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In 2018, a senior pastor in Atlanta created something of a buzz when he said, “Christians need to unhitch the Old Testament from their faith.” Immediately, Bible-loving Christians responded with alarm that a prominent pastor would state, essentially, that the Old Testament is unnecessary for believers. The pastor’s attempts at clarification did not help assuage concerns. Even according to the most charitable reading, he devalues the Old Testament. He may claim it is inspired, but it is difficult to see what that means when he has said there is little divine grace in the Old Testament and that it should not be “the go-to source regarding any behavior in the church.”

Sadly, I think this pastor’s comments reflect an approach all too common in the church. Few professing Christians take the route of the ancient heretic Marcion and cut the Old Testament out of their Bibles entirely. Yet, many Christians effectively follow advice like that above—to unhitch the Old Testament from our faith. We may not do this consciously, but many of us do not know what to do with the Old Testament. Things begin to fall into place, however, when we learn the covenantal structure of Scripture.

Three Overarching Covenants

The overall covenantal structure of Scripture is evident in the three overarching covenants that structure the entirety of the biblical story from Genesis to Revelation: the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace.

The covenant of redemption. The covenant of redemption refers to the covenant made in eternity past between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to redeem a people for the glory of God and the eternal good of His children. According to the terms of this covenant, the Father chose a people to save, the Son agreed to redeem this people through His life, death, and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit consented to apply the redeeming work of the Son to those whom the Father has chosen. The covenant of redemption is the foundation of all that God does in history to save His people from their sin, and it reveals that the Lord has an eternal plan for humanity that involves His saving sinners and commissioning the church to declare this salvation to the nations.

While we do not find the phrase covenant of redemption as such in Scripture, allusions to this covenant can be found in texts such as John 6:37, which says that the Father has given a people to the Son for salvation; Philippians 2:5–11, which speaks of the Son’s freely humbling Himself in the incarnation and in death on our behalf; and John 14:16–17, where Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit. While there is debate over whether we can speak of an intra-Trinitarian covenant of redemption between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Scripture clearly affirms that our sovereign and triune God planned from all eternity to save His people in a specific way regardless of whether we call this plan a covenant.

The covenant of grace does not abolish the covenant of works. Under its terms, Christ Jesus our Lord keeps the covenant of works for us.

The covenant of works. Sometimes called the covenant of creation or the Adamic covenant, the covenant of works is the covenant between God and Adam as the representative of all people who descend from him by ordinary generation. Under the terms of this covenant, God promised to confirm Adam in a state of life—to give him eternal life—if Adam were to obey Him perfectly in taking dominion over the earth and in not eating the forbidden fruit. In this covenant, Adam is the federal head of humanity. That is, he represented us in such a way that God pledged to count what he did to us. If he had obeyed, his obedience would be ours and all people would have eternal life.

Like the phrase covenant of redemption, the phrase covenant of works does not appear in Scripture. All the major elements of a covenant, however, appear in the key texts that address Adam’s probation in the garden of Eden. God issues a demand for obedience, commanding Adam to take dominion over the earth and to refrain from eating the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He attaches a curse of death to breaking His word (Gen. 1:26–28; 2:15–17). A curse of death for disobedience carries with it an implicit promise of life for obedience, a promise we find explained more in Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22. We see in those texts that Jesus succeeded where Adam failed, granting eternal life to His people. He gives us the life that Adam did not grant.

As Romans 5:12–21 teaches, Adam sinned; thus, his disobedience is counted to us and we are born in sin and estranged from God. This does not mean the Lord set the covenant of works aside. God holds us accountable for Adam’s sin in part because the covenant of works remains in force.

The covenant of grace. When Adam disobeyed and ate from the forbidden tree, God could have justly left all of us in a state of sin and misery, cut off from eternal life. However, He has chosen to show grace to some, saving them from sin and guilt through the person and work of Jesus Christ, who fulfills the covenant of grace that the Lord made with His people.

The covenant of grace does not abolish the covenant of works. It is a gracious covenant because under its terms, Christ Jesus our Lord keeps the covenant of works for us. As the last Adam, He renders the perfect obedience God demanded of the first Adam, and He atones for the sin of His people, removing God’s wrath. Christ replaces Adam as the federal head of those who trust only in Jesus for salvation. Through faith alone, His perfect obedience is imputed to us—it is put on our accounts before God—and God declares us righteous and as having fulfilled the covenant of works. Therefore, we inherit eternal life. When God looks at our record in His heavenly courtroom, He sees the perfect obedience of His Son.

Again, the phrase covenant of grace does not appear in Scripture. But the concept is everywhere. Genesis 3:15, where God promises to crush the serpent who introduced sin into the world, first announces the covenant of grace. The specific work of Christ in fulfilling God’s demands by His obedience is revealed in texts such as Matthew 3:15 and Romans 5:12–21. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us is revealed in passages including Romans 3:21–4:25 and 2 Corinthians 5:21. The covenant of grace is also seen in its unfolding through a series of sub-covenants that clarify God’s promises and demands and point us to the coming of the Savior.

The Covenant of Grace Unfolded

The covenant of grace between God and His people is expanded on over time in five other covenants in which God makes promises to His children and they pledge to respond in true faith, which faith bears fruit in obedience. These five covenants are the Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, the Davidic covenant, and the new covenant in Christ.

The Noahic covenant. The first major advance of the covenant of grace is seen when the Lord covenanted with Noah to preserve the earth and never again send a flood to destroy all life (Gen. 8:20–9:17). This covenant of continuation or preservation assures the people of God that He will uphold the created order until His elect have all been redeemed. It establishes a predictability to nature that enables the church to make plans, schedule and structure worship, and do whatever else it must do to accomplish its mission. In turn, God’s people believe this promise and they show their faith by continuing to have children and families.

The Abrahamic covenant. After Noah, God made a covenant with Abraham in which He promised to bless the world through one family and through one Son from that family. This covenant of promise gave Abraham many descendants, a good land, and a great name. This came at God’s initiative—God announced what He was going to do for Abraham, and Abraham was expected to believe God and to demonstrate this trust by following the Lord. The Abrahamic covenant is one of the most important covenants in Scripture for understanding how we receive salvation. We find the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12:1–3; 15; 17, 22:1–19, Romans 4, and Galatians 3:15–29.

Abraham shows us that salvation comes through faith alone in the promises of God. When he believed God, it was counted to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6; see Eph. 2:8–10). As Paul explains, this means we are ultimately declared righteous because the obedience of Christ is imputed to us through faith in Him alone (Rom. 4; 5:12–21; 2 Cor. 5:21). Abraham looked forward to God’s salvation; we look back on it since Jesus has come. As is the case whenever true faith is exercised, it results in God’s people’s obeying God in gratitude for their salvation. Abraham showed his faith by seeking to obey Him and repenting when he fell short (James 2:14–26). We must do the same.

The Mosaic covenant. The Mosaic covenant, also called the old covenant, stands out for its extensive legal regulations and sacrificial system. This has led some to believe that people were saved under the Mosaic covenant by keeping the law. However, covenant theology recognizes that even under the Mosaic covenant, people were redeemed through faith in God’s promises alone. Importantly, God gave the law to Israel through Moses only after saving them from slavery in Egypt (see Ex. 20). This reveals that God’s people do not keep the law in order to be saved; they keep the law because God has first saved them.

Nevertheless, the Mosaic law and covenant, as Galatians 3:10–14 indicates, holds out the promise of eternal life to all those who keep it perfectly (see also Lev. 18:5). Yet, God never intended the Mosaic law to be a means of salvation for sinners. The Lord included sacrifices in the law precisely because He knew sinners could never keep the law perfectly and would need atonement and reconciliation with Him. In fact, the Mosaic law reveals to us that we cannot keep the law and points us to Jesus, who kept the Mosaic covenant in our behalf, fulfilling also the covenant of works (Gal. 3:15–29). In short, the Mosaic covenant reminds us of the covenant of works, but it is not itself a covenant of works for sinners to fulfill. It is rooted in grace, in God’s free choice to save Israel and then to provide guidance in what pleases Him.

The covenant of grace between God and His people is expanded on over time in five other covenants.

The legal stipulations of the Mosaic covenant express and apply God’s eternal moral law for humanity to the specific context of old covenant Israel. While many of its individual laws are no longer in force since the coming of Jesus, the moral law as given in the Ten Commandments and fulfilled in love of God and neighbor remains in place (Ex. 20; Rom. 13:8–10). The Mosaic covenant is found particularly in Exodus 19–24 and the book of Deuteronomy, which elaborates the history, terms, blessings, and cursings of the Mosaic covenant in a form similar to other ancient covenants.

The Davidic covenant. The Davidic covenant, given in 2 Samuel 7, 1 Chronicles 17, and Psalm 89, identifies the one family descended from Abraham in whom God would accomplish all the promises to His people. God chose David to hold the kingship over Israel permanently. As the king of Israel represented his people in a manner similar to how Adam represented his descendants, David and his family were selected to be the covenant keepers par excellence and to lead the people of God in faith and obedience. David’s faith and obedience would bless the nation, but his unbelief and disobedience would curse the nation. As we see in the books of Kings and Chronicles, when the Davidic king trusted God and obeyed Him, great blessing followed for the entire nation. When he was faithless and disobeyed, disaster ensued, culminating in the exile to Babylon.

In the royal Davidic covenant, God promised David an everlasting throne and a son to build Him a temple. Later prophets revealed that the Lord would exalt David over the nations of the earth. In so doing, He would also exalt Israel—the people of God—to rule and reign over the world (Ps. 2; Isa. 11; Mic. 4:1–5). However, God also promised that He would not leave David and his sons undisciplined when they committed gross sin. Ultimately, David’s family would give rise to one Son of David in particular who would atone for the sins of David’s line and, indeed, for all of God’s people (Isa. 53).

The new covenant. All the other covenants under the covenant of grace and, indeed, the covenant of grace itself are fulfilled in the new covenant made by God in Christ with His people. The new covenant is announced in Jeremiah 31:31–34; inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ; continued in the ministry of the church; and consummated at the return of Jesus (Luke 22:20; Heb. 8; 9:15, 27–28).

The new covenant began in the first coming of Christ, but the fullness of its blessings will not arrive until Jesus returns. All the earlier covenants point forward to the new covenant, and Jesus in various ways fulfills the promises and goals of these covenants between God and His people. Here are some highlights of this fulfillment.

Covenant of works: Jesus obeys God perfectly, succeeding where Adam failed and securing the perfect righteousness that enables us to stand before God unafraid (Rom. 5:12–21; 2 Cor. 5:21).

Covenant of grace: God is gracious to us in Christ because He fulfilled the covenant of works and atoned for our sin (John 1:14–18; Rom. 1:1–7).

Noahic covenant: The work of Jesus removes the curse of sin and will remove its presence, leading finally to a new heaven and earth that will continue forever (Rom. 8:18–25; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21).

Abrahamic covenant: Jesus is the Seed of Abraham in whom the world is blessed, and those who trust in Him are also Abraham’s children who receive the promise of land (the whole earth), a great name (the name of Christ), and a multitude of fellow divine servants (Gal. 3; Rev. 3:12; 7:9–17).

Mosaic covenant: Jesus is the final exodus from sin foreshadowed in the exodus from Egypt, the perfect expositor of God’s law, and the effectual sacrifice (Matt. 5:17–48; Rom. 3:21–26; Heb. 10:1–18).

Davidic covenant: Jesus is the Son of David who builds the temple of God by uniting us to one another as a spiritual house, and He is the promised King who governs us righteously forever, mediating between us and the Father (Luke 1:26–80; Heb. 3:1–6; 1 Peter 2:2–8).

Covenant Theology Today

I began this article by noting that covenant theology helps us understand what to do with the Old Testament. In affirming covenant theology, we see the glorious structure of God’s plan of salvation and learn that we can never unhitch the Old Testament from our faith.

Covenant Dynamics

Covenant Theology Applied

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From the October 2020 Issue
Oct 2020 Issue