by Michael Horton
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One of the great places where this gets worked out in Reformed theology is the covenant of redemption. Also known by its fancy Latin name, the pactum salutis, this covenant was made in eternity between the persons of the Trinity. The Father gave the Son a people whom the Spirit would eventually unite to Him in history. In this covenant, the Son signed His death warrant, joyfully assuming the office of Mediator between God and man.
We see this covenant of redemption implied and explicitly mentioned in Jesus’ ministry, especially in John’s gospel. Jesus speaks of having been given a people by the Father (John 6:39; 10:29; 17:2, 6–10; see also Eph. 1:4–12; Heb. 2:13), who are called and kept by the Holy Spirit for the consummation of the new creation (Rom. 8:29–30; Eph. 1:11–13; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:5). In fact, to affirm the covenant of redemption is little more than affirming that the Son’s self-giving and the Spirit’s regenerative work were the execution of the Father’s eternal plan. Not only were we chosen in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4), Christ Himself is spoken of as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8).
The covenant of redemption underscores not only God’s sovereignty and freedom in electing grace, but the Trinitarian and, specifically, Christ-centered character of that divine purpose. It all takes place “in Christ”; hence, the emphasis in covenant theology on the theme of “Christ the Mediator.” And yet, it’s not just Christ-centered but Trinity-centered.
It’s terrific to see so many younger Christians excited about being “God-centered.” However, Islam and Orthodox Judaism claim to be “God-centered,” too. The Christian faith is distinguished by its claim that God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and we know this from Scripture, preeminently in the Son’s entrance into a fallen world in our own flesh. We dare not approach “God” in His blinding majesty apart from Christ our Mediator. Apart from Christ, the Father is our Judge, and His glory is the worst thing we could ever encounter. That’s not because the Father is less loving than the Son, but because we are sinners. And we can say our “amen” to the Son only because of the Spirit who indwells us.
A Trinitarian understanding of the gospel clears up a lot of popular misunderstandings. For example, it challenges presentations of the gospel that make it sound as if a wrathful Father took out His anger toward us on His passive Son. On the contrary, the Father “so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). It was the Father who chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). And as for the Son, He was hardly a passive victim; He gave Himself up for His people. Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2; see Isa. 53). He was a willing sacrifice: “No one takes [my life] from me,” He said. “I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 4:34; 10:11, 18; see also Matt. 16:23; Luke 9:51; Heb. 10:5–10). He went to the cross knowing that His suffering would lead to glory not only for Him but for His people. In spite of His grief, He determined, “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). The cross itself was far from a joy, but He endured it for the joy that lay beyond it. He had embraced the cross in eternity.
Wherever God’s sovereignty in predestination is strongly defended apart from such a covenantal framework, the concrete revelation of our election in Christ according to the gospel’s promise is often surrendered to theoretical debates and endless speculation on God’s hidden counsels. It is dangerous to talk about the glory and sovereignty of God unless the God we have in mind is the Trinity, to whom we have access only in the Son as He is revealed in the gospel.
To be God-centered in this Trinitarian sense is also to give equal weight to the Holy Spirit, the person who turns a house into a home. He hovered over the waters in creation to prepare dry land, led Israel through the sea to the Promised Land, and filled the temple. It was the Spirit who hovered over the waters of a virgin’s womb so that what was born of her was the Son of God. This same Spirit led Jesus through His trial in the wilderness, upheld Him and empowered His ministry of signs and wonders, and raised Him from the dead as the firstfruits of the new creation. And now, the Spirit has filled the temple that is Christ’s body, indwelling each believer and the church corporately as the deposit guaranteeing our participation in Christ’s resurrection. As Geerhardus Vos writes concerning the covenant of redemption, “Just as the blessedness of God exists in the free relationship of the three Persons of the adorable Being, so man shall also find his blessedness in the covenantal relationship with God.”