Covenant & Sovereignty

 

Herman Hanko

 


 

Anyone who is acquainted with the history of the development of doctrine since the time of the Protestant Reformation will understand the importance of the truth of God's everlasting covenant of grace. As the truths of the Calvin Reformation developed both in England and on the continent, the doctrine of the covenant occupied an extremely important place. Almost every theologian of note paid attention to it.

Yet there is one remarkable feature about the development of this doctrine: almost never were theologians who paid attention to it able to bring this truth into harmony with the truths of sovereign grace in general and with the truth of sovereign predestination in particular. Look where you will among Presbyterian and Reformed theologians, and you will find tension between these two great truths of God's Word. If the truths of sovereign grace and double predestination were emphasized (and there were many who did this) the truth of the covenant was pushed into a relatively small corner of their theology. If, on the other hand, the central emphasis of a theologian lay on the doctrine of the covenant (such as, e.g. , Cocceius), the truths of sovereign grace and double predestination received, at best, short shrift.

Why was this? We arc convinced that the answer to this question lies in the fact that almost without exception the doctrine of the covenant was, in the main, defined in terms of an agreement between God and man. The essence of the covenant was defined in terms of such an agreement, and both the establishment of the covenant and its continuation were dependent upon the mutual stipulations, conditions, provisions, and promises which are inherent in an agreement. Here lay the problem. A covenant which is an agreement is a covenant which is conditional. And a covenant which is conditional depends for its realization upon man. When in any sense the work of salvation depends upon man, the truths of sovereign grace suffer accordingly.

This is not to say that every theologian taught a salvation which depended upon man. This is far from the truth. Both in English and continental theology there were many who defended vigorously and consistently the truths of sovereign grace, But when such was the case either the covenant of grace was not integrated into the whole system of theology set forth by these men, or a kind of "happy inconsistency" led theologians to hold to both. The fact is that a conditional covenant and sovereign grace cannot be harmonized...

 

...But another problem has intruded into any discussion of the covenant. I refer to the fact that much of the work done in theology in our day is man-centered. Theology begins with man and ends with man. It is concerned with man's well-being and man's happiness. Man stands at the center of all the church's thinking, and man becomes the chief object of consideration.

While it is certainly true that the Scriptures deal with men, it is also true that men are not the Scriptures' chief concern. Emphasis on man is really a form of religious humanism, and such humanism, with all its grave evils, has become the object of theological reflection. This is a sad and dangerous error. Man is not the chief concern of the Scriptures at all. Nor ought it to be ours. The emphasis of the church on man is not the emphasis of the Bible. The Scriptures have to do with God. The Scriptures start with God and end with God. All of the Scriptures are the revelation of God and have their chief concern in God and His glory. God is foremost and supreme. Whatever happens to man, or what is said of man is of secondary importance. God is first and last. All things begin with Him and end in Him. God is central and transcendently important in any discussion of the truth. We deny this fundamental emphasis or ignore its truth at our own peril.

How often does not the apostle Paul break forth into a mighty and soul-stirring doxology of praise as he contemplates the truth revealed to him - a doxology of praise to God Who alone is worthy of all praise and glory? After discussing, e.g. , the great truths of election and reprobation, especially as they apply to the salvation of Jews and Gentiles in Romans 9-11, he concludes it all by saying: "0 the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God; how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counselor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things; to whom be glory for ever. Amen" (vss. 33-36)

And what was true of Paul was true of all the other authors of the Scriptures. David, in the Psalms, seems as if he cannot speak often enough and long enough about the great glory of God. Taken up in the ecstasy of God's greatness, he calls upon the heavens and the earth, the sea and the stars, and all this vast creation to join him in a song of praise to Him Who is great and greatly to be praised. The book of Revelation heaps doxology upon doxology and anthem upon anthem of praise and glory to Him Who alone is worthy of the honor of all the universe. Indeed, the whole of the Scriptures can rightly be called one beautifully glorious hymn of praise to God alone.

This must be uppermost in our hearts and minds when we attempt to solve any of the problems that confront us or attempt to determine the truth of God's Word. There is perhaps nothing quite so difficult for sinful man than to lose sight of himself and see only the glory of God. But such is nevertheless essential. And this is pre-eminently true of the doctrine of the covenant of grace.

And so in our discussion of the truth of the covenant, we must begin with God and end with God. If we do this, as the Scriptures do, it will give to us an entirely different perspective on this truth, and will enable us to see our way clear through the tangle of problems which the controversy over the covenant has generated through the years. It will lead us to the Scriptures so that our discussion may he based on the Scriptures and on the Scriptures alone. And such a study will show us that the truth of the covenant pervades the whole of the Scriptures. It is not an exaggeration to say that not only does the covenant of grace run like a golden thread through the whole of the Scriptures, but that it is in fact the Scriptures' dominant theme. And if this truth is the Scriptures' dominant theme, it is also the fundamental truth of all theology. There have been theologians in the past who have developed theology from the viewpoint of the covenant. We need only mention such men as Cocecius and Witsius. This approach, we believe, is correct and Biblical. And this we shall attempt to show.

In order to do this we shall treat the truth of the covenant, not topically, but historically. While it is beyond the scope of this book to deal with the whole of the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, and treat every passage presented to us, we shall nevertheless follow the broad lines of the historical development of the covenant in the Old Testament to show how the idea of the covenant was revealed by God to His people in that dispensation, and then relate it to the new to show how it all was fulfilled in Christ. We believe that this historical approach will help to make the truth of God's covenant clear.

We believe that this historical approach, along with an emphasis on the centrality of God and His glory, will bring the great truths of sovereign grace and God's everlasting covenant into perfect Biblical harmony.


God's Everlasting Covenant of Grace. Herman Hanko. Reformed Free Publishing Association. Box 2006, Grand Rapids, Mi 49501. 1988. Pages 1-5.