Let’s briefly wrap up our discussion on John Murray’s, The Covenant of Grace. If you missed the first couple of articles they are here and here. I will continue in my attempt to use as many of Murray’s own words as possible.
Up to this point Murray has discussed the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants. He has done so in an attempt to overturn the more traditional notion of a divine covenant as a mutual compact or agreement.
[T]he question that confronts us is whether the notion of mutual compact or agreement or convention provides the proper point of departure for our construction of the covenant of grace.[i]
We now arrive at a discussion regarding the new covenant. The question is, do we find continuity with the previous administrations? Does his definition of covenant comport with what we find in the New Testament? To this point Murray has emphasized the following as central to his understanding of a divine covenant:
- The traditional notion of mutual compact or agreement is not the “proper point of departure” for the understanding of a covenant
- It is rather, a unilateral, sovereign administration of grace and promise
- Though dispensed and established unconditionally, there is still the presence of conditions
- Such conditions are not conditions of bestowal, but of continued fellowship
Murray begins by ensuring his readers of perfect continuity.
[T]he contrast between the new economy and the old is not expressed in terms of difference between covenant and something else not a covenant. The contrast is within the ambit of covenant. This would lead us to expect that the basic idea of covenant which we find in the Old Testament is carried over into the New. We are confirmed in this expectation when we take account of the fact that the new covenant is the fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham (Lk. i. 72; Gal. iii. 15ff.)[ii]
In addition to the new covenant being a fulfillment of the Abrahamic, it is also the same in structure.
The new covenant in respect of its being a covenant does not differ from the Abrahamic as a sovereign administration of grace, divine in its inception, establishment, confirmation, and fulfillment.[iii]
In fact, in the New Testament we find all of the points of emphasis listed above.
We shall find that the features of the covenant are the same as those we found in connection with the covenant in the Old Testament.[iv]
But what about the differences? The book of Hebrews contrasts the new covenant with the old. Would this not certainly reveal at least some iterative change in the form and structure of a divine covenant? Murray would encourage us to be careful to understand the contrast.
[W]e find that the conception of covenant which we have already found is applied to the highest degree. However accentuated may be the problem connected with the writer’s evaluation of the Mosaic covenant, which he contrasts with the new, the resolution of this question will not interfere with our understanding of the conception he entertains respecting the new and better covenant. It is a covenant with a more excellent ministry (Heb. viii. 6), that is to say, more excellent in respect of the access to God secured and the fellowship maintained.[v]
The new covenant is the fullest expression of God in relation to His people.
In a word, the new covenant is covenant as we have found it to be all along the line of redemptive revelation and accomplishment. But it is covenant in all these respects on the highest level of achievement. If the mark of covenant is divinity in initiation, administration, confirmation, and fulfillment, here we have divinity at the apex of its disclosure and activity.[vi]
Murray then comes full circle back to his original contention. In regard to points one and two above, he again dispels the traditional notion of divine covenant.
From the beginning of God’s disclosures to men in terms of covenant we find a unity of conception which is to the effect that a divine covenant is a sovereign administration of grace and of promise. It is not a compact or contract or agreement that provides the constitutive or governing idea but that of dispensation in the sense of disposition.[vii]
A divine covenant constitutes a legally binding relationship between God and his people. There is no difference as to the conception or structure of this relationship. There is only an unfolding of God’s gracious plan in time and space. As His redemptive history tracks forward, the Covenant of Grace escalates to the point of climax. This crescendo of grace is seen across the different covenant administrations – different in fullness rather than structure.
The differentiation does not reside in any deviation from this basic conception but simply consists in the differing degrees of richness and fullness of the grace bestowed and of the promise given. Preponderantly in the usage of Scripture covenant refers to grace and promise specifically redemptive. The successive covenants are coeval with the successive epochs in the unfolding and accomplishment of God’s redemptive will.[viii]
Certainly the accomplishment is perfected through Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father. All of the way through this point of fulfillment and accomplishment, Murray has preserved his understanding of covenant. His basic definition remains intact. The structure of the relationship is not altered.
But this is where we reach a curious observation. After remaining front and center throughout this booklet, Murray makes not one use of the word “condition” in all of his discussion of the new covenant. He was careful to cover the continuity of the Abrahamic and Mosaic administrations in regard to both unilateral, unconditional nature as well as the presence of conditions in each. But here, it is as if his discussion concentrates on the definite but broader continuity while leaving any mention of conditions out altogether.
He does mention law, but again, it is in support of continuity.
Again, the new covenant is not indifferent to law. It is not contrasted with the old because the old had law and the new has not. The superiority of the new does not consist in the abrogation of that law but in its being brought up into more intimate relation to us and more effective fulfillment in us.[ix]
But still there is no express mention or use of the word condition. This follows 37 uses of the word in the preceding sections. If nothing else, this constitutes a lack of resolve with his little booklet.
Murray’s work preserves the sovereign and unilateral initiation of God’s relationship to his people. His emphasis is on God’s initiative. This is the strength of his position.
One might note a weakness is that he does not differentiate God’s initiative as it appears in the Covenant of Redemption versus the Covenant of Grace. This distinction would help the reader. Certainly both of these covenants are initiated by God. But, one is behind the veil of eternity while the other manifests itself in time and space.
The question remains: As to the new covenant in history, how are we to understand the notion of conditions within an unconditional covenant?
To continue this exploration we need to visit yet another reformed theologian. We began this series with a discussion of recent books on the subject of covenant and baptism and then moved on to a couple of Princeton theologians. Next, we will continue our trek backwards through history to a well-known work by Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man.
[i] John Murray, The Covenant of Grace (Phillipsburg, NJ: Reissued by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1988), 8.
[ii] Ibid, 27.
[v] Ibid, 28.
[vi] Ibid, 29.
[vii] Ibid, 30-31.
[viii] Ibid, 31.
[ix] Ibid, 29.