Mar 18, 2012

Jonathan Edwards on the Covenant of Grace

21 Min Read

The student of John H. Gerstner is never adequately designated as a “former student.” Many of us have been instructed and inspired in the classroom and since by this servant of God. It was he who first directed my attention to the stature of Jonathan Edwards as a giant among theologians in general and Reformed theologians in particular. I was not disappointed. The privilege to contribute this essay in honor of Dr. Gerstner reflects, by the very nature of the case, the far greater honor on myself. That the exact opposite is my desire I can only ask the reader to accept as my deepest intention.

The covenant of grace, as a way of describing the saints’ relation to God, is a doctrinal feature that has been present in differing degrees of elaboration throughout the history of Reformed theology. In this article we will affirm Edwards’ rightful place among Reformed theologians and his acceptance of the scriptural correlation between divine sovereignty and human responsibility represented by that tradition. We will see that Edwards not only maintained the doctrine of the covenant of grace, but did so within the framework of distinctive Reformed or Calvinistic doctrines. One must be alerted to the fact that Edwards distinguished three covenants (grace, redemption, and works), though in one sense he treated them as three aspects of one covenant. The covenant of grace between Christ and the believer, while a distinct covenantal relation, is an historical manifestation of the covenant of redemption (trinitarian). And since in the covenant of redemption Christ is fulfilling the condition of righteousness, there is a sense in which the covenants of grace and redemption are but aspects of the covenant of works. This relationship among the covenants, however, in no way invalidates for Edwards the distinctive doctrine of the covenant of grace. Jonathan Edwards, with all his intellect, creativity, originality, and historical environment, is clearly what we understand by the designation “Calvinist.” He shared with the Reformed and Calvinistic tradition in which he stood the strong emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God. An irresponsible error too frequently promulgated in discussions on the covenant of grace is that such an emphasis precludes human responsibility. Jonathan Edwards was sensitive to the pulse of Scripture which honors the human activity no less than the divine sovereignty. He saw, as his Calvinistic forefathers saw, that the covenant was a biblical idea capable of expressing the correlation between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The unfortunate plight of discussions around Edwards on the covenant of grace is the frequency with which false presuppositions concerning such a correlation preclude a fair hearing of Edwards himself.1

While a complete evaluation of Edwards’ position necessitates dealing with the rightness or wrongness of such presuppositions, we must limit this article to outlining Edwards’ explicit teaching on the covenant of grace. It is significant that Edwards, as a Calvinist, wrote and preached about the covenant of grace most frequently in the context of distinctly Reformed doctrines. When Edwards preached a series of sermons on Romans 4:5, they not only sparked a revival but exhibited Calvinism’s (Scripture’s) attack on Arminianism as clearly and purely as any author has. Subsequently published in expanded form, this discourse concludes with a treatment of the importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and Edwards states: “It is in this doctrine that the most essential difference lies between the covenant of grace and the first covenant.”2 This pattern prevails throughout the writings of Edwards. Whenever he speaks of the covenant of grace, it is never as an appendage to his Calvinism; the covenant of grace is always integrally related to the great doctrines of Reformed theology.

Edwards’ doctrine of the covenant of grace cannot be understood apart from his view of the covenant of redemption. According to Edwards the covenants of redemption and grace are essentially one, yet distinguished. In a manuscript sermon on Hebrews 9: 15-16, Edwards writes that the covenant of grace as Christ’s last will and testament “is a twofold covenant of God relating to the salvation of men by Christ that ought not be confounded but carefully distinguished.”3 The one is a “covenant that God the Father makes with Christ . . . wherein believers are looked upon as in Christ”; the other is “the covenant that is between Christ and believers themselves.”4 In his sermon on Hebrews 13: 8 Edwards refers to the one as “the covenant of redemption, or the eternal covenant,” and the other he identifies as “the covenant of grace.”5

The covenant of redemption, with qualifications, contains the covenant of grace within its boundaries.6 Regarding covenant in the broader sense, as the eternal covenant of redemption, Edwards states: “The excellency of this covenant and the great desirableness of an interest in its blessings is set forth here by two things: 1. that it is an everlasting covenant, 2. that the mercies promised in it are sure.”7 The comfort of the covenant of grace is anchored in this covenant of redemption. In this same sermon on Isaiah 55:3 Edwards contrasts the covenant of redemption, or “everlasting covenant,” with “the covenant that God made with Adam,” and the excellency of the covenant of redemption is that it is “made with . . . an eternal person . . . from eternity . . . to eternity.”8 Furthermore, “the surety that is intrusted with the fulfillment of this covenant is everlasting and unchangeable in his fidelity.9 The certainty stems from the fact that God established the covenant involving “each of the persons of the Trinity,” that it was engaged “by promise and oath,” and involves among other things “seals” and “pledges” of fulfillment.10

The certainty of the covenant of redemption is relevant to the believer because the believer in one sense participates in that covenant. “There is a covenant that God the Father makes with Christ . . . wherein believers are looked upon as in Christ.”11 Christ and believers “are considered together as one mystical person,” and this mystical person (Christ and believers) is the “one party in the covenant” to whom promises are made, and “God the Father” is “the other party.”12 Christ and His church are together one party in the covenant.

As far as sinners are concerned, the covenant of redemption is the eternal basis for the covenant of grace. For Christ, however, the covenant of redemption is a covenant of works rather than a covenant of grace. Righteousness and justice are no less eternal attributes of God than His love and mercy. In one of the earlier “Miscellanies” Edwards makes it very clear that eternal life is merited, though not by man.

. . . if we speak of the covenant God has made with man stating the condition of eternal life, God never made but one with man, to wit, the covenant of works; which never yet was abrogated. . . . The covenant of grace is not another covenant made with man . . . but a covenant made with Christ to fulfill it.13

The covenant of grace for sinners is but the covenant of works fulfilled by Christ as the covenant head, meriting eternal life for those united to His mystical body.

The concept of covenantal obligations by means of covenant heads is brought out in a manuscript sermon on Psalm 111:5. Edwards mentions two kinds of covenant engagements: “1. Those that he enters into with the covenant head . . . wherein promises are made to man indirectly in their representatives, or 2. those that he enters into with men. . . .”14 Of the first sort Edwards cites two examples: “That which was made with the first Adam” and “that which was made with the second Adam” (the covenant of redemption).15 According to Edwards “they are both covenants of works” and are both related to the “eternal rule of righteousness.”16

In his “Miscellanies” notebook Edwards provides a good summary of the notion that the covenant of grace is not a “new” covenant in contrast to the covenant of works made with Adam:

The covenant of grace or redemption (which we have shewed to be the same) cannot be called a new covenant, or the second covenant, with respect to the covenant of works; for that is not grown old yet, but is an eternal immutable covenant, of which one jot nor tittle will never fail. There have never been two covenants, in strictness of speech, but only two ways constituted of performing of this covenant: the first constituting Adam the representative and federal head, and the second constituting Christ the federal head; the one a dead way, the other a living way and an everlasting one.17

The relation of believers to Christ as their covenant head is seen in an important “Miscellanies” entry on “Covenant of Redemption and Grace.”

The promises that God in the covenant of redemption made to his son . . . were properly made to Christ’s mystical (body) for they were made to Christ as a publick person. . . . The promises are in effect not only made to Christ but his members, for they were made to the whole mystical Christ and tho the whole of Christ’s mystical (body) was not yet in being, only the head of the body as yet is in being, and the members only existing in God’s decree, and as in the process of time the members one after another come into being and then the same promises that were virtually made to ‘em before are expressly revealed to ‘em and directed to ‘em. Yet this does not make the promises as revealed and directly made to the members a different covenant from the promises that were before made to the Head that existed before ‘em and stood for ‘em. . . .

If God the Father before the foundation of the world makes a covenant with his Son concerning him and his future spouse and gives promises to both considered as those that are to be one, and afterwards when his spouse is obtained and he is united to her he brings this covenant and these promises in his hand, and delivers it to her as a covenant made with them jointly, this doesn’t make it now to become another covenant any more than if Christ’s spouse had actually been with Christ when the covenant was first made and both had appeared in actual union before the Father in that transaction.

So that altho undoubtedly besides the marriage covenant between Christ and his church there is a covenant that God the Father makes with believers of which Jesus Christ is the Mediatour; yet this covenant is in no wise properly a distinct covenant from the covenant God makes with Christ himself as the believers’ head and surety and that he made with him before the world was. God the Father makes no covenant and enters into no treaty with fallen man distinctly by themselves; he will transact with them in such a friendly way no other way than by and in Christ Jesus as members and as it were parts of him.18

The distinctive feature of the covenant of grace is in its historical manifestation of the eternal covenant of redemption. It is not new in a substantive way.

It is particularly in the “Miscellanies” that Edwards relates the two covenants which “are by no means to be confounded,” yet are essentially one covenant. In one instance where he is simply identifying the two covenants he calls one “the covenant of God the Father with the Son and with all the elect in him” and the other a “marriage covenant between Christ and the soul, the covenant of union . . . whereby the soul becomes united to Christ.”19 These are indeed distinct relations: God the Father and Christ; Christ and believers.

May we then speak of a covenant of grace between God the Father and men? This by-passes the distinction just made, and Edwards says if that is what we understand by the covenant of grace, it “is no other than a revelation of part of the covenant of redemption to men, even that part of (it) that contains promises of blessings to men . . . as in Christ.”20 Here too he calls the covenant between Christ and believers a “marriage covenant,” but “the covenant between God the Father and believers is in some respect the same with the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son.”21 In another “Miscellanies” entry Edwards mentions the frequency in Scripture where God speaks of making a covenant with his people and compares it to “the covenant between husband and wife.” According to Edwards this covenant is “the covenant between Christ and his people,”22 which has already been identified as the covenant of grace.

Edwards is clearly as concerned to keep the twofold covenant distinguished as he is to insist upon its essential unity. While Edwards declares that the promises of both covenants are “conditional,” he points out their conditions differ: the condition of the covenant of redemption is Christ’s redemptive work, and the condition of the covenant of grace is that man “should close with” Christ and “adhere” to Him (i.e., faith).23 A Calvinist is immediately aware of the dangers of speaking of a conditional covenant within a framework of unconditional election.

Edwards himself was critical of calling faith the condition of salvation;24 yet all things considered he opted for such a designation.25 “All the promises of each of these covenants are conditional,” and, according to Edwards, “to suppose that there are any promises of the covenant of grace, or any covenant promises that are not conditional promises seems an absurdity and contradiction.” 26 The conditions are clearly different, however.

The condition of the covenant that God has made with Jesus Christ as a publick person is all that Christ has done and suffered to procure redemption. The condition of Christ’s covenant with his people or of the marriage covenant between him and men is that they should close with him and adhere to him.27

The contrast is between “doing,” with its suggestions of working, earning, or meriting, and “closing” with Christ, implying receiving, accepting, or in biblical terms, faith. In a sermon on Hebrews 9: 15-16 Edwards says the condition of the covenant of redemption “is all that Christ has done and suffered” for our redemption and “is wholly performed by Christ,” but the condition of the covenant of grace “between Christ and his people . . . is to be performed by believers and is faith in Jesus Christ.”28 Edwards was convinced that “condition” could be used in a non-meritorious way, and no one more vigorously opposed making faith a meritorious work.

There are also different promises contained in the covenants of redemption and grace which correspond to the different conditions.

The sum of what is promised by the Father in the former of these covenants is Christ’s reward for what he has done in the work of redemption ... and the sum of what is promised in Christ’s marriage covenant with his people is the enjoyment of himself and communion with him in the benefits he himself has obtain’d of the Father by what he has done and suffered. . . . Hence it appears that many of the things promised in both these covenants are the same, but in some things different so that those things that are promises in one of these covenants are conditions in another. Thus regeneration and closing with Christ is one of the promises of the covenant of the Father with his people. So on the other hand the incarnation, death and sufferings of Christ are but promises in Christ’s covenant with his people, but they are the conditions of the covenant of the Father with his Son.29

On the one hand the covenants are closely related; on the other they are “entirely different and not at all to be confounded.”

The significance of the marriage covenant is that the persons covenanting give themselves and all that they possess to each other. This union between Christ and His bride has tremendous soteriological implications. Edwards writes:

. . . Indeed we may say that the sum of all that Christ promises in his covenant with his people is that he will give himself to them. In marriage the persons covenanting, giving themselves to each other, do give what they had to each. The union which they mutually consent to infers . . . communion. This promise of the covenant of Christ with his people, implies eternal life of both soul and body. The happiness of eternal life . . . consists in the enjoyment of Christ, and in . . . communion with him or partaking with him in the happiness and glory of his reward who is rewarded with the eternal life and glory of both soul and body. It includes sanctification and perseverance, these are included in the enjoyment of Christ and communion with Christ. It includes justification. This also is a part of the believers’ communion with Christ for they in their justification are but partaker(s) of Christ’s justification, they are pardoned and justified in Christ’s acquittance and justification as mediatour. The promises of the incarnation of Christ and of his obedience and sacrifice were included in the covenant between Christ and believers before these things were actually accomplished. These were included in Christ’s promise of giving himself to believers. If he gives himself to believers as is promised in this marriage covenant, then he must represent them. If Christ gives himself to sinners, of course justice done to the sinners takes hold on him, and all the sinners’ obligations lie upon Christ. These things necessarily follow from Christ’s making himself one with them as he doth in his marriage covenant.30

The crucial implications for Christ are seen in the latter part of this quote. If the righteousness of Christ with its merited blessings belongs to believers by means of this covenant, it is also true that the believers’ sin with its merited punishment belongs to Christ. That is the way Christ took our sins upon Himself. The sinner’s debt became Christ’s debt in their marriage, and the cross was where Christ paid off the debt in full.

Had there been no covenant of redemption, there would be no covenant of grace. The new covenant which God makes with men is an everlasting covenant, whose efficacy is anchored in the eternal covenant between the persons of the Trinity. We rightly say salvation is by faith alone, and faith is the entry into the covenant of grace: But it is the covenant of redemption that provides the faith and its application by the Holy Spirit, as well as the surety for the performance of all the promises of God relating to salvation.

One of the factors that qualifies the covenant of grace as not eternal in an absolute sense is that man is a participant in that covenant. The temporal aspect of the covenant of grace necessitates its completion in time. Edwards states that the “offer of the gospel is not properly called a covenant till it is consented to,” even as an offer of marriage is only an offer and not the covenant of marriage itself.31 In another “Miscellanies” entry he writes:

This covenant before marriage is only an offer or invitation. Behold I stand at the door &c. – in marriage or in the soul’s conversion it becomes a proper covenant. This is what is called the covenant of grace in distinction from the covenant of redemption.32

It is this aspect of “becoming” a covenant which in part distinguishes the covenant of grace from the covenant of redemption.

The covenant between the Father and the Son concerns the Son’s “future spouse,” who obtains the covenant promises only after she is united with Him. It is the same covenant, however, between God the Father and Christ with His bride, whether viewed from eternity before the bride has actually been united in the marriage covenant with Christ or after that union. When it is remembered that Edwards, as well as other covenant theologians, referred to believers united to Christ by faith as promises given to the Son in the eternal covenant of redemption, it becomes clear that the Son’s “future spouse” will infallibly exist and that the promises made to her in Christ are from the divine perspective made as though the union were already actual.

The hope for sinners is founded in the relationship between the two covenants. In a manuscript sermon of II Samuel 23:5 Edwards states: “The covenant of grace is every way so ordered as is needful in order to its being made firm and sure.”33 The basis of this, according to Edwards, is the eternal covenant of redemption. Without the covenant of redemption there would be no covenant of grace. Whether the covenant of grace is “firm and sure” is an irrelevant question if there is no covenant of redemption. It is equally true that the covenant of redemption without the covenant of grace would be a charlatanic doctrine as far as man’s hope of salvation is concerned. It would be a plan to accomplish redemption without a plan to apply that redemption. Consequently, the fact of the covenant of grace–call it by whatever name you will—is fundamental in the revelation of the gospel of salvation.

The absolute sovereignty of God and man’s responsibility meet in the covenant of grace. Both represent true biblical data and must not be played off against each other, since in Scripture they are interrelated. Edwards clearly taught that man is involved in “owning” the covenant of grace. He states unequivocally that there is no covenant without the consent of both parties.

In every covenant there is required the consent of both parties. Consent on man’s part to God’s covenant is only an acceptance of the covenant proposed by God. . . . The reason is very plain why it is faith that is required, because consent to a covenant is necessary to the very (being of) that covenant. A man can’t be in any covenant till he consents to it.34

As with his theological ancestors Edwards’ insistence on the necessity of faith is not in conflict with his proclamation of salvation by grace, but it stands instead in closest harmony with the gospel of grace. In a sermon on the text “Therefore it is of faith that it might be by grace” (Rom. 4: 16), Edwards expounds this doctrine: “That the grace of God in the new covenant eminently appears in that . . . it proposes justification only by faith.”35 In this sermon Edwards teaches that the “great and main design of God in the gospel” is “to magnify the riches and sovereignty of his grace.” The means to that end is salvation by faith alone, and persons trusting in their own righteousness “exceedingly derogate from the glory of the gospel or new covenant.”36 If the new covenant, which Edwards calls the covenant of grace in this sermon, were not of pure grace, if faith as the condition of the covenant implied any merit at all, Jonathan Edwards would disown the doctrine of the covenant of grace of the basis of this sermon. That he did not disown the covenant of grace as a theological doctrine illustrates the firm conviction of Edwards that this doctrine in no way conflicts with the biblical theme of sola fide.

Man’s role in the covenant is to believe, but Edwards never suggested that occurred outside the divine initiative in which God granted the elect the gift of faith. It is a gratuitous assumption which sees in the “naked sovereignty” and “unconditional election” of Calvinism an exclusion of the covenant of grace. Those who maintained the covenant doctrine were often the most insistent upon the absolute sovereignty of God. Edwards clearly belongs to this tradition. He stressed more vigorously than most the need for active response on man’s part. But who more clearly than Edwards articulated the absolute sovereignty of God? In this light it should not be surprising that some will see Edwards as neither inconsistent, nor as choosing for one side or another, but as a “predestinarian evangelist” who “was himself a covenant theologian and saw in it no compromise whatever with Arminianism.”37

Editor’s Note: This article is part of the Essays in Reformed Theology collection and was originally published in Soli Deo Gloria: Essays in Reformed Theology: Festschrift for John H Gerstner, ed. R.C. Sproul (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 1976).

  1. Dutch Calvinism tends to view the Puritan doctrine of the covenant as the hole in the dike through which the Arminian flood poured. Jan Ridderbos, De Theologie van Jonathan Edwards (The Hague, 1907), 316, has much praise for Edwards but says his theology is not a pure Reformed system. Ymen Pieter De Jong, De Leer der Verzoening in de Amerikaansche Theologie (Grand Rapids, 1913), p. 17, is more explicit when he writes that Edwards was not only unfaithful to the historic Calvinism, but his revival theology was itself the cause of Edwardean theology later passing into Arminianism. Perry Miller is the preeminent example of one who presupposes divine sovereignty to be inconsistent with human responsibility, and since Edwards clearly taught sovereignty, he could not have taught the covenant of grace. Cf. Miller, Jonathan Edwards (Cleveland, 1964), pp. 30, 115, and Miller, “The Marrow of Puritan Divinity,” Errand into the Wilderness (New York, 1964), p. 98, where he says: “He threw over the whole covenant scheme: and became ... the first consistent and authentic Calvinist in New England.” To make the covenant of grace and Calvinism mutually exclusive is fair neither to Edwards nor to Reformed theology. Yet the error is frequently propounded from both directions.
  2. Jonathan Edwards, “Justification by Faith Alone,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Edward Hickman, 2 vols. (London, 1879, hereafter cited as Works), I, 652. Edwards himself thus draws the parallel between the covenant of works and justification by works on the one hand, and the covenant of grace and justification by faith alone on the other. Salvation is from God. God is sovereign in justification, and the faith which justifies is a trusting in that sovereign salvation and is designated as itself a gift of God. Yet faith is an act of the believing individual, and human responsibility is thus part and parcel of the divine sovereignty. Nevertheless, Perry Miller can write: “The scandal of Edwards’ discourses on justification . . . was his rejection of the covenant. ...” Jonathan Edwards, pp. 115-116. For a treatment of how the covenant of grace functions for Edwards in relation to the distinctives of Reformed theology see my doctoral dissertation, Jonathan Edwards and the Covenant of Grace, to be published by Mack Publishing Co.
  3. Sermon on Hebrews 9:15-16, Yale MSS, 3. Cf. “Miscellanies, no. 825, Yale MSS: “There are two covenants that are by no means to be confounded one with another.” The majority of the approximately 1,200 extant sermon manuscripts and the “Miscellanies” notebooks, consisting of eight volumes and an index volume, are part of the Yale Collection located in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and are used with their kind permission. The assistance of the Beinecke staff during my visits to New Haven and their providing me with large segments of microfilm of these manuscripts greatly aided my research.
  4. Sermon on Hebrews 9: 15-16, Yale MSS, 3-4.
  5. Sermon on Hebrews 13:8, Works, II, 950.
  6. And the covenant of grace is not essentially different from the covenant of redemption: it is but an expression of it. . . .” Sermon on Hebrews 13: 8, Works, II, 950. “The covenant that God the Father makes with believers is indeed the very same with the covenant of redemption made with Christ before the foundation of the world or at least is entirely included in it.” “Miscellanies,” no. 1091, Yale MSS.
  7. Sermon on Isaiah 55:3, Yale MSS, 2.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., 8.
  10. Ibid., 10-12.
  11. Sermon on Hebrews 9: 15-16, Yale MSS, 3.
  12. Ibid.
  13. “Miscellanies,” no. 30, Yale MSS.
  14. Sermon on Psalm 111 :5, Yale MSS, 4.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 4-5.
  17. “Miscellanies,” no. 35, Yale MSS.
  18. Ibid., no. 1091, Yale MSS.
  19. Ibid., no 825, Yale MSS.
  20. Ibid., no 919, Yale MSS.
  21. Ibid., no 919, Yale MSS.
  22. Ibid., no 617, Yale MSS.
  23. Ibid., no 617, Yale MSS.
  24. Cf. “Miscellanies,” no 2, Yale MSS.
  25. Ibid., Edwards explicitly calls faith “the great condition of the covenant of grace.” “Miscellaneous Remarks,” Works, II, 546. Cf. also “Miscellaneous Remarks,” Works, II, 595, where “saving faith” is called “the grand condition of an interest in Christ.”
  26. “Miscellanies,” no. 617, Yale MSS.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Sermon on Hebrews 9: 15-16, Yale MSS, p. 3.
  29. “Miscellanies,” no. 617, Yale MSS.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid., no. 825, Yale MSS.
  33. Sermon on 2 Samuel 23 :5, Yale MSS, 5.
  34. “Miscellanies,” no. 299, Yale MSS. The added phrase, “being of,” is a conjecture of what is missing from a torn corner of the manuscript.
  35. Sermon on Romans 4: 16, Yale MSS, 3.
  36. Ibid., 18-19.
  37. John H. Gerstner, Steps to Salvation: The Evangelistic Message of Jonathan Edwards (Philadelphia, 1960), 14.