What is the Covenant of Grace?

Can you give me a very concise (preferably one sentence) definition of the Covenant of Grace?
The Covenant of Grace is that arrangement whereby God planned to save elect man from the just consequences of his sin; namely, immorality, misery, death, and damnation.

While that is a very concise rendering of the definition of the COG, it would be wise to unpack this sentence somewhat:

The word "covenant" means a disposition or an arrangement. This arrangement was made by God alone. This covenant was made in eternity. Man had no part in its making.

The word "grace" essentially means undeserved favor. The grace of God is divine favor manifested to sinners who deserve just the opposite: his disfavor and wrath.

So, the Covenant of Grace is that arrangement whereby God planned to save elect man from the just consequences of his sin; namely, immorality, misery, death, and damnation.

The Westminster Confession of Faith states:

VII.3. Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant (the Covenant of Works), the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace: wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.

VII.4. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in the Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ, the testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.

VII.5. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all fore-signifying Christ to come, which were for that time sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation, and is called the Old Testament.

VII.6. Under the gospel, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed, are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper; which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet in them it is held forth in more fulness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.

Thomas Watson in his A Body of Divinity unpacks this even further saying:


A: No! He entered into a covenant of grace to deliver the elect out of that state, and to bring them into a state of grace by a Redeemer.

'I will make an everlasting covenant with you.' Isa 55:5. Man being by his fall plunged into a labyrinth of misery, and having no way left to recover himself, God was pleased to enter into a new covenant with him, and to restore him to life by a Redeemer.

The great proposition I shall go upon is, that there is a new covenant ratified between God and the elect.

What is the new covenant?

It is a solemn compact and agreement made between God and fallen man, wherein the Lord undertakes to be our God, and to make us his people.

What names are given to the covenant?

(1.) It is called the covenant of peace in Ezek 37:76, because it seals up reconciliation between God and humble sinners. Before this covenant there was nothing but enmity. God did not love us, for a creature that offends cannot be loved by a holy God; and we did not love him, since a God that condemns cannot be loved by a guilty creature; so that there was war on both sides. But God has found out a way in the new covenant to reconcile differing parties, so that it is fitly called the covenant of peace.

(2.) It is called a covenant of grace, and well it may; for,

(1) It was of grace, that, when we had forfeited the first covenant, God should enter into a new one, after we had cast away ourselves. The covenant of grace is tabula post naufragium, as a plank after shipwreck.' Oh the free grace of God, that he should parley with sinners, and set his wisdom and mercy to work to bring rebels into the bond of the covenant!

(2) It is a covenant of grace, because it is a royal charter, all made up of terms of grace; that God will cast our sins behind his back;' that he will love us freely;' Hos 14:4; that he will give us a will to accept of the mercy of the covenant, and strength to perform the conditions of the covenant. Ezek 36:67. All this is pure grace.

Why should God make a covenant with us?

It is out of indulgence, favour, and regard to us. A tyrant will not enter into a covenant with slaves, he will not show them such respect. God's entering into a covenant with us, to be our God, is a dignity he puts upon us. A covenant is insigne honouris, a note of distinction between God's people and heathens. I will establish my covenant with thee.' Ezek 16:60. When the Lord told Abraham that he would enter into a covenant with him, Abraham fell upon his face, as being amazed that the God of glory should bestow such a favour upon him. Gen 17:7.

God makes a covenant with us, to tie us fast to him; as it is called in Ezekiel, the bond of the covenant.' God knows we have slippery hearts, therefore he will have a covenant to bind us. It is horrid impiety to go away from God after covenant. If one of the vestal nuns, who had vowed herself to religion, was deflowered, the Romans caused her to be burnt alive. It is perjury to depart from God after solemn covenant.

How does the covenant of grace differ from the first covenant made with Adam?

(1.) The terms of the first covenant were more strict and severe. For,

(1) The least failing would have made the covenant with Adam null and void, but many failings do not annul the covenant of grace. I grant, the least sin is a trespass upon the covenant, but it does not make it null and void. There may be many failings in the conjugal relation, but every failing does not break the marriage bond. It would be sad, if, as oft as we break covenant with God he should break covenant with us; but God will not take advantage of every failing, but in anger remember mercy.'

(2) The first covenant being broken, allowed the sinner no remedy, all doors of hope were shut; but the new covenant allows the sinner a remedy: it leaves room for repentance, and provides a mediator. Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.' Heb 12:24.

(2.) The first covenant ran all upon working,' the second is upon believing.' Rom 4:4.

But are not works required in the covenant of grace?

Yes. This is a faithful saying, that they which believe in God, be careful to maintain good works.' Tit 3:3. But the covenant of grace does not require works in the same manner as the covenant of works did. In the first covenant, works were required as the condition of life; in the second, they are required only as the signs of life. In the first covenant, works were required as grounds of salvation; in the new covenant, they are required as evidences of our love to God. In the first, they were required to the justification of our persons; in the new, to the manifestation of our grace.

What is the condition of the covenant of grace?

The main condition is faith.

Why is faith more the condition of the new covenant than any other grace?

To exclude all glorying in the creature. Faith is a humble grace. If repentance or works were the condition of the covenant, a man would say, It is my righteousness that has saved me; but if it be of faith, where is boasting? Faith fetches all from Christ, and gives all the glory to Christ; it is a most humble grace. Hence it is that God has singled out this grace to be the condition of the covenant.

If faith be the condition of the covenant of grace, it excludes desperate presumptuous sinners from the covenant. They say there is a covenant of grace, and they shall be saved: but did you ever know a bond without a condition? The condition of the covenant is faith, and if thou hast no faith, thou hast no more to do with the covenant, than a foreigner or a country farmer with the city charter.

Use one: Of information.

See the amazing goodness of God, to enter into covenant with us. He never entered into covenant with angels when they fell. It was much condescension in God to enter into covenant with us in a state of innocence, but more so when we were in a state of enmity. In this covenant of grace, we may see the cream of God's love, and the working of his bowels to sinners. This is a marriage covenant. "I am married to you, saith the Lord." Jer 3:14. In the new covenant, God makes himself over to us, and what can he give more? He makes over his promises to us, and what better bonds can we have?

Use two: Of trial.

Whether we are in covenant with God. There are three characters.

(1.) God's covenant-people are a humble people. "Be ye clothed with humility;' 1 Pet 5:5. God's people esteem others better than themselves; they shrink into nothing in their own thoughts. Phil 2:2. David cries out, "I am a worm, and no man:" though a saint, though a king, yet a worm. Psa. 22:2. When Moses' face shined, he covered it with a veil. When God's people shine most in grace, they are covered with the veil of humility. Pride excludes from the covenant, for "God resisteth the proud," 1 Pet 5:5, and sure such are not in covenant with God whom he resists.

(2.) A people in covenant with God are a willing people; though they cannot serve God perfectly, they serve him willingly. They do not grudge God a little time spent in his worship; they do not hesitate or murmur at sufferings; they will go through a sea and a wilderness, if God call. "Thy people shall be a willing people:' Psa 110:3: a people of willingness.' Heb. This spontaneity and willingness is from the attractive power of God's Spirit: the Spirit does not impellere, force, but trahere, sweetly draws the will; and this willingness in religion makes all our services accepted. God does sometimes accept of willingness without the work, but never the work without willingness.

(3.) God's covenant people are a consecrated people, they have holiness to the Lord written upon them. Thou art a holy people to the Lord thy God.' Deut 7:7. God's covenant people are separated from the world, and sanctified by the Spirit. The priests under the law were not only to wash in the great laver, but were arrayed with glorious apparel. Exod 28:8. This was typical, to show God's people are not only washed from gross sins, but adorned with holiness of heart: they bear not only God's name, but image. Tamerlane refused a pot of gold, when he saw it had not his father's stamp upon it, but the Roman stamp. Holiness is God's stamp; if he does not see this stamp upon us, he will not own us for his covenant people.

Use three: Of exhortation.

To such as are out of covenant, labour to get into covenant, and have God for your God. How glad would the old world have been of an ark! How industrious should we be to get within the ark of the covenant! Consider,

(1.) The misery of such as live and die out of covenant with God. Such have none to go to in an hour of distress. When conscience accuses, when sickness approaches (which is but a harbinger to bespeak a lodging for death), then what will you do? Whither will you flee? Will you look to Christ for help? He is a mediator only for such as are in covenant. Oh, how will you be filled with horror and despair! and be as Saul, when he said, The Philistines make war against me, and the Lord is departed.' 1 Sam 28:85. Till you are in covenant with God, there is no mercy. The mercy-seat was placed upon the ark, and the mercy-seat was no larger than the ark; to show, that the mercy of God reaches no further than the covenant.

(2.) The excellency of the covenant of grace. It is a better covenant than the covenant made with Adam, first because it is more friendly and propitious. Those services which would have been rejected in the first covenant are accepted in the second. Here God accepts of the will for the deed, 2 Cor 8:12; here sincerity is crowned in the covenant of grace; wherein we are weak, God will give strength; and wherein we come short, God will accept of a surety. Secondly it is a better covenant, because it is surer. Thou hast made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure.' 2 Sam 23:3. The first covenant was not sure, it stood upon a tottering foundation of works. Adam had no sooner a stock of righteousness to trade with, but he broke; but the covenant of grace is sure; it is confirmed with God's decree, and it rests upon two mighty pillars, the oath of God, and the blood of God. Thirdly it has better privileges. The covenant of grace brings preferment. Our nature now is more ennobled, we are raised to higher glory than in innocence, we are advanced to sit upon Christ's throne. Rev 3:3I. We are, by virtue of the covenant of grace, nearer to Christ than the angels: they are his friends, we his spouse. God is willing to be in covenant with you. Why does God woo and beseech you by his ambassadors to be reconciled, if he were not willing to be in covenant?

I would fain be in covenant with God, but I have been a great sinner, and I fear God will not admit me into covenant.

If thou seest thy sins, and loathest thyself for them, God will take thee into covenant. Thou hast wearied me with thy iniquities; I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions.' Isa 43:34, 25. As the sea covers great rocks, so God's covenant mercy covers great sins. Some of the Jews that crucified Christ had their sins washed away in his blood.

But I am not worthy that God should admit me into covenant.

It never came into God's thoughts to make a new covenant upon terms of worthiness. If God should show mercy to none but such as are worthy, then must he show mercy to none. But it is God's design in the new covenant to advance the riches of grace, to love us freely; and when we have no worthiness of our own, to accept us through Christ's worthiness. Therefore let not unworthiness discourage you; it is not unworthiness that excludes any from the covenant, but unwillingness.

What shall we do that we may be in covenant with God?

(1.) Seek to God by prayer. Exige a Domino misericordiam [Demand compassion from the Lord]. Augustine. Lord, be my God in covenant.' The Lord has made an express promise, that, upon our prayer to him, the covenant should be ratified, he will be our God, and we shall be his people. They shall call upon my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The Lord is my God.' Zech 13:3. Only it must be an importunate prayer; come as earnest suitors, resolve to take no denial.

(2.) If you would be in covenant with God, break off the covenant with sin. Before the marriage-covenant there must be a divorce. If ye return to the Lord with all your hearts, put away the strange gods; and they put away Ashtaroth,' 1 Sam 7:7, viz. their female gods. Will any king enter into covenant with that man who is in league with his enemies?

(3.) If you would enter into the bond of the covenant, get faith in the blood of the covenant. Christ's blood is the blood of atonement; believe in this blood, and you are safely arked in God's mercy. Ye are made nigh by the blood of Christ.' Eph 2:13.

Use four: Of comfort to such as can make out their covenant interest in God.

(1.) You that are in covenant with God, all your sins are pardoned. Pardon is the crowning mercy. Who forgiveth thy iniquity, who crowneth thee,' &c. Psa 103:3. This is a branch of the covenant. I will be their God, and I will forgive their iniquity,' Jer 31:13, 34. Sin being pardoned, all wrath ceases. How terrible is it when but a spark of God's wrath flies into a man's conscience! But sin being forgiven, there is no more wrath. God does not appear now in the fire or earthquake, but covered with a rainbow full of mercy.

(2.) All your temporal mercies are fruits of the covenant. Wicked men have mercies by Providence, not by virtue of a covenant; with God's leave, not with his love. But such as are in covenant have their mercies sweetened with God's love, and they swim to them in the blood of Christ. As Naaman said to Gehazi, Take two talents,' 2 Kings 5:3, so says God to such as are in covenant, take two talents, take health, and take Christ with it; take riches, and take my love with them; take the venison, and take the blessing with it: take two talents.

(3.) You may upon all occasions plead the covenant. If you are haunted with temptations, plead the covenant. Lord, thou hast promised to bruise Satan under my feet shortly; wilt thou suffer thy child to be thus worried? Take off the roaring lion. If in want, plead the covenant: Lord, thou hast said, I shall want no good thing;' wilt thou save me from hell, and not from want? wilt thou give me a kingdom, and deny me daily bread?

(4.) If in covenant with God all things shall co-operate for your good. Etiam mala cidunt in bonum. Psa 25:50. Not only golden paths, but his bloody paths are for good. Every wind of Providence shall blow them nearer heaven. Affliction shall humble and purify. Heb 12:20. Out of the bitterest drug God distils your salvation. Afflictions add to the saints, glory. The more the diamond is cut, the more it sparkles; the heavier the saints' cross is, the heavier shall be their crown.

(5.) If thou art in covenant once, then for ever in covenant. The text calls it an everlasting covenant.' Such as are in covenant are elected; and God's electing love is unchangeable. I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them; but I will put my fear in their heart, that they shall not depart from me.' Jer 32:20. God will so love the saints that he will not forsake them; and the saints shall so fear God that they shall not forsake him. It is a covenant of eternity. It must be so; for whom is this covenant made with? Is it not with believers? and have not they coalition and union with Christ? Christ is the head, they are the body. Eph 1:12, 23. This is a near union, much like that union between God the Father and Christ. As thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.' John 17:7I. Now, the union between Christ and the saints being so inseparable, it can never be dissolved, or the covenant made void; so that you may die with comfort.

(6.) Thou art in covenant with God, and thou art going to thy God. Behold a death-bed cordial; death breaks the union between the body and the soul, but perfects the union between Christ and the soul. This has made the saints desire death as the bride the wedding-day. Phil 1:13. Cupio dissolvi, Lead me, Lord, to that glory,' said one, a glimpse whereof I have seen, as in a glass darkly.'

Use five: Of direction.

To show you how you should walk who have tasted of covenant-mercy, live as a people in covenant with God. As you differ from others in respect of dignity, so you must in point of carriage.

(1.) You must love this God. God's love to you calls for love. It is Amor gratiatus, a free love. Why should God pass by others, and take you into a league of friendship with himself? In the law, God passed by the lion and eagle, and chose the dove; so he passes by the noble and mighty. It is Amor plenus, a full love. When God takes you into covenant, you are his Hephzihah; Isa 62:2; his delight is in you; he gives you the key of all his treasure, he heaps pearls upon you, he settles heaven and earth upon you; he gives you a bunch of grapes by the way, and says, Son, all I have is thine.' And does not all this call for love? Who can tread upon these hot coals, and his heart not burn in love to God?

(2.) Walk holily. The covenant has made you a royal nation, therefore be a holy people. Shine as lights in the world; live as earthly angels. God has taken you into covenant, that you and he may have communion together; and what is it that keeps up your communion with God but holiness?

(3.) Walk thankfully. Psa 103:3. God is your God in covenant; he has done more for you than if he had made you ride upon the high places of the earth, and given you crowns and sceptres. Oh take the cup of salvation, and bless the Lord! Eternity will be little enough to praise him. Musicians love to play on their music where there is the loudest sound, and God loves to bestow his mercies where he may have the loudest praises. You that have angels, reward, do angels, work. Begin that work of praise here, which you hope to be always doing in heaven.

Related Answer:

The Renewed or New Covenant?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).