committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs


by R.B.C. Howell



Not understood; the causes of it; proposed method of discussion;
simplicity of the subject; its importance.

SALVATION through Jesus Christ, is according to "the determinate counsel, and foreknowledge of God1 He was pleased to make known to the fathers, his purposes in this behalf, in the form of covenants, which were of different characters, and revealed at various times. These covenants enter into the very nature, and pervade with their peculiar qualities, the whole system of divine grace. A perfect knowledge of the Gospel therefore, involves necessarily, a correct comprehension of the covenants. But by whom among us, are these covenants clearly understood? To most men, you need only to speak on this subject, and you at once perceive that "Even unto this day, the vail is upon their heart."2 They fail to perceive what the covenants are in themselves, in their relations to each other, and consequently in their bearings upon the designs of God in the Redeemer! This darkness is lamentable in all its aspects, since falling short of the knowledge of these, ? "the rudiments of the doctrine of Christ," ? obscurity must necessarily rest upon the whole Gospel system. How can he who does not perceive "the first principles" of any specified science, ever become a master of that science?

But why should obscurity rest upon a knowledge of the covenants? Are they in themselves, difficult of comprehension? Far from it. No part of the word of God is more plain, and simple. The causes of their perplexity, and embarrassment, are to be sought for in other quarters. Nor are they problematical. To every intelligent, and unprejudiced observer, they are so obvious as not to be readily mistaken. Who does not know that for ages past, they have been the prolific source from which theological polemics of every caste, and of the most opposite sentiments, have sought to derive support for many of their most extravagant speculations in religion, and especially in the departments of ecclesiastical organization, the nature and efficacy of those ordinances commonly known as sacraments, and the required qualifications for membership in the church of Christ? By each class they receive such expositions as that to superficial minds, they appear to sustain its own peculiar conclusions. In this work of perversion, both the pulpit, and the press have been profuse, and elaborate. Witsius, and Boston, Strong, and Russell, Macknight, Dick, Dwight, and many others, have written profoundly. But who has been enlightened? Nave they not rather "darkened counsel, by words without knowledge?" However this may be, the opinion has been created, and now prevails almost universally, that the whole subject is exceedingly abstruse, so much so indeed, as to be beyond the reach of ordinary minds. By whom now, are the covenants even studied, independently of some recognized guide, apart from the Scriptures? Ministers themselves, who preach sermons, and write controversial essays upon them, and assume to enlighten public sentiment, are with almost no exceptions, meantime, tamely following in the track of such writers as happen to have gained the confidence of that particular denomination to which they are severally attached. Investigation has really ceased on this subject, and error has become stereotyped!

You have only to look into the books that are issued on both sides of the Atlantic, and you will see how confidently the covenants are claimed as authority for the union of church and state, and for the severance of church and state; for Popery, and for Lutheranism, for Prelacy, and for Presbytery; for the introduction of infants into the church of Christ, and for the connection with it of none but believers! The adherents of each party, are perfectly certain that the covenants fully sustain the doctrines they advocate. They have seen them, not indeed, in the Bible, but only through the medium of some essayist of their own class. The result has necessarily been a. perplexity, and confusion almost hopeless.

These are some of the causes by which the understanding of this subject has been rendered, to many minds, so exceedingly difficult. How until they are removed, can the covenants ever be comprehended? While their sense, and purposes, continue to be thus turned aside, and perverted, the hearts of the simple must be deceived, and to many sincere christians, much of the word of God remain a sealed book.

In the investigation upon which we are now entering, I shall in the outset, direct your attention to "the covenant of works," the breach of which made all the others necessary. It stands by itself, and will be so treated. Next I shall refer you to the three separate developements of the covenants, ? of salvation in the Mediator; the first being the announcement in Eden, immediately after the fall, of a Deliverer from sin; the second, the previous covenant of redemption, upon which necessarily, that announcement was predicated; and the third, the promise to Abraham that Messiah should come of his family, which promise was renewed, and transferred successively, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Judah, and to David. I shall then consider the three manifestations of the covenant of the law; the first of which, made with Abraham, constituted his descendants a separate nation, and gave them as the place of their residence until the coming of Messiah, the land of Canaan; the second of which, also made with Abraham, enacted circumcision, and thus distinguished his posterity personally, from all other men; and the third, made with all Israel at Sinai, gave them their peculiar national government. It will be necessary here, for us to pause, and investigate the philology of these covenants; which when we have examined, we shall consider how they appear in relation to the christian dispensation. It will then at once be apparent that the former three covenants were direct in their reference to Christ, and were substantially one covenant, made known in the gospel, as "the new and everlasting covenant;" and that the latter three were indirect in their reference to Christ. Together formed the old covenant, and when Messiah came, and his claims were fully established, were consummated and superceded by the gospel, which is their perfect developement. I shall then close the discussion by a brief explanation of the doctrinal, and practical teachings of the covenants. In this sketch I have not, you will perceive, included all the covenants of every class, recorded in the word of God, such, for example, as the covenant with Noah, the covenant of the priesthood in the family of Aaron, and many others of minor importance, because they are not especially connected with the promises which guarantied a Messiah, and do not, therefore, immediately concern our present investigation; and because by omitting them, we shall be able, without detriment to a perfect understanding of the whole subject, to attain much more brevity, and directness, than would otherwise be practicable.

These preliminary considerations submitted, in which we have seen that the covenants are not understood; the causes of that obscurity; the processes by which their comprehension has been perplexed, and embarrassed; and the method proposed in their investigation; I proceed at once, to the execution of my task. All the theories and discussions which they have heretofore elicited, and of which the world is full, I shall, learned and ingenious as many of them are, eschew wholly. With the Bible before us, and the Bible only, we shall carefully, and prayerfully pursue our purpose. By this process the prevailing obscurity will vanish. You will he surprised that it ever existed. Not only will you clearly, and fully understand the covenants themselves, but the knowledge of them, will cast over every other part of the divine record, a brightness and beauty, that will fill your heart with surprise, and overwhelming delight. And as you thus see more and more of the goodness, and grace of God, his word will become to your heart increasingly precious.


Acts ii : 28


2 Cor iii : 15

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