Redemptive history is the history of how God has redeemed man. There are two ways to understand this history. You can swallow it whole, slurping it like an exceptionally long piece of spaghetti; or you can take it as a multi-course meal, eating one thing at a time, washing the balsamic dressing on the Genesis 3 salad down with a glass of water so it doesn’t affect the way you taste your Revelation 22 desert too much.
Put it another way, some people listen to their albums on shuffle and some prefer to listen to the tracks in an album sequentially so that each song can be understood in light of the previous song. Admittedly, this is a tougher analogy because not a lot of artists put time into structuring the tracks within an album anymore—but some still do. Our question today is about what kind of an artist God is. The theological term for this idea is “continuity.”
I don’t know of any Christians who deny that there is any continuity to redemptive history. Even the ultra-dispensationalist who uses index tabs to divide his Bible up into exactly seven parts, thinks the Left Behind series should have been written as seven separate novels, and eats his breakfast as seven unrelated bowls of cereal—even that sort of fellow acknowledges that Christ’s coming was promised in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New. Our question, then, is not about whether God’s dealings with man are related one to another, but rather about the degree to which their related.
For various reasons, dispensationalists argue for there being very little continuity within redemptive history. They divide Scripture into seven parts that are only very loosely related. Progressive dispensationalists see more continuity between these seven parts, but still understand things to be quite divided. Reformed Baptists tend to see even more continuity in redemptive history, but still believe in a vast difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Reformed Presbyterianism is the view I’ll be presenting here (synonymous with the Westminster Standards); while reformed presbyterians see a a difference between the Old and New Covenants, it’s a far smaller difference than any of the other aforementioned groups would see. They’re about as far into the spaghetti end of the food metaphor as an orthodox Christian can be.
Reformed theology understands all of God’s dealings with man after the fall to be dealings made according to something called the covenant of grace. Under the covenant of creation, perfect obedience to all of God’s commands that proceeded from a heart of faith was required. The cursing for disobedience was death. God the Father sent Jesus Christ the Son to take the punishment that Adam had earned; this is how God entered a second covenant with man: a covenant of grace. This one gracious covenant is the string of spaghetti that runs all throughout redemptive history, the theme or principle that governs all tracks on the album of God’s dealings with man.
Defining the Covenant
Before we start, I need to clarify something that might be a little confusing to anyone who has heard only a little about covenant theology. Another term for the covenant of nature that I talked about in last week’s post is “Covenant of Works.” The idea of a covenant of works and a covenant of grace being contrasted against one another leads many to understand that the covenant of works was the Old Covenant and the covenant of grace is the New Covenant.
This, however, is not what is meant by confessionally reformed people at all when they talk about the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The covenant of works is the covenant made with Adam that condemns all men apart from Christ even today. It has virtually nothing to do with the Law that was given to Moses.
Meanwhile, the covenant of grace runs throughout all of redemptive history, beginning with God’s promise to Adam and ending with the New Covenant. By this definition, the Old and New Covenants are different administrations of the one covenant of grace.
Keeping with our metaphor, the covenant of works is a single track album. It was made by Adam and God; it contains one track as long as human history, condemning all mankind along the way. The covenant of grace is an album of many tracks. Track one is about God’s promise to Adam. There’s another track about God’s promise to Noah, another about the Old Covenant and the Law given to Moses, and the grand finale is the New Covenant and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I want to spend the next couple of posts tracing this covenant of grace through history, but first we should get an idea of what it is we’ll be tracing. Covenants deal in stipulations with resulting blessings or cursings for faithfulness or faithlessness. The first covenant offered life to Adam his offspring on the condition of continued perfect obedience. What about the covenant of grace? The Westminster Confession of Faith provides a succinct definition:
This definition is very broad, but it gives us a good place to start. The blessing is life and salvation by Jesus Christ. The condition for these blessings is faith. God is not looking for people to merit salvation by faith, rather He is expecting them to come to Christ by faith to receive these blessings as grace. Moreover, the Lord promises to give unto all the elect His Holy Spirit to make them willing and able to believe.
God recognized that we could not recover from Adam’s fall and so He extends to us a covenant of grace with blessings promised therein which are appropriated by faith. This is a wonderful thing for us, it comes as music to our ears—far more pleasant than the sound of the one-track covenant of works album that could play nothing but chords of condemnation.
In the album of the covenant of grace, we are presented with the music of salvation in several tracks set to diverse tunes with salvation by grace through faith running as the controlling theme through all of them. We’ll take a look at the first few tracks in the next post.