Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: The Fine Print of Grace

The best of all free advice in the world is always read the fine print before signing . This has saved many from the pitfalls and headaches of purchasing everything from lemons to credit. Many not most. But with the Covenant of Grace one should pay special attention to the details for a different reason. There are more blessings and benefits in the details than one might expect. How many? How much? Bavinck himself would say you won’t believe the price .

The cost of human redemption from the divine perspective is incalculable. “He sent his only Son” has been preached, recited, and sung in many churches the world over. But what does it mean? For Bavinck and the Reformed, it means that the covenant of grace made with Adam, Abraham, Moses and David was fully accomplished in Christ. God did not start over from scratch or cook up a whole new arrangement when the covenant of works was broken: he is unchangeable. With the entrance of sin, the breaking of God’s word, humankind could not repay the moral debt due to God. Nor is this debt simply canceled. In fact it is doubled. Bavinck says that after the fall God laid a ‘double claim’ of satisfaction and obedience upon humanity: repayment for evil and perfect obedience to the law. The moral debt owed to God does not expire after death. These imposing conditions of the law can never ultimately be fulfilled for a variety of reasons with enmity towards God at the top of the list. When asked what the most powerful force in the universe Einstein answered compound interest . This is more.

The key difference, says Bavinck, between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace is that the ‘double demand’ is not charged to humanity in Adam, but to humanity in Christ. This is essentially the only architectural difference. There is ample New Testament evidence yet Bavinck cites Galatians 3:16-18 as the most signal reference demonstrating the Abrahamic covenant was not nullified by the law (Mosaic) but is related to and fulfilled in Christ. What of humanity in Adam, how do they get a second chance to earn eternal life? Eternal life with God can never be earned or merited. The covenant of works was presented to and maintained by unfallen humanity, the covenant of grace to fallen humanity. What of election and reprobation? Why impose laws on those ‘doomed’ from the start? For one, the debt is not canceled; for another this world is not hell but is governed by law. It’s for humankind to accept that we must love our neighbor as ourselves, and to love the Lord with more. Election, after all, is rooted in love.

Critics might argue that the covenantal approach to redemption sounds very legalistic. Some (Cocceius) have ventured to say that grace destroys nature: we’ve been ‘freed’ from the law; grace has destroyed the old covenant. Others (this writer) winced at Bavinck’s statement that grace is the “restoration” of the covenant of works. It almost sounds like reinstatement . This is not what Bavinck is saying. Christ takes the burden of the covenant of works as the guarantor of its fulfillment. He takes our debt as surety. Christ then inaugurates the ‘new’ covenant of grace as mediator.* He buys our bad debt and through the Eternal Spirit dispenses those gifts to men leading to life everlasting. So what does it mean that ‘God alone’ is the sole agent in salvation? “He sent his son,” Bavinck joyfully replies. The Father’s prerogative to establish this remarkable offer of grace, entrust it to the Son as mediator, and to the Holy Spirit to apply the benefits of this covenant: rebirth, faith and repentance. Some like Cocceius may worry –with some good reason– the covenantal approach to salvation is backloaded with legalism. Does legalism follow? What are the alternatives?

Bavinck maintains that covenantal theology has the clearest view of God’s majesty, grace, and glory in salvation. It is balanced between two extremes: the legalism of Rome, and the legalism (separatism) of the Anabaptists. The natural world has laws and instincts same as human society. Whatever might be said, “the gift is not like the trespass.” The covenant of grace does not kill human freewill, but liberates from sin. It does not destroy their power, but removes the impotence. The Apostle Paul found no other solution to the problem of sin and impotence than Christ Jesus, the Lord (Romans 7:24, 25). Still, some might argue that the covenant of works and that of grace does not solve the problem of the origin of evil. True, but it is the solution to the problem of evil that is so persistent in the human heart. It’s all in the acceptance.


* Bavinck affirms this scheme is infralapsarian, see RD, 3: 227.

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