Jonathan Edwards On “Covenant” (pt. 1)

from Nov 24, 2008 Category: Articles

When the term “covenant” is used, the general educated reader needs to be told its religious meaning. The general reader, somewhat literate on matters religious and Christian, will likely think of the “covenant of grace”, which he will likely associate generally with Protestantism, and he may know it is especially associated with Calvinism and Puritanism.

The more specialized religious reader may know that though the “covenant of grace” is central, there are a number of other covenants in that system: covenants of redemption, works, and church and state. Jonathan Edwards was concerned with all of these, especially the covenants of redemption and of grace.

After an examination of Calvinism and covenants generally, I will briefly discuss the doctrine of the covenants as found in Edwards theology: the covenants of redemption, works, and grace, the covenant and children, the Half-way Covenant and the state covenant

1. Calvinism and the Covenants
In his Dissertation concerning the End for which God Created the World, Edwards goes back behind even the covenant of redemption, the ultimate covenant. “[T]o speak more strictly according to truth,” he writes,

we may suppose that a disposition in God, as an original property of his nature, to an emanation of his own infinite fulness, was what excited him to create the world; and so that the emanation itself was aimed at by him as a last end of the creation.

This very desire is what necessitated the redemption of sinners following man’s creation and fall into sin, and to that end the covenant of redemption was made. The fall made man desperately needy of it, and the mercy involved revealed God in His greatest glory to man. God and His Son in this covenant bound themselves to save a multitude of fallen mankind, and by the subsequent covenant of grace the Godhead bound itself to save the elect by Christ’s provision of salvation and their Christ-enabled faith to accept it.

Before I examine these covenants, we must face the fact that many modern scholars reject the very concept of covenant (God’s binding Himself) as alien to the predestinarianism of Calvinism and of Augustinianism. With Augustine it was not his covenantism but his ex opera operato doctrine of the sacraments that seemed to some to preclude his strong predestinarian doctrine. But just as obviously as God could, if He chose, use ex opera operato sacraments in carrying out His foreordained will, it seems obvious that God could, if He chose, use covenants.

Bronkema is one of the early modern opponents of Puritan covenantism claiming its activism to be incompatible with Calvinism. Perry Miller did not originate this notion, though he has gained greatest prominence exploiting it. In fact, the continental Calvinists have always been uncomfortable with the activism of the English Puritan Reformed theology. De Jong goes so far as to see Edwards, the Puritan, as having “no eye for organic relations” and makes a mysterious allusion to Edwards’ having “lost sight of the use which God made of His own ordinances.”

Perry Miller is the most prominent opponent of the covenant’s compatibility with Calvinism and especially with Jonathan Edwards. However, by 1956 after putting down those who “published the happy tidings, in my name, that the Puritans were not and never had been Calvinists,” he acknowledged that the Puritan way of interpreting the Bible must be called Calvinist.” Nevertheless, he concluded his “revision” with “What I meant to say, and miserably spoiled in saying, is only that Edwards brushed aside the (by his day) rusty mechanism of the covenant to forge a fresh statement of the central Protestant definition of man’s plight in the universe which God created.” This shows that Millers repentance needed repenting of. This “rusty mechanism of the covenant” was oiled, greased and made to swing Edwards’ whole theology. Millers essay on Solomon Stoddard was a further descent ad infernos so far as this point is concerned.

Miller, in fact, traced opposition to the covenant of grace all the way back to John Calvin, whose transcendent doctrine supposedly could never descend to anything as demeaning as covenant thought. Miller venturing into terra incognito stood the map on its head. Calvin was infinitely above covenant; the Puritans, though Calvinists after a fashion, condescended to men of low estate. They needed some sort of contract, from which mediocrity Edwards, reacting, joined Calvin in the heavenlies (a beautiful intellectual picture lacking nothing except correspondence with reality). In fact, Calvin had the doctrine in germ which was brought to precision by the Puritans and made the centerpiece in Edwards.

Following closely in the steps of Miller, R.C. Whittemores “Jonathan Edwards” has a God free of covenant obligations simply because Edwards fails to mention them. The fact that the text of “God Glorified” concentrates on the different roles of the three divine persons in human redemption seems to escape Whittemore’s notice. All redemption is by a divine agreement, and in this the redeemed can boast.”

While Edwards saw some grace in the covenant of works, many scholars cannot even see that there is any grace in the covenant of grace. Though Edwards saw grace in the covenant with the First Adam, some cannot see Edwards finding any grace in the covenant with the Second Adam.

So sure is Whittemore that he insists, “[w]hat Edwards was saying is that if man is utterly dependent on a sovereign God there can be no covenant because man by his fall has forfeited all rights, including that of obligating God.” It is true that Edwards certainly insisted that man of himself cannot obligate God, but the covenant of grace has God obligating God. Whittemore cites this 1731 sermon God Glorified as making “no mention of assurance of mercy through the covenant of grace.” Oddly enough that idea runs all through that sermon.

At the very outset, Edwards summarizes his whole sermon in what amounts to the covenant of redemption in everything except the title:

Thirdly, It is of him that we are in Christ Jesus, and come to have an interest in him, and so do receive those blessings which he is made unto us. It is God that gives us faith whereby we close with Christ.

So that in this verse is shown our dependence on each person in the Trinity for all our good. We are dependent on Christ the Son of God, as he is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. We are dependent on the Father, who has given us Christ, and made him to be these things to us. We are dependent on the Holy Ghost, for it is of him that we are in Christ Jesus; it is the Spirit of God that gives faith in him, whereby we receive him, and close with him.

Later Edwards says, “we are dependent on the goodness of God for more now than under the first covenant… .” The “first covenant” is a reference to the covenant of works, and every minister knew that the “second” covenant implied was the covenant of grace. Just as Edwards did not need to say covenant of works, he did not need to tell Puritans that the “second” was the covenant of grace.

Again, “God is the Redeemer and the price; and he also is the good purchased. So that all that we have is of God, and through him, and in him.” All redemptive blessings are of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How could that have been but by agreement or covenant (as Edwards always taught explicitly and implicitly). It may be mentioned in passing that Edwards uses the term “Trinity” only three times though talking about the Trinity in almost every paragraph. No one would have missed his profound Trinitarianism. Again, “all is of the Father, all through the Son, and all in the Holy Ghost” is nothing other than the covenant of redemption in its simplest terms. Any impairment of this as a “not so entire a dependence on the Holy Ghost for conversion, and a being in Christ, and so coming to a title to his benefits” is reprehensible as a partial denial of the covenant of redemption.

His conclusion is that this means that God contrived to glorify himself. What is that “contrivance” but an agreement among the persons of the Godhead?

The application or “use” of this definitive sermon is a grand summary of the entire ministry of Jonathan Edwards, showing his rock bottom Calvinism as he glorifies the work of Father, Son and especially Holy Ghost and reduces the sinner to moral zero which is the very meaning of the covenant of redemption applied to the elect as the covenant of grace. I quote in full:

1. We may here observe the marvellous wisdom of God, in the work of redemption. God hath made man’s emptiness and misery, his low, lost, and ruined state, into which he sunk by the fall, an occasion of the greater advancement of his own glory, as in other ways, so particularly in this, that there is now much more universal and apparent dependence of man on God. Though God be pleased to lift man out of that dismal abyss of sin and woe in to which he was fallen, and exceedingly to exalt him in excellency and honour, and to a high pitch of glory and blessedness, yet the creature hath nothing in any respect to glory of; all the glory evidently belongs to God, all is a mere, and most absolute, and divine dependence on the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And each person of the Trinity is equally glorified in this work: there is an absolute dependence of the creature on every one for all: all is of the Father, all through the Son, and all in the Holy Ghost. Thus God appears in the work of redemption as all in all. It is fit that he who is, and there is none else, should be the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the all and the only, in this work.

2. Hence those doctrines and schemes of divinity that are in any respect opposite to such an absolute and universal dependence on God, derogate from his glory, and thwart the design of our redemption. And such are those schemes that put the creature in God’s stead, in any of the mentioned respects, that exalt man into the place of either Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, in any thing pertaining to our redemption. However they may allow of a dependence of the redeemed on God, yet they deny a dependence that is so absolute and universal. They own an entire dependence on God for some things, but not for others; they own that we depend on God for the gift and acceptance of a Redeemer, but deny so absolute a dependence on him for the obtaining of an interest in the Redeemer. They own an absolute dependence on the Father for giving his Son, and on the Son for working out redemption, but not so entire a dependence on the Holy Ghost for conversion, and a being in Christ, and so coming to a title to his benefits. They own a dependence on God for means of grace, but not absolutely for the benefit and success of those means; a partial dependence on the power of God, for obtaining and exercising holiness, but not a mere dependence on the arbitrary and sovereign grace of God. They own a dependence on the free grace of God for a reception into his favour, so far that it is without any proper merit, but not as it is without being attracted, or moved with any excellency. They own a partial dependence on Christ, as he through whom we have life, as having purchased new terms of life, but still hold that the righteousness through which we have life is inherent in ourselves, as it was under the first covenant. Now whatever scheme is inconsistent with our entire dependence on God for all, and of having all of him, through him, and in him, it is repugnant to the design and tenor of the gospel, and robs it of that which God accounts its lustre and glory.

3. Hence we may learn a reason why faith is that by which we come to have an interest in this redemption; for there is included in the nature of faith, a sensible acknowledgment of absolute dependence on God in this affair. It is very fit that it should be required of all, in order to their having the benefit of this redemption, that they should be sensible of, and acknowledge, their dependence on God for it. It is by this means that God hath contrived to glorify himself in redemption; and it is fit that he should at least have this glory of those that are the subjects of this redemption, and have the benefit of it. — Faith is a sensibleness of what is real in the work of redemption; and the soul that believes doth entirely depend on God for all salvation, in its own sense and act. Faith abases men, and exalts God; it gives all the glory of redemption to him alone. It is necessary in order to saving faith, that man should be emptied of himself, be sensible that he is “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” Humility is a great ingredient of true faith: he that truly receives redemption, receives it as a little child, Mark 10:15. “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of heaven as a little child, he shall not enter therein.” It is the delight of a believing soul to abase itself and exalt God alone: that is the language of it, Psalm 115:1. “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to thy name give glory.”

4. Let us be exhorted to exalt God alone, and ascribe to him all the glory of redemption. Let us endeavour to obtain, and increase in, a sensibleness of our great dependence on God, to have our eye to him alone, to mortify a self-dependent and self-righteous disposition. Man is naturally exceeding prone to exalt himself, and depend on his own power or goodness; as though from himself he must expect happiness. He is prone to have respect to enjoyments aliene from God and his Spirit, as those in which happiness is to be found. — But this doctrine should teach us to exalt God alone; as by trust and reliance, so by praise. Let him that glorieth, glory in the Lord. Hath any man hope that he is converted, and sanctified, and that his mind is endowed with true excellency and spiritual beauty? that his sins are forgiven, and he received into God’s favour, and exalted to the honour and blessedness of being his child, and an heir of eternal life? let him give God all the glory; who alone makes him to differ from the worst of men in this world, or the most miserable of the damned in hell. Hath any man much comfort and strong hope of eternal life, let not his hope lift him up, but dispose him the more to abase himself, to reflect on his own exceeding unworthiness of such a favour, and to exalt God alone. Is any man eminent in holiness, and abundant in good works, let him take nothing of the glory of it to himself, but ascribe it to him whose “workmanship we are, created in Christ Jesus unto good works.”

This excerpt is taken from The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, by John Gerstner. HT: A Puritan’s Mind