In a previous article we visited John Murray’s, The Covenant of Grace. This little booklet is a rich contribution to any discussion regarding covenant theology. In it he wrestles with the very definition of a divine covenant. He carefully addresses the notion of both a conditional and unconditional covenant of grace.
Murray understands a divine covenant to be “a sovereign administration of grace and promise”[i]. God sovereignly and unilaterally initiates a special covenant with his people. He sets this in contrast with the more commonly held notion of a covenant as an agreement between two parties.
He then goes on to address some potential confusion on the part of his readers. He makes clear that establishing a covenant unconditionally does not equate to the absence of conditions within the relationship. On the contrary, conditions presuppose an existing relationship.
God in his grace initiates and establishes the covenant bond. This “does not wait for the fulfillment of certain conditions on the part of those to whom the grace is dispensed”[ii]. Rather, “The continued enjoyment of this grace and of the relation established is contingent upon the fulfillment of certain conditions.”[iii]
Murray goes on to explain how the Abrahamic covenant supports this understanding. To state it simply, he demonstrates how the unconditional Abrahamic covenant had conditions. They were not conditions of bestowal, but conditions of continued communion.
So what about the Mosaic covenant? Certainly Christians associate this covenant with conditions. But does it fit the understanding of a sovereign administration of grace and promise? Would it not be a prime example supporting the idea of a mutual compact or agreement?
The tendency with the Mosaic administration is to emphasize its conditional nature and set it in contrast to the Abrahamic covenant as well as the New Covenant.
To this Murray responds,
“[W]e must remember that the idea of conditional fulfillment is not something peculiar to the Mosaic covenant. We have been faced quite poignantly with this very question in connection with the Abrahamic covenant. And since this feature is there patent, it does not of itself provide us with any reason for construing the Mosaic covenant in terms different from those of the Abrahamic.”[iv]
In other words, conditions were present in the Abrahamic covenant. This was not unique to the covenant made at Sinai. But what about the unilateral and unconditional aspects of establishing the relationship? Murray sees continuity here as well. The very act of delivering his people out of Egypt was in fulfillment of the covenant promise to Abraham.
[T]he Mosaic covenant was made with Israel as the sequel to their deliverance from Egypt, a deliverance wrought in pursuance of the gracious promises given by covenant to Abraham, wrought with the object of bringing to fulfillment the promise given to Abraham that his seed would inherit the land of Canaan, and a deliverance wrought in order to make Israel His own peculiar and adopted people.[v]
All of this activity was at God’s initiation and in fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham. But what about Exodus 19 where it appears that Israel is entering into a mutual agreement with God? Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; (Exodus 19:5 ESV)
Murray says this understanding has been a tripping point for many in their understanding of the Mosaic covenant. An extended quote here is helpful.
The foregoing references as well as other considerations might create the impression that the making of the covenant had to wait for the voluntary acceptance on the part of the people and their promise to obey and keep it. A close study of these passages will not bear out such an interpretation. It is an importation contrary to the texts themselves and one that has deflected the course of thought on the subject. Ex. xix. 5 does not say, ‘If ye will obey my voice and accept the terms stipulated, then I will make my covenant with you’. What is said is, ‘If ye will obey my voice indeed and keep my covenant, [then] ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me’. The covenant is conceived of as dispensed, as in operation, and as constituting a certain relation, in the keeping of it and in obeying God’s voice. The covenant is actually presupposed in the keeping of it. Undoubtedly there is a conditional feature to the words, ‘If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant’. But what is conditioned upon obedience and keeping of the covenant is the enjoyment of the blessing which the covenant contemplates.
…This gives a different perspective to our interpretation of the Mosaic covenant, and we find that the Mosaic covenant also is a sovereign administration of grace, divinely initiated, established, confirmed, and fulfilled.[vi] [Emphasis mine]
Much more could be said in regards to the Mosaic administration, but from Murray’s perspective it is clear that there is continuity in structure with the Mosaic and Abrahamic covenants. Both are divinely dispensed in God’s free grace. Communion with God as his covenant people is a hallmark of both. To Abraham he says he will “be God to you and your offspring after you”, and “I will be their God”. To Moses he says, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God”.
This fact links the Mosaic very closely with the Abrahamic and shows that religious relationship on the highest level is contemplated in both, namely, union and communion with God.[vii]
So what about the New Covenant? We certainly see continuity with the “religious relationship on the highest level”. Jeremiah prophesies about God’s New Covenant people that, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people”.[viii] But does the New Covenant fit Murray’s definition of “a sovereign administration of grace and promise” with conditions of continued fellowship?
Surely the New Covenant has a different structure. To speak of conditions in this relationship would mean a conditional salvation, would it not? Such a line of thought would plunge us into the company of Jacob Arminius, swimming in a sea of our own volition. Would that not render Christ’s work ineffectual and our own work the deciding factor in our eternal destiny?
Not wanting to entertain these notions, we will see what Murray has to say for himself next.
[i] John Murray, The Covenant of Grace (Phillipsburg, NJ: Reissued by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1988), 31.
[ii] Ibid, 19.
[iv] Ibid, 20.
[v] Ibid, 21.
[vi] Ibid, 21-22.
[vii] Ibid, 21.
[viii] Jeremiah 31:33