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by Matt Slick | Nov 22, 2008 | Doctrine and Theology, Christian Theology

A covenant is a contract or agreement between two or more parties. Covenant is how God has chosen to communicate to us, to redeem us, and to guarantee us eternal life in Jesus. These truths, revealed in the Bible, are the basis of Christianity. The Bible is a covenant document. The Old and New Testaments are really Old and New Covenants. The word “testament” is Latin for Covenant.

There is a pattern to the covenants found in the Bible. Basically, it is as follows. The initiating party describes himself and what He has done; then there is a list of obligations between the two (or more) parties. What follows is the section dealing with rewards and punishments that govern the keeping and breaking of the covenant. The Ten Commandments fit this pattern and are a covenant document.

Covenant is how God first decided to deal with Mankind. We know this from studying the Eternal Covenant mentioned in Heb. 13:20, “May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep” (NIV). In this covenant, God the Father and the Son made an agreement regarding the elect. This covenant was made before the universe was created, and it consisted of the Father promising to bring to the Son all whom the Father had given Him (John 6:39; 17:9, 24). The Son would become man (Col. 2:9; 1 Tim. 2:5), become for a while lower than the angels (Heb. 2:7), and be found under the Law (Gal. 4:4-5). The Son would die for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2; 1 Pet. 2:24), and the Father would raise the Son from the Dead (Psalm 2).

The Eternal Covenant, then, leads to the Covenant of Grace. Where the Eternal Covenant was made between the Father and the Son, the Covenant of Grace is made between God and Man. This latter covenant is where God promises to Man eternal salvation based upon the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The manifestation of that covenant occurs in our world in a sequence of additional covenants that God made with individuals: Adam (Gen. 2:15-17), Noah (Gen. 9:12-16), Abraham (Gen. 17), the Israelites at Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28), believers in the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-37), etc. I present the view that there are two main covenants. However, there is disagreement as to the number of Covenants. Some say there is really only one, the Eternal Covenant, with all others falling under it. Some say two, some say three, and others four, etc. There really is no absolute answer.

Understanding Covenant is important for several reasons:

  1. We learn that God deals with Man covenantally.
  2. Since a covenant is an agreement, it is a promise made by God. Since we can rely on God’s word for eternity, we can take great comfort in His covenant promising us eternal life in His Son.
  3. It helps us to see the Bible as a covenant document. The Old and New Testaments are Old and New Covenants.
  4. With Covenant understood as a framework through which the Bible was written we can better understand it, God’s dealings with us through it, and our responsibilities to God as well as His to us.
  5. We can better understand the symbols used by God in covenant ratification: The Lord’s Supper and Baptism.
  1. Requirements and Promises in the Eternal Covenant
    1. The Father required of the Son that He should atone for the sins of those whom the Father had given Him (1 John 2:2; John 6:39; 10:11, 15) and should do what Adam failed to do by keeping the law (Gal. 4:4-5; 1 Pet. 2:22).
    2. This requirement included the following particulars:
      1. That he should assume human nature (John 1:1, 14; Col. 2:9).
      2. That He should place Himself under the law (Gal. 4:4-5)
      3. That He, after accomplishing forgiveness of sins and eternal life, should apply them to the elect (Rom. 5:18; 1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Cor. 5:14).
  2. The Relation of the Eternal Covenant and the Covenant of Grace
    1. The Eternal Covenant is the model for the Covenant of Grace. The former is eternal, that is, from eternity and the latter temporal in the sense that it is realized in time. The former is a compact between the Father and the Son as a surety and head of the elect, while the latter is a compact between the triune God and the elect sinner.
      1. If there had been no Eternal Covenant between the Father and the Son, there could have been no Covenant of Grace between God and sinful man.
      2. The Holy Spirit, which produces faith in the sinner, was promised to Christ by the Father, and the acceptance of the way of life through faith was guaranteed by Christ.
  3. The Covenant with Adam also known as the Covenant of Works
    1. This was a covenant made between God and Adam where Adam would have everlasting life based upon obedience to God. This apparently was possible since Adam did not have a sin nature.
      1. “And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die,’” (Gen. 2:16-17).
    2. God entered into a covenant with Adam.
      1. The promise connected to that covenant was life. The condition was perfect obedience. Its penalty was death.
  4. The Covenant with Noah
    1. This covenant was God’s promise to Noah to never again destroy the world with a flood. God gave the rainbow as a sign.
      1. “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you – the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you – every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” So God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth,’” (Gen. 9:9-17).
  5. The Covenant with Abraham
    1. God promised a land and descendants to Abraham, who was commanded to “keep” the covenant (Gen. 17:9f., 14) and was given circumcision as the sign (Gen. 15:8-18; 17:1-14).
      1. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates,” (Gen. 15:18).
  6. The Covenant with Moses
    1. In the giving of the Law, the nation of Israel was constituted a holy nation and given stipulations to follow to ensure fellowship with God. The covenant was ratified by a covenant sacrifice and the sprinkling of blood (Exodus 24:4-8).
    2. Exodus 24:4-8 “Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said. He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. 6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, ‘We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.’ 8 Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words,’” (NIV).
  7. The Covenant with David
    1. God gave a promise to David that his descendants should have an everlasting kingdom and be known as his sons.
      1. “You said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations’” (Psalm 89:3-4).
      2. It was through the descendants of David that Jesus was born.
  8. The New Covenant
    1. This is the new covenant of the Messianic age where the Law of God would be written upon the hearts of men.
      1. “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah . . . This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people,” (Jer. 31:31, 33).
    2. It was promised in Eden
      1. “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel,” (Gen. 3:15).
    3. It was proclaimed to Abraham
      1. “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you,” (Gen. 12:3).
    4. It was fulfilled in Christ
      1. “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us – to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace,” (Luke 1:68-79).
  9. The Covenant of Grace
    1. This may be defined as that gracious agreement between the offended God and the offending sinner in which God promises salvation through faith in Christ, and the sinner accepts this by faith – promising a life of faith and obedience (John 1:12-13; 3:16; Rom. 10:9-10).
  10. Comparison of the Covenant of Works (the Adamic Covenant) and the Covenant of Grace
Covenant of WorksCovenant of Grace
God is the Creator and Lord. Established because of His love and benevolence.God is the Redeemer and Father. Established because of His mercy
Man appears simply as God’s creature – rightly related to his GodMan appears as a sinner who has perverted his ways and can only appear in union with Christ and grace.
No MediatorJesus is Mediator
Righteousness is based upon the obedience of a changeable man which is uncertain.Based on the obedience of Christ as Mediator which is absolute and certain.
The way of life is by keeping the Law.The way of life is by faith in Jesus Christ.
The covenant is partly known in nature since the law of God is written in the heart of Man.The covenant is known exclusively through special revelation: the Bible.

Just as in the covenant of works, so in the covenant of grace, God is the first of the contracting parties. He takes the initiative and determines the relation in which the second party will stand to Him.

It is not easily determined who the second party is, but in general, it may be said that God naturally established the covenant of grace with fallen man.

The idea that the covenant is fully realized only in the elect is a perfectly scriptural idea and appears, for instance, from Jer. 31:21-34; Heb. 8:8-12. It is also entirely in line with the relation in which the Covenant of Grace stands to the Eternal Covenant.