Even those casually familiar with the Bible know its basic contents: the Old Testament in front and the New Testament in back. Those more familiar know its contents more deeply. First is the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses), followed by the histories, the poetic books, and the prophets. In the New Testament, we find the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation. This describes how the church has organized the canon of the Bible’s books. But does Scripture present its own structure for understanding its message of salvation? As Reformed theologians have long observed, the Bible does provide such a framework, which we call “covenant theology.” It is through His covenants that God has acted in redemptive history. Covenant theology is not merely a Reformed approach to Scripture, but the Bible’s own approach in presenting salvation.
A History of God and His People
If we were to tell the story of American history, we might choose a number of possible approaches. We might recount America’s wars as a framework for understanding our national ascent to global power. Or we might consider presidential politics, the record of amazing inventions, or the expansion of personal liberties. Such frameworks would serve to integrate the data of American history into one story.
What about the Bible? How does it unfold the story of God and His people? During a recent flight, I had an opportunity to answer this. A young Jewish woman sitting next to me asked, “What do Christians believe?” What an exciting opportunity! I may have responded with various doctrines, giving Bible answers about creation, sin, judgment, redemption, and eternal life. Such an approach would have been sound and perhaps effective. But I took a different approach, instead unfolding the story told in the Bible. In other words, I taught her covenant theology. I took this approach, in part, to connect her Jewish identity to the Christian faith. But I also did so because it is the approach God took when He communicated His message of salvation in the Bible.
First, let’s make sure we know what a covenant is. A covenant is a compact God makes with man for life and blessing. When a man and a woman enter into a covenant to live in the blessings of marriage, they make a compact—a formal, binding agreement — in what we call a wedding. A wedding binds them in marriage, with certain privileges and obligations. Likewise, God bound Himself to men with covenants, according to His own sovereignly imposed terms. With that understanding, let’s get back to my answer to the woman’s question. I began: “Christians believe that God made a covenant with Adam, permitting him to live on the condition of perfect obedience. But Adam broke that covenant by eating from the forbidden tree, falling under God’s curse through sin, and all his offspring with him. But God promised another covenant by which He would offer salvation by grace alone, through the blood of a perfect sacrifice. Later, when God determined to destroy sinful mankind with a flood, He made a covenant with Noah to save the man of faith and preserve a holy people for Himself. Later yet, God made a covenant with Abraham, promising a land of blessing and descendants as numerous as the stars, requiring that Abraham believe.”
On went my explanation of Christian belief. I explained how God sent Moses to deliver Israel from bondage in Egypt, making a covenant to establish God’s holy nation. Then I told how God made a covenant with David, promising an eternal throne for a son from David’s line. Finally, I concluded, “Christians believe that God sent His own Son, Israel’s promised Messiah, whose perfect life and sacrificial death established God’s gracious salvation promises for those who believe.”
This demonstrates the biblical foundation of covenant theology: it is the Bible’s own way of relating God’s way of salvation. This is what God calls for us to believe, so that all who believe the Bible’s story believe in covenant theology.
A Tale of Two Covenants
The Bible’s primary message deals with two great issues: sin and redemption. It relates these to two different covenants, one of which man broke and other of which Christ fulfilled. These two covenants—the covenant of works and the covenant of grace—provide the architecture on which the Bible’s teaching is erected and serve as the key to our understanding of salvation.
As I told my Jewish neighbor, God entered into a covenant with Adam. In this way, God imposed the terms by which Adam and his posterity might continue to enjoy life in the garden, namely, “perfect and personal obedience” (Westminster Confession of Faith 7.2). A test was implemented with regard to one tree: “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” God ordained that “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Through obedience, Adam would retain life in the garden, but if he broke the covenant, he would suffer death. Reformed theology refers to this as “the covenant of works,” since by Adam’s own works he would either stand or fall.
Adam’s breach of the covenant of works is the great problem for which the rest of the Bible presents God’s answer. This answer is the covenant of grace, which God promised as His remedy for the broken covenant of works. Since the serpent (representing the devil) had tempted the first humans into sin, God’s grace was first presented in terms of his defeat. God told the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). Theologians call this the Protoevangelion, that is, the first preaching of the Gospel. God then displayed how the covenant of grace would succeed: a sinless sacrifice would die in the place of sinners, providing His righteousness for them and paying their penalty in His blood. Genesis 3:21 says, “The Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.”
The covenant of grace provides unity to the Gospel’s unfolding in successive generations. God’s covenant with Noah preserved the covenant of grace, so that the human race would continue until the birth of its Savior. God’s covenant with Abraham promised not just many offspring, but also the single offspring in whom the covenant would be fulfilled (see Gal. 3:16). By the time of Moses, Abraham’s family had become a nation, and God’s covenant with Moses provided priests who would offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins. God’s kingdom also needed a sovereign, and God’s covenant with David promised a king who would never fail or die.
But through all the long generations, the broken covenant of works remained unfulfilled—Adam and his line still needed the righteousness that comes only through perfect obedience. So, as Paul put it, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4–5). This is covenant theology at its finest. As Jesus stated, He came to fulfill the Law (Matt. 5:17); that is, he came to fulfill the covenant of works on our behalf. Then, by dying on the cross, Jesus laid the foundation for God’s grace for sinners in the covenant of grace. This is the meaning of Christ’s words in establishing His “new covenant,” bringing the covenant of grace to fruition for those who believe. Anticipating His atoning death, Jesus declared, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28).
Covenant theology is vital not merely for understanding the Old Testament and the Gospels, but also for the apostolic doctrine taught in the Epistles. How, for instance, can God be just and yet be “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26)? Covenant theology provides the answer: believers in Christ are justified both by His fulfilling the covenant of works on our behalf and by the atonement in His blood offered by the covenant of grace. Here is another important question: How can faith make us righteous before God, apart from works of our own? Covenant theology gives the Bible’s answer: Jesus performed the works we owe to God under the covenant of works, which we receive by faith alone under the covenant of grace.
History as His Story
Covenant theology presents the Bible’s own framework for salvation, because like the Bible it unfolds the person and work of Jesus Christ. When Paul wrote, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:20), he was pointing to God’s covenant promises. What has God promised as His gift of grace? The answer is found in His covenants, which offer life, preservation, a land of promise, a glorious people, a ministering priest, a righteous king, and an atoning lamb. These promises are all Yes and Amen only as we trust in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ of the covenants. The Bible history taught by covenant theology is truly His story, so that we might find the fullness of God’s grace in Jesus Christ alone.