The following is a translation of a speech transcribed and published in the first part of Lessons by Candlelight printed in the 36th volume of Woord en Wereld, edited by Prof. D. Deddens. One must keep in mind the time of its presentation sometime shortly after the liberation of the Reformed Churches (vrijgemaakt), when the proper understanding of covenant was challenged by hierarchical forces who were influenced by the teachings of A. Kuyper and others of his time and later.

K. Schilder ~ The Covenant ~ Course by Candle light, Chap. 1

One of the first questions that comes up when we start speaking about the covenant that God has with man, with His people, with the believers and their seed, is this: is the covenant metaphor or reality?

Some say that it is metaphor (imagery). It is metaphor when Christ speaks of Himself as the vine and us as the branches. So too when Paul speaks of the tree from which Israel is cut off as a dead branch and to which we are grafted. There is no substance in it, it is ‘only’ metaphor.

People say that is also the case with the covenant. “Certainly God does not make a covenant with a man, God is much to exalted for that“. That is what Karl Barth, who denies that God can associate on the level of history, says. God thunders above us but never comes into our lives. According to Barth, you have forgotten one thing when you speak of a covenant of God with man, namely that God is different from us; God is transcendent, not immanent. He cannot enter the world. Whoever says that God is immanent insults Him. Barth’s basis is Ecclesiastics 5: 1, “because God is in heaven and you are on earth”.

Contrary to this we would say that whoever believes in God’s transcendence must also believe that He is powerful enough to become immanent. Karl Barth has actually denied God’s omnipotence. That is his root error. The covenant is not metaphor although in the Word of God many metaphors are used on the covenant. That is because in His Word God never comes to a complete way of speaking of Himself and His work. If God spoke about Himself and His work with out metaphors it would be incomprehensible for us. Therefore God speaks to us with human imagery.

They say a person does not start proceedings with an animal, nor does a pensioner do so with a child. If this is so, if two entities, neither of whom have the same responsibility, cannot proceed on a course of action, how can this happen between God and man?

God is God and therefore it is possible with Him. He can establish a jurisdiction from His side. God walks with me in fellowship; he begins it. So the covenant is actually appointed from God’s side; it is one sided. But the covenant is intended to become two-sided. God gives a transparent and sure promise and requires a transparent and firm obligation, And awakes in the person the reaction He wants, “to believe and say amen.”

Believing is not only accepting the promises, - but also accepting the demand. People say that any mention of a two-sided covenant degrades God’s exaltedness, because in His connection with us God is always to be seen as the One who determines, who counsels. They actually share in the thinking of Karl Barth. Yet it is especially those who speak like this who minimize God’s transcendence. Naturally those who explain the covenant in this way, that its being two sided would change God, shortchange instead God’s transcendence. God is able to create a two sided covenant. I can never initiate the two way communication. Therefore we give God special honor when speaking of a two sided covenant.

Scripture uses various words for ‘covenant’, like diatheke and suntheke. Diatheke means decree, while suntheke can be translated by arrangement, or agreement. God opens a diatheke with man and at the same time has a suntheke. Diatheke has more to do with being one sided, suntheke with two sided. It is diatheke when I make a will but suntheke when I make an appointment with a friend.

We ask how both these terms can be used for the one word; covenant. Isn’t it contradictory? No, for the bible uses these words deliberately to describe that the covenant originates as diatheke but exists and continues as suntheke. Only from His side does God make the plan and determines how things must be in the covenant. This is expressed in the word diatheke.

Therefore we also speak of testament. Whoever makes a testament, also consolidates the testament. The heir is not asked if he approves of it. If God makes a testament through the blood of His Son, that means to say that He settles everything from His side, independent of us, the heirs. In this way the covenant, as a diatheke is unilaterally established over us.

But the covenant is two sided in its existence and persistence, it is suntheke. This bilateral nature is also fixed by God. In the covenant God ties Himself to us and us to Him and God is now obligated by His own Word to preserve the covenant. The basis for that is not in me, not even in the church, but only in God’s Word. We have the right and the duty to hold God to His Word. This fellowship between God and us is confessed in our prayer: Our Father ~ here we have intimacy ~ Who art in heaven ~ a confession of the distance between God and us.

The covenant was not given simultaneously with creation. It only came to be when God spoke to man. Man was already there. Because it comes after creation the covenant falls under God’s providence. God’s providence maintains and rules creation. To maintain means to say: preserve alive. The Alfa of creation is maintained by God all the way to the end, the Omega. Today’s mist hanging over Groningen is a retention of what God has created in Genesis 1. Our existence is a retention of the creation of Adam and Eve, in which we were included. God also keeps the covenant ongoing in this manner. Governing is controlling to the end. It is bringing the Alfa to the Omega. It is driving toward the end, so that in the end everything takes its determined place on the renewed earth and the renewed heaven.

Thus the covenant of God resides under His providence. In His providence Gods ties Himself to the nature of the creatures; after creation He makes no new things. This is also the case with the covenant. He puts Himself in line with our nature.

Therefore, in the end, we can only live naturally if we live in the covenant. We can finally only live ‘life to the full’ within the covenant. It expands our nature to a greater richness. Just as marriage is tied to what is available in a man and a woman and brings these both to further growth, so it is with the covenant between God and man. Except of course God does not come to further development Himself except in His self-revelation. In the covenant God appears as God, He does not become more so.

The covenant therefore is in line with our nature. God deals with man as man, according to mans nature, according to his accountability. It was so in paradise and is still so today. It is said that the conscientious objectors (bevindelijke) have turned the covenant of grace into a new covenant of works; and they sing the song of labor, but we have the blessed song of the free grace of God (3). Nothing is less true. But when men say that the covenant of works is grace and nothing more we tell them to stop!, the covenant is not seen as covenant. The covenant always connects with our humanity, always ties itself with our nature and our accountability. If this is indeed professed then we will not see the covenant of works and that of grace as contradictory. Adam was dependent on God’s good pleasure already in Paradise. Nor did man earn anything in paradise either. Adam did not receive glory by his works but along the path of his working. When mentioning the covenant of works we may never say that man can earn salvation by his work. Man never earns anything with God. Then he would himself have to be God.

Among people there is talk of working and earning. The wage paid by one is weighed against the job performance of the other. But our work performance never is measured up against God’s reward because God created the hands with which we work. He created the offering which I bring as a thank offering. Everything is gift from God Himself, 1 Chron. 4: 7, “What do you have that you did not receive?” There is no speaking of earning at all in the covenant of works, but in the covenant of grace everything is earned.

In both cases all honor is to God alone. We are saved by the wages of Christ in the covenant of grace. These earnings Christ acquired for Himself not as man but as the Son of God. Even Christ could not earn anything from God as only a man. Whatever we receive by way Christ’s earnings is sheer grace. But the connection to and the appeal on the human accountability have remained, also in the covenant of grace because the covenant has remained a covenant. Covenant of work and grace are not opposed to each other but are part of the same covenant history. .

In all His omniscience God knew that man would fall and that he would rise again through God’s grace. When God saw the covenant broken by Adam He made Himself known as transcendent and by a new diatheke brought to light what already was decided, namely that He set Christ as mediator in the covenant in order to maintain His covenant as covenant of grace.

In both cases it is about the people of God that He keeps in communion with Himself. The faithfulness of God is so deep that He remains faithful when we become unfaithful.

Christ is therefore mediator of the covenant. In the church struggle of late people have said that the thinking of A (4) is tolerable, but that it is better to speak of Christ as Covenant-head, considering the covenant is an act of God’s counsel. They mix the covenant of grace and the Counsel of Peace together, and drag eternity and time through each other. The Counsel of peace is from eternity, but the covenant of grace is in time. In the counsel of peace the three Persons of the Godly Essence promise each other to save the world. In the covenant of grace God and His people are reconciled with each other by Christ the Mediator.

The counsel of peace goes over the heads of man but the covenant of grace speaks to man.

The covenant began in paradise, so it is “catholic”. A new phase was introduced with Abraham. For a long time God confined the covenant to the descendants of Abraham, who received a special function in covenant history. Namely to be the father of the people from which Christ must be born. For a long time one nation must be the channel for the stream of salvation, till the fullness of time and the day of Pentecost, when all believers and their children will be taken up into the covenant. The perpetual purpose of the covenant is universal. But the covenant with Abraham is not a new covenant. It is the old covenant from paradise which now receives a new form. That is what our fathers said, the covenant has one substance, which remains the same in the different phases. Demand and approval of reward distribution with obedience, and dissemination of punishment with covenant breaking, remain in place during all phases of the one covenant history.

It is strange if this legal framework and speaking of sanctions is criticized. The legal framework is for man, but also for God. Our fathers have spoken of the office (officium) of the Holy Spirit. People have asked; yes, isn’t that only possible with a creature? We answer that God can ordain something for Himself, God can give Himself an office. God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit can obligate Themselves to do what They once promised to do in the covenant. Moreover, this has been made known. The legal framework therefore applies for man, but also for God. In how far people have parted from the fathers appears from this: that some time ago a professor published a work from another about ethics dealing with the sanctions of the covenant (5). But the same professor, not long afterwards, said that sanctions could be something from a national covenant, but not from the Scriptures (6).

There can only be mention of election and covenant coinciding before the fall into sin. This is in the sense that God elected man apart from all other creatures. Every covenant member is elect here and all elect are members of the covenant. God bypassed the apes. Especially because God elected those created with responsibility to live with Him in a covenant relationship this remains the same after the fall. Also after the fall God speaks to people possessing responsibility and who can say: ‘I will not do it’. A covenant that comes with sanctions must concern itself with the possibility that this could happen.

Because the internal substance of the covenant has not changed there is no contradiction between old and new covenant. There is however with the synodocratic (Dutch; synodal, 1943) conception of it. The contrast started with Coccejus (7) who said Israel had the letter, we have the spirit; Israel had the law, we have the gospel, with Israel the covenant was external (circumcision), with us the covenant is internal (election). According to this understanding we become part of the covenant through regeneration.

Our fathers have never wanted to know of a disparity between law and gospel. In the law there is also gospel for it says: “I am the Lord your God”. The nation that accepts the law is lead out of the house of bondage. The law is pedagogue, giving instruction toward Christ (8). “My people, how can you say that I have exhausted you through the law” (9)? God asks by the prophet Micah. God does not tire man out by giving the law. The purpose of the law is evangelical. The last word of the law is the call for Christ. Therefore Israel lives under the evangelical flag; the wind that blew into the sails of the law was the wind of free grace. The new dispensation was locked away in the old dispensation. There is an ongoing line of development, there is development from more to still more. The whole old covenant is progress from creation to Christ. Justification and sanctification were also covenant blessings through the blood of Christ (the sacrifices) then, by their acceptance in faith. How poor the covenant must have been for Moses if he only had the dispensation of the letter.

There is no disparity between old and new dispensation. “Do this and you shall live” also applies to us in the new covenant even if these words are not directed to us as much as to Adam. Covenant wrath has also not fallen away in the new dispensation, Rom. 11: 20 - 22, Hebrews 12: 15. God even tightens the thumbscrews some more. In the new covenant everything is richer then in the old, so too the reward as well as the punishment. For example the punishment of offence is heavier for us than for Abraham.

When we live today in the covenant with our children we must understand that a child cannot be held equal with an adult. A child must still become a discerning party with God. If we call God the party with the upper case letter P, and man the party with the lower case p, then the child is “party” in quotation marks. A child becomes “party” when it is baptized, it is brought into the position of being-party. But its wanting to be a party must still become apparent. This occurs with the public profession of faith, when the child, being fully aware, casts off the quotation marks and takes and accepts God’s promise and demand before the eyes of the church.

Whoever sees it this way finds great comfort in the covenant. I have no comfort if I must first know that I am elect. We must then look in ourselves for evidence. In America they would have said that is like putting the anchor in the bottom of the ship instead of in the bottom of the river. But then the ship is not secured. We must cast the anchor upon the throne of the Lord. In other words above and not below.

The covenant is established in time but remains till eternity. Then it will have come to rest. Then it will appear that covenant law remains in force. Because in heaven the covenant traffic with the elect remains and also in hell covenant law remains in effect. Heaven and hell are secured through the covenant.

Appendix. Answer to a request for an explanation of Romans 9: 6-8.

We must read what it says in the beginning (verse 4): the covenants are Israel’s. Here apparently is meant the establishing of covenants in the different phases of the history of revelation, with Abraham and David for example. In these covenants God Himself has said that the punishment is ready for those who reject or break it. God has said this to Abraham, to Isaac, Moses, David (Ps. 89). In these covenants God has revealed in advance that the covenant line breaks off with those who publicly abandon it.

Verse 6. “But it is not that the Word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel’. Paul argues that God’s Word is not of ‘no effect’, because Israel deserved its punishment, namely that it discontinued being God’s people.

Israel’s fall was covenantal. God had said beforehand that the line would break when there was public rejection. The statutes are specifically maintained, the Word of God is not ineffective. Because - it says - not all are Israel, who descend from Israel. Not all are believing. Jacob was later called Israel in order to point him out as the one who wrestled in faith. Jacob had first to undergo the baptism of faith in order to rise from the pool of faith. But not all his children are restored along with him, not all are Israel who descend from Israel. Paul does not set up a system. It is not a discovery in hindsight for him, but repeating of what God has already directly to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob - etc, and a repeating of the covenant content of the whole Old Testament.

Verse 7. “Nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, ‘in Isaac your seed shall be called‘.” We must not see Abraham biologically, of begetting so-many children. Abraham is father of the church, prelate. Not everyone has his blood, he is the father of believers. He knew before he even receives a son from his own body that he would get many nations. For him receiving a son was not a matter of blood but of faith, he know that right away. In Romans 4 the KJV writes that he did not consider his own body. But he did do so, and Sarah’s also, soberly. The translation is inaccurate and newer ones sound different (e.g. ESV) (10).

It was impossible biologically for Abraham and Sarah to receive children. They knew they would receive a son but receiving by natural means would be, candidly, a godsend. Or better, a wonder of grace. But the natural way was actually coincidental - it was not the only road by which Abraham could receive a son from God. Yet the road by blood is not the way to the nations. For Abraham it was already determined before that not all of his children are his seed. We fret about it, at synods for example, but Abraham fretted about it differently. But he was firm in the fact that the blood tie was not the authentic tie for him. In this way Abraham can even become the father of Christ who has said: “ everyone who does the will of my father is my father and sister and brother and mother” (11). Therefore it is said that not all are children of Abraham who are his seed.

Verse 8. “Not the children of the flesh are children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as seed” (it says children of promise , not children of election!). That there was selection between the children was told Abraham beforehand by God. God had said: after so many years you will receive a child (12). And also that the greater shall serve the lesser; selection (13). Only the children of promise are counted as descendants.

Now the question is who are these children of promise. The synod (1944) said that they are the children to whom the full promises come, the promises in a real sense. But God never gives an addressed unconditional promise. The promise is addressed, but not unconditionally. Among the children of promise must be understood those who are born out of promise. There are two kinds of children; those of the flesh who are conceived in normal fleshly way and children of promise not born consequent to human coitus, but by faith in God’s Word. Abraham received different children, first Ishmael born in the completely normal way and Isaac when Abraham was dried (versiegt)(14) up as Sarah also was. There came a child anyway, regardless of the deadness of Abraham and Sarah. A child of promise. And in that child the promise continues; ‘because through Isaac they shall speak of your descendants after you’. Not because Isaac is elected but because he is born from the promise. God calls for Abrahams seed through the line of Isaac and not the line of Ishmael. That line continues with Jacob. There is not so much distance between the ages of Esau and Jacob as between Ishmael and Isaac. But one is called the servant of the other, who is ruler, beforehand. God says that His legal perspective is not bound to natural necessity. In our perspective the oldest is first, but not so here. Obstetrically Jacob follows but covenantally he leads.

If it is understood this way the entire question - whether born of the flesh or born of promise - is limited only to Abrahams family. And from among these children of promise some also fall away, yet the tree of Israel remains standing. Branches are cut off, but those who bow before the legitimate framework are adopted.

(1) Dr. Karl Barth (1886-1968), Prof. of Dogmatics at Bazel. See E. Busch, KARL BARTH AAN DE HAND VAN ZIJN BRIEVEN AND AUTOBIOGRAPHISCHE TEKSTEN, Nijkerk 1978.

(2) “God is transcendent’ is said to mean that God exists above the world and is not dependent of the world in Reformed Dogmatic. God’s immanence means to say that God accompanies His people in the world, that He lives in us by His Holy Spirit,

(3) For example see V. Hepp, Dreigende Deformatie (Threatening Deformation) IV, kampen 1937, pg. 73. Dr. V. Hepp (1879-1950) Prof. of Dogmatic at the Free University at Amsterdam. See BLGNP, III, pg. 176-178.

(4) A- thinking; sentiments of the churches from the Secession of 1834.

(5) Geesink, GEREFORMEERDE ETHIEK, prepared for print in anticipation of an introduction by V. Hepp 2 volumes, kampen 1931. Dr. G.H.J.W.J. Geesink (1854-1929), Prof. of ethics at the Free University at Amsterdam. See De Haas II, pg. 108-111.

(6) V. Hepp, DREIGENDE DEFORMATIE, IV, pg. 79.

(7) Johannes Coccejus (1603-1669), Prof. in Eastern languages and theology at Francker and Leiden. See BWPGN, II, pg. 123-148.

(8) Gal. 3: 24, 25.

(9) Micah 6: 4.

(10) See for example:

S. Greijdanus, The Letter of the Apostle Paul to the congregation at Rome. SERIE BOTTENBURG, I, Amsterdam 1933, pg. 246;

J.A.C. van Leeuwen, The letter to the Romans2, KORTE VERKLARING, Kampen 1939, pg. 70, 74. Both commentaries follow the manuscript which omit the word “not”.

Dr. S. Greijdanus (1871-1948), Prof of New Testament at the Theological Seminary at Kampen. See; BLGNP, IV.

Dr. J.A.C. van Leeuwen (1870-1930), Prof. of New Testament at Rijks University at Utrecht, See BWPGN, V, pg. 707-714.

(11) Matt. 12: 50, mark 3: 35 and following, Luke 8: 21

(12) Gen. 17: 16-21, 18: 10, and following, 21: 1-7

(13) Gen. 25: 23. Rom. 9: 12

(14) Dried up, dried out.