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The Covenant of Grace – The Identity of the Covenant of Grace under all Dispensations by Charles Hodge

By April 10, 2011June 24th, 2019Covenant Theology

By this is meant that the plan of salvation has, under all dispensations, the Patriarchal, the Mosaic, and the Christian, been the same. On this subject much diversity of opinion, and still more of mode of statement has prevailed. Socinians say that under the old economy, there was no promise of eternal life; and that the condition of salvation was not faith in Christ. The Remonstrants admitted that the patriarchs were saved, and that they were saved through Christ, i. e., in virtue of the work which the Redeemer was to accomplish; but they also questioned whether any direct promise of eternal life was given in the Old Testament, or whether faith in the Redeemer was the condition of acceptance with God.

The Baptists, especially those of the time of the Reformation, do not hold the common doctrine on this subject. The Anabaptists not only spoke in very disparaging terms of the old economy and of the state of the Jews under that dispensation, but it was necessary to their peculiar system, that they should deny that the covenant made with Abraham included the covenant of grace. Baptists hold that infants cannot be church members, and that the sign of such membership cannot properly be administered to any who have not knowledge and faith. But it cannot be denied that infants were included in the covenant made with Abraham, and that they received circumcision, its appointed seal and sign. It is therefore essential to their theory that the Abrahamic covenant should be regarded as a merely national covenant entirely distinct from the covenant of grace.

The Romanists assuming that saving grace is communicated through the sacraments, and seeing that the mass of the ancient Israelites, on many occasions at least, were rejected of God, not- withstanding their participation of the sacraments then ordained, were driven to assume a radical difference between the sacraments of the Old Testament and those of the New. The former only signified grace, the latter actually conveyed it. From this it follows that those living before the institution of the Christian sacraments were not actually saved. Their sins were not remitted, but pretermitted, passed over. At death they were not admitted into heaven, but passed into a place and state called the limbus patrum, where they remained in a negative condition until the coming of Christ, who after his death descended to hell, sheol, for their deliverance.

In opposition to these different views the common doctrine of the Church has ever been, that the plan of salvation has been the same from the beginning. There is the same promise of deliverance from the evils of the apostasy, the same redeemer, the same condition required for participation in the blessings of redemption, and the same complete salvation for all who embrace the offer of divine mercy.

In determining the degree of knowledge possessed by the ancient people of God, we are not to be governed by our own capacity of discovering from the Old Testament Scriptures the doctrines of grace. What amount of supplementary instruction the people received from the prophets, or what degree of divine illumination was granted to them we cannot tell. It is, however, clear from the writings of the New Testament, that the knowledge of the plan of salvation current among the Jews at the time of the advent, was much greater than we should deem possible from the mere perusal of the Old Testament. They not only generally and confidently expected the Messiah, who was to be a teacher as well as a deliverer, but the devout Jews waited for the salvation of Israel. They spoke as familiarly of the Holy Spirit and of the baptism which He was to effect, as Christians now do. It is, principally, from the assertions of the New Testament writers and from their expositions of the ancient Scriptures, that we learn the amount of truth revealed to those who lived before the coming of Christ.

From the Scriptures, therefore, as a whole, from the New Testament, and from the Old as interpreted by infallible authority in the New, we learn that the plan of salvation has always been one and the same; having the same promise, the same Savior, the same condition, and the same salvation.
The Promise of Eternal Life made before the Advent

That the promise was the same to those who lived before the advent that it is to us, is plain. Immediately after the fall God gave to Adam the promise of redemption. That promise was contained in the prediction that the seed of the woman should bruise the serpent’s head. In this Passage it is clear that the serpent is Satan. He was the tempter, and on him the curse pronounced was designed to fall. Bruising his head implies fatal injury or overthrow. The prince of darkness who had triumphed over our first parents, was to be cast down, and despoiled of his victory. This overthrow was to be accomplished by the seed of the woman. This phrase might mean the posterity of the woman, and in this sense would convey an important truth; man was to triumph over Satan. But it evidently had a more specific reference. It refers to one individual, who in a sense peculiar to himself, was to be the seed of the woman. This is clear from the analogy of prophecy. When it was promised to Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed; it would be very natural to understand by seed his posterity, the Hebrew people. But we know certainly, from the direct assertion of the Apostle (Gal. 3.9), that one individual, namely, Christ, was intended. So when Isaiah predicts that the ‘servant of the Lord ‘ was to suffer, to triumph, and to be the source of blessings to all people, many understood, and many still understand him to speak of the Jewish nation, as God so often speaks of his servant Israel. Yet the servant intended was the Messiah, and the people were no further included in the prediction than when it is said that ‘ salvation is of the Jews.’ In all these and similar cases we have two guides as to the real meaning of the Spirit. The one is found in subsequent and explanatory declarations of the Scriptures, the other is in the fulfilment of the predictions. We know from the event who the seed of the woman; who the seed of Abraham; who the Shiloh; who the Son of David; who the servant of the Lord were; for in Christ and by Him was fulfilled all that was predicted of them. The seed of the woman was to bruise the serpent’s head. But it was Christ, and Christ alone, who came into the world to destroy the works of the Devil. This he declared to be the purpose of his mission. Satan was the strong man armed whom Christ came to dispossess and to deliver from him those who were led captive by him at his will. We have, then, the promise of redemption made to our first parents immediately after the fall, to be by them communicated to their descendants to be kept in perpetual remembrance. This promise was repeated and amplified from time to time, until the Redeemer actually came. In these additional and fuller predictions, the nature of this redemption was set forth with ever increasing clearness. This general promise included many specific promises. Thus we find God promising to his faithful people the forgiveness of their sins, restoration to his favour, the renewing of their hearts, and the gift of his Spirit. No higher blessings than these are offered under the Christian dispensation. And for these blessings the ancient people of God earnestly longed and prayed. The Old Testament, and especially the Psalms and other devotional parts of the early Scriptures, are filled with the record of such prayers and longings. Nothing can be plainer than that pardon and the favour of God were promised to holy men before the coming of Christ, and these are the blessings which are now promised to us.

The Apostle in Heb. 11. teaches that the hopes of the patriarchs were not confined to the present life, but were fixed on a future state of existence. Such a state, therefore, must have been revealed to them, and eternal life must have been promised to them. Thus he says (chapter xi. 10), that Abraham ‘looked for the city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.’ That this was heaven is plain from verse 16, where it is said, ‘They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly; wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He hath prepared for them a city.’ He tells us that these ancient worthies gladly sacrificed all earthly good, and even life itself, ‘not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection.’ That this was the common faith of the Jews long before the coming of Christ appears from 2 Mace. 7.9, where the dying martyr says to his tormentor, ‘Thou like a fury takest us out of this present life, but the King of the world shall raise us up, who have died for his laws, unto everlasting life.’ Our Lord teaches us that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still alive; and that where Abraham is, is heaven. His bosom was the resting place of the faithful.

Christ, the Redeemer, under both Dispensations

This is a very imperfect exhibition of the evidence which the Scriptures afford that the promise of redemption, and of all that redemption includes, pardon, sanctification, the favour of God, and eternal life, was made to the people of God from the beginning. It is no less clear that the Redeemer is the same under all dispensations. He who was predicted as the seed of the woman, as the seed of Abraham, the Son of David, the Branch, the Servant of the Lord, the Prince of Peace, is our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God manifest in the flesh. He, therefore, from the beginning has been held up as the hope of the world, the Salvator Hominum. He was set forth in all his offices, as Prophet, Priest, and King. His work was described as a sacrifice, as well as a redemption. All this is so obvious, and so generally admitted, as to render the citation of proof texts unnecessary. It is enough to refer to the general declarations of the New Testament on this subject. Our Lord commanded the Jews to search their Scriptures, because they testified of Him. He said that Moses and the prophets wrote of Him. Beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded to the disciples in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. The Apostles when they began to preach the gospel, not only everywhere proved from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ, but they referred to them continually in support of everything which they taught concerning his person and his work. It is from the Old Testament they prove his divinity; his incarnation; the sacrificial nature of his death; that He was truly a Priest to make reconciliation for the people, as well as a Prophet and a King; and that He was to die, to rise again on the third day, to ascend into heaven, and to be invested with absolute authority over all the earth, and over all orders of created beings. There is not a doctrine concerning Christ, taught in the New Testament, which the Apostles do not affirm to have been revealed under former dispensations. They therefore distinctly assert that it was through Him and the efficacy of his death that men were saved before, as well as after his advent. The Apostle Paul says (Rom. 3.25), that Christ was set forth as a propitiation for the remission of sins committed before the present time, during the forbearance of God. And in Heb. 9.15, it is still more explicitly asserted that He died for the forgiveness of sin under the first covenant. He was, therefore, as said in Rev. 13.8, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. This is at least the common and most natural interpretation of that passage.

Such a revelation of the Messiah was undoubtedly made in the Old Testament as to turn the eyes of the whole Jewish nation in hope and faith. What the two disciples on the way to Emmaus said, ‘We trusted it had been He who should have redeemed Israel,’ reveals what was the general expectation and desire of the people. Paul repeatedly speaks of the Messiah as the hope of Israel. The promise of redemption through Christ, he declared to be the great object, of the people’s hope. When arraigned before the tribunals of the Jews, and before Agrippa, he uniformly de- dared that in preaching Christ and the resurrection, he had not departed from the religion of the fathers, but adhered to it, while his enemies had deserted it. ‘Now I stand, and am judged,’ he says, ‘ for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers.’ (Acts 26.6.) Again he said to the Jews in Rome, Acts 28.20, ‘For the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain.’ See, also, 23.6; 24.15 xxiii. In Acts 13.27, he says the rulers of the Jews rejected Christ because they knew not ‘the voices of the prophets which are read every Sabbath day,’ which they ‘fulfilled in condemning Him.’ In Him was ‘the promise which was made unto the fathers,’ he tells us (verses 32, 33), of which he says, ‘God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that He hath raised up (or brought into view) Jesus,’ the long-expected Savior. It is needless to dwell upon this point, because the doctrine of a personal Messiah who was to redeem the people of God, not only pervades the Old Testament, but is everywhere in the New Testament declared to be the great promise which is fulfilled in the advent and work of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Faith the Condition of Salvation from the Beginning

As the same promise was made to those who lived before the advent which is now made to us in the gospel, as the same Redeemer was revealed to them who is presented as the object of faith to us, it of necessity follows that the condition, or terms of salvation, was the same then as now. It was not mere faith or trust in God, or simply piety, which was required, but faith in the promised Redeemer, or faith in the promise of redemption through the Messiah.
This is plain not only from the considerations just mentioned, but also further, (1.) From the fact that the Apostle teaches that faith, not works, was before as well as after Christ the condition of salvation. This, in his Epistle to the Romans, he not only asserts, but proves. He argues that from the nature of the case the justification of sinners by works is a contradiction. If sinners, they are under condemnation for their works, and therefore cannot be justified by them. Moreover he proves that the Old Testament everywhere speaks of gratuitous forgiveness and acceptance of men with God; but if gratuitous, it cannot be meritorious. He further argues from the case of Abraham, who, according to the express declaration of the Scriptures, was justified by faith; and he quotes from the old prophets the great principle, true then as now, that the ‘just shall live by faith.’ (2.) In the second place, he proves that the faith intended was faith in a promise and not merely general piety or confidence toward God. Abraham, he says, ‘staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that what He had promised He was able also to perform.’ (Rom. iv. 20, 21.) (3.) The Apostle proves that the specific promise which was the object of the faith of the patriarch was the promise of redemption through Christ. That promise they were required to believe; and that the true people of God did believe. The mass of the people mistook the nature of the redemption promised; but even in their case it was the promise of redemption which was the object of their faith. Those taught by the Spirit knew that it was a redemption from the guilt and power of sin and from the consequent alienation from God. In Gal. iii. 14, the Apostle therefore says that the blessing promised to Abraham has come upon the Gentiles. That blessing, therefore, was that which through the gospel is now offered to all men.

Not only, therefore, from these explicit declarations that faith in the promised Redeemer was required from the beginning, but from the admitted fact that the Old Testament is full of the doctrine of redemption by the Messiah, it follows that those who received the religion of the Old Testament received that doctrine, and exercised faith in the promise of God concerning his Son. The Epistle to the Hebrews is designed in great part to show that the whole of the Old dispensation was an adumbration of the New, and that it loses all its value and import if its reference to Christ be ignored. To deny, therefore, that the faith of the Old Testament saints was a faith in the Messiah and his redemption, is to deny that they had any knowledge of the import of the revelations and promises of which they were the recipients.

Paul, in Rom. 3.21, says that the method of salvation revealed in the gospel had been already revealed in the law and the prophets; and his definite object, in Gal. 3.13-28, is to prove that the covenant under which we live and according to the terms of which we are to be saved, is the identical covenant made with Abraham, in which the promise of redemption was made on the condition of faith in Him in whom all the nations of the earth were to be blessed. This is a covenant anterior to the Mosaic law, and which that law could not set aside or invalidate.

The covenant of grace, or plan of salvation, being the same in all its elements from the beginning, it follows, first, in opposition to the Anabaptists, that the people of God before Christ constituted a Church, and that the Church has been one and the same under all dispensations. It has always had the same promise, the same Redeemer, and the same condition of membership, namely, faith in the Son of God as the Savior of the world.

It follows from the same premises, in opposition to the Romanists, that the salvation of the people of God who died before the coming of Christ, was complete. They were truly pardoned, sanctified, and, at death, admitted to that state into which those dying in the Christian faith are now received. This is confirmed by what our Lord and the Apostles teach. The salvation promised us is that on which the Old Testament saints have already entered. The Gentile believers are to sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The bosom of Abraham was the place of rest for all the faithful. All that Paul claims for believers under the gospel is, that they are the sons of Abraham, and partakers of his inheritance. If this is so, then the whole ritual theory which assumes that grace and salvation are communicated only through Christian sacraments must be false.

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