The Unity of the Covenant of Grace?

If a group of Reformed brothers were enjoying a repast and the question was posed to them as to how best to summarize the unifying theme of Scripture, it is fair to say that the term “covenant” would be high on the list of probable answers. The argument consists of this reasoning:

  1. Before the Fall, God entered a covenant with man based on his works.
  2. Man failed that test by breaking that covenant.
  3. After the Fall, God entered a covenant with man based on His grace.
  4. Believers through the ages have been a part of that covenant of grace from Adam down to the present time. (Yes, some try to argue that the Abrahamic covenant began the covenant of grace, but those some authors also argue that the covenant of grace unifies all of history so it works out to the same thing.)
  5. All biblical covenants from Genesis 3 onward are essentially the same in their gracious character and provision for man.

Here’s a sampling from Berkhof, but similar quotes can be found by many others.

The covenant of grace, as it is revealed in the New Testament, is essentially [emphasis mine] the same as that which governed the relation of the Old Testament believers to God. It is entirely [emphasis mine] unwarranted to represent the two as forming an essential [emphasis his] contrast, as is done by present day dispensationalism.

The covenant of grace is seen as a singular, monolithic covenant that contains within its purview the vast majority of redemptive history (everything outside of Genesis 1-2).

Enter Jeremiah 31:31-34.

31 “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, 32 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. 33 “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. 34 “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.”

On the surface at least, there appear to be several essential differences between the old (Mosaic) covenant and the new covenant that Jeremiah is talking about.

  1. It is specifically said to be different.
  2. It is named the new covenant.
  3. The law will be monergistically written on the believer’s heart.
  4. The knowledge of God will be universal making teachers unnecessary.
  5. The believer’s sin will be forgiven.

If those differences are validly deduced and weighed then Scripture presents at the very least a two-covenantal structure for understanding the history of redemption. But of course, traditional Covenant Theology holds to the unity of the covenant of grace throughout God’s purposes with man from Adam to the present. In light of a careful examination of Jeremiah 31:31-34 such a unity is difficult to defend.

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