If you’ve gone to a wedding, you have witnessed a covenant being made. If you’ve attended a baptism, you’ve seen a covenant illustrated with the washing of water. Your banker may talk to you about a loan covenant when you agree on a commercial contract. When you buy a new home you may have had to sign a “neighborhood covenant.” So, though “covenant” is not exactly a household term these days, covenants are nevertheless all around us.
In the Christian life, covenants are very significant. Christians make marriage vows because the Bible teaches that marriage is a covenant. We baptize because the Scriptures teach that baptism is the sign of God’s covenant promise to believers and their children. We make membership vows when we join a new church because belonging to the local church is one of the blessings and responsibilities of God’s covenant of grace.
What this means is that all of us should want to know more about what the Scriptures teach about covenants. Indeed, understanding the covenants of Scripture will help us read our Bibles better, realize God’s grace more deeply, and serve God with greater thankfulness and purpose.
What is a covenant in the Bible? Simply put, it is an agreement which secures a relationship of commitment between God and his people. A covenant is the way God defines and confirms a special relationship between himself and his people.
Understanding the covenants of Scripture will help us read our Bibles better, realize God’s grace more deeply, and serve God with greater thankfulness and purpose.Young couples will sometimes quip about having the “DTR” talk at some point in a budding courtship — the “define the relationship” talk. Well, God defines his relationship to us in the most meaningful and encouraging possible way in the covenants of Scripture.
The covenants we enter into as Christians reflect God’s covenant-making with us. So, Paul says that a Christian
husband’s love for his wife in the marriage covenant is to be like Christ’s love for his church in the covenant of grace. Our covenant vows of membership in a local church delineate our mutual obligations and reflect God’s gracious commitment to and loving expectations of us. He graciously puts us in his family and he wants us to live together, by grace, as a covenant family.
These relationships hint at the reality that we are made and redeemed in the image of a covenant-keeping God, who
establishes covenants with his people throughout Scripture. The study of those covenants is called covenant theology.
Covenant theology is a way of reading the whole Bible that is derived from the Bible itself. Covenant theology notices the vital role that covenants play in the history of redemption revealed in the Old and New Testaments. It notices how the covenants help us see the unfolding of God’s saving work from the standpoint of both narrative and doctrine, history and theology, progress and unity. These divine covenants, in turn, provide a framework through which we view Scripture.
Dr. Ligon Duncan, Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary, has taught a course on covenant theology more than 40 times for RTS. He starts by asking “What is covenant theology?” and takes his time answering that question in the first lecture. (You can listen to these lectures via the RTS mobile app.)
What he says, in sum, is that covenant theology is the Bible’s way of explaining and deepening our understanding of at least five things: (1) how to read the Bible (both Old Testament and New) as the unified, coherent and consistent account of the one plan of the one Triune God to commune with his people by means of covenant, so that they might glorify and enjoy him forever; (2) communion with God, how by God’s loving condescension and covenant initiative we have been drawn into a covenant relationship of love with him; (3) the person and work of Christ, who is the covenant mediator and only redeemer of his covenant people, whom he saves by bearing the covenant curse they deserve on their behalf; (4) how we know that truly we belong to God and can be certainly assured of salvation, because of the unbreakable covenant oath and promise of God to us; and (5) the covenant signs, sacraments, or ordinances (in the New Testament: baptism and the Lord’s Supper), what they are, what they are for, and how they work in confirming God’s covenant promises and grace.
This is why the late, great theologian J.I. Packer says that covenant theology is a hermeneutic – a way of reading and interpreting Scripture. For Packer, covenant theology is “a way of reading the whole Bible that is itself part of the overall interpretation of the Bible that it undergirds.” In other words, covenant theology is a way of interpreting Scripture that Scripture itself provides.
“Once you understand covenant theology, it transforms the way you view Scripture,” says Dr. Richard Belcher, Jr., Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament at RTS Charlotte. Dr. Belcher is also the author of the recently-released The Fulfillment of the Promises of God: An Explanation of Covenant Theology (which Dr. Duncan says is now the best introduction to the subject). Dr. Belcher says when students of Scripture grasp covenant theology, they’ll begin to see how it provides structure for the whole Bible, like the frame for a building.
In his introductory lecture, Dr. Duncan goes on to describe how covenant theology places the gospel both in the context of God’s eternal plan of communion with his people and the historical outworking of that plan in the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.When students of Scripture grasp covenant theology, they’ll begin to see how it provides structure for the whole Bible, like the frame for a building.
As Dr. J.V. Fesko, Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at RTS Jackson, who has also written books and lectured on covenant theology, summarizes, “The covenant of works was the covenant that God gave to Adam to fill the earth and subdue it, but he forfeited his place when he and Eve sinned. Blessedly, God made a second covenant with fallen sinners, the covenant of grace, by which he sends Jesus to fulfill the broken covenant of works and to suffer the curse for its fracture.” In Genesis 3:15, we see God beginning to reveal the covenant of grace, which can then be traced through the rest of Scripture to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and finally to his second coming as prophesied in Revelation.
Under the one covenant of grace, redemptive history unfolds through successive covenants: from Adam, to Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the new covenant accomplished by Jesus. Each covenant seen in Scripture has several observable characteristics. Parties (or the people involved), promises (or blessings), conditions (or requirements), penalties (or consequences for violating the covenant), and sacraments (or signs of the covenant). Dr. Duncan summarizes: “a divine covenant is a God-initiated, binding, living, relationship with blessings and obligations.”
Once we grasp how covenant theology draws the whole Bible together — pointing us to Jesus and his fulfillment of the covenants and the salvation he provides — it changes how we preach, teach, and read the Bible, shares Chad Smith, an RTS alumnus and former campus minister with Reformed University Fellowship. When Smith is preparing sermons or studying the Word, he says that “Whether you’re in Galatians or Hosea, you ask, ‘how does this point you to Christ?’”
When he teaches the Bible this way, Smith has seen the lightbulb go off for freshmen in college who recently came to faith and for Christians who have walked with the Lord for years. “It’s freeing to realize that the Bible is not about you, but about Jesus, who did everything for you. When the penny drops that Jesus loves us and does the work for us, transformation happens.” Believers who see the crushing weight of their sin and Christ’s payment for that sin can get off the treadmill of legalism in order to love God and neighbor more fully in the power of the Holy Spirit.“It’s freeing to realize that the Bible is not about you, but about Jesus, who did everything for you. When the penny drops that Jesus loves us and does the work for us, transformation happens.” — Chad Smith
In our commitments to others, we echo God’s covenant with us. God’s faithfulness to us inspires us to be steadfast in our own covenants like marriage and church membership. There are other, day-to-day ways that we can, in effect, embody God’s covenants with us by treating our neighbors with dignity and love.
Dr. Belcher says our commitment to our brothers and sisters within the body of Christ should look different than those we find elsewhere. “There are relationships in the church that are difficult, but we should be committed to each other enough to work through these difficulties,” he says. “To commit yourself to Christ is to be committed to his body… Christ loves the church, so we should love the church.”
The Bible’s teaching on the covenants is central, not peripheral, to the Christian life and the biblical story.
When Jesus wanted to explain the significance of his death to his disciples, he taught them about the covenants (Matt 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; 1 Cor 11). When God wanted to assure Abraham of the certainty of his word of promise, he made and confirmed a covenant with him (Gen 12, 15, 17). When God wanted to set apart his people, ingrain his work in their minds, tangibly reveal himself in love and mercy, and ratify their future inheritance, he gave them covenant signs (Gen 17; Ex 12, 17, 31; Matt 28; Luke 22; Acts 2).
The Bible’s teaching on the covenants is central, not peripheral, to the Christian life and the biblical story.When Luke wanted to show early Christians that Jesus’ life and ministry were the fulfillment of God’s ancient purposes for his chosen people, he explained Jesus’ coming and his messianic work were the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham (Luke 1:72-73). When the Psalmist and the author of Hebrews wanted to show how God’s redemptive plan is ordered and on what basis it unfolds in history, they use the covenants as their framework (Ps 78, 89; Heb 6-10). When Jesus taught the disciples in Luke 24 how to understand the Old Testament, he explained that Moses and the Prophets were writing about his humiliation and exaltation.
As Chad Smith puts it, “That’s the story that I want to read.”
Maria Baer contributed to this article.