The Covenant of Grace, The Sinaitic and the New
Drs. J van Gunderen and W. H. Velema
Concise Reformed Dogmatics pp. 548-550 P&R 2008
3. The Sinaitic Covenant. We can say with Bavinck that the covenant with the fathers is the foundation and core of the Sinaitic covenant (R. D., 3.220). God’s faithfulness toward the patriarchs is mentioned as the motive (Deut. 7:8). There is continuity so that also the covenant with Israel bears the character of a covenant of Grace. This is sufficiently clear from the words of Exodus 20:2, although in the phase of the history of the covenant there is a great emphasis on the observance of God’s commandments.
Sometimes the distinction between the covenant with Abraham and that with Israel at Sinai is almost turned into a contrast. Thus it is said that although the latter is indeed not a covenant of works, it is presented in a form that is strongly reminiscent of a covenant of works (Aalders, 1939. 179). We can object that the emphasis on what God demands from his people does not take us into the sphere of a covenant of works. In Deuteronomy the central idea is that the people will keep the covenant. Blessing and curse depend on this (Deut. 27-30), but it is the obligation to respond to God’s love that carries the covenant (see Deut. 6:4-5; 7:6-8; 30:19-20). The Law is the torah, which plays a role within the covenant. It provides the instruction that is required to make the people walk in the way of the covenant. Just as Abraham is called to walk before God’s face when the Lord allies himself with him (Gen17.1), so the law that is given to Israel serves the covenant as a further explanation of the statement, “Walk before me and be thou perfect” (cf. Bavinck, R. D. 3.222).
4. In connection with the prophesies concern a new covenant or an eternal covenant, which God is about to establish with his people (Jer. 31:31-34; 32:37-41; Ezek. 37:24-28), the question arises whether this is a covenant other than the covenant made with Israel or whether we must think in terms of a renewal of the covenant.
Some theologians contrast the Sinaitic covenant with the new covenant. The bond with the people of God in the covenant of Sinai is purely external and national, in the new covenant it is purely internal and spiritual. Today we deal with the new covenant. The members of the covenant are members of the invisible church , the living members of Christ (Aalders, 1939, 158f.). An important conclusion is that covenant and election are quantitatively identical. The number of covenant members is identical to the number of the elect. Incidentally, the covenant appears to include illegitimate members, to whom also God has said that he establishes his covenant with them to be their God, but who refuse to acknowledge him as their God. This can be interpreted as a breach of the covenant on their part (Aalders, 1939, 193,222).
According to Reiling, the prophecy of the new covenant implies that the old covenant no longer exists. It has been breached by the people and there is nothing left to be restored or renewed. The old covenant and the new covenant constitute the same covenant only to the extent that God remains himself. As far as the covenant people are concerned, however, we must speak of two fundamentally different covenants. (J. Reiling, Verbond, oud en nieuto, 1976.111)
While Aalders, Reiling, and others emphasisze the discontinuity of the covenant with Israel and the new covenant, others point to continuity. The distinction is not that the old covenant is only external and the new covenant internal. This would constitute an essential difference. It is disputed by L. H. Vander Meiden (1955.35). The difference lies entirely in the area of the history of redemption (Wiskerke, 1955.174).
Regarding the relationship between the old (Sinaitic) covenant and the new covenant (Jer.31), we must keep in mind both the similarities and the distinctions between them.
- It is in essence one covenant of God with his people. When the covenant first established with Abraham was subsequently ratified with Israel at Sinai, it retained the character of a covenant of grace. Jeremiah 31 implies in a surprisingly new manner that God commits himself to extend his grace and faithfulness toward people who do not at all deserve it (cf. in this regard Jer. 31:32). He renews his covenant with his people.
- The new covenant is none other than the old covenant. The Law that is to be written in the hearts is the same law that was given earlier. The all-encompassing promise (Jer. 31:33), “I…will be their God and they shall be my people,” is the same promise of Moses’ time (“I … will be your God, and ye shall be my people,” Lev. 26:12). One may not infer from Jeremiah 31:33-34 that in earlier days the law was not yet written in the hearts or that there was then no forgiveness of sin and knowledge of the Lord. This “internalization” (See F. Malaresta, Interiority and Covenant, 1978, 68-77) was already promised in the books of Moses (Deut. 30:6). The Law was indeed written in the hearts of the godly, and the saints of God stood in the right relationship to him.
- The manner in which God deals with his people has not changed in the new covenant. He grants promises such as those expressed in Jeremiah 31:31-34 not just to those who have been chosen to eternal life. Just as those in Genesis 17 and Exodus 19, they are promises that require a believing response.
- There is nevertheless a clear progression in the history of the covenant, which is at the same time redemptive history. “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant” (Jer. 31:31). More blessings can be expected in the future. In essence, what was granted under the old covenant is given to a fuller and richer extent under the new covenant. Thus there is indeed a difference in degree (cf. Vander Meiden, 1955, 41).
- As far as the fulfillment of this prophecy is concerned, some place it after the exile, because the context refers to people returning (Jer. 31:23-25) and because they would then naturally be preoccupied with the law (cf. Neh. 9.38-10.31). In our view the prophesies concerning the new covenant refer more to a new, enduring dispensation the covenant. This new dispensation came when Christ completed his work as Mediator and when his Spirit was poured out (see Heb. 8:6-13; 2 Cor. 3:6). Believers from among the Jewish people and from the nations of the world are proof that God fulfils his promise (cf. Rom. 9:24-26; 2 Cor. 6:16-18). Thus the church of Christ represents the people of the new covenant.