Louis Berkhof

Systematic Theology:

IV. The Dual Aspect of the Covenant

In speaking of the contracting parties in the covenant of grace it was already intimated that the covenant may be considered from two different points of view. There are two different aspects of the covenant, and now the question arises, In what relation do these two stand to each other? This question has been answered in different ways.


Some have distinguished between an external and an internal covenant. The external covenant was conceived as one in which a person's status depends entirely on the performance of certain external religious duties. His position is entirely correct, if he does what is required of him, somewhat in the Roman Catholic sense. Among Israel this covenant assumed a national form. Perhaps no one worked out the doctrine of an external covenant with greater consistency than Thomas Blake. The dividing line between the external and the internal covenant was not always represented in the same way. Some connected baptism with the external, and confession of faith and the Lord's Supper, with the internal covenant; others thought of baptism and confession as belonging to the external covenant, and of the Lord's Supper as the sacrament of the internal covenant. But the trouble is that this whole representation results in a dualism in the conception of the covenant that is not warranted by Scripture; it yields an external covenant that is not interpenetrated by the internal. The impression is created that there is a covenant in which man can assume an entirely correct position without saving faith; but the Bible knows of no such covenant. There are, indeed, external privileges and blessings of the covenant, and there are persons who enjoy these only; but such cases are abnormalities that cannot be systematized. The distinction between an external and an internal covenant does not hold.

This view must not be confused with another and related view, namely, that there is an external and an internal aspect of the covenant of grace (Mastricht and others). According to this some accept their covenant responsibilities in a truly spiritual way, from the heart, while others accept them only by an external profession with the mouth, and therefore are only apparently in the covenant. Mastricht refers to Judas Iscariot, Simon the sorcerer, those who have temporal faith, and others. But the trouble is that, according to this view, the non-elect and non-regenerate are merely external appendages to the covenant, and are simply regarded as children of the covenant by us because of our short-sightedness, but are no covenant children at all in the sight of God. They are not really in the covenant, and therefore cannot really become covenant breakers either. It offers no solution of the problem in what sense the non-elect and non- regenerate, who are members of the visible Church, are children of the covenant also in the sight of God, and can therefore become covenant breakers.


Others, as for instance, Olevianus and Turretin, distinguish between the essence and the administration of the covenant. According to Turretin the former corresponds to the internal calling and the invisible Church formed by means of this calling; and the latter, to the external calling and the visible Church, as consisting of those who are called externally by the Word. The administration of the covenant consists only in the offer of salvation in the preaching of the Word, and in the other external privileges in which all share who have a place in the Church, including many non-elect. The essence of the covenant, however, also includes the spiritual reception of all the blessings of the covenant, the life in union with Christ, and therefore extends to the elect only. This distinction certainly contains an element of truth, but is not altogether logical and clear. While essence and form would constitute an antithesis, essence and administration do not. They may refer to the invisible and the visible Church, as Turretin seems to intend, or to the final end or realization and the announcement of the covenant, as Olevianus understands the distinction. But if the former is meant, it would be better to speak of essence and revelation; and if the latter is intended, it would be preferable to speak of the aim and the means of its realization. Here, too, the question remains unanswered, whether and in how far the non-elect are covenant children also in the sight of God.


Still others, as for instance, Koelman, speak of a conditional and an absolute covenant. Koelman emphasizes the fact that, when an external and an internal covenant are distinguished, only a single covenant is meant, and the terms "external" and "internal" simply serve to stress the fact that all are not in the covenant in exactly the same way. Some are in it merely by an external confession, to the enjoyment of external privileges, and others by a hearty acceptance of it, to the enjoyment of the blessings of salvation. Likewise, he wishes it to be clearly understood that, when he says that some are in the covenant externally and conditionally, he does not mean to assert that they are not really in the covenant, but only that they cannot obtain the promised blessings of the covenant, except by complying with the condition of the covenant. This representation, too, undoubtedly contains an element of truth, but in Koelman it is linked up in such a way with the notion of an external and an internal covenant, that he comes dangerously near to the error of accepting two covenants, especially when he claims that during the New Testament dispensation God incorporates whole nations and kingdoms in the covenant.


Reformed theologians, such as Kuyper, Bavinck, and Honig, speak of two sides of the covenant, the one external and the other internal. Dr. Vos uses terms that are more specific, when he distinguishes between the covenant as a purely legal relationship and the covenant as a communion of life. There is clearly a legal and a moral side to the covenant. The covenant may be regarded as an agreement between two parties, with mutual conditions and stipulations, and therefore as something in the legal sphere. The covenant in that sense may exist even when nothing is done to realize its purpose, namely the condition to which it points and for which it calls as the real ideal. The parties that live under this agreement are in the covenant, since they are subject to the mutual stipulations agreed upon. In the legal sphere everything is considered and regulated in a purely objective way. The determining factor in that sphere is simply the relation which has been established, and not the attitude which one assumes to that relation. The relation exists independently of one's inclination or disinclination, one's likes and dislikes, in connection with it. It would seem to be in the light of this distinction that the question should be answered, Who are in the covenant of grace? If the question is asked with the legal relationship, and that only, in mind, and really amounts to the query, Who are in duty bound to live in the covenant, and of whom may it be expected that they will do this? —the answer is, believers and their children. But if the question is asked with a view to the covenant as a communion of life, and assumes the quite different form, In whom does this legal relationship issue in a living communion with Christ? — the answer can only be, only in the regenerate, who are endowed with the principle of faith, that is, in the elect.

This distinction is warranted by Scripture. It is hardly necessary to cite passages proving that the covenant is an objective compact in the legal sphere, for it is perfectly evident that we have such a compact wherever two parties agree as in the presence of God to perform certain things affecting their mutual relation, or one party promises to bestow certain benefits on the other, provided the latter fulfills the conditions that are laid down. That the covenant of grace is such a compact is abundantly evident from Scripture. There is the condition of faith, Gen_15:6, compared with Rom_4:3 ff., Rom_4:20 ff.; Hab_2:4; Gal_3:14-18; Heb_11:1-40; and there is also the promise of spiritual and eternal blessings, Gen_17:7; Gen_12:3; Isa_43:25; Eze_36:27; Rom_4:5 ff.; Gal_3:14; Gal_3:18. But it is also clear that the covenant in its full realization is something more than that, namely, a communion of life. This may be already symbolically expressed in the act of passing between the parts of the animals slain at the establishment of the covenant with Abraham, Gen_15:9-17. Moreover, it is indicated in such passages as Psa_25:14; Psa_89:33-34; Psa_103:17-18; Jer_31:33-34 (Heb_8:10-12); Eze_36:25-28; 2Co_6:16; Rev_21:2-3. Now the question arises as to the relation between the sinner's being under the "bond of the covenant" as a legal relationship and his living in the communion of the covenant. The two cannot be conceived of as existing alongside of each other without some inner connection, but must be regarded as being most intimately related to each other, in order to avoid all dualism. When one takes the covenant relation upon himself voluntarily, the two must naturally go together; if they do not, a false relation ensues. But in the case of those who are born in the covenant the question is more difficult. Is the one then possible without the other? Is the covenant in that case a bare legal relationship, in which that which ought to be — but is not — takes the place of the glorious realities for which the covenant stands? Is there any reasonable ground to expect that the covenant relation will issue in a living communion; that for the sinner, who is of himself unable to believe, the covenant will actually become a living reality? In answer to this question it may be said that God undoubtedly desires that the covenant relationship shall issue in a covenant life. And He Himself guarantees by His promises pertaining to the seed of believers that this will take place, not in the case of every individual, but in the seed of the covenant collectively. On the basis of the promise of God we may believe that, under a faithful administration of the covenant, the covenant relation will, as a rule, be fully realized in a covenant life.


In discussing membership in the covenant as a legal relationship, it should be borne in mind that the covenant in this sense is not merely a system of demands and promises, demands that ought to be met, and promises that ought to be realized; but that it also includes a reasonable expectation that the external legal relationship will carry with it the glorious reality of a life in intimate communion with the covenant God. This is the only way in which the idea of the covenant is fully realized.

1. ADULTS IN THE COVENANT. Adults can only enter this covenant voluntarily by faith and confession. From this it follows that in their case, unless their confession be false, entrance into the covenant as a legal relationship and into the covenant as a communion of life coincide. They not merely take upon themselves the performance of certain external duties; nor do they merely promise in addition to this, that they will exercise saving faith in the future; but they confess that they accept the covenant with a living faith, and that it is their desire and intention to continue in this faith. They enter upon the full covenant life at once therefore, and this is the only way in which they can enter the covenant. This truth is implicitly or explicitly denied by all those who connect the confession of faith with a merely external covenant.

2. CHILDREN OF BELIEVERS IN THE COVENANT. With respect to the children of believers, who enter the covenant by birth, the situation is, of course, somewhat different. Experience teaches that, though by birth they enter the covenant as a legal relationship, this does not necessarily mean that they are also at once in the covenant as a communion of life. It does not even mean that the covenant relation will ever come to its full realization in their lives. Yet even in their case there must be a reasonable assurance that the covenant is not or will not remain a mere legal relationship, with external duties and privileges, pointing to that which ought to be, but is also or will in time become a living reality. This assurance is based on the promise of God, which is absolutely reliable, that He will work in the hearts of the covenant youth with His saving grace and transform them into living members of the covenant. The covenant is more than the mere offer of salvation, more even than the offer of salvation plus the promise to believe the gospel. It also carries with it the assurance, based on the promises of God, who works in the children of the covenant "when, where, and how He pleaseth," that saving faith will be wrought in their hearts. As long as the children of the covenant do not reveal the contrary, we shall have to proceed on the assumption that they are in possession of the covenant life. Naturally, the course of events may prove that this life is not yet present; it may even prove that it is never realized in their lives. The promises of God are given to the seed of believers collectively, and not individually. God's promise to continue His covenant and to bring it to full realization in the children of believers, does not mean that He will endow every last one of them with saving faith. And if some of them continue in unbelief, we shall have to bear in mind what Paul says in Rom_9:6-8. They are not all Israel who are of Israel; the children of believers are not all children of promise. Hence it is necessary to remind even children of the covenant constantly of the necessity of regeneration and conversion. The mere fact that one is in the covenant does not carry with it the assurance of salvation. When the children of believers grow up and come to years of discretion, it is, of course, incumbent on them to accept their covenant responsibilities voluntarily by a true confession of faith. Failure to do this is, strictly speaking, a denial of their covenant relationship. It may be said therefore that the legal relationship in which the children of believers stand, precedes the covenant as a communion of life and is a means to its realization. But in emphasizing the significance of the covenant as a means to an end, we should not stress exclusively, nor even primarily, the demands of God and the resulting duty of man, but especially the promise of the effectual operation of the grace of God in the hearts of covenant children. If we stress the covenant responsibilities only or excessively, and fail to give due prominence to the fact that in the covenant God gives whatsoever He demands of us, in other words, that His promises cover all His requirements, we are in danger of falling into the snare of Arminianism.

3. UNREGENERATE IN THE COVENANT. From the preceding it follows that even unregenerate and unconverted persons may be in the covenant. Ishmael and Esau were originally in the covenant, the wicked sons of Eli were covenant children, and the great majority of the Jews in the days of Jesus and the apostles belonged to the covenant people and shared in the covenant promises, though they did not follow the faith of their father Abraham. Hence the question arises, in what sense such persons may be regarded as being in the covenant. Dr. Kuyper says that they are not essential participants of the covenant, though they are really in it; and Dr. Bavinck says that they are in foedere (in the covenant), but not de foedere (of the covenant). The following may be said regarding their position in the covenant:

a. They are in the covenant as far as their responsibility is concerned. Because they stand in the legal covenant relationship to God, they are in duty bound to repent and believe. If they do not turn to God and accept Christ by faith, when they come to years of discretion, they will be judged as breakers of the covenant. The special relationship in which they are placed to God, therefore, means added responsibility.

b. They are in the covenant in the sense that they may lay claim to the promises which God gave when He established His covenant with believers and their seed. Paul even says of his wicked kinsmen, "whose is the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises," Rom_9:4. As a rule God gathers the number of His elect out of those who stand in this covenant relationship.

c. They are in the covenant in the sense that they are subject to the ministrations of the covenant. They are constantly admonished and exhorted to live according to the requirements of the covenant. The Church treats them as covenant children, offers them the seals of the covenant, and exhorts them to a proper use of these. They are the guests who are first called to the supper, the children of the kingdom, to whom the Word must be preached first of all, Mat_8:12; Luk_14:16-24; Act_13:46.

d. They are in the covenant also as far as the common covenant blessings are concerned. Though they do not experience the regenerating influence of the Holy Spirit, yet they are subject to certain special operations and influences of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit strives with them in a special manner, convicts them of sin, enlightens them in a measure, and enriches them with the blessings of common grace, Gen_6:3; Mat_13:18-22; Heb_6:4-6.

It should be noted that, while the covenant is an eternal and inviolable covenant, which God never nullifies, it is possible for those who are in the covenant to break it. If one who stands in the legal covenant relationship does not enter upon the covenant life, he is nevertheless regarded as a member of the covenant. His failure to meet the requirements of the covenant involves guilt and constitutes him a covenant breaker, Jer_31:32; Eze_44:7. This explains how there may be, not merely a temporary, but a final breaking of the covenant, though there is no falling away of the saints.