Reading Systematic Theology with Wayne Grudem – What principles determine the way God relates to us?

This post is part of a 50+ post series from the classic work by Wayne Grudem (PhD, Cambridge), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. The aim of each post is to provide an overview of each chapter in the book and related resources for each topic.

Synopsis of Chapter

In this chapter, Wayne Grudem reviews a Covenant Theology perspective on how God relates to people. There are three theological covenants in this system: the Covenant of Redemption, the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace. Grudem did not cover the alternative perspectives like Dispensationalism or New Covenant Theology. In this overview, I changed the order of the theological covenants Grudem presented to reflect the chronological order.

It’s important to note that these three theological covenants are different from traditional biblical covenants. The theological covenantal understanding is more of an overarching framework for seeing how God relates to his people throughout history, whereas a biblical covenant, like the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7:1-29), is another covenant that exists within the framework of these overarching theological covenants.  

What Is a Covenant?

A covenant can be defined as “an unchangeable, divinely imposed legal agreement between God and man that stipulates the conditions of their relationship.” 

A covenant is distinguished between a contract, since the parties involved are not equal. Instead, the provisions of the covenant are laid down by one party only – namely God. This can be seen in how the authors of the Old Testament Septuagint and the New Testament used a less common word “diatheke” (διαθήκη) to describe a covenant. In a covenant, the parts of a covenant were handed down by one party. Interestingly, “diatheke” was often used to describe a will where a man would distribute all of his goods after he died. 

The Covenant of Redemption 

The initial covenant in Covenant Theology is known as the Covenant of Redemption. This is “an agreement among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in which the Son agreed to become a man, be our representative, obey the demands of the covenant of works on our behalf, and pay the penalty for sin, which we deserved.”

There are multiple verses that suggest all of the elements of the Covenant of Redemption. For instance, the Father would give the Son a people (John 17:2). Later, the Son would be the people’s representative (Romans 5:18-19). Finally the Holy Spirit would apply redemption to this people (Acts 2:33). Moreover, it was a voluntary agreement among the members of the Trinity. God was not under compulsion to start the Covenant of Redemption.

The Covenant of Works

The second covenant in Covenant Theology is the Covenant of Works. This covenant describes the one God instituted with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before they sinned. Adam and Eve were told not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but they did. As a result of their sin, they would die as promised (Genesis 2:16-17). In sinning, they broke a covenant with God. The prophet Hosea agreed this was a covenant when he said, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me” (Hosea 6:7).

Others have described the covenant between God and Adam and Eve as the Adamic Covenant or the Covenant of Nature. However, Covenant Theology opts for “Covenant of Works” since the blessings flow from obedience to the covenant and curses flow from disobedience. Although the Covenant of Works is still in effect, nobody has been able to fulfill God’s requirements in the Covenant of Works perfectly except Christ.

The Covenant of Grace

A final covenant in the Covenant Theology is known as the Covenant of Grace. There are several elements in this covenant. These elements include… 

  • The parties to the covenant are God and the people he will redeem. Christ also serves as the mediator of the covenant (Hebrews 8:6).
  • The condition or requirement of participation in the Covenant of Grace is faith in Christ (Romans 1:17).
  • The condition of continuing in the covenant is obedience to God’s commands. Obedience shows the person is truly a member of the new covenant (1 John 2:4-6)
  • The promise of blessings in the covenant is eternal life with God (John 3:16)
  • The sign of the Covenant of Grace in the Old Testament was circumcision while the sign of the covenant in the New Testament is baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

The Covenant of Grace looks different throughout redemptive history. For instance, grace in this covenant is only hinted at with Adam and Eve with God providing a sacrifice for their sin (Genesis 3:21). With Abraham, we are told he heard the gospel (good news of the covenant) in his day (Galatians 3:8). And we see grace in this covenant more clearly displayed where Christ would be the perfect sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 9:11-28). In every age, God has revealed his grace to people, but often in a different manner. 

Application: Covenant Theology vs. Other Perspectives

Covenant Theology with its three theological covenants is just one way conservative theologians understand how God has related to people throughout history. The other popular perspective is Dispensationalism which has several forms, but generally teaches seven dispensations of grace. And there’s a New Covenant Theology which argues for a complete abrogation of the Old Testament moral law in place of the New Testament’s law. 

This area can be a difficult area of theology. Good teachers disagree on the best way to understand the way God has related to people throughout redemptive history.

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Hebrews 8:10)

Special Terms

  • covenant
  • covenant of grace
  • covenant of redemption
  • covenant of works
  • new covenant
  • old covenant

Resources: Wayne Grudem

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