In Biblical times, following a war, the nations that were involved drew up covenants (or agreements) which stipulated the conditions and obligations of both the victorious and the defeated armies. These covenants were not pacts in which both parties contributed to the agreement on equal grounds. The victorious king set the rules, while the defeated army promised to keep the rules in exchange for the protection of the victorious king.
These covenants were characterised by five points:
- who is the king (or the stronger covenant partner)
- the historical framework which led up to the covenant agreement (pre-war conditions)
- an oath or promise including stipulations (both parties made vows to keep to the covenant)
- a curse for violation (what happens if the weaker party breaks covenant)
- stipulations regarding covenant succession (safeguards to ensure that the agreement will continue into the future)
God’s covenant(s) with his people follows the same structure.
- He, the sovereign, enters into a covenant with us, the weaker party.
- His covenant is based on his faithful love but was needed because of our rebellion against Him.
- He promises to be our God, gives us salvation in Christ, provides living space, and protects us by his Name through his Holy Spirit; we promise to live according to his stipulations— his Word—under the Spirit,.
- Disobedience to the covenant agreement invokes God’s judgment and discipline.
- The only basis on which God’s covenant can be eternal is the complete redemption of his Son Jesus Christ, our perfect Redeemer and Intercessor.
The Covenant between God and his people
Covenant Theology underscores all theology in the Bible. Charles Spurgeon writes:
“The doctrine of the covenant lies at the root of all true theology. It has been said that he who well understands the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, is a master of divinity. I am persuaded that most of the mistakes which men make concerning the doctrines of Scripture are based on fundamental errors with regard to the covenant of law and of grace.”
1. Read Genesis 2:4-17 and see if you can identify the five points which formed the basis of God’s Covenant with Adam and Eve
- identification of the king
- the historical framework which led up to the covenant agreement
- the oath or promise including stipulations
- a curse for violation
- stipulations regarding covenant succession
Adam and Eve, even before falling into sin lived in a covenant with God: it was called the Covenant of Works. They disobeyed God, ate of the forbidden fruit, and as such, made a covenant with the devil. They had to face to consequences: they would surely die.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23, ESV)
The covenant of grace is
- unilateral (it is based on the actions of God only)
- indissolubly (it cannot be dissolved)
- grounded in the merciful promises of the sovereign God. God cannot break his promise; He has sworn Himself to uphold it.
The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful— for He cannot deny Himself. (2 Timothy 2:11–13, ESV)
Gods covenant fulfilled in Jesus Christ
God did not leave Adam, Eve and their descendants in misery: He promised One who would crush the head of 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.” (Genesis 3:15, ESV)
God established a Covenant of Grace. God’s mercy triumphs over judgment. But, now the path of glory must pass through suffering for man and woman. In the promise of Genesis 3, we find the gospel in a nutshell and, in principle, the entire history of the human race.
Ligon Duncan writes:
Covenant theology explains the meaning of the death of Christ in light of the fullness of the biblical teaching on the divine covenants, undergirds our understanding of the nature and use of the sacraments, and provides the fullest possible explanation of the grounds of our assurance. (https://ligonduncan.com/2012-convocation-on-covenant-theology-566/)
To put it another way, Covenant theology is the Biblical record of how we must understand and, grow in our understanding, of:
- the atonement (the meaning and scope of the death of Christ);
- assurance (in what does our faith rest, how we have communion with God, and how we may enjoy his promises);
- the sacraments (signs and seals of God’s covenant promises — what they are and how they work); and
- the continuity of redemptive history (the unified plan of God’s salvation through the Old Testament into the New—also known as the Old Covenant and the New Covenant).
God is holy, just and immutable (unchanging) in his promises. On the other hand, man’s utter natural sinful depravation makes him unreliable and ever untrustworthy; in whatever he does, he falls short.
Without God’s intervention in the form of a covenant, there would have been a constant tension between God and man, making it impossible to have communion with each other. It would be impossible to know Him, love Him, serve Him and fully enjoy anything He created.
Man would have been left destroying himself and the world he lives in, were it not for the grace of God expressed in his covenant with man. Of this covenant Christ, our perfect Mediator is the Head.
To know God and to have an eternal hope we need salvation; we need:
- God to grant us a righteousness that will satisfy his holiness;
- God to make us what Adam was before sin came into this world – created in the likeness and image of God and man;
- God to make us holy;
- God to protect us in his hands through this life into eternity.