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Covenant is not a word that we use often in the West. But it is a word that can show up in surprising places. Some of us live in “covenant communities”—neighborhoods where each resident agrees to abide by a written set of standards designed to make people’s homes and yards look neat and presentable. Or perhaps you have been to a wedding recently and heard the word covenant used during the ceremony. In both of these examples, covenant is not tossed around casually. Investment in a home and in the lifelong union of a husband and a wife are weighty matters that deeply affect people’s lives. In an age not known for its seriousness or thoughtfulness, covenant manages to carry the sense of something important and abiding.

That weightiness lines up with the Bible’s teaching about covenants. What does the Bible have to say about what a “covenant” is? The answer to this question is far-reaching. Covenant sits at the very heart of the Bible’s teaching about what God is doing in the lives of human beings. If we want to understand the Bible’s teaching, then we should have a good handle on what the Bible says about the covenants.

What is a covenant? In brief, a covenant formalizes a relationship between two parties, and it does so in terms of promises, conditions, and signs. Covenants in Scripture, then, typically have parties, promises, conditions, and one or more signs. Let’s look at each of these.

Parties

Covenants in Scripture involve two parties. These parties are God and human beings. God and human beings are, of course, already in relationship before a covenant is made. God has made all people and preserves all people. In the garden, that relationship was one of open fellowship. Since the fall, that relationship is one of enmity. Because of sin, people are at war with God, and God is justly angry with them.

This relationship helps us see something important about biblical covenants. In Scripture, we never see people approach God to make a covenant with Him. It is always the other way around. God pursues us. This pursuit is an act of grace. God seeks out His enemies.

God’s initiative shows us something else. In biblical covenants, we do not stand with God on the platform as equals. God condescends (comes down) to take us into covenant with Himself. And this was true even before the fall. In the garden, the distance between Creator and (sinless) man was so great that God condescended to enter into covenant with Adam.

It is within the covenant community that Christian families are nurtured to be places where the Word is taught and modeled on a daily basis.

When we think about parties to the covenants of Scripture, there remains something else we need to see. We have been thinking about the individual dimension of biblical covenants. But there is a corporate dimension as well. When God entered into covenant with Adam in the garden, Adam stood as the representative of all human beings who descended from him (except for Jesus, of course). That is what Paul teaches in Romans 5:12–21. When God made a covenant with Abraham, He told Abraham, “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:7). This principle continues into the new covenant. The gospel promise, Peter told his hearers on the day of Pentecost, “is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39, emphasis added).

So, there is a personal dimension to God’s covenants and there is a corporate dimension to God’s covenants. How can we hold these two dimensions in their biblical balance? In the first place, the Bible is clear that simply being a member of the covenant community does not save you. What counts, Paul tells the Galatians, is not whether you have Abraham’s DNA in your body. What counts is whether you trust in the God of promise, just as Abraham did (Gal. 3:7–9, 29). God did not choose to save every physical descendant of Abraham (Rom. 9:1–13). Only those whom God has chosen in eternity and effectively calls in time enjoy all the blessings of the covenant. Only those who have repented of their sin and have believed in Jesus Christ can know that they are walking in covenant with God in the fullest sense of the word (10:9–13).

In the second place, the Bible is clear that being part of the covenant community is a tremendous privilege. If you are a member of a true church, God has set you in a place of blessing. You get to hear the words of eternal life every time the gospel is preached. The minister and elders point you away from sin and call you to trust in Jesus Christ. You belong to a community of people who love Christ and model His character. It is within the covenant community that Christian families are nurtured to be places where the Word is taught and modeled on a daily basis, in the ups and downs of everyday life.

Promises and Conditions

What are the promises and conditions of the covenants that God makes with people? Let’s think specifically about the covenants that God makes with sinners. There is, in the first place, a priority of promise. When God comes to people, He comes graciously. We have no claim on Him. Nothing we have ever done or will ever do can put God in our debt (11:35). And when He comes, He makes lavish promises to us. Listen to the way that Paul puts it: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3). Blessed indeed! Nothing less than “every spiritual blessing” is ours in Jesus Christ. And God promises us that what He has freely given us, we will never lose (Rom. 8:18–39).

In the second place, there are conditions that follow. We have already mentioned two conditions of the covenant—repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. We do not repent and believe to earn our way into the covenant. Repentance and faith are both gracious gifts of God to the undeserving sinner (Acts 11:18; Phil. 1:29). It is through repentance and faith that we draw near to God in Jesus Christ as our God.


Faith rests in Christ, but it is also restless for Christ. Faith works by love, and that means keeping the commandments of God. Keeping God’s commands in no way earns the promises that God gives us in Christ. That is because everything that God gives us, Christ has first earned for us. United to Christ, we share in the fullness of the reward that the Father has given Jesus for His obedience, death, and resurrection. That is why, Paul insists, our salvation is “not a result of works” (Eph. 2:9). But, Paul continues, we must go on to do good works. We are not saved by good works, but we are saved for good works, “which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). There is no such thing as a saved person who is not doing good works. But the glory of God’s covenants with sinners is that there is no such thing as a person who hopes to be saved by his good works. He has been saved by Christ’s good works. And that’s good news.

Signs

We receive God’s promises through faith. We obey God’s commands in faith. Faith lies at the heart of our covenant relationship with God. But while God and His covenant promises never change, our faith can become weak and is subject to the attacks of Satan.

This is one reason that God provides signs in the covenants that He makes with people. A sign is something physical or tangible that points beyond itself to a spiritual reality. Much as road signs point us to the restaurant off the upcoming exit or provide the distance to the next city, covenant signs point us to the covenant promises and blessings that are ours in Christ.

What is most valuable and precious to us—fellowship with the living God—is entirely secure in God’s hands.

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God typically gives a covenant sign when He enters into covenant with people. God’s covenant with Noah—the rainbow. God’s covenant with Abraham—circumcision. God’s covenant with Israel—Passover. The new covenant—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The reason that God is in the habit of doing this is because He wants us to remember His covenant promises. He wants our faith to grow stronger as the signs point us to the truth and reality of the blessings that are ours in Christ. He wants our faith to be assured that God means what He says—He is our God, and He intends to bless us fully in Jesus (this is what we mean when we speak of covenant signs as seals). Covenant signs have no power in themselves. They are not magical or superstitious. But, in the hands of the Spirit, they help faith to draw the nourishment from God’s promises that we need to thrive in covenant life with God.

Our Covenant-Making, Covenant-Keeping God

Covenants in Scripture are not ultimately about us. They direct us to God. How do the covenants of the Bible help us know our God better?

Covenants remind us that God is sovereign. God seeks out people to enter into covenant with them. He places His covenants on them. He sets the terms of His covenants. He ensures that the conditions of His redemptive covenants will be fulfilled, and that their promises will come to fruition. For sinners, knowing that our covenant God is sovereign is tremendously reassuring and comforting. What is most valuable and precious to us—fellowship with the living God—is entirely secure in God’s hands. This certainty frees us to trust Him and to serve Him with all our being.

Covenants remind us that God is holy and just. When Adam broke covenant with God in the garden, he was exiled from the place where he had enjoyed communion with God. When God restores fellowship with sinners, it is never at the expense of His holiness and justice. God does not wink at our sin. The amazing thing is that God the Father sent God the Son into the world, in our humanity, to live, die, and rise again for our sakes. Christ has done all that sinners need to be restored to fellowship with God. By His death, the penalty for our sins has been fully paid, and the wrath of God has been forever turned away. By His obedience, He has won a place for us in the presence of God. Christ’s work has redeemed us from the curse of God, and has secured for us innumerable blessings.

And covenants remind us that God is good and gracious. In the garden, God held before Adam the blessed promise of confirmed life with God. To sinners, God graciously offers this life in covenant with Himself. And He has lavishly provided everything that the sinner needs to stand before God and to enjoy His blessed presence. We do not deserve a single blessing that He has given us. In fact, what He has given us is contrary to what we deserve because of our sin. And God is completely faithful to us. He will never leave us nor forsake us. He cares for us (Do you doubt this? Look at the cross). And on that day when He presents us blameless before His own glorious presence, it will be with “great joy” (Jude 24).

As you study Scripture, be sure to spend time in the covenants that God makes with human beings. Covenants run from the beginning to the end of the Bible. See what a great salvation your God has prepared for you. And see what a great God invites you to draw near to Him.

The Covenant in History

The Covenants in Scripture

Keep Reading Covenant Theology

From the October 2020 Issue
Oct 2020 Issue