Lecture 6, Covenant:

Are we as Christians saved by works, or by faith alone? The key to understanding what part works and faith play in the drama of redemption is to understand the biblical structure and role of covenants. Without a proper understanding of covenants we fail to grasp the grandeur of Christ’s life and work. In this message, Dr. Sproul gives us the covenantal framework of redemption that finds full resolution in the work of Christ.

Message Transcript

We continue now with our study of the heart of Reformed theology. I want to turn our attention today to the concept of covenant.

The Framework for Redemption

One of the frequent nicknames that we hear used to define Reformed theology is the term covenant theology. I almost never use that designation, not that I’m opposed to it for any particular reason, but just because I think it can be a little misleading. All Christians recognize that the concept of covenant is front and center in both Testaments. When we talk about the Old Testament and the New Testament, we are talking about the old covenant and the new covenant, and we’re all aware of the covenant language that is sprinkled throughout the Scriptures.

We hear about a lot of covenants in the Old Testament. We hear about the covenant that God made with Noah with the sign of the rainbow in the sky, the covenant with Abraham with the sign of circumcision, and the covenant at Sinai with Moses. We hear of Jeremiah speaking about a new covenant, and we know that in the upper room when our Lord celebrated the Passover with His disciples the night before His execution, He instituted the new covenant. He spoke of the new covenant in His blood (Luke 22:20).

So, we have this repeated motif of covenant in Scripture, but the reason Reformed theology is often called “covenantal” is because it sees the structure of covenant in the Bible as a crucial element in which the whole plan of redemption is worked out. It becomes a kind of key to understanding and interpreting the whole of Scripture. Because of that, Reformed theology stresses this central motif of covenant as the framework in which redemption is carried out.

Three Chief Covenants

In theological categories, and in terms of historic confessions, Reformed churches have a tendency to distinguish among three chief covenants. The first is called the “covenant of redemption,” the second is called the “covenant of works,” and the third is called the “covenant of grace.” I want to give a brief exposition of the distinctive characteristics of these three covenants.

Normally, we think of a covenant as an agreement between two or more parties. We have covenants in our own culture. The form of government that we have has historically been called a social contract or a social covenant that involves the consent of the governed. There is an agreement between the government and the people, and there are certain stipulations that define that relationship, which we see in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We institutionalize and consecrate marriages today on the basis of covenants—promises are made, terms are agreed to, and so on. There is also the business covenant or the industrial contract. When labor and management are hammering out a new contract, they’re dealing with a covenant—an agreement that imposes obligations on both parties.

When we look at the biblical covenants, the first covenant that we delineate is not a covenant that directly and immediately involves people.

Unity of Purpose: The Covenant of Redemption

The covenant of redemption is a theological concept that refers to the harmony and unity of purpose that has been in existence from all eternity in terms of the mutual relationship and agreement between all three persons of the Trinity. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are agreed from all eternity in terms of bringing forth the work of redemption.

We distinguish among the persons of the Godhead in terms of the specific tasks they perform in the outworking of redemption. We read in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him would not perish but have everlasting life.”

The language of John 3:16 is significant. We don’t say, and the New Testament doesn’t say, that Christ so loved the world that He persuaded the Father to forgive them of their sins. That is, the Father sends the Son into the world. The Son doesn’t send the Father into the world. It is the Father who designs the plan of redemption and who initiates the work of redemption by sending His only begotten Son into the world to perform His redemptive work as our Savior and our Mediator.

The Nicene Creed of the fourth century confesses that, after Christ performed His redemptive work and ascended into heaven, the Father and the Son together sent the Holy Ghost into the world to apply the work of Christ to God’s people. So, the Father first sends the Son, and the Father and the Son together send the Holy Spirit.

Now, this can be misleading, because we know that the atonement, for example, is ascribed to the Son, not to the Father or the Holy Spirit. And we know that the process of sanctification is assigned to the work of the Holy Spirit, not to the Father or the Son. However, it’s not as if the Father and the Son are completely uninvolved in our sanctification. The whole of creation is a Trinitarian work, and the whole of redemption is a Trinitarian work. The whole personal dimension of the Godhead is involved in all of it.

The point of spelling out the covenant of redemption is to avoid the error that has occurred more than once in church history of thinking that the Father and the Son are at odds with each other. It is to avoid the error that the Son has to persuade this angry Father to turn away His wrath from the Son, as if it weren’t God the Father’s gracious idea in the first place. It is also to avoid the idea that Christ is performing His work grudgingly. He comes to Gethsemane and prays to the Father, “Let this cup pass from Me,” and then goes on to say, “Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done” (Luke 22:42). It’s not as if the Son says, “If I have to do it, I’ll do it.” Rather, He’s saying, “If this is what pleases the Father then it is My meat and drink to do the will of the Father.”

The whole point of the covenant of redemption is to show the complete unity and agreement of the Godhead from all eternity with respect to the plan of salvation.

Standard of Law: The Covenant of Works

When we get into the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, that engenders a little more controversy. But what is chiefly in view is this: the covenant of works in Reformed theology refers to the initial covenant that God makes with man qua man, with Adam and Eve in Paradise. Adam is representing not just himself and his wife, but his progeny—all people. He is Adam; he represents mankind.

God creates Adam and Eve and puts them in a situation of probation. He makes promises of blessing to them in the event that they are obedient and promises of judgment upon them in the event that they are disobedient. He puts them to the test, as it were, saying, “The day that you eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). That is, penalties are pronounced to the creatures in the event that they transgress the commandment of their Creator.

This all means that the destiny of Adam, Eve, and their progeny is determined by their response to the law of God. It is determined by their behavior, by their work. Hence, it is called the “covenant of works.” God says, “If you do good works, you’ll live; if you do bad works, you’ll die.” It’s that simple.

Some people don’t like the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. They say: “God didn’t have to make a covenant at all with Adam and Eve. The very fact that He stooped to enter into a personal relationship with them and gave them the opportunity for eternal life of blessedness in His kingdom was itself gracious.” And I don’t think there’s any dispute about that. Obviously, God was not morally compelled to give a way of salvation at all to His creatures. We grant that even the covenant of works is grounded in God’s eternally gracious character.

What is meant by the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace is that, initially, the terms of their relationship with God are set up with respect to obedience or disobedience to His law. And Adam and Eve disobeyed. They violated the covenant of works, bringing the judgment of God upon themselves and all whom they represented because they violated covenant of creation.

A World Populated by Covenant Breakers

Let me just take a second to give a little parenthesis here. We understand that we live in a culture where there are all different kinds of competing religions and secular people who have no time for religion at all. They couldn’t be less interested in the whole idea of covenant. People ask me, “Are these people in God’s covenant?” Well, the question is first, “Are these people, people?” And if we answer that question, “Yes, of course, these people are people,” then the next question is, “When God made His covenant in creation, was it with a view to everybody in the world or just two isolated individuals that lived in a pretty garden in Eden?”

The biblical idea is that the covenant God made with Adam and Eve was a covenant with all of the human race. People can deny that covenant; people can repudiate that covenant; people can despise that covenant—but what they can’t do is get rid of it. They can’t annul it.

One of the reasons Scripture brings all of us before the judgment seat of God and pronounces us guilty before God is because all of us have broken His law. All of us have done bad works. All of us have failed to keep the original covenant of creation. All of us have failed to perform what it is every creature’s duty to perform—to glorify God, to honor Him as God, to be grateful to Him, and to obey His law.

The bottom line is that the whole world is populated by covenant breakers. Christ is sent into a world that is already guilty before the Father for breaking the Father’s law and for violating the very terms of human existence, the very basis for human life as we were created before God. That’s what is meant when we talk about the covenant of works.

Undeserved Redemption: The Covenant of Grace

Because the first Adam failed in the covenant of works, God would have had every moral right on that occasion to do exactly what the terms of the covenant promised. He could have destroyed them and the whole race, and that would have been it. But instead, He condescended to cover their nakedness and to promise them redemption through One who would act as their Savior. At that point, God instituted the covenant of grace. It was given to Abraham, to Moses, and throughout the Old Testament. The promise was that God would redeem His people who were guilty according to the covenant of works. He would save His people in another way.

That is critical because there are professing Christians today who believe that there is a fundamental difference between how God saved people in the Old Testament and how people are saved during and after the New Testament. They believe this despite Paul’s laboring the point in the third, fourth, and fifth chapters of Romans, using Abraham as his illustration, that salvation was accomplished in the Old Testament by grace just as it is in the New Testament, and that Abraham was justified not by the works of the law but by faith in the promised Messiah.

The difference is one between promise and fulfillment. The people in the Old Testament looked to the future promised Redeemer, put their trust in Him, and were justified by faith in Him. We look backward to the work that has been accomplished by the Savior. We put our trust in Him. Salvation is basically the same now as it was then. The difference is that we have a much deeper understanding of the details of it. What is even more different is that it is a fait accompli. The work of Christ has been already performed on the plain of history.

Once a person breaks the covenant of works, the only way he can possibly be restored to fellowship with God is by God’s mercy, not by His justice—by His grace, not by our works.

This is crucial because we live in a day where people still entertain the idea that they can be saved in the presence of God by their own works, that they can still merit their way into the kingdom. We don’t really believe that we are debtors who can’t pay our debt. We forget that the terms of the covenant of works were pretty stiff. They demand perfection. If you sin once, there’s nothing you can do to make up for that. Once that blemish comes next to your name, you can’t become perfect again. Perfection doesn’t allow for the slightest blemish. Of course, when we come before God, we come with a lot more than a slight blemish; we come with a radical kind of pollution before Him.

So, this distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace is really designed to shed clear light on the nature of the gospel.

Works and Works Alone

Now, I’m going to say something that’s probably going to confuse everybody. We’ve been talking about the doctrine of justification by faith alone, that it’s only by grace that we’re saved, and so on. But, in the final analysis, the only way any person is ever justified before God is by works. We are saved by works, and we are saved by works alone. Let me explain.

When I say that the only way we’re saved is by works, this is what I mean: the covenant of grace must be distinguished from the covenant of works but never separated from it. The covenant of grace is God’s covenant that He institutes to ensure that the original covenant is finally kept.

When I say that we’re justified by works and by works alone, I mean that the grounds of my justification and the grounds of your justification are the perfect works of Jesus Christ. We’re saved by works, but they are not our own. That’s why we say we’re saved by faith and we’re saved by grace, because the works that save us aren’t our works; they are somebody else’s works—somebody who submitted Himself at every point to the covenant of works.

Works Fulfilled and Grace Given

The New Testament describes Jesus as the New Adam. He is the new humanity who accomplishes what Adam failed to accomplish. By one man’s disobedience, the world is plunged into ruin, and by the other man’s obedience to the law of God, in all of its demands and in perfect conformity, Christ redeems His people by winning the blessings God had promised to His original creatures on their behalf.

I’m saved by grace insofar as the work that saves me is not my own. I’m saved by works in the sense that the basis of my salvation is the work of the perfect Worker, the One who from all eternity was willing to assume the burden of God’s creatures. He was willing to come to this world to submit Himself to the terms of the original covenant of works and to fulfill it by His perfect obedience, and God gives to His people all of the benefits of that work. He gives to us all that Christ has earned, and all that He is becomes ours when we place our trust in Him.

That’s what we mean by the covenant of grace. It’s not as if the covenant of works is the Old Testament and the covenant of grace is the New Testament. No, the covenant of grace is working ever since the third chapter of Genesis. It is all through the Old Testament and into the New because it is based upon God’s free grace to needy sinners.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.