In Covenant Theology the Covenant of Grace refers to an overarching theological covenant which God made on the basis of grace. The various Biblical covenants such as Abraham's, the Mosaic/Deuteronomic, and David's are considered to be expressions, administrations, or even (ironically) dispensations of the single original Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Grace is timeless, an eternal agreement that God will graciously save his people, on the basis of which God made other specific covenants like Abraham's etc.

  1. Who first developed this concept of the Covenant of Grace?
  2. Were the other two metacovenants of Covenant Theology, the Covenants of Redemption and Works, developed at the same time?
  3. Are there any substantial differences from how the Covenant of Grace was first conceptualised compared to how it is understood now?
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    There is a profound irony that while championing sola scriptura the "Reformed" movement also invented multiple covenants out of thin air, Sunday Sabbath, embraced Trinity creeds and the like! Men have such devious, accommodating hearts.
    – Ruminator
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 10:28
  • @Ruminator It's not ironic - sola scriptura would be meaningless if there weren't other lesser sources of knowledge and understanding, such as tradition and reason, as codified in creeds etc.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 27, 2018 at 10:29

3 Answers 3


Who first developed this concept of a covenant of grace?

Much like the doctrine of the trinity, to proponents of the doctrine, the answer is, "It comes from the Bible." But obviously the actual historical development and refinement of definitions is less straight-forward than that. But do keep in mind that to those explicating covenant theology, all they're doing is teaching what's in Scripture.

It's hard to pin down exactly who was first. Heinrich Bullinger, Huldrych Zwingli, and Johannes Oecolampadius all wrote letters and delivered sermons in the 1520s about the covenant of grace. They are difficult to date with precision. In the case of Oecolampadius, he was teaching the covenant of grace as an "outworking" of the covenant of redemption (though he does not explicitly name it) in 1521.

Reformed theologians contend that Martin Luther's law/gospel distinction, first developed around 1525, is just another way of speaking of the covenant of works and covenant of grace.

From what I can tell, the two most commonly cited as the originator of the covenant of grace are Bullinger and Oecolampadius. In my non-scholarly opinion, I'd give the edge to Oecolampadius.

Were the other two metacovenants developed at the same time?

Roughly. The ideas are implicitly there (even as early as 1521, as I mentioned above). The covenant of grace assumes a covenant of works (or else, what is there to be gracious about) and also a covenant of redemption (or else God was blindsided by humanity's fallenness and made the decision to intervene temporally rather than eternally). But it took some decades before all three ideas were talked about simultaneously, as part of a "package deal." The order seems to be that first the reformers were eager to talk about grace (often "using the covenant of grace as a summary of biblical theology"), then started discussing the covenant of works as a "creation covenant," then developed the doctrine of the covenant of redemption to round it out.

Zacharius Ursinus, one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, is credited as one of the originators of the idea of the covenant of works in the 1560s. Johannes Cocceius is credited as an originator of the covenant of redemption around the same time. Coeccius, Ursinus, and Herman Witsius wrote systematic theologies in the latter half of the 17th century organized around the three covenants.

Are there differences from how the Covenant of Grace was first conceptualised and how it is understood now?

No substantial differences I'm aware of. Though I haven't read the primary sources pre-1700, I've never read any indications that it underwent significant changes through the years.


I consulted these works to write this post:

  • Thanks for the info. I admit I haven't heard of Oecolampadius before!
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 2:15

First off, great questions. As with most of Covenant Theology the roots go back to Calvin, who deals with them at length in Institutes (II.X-XI) But, while Calvin does speak of a distinction for the Adamic covenant, it is not until 1569 that a Covenant of creation is mentioned and 1585 that the term "Covenant of Works" is first used by Westminster Divine, Douglas Fenner. As with most of theology, the idea of metacovenants developed gradually - and so to speak of concurrent development depends on the window of time you want to allow to the process. But if your question is, simpliciter, were they developed by the same person or in the same work, the answer is no. Your third question is also a matter of opinion. Some would say Yes, and some would say No. Some of the Yes's would be "hard" yes's, and some soft - and the same would be true with the No's. The nuances of how people answer that question is an essay in and of itself. For me, personally, I am probably a soft no. We have learned a great deal about the particulars of covenants from 20th century archaeological finds, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls - and those have had consequences for the way Covenant Theologians approach the very idea of covenants, not to mention the heft of the covenant of Grace. Furthermore, language is such a vital part of epistemology that for me, it is nigh on impossible to say that there are not substantial differences in the understanding of the doctrine since its inception to today - based on the discrepancies of linguistics alone.

  • Thanks, but you haven't actually answered the core question: what's the origin of the Covenant of Grace!
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Nov 11, 2014 at 23:40

The History of Covenant Theology by R. Scott Clark says

Until recently, it was widely held that covenant theology was created in the middle of the seventeenth century by theologians such as Johannes Cocceius (1609–1669). In fact, covenant theology is nothing more or less than the theology of the Bible. It is also the theology of the Reformed confessions. In the history of theology, the elements of what we know as covenant theology; the covenant of redemption before time between the persons of the Trinity, the covenant of works with Adam, and the covenant of grace after the fall; have existed since the early church.

Indeed, Reformed readers who turn to the early church fathers (c. 100–500 AD) might be surprised to see how frequently they used language and thought patterns that we find very familiar. The covenant theology of the fathers stressed the unity of the covenant of grace, the superiority of the new covenant over the old (Mosaic) covenant, and that, because Jesus is the true seed of Abraham, all Christians, whether Jewish or Gentile, are Abraham’s children. They also stressed the moral obligations of membership in the covenant of grace.

The covenant theology of the medieval church (c. 500–1500 ad) was related to that of the early fathers but distinct in certain ways. In response to the criticism that Christianity gave rise to immorality, the early church tended to speak about the history of redemption as the story of two laws, the old (Moses) and the new (Christ). They tended to speak of grace as the power to keep the law in order to be justified.

According to Ursinus, in his obedience for the elect, Christ fulfilled the covenant of works and bore their punishment. On this basis God made a covenant of grace with sinners. The message of the covenant of grace is the Gospel of undeserved favor for sinners.

This was the focus of Caspar Olevianus influential book, On the Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect (1585). He taught that the covenant of grace can be considered in a broader and narrower sense. In the narrower sense, the covenant can be said to have been made only with the elect. It is the elect who are united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, who receive the benefits of the covenant, strictly speaking.

  • Is the whole thing other than the first line a quote? Who is the author? Can you provide any primary sources from the church fathers? Because I'm skeptical that the CoG traces back to them.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 11:05
  • @curiousdannii it's the whole thing and there is more to it on his writing. It's by R.Scott Clark and I took it from the website ligonier.org/learn/articles/history-covenant-theology
    – Bernard R
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 11:24

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