The covenant of redemption is a theological construct that describes the eternal plan of salvation in the mind of the triune God. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit entered into a covenant relationship with one another in eternity past to redeem a people out of this fallen world. It describes the roles and relationships that exist between the three persons of the Trinity and what each person accomplishes in the work of redemption. This covenant of redemption is also known as the pactum salutis. It encompasses the eternal decree of God whereby God controls history for the purpose of bringing glory to himself. What is accomplished in history was planned in eternity.
The covenant relationship between the Father and the Son can be seen in Psalm 110:4: “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.'” The language of swearing presupposes an oath formula. When two parties enter into a covenant with each other, they swear oaths that they will uphold the terms of the covenant. If it is a bilateral covenant, both parties will be responsible for the terms of the covenant; if it is unilateral, then only one party takes responsibility for fulfilling the obligations of the covenant. The covenant of redemption is both unilateral and bilateral because there is only one God, yet this one God exists as three distinct persons. Here the Father installs the Son as a high priest to accomplish the work of redemption that he has planned out. Some parallels between swearing an oath and entering into a covenant relationship can be seen in Genesis 26:28; Deuteronomy 19:8; 28:9; 29:12; 1 Chronicles 16:16; 2 Chronicles 15:15; Psalm 89:3; 119:106; Isaiah 54:9; Micah 7:20; and Acts 2:30. In the book of Hebrews, the author uses Psalm 110:4 as evidence for a covenant between the Father and the Son: “but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: ‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever.'” (Heb 7:21). With this oath, God appointed him to be a high priest (Heb 5:5).
Jesus refers to God’s eternal plan of salvation in John 6:37-39 when he makes reference to the people whom the Father has given him: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. . . . And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” The giving of a people to the Son takes place prior to their coming to him in faith. The believing of this people is caused by the Father giving them to the Son and in time they come to Christ because of the drawing of the Father through the gospel (John 6:44). This giving of a people to the Son is part of the doctrine of election where salvation was planned by the Father in eternity past: “Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph 1:4-5). The Father then sent his Son into the world to die for these people on the cross (John 3:16) and the Holy Spirit applies the benefits of the work of Christ to them in time (Acts 10:44; Jam 1:18). The work of salvation was planned by the Father, accomplished by the Son, and applied by the Spirit. For more information about the taxis or roles within the Trinity, see Bruce Ware’s helpful article on the Trinity and worship.
In this covenant, the Father promises to his Son exaltation and glory for his work of redemption (Isa 53:12; 55:4-5; Phil 2:7-11). He promises to raise his Son from the dead and exalt him over the nations (Psa 2:7-9; 16:8-11). The Father gives the Spirit to his Son because the Son is the Father’s chosen one (Isa 42:1). The Son, in turn, promises to obey his Father perfectly and accomplish everything the Father has assigned to him (Psa 40:7-8; John 14:31). In return for his obedience, the Son receives a bride and a kingdom. The sacrificial death of Christ serves as the bride-price which redeems the church who is the bride the Father has given to his Son (Eph 5:25-26). The bride of Christ then serves him for what he has done for them (Psa 68:18). The Father assigned to his Son a kingdom even before the incarnation and exaltation (Luke 22:29). The Holy Spirit’s work in this eternal plan is to point people to Christ and raise dead sinners through the gospel (John 15:26; 16:14). The Holy Spirit is the one who makes Christ’s elect people willing to serve him and able to believe (Psa 110:3; Jer 32:39-40; Eze 36:25-27; John 3:3).
John 17, the high priestly prayer of Jesus, unveils the curtains of eternity for us to see part of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son. In John 17:4, Jesus says, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” The question we must ask is, “When did the Father give his Son this work to do?” I believe the only answer we can give is eternity past. The cross was God’s eternal plan as Paul says in Ephesians 3:11: “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God promised eternal life before the ages even began (Tit 1:2). He decreed it before the ages for our glory (1 Cor 2:7). The Father chose the Son before the foundation of the world for this work of redemption (1 Pet 1:20). The kingdom has been prepared for God’s people from before the foundation of the world (Matt 25:34; Rev 13:8; 17:8).
But how does the covenant of redemption relate to the covenants of grace and works? In the covenant of redemption, the Son promises to fulfill the obligations of the covenant of works accomplishing what Adam failed to do. Through his obedience, Christ obtains a perfect righteousness for his people and this righteousness is applied to them in justification when they believe the gospel message. The covenant of redemption is the foundation for the gospel of grace because without the sending of Christ into the world as a substitute for sinners, there could be no salvation. We can only be in covenant relationship with God because God did not spare his own Son. He spared him not that he might spare us (Rom 8:32). Our New Covenant relationship with God only exists because divine justice has been satisfied for those who trust in Christ (Rom 3:25). Rather than being a speculative system of doctrine, Covenant Theology provides us with the necessary tools we need to appreciate and comprehend God’s eternal plan of salvation as well as the right relationship between law and grace. Where Covenant Theology is rejected, antinomianism and Arminianism are sure to spring up eventually.
See also “The Covenant of Works” and “The Covenant of Grace”