Covenant Theology The Extent of the Atonement

The Covenant of Redemption is a Problematic Notion

Within Covenant Theology, there is some diversity of views on whether there are two or three covenants. Most recognize a covenant of works, made with Adam, and a covenant of grace, which God establishes just after the Fall. However, many see a third, the covenant of redemption, that differs from these. The topic is large enough that I will only be able to capture highlights, but I hope to focus on those questions I believe are most important, (and difficult.) The covenant of redemption is a pre-temporal covenant which the Godhead entered into among the persons of the Trinity, for the purpose of the outworking of the plan of salvation. R. C. Sproul comments “The covenant of redemption was a transaction that involved both obligation and reward. The Son entered into a sacred agreement with the Father. He submitted Himself to the obligations of that covenantal agreement. An obligation was likewise assumed by the Father — to give His Son a reward for doing the work of redemption.”[1]

Origins of the Covenant of Redemption

We can see Sproul lists the parties to the agreement as the Father and the Son, and that the Son submitted himself to the obligations of the covenant. What Sproul only outlines here, other theologians have expanded on. J.V. Fesko has provided what may be the fullest history and overview of the doctrine in his book The Covenant of Redemption: Origins, Development, Reception. Fesko notes that the covenant of redemption, the pactum salutis, has received an uneven reception in Reformed thinking. The doctrine proper may date to an address by David Dickson in 1638, wherein he outlined its features.[2] To be sure, Reformed theologians found hints and adumbrations of the doctrine earlier. This is usually in the form of agreement or appointment language in Scripture.  Guy Richard observes “The fact that Christ was “appointed” to his role as mediator certainly implies that there was some kind of previous arrangement wherein agreement could be reached between the persons of the Trinity on what this role would look like and what conditions and blessings would be attached to it.”[3] These affirmations rest on passages such as Luke 22:29, where Jesus says “I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom.” The word assigned is here διατίθεμαι, which BDAG defines as “to make a disposition of something, arrange.” (238) Other passages include Ps 2:8, where we read “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” In that the prior verse has spoken of the decree, advocates of the pactum salutis find here another piece of evidence for a pre-temporal agreement.

Other early theologians also found explicit covenantal language with what the Father and the Son transacted. Patrick Gillespie writes “Betwixt Jehovah and Christ there are Commands with Promises, holding forth what was the Will of God to Christ, in the matter of man’s Redemption; and what he should expect from his Father for doing that work, and obeying his Will.”[4] Gillespie’s rather long subtitle contains an important piece of information: as the foundation of the covenant of grace. This would foreshadow how some theologians would use the idea.

How the Covenant of Redemption has been used

John Owen relies heavily on the covenant of redemption for his doctrine of definite atonement, ascribing the foundation of what believers have to it. “The gracious imputation of the righteousness of Christ to us, or making us the righteousness of God in him; which is no less of grace and mercy, and that because the very merit of Christ himself hath its foundation in a free compact and covenant.”[5] Not only the righteousness we receive in salvation but also the means—faith itself—is for Owen, bound up in the covenant. He affirms, “the end of Christ’s obtaining grace and glory with his Father was, that they might be certainly bestowed upon all those for whom he died, some [benefits] upon condition that they do believe, but faith itself absolutely upon no condition at all.”[6] In other words, all is bound up in the covenant of redemption. What the Father and the Son agreed to in this pre-temporal covenant will be realized in time for the elect, and infallibly so. Owen locates not only redemption itself in this covenant, but the means of redemption as well.

Others who hold to definite atonement have doubted the validity of the covenant of redemption, however. Among the Reformed, John Murray rejected the covenant of redemption as not found in Scripture, but Murray affirmed limited atonement based on (among other things) the idea of substitution. In other words, contra Owen, he did not consider the covenant of redemption as a necessary foundation for limited atonement.

Others who affirm the covenant of redemption see it as the foundation for the covenant of grace (as Gillespie.) That is, the covenant of grace is but the temporal realization of the pre-temporal covenant made by the Father and the Son. But this is part of a covenant understanding that to some looks quite different than what Scripture portrays. That is, whether it is a three covenant scheme—covenant of redemption, covenant of works, covenant of grace—or a two covenant scheme (works and grace only) all of these are implied covenants only. They are never explicitly stated in Scripture. This fact is one reason why Murray rejected the covenant of redemption, (and the covenant of works also.)

Problems with the covenant of redemption

When we speak of a covenant, it is at a minimum a bilateral agreement. There are two partners in it. Can we speak of the persons of the Godhead in such a way? Can we consider the Father and the Son distinct in this regard to where two wills would be in view? Indeed, an irony here is that some who hold to definite atonement have said that unlimited atonement introduces trinitarian disharmony. But if the Father and the Son must come to an understanding—an agreement—that certainly implies that they were not in such a state prior to this, that is, there is now a harmony of agreement that did not exist before. Such a claim is problematic, for it raises the question of mutability in God.

John Owen affirms “in this respect the covenant whereof we treat differeth from a pure decree; for from these distinct actings of the will of God in the Father and the Son there doth arise a new habitude or relation, which is not natural or necessary unto them, but freely taken on them.”[7] It’s notable that Owen seems to recognize that the state he describes could be spoken of as a decree of God, rather than a covenant. But he doesn’t go that direction. In speaking of it as a covenant, he affirms something new and also what is “not natural or necessary unto them.” Does that language agree with the idea of divine simplicity? In addition, he ascribes distinct actings of the will to the Father and the Son. Is this consistent with trinitarian harmony? We should note as well that other Reformed thinkers perceive this as problematic. Robert Letham notes, “The Holy Spirit tended to be left out of such a model and strong elements of subordinationism were introduced in the case of the Son.”[8]

In Owen’s framing of the covenant of redemption, the elect are now owed salvation as a result of the performance by the Son of the covenant’s terms. “They have all the fruits of his death in actual right, though not in actual possession.”[9] He further describes the benefits accruing to the elect as “all these hath our Saviour by his death merited and purchased for all them for whom he died; that is, so procured them of his Father that they ought, in respect of that merit, according to the equity of justice, to be bestowed on them for whom they were so purchased and procured.”[10]

Owen was sensitive to the need to protect grace in such a transaction, saying “it is of free grace that the good things procured by his death be bestowed on any person…it is of debt in respect of Christ that they be communicated to them.”[11] In other words, the perspective we look at the question from determines whether it is grace (sinners) or obligation (Christ). Owen’s entire method, however, has been to insist on the idea of inevitability of redemption for the elect. They will receive redemption, not because God is gracious in bestowing it upon believing sinners, but because the covenant of redemption has created a right for them to receive it.

Summary

Is a covenant of redemption a necessary or even helpful element in understanding God’s dealings with man? It is not. In fact, it does not clarify, but rather obfuscates several things, and raises issues of trinitarian disunity. As Neil Chambers comments, the tendency to work from the less certain (eternity past) into time is inherently less certain. “What is in many ways most peripheral to the evidence, and most dependent on interpretation (and which thus has the potential to magnify presuppositional biases), then becomes the key element which integrates and undergirds the other elements of theology.”[12] While some have no problem affirming limited atonement without relying on the covenant of redemption, for someone such as John Owen, who made it the essential basis of the doctrine, it calls into question his foundation. In other words, contra J. I. Packer who affirmed that no other defense of definite atonement was ever needed after Owen wrote The Death of Death in the Death of Christ,[13] without the covenant of redemption, there is such a need.

 

 

[1] R. C. Sproul, “What is the Covenant of Redemption?” https://www.ligonier.org/blog/what-covenant-redemption/ retrieved July 26, 2021.

[2] J. V. Fesko The Covenant of Redemption: Origins, Development, Reception (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016), 30.

[3] Guy M. Richard, “The Covenant of Redemption” in Reformed Faith & Practice: The Journal of Reformed Theological Seminary, Vol 5, Issue 2, September 2020.  https://journal.rts.edu/article/the-covenant-of-redemption.

[4] Patrick Gillespie, The Ark of the Covenant Opened: Or, A Treatise on the Covenant of Redemption Between God and Christ as the Foundation of the Covenant of Grace (London, 1677), 17.

[5] John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh/Carlisle, Banner of Truth, 1967), 157.

[6] Owen, 91.

[7] John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Vol. 2, 105. https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/owen/An%20Exposition%20of%20the%20Epistle%20to%20-%20John%20Owen2.pdf

[8] Robert Letham, The Work of Christ, (Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 1993), 53.

[9] Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, 156.

[10] Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ,176.

[11] Owen, loc. Cit.

[12] Neil Chambers, “A Critical Examination of John Owen’s Argument for Limited Atonement in ‘The Death of Death in the Death of Christ,’” (ThM thesis, Reformed Theological Seminary, 1998), 346.

[13] J.I. Packer, “Introductory Essay” to John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh/Carlisle, Banner of Truth, 1967), 12-13.

 

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