The Covenant of Grace, in its Spiritual Essence and in its Visible Administration


By Parnell McCarter


The Westminster Larger Catechism excellently exposits and reconciles the various passages of scripture in its treatment on the Covenant of Grace.Two pertinent sections of the Larger Catechism read:


"Q.31 With whom was the Covenant of Grace made?

"A. The Covenant of Grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed."

In the new and better covenant, God the Father made an agreement with God the Son, Jesus Christ. Acting as the Mediator, as the Representative and Substitute for his people, the elect, Jesus Christfulfilled all the conditions of the Covenant of Works that Adam had failed to fulfill. Jesus procured all the blessings of salvation for his people, and that salvation he gives to them all as a free gift.

Q. 166. Unto whom is baptism to be administered?

A. Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, and so strangers from the covenant of promise, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him,[1066] but infants descending from parents, either both, or but one of them, professing faith in Christ, and obedience to him, are in that respect within the covenant, and to be baptized.[1067]

We must distinguish the Covenant of Grace in its spiritual essence (see question 31) and its visible administration (see question 166).  With respect to its spiritual essence, the Covenant of Grace is with the elect alone, and unconditional unto them.  But with respect to its visible administration (as exemplified in water baptism), the Covenant of Grace is with the visible church (consisting of elect and non-elect), and hence conditional. The conditions are true faith and repentance, for not all of the visible church will be saved, but only those with true faith and repentance.  Of course, only the elect will have true faith and repentance, for they alone did Christ atone for and the Spirit regenerate, God working faith and repentance in them.


Here is how the Dutch theologian Witsius described it:


"V. Moreover, as we restrict this covenant to the Elect, it is evident we are speaking of the internal, mystical, and spiritual communion of the covenant. For salvation itself, and everything belonging to it, or inseparably connected with it, are promised in this covenant, all which, none but the Elect can attain to. If, in other respects, we consider the external economy of the covenant, in the communion of the word and sacraments, in the profession of the true faith, in the participation of many gifts, which, though excellent and illustrious, are yet none of the effects of the sanctifying Spirit, nor any earnest of future happiness; it cannot be denied, that, in this respect, many are in covenant, whose names, notwithstanding, are not in the testament of God." (Witsius, Economy of the Divine Covenants, bk 3 ch. 1)


Nevertheless, there are many who have erred on the doctrine of the covenant, by denying one aspect of the covenant or the other.

There are many, like Schilder and the Canadian Reformed Churches, who have denied that the Covenant of Grace in its spiritual essence is with the elect alone.They have asserted that all covenants are conditional by their very nature.But this error undermines the Biblical doctrines of grace, which recognize that salvation is of free grace to Godís people.

On the other hand, we must beware the error of those who deny the Covenant of Grace in its visible administration is conditional, as if what we believe and how we live has no relation to our salvation.  This tends toward antinomianism.It is an error that Hoeksema and the Protestant Reformed Churches have tended towards.They have denied that there is any sense in which the divine covenant can be conditional.This explains in large measure why the Protestant Reformed Churches have denied the Covenant of Works (with its conditionality), and they have rejected that adultery is just cause for divorce, severing the marriage covenant.


But the Biblical truth is this:the Covenant of Grace in its spiritual essence is unconditional (and with the elect alone), and the Covenant of Grace in its visible administration is conditional (and with the whole visible church).