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Larger Catechism Question 33a

A sermon by Dr William Young delivered to the Presbyterian Reformed Church of RI on April 14, 1991. 

 

Q. 33. Was the Covenant of Grace always administered after one and the same manner?

A. The Covenant of Grace was not always administered after the same manner, but the

administrations of it under the Old Testament were different from those under the New.

 

May the Lord be pleased to grant his indispensable aid as I would endeavor to direct your attention to words found in the chapter read from the Epistle to the Ephesians, the first chapter at the tenth verse:  That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth;  even in him…  The Covenant of Grace was made in eternity between the Father and the Son.  In that council of peace, determinations were made as to the redemption to be wrought at the appointed time and as to its application.   This application of redemption was to take place at sundry times and in diverse manners and to culminate in the mission of the Savior.  The decree, settled and fixed from all eternity, was ordered to be executed in the course of time. 

 

Now, there are many in the world today that have an eye only to time, and sad to say, this is all too often the case in the visible church that the whole interest of the people at the church are of things that they consider to be timely;  sometimes things that they call practical, and interest and concern with respect to eternity is treated as being secondary at best, even among some who may call themselves Evangelical and Reformed.  Well, this is one reason, I would say, why so little is heard in even the more conservative churches nowadays of eternal election and of the eternal Covenant of Grace.  Yet, at the same time, a due emphasis upon these things should not lead to a neglect of attention to the execution of the eternal decrees in the course of time. 

 

Now in Ephesians, the first chapter, the inspired Apostle proceeds from the eternal election of God to the redemption of Christ, and to the work of the Holy Spirit.  The Great Shepherd of the sheep has made known to his sheep the mystery of his will, as we have it intimated in verse 9.  We may think of Christ himself here;  we may also think of God the Father.  We know that the Father and the Son are not to be separated from one another in connection with the execution of the divine decrees.  However, we take the subject of verse 9:  Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure, which he hath purposed in himself, we may certainly say  it is the eternal God, it is the triune God, that does execute his decrees in the works of creation and providence, and who, in particular, executes his decrees with regard to the salvation of sinners in the work of redemption, and in the application of that great work. 

 

Now the purpose of the revelation of the Covenant of Grace in the gospel is, as our text states, That in the dispensation in the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth;  even in him.   I have chosen this particular verse as a text because of the existence of the word dispensation in this particular verse in our Authorized Version.  Because I was to speak today about the subject of the dispensations of the Covenant of Grace;  but the text has much of great value that is worthy of instruction to us in some remarks that may be made about it.  As to the word dispensation, that word in the original is literally economy, οἰκονομία, and the word economy in Greek is derived from two words:  one, the word meaning house, and the other word meaning law or regulation;  so economy is etymologically the regulation of the household.  And in this case, the house is a spiritual house, the house is the house of God, which is the Church, the pillar and the ground of the truth.  So we may say that the dispensation spoken of here is the arrangement by which the salvation of the elect, determined in the Covenant of Grace, is actually administered in the course of the history of mankind. 

 

Now when the fulness of times is spoken of here, the dispensation of the fulness of times, we think immediately of the words of Galatians, the fourth chapter and the fourth verse, where we read that in the fulness of time, or when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son;  and it is the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ with the subsequent obedience of Christ to the revealed will of God, that is there in view.  Well, times in the text is in the plural, and that may suggest a distinction between the fulness of times spoken of here, and the fulness of the time in Galatians 4:4.  In the face of the fulness of the time, the time, of course, here means not just what we commonly think of as being time in the literal, chronological sense. It is that, but it is in a very special way the fixed time, it is the settled time, it is the appropriate time that God has determined upon.  It is the time for which he has made a preparation in his previous dealings with mankind, and in particular, his dealings with his people.  Now the plural here may indicate a period of many times as distinct from the once and for all event of the nativity of the Son of God in the words of Galatians in regard to the fulness of the time.  In either case, the time is the fixed time, it was the appointed time for which the preparation was made when the Son of God came into the world.  And if in our text the fulness of times includes the whole of the age of the gospel from the coming of Christ into the world until his second advent, then we may make a certain distinction.  In these times, you may say, the times of the gospel, people gather together, or sum up, or recapitulate all things in Christ.

 

What has been torn asunder and separated by sin is now to be unified in Christ.  And the extent of this unification is universal.  It is all things in Christ. and specifically it said, both which is in heaven and that which are on the earth.  Now, different commentators have found different meanings with respect to the identification of the things in heaven and the things on the earth.  I will not go into the various views on this, but am inclined to take it rather broadly to say that not only the departed saints on earth but also the angels, as well as the redeemed on earth, are included here.  And also, one may also see not only the angels, that is the angels that never sinned, and the redeemed sinners of Adam’s race, not only these, but even inanimate nature may be included.  We think of the passage in the Epistle to the Romans, chapter 8:19 and following. 

 

Well, we may then, from this astounding passage that we have in our text, among other things, we may infer the teaching of our Larger Catechism, answer number thirty-three:  the Covenant of Grace was not always administered as to the same manner, but the administrations of it under the Old Testament were different from those under the New.  In connection with the subject, we may first make some remarks of the word dispensation;  then on the various dispensations of the Covenant of Grace;  and thirdly, of the unity of the Covenant of Grace in these dispensations.  The word dispensation occurs not only in our text, but it occurs also in the Westminster Confession of Faith in Chapter 7 and Section VI, where we read; There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations. 

 

Now, we should not give up the word dispensation because of the errors of modern Dispensationalism.  That teaching is very prominent in evangelical circles in this country, as well as elsewhere, and it has, no doubt, provided occasion for some of the champions of the Covenant Theology to look askance at the very word dispensation, but the word should not trouble us.  The word occurs as we have seen in our text of Scripture, and the word is used in the Westminster Confession in the plural.  We would do better, then, to set forth the Scriptural truth in opposition to all departures from it.  And, we emphatically reject the definition that you find in the Scofield Reference Bible.  It is a Bible where the text of the Bible itself may be perfectly alright –  especially if the King James version is used, (though you have modern Scofields now with the NIV and what not), but the notes that you find, as well as the references in the Scofield Reference Bible, are to say the least, references that are misleading and the notes are often not merely misleading but downright wrong.  And the note that gives the definition of dispensation is, I think, a very bad note where it states that:  A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in reference of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God

 

Now, since the violation of the Covenant of Works, it is not really proper to say that there has been any probation whatsoever of man in the world.  Man was under probation under the Covenant of Works.  When he was created upright, he was tested there with respect to whether or not he would obey or disobey the commandment of God.  But since our first parents disobeyed the commandment with respect to the forbidden fruit, they and the human race did descend into a fallen state.  Original righteousness has been lost.  There is no longer any place for probation for those who are under the wrath and the curse of God.  There can only be a deliverance if God is pleased to give it by his free grace.  Fallen man is dead in trespasses and sins, and can be saved only by grace.  That’s obscured when the condition of our first parents before the Fall is made one dispensation, and then you have a whole batch of dispensations that follow after the Fall.  The enormous difference that our Confession of Faith makes between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace is just flooded out by this way of putting things.  And then, when it comes to the matter of the Covenant of Grace, the arrangement before the Fall, was no dispensation  of the Covenant of Grace to begin with, and secondly, the subsequent dispensations since the Fall are not separated by such principles as the Scofield Reference Bible, as the modern Dispensationalism would make out.  They have Dispensation of Conscience, another Dispensation of Human Government, another of Law, the present one of Grace, and finally the one on the Kingdom, that they put in the Millennium.  The distinctions that are made there are drawn so sharply in the Dispensational system that one gets at the very best, a highly misleading view as to the way in which God has dealt with sinners since the Fall.  Now, when this distortion of the doctrine of divine dispensations is rejected, we may heartily embrace the truth that is taught in holy Scripture.  The Scripture does teach this great truth; that the infinitely wise God has revealed and has realized the plan of salvation in a series of historical periods, and I take the text does warrant us in calling those periods dispensations.

 

Now, the crucial text to be mentioned in this connection we find in Hebrews in the first chapter at the beginning, in which the distinction is made between God speaking at sundry times and in diverse manners in times past, and his speaking in these last days by his Son.  These last days are very clearly here the entire New Testament period, not simply the days or weeks or months or even years immediately preceding the second coming of Christ, but the entire New Testament period is here spoken of as these last days in Hebrews chapters 1 and 2.   These words indicate that there are fundamentally two dispensations, and that the dividing line between the old dispensation and the new dispensation is the incarnation of the Son of God.  The fundamental doctrine of such a division is the doctrine of the Old and of the New Testaments.

 

Now, when we speak of the Old and of the New Testaments as dispensations of the Covenant of Grace, we are not, of course, speaking of the division of the books of the Bible into the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.  But rather we are speaking here of the administration of the Covenant of Grace that we find from the time of the first promise in Genesis 3:15 in the Old Testament through the period that so far as canonical Scripture is concerned terminates with the Book of Malachi.  In the New Testament we have the workings of the Lord in administering the eternal covenant since the time of the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ.   It’s the two administrations that are in view when we speak here of the Old Testament and the New Testament.  The language that we find in Hebrews, the ninth chapter, verses 15 to 18, is such that the word translated testament is, of course, the same word that is often translated by the word covenant in English;  but Hebrews 9: 15-18, is a text in which it is so explicitly stated that, where a testament is, there must also, of necessity, be the death of the testator, verse 16, so that we may properly use the word testament in this connection, and possibly also in other passages of Scripture, the translation testament, rather than that of covenant may be preferable.  But it is the ratification of the Covenant of Grace that by the death of Jesus Christ, the Testator, that warrants our speaking here of the Old Testament and the New Testament.

 

Now, sound divines have proposed of various subdivisions of the Old Testament.  There is a certain Scripture basis for making some subdivisions, surely.  The period from Adam to Moses is mentioned in Romans, Chapter 5, verses 13 and 14;  and the period from Abraham to Moses is mentioned in Galatians, Chapter 3, verse 17.   Whether or not to make further divisions, as in the times of Noah and in David, I would say, is not a question in which there is any serious difference with respect to one’s fundamental doctrinal position.  I think it is more or less a matter of indifference how many of these subdivisions in the way of dispensations one might see fit to make.  In the case of Noah, it does not strike me that there was any great change so far as the administration of the Covenant of Grace in the life of the Church was concerned.  In the time of Noah after the Flood, there was still the Patriarchs in charge of the worship until the time even of the Mosaic economy.  The basic features of the Old Testament are present from the very first promise of the Redeemer in Genesis 3:15, and the fulfillment of that promise we have in the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Possibly, one might like to make a division at the time of David on the basis of the fact that the practice of psalmody in the worship of God was so enlarged at the time of the reign of David.  We might think of that that provides a kind of reason for saying that you had a subordinate beginning of a new period of time in God’s dealings with his people in the matter of public worship. 

 

But the fundamental division, in any case, is the division between the Old Testament and the New.  There is not only the promise given at the very beginning in Genesis 3:15, but we also have the Divine institution of sacrifice from the very beginning.  Here sinners are taught by the Lord that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.  And so far as Church government is concerned in the infancy of the Church, it was entrusted to the Patriarchs as the heads of families.  It was at the time of Moses that we have the institution of the Levitical priesthood;  though we do have mention of Melchizedek, King of Salem as the Priest of the Most High God in Genesis 14 and 18.

 

Now, thirdly, the teaching of the Bible as to the various dispensations or covenants has been, as we observed, exaggerated by the Dispensationalists.  They have fallen into the dangerous error of denying the unity of the Covenant of Grace in their diverse dispensations.  It is a central doctrine of Holy Scripture that the promises of salvation by faith in Christ are promises that have provided the only way of salvation for sinners in all ages, even from the Fall of man unto the Last Judgment.  That the promise was revealed at once after the Fall shows this to be the case, and we may set forth this great truth in three propositions:  First, that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only Savior of sinners;  secondly, that the redemption purchased by Christ must be applied to the sinner by the work of the Holy Spirit;  and thirdly, that all the saving benefits promised in the Covenant of Grace are applied to the elect in all dispensations.

 

Now first, the Lord Jesus Christ is the only Savior of sinners, and the Scripture is so clear about this that all Christians, surely Dispensationalists included, must acknowledge it to be the case, that neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. Acts 4:12  And, for other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 3:11.  Once sin is entered into the world, fallen man is under the wrath of God, and can be delivered only by the perfect obedience and the substitutionary sufferings of the Redeemer;  and he is, therefore, the One who alone who could fulfill the conditions of the Covenant of Grace.  We understand the Covenant of Grace as the Eternal Covenant.  Dispensationalists, as well as other Christians, must hold that no sinner at any time can be saved except by the merit of the blood of the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  He is the Lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world.  Revelation 13:8. 

 

The redemption purchased by Christ, in the second place, must be applied to the sinner by the work of the Holy Spirit, who produces faith in the soul.  The fourth chapter of Romans plainly teaches us that David in the 32nd Psalm, found forgiveness of sins in the imputation of righteousness without works.   Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 4:6.  And before David, before the Mosaic dispensation, Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Romans 4:3.  In Galatians, the third chapter, the inspired Apostle concludes,  Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham, verse 7, and That the blessings of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles through Jesus Christ that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith, in verse 14.  The argument of verses 15 to 17 of Galatians 3 makes it clear that the covenant with Abraham confirmed of God in Christ was not disannulled by the Mosaic law.  It is the same covenant under which the Galatians were saved;  and of course, it is the same covenant under which any sinner can be saved.  From the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost and the abundance of the operations of the Holy Spirit in the Church since Pentecost, from all this we may not conclude, that under the Old Testament, justifying faith was anything other than the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in the sinner’s heart.  There can be no other application of the Savior’s finished work than by the operation of the Spirit of Christ.  No man can say that Jesus is the Lord. but by the Holy Ghost, 1 Corinthians 12:3b.  We know that the people of God under the Old Testament looked forward to the Redeemer as promised, and their faith was a faith in Christ who was to come;  while since the coming of Christ under the New Testament, the children of God look back to the great accomplishment that the Savior has performed in rendering obedience in our nature and in taking the place of sinners.

 

Thirdly under this head, all of the saving benefits promised in the Covenant of Grace are applied to the elect in all dispensations.  It’s not only faith, but it’s every saving grace that is the effect of the Holy Spirit’s special operations. We may take a single example in which the Dispensationalists have erred very seriously, I would say, namely, the gift of final perseverance – it’s a precious truth.  Many Dispensationalists agree that in the present dispensation it is true;  those who once have been brought to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ will never perish.  But the Dispensationalist denies that this was the case in the Dispensation of Law, and you have it in a note in the Scofield Bible on the 51st Psalm.  It is stated that New Testament Christians are not to pray with David, Take not thy Holy Spirit from me.  Well, this not only encourages an Antinomian point of view in regard to the Christian life, as though when a Christian has sinned, and even if a Christian were supposed to have sinned the fearful sins that David sinned, a Christian can just say,  Oh well, I am justified by the blood of Christ, and I have nothing to fear.  No, no!  That the Christian is not to pray, Take not thy Holy Spirit from me, under any circumstances is a sheer Antinomianism.  It is not only an abusing of the Doctrine of Grace, and not only an unsound assurance such as the Dispensationalists from the time of the Plymouth Brethren have cultivated.  It is not only that, but it’s also the supposing that the grace of final perseverance was not granted to the Old Testament saints.  This is a way in which the doctrine of the unity of the Covenant of Grace is denied, even by some who would certainly admit and insist that Christ is the only Savior. 

 

That faith and the connected graces appeared in the Old Testament saints from the time of Abel is set forth at length in the 11th chapter of Hebrews, and there it may be not only justifying faith, but may be faith in its various exercises that is exemplified in the case of the Old Testament believers.  But in every case, it is that faith that is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  The same faith that New Testament believers have is ascribed to the great cloud of witnesses that Hebrews chapter 11 sets forth.  That faith and the connected graces that appeared in them, we have in that text.  For example, their hope was not merely that of an earthly Canaan, but as Hebrews 11 makes it clear in the case of Abraham, that it was the hope of a heavenly city that hath foundations, whose maker and builder is God.  I am not saying that there were no earthly promises that were made to Abraham, but what is most fundamental, that one that Hebrews 11 puts the great emphasis upon, is the fact that Abraham had that heavenly hope that the believers who are addressed in the Epistle to the Hebrews are exhorted to cling onto.

 

We will say just a word or two by way of application:  Since there is only one single Savior, and since there is only one and the same saving faith, in short, since there is only one Covenant of Grace in all dispensations, one thing that follows is that there is only that one at the present time.  If you are to be saved as a converted sinner, there is only one way in which salvation is set before you, and that is through the Lord Jesus Christ to whom you must be delivered from that lost estate, and that through a living faith in Jesus Christ who is the only Savior. 

 

And a living faith is always bound up with sincere repentance.  Lay down your arms of rebellion and submit to him who is now set forth in the gospel as the Mediator, as the Redeemer, who gives to Israel, even to the Israel of God, repentance and the remission of sins.  May he be pleased to grant his blessing and enable us to call upon his name.

 

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Eternal, ever gracious, most wise and holy God, we would bless thy great name that thou hast devised a way whereby thou mayest be just, manifest thy righteousness and the honor of thy law, and at the same time justify the ungodly who believes in Jesus.  Do thou, O Lord, take of the words of the gospel and apply them efficaciously to the souls of those that hear.  Do thou, Lord, go before us now and undertake for us. We would beseech thee that we may be enabled to serve thee acceptably with reverence and godly fear, both on this thy holy Sabbath day and in all the days of our lives.  May it be that whether we eat or drink or whatsoever we do, we would do all unto thy glory. 

 

Do thou grant thy blessing upon the children of thy children.  We would beseech thee, Lord, that the instruction that they receive in the truth of thy word may be blessed unto their souls; that they would at an early age look unto thee with a true and with a saving faith, and would receive the pardon of their sins, and the gift of thy Spirit, guiding and directing them and protecting them from the evil that is around, as well as from the evil that is within.   Grant thy blessing also, we would pray, upon those that rule over us.  May we have rulers that rule in thy fear.  May they be concerned both in their private lives and in their public performances to render obedience unto the commandments of thy Holy Word.  Do thou, Lord, grant above all that they would subject themselves unto him whom thou hast anointed and appointed to be the Head of all things unto his body the Church, to be the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.  Go before us then, blot out sin and iniquity in all things, and especially in our endeavors to approach thee.  Accept, O Lord, thus of our persons and of the services that we would render to thee in Christ, who is the only Mediator between thyself, a Holy God, and sinners as ourselves.  But we would ask all in his name and for his sake alone, Amen.


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