The nature and essence of the covenant of grace between God and his people has been a subject of disagreement in the church world in general, and more particularly within the Reformed community. Most view the covenant as a mutual agreement between God and man, a pact between two equal parties, with mutual stipulations and promises. Many, especially in the Presbyterian tradition, make a distinction between two or more covenants - the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Still others have no covenant concept whatsoever, preferring to understand salvation in individualistic terms.
The development of the doctrine of the covenant of grace, together with its practical implications, is perhaps the major contribution of the PRCA to a fuller and clearer understanding of biblical truth in the context of the Reformed Faith. A significant portion of this development and defense of the truth of the covenant is embodied in RFPA publications.
The covenant of grace is the living relationship of friendship established by God, between himself and his people in Christ. This covenant is unilateral—established, maintained, and perfected by God alone. The Scriptures teach that there is only one covenant of grace, beginning with Adam and culminating in the perfection of eternity. The covenant is realized by the atoning death and resurrection of Christ, the head and mediator of the covenant. Faith is never a condition of the covenant, but rather the gift of God by which he includes his elect in his covenant, the means by which the elect enjoy the fellowship of God and willingly carry out the demands of the covenant, living in obedience to the Lord. The covenant is organic, which means that God establishes it with believers and their seed in the line of continued generations. And the covenant is not a means to an end, but is the goal of all history. (Genesis 17:7, Acts 2:39, Acts 16:14-15, Galations 3, Psalm 89)
Read more about the distinctive Reformed view of the covenant of grace in this excerpt from the preface of Doctrine according to Godliness by Ronald Hanko.
What is the covenant? Scripture speaks of it often, and it is necessary, therefore, to know what Scripture is talking about.
Most would define a covenant by speaking of a contract or an agreement. They say that God's covenant with man is of the same sort as a human covenant, such as that between Isaac and Abimelech (Genesis 21:27-32), with various duties, promises, and penalties.
Such a covenant is made by two parties or sides, depends to some extent on each, and can be broken by either. Adam, so it is said, was the original covenant-making party with God, but now that Adam has fallen, Christ has replaced him.
God's covenant with men is not that kind of covenant. Man can never be a party with the living God in making such a covenant. Because God is God and man is a creature, owing his very existence to God, there are no duties man can assume by way of a special agreement besides those duties that he is already obliged to perform. The creature cannot make a contract with the Creator.
Nor can man ever merit anything with God in such a covenant by his own works or by fulfilling certain conditions. When he has done all that is required of him, he is still an unprofitable servant (Luke 17:10). Certainly man could not merit eternal life in the covenant as some teach. Eternal life comes only through him who is the Lord from heaven, our Lord Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 15:47-48).
Scripture teaches that the covenant is not an agreement, but a sovereign established bond or relationship between God and his people in Christ. This is clear from the often-repeated words of Scripture through which God reveals his covenant: "I will be they God, and ye shall be my people" (Genesis 17:8, Exodus 6:7, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Revelation 21:3).
These words, found in slightly different forms, become a kind of covenant formula throughout Scripture. They show us that a particular passage is speaking of the covenant.
Other passages actually describe such a relationship between God and his people. Genesis 5:22-24, Genesis 6:9, Genesis 18:17-19, Psalm 25:14, John 17:23 and I John 1:3 are a few such passages. All of them show that God's covenant is the blessed relationship of fellowship and friendship that he establishes with them by grace alone and through the saving work of Jesus Christ.
This relationship is sovereignly established by God: he makes and guarantees the relationship. In no sense does the covenant depend on man as a second party, but it is wholly the work of God and all of grace, that is, of undeserved favor. The covenant is always a covenant of grace.