Before Time Began
The Bible is structured by architectonic principles. Reformed theologians have, by and large, agreed that all of God’s special revelation is structured by a Covenant of Works and a Covenant of Grace. This is not to say (as many have wrongly charged) that Covenant theologians do not believe in a difference between the Old and New Covenants. Neither does it mean that they do not believe that there are distinctions between the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenant. Rather, it is to say that the biblical teaching about Adam and Christ (Rom. 5:12–21) is the structuring principle of all of God’s pre-lapsarian and post-lapsarian dealings with mankind. Prior to the fall, we were represented by Adam in the Covenant of Works. Had Adam, as federal representative, obeyed he would have secured eternal life and holiness for all his offspring. After the fall, mankind can only be saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ who obeyed for His people in the Covenant of Grace. The Adam/Christ structure of Scripture is what theologians have sometimes called the bi-covenantal structure of revelation.
However, insistence on a bi-covenantal structure of biblical revelation does not negate the reality of an eternal Covenant of Redemption (i.e., the pactum salutis). In fact, the better part of Reformed theologians have affirmed the existence of a pre-temporal intra-Trinitarian covenant in which the Father and the Son enter into a contract together on promises and obligations for the salvation. The Covenant of Redemption made before the foundation of the world is based on the agreement of the Father and the Son as to the Son’s obedience, sacrifice, and mediation. Some have considered such an arrangement to be distinct from the Covenant of Grace, while others have considered it to be the eternal aspect of the Covenant of Grace. What we can agree upon is the fact that before God created the world, the three persons of the Godhead entered into an agreement with one another for the plan of redemption.
Charles Hodge, in his Systematic Theology, set out what he believed to be the eight promises of the Father to the Son in the Covenant of Redemption. He wrote,
“The promises of the Father to the Son conditioned on the accomplishment of that work, were,
(1.) That He would prepare Him a body, fit up a tabernacle for Him, formed as was the body of Adam by the immediate agency of God, uncontaminated and without spot or blemish.
(2.) That He would give the Spirit to Him without measure, that his whole human nature should be replenished with grace and strength, and so adorned with the beauty of holiness that He should be altogether lovely.
(3.) That He would be ever at his right hand to support and comfort Him in the darkest hours of his conflict with the powers of darkness, and that He would ultimately bruise Satan under his feet.
(4.) That He would deliver Him from the power of death and exalt Him to his own right hand in heaven; and that all power in heaven and earth should be committed to Him.
(5.) That He, as the Theanthropos and head of the Church, should have the Holy Spirit to send to whom He willed, to renew their hearts, to satisfy and comfort them, and to qualify them for his service and kingdom.
(6.) That all given to Him by the Father should come to Him, and be kept by Him, so that none of them should be lost.
(7.) That a multitude whom no man can number should thus be made partakers of his redemption, and that ultimately the kingdom of the Messiah should embrace all the nations of the earth.
(8.) That through Christ, in Him, and in his ransomed Church, there should be made the highest manifestation of the divine perfections to all orders of holy intelligences throughout eternity. The Son of God was thus to see of the travail of his soul and be satisfied.”1
So where does one go in Scripture to establish the teaching about a Covenant of Redemption or the eternal aspect of the Covenant of Grace? While many passages in the Old Testament might be reflected upon, consider the following two important New Testament texts:
The fourth gospel is full of spiritual riches drawn out of the eternal relationship of God the Father and God the Son. As the Son came into the world to reveal God, so He came to give us glimpses into the inner life of the Godhead. In the chapter containing Good Shepherd discourse, Jesus says,
“For this reason, the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (John 10:17–18).
Concerning the “command” (ἐντολὴν) to which Jesus refers in verse 18, Jonathan Edwards wrote,
“We read of Christ being the subject of his Father’s commands, (John 10:18. and 15:10.) And Christ tells us, that everything that he said, or did, was in compliance with “commandments he had received of the Father;” (John 12:49, 50. and 14:31.) And we often read of Christ’s obedience to his Father’s commands, (Rom. 5:19. Phil. 2:8. Heb. 5:8.).”2
“Another law that Christ was subject to was the mediatorial law which contained those commands of God that he was subject to, not merely as man, nor yet as a Jew, but related purely to the execution of his mediatorial office. Such were the commands that the Father gave him to teach such doctrines, to preach the gospel, to work such miracles, to call such disciples, to appoint such ordinances, and finally to lay down his life. For Christ did all these things in obedience to commands that he had received of the Father, as he often tells us. And these commands he was not subject to merely as man, for they did not belong to other men; nor yet was he subject to ’em as Jew, for they were no part of the Mosaic law. But they were commands that he had received of the Father that purely respected the work he was to do in the world in his mediatorial office.”3
Jesus came to fulfill the command that the Father gave Him in the eternal counsel of redemption. He came to fulfill the eternal commitment He and His Father made for the redemption of His people. This is the epicenter of the Covenant of Redemption. The command (“charge”) He spoke of when referring to His voluntarily laying down and taking again of His life was a mediatorial command, as Edwards’ noted. It was uniquely given to Him by the Father before the world was.
Another passage that lends support to the idea that the Father and the Son entered into a Covenant of Redemption prior to the creation of the world is that which is found in Titus 1:2, where we read,
“Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began.”
The latter part of verse 2 has been appealed to by Reformed theologians as supporting the idea of the Covenant of Redemption. Who does Paul have in mind when he speaks of God promising eternal life “before the ages began?”
In his View of the Covenant of Grace, Thomas Boston wrote,
“The promise of eternal life, which is undoubtedly a promise of the covenant of grace, could not otherwise have been of so ancient a date, as before the world began, as the apostle says it is, Tit. 1:2. How could an eternal covenant be originally made with creatures of time, but in their eternal head and representative? Or how could an eternal covenant be personally made with them, by way of personal application to them, had it not been from eternity made with another as their head and representative? . . .God, in his infinite love, married to himself all the spiritual seed, in and by Jesus Christ as their representative, not only before they were capable of consenting, but before they were at all.”4
And again, Boston explained,
“The promise of life to Christ’s spiritual seed, was made chiefly to Christ himself; and to them only in and through him. Accordingly, we are told, that the promise of eternal life, upon which the hope of believers is built, was made before the world began, Tit. 1:2. And to whom could it be then made immediately and primarily, but to Christ the head of the covenant?”5
The importance of the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son can never be understated. If God has promised to redeem a people for Himself through the obedience, sacrifice, and mediation of the Son from all of eternity, then we should have the strongest confidence in the perfection of the Son’s work. Believers should take great comfort in knowing that all the Father gave the Son will come to Him since the Son did everything that He contracted with His Father to do for their redemption. When the days are hard and the path is worn, our confidence rests on the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son. It is the bedrock of our hope. As we make our pilgrimage through this fallen and spiritually barren wilderness, we do so with the eternal realities of the triune God before our minds. We press onto glory since Christ came from glory in order to bring us to glory.
- Charles Hodge,Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 362.
- Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 44.
- Jonathan Edwards A History of the Work of Redemption (WJE Online vol. 9) pp. 309-310
- Thomas Boston,The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Human Nature in Its Fourfold State and a View of the Covenant of Grace, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 8 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1850), 394.
- Thomas Boston,The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Human Nature in Its Fourfold State and a View of the Covenant of Grace, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 8 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1850), 465.
Another passage that hints at this salvation before the world began is Psalm 139. Speaking through David, Jesus says, “My frame was not hidden from you when I was woven in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths the earth. Thine eyes did see My unformed substance, yet being unperfected, and in Thy book all My members were written, which in continuance were fashioned before any of them came to be.
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