Throughout Scripture, certain phrases are repeated often, and their repetition signals their importance. One such recurring phrase is called the “Immanuel Principle,” wherein God declares, “I shall be your God, and you shall be My people” (e.g., see Gen. 17:7; Ex. 6:7; Jer. 31:1; Ezek. 36:28; 2 Cor. 6:16; Rev. 21:3). These words speak of the most precious of relationships—the relationship by which God’s people belong to Him as His own. Scripture elaborates to tell us that God has created, and is creating, this relationship through covenant. As God tells the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 29:12–13, He has gathered them together “so that [they] may enter into the sworn covenant of the Lord [their] God, . . . that he may establish [them] as his people, and that he may be [their] God.” By and through covenant, God is making His people His own, and He is showing Himself to be their God. Since covenant is such an important biblical category, it demands the careful attention of God’s people.
What Is Covenant Theology?
When considering the category of covenant, an obvious question emerges: What is a covenant? In Scripture, a covenant is a binding relationship among parties that involves both blessings and obligations (e.g., Josh. 9:3–21). In many ways, marriage is a good example of a covenant relationship. Marriage is a relationship to which both parties are solemnly committed, and that relationship brings both blessings and obligations to husband and to wife. Stated differently, a covenant is a relationship within parameters.
If a covenant is a relationship within parameters, what is covenant theology? Covenant theology seeks to use the biblically prominent covenants to inform our knowledge of God and of His work. Specifically, covenant theology contends that God has been working throughout history to gather His people to Himself through covenantal relationship.
The Covenant of Works
The first covenantal relationship one encounters in the Scriptures is the covenant of works, which is the relationship in the garden of Eden between God and Adam as the representative or head of all mankind. This relationship between God and Adam is a rich one. God has made humanity—both man and woman—in His own image (Gen. 1:26–27), He has breathed life itself into Adam (Gen. 2:7), He has placed His image bearers in a garden overflowing with abundant provision for all their needs (Gen. 1:29–30; 2:8–9), and in that place of blessing, man enjoys immediate communion with God Himself (Gen. 3:8). Even more, God has given Adam commands that instruct him how he is to live as God’s image bearer. Under these creation ordinances, man is commanded to exercise dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:28; 2:19), to labor (Gen. 2:15), to marry (Gen. 2:24–25), to fill the earth (Gen. 1:28), and to enjoy doxological rest on the Sabbath day (Gen. 2:3). Adam and Eve are God’s image bearers, living in God’s paradise, in fellowship with their Creator, and with instructions on how to reflect the glory of God Himself. Nestled amid these blessings, God also has commanded Adam that he is not to eat of one tree in the garden—the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If Adam eats of that tree, he will die (Gen. 2:16–17). But if Adam lives out a life of “perfect and personal obedience” (Westminster Confession of Faith 7.2), he will attain everlasting life. In His condescending love for His image bearers, God is holding out a way that finite man can inherit everlasting life in His presence. By covenant, God would gather humanity fully to Himself.
An Eternal Covenant of Grace
Adam, of course, failed to uphold that covenant. In an act of flagrant rebellion, Adam ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree and brought the covenantal curse of death not only upon himself but also upon all the posterity whom he had represented in the covenant (Rom. 5:12–14; 1 Cor. 15:22). In the shambles of Adam’s rebellion, however, God declared a promise. Despite Adam and Eve’s rebellion, God would preserve a people to Himself, from generation to generation, and ultimately, from that people, God would raise up One who would destroy the enemy of the souls of His people (Gen. 3:15). This was the promise of a Messiah and of a people who belonged to Him. It was God’s announcement not of the covenant of works but of His covenant of grace.
In the New Testament, the Scriptures provide more precise clarity on this covenant of grace. When God promised redemption in Genesis 3:15, He was not beginning something new. From eternity, there had been an intra-Trinitarian agreement, sometimes referred to as the covenant of redemption, in which the Father had covenanted to give a people to the Son (Luke 22:29; John 17:12), the Son had covenanted to serve as the Mediator of this people and do everything required to bring them into perfect fellowship with God (John 17:4; 19:30; Heb. 1:3), and the Holy Spirit had covenanted to apply the work of the Son to the people whom He had been given by the Father (John 16:7–11; Acts 2:33; 2 Cor. 1:21–22). When God promised restoration in the ruins of Eden, He was announcing the glories that were to come from that eternal covenant.
As God’s eternal purpose, announced in Genesis 3:15, came to historical accomplishment in the covenant of grace, it precisely addressed the need of God’s people. Because of Adam’s sin, all mankind bore a double burden. First, they stood under the curse of the covenant of works. Because of Adam’s transgression, all mankind justly deserved death. But this burden, as grim as it was, was not their only burden. As the covenant of works had shown, for man to live eternally in God’s presence, he had to have a positive, righteous obedience. He had to keep the law of God. Both the curse and the terms of the covenant of works stood between fallen mankind and life in God’s presence. As the Mediator of God’s people in the covenant of grace, God the Son would satisfy both of those demands. In His own death, the Son would suffer the curse of the covenant of works in His people’s place (Gal. 3:13). And in His perfect keeping of God’s law, He would fulfill the terms of the covenant of works in their stead (Rom. 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:21). Through the working of this eternal covenant of grace, the triune God would redeem His people and bring them to Himself.
The Covenant of Grace Unfolds
As God brought this eternal covenant to fulfillment in time, He did so through a succession of covenants, often referred to as historical administrations of the covenant of grace. In these historical administrations, as God was moving His redemptive purposes forward, He also was progressively revealing more about how He was redeeming His people and about how He would have them to live as a people who were His, holy as He is holy (Ezek. 37:24–28; Gal. 3:15–22; Lev. 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15–16). After first announcing His eternal covenant of grace in Genesis 3:15, God entered into such historical administrations of that covenant with Noah (Gen. 6–9), with Abraham (Gen. 12; 15; 17), with Israel at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19–24), and with David (2 Sam. 7:1–17) before realizing, in Christ, the new covenant that He previously had foretold through the prophets (Jer. 31:31–34; Matt. 26:26–28; Luke 22:20).
Initially, after God’s promise in Genesis 3:15, it appeared to the human eye that the gradual unfolding of God’s covenantal purpose would fail before it even began. Beginning with jealousy and murder among Adam and Eve’s children (Gen. 4:1–8), humanity spiraled into ever-deepening sin until their wickedness had produced a world that heralded man’s obscene evil rather than God’s covenantal glory (Gen. 6:5–7). Where are God’s promises to judge the serpent and to gather a people? In His covenant with Noah, God displayed that desolating judgment always was at His fingertips, but He was withholding that judgment until He changed the hearts of all His people and gathered them to Himself (Gen. 8:20–22; Matt. 24:36–39). History would continue not because God was unable to keep His covenant promises but because He was upholding creation until the fullness of those promises had been brought to pass (2 Peter 3:3–10).
In His covenant with Abraham, God brought much greater clarity to what was entailed in His covenant promises. First, God promised Abraham (he was called “Abram” at that time) that He would give him descendants, He would give him a land, and He would make him to be a blessing to all the nations (Gen. 12:1–3). These promises spoke so clearly of Christ (Gal. 3:16), of the new Jerusalem (Heb. 11:8–10), and of the worldwide reach of the gospel (Gal. 3:8–9), respectively, that in the New Testament’s estimation, in them, God “preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand” (Gal. 3:8, NKJV). These promises traced out the silhouette of the sort of redemption God would bring through His covenant of grace. Second, God disclosed how this covenant of grace would work—His people would enjoy the promised covenantal blessings through faith (Gen. 15:6; Hab. 2:4; Gal. 3:11). Just as He did with Abraham, God would make gracious, undeserved promises to His people and, to that gracious and sovereign approach, God’s people were to respond with believing obedience (Joel 2:12–14; Matt. 11:28–30; Mark 1:15).
What exactly that believing obedience would produce was given clear description in God’s covenant with Israel, mediated through Moses at Mount Sinai. In this Mosaic covenant, the law of the Ten Commandments is central, for that law described what a human analogue of God’s own holy character would look like (Lev. 19:2; Matt. 5:48). When Israel walked in accordance with this law, they simultaneously would enact gratitude to God for His deliverance of them (Ex. 20:1–3; Deut. 5:6–7); find joy and blessedness in faithfully bearing the divine image in which they were made (Ex. 20:11–12); and display God’s transcendent glory to the surrounding world (Ex. 19:5–6; 24:7–8; 1 Peter 2:9–10; Rev. 1:6). As Israel saw God’s holy character described in the law, however, that display also would highlight their own sin and need for cleansing. On the very heels of the law, therefore, God also specified a sacrificial system for Israel (notice how the Ten Commandments lead right into the altar; Ex. 20:17–26). In that system, God showed His people that through the shedding of blood, He would deal with their sin and make it possible for them to be in His presence (Heb. 9:11–15, 22). In the Mosaic covenant, the covenant of grace moved forward as God gave Israel the law to show them their sin, a sacrificial system to assure them that there was forgiveness of that sin in Him, and the law, again, to lead them in lives of God-honoring holiness.
In His covenant with David, God took everything He had been showing His people thus far and He centered it all in one man. In David and then his descendants after him, God’s people had a figure whose standing before, and relationship with, God affected their own. When the Davidic king walked in uprightness and loved the Lord, Israel would know blessing (1 Kings 11:34, 36; 15:4; 2 Kings 8:19; 19:34; Ps. 132:10); when the Davidic king rebelled and despised the Lord, Israel would know great struggle (2 Kings 21:10–15). While God never would abandon the people of His promise, part of their enjoyment of that promise was determined by a king who ruled over them (2 Sam. 7:13–16). The importance of this royal representation stoked a desire in God’s people for a great and upright King who, in accordance with God’s promise, was still to come (Isa. 11:1–5; Matt. 1:1; Mark 10:47–48).
Through His prophets, God only heightened the expectations of what was to come. According to these prophets, there was coming a new covenant in which God’s purposes would be secured as the sin of God’s people finally was taken away (Isa. 54:7–10; Jer. 31:34) and a new, heightened spiritual intimacy between God and His people was inaugurated (Jer. 31:34; Joel 2:28–29; Acts 2:17). Then, Jesus stood amid His disciples in the shortening hours of His earthly life and declared that the cup which anticipated His shed blood represented the “the new covenant in my blood” (Matt. 26:26–28; Luke 22:20). The new covenant, long foretold, would be inaugurated as Jesus shed His own blood, then rose again and poured out the Holy Spirit, who would seal to all of God’s people the covenantal blessings that Christ had secured for them (Acts 2:29–36). All of God’s working and all His redemptive promises had been pointing to this One Man, the Mediator Christ Jesus, and in Him was the life that God had promised since the beginning (John 5:26; 2 Cor. 1:20). In the future, when the fullness of God’s redemptive purposes have been perfectly accomplished, Jesus will return to the Father the authority given to Him as Mediator of the covenant of grace in the counsel of peace (1 Cor. 15:24–28). Then, the glory of the triune God will saturate the very personalities and experiences of the worldwide people that God has gathered to Himself in the promised city of overflowing life and boundless joy (Rev. 21:22–22:5). Through covenant, God will have His people.
This history-spanning movement of God’s covenantal work is compacted in Ezekiel 37:24–28. Speaking of His people, God says:
David My servant shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd; they shall also walk in My judgments and observe My statutes, and do them. Then they shall dwell in the land that I have given to Jacob My servant, where your fathers dwelt; and they shall dwell there, they, their children, and their children’s children, forever; and My servant David shall be their prince forever. Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set My sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My tabernacle also shall be with them; indeed I will be their God, and they shall by My people. The nations also will know that I, the Lord, sanctify Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forevermore. (NKJV)
In that happy day, God will have brought His covenantal purposes to their final perfection, just as He guaranteed with Noah. The land that He had promised to Abraham will be filled with the seed that He likewise had promised (Ezek. 37:25). That people will radiate the holiness to which God had directed them in the Mosaic covenant (Ezek. 37:24), even as they are ruled by the King promised to David (Ezek. 37:24) and enjoy the nearness foretold in the new covenant prophesied (Ezek. 37:27). All the old sorrows will be gone, the old divisions healed. Throughout the unfolding covenant of grace, God gradually had sketched out the particulars of His eternal redemptive purpose. Piece by piece, He had shown His people more about what, in His triune counsel, He had purposed to do. And from the golden streets of the new Jerusalem, all the saints clothed in white will see that this, finally, is that to which God had been drawing their hearts all along, even as He had been shaping them as a people distinctively His own.
From beginning to glorious ending, God’s work and God’s redemption have been covenantal (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:21–22). While the implications of this are vast, we can identify quickly at least four ways in which this covenant theology is important to consider.
- Covenant theology helps us understand God better.
From the first creation of humanity, God’s relationship with His image bearers always has been covenantal. Since God has always approached man through covenant, it is through that same covenant relationship that we are best able to understand Him. This is a principle that we recognize in everyday life. If a child wants to understand his father best, he needs to approach him as his father, not as a coach. If you want to nurture your relationship with a friend, you need to view and understand that person as a friend, not as an employee. We understand individuals best when we understand them in terms of how they stand in relation to us. How much more is this true of the eternal and infinite God? And that God has always condescended to approach His people through covenant. If we want to know the God of the covenant better, we must see Him and know Him through that covenant by which He has approached us. When we do this, we see rapturous disclosures of God’s relational, faithful, loving, and gracious character in His covenant of grace.
- Covenant theology helps us better understand the full redemption that God has accomplished.
For example, when we understand, through the covenant of works, the double burden resting on God’s people, we get a robust notion of what justification for those sinners must involve. Alongside this clarity, we also receive rich categories for how to understand Christ as our Mediator and King. As we then consider the aspects of covenantal blessing that God was disclosing in the various covenantal promises, we obtain a more granular glimpse of the realm of endless day for which we are bound.
- Covenant theology helps us understand Scripture better.
Covenant theology, of course, is not a system that we impose on Scripture. Rather, it is an understanding that emerges from the Scriptures themselves. But once we realize the covenantal shape of the Scriptures and read them accordingly, we can understand how all of God’s Word fits together and applies to us today. Of what relevance is the Old Testament to the church today? What role, if any, should the law play in the lives of Christians today? What is the relationship between Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New Testament? These and so many more questions are addressed when we attend to the covenant theology of Scripture.
- Covenant theology offers vital contributions to many areas of current theological debate and discussion.
For example, a proper understanding of the counsel of peace speaks to many ongoing, and often unaddressed, issues in Trinitarian theology. When we consider the covenant of works, we receive immense insight into what it means to be human, created in the image of God. Within Christology, the covenantal nature of God’s redemption and revelation suggests that understanding Christ as Mediator should perhaps loom larger in our understanding of His person and work. There simply is no corner of theology unaffected by covenant theology. That is a bold claim, but as we think through covenant theology and see it laced through the Scripture, we come to realize that it is a true claim, as well.
In Scripture, God’s covenantal work always is attached to that blessed refrain: “I shall be your God, and you shall be My people.” In and through the covenant of grace, God is His people’s, and His people are His own. It is, therefore, through attention to covenant theology that we are best able to know our God and to live as His people.