchase, and which makes the title pleadable by us. Tis also by a communication of his Spirit that our natures come to be changed, and we wrought up into a meetness for communion and fellowship with God, both here and hereafter.
Another of these connections, which is most frequent, is, that between holiness and eternal life; or, which is indeed the same thing, between conformity unto God, and communion with him. As this same holiness is also a duty belonging unto this covenant, of which, by and by, some, not considering how it is also a grace, and as such conveyed and made over among the other blessings, have transformed it into a strict covenant condition; and as such brought it into the matter of that righteousness, by which we are justified before God. But, if we consider these connections as they are laid in the word, we shall find the relations thereby fixed between grace and glory quite of another nature; as that holiness which is here given, is a very material part, and therefore a good earnest of that glory which shall be revealed; and the exercise of grace here, in the acts and duties of holiness, an apprenticeship and preparation for glory. It is in this respect, that they may be very properly looked upon as fitting, disposing and preparing means; and thus we find these, who are made partners in this grace, are said to be prepared, made meet, fitted, and wrought for glory: while, in the meantime, none of all this preparation can be said to have any proper causality, or so much as found any, even the least part of one’s right unto the inheritance; which is, notwithstanding of all this pains taken to fit one for the possession, bestowed on no other account than that of our Lord Jesus Christ his purchase; nor they entered any other way unto it, than by virtue of their relation to, and interest in him. And, after all, the most that can be made of it, is, that one must be qualified thus, before he can enter heaven: And this is true, both in the order of the covenant, and the very nature of the thing; which it is needless here to stand on. And the connections, founded upon these, are little more, than so many descriptions of the persons, who, according to this covenant are capable of the enjoyment of heaven; and whereby all, who are not so qualified, are as effectually excluded and shut out, as if this had been made the formal condition of life, as it was in Adam’s covenant.
But there is one particular grace bestowed in this covenant, which falls also to be a duty, and which has such an influence upon all the other benefits, that we find more conditional connections stated upon it, than upon all the rest; whence it is also more improven, than any other grace or duty, to the overthrow of what it is plainly contrived, in the infinite wisdom of God, to support and maintain; I mean, the grace of God manifested in this covenant. It is the grace of faith; which, as it is designed the great instrumental mean for appropriating and applying Christ himself, with all his benefits; and therefore absolutely necessary in order to one’s interest in, and enjoyment of them, has been more plausibly trumped up into the matter of our evangelical righteousness, as it is our fulfilling of that law of grace, which these gentlemen have made the measure and rule of God’s dealings with lost sinners, instead of God’s covenant of grace, held forth unto us in the gospel. I will not stand here to reason the matter with these men, because, I hope, none of these, who set up for the conditionality of faith among us, will allow of this gross divinity. But however, for their sakes, we must examine a little more narrowly, the ground and reason of these connections, where faith is mentioned, than would otherwise have been necessary.
And here it may not be denied, that faith is a duty, founded upon, and necessarily flowing from the very frame and constitution of this covenant. The declarations there made, and the promises given forth by the God of truth, command belief in the most powerful manner. And this they would have done, suppose there had been no such command in the whole Bible. And when our Lord Jesus Christ is there represented unto us, as the only mediator between God and man, the Savior and Redeemer of lost sinners; and life is held forth in him to all who will rest themselves upon his all-sufficiency, and by faith maintain communion with him, this becomes necessary, in order unto anyone’s partaking of any of his benefits: so that, when God requires faith of us, he requires no more than was previously necessary to the very nature of the thing, and without which it was impossible to have any part or share in this matter. And thus the promises, which hold forth any blessing unto believing, are really, and in themselves, no more conditional, than these which promise the same absolutely; unless it is that the one have that expressed in them, which the other have implied, viz. the soul’s acceptance, appropriation, and application to itself of these promises, with the blessings contained in, and conveyed by them. Whence those, who plead honestly for the conditionality of faith in the covenant, are, notwithstanding, in effect, as much for its absoluteness, as any one ought to be; and what they design by it, in reality, will amount to no more than this, that, unless one receives, applies, and makes use of Christ, and the covenant, both promises and blessings, as they are laid in him, none of these will be his, nor of any benefit or advantage to him. And as giving and receiving are so much correlates, that the one cannot possibly be without the other, one may easily judge what sort of conditionality these connections lay a foundation for; that is just of the same kind, as if one should give a beggar a crown, on condition he should receive it, and make use of it as his own.
But there is another view we are to take of faith, and which will set all these promises, wherein it is concerned, at a yet greater remove from any proper conditionality; as itself is the gift of God, and a gift promised in, and conveyed by this covenant. And thus all these conditional promises are what we may call reductively absolute; and which, in the event, will prove equivalent to their being purely so. Let the promise then be made to faith; but how shall one come by this faith, if it is not in his own power to believe when he pleases? and we are fully assured by God himself, it is not. If he has this by an absolute promise, as indeed almost all, who attribute anything unto grace at all, in these matters, own the first grace is thus conveyed, why then? there is an end of it: as that, whose condition is absolutely given, is itself so also. But if faith is given upon some other condition, we must, at last, of necessity suspend supernatural gifts, upon natural qualifications; which, I am sure, is very remote from many of their thoughts, who seem to plead for such conditions.
This will be yet much clearer, if we consider the influence which faith has upon the bestowing of these blessings, which are made, one way or other, to depend upon it in these gospel connections. And if we look through the blessings of the covenant, we will find, indeed, that faith hath a place in all, but a place quite different from that of a federal, or even an antecedent, or suspending condition, as some is pleased rather to term it; and that indeed the after blessings, those, I mean, which are bestowed after faith, are every way as absolutely given, and indeed in the very same manner, that the first grace is; or at least, that the difference is no other than that between creation and conservation; it is the same power working by means in the latter, which in the former wrought without them, and produced these very means, which he afterward employs.
To begin then with that which is the foundation and ground work of all the other covenant blessings, both real and relative, nothing can be more evident, than that faith is not a prerequisite condition of union with Christ; nor indeed any condition at all, unless it is in a very improper sense, as unition is the condition of union; for thus we find it always held forth unto us in this relation, as a receiving, apprehending, laying hold of, resting on, applying of, and cleaving to Christ; all which are proper enough expressions of an uniting instrument; but can, with no propriety of speech, be applied to a condition. It is very true, the Assembly speak of faith to interest one in Christ, as a condition (and it is observable, that this is all the conditionality they anywhere attribute to faith in this covenant); but it is as plain, that when they do so, they design it in the large improper sense, as the way and mean which God makes use of for making up this union. And the connection stated between faith and union with Christ, is no other than this; if one, by the power and strength of the Spirit of Christ influencing him (for this is always supposed to faith), receives, applies, and makes use of Christ, he shall be united to him so, as to have him for his Savior, and strength derived from him accordingly. Just as if one should say, If the foot or hand is so joined to the head, as to draw life and spirits from it, there will be an union, and the members will live and grow thereby; if a branch is orderly grafted into a vine, it will draw strength and nourishment from it, and grow and bring forth fruit. And if anybody will, now at this time of day, when the doctrine of conditions has been abused so, as we see it at this day, will needs call these conditions of union, which indeed are the uniting acts, or at most the means of union, he should, at least, explain himself so, as that these, who have quite different notions of conditions, may not shelter themselves under his authority, and be thereby hardened in their mistake.
Let us look forward to justification, the prime blessing of the covenant, where the bands, which the broken law had laid upon the sinner, are loosed; and a right given him to eternal life, with all the other covenant blessings; the case is yet more plain. And indeed so clear it is, that I know no orthodox divine, who calls faith the condition, at least none such will be allowed orthodox in Scotland, so long as they make the Westminster Assembly their rule; though all allow it to be the instrument of it; and very justly, upon two great accounts. The first is, that it interests one in Christ, and thereby apprehends, applies and appropriates his righteousness, upon which justification must needs follow. The other, that, being itself the evidence of, and what in its very nature gives light to, apprehends, and sets before the soul this unseen blessing; it realizes the whole procedure, and thus lays hold upon, and apprehends the pardon, and title to life, therein conveyed and held forth. And as in all this there is abundant ground for the connection between faith and justification; but none at all for any conditionality; the same, in all respects, may be said of all the other relative blessings and benefits of the covenant, which make an alteration in one’s state and condition.
If we consider these benefits which I called real, and which not only change one’s state and circumstances, but also his nature and disposition, we shall yet find less room for getting in conditions, properly so called. In regeneration, the ground work of all grace is laid, where holiness, and a suitable disposition toward all the acts and duties of it, are in-laid in the soul. As this is in reality a new creation, a quickening and raising from the dead, it would be madness to look for any antecedent conditions there. And as all the work of grace, which follows upon this, is but the conservation of that spiritual life, which is there given, with its actings and increase, according to its nature; there may be means of life, but no conditions; I say, there may be means of life, and such is faith in Jesus Christ, by which the soul cleaves to him, lives upon, and is nourished by him, and whose great end and office it is to promote and carry on the work of holiness; but that in a way purely instrumental; and yet even here we find conditional connections, which, we are sure, can imply no more, than that this is the way, in which God communicates his grace in, and through his Son, unto his own people.
Besides these connections already mentioned, flowing from the method and order of the covenant, with the relations there fixed between one grace and another, there are others wherein faith especially is concerned; and which I take to have given the greatest handle unto that abuse of the gospel just now mentioned; and this arises upon the frame and constitution of the covenant of grace, as it is held forth unto us in the gospel, the only way whereby lost sinners can come to salvation. Upon this state of things it must needs follow, that who lays hold upon this way of salvation, and is taken within the bond of the covenant, must be saved: And on the other hand, as this is the only way of life, he that has it not this way, must be damned. Nothing can be plainer, than that in such declarations as these we have held forth to us, the event, fruits, and consequences of the preaching of the gospel; and that none may mistake them for what they are not, we find the Spirit of God, wherever these kind of connections are laid, has taken pains clearly to distinguish them from the gospel itself, which is preached, or to be so. And thus we find our Lord instructing his disciples to “go preach the gospel to every creature.” It is easy to see, where this is done, some will believe, and some not. And accordingly he declares what will be the lot of each sort, “He that believeth” (that preached gospel) “shall be saved; he that believeth not, shall be damned.”(2) In the same manner, when he is himself preaching the same gospel to the Jews, he gives them the like warning, “If you believe not that I am he, you shall die in your sins.”(3) “He that believeth in him is not condemned; but he that believeth not, is condemned already.”(4) “He that believeth on the Son, hath everlasting life; he that believeth not, shall not see life.”(5) These are fair warnings given to a careless world, and some of these means which the Spirit of God makes use of, to work up men’s hearts into a compliance with the covenant of grace. But what ground any has from this, to set them off with the title of gospel statutes, as we see some have done, and then to palm them upon us for a true state of the covenant of grace, which therefore must justify, and convey all its benefits, in the nature of a law, is not so easy to see; especially when they make this same covenant, quite contrary to its nature and design, to be the instrument of condemnation directly, which it is only per accidens, and occasionally: than which two I defy any man to produce another more destructive of the nature of that covenant; or, to give one material difference between this and that law, which God have Adam.
But however that is, since none of these connections will warrant us to make any one grace or duty a federal condition, which is, indeed the only proper one, as that, whose performance immediately entitles unto the benefit connected with it; or so much as suspends the performance of the promise any otherwise, than that one of these, in the order of the covenant, is given before another, while the right and title unto all is equally conveyed at once in justification; it is evident, the most that can, with any ground, be made of these conditional promises is, to give us a view of the way and manner of God’s bestowing his blessings, and what is necessary for our receiving of them, so as to improve them to the best advantage; according to the advice which our Savior himself has given us in this case, “That when we have done all, we are to look upon ourselves as unprofitable servants”; and, when we expect anything from God’s hand, to ask it, and look for it in his name. And indeed, I believe it is here, that the great business of our holy religion lies, to keep Christ in that place, which God has assigned him in this covenant, and to keep all graces and duties in their own room. And upon the whole, I think we may conclude, that this testament or disposition of our Lord Jesus Christ is neither so absolute, as to be designed for conveying life unto all the world, but only unto his own people, his children and seed, as we find the promises run: And, on the other hand, not so conditional, as to suspend any one covenant blessing upon any work done by, or good thing wrought in any; so, as they have the least ground, upon the performance of the one, to look for the other, any otherwise, than for Christ’s sake, and by partaking of that fullness, which is lodged in his hand.
I will not stand much upon what remains to be observed about this conveyance, and which, I think, may be reduced to these two heads, How this covenant or disposition is made effectual, for the conveying the benefits of Christ’s purchase? And what are the consequences and effects of it, where it is revealed and manifested? The first takes in all the several methods, which God, in his wisdom, has thought fit to make use of, for carrying on and advancing the designs of his gracious covenant, and bringing his chosen to be partakers thereof. The other points out unto us the several obligations, bonds and ties, which this covenant lays upon these concerned in it, with the alterations which it makes in their state and circumstances. Both these are very large fields, and take in a vast variety of particulars under them; it will be sufficient for the present to touch at the general heads of things.
To begin then with the method God has taken, and the means he makes use of, for making this gracious conveyance effectual unto his people; where (not to meddle with the difference there is between these under the Old and New Testament, where the substance and design of both was the very same) I find two ways taken for this purpose, according to the two most obvious views of the human nature, as it stands in God’s eye, when this covenant is erected, and set on foot; that is, as a rational, but withal a very corrupt creature, viz. moral suasion, and supernatural power.
In the first place, I say, as God has not here to do with stocks and stones, or such merely passive matter, which is not capable of any more, than receiving the impressions made upon it by external power; but with rational creatures, so he deals with them as such: And all the methods, which are proper for managing a free agent, are here accordingly applied. Entreaties and invitations intermixed with authoritative commands, and backed with the strongest encouragements, motives and arguments, are here held forth, and presented unto us with the greatest advantage. And, as the Christian religion is the most rational thing in the world, when carried, as it is in the dispensation of the gospel, it is impossible one can avoid complying with it, unless he, at the same time, runs directly contrary unto the dictates of sober reason. And hence it is, that, as the gospel is thus proposed unto all, who are so happy, as to live under its dispensation, they must needs be inexcusable, who comply not with the gracious covenant there held forth.
But however fitted these moral means are unto the rational nature, yet, if one considers that bondage which man lies under by the curse of the law, and as he is dead in trespasses and sins, it will be easy to see the necessity of a superior power, to new-mold our frame and constitution, and restore the ruins which sin has made in our abilities, before these can be effectual unto us. And this accordingly we find done, by the sending of the Spirit Christ along with the word and ordinances, upon this express errand, to apply unto the children of the kingdom, all that fullness which is in Christ, to create them anew, and beget them again unto a lively hope. Of which more hereafter.
With respect to the effects and consequences of this covenant, as it affects man, we have already seen, how it must needs approve itself unto every one, who seriously considers of it, and therefore binds, by the known principles of the law of nature, unto a compliance with the method of salvation therein prescribed: And thus, all the hearers of the gospel become immediately bound to believe every truth there revealed; but, in a particular manner, to believe in the name of the Son of God for life and salvation, with all things belonging thereunto, as he is held forth unto us for this very end and purpose. And hence it also appears, how there is hereby a door of hope opened unto all; and, however they are not released immediately from the bondage of the former covenant, yet is there no room left hereby for any to despair. And it is unto the manifestation, which God has made of his mercy and grace under the covenant, that the men of the world owe all these easy moments, which they most unworthily throw away upon the gratifications of sense, and which must otherwise have been quite marred by the anguish of these fearful expectations, which must have possessed their souls.
But, whatever change is hereby made in the state of the world in general, and the obligations lying upon them; it is, in a manner, nothing to what these undergo, who are actually brought under this covenant, as they have not only a remote prospect of deliverance, but are actually possessed of the covenant, and all that salvation which is contained in and conveyed by it. I cannot stand to mention particularly the new relations they are hereby brought unto, with the new privileges and enjoyments which belong unto these. And until both these are fully stated, it is impossible one can say what bonds and ties are there laid upon man, and how strong and powerful they are to determine him unto all manner of obedience. Nay, so far is the grace of this covenant from giving any the least encouragement to licentiousness, that holiness itself is one of the most substantial parts of that salvation, which is held forth and conveyed thereby.
From all that has been said of this covenant in these two views, we have taken of it, as it stands between God and Christ the mediator, acting in the believer’s name, and between God in Christ holding forth and applying this unto the elect, it will appear how necessary it is, to distinguish between the different views we have of this covenant, in its internal frame and constitution, and the external administration of it. The first of these presents with a state of the covenant itself, as it is laid ready in Christ Jesus, and held forth by him in his testamentary disposition; and thus in its own nature it declares, offers, promises, and accordingly conveys the good things of life and salvation contained therein. But if we consider it in the other view, it is inconceivably larger, and takes in all the moral means made use of, for recommending it unto us, and all the effects and consequences it has upon us. That part of God’s word, which presents it unto us in that first view, is that which is strictly and properly called the gospel. And as the whole word of God is employed in setting forth the dispensation of this covenant, so it is in this respect gospel also, but in a quite different, and vastly larger sense than the other; and in such a manner too, as, that if any of these subordinate means are carried out of their relation to the covenant, it will cease to be so.
To conclude, the whole word of God may be conceived under these two great heads, the doctrine of the covenant, and the improvement of it. The doctrine of the covenant holds forth unto us the first of these views just now mentioned. And this, in its own nature, does no more than to alter one’s state, circumstances and relations. But as upon these new relations arise new ties to duties, with answerable motives and encouragements; the covenant is and must be improven to draw from it the knowledge and discovery of all these, what these same relations are, with the privileges and duties belonging unto them; to state the obligations, bonds and ties, which arise upon this covenant state, both unto the duties founded in it, and these which we stood previously bound to; to hold forth the encouragements we have, and assistances we may expect from this covenant, for the practice of these duties; to press them with motives and arguments suited unto, and taken from the nature of it, and to direct us unto the true uses, ends and means of practice in all these, in a conformity and agreeableness unto our covenant state.
As there is visibly a very wide difference between, this and that covenant which was given unto our first parents, and all their posterity in them, that we may be preserved from confounding and mixing them together (a vice which our corrupt natures are very subject to) it will be very necessary to keep their distinguishing characters, as they may be gathered from what has been said, always in our view, and thus we find the difference must stand.
In the state of parties before contracting; in the first, God and man, though infinitely distant one from the other, as Creator and creature, yet friends notwithstanding; but in this enemies, and that in such a manner, as that God is an avenging Judge, and man an offending criminal, and so bound over to the stroke of justice; that he can neither relieve himself, nor hope for it from any other hand.
In the parties actually contracting; the friends under the first covenant could deal together immediately, and therefore needed none to negotiate between them: But in this, God and man deal together only by a mediator; and so by him, that it is with him primarily and immediately that God deals, and with man only in and by him, and so likewise man with God.
In the blessings promised; in the former, life only, as that was the only thing which Adam needed: But in this, life and salvation, together with all that was necessary unto the completement of both.
In the manner of conveyance; under the old covenant it was to be given upon man’s perfect obedience, as the condition of that covenant, the performance of which gave him a right by virtue of that contract. Under the covenant of grace, all things are given only for Christ’s sake, and conveyed by union with him, and the application of him and his benefits unto the soul, begun and carried on by the Spirit of God through faith.
In the nature of the connections between the promise and the precept. In Adam’s covenant pactionally, and the one following upon the other by contract and agreement: But in the covenant of grace, all are gratuitous, they found no right, and are all naturally and necessarily reducible to absolute promises.
In their form and tenor: the one bears the face of a law primarily, and has only that of a covenant superinduced unto it. The other bears the resemblance of a free promise, by accepting of which, and its being powerfully made effectual by the Holy Spirit, it becomes a covenant: In the one, God requires all of man, and promises life only consequentially upon his obedience: In the other, he promises all, and binds to doing, only in the virtue of what is there given and conveyed first. The law is the matter of the covenant of works, and has a promise annexed only in subserviency to it, and to promote obedience unto its precepts: The promise is the matter of the covenant of grace; and the law is brought in merely to be subservient unto it, and to promote God’s gracious ends and purposes therein revealed and manifested. The former is the scene and theater of justice, where it exercises its absolute dominion: The gospel is the province of mercy, where free grace reigns, but so as justice is inseparable from it.
As there is nothing in the account here given of the covenant of grace, but what we have taught in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms; and therefore, what every true son of the Church of Scotland, will readily fall in with; I think, it will be no great difficulty to show what small occasion there is for the controversies, which have been moved upon this head. We have already said something of the conditionality of the covenant, which yet, I am afraid, is at the bottom of all the rest; and if we consider how all seem to be in a manner agreed in what was there delivered, it is not easy to say, what should be left for men to contend about? Nobody doubts, or at least, all I have seen profess to have none, about the most material things here, that the obedience of Christ is the only title to life, and the only thing that God regards in his gift; that nothing done, either in us, or by us, can any way merit a blessing at God’s hand, nor may we claim it upon the performance; that without an actual interest in Christ, one can have no benefit by his obedience, nor can he plead the same before God; that faith in Christ is absolutely necessary for the making up of this union, and which is the great instrumental mean for applying the covenant blessings; and with respect to what remains, as no person pretends, that either faith, or any blessing besides, whether grace or duty, is such a condition in this covenant, as obedience was in Adam’s, so as to make any part of the matter of our righteousness before God; so on the other hand, all are ready to own, that there are such connections between one blessing of the covenant and another, resulting from the nature, frame and constitution of the covenant, and the order and method there established, as will answer all the ends and designs of a conditional covenant, every jot as fully, as if that were expressly asserted; unless it is that one, that no handle can be taken from it to found any pretensions to life upon one’s own doings; and which I find disclaimed on all sides with much detestation.
If we consider that other question, which is nearly related to this, in the same light, we will find full as little ground to contend upon it; Whether there are any precepts in the gospel, etc.? It is denied by none that I know of, that there are precepts binding upon believers under the gospel, even the whole moral law, with all the precepts which may be any way drawn from, or reduced unto it; and that all these duties are bound upon them, not only by the original authority of that law, but exceedingly strengthened by new ties and obligations from the covenant of grace. Nay further, that some duties there are, such as faith in Jesus Christ, and all that love, honor, and respect which is due to him as mediator, is only founded upon this covenant. And what great matter is it then, whether they be made to belong properly unto the gospel, or to the law subserving the gospel, since both come to the same issue, with respect to obedience? But if one considers the true nature of the gospel, I mean that which is strictly and properly called so, which holds forth unto us the covenant of grace, offered to us in Christ the Mediator, and which is the view all our best Reformed divines have had of it, who unanimously agree against the patrons of free will, in asserting, that Jesus Christ, as mediator, is no proper legislator; and compares this with the now prevailing humor of changing the covenant into a law, and making it operate accordingly: He, I say, who does this seriously, and without prejudice, should not, one would think, be very fond of advancing anything which might countenance that novel corruption of the gospel, unless compelled thereunto by the irresistible force of truth, which, I must ingenuously say, I have not been yet able to discover there.
It is certainly true, what a certain reverend author observes upon this subject, “that it is no fair way of reasoning, to take one or two texts to prove what is the true nature of the gospel”;(6) whereas, undoubtedly, the several texts ought to be compared together. But I cannot help thinking at the same time, that the gentleman has been very unhappy in his texts, which he has pitched upon for this purpose, the most part of them being only such as declare the effects of this covenant, where it is revealed and made known, as has been already observed, and the obligations it lays upon these who come under it, unto all manner of holiness and obedience. If this then is the notion which we must frame to ourselves of the gospel, as it represents unto us the covenant of grace, to take in all that belongs unto its dispensation, we must then bid farewell to that ancient distinction between the law and the gospel, as contradistinguished from one another; since I am pretty well satisfied all the views one can have of the law in God’s word, may be some way or other reduced into a subserviency unto the covenant of grace. And even the covenant of works itself is taken into the dispensation of the gospel. But, I hope, people will consider better before they throw themselves into such inextricable labyrinths, where, I confess, there is need of a stronger head than mine to avoid confusion, I shall say no more of it here.
From what has been said upon this, I think we may likewise see, how this covenant, as held forth unto us in Christ, may justly enough be called, a “deed of gift and grant,” laid out in common unto all the hearers of the gospel, and how it is sufficiently guarded against all imputations of insincerity in God, and abuses from men, without either universal redemption to support the truth of the general offer, or conditional offers to confine the grant to particular persons. However absolute the grant runs, yet it is still only in Christ, and with this assurance too accompanying it, that no man can come unto him, unless the Father draw him; and which assistance he hath reserved in his own hand to bestow where himself pleases; while yet the moral force of this covenant reaches equally to all, and makes it alike reasonable for everyone to believe in an all-sufficient Savior there held forth: And to make use of all the means which God has appointed, and whereby he is wont to convey his Spirit unto his people, for bringing them into the bond of the covenant. But, in the mean time, as this gift, how free soever, can profit none, unless it is received, and can never be received but by faith, no man has any ground to fancy to himself any real advantage by this offer, any further than this, that this general revelation of God’s will, makes it lawful for him; yea, and his duty, to look for salvation and eternal life this way; and accordingly, for all who hear the offer, to apply themselves to Christ, and apply him to themselves, and make use of him as a Savior, in all these instances, and for all these purposes, he is held forth and offered for in the gospel.
(1) Westminster Confession, chapter VII, paragraph iv.
(2) Mark 15:15-16.
(3) John 8:24.
(4) John 3:18.
(5) John 3:36.
(6) Remarks upon the Answers of the Brethren, p. 4.