In the realm of Reformed theology, the exploration of divine covenants holds a prominent position. Two such covenants—the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace—invite particularly close attention since all of Scripture is housed in these two vital concepts (as well as the Covenant of Works). While each covenant bears its unique theological significance, their contrast, especially with respect to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), illuminates a profound understanding of God’s plan for salvation.
The Covenant of Redemption is traditionally understood as the eternal agreement within the Trinity, in which the Father appoints the Son, Jesus Christ, to become the Redeemer of the elect. The Son willingly agrees to this mission, and the Holy Spirit consents to apply the benefits of the Son’s work to the elect. The Covenant of Redemption in this way forms the basis for all God’s dealings with his elect church—it is the divine blueprint for the salvation history that unfolds in time and space giving broth to the covenant of grace. “Even he shall build the temple of the LORD; and he shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon his throne; and he shall be a priest upon his throne: and the counsel of peace shall be between them both,” (Zec. 6:13).
In contrast, the Covenant of Grace is viewed as the historical outworking of the Covenant of Redemption. In this covenant, God promises eternal life to those, who, not on the basis of works, but through faith in Jesus Christ, believe his promises of life in Christ. It is through this Covenant of Grace that the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work—forgiveness, justification, sanctification, and eventual glorification—are conveyed to the elect.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) primarily discusses the Covenant of Grace, and does not use the specific term “covenant of redemption”. Chapter VII of the Confession delineates the nature of this covenant and its manifestation in different epochs; which is to say, it divides the covenant of grace into occurrences before time, and occurrences in time. The Confession holds that God was pleased to save the elect, and to that end, He chose to establish a Covenant of Grace. Under this covenant, God freely offers life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring faith in Him that believers may be saved. The difference then is merely of qualification and not conceptually. In the Confession, the concept of the Covenant of Redemption is explained in its principles subsumed under the broader concept of the Covenant of Grace.
Many Reformed theologians, extrapolating on the Confession, argue for a distinct place for the Covenant of Redemption. In doing so, they highlight an essential contrast. The Covenant of Redemption is an eternal, intra-Trinitarian agreement, made before the foundation of the world, involving obligations and commitments among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. On the other hand, the Covenant of Grace is the historical expression of this eternal agreement, bringing its blessings to fruition in the temporal world.
Therefore, while the Westminster Confession might not distinguish between these two covenants explicitly, a nuanced understanding of Reformed theology prompts us to discern the distinct roles they play in God’s redemptive plan. The Covenant of Redemption sketches the divine blueprint of salvation, while the Covenant of Grace carries this blueprint into the realm of history, allowing for the actualization of God’s redemptive work in the life of the elect.
By perceiving the distinctive yet interconnected roles of the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace, Christians gain a profound understanding of God’s plan for salvation. This understanding, in turn, deepens our sense of awe and gratitude for the divine initiative in salvation, reminding us that it is entirely God’s work, from conception to completion.