Many of us have at least somewhat of a grasp on the Covenant of Works (CoW) and the Covenant of Grace (CoG). I know that knowledge of these two covenants were foundational in learning more about Baptist covenant theology in general. Without a proper understanding as to the natures of the CoW and the CoG it is more than easy to get everything else wrong. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to watch the video I made about this covenant before reading any further.
Sometimes along the way, we lose track of how God has revealed the CoG in the Old Testament (OT). For the particular Baptist, God revealed the CoG in the Old Testament by virtue of other covenants made with His Old Testament people. For me, the two covenants most difficult to understand have been the Abrahamic and the Mosaic Covenants, partly because they are involved with/in one another, and partly because there is a lot of Scriptural data to sift through in order to make sure all the dots are properly connected.
I must confess, at this point, I’m still no master, and this article will be far from exhaustive. But, I retain what I learn best if I write it down and hopefully my musings will serve to glorify God in helping others at least begin their study on the biblical covenants.
The Abrahamic Covenant
This covenant consists of physical blessings applicable to both the spiritual seed of Abraham and the physical seed of Abraham. That is to say that while this covenant (Covenant of Circumcision, henceforth CoC) included both true believers and unbelievers, it revealed a promise that would only be applicable to Abraham’s spiritual seed.
This promise was the Covenant of Grace (CoG), which had yet to be established. It was promised, and thus revealed, but not actually made (some would say concluded) at that time. The CoG would eventually be formally established in the blood of Christ.
A relevant item to consider is Abraham’s two posterities. Isaac’s line represents the spiritual posterity while Ishmael’s line represents the physical. Only the spiritual descendants of Abraham (the elect) are the recipients of the spiritual blessings founded upon the CoG. While both believers and unbelievers could be brought into the CoC by way of circumcision, only God’s true people could be brought into the CoG. I should note that this is an allegorical view of Isaac and Ishmael, following Paul in Galatians 4. I’m not saying that everyone physically born from Isaac were the elect, nor am I saying everyone born of Ishmael are reprobates. Rather, these two allegorically represent two posterities coming from Abraham—one physical, one spiritual.
Because Abraham has two posterities, and because only one of those posterities are truly God’s people, the CoG does not play host to both regenerate and unregenerate (like the CoC), but only to the regenerate.
The Abrahamic Covenant consisted of both believing and unbelieving Israelites. At the same time, when God made the Covenant of Circumcision with Abraham, He revealed something more about the Covenant of Grace, a covenant which would actually be established in the future. In Genesis 17:1-8 God gives Abraham a promise of that which will be the case. He said, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you,” but He also said, “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you.”
Starting in v. 9, however, God actually does establish a covenant with Abraham right then and there—the Covenant of Circumcision (v. 10). So, within God’s discourse, the CoC is established but future promises are given which pertain exclusively to the CoG and its members.
It would not be until the New Testament that the CoG would actually be established in the blood of Christ. Jesus said, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood (Lk. 22:20).” And Paul, quoting Jesus, wrote, “In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me (1 Cor. 11:25).”
This language is to be seen in front of the backdrop of what God revealed to Jeremiah:
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” — Jeremiah 31:31-34
God begins with, “days are coming,” indicating that this covenant has not yet been established. It is then followed by an indication of difference. This covenant will not be like the covenant formerly established, which was a breakable covenant. Instead, this covenant will be unilaterally established and sustained by God, and the members of this covenant will know Him.
The nature of the New Covenant (CoG) is important to grasp if we want to properly understand the Abrahamic Covenant. If the CoG is only comprised of people who know the Lord, that is, regenerate believers, then the physical descendants of Abraham are really only brought into a separate covenant (CoC) distinct from the CoG. However, the spiritual descendants, though brought into the CoC as well, are also the subjects of the promised CoG.
The promises of the CoG are applied retroactively in the sense that an Old Testament saint could partake of the covenant benefits of the CoG (salvation) before the CoG was actually established.
Only one covenant was made between God and Abraham, the Covenant of Circumcision. Another covenant was promised to Abraham and his spiritual descendants—the Covenant of Grace.
If it were the case that the Covenant of Circumcision was an administration of the already established CoG, then that would indicate that unbelievers are the proper subjects for the sign of the CoG, which at that time would have been circumcision. But since the only covenant made with Abraham was the Covenant of Circumcision and was, as we’ve seen, a different covenant from the CoG, the sign of circumcision was not a sign of membership within the CoG through the Old Covenant administration, it was a sign of Old Covenant membership—a separate covenant from the CoG—which nevertheless contained a promise looking forward to the establishment of the CoG in the blood of Christ.