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An Overview of Covenant Theology (Lesson 1.4)

Covenant Theology is structured around two distinct covenants that God establishes with man: The first is the Covenant of Works, which God established with Adam, together with all who came from him; the second is the Covenant of Grace, which God establishes with Christ, together with all who belong to Him.

I. The Covenant of WORKS:

The Covenant of Works refers to the covenant relationship that God entered into with Adam in the garden before the fall. We read in Genesis 2:16-17: “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.'” God was giving Adam a very specific command. His obedience would have meant life, but his disobedience would result in death.

This relationship that God initiated with Adam is called the Covenant of Works, because, as we'll see, it was a covenantal relationship; and because the condition of this covenantal relationship with Adam was his works; that is,God was requiring of Adam perfect obedience to the command He had given. The Westminster Shorter Catechism describes it this way: “When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.” This is the Covenant of Works.1

One thing that's vital for us to understand about the Covenant of Works is the relationship that Adam shared with the entire human race who would descend from him. Though God's command was given only to Adam, at the same time, Adam served as a representative for the entire human race. Indeed, the destiny of all humanity hinged on Adam's obedience or disobedience. Scripture makes this clear in passages such as Romans 5:12-21. Had Adam obeyed, it would have meant life not only for him—but for all humanity; and in the same way, when he disobeyed, he brought ruin and death upon us all.

II. The Covenant of GRACE:

After Adam had fallen into sin in the garden, and all men with him, the Lord drew near to Adam and entered into a very different kind of covenant with him. Beginning with the promise of Genesis 3:15, God entered into a covenant of grace with fallen man. In the Covenant of Works, God had entered into a covenant with sinless man that was based on human obedience. But now, in the Covenant of Grace, wonder of wonders, God enters into a covenant with fallen man that is based on divine grace.

The Covenant of Grace is set forth in The Westminster Confession of Faith in this way: “Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.”2

Genesis 3:15 contains the first promise that Scripture makes of the coming of the Savior. Satan had triumphed; mankind had fallen. But that wouldn't be the last word. God would send a Redeemer to save His people from their sins. A seed would come from the woman who would crush the serpent. God would act. Ruin had come through one man. But redemption would come through Another. And through God's covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, the Lord continues to expand on this promise more and more. These covenants aren't to be understood as separate dispensations, but as progressive stages of one single, overarching covenant—the Covenant of Grace. And with each new stage, we come to learn more about the Savior and the salvation He would win for His people.

So, in its essence, the Covenant of Grace is really just another name for the gospel. God's covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, teach us about the gospel. Through pictures, prophecies, and promises, these covenants point us forward to Christ and the salvation He would accomplish for His people. And with the coming of Christ and the inauguration of the new covenant, those pictures become a reality, and those promises find their fulfillment. In the Covenant of Grace, God would do so much more than make salvation possible for us again—He would make it certain. In the Covenant of Grace, God redeems sinners—and He does it by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.3

III. The Covenant of REDEMPTION:

Though the Covenant of Grace comes after the Covenant of Works chronologically,Scripture makes it clear that God's plan of salvation was set in place long before the creation of the world. For indeed, before the earth's foundation, and even from all eternity, the Godhead of the Trinity, foreseeing and ordaining the fall of Adam, was pleased to construct a plan of redemption in which the Father would send the Son into the world to redeem for himself, through the working of the Holy Spirit, particular individuals among Adam's fallen race. This rescue plan is often called the Covenant of Redemption.4

Where do we see it in Scripture? First, we're told that God's plan to redeem a people for himself was put into place before the creation of the world. Ephesians 1:3-4 says: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . .[who] chose us in Him before the foundation of the world. . .” (cf. 3:9-11; 2 Timothy 1:9). Secondly, Scripture tells us that the Father commissioned the Son with a special task; the task of accomplishing redemption for His people. Christ is constantly testifying of the fact that the Father sent Him into the world to accomplish a particular work. He says in John 6:38: “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” And again He testifies in John 10:18, saying: “I have authority to lay [my life] down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.” And in John 17:4, as Jesus prays to the Father, He says: “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.” Thirdly, Scripture tells us that the Father had promised to give the Son a particular people—the same people He was sent to redeem. In Psalm 2, we read of a sacred exchange that took place in eternity past between the Father and the Son: “I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He [the Father]said to Me, 'You are My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as Your possession.'” (vv7-8). And Jesus speaks of a people that the Father had given Him when He says in John 6:39:“This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.” Christ also prays again to the Father in John 17:6, saying: “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word.”5

So, to summarize: Before the foundation of the world, and long before Adam sinned in the garden, God had constructed a plan of salvation. The Father was delighted to set apart particular individuals to redeem for himself from every tribe and tongue and nation under heaven; and He promised them to the Son. The Father would send the Son into the world for them; the Son would lay down His life for them; and the Spirit would draw each and every one of them to the Son, according to the Father's promise. This is what theologians call the Covenant of Redemption. How does it fit together with the Covenant of Grace? Before the foundation of the world, God planned to redeem a particular people; that's the Covenant of Redemption. After the fall, God began putting this plan into action, redeeming sinners like Adam and Eve,Noah and Abraham,Joseph and Moses and David; that's the Covenant of Grace. In other words, the Covenant of Redemption is the foundation of the Covenant of Grace; and in the same way, the Covenant of Grace is the practical outworking of the Covenant of Redemption.6

What Scripture clearly affirms is that long before the creation of the world, God had constructed this plan of redemption. What's not as clear is if this arrangement between the persons of the Trinity can properly be called a covenant. And though there's agreement as to how this Covenant of Redemption relates to the Covenant of Grace in general terms, it's also not entirely agreed upon how it is that they relate to one another more specifically.

Some take the Covenant of Redemption as being something quite distinct from the Covenant of Grace, contending that the first of these was a covenant which was made between the persons of the Trinity, whereas the second is made between God and man.

Others contend that the Covenant of Redemption isn't separate at all, but is rather one and the same with the Covenant of Grace. According to this view, the Covenant of Redemption is simply Jesus' unique task as the head and representative of the Covenant of Grace. In other words, as the Covenant of Works was made with Adam, and in and through him extended also to his posterity, so too, the Covenant of Grace is made with Christ as the head of all who belong to Him. But whether we see the Covenant of Redemption as being distinct from the Covenant of Grace or as part of the Covenant of Grace, there are some sweet applications for us as we meditate on the implications of God's plan of redemption.7

The first application is our security in Christ. The fact is, our salvation isn't ultimately contingent on us at all. It's contingent on a promise the Father made to the Son. The Father has promised His Son a people in the Covenant of Redemption—and if God's Word to man is certain because God cannot lie—how much more certain is the promise of God the Father to God the Son?8 Another application of the Covenant of Redemption is God's love for us in Christ. The truth is, God loved you, not just at your conversion, and not just from your mother's womb, but before the foundation of the world. This means that God loved you not just long before you loved Him, but long before you ever even existed; long before anything existed. It also means that He loved you knowing full well all the sins you would ever commit.9And the last application in thinking through the Covenant of Redemption is the Great Commission. Jesus said to His disciples in John 20:21: “as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” God's rescue mission is happening even as we speak, and Jesus is calling us to be a part of it. And we can go with great confidence, because the Father has promised to give a people to the Son. We don't announce the gospel hoping that some might come—we do so knowing that Christ's sheep will come.


1 This is from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question #12. The Covenant of Works is also known by other names, such as the Covenant of Life, the Covenant of Nature, the Edenic Covenant, and the Covenant of Creation. There are some who deny that what took place with Adam was truly a covenant, but we'll talk more about that in the next lesson of our study.

2 From The Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.3.

3 Thomas Boston writes: “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, beholding a lost world, his mercy seeks a vent. . .” (View of the Covenant of Grace, p5). And: “The foundation on which the building of mercy stands, is a covenant, a divine covenant, a sure one. The first building for man's happiness was a building of bounty and goodness, but not of mercy; for man was not in misery, when it was a-rearing up. And it was founded on a covenant too; namely, on the covenant of works, made with the first Adam; but he broke the covenant, and the whole building tumbled down in an instant. But this is another covenant, and of another nature. . .The revelation, promulgation, and offer made unto the sons of men, of this covenant which lay hid in the depths of the eternal counsel, is called the gospel. . .” (p4). Again: “The design of this covenant was life, the most valuable interest of mankind. . .The first covenant was a covenant of life too; but there is this difference, to wit, that the first was for life in perfection to upright man having life before; the second, for life in perfection to sinful man legally and morally dead.” (p7). And Boston writes: “'He taketh not hold of angels, but of the seed of Abraham he taketh hold' (Hebrews 2:16). The original word signifies to take hold of a thing running away, or falling down; and in the same manner of construction, it is used of Christ's catching hold of Peter sinking in the water (Matthew 14:31). Fallen angels and men were both run away from God, and sinking in the sea of his wrath; and Christ, with the bond of the covenant, takes hold of men; but not of the fallen angels; them he leaves to sink unto the bottom. All the seed of Adam was sinking, as well as the seed of Abraham, which is but a part of the seed of Adam, even some of all mankind; but Christ is not said to have taken hold of the seed of Adam, that is, all mankind; but of the seed of Abraham, that is, all the elect, or the spiritual Israel, called the house of Jacob, (Luke 1:33).” (p28). Again: “God planted Adam a noble vine, made him as a green tree full of sap, for bringing forth all fruits of holiness; but breaking the first covenant, he and all mankind in him withered and died, under the curse; upon which ensued an absolute barrenness, that no fruit of holiness could be expected from them more. But the second Adam having engaged to satisfy the law, by bearing the curse; there was thereupon made a promise of raising them up again. . .” (p145).

4 Historically known as the Pactum Salutis, it's also sometimes referred to as the Eternal Covenant, or the Counsel of Peace. Berkhof notes: “The name 'counsel of peace' is derived from Zechariah 6:13. Cocceius and others found in this passage a reference to an agreement between the Father and the Son. This was clearly a mistake, for the words refer to the union of the kingly and priestly offices in the Messiah. The Scriptural character of the name cannot be maintained, but this, of course, does not detract from the reality of the counsel of peace.” And Packer says: “Scripture is explicit on the fact that from eternity, in light of human sin foreseen, a specific agreement existed between the Father and the Son that they would exalt each other in the following way: the Father would honor the Son by sending him to save lost sinners through a penal self-sacrifice leading to a cosmic reign in which the central activity would be the imparting to sinners through the Holy Spirit of the redemption He won for them; and the Son would honor the Father by becoming the Father's love-gift to sinners and by leading them through the Spirit to trust, love and glorify the Father on the model of His own obedience to the Father's will.” (Witsius' Introduction).

5 Packer notes: “All Jesus' references to His purpose in the world as the doing of His Father's will, and to His actual words and works as obedience to His Father's command. . . all His further references to His being sent by the Father into the world to perform a specific task. . .and all His references to the Father 'giving' Him particular persons to save, and to His acceptance of the task of rescuing them from perishing. . .are so many testimonies to the reality of the covenant of redemption.” (Witsius' Introduction). Witsius says: “The Scriptures present the Father, in the economy of our salvation, as demanding the obedience of the Son even unto death; and upon condition of that obedience, promising him in his turn that name which is above every name, even that he should be the head of the elect in glory; but the Son, as presenting himself to do the will of the Father. . . When we have clearly demonstrated all these particulars from Scripture, it cannot, on any pretense be denied, that there is a compact between the Father and the Son, which is the foundation of our salvation.” (V1, p166). Witsius also distinguishes three stages in the Covenant of Redemption: “I consider three periods, as it were, of this covenant. Its commencement was in the eternal counsel of the adorable Trinity; in which the Son of God was constituted by the Father, with the approbation of the Holy Spirit, the Savior of mankind; on this condition, that in the fullness of time he should be made of a woman, and made under the Law; which the Son undertook to perform. Peter has a view to this when he says [in] 1 Peter 1:20, that Christ 'was foreordained before the foundation of the world.' To this purpose is also what the supreme Wisdom testifies concerning itself [in] Proverbs 8:23, 'I was set up (anointed) from everlasting'; that is, by my own and the will of my Father, which is one and the same, I was appointed to the performance of the mediatorial office in time. Paul likewise declares, that 'we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world,' (Ephesians 1:4). And consequently, Christ himself was constituted from everlasting the head of those that were to be saved, and they were given unto him (John 17:6) for whom he was to merit salvation, and in whom he was to be glorified and admired. From this constitution, the Son, from everlasting, bore a peculiar relation to those that were to be saved. Hence the book of life is especially appropriated to the Lamb (Revelation 13:8) as containing a description of the peculiar people assigned to the Lamb from all eternity. . .The second period of this covenant I place in that intercession of Christ, by which, immediately upon the fall of man, he offered himself to God, now offended, in order actually to perform those things, to which he had engaged himself from eternity; saying, thou hast given them to me, and I will make satisfaction for them; and so he made way for the word of grace to be declared to, and the covenant of grace to be made with them. Thus Christ was actually constituted Mediator, and revealed as such immediately upon the fall. . .The third period of this covenant is that, when on his assuming human nature he suffered his ears to be bored (compare Psalm 40:7 with Hebrews 10:5) that is, engaged himself as a voluntary servant to God, from love to his Lord the Father, and to his spouse the church, and his spiritual children (for the ears of such voluntary servants were bored, Exodus 21:5-6), 'was made under the law,' (Galatians 4:4) by subjecting himself to the law; which he solemnly testified by his circumcision on the eighth day after his birth, whereby he made himself 'a debtor to do the whole law' (Galatians 5:3).” (Economy of the Covenants, V1, pp177-79).

6 As Berkhof says: “The counsel of redemption is the eternal prototype of the historical covenant of grace. . .The former is eternal, that is, from eternity, and the latter, temporal in the sense that it is realized in time. . .The counsel of redemption is the firm and eternal foundation of the covenant of grace.” Vos likewise notes: “the first is eternal and the second is temporal.” (V2, p92). And Hodge says: “The [Covenant of Grace] supposes [the Covenant of Redemption], and is founded upon it.”

7 This question relates to the parties of the Covenant of Grace. The first view, as we mentioned above, takes the Covenant of Redemption as being made between the Father and the Son, and the Covenant of Grace as being made between God and elect sinners; whereas the second view takes the Covenant of Grace as being made not between God and elect sinners directly and without qualification, but rather, with Christ as the head and representative of the Covenant of Grace, and in and through him, with all those whom He represented. This second view is expressed in the Westminster Larger Catechism #31: “With whom was the covenant of grace made? The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.” Charles Hodge sets forth the statement of the question in this way: “At first view there appears to be some confusion in the statements of the Scriptures as to the parties [of the Covenant of Grace]. Sometimes Christ is presented as one of the parties; at others He is represented not as a party, but as the mediator and surety of the covenant; while the parties are represented to be God and his people. As the old covenant was made between God and the Hebrews, and Moses acted as mediator, so the new covenant is commonly represented in the Bible as formed between God and his people, Christ acting as mediator. He is, therefore, called the mediator of a better covenant founded on better promises. Some theologians propose to reconcile these modes of representation by saying that as the covenant of works was formed with Adam as the representative of his race, and therefore in him with all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation; so the covenant of grace was formed with Christ as the head and representative of his people, and in Him with all those given to Him by the Father. This simplifies the matter, and agrees with the parallel which the Apostle traces between Adam and Christ in Romans 5:12-21, and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22,47-49.” This is the essence of the second view, represented in the Larger Catechism. Hodge, however, opts for the first view, which he describes in this way: “There are in fact two covenants relating to the salvation of fallen man, the one between God and Christ [IE, the Covenant of Redemption], the other between God and his people [IE, the Covenant of Grace].” Many reformed theologians (including Witsius, Vos, Bavinck, and Berkhof) adopt this same view, arguing for a distinct Covenant of Redemption (made between the Father and the Son), which functions as something separate from the Covenant of Grace (made between God and elect sinners). Both views are held by reformed theologians, but Thomas Boston argues convincingly for the position of the view expressed in the Larger Catechism, in his View of the Covenant of Grace. We mentioned that one of Hodge's hangups with this view was the fact that Scripture sets forth Christ as mediator of the Covenant of Grace, and, as he says, in the old covenant where Moses was the mediator, the covenant was made directly with the people. But if Hodge had read Boston, he might have had the answer to his question, for Boston speaks to this very thing when he says: “Jesus Christ. . .fisted himself Mediator between an offended just God, and offending men guilty before him. . .And so the covenant of grace, which could not be made immediately with sinners, was made with Christ the last Adam, their head and representative, mediating between God and them; therefore called Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, to whom we come by believing (Hebrews 12:22-24). The term Mediator is not, to my observation, applied in the holy Scripture to any other, except Moses (Galatians 3:19). . .And of him, a typical mediator, it is worth observing, that he was not only an inter-messenger between God and Israel; but, in God's renewing his covenant, in a way of reconciliation, after the breaking of the tables, the covenant was made with him, as their head and representative: 'And the Lord said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel.' (Exodus 34:27).” (pp13-14). In other words, Boston draws out that Moses wasn't just the mediator of the old covenant, but at the same time also its head and representative. The most compelling argument for the view expressed in the Larger Catechism is the parallel that Scripture sets forth between Adam and Christ as the two covenant heads and representatives. Boston draws this out helpfully in his volume: “Christ is. . .the second federal head, or the representative in the second covenant; as Adam was the first federal head, or the representative in the first covenant. . .Wherefore, as the first covenant was made with Adam, as the head and representative of his natural seed; so the second covenant was made with Christ, as the head and representative of his spiritual seed.” (pp15-16). And again: “The covenant of works having been made with Adam as a representative of his natural seed, upon the breaking thereof, sin and death are communicate to them all from him as a deadly head. This being so, it was not agreeable to the method of divine procedure with men, to treat with those predestined unto salvation severally [IE, individually] as principal parties, each contracting for himself in the new covenant of life; but to treat for them all with one public person, who, through his fulfilling of the covenant, should be a quickening head to them, from whence life might be derived to them, in as compendious a way, as death was from the first Adam.”(p21). And, “As in the covenant of works,God promised life to Adam's natural seed, upon condition of his perfect obedience, which is evident from death's coming on them by his disobedience; so in the covenant of grace, he has promised life to Christ's spiritual seed, upon condition of his obedience; for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22). But that promise of life for Adam's natural seed was primarily made to Adam himself, while as yet none of them were in being; and they were to partake of it only through him, to whom it was made as their representative. Therefore the promise of life to Christ's spiritual seed, was made chiefly to him.” (p105). Thus, “The covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace, are not two distinct covenants, but one and the same covenant. . .So the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace are but two names of one and the same second covenant, under different considerations. By a covenant of redemption, is meant a bargain of buying and selling; and such a covenant it was to Christ only; forasmuch as he alone engaged to pay the price of our redemption (1 Peter 1:18-19). By a covenant of grace, is meant a bargain whereby all is to be had freely; and such a covenant it is to us only, to whom the whole of it is of free grace.” (p22).

8 John Flavel writes: “God's single promise is security enough to our faith, his covenant of grace adds. . .further security; but both these viewed as the effects and fruits of this covenant of redemption, make all fast and sure. In the covenant of grace, we question not the performance on God's part, but we are often stumbled at the grand defects on our parts. But when we look to the covenant of redemption there is nothing to stagger our faith, both the federates being infinitely able and faithful to perform their parts; so that there is no possibility of a failure there. Happy were it, if puzzled and perplexed Christians would turn their eyes from the defects that are in their obedience, to the fullness and completeness of Christ's obedience; and see themselves complete in him, when most lame and defective in themselves.” (The Fountain of Life). And Ligon Duncan says: “What is happening [in Psalm 2:7-9]? God the Father is giving to the Son the nations as His inheritance and is appointing the Son in that phrase, 'Thou art My Son, this day I have begotten Thee.' That doesn't mean that Christ is coming into being that day. That is the language of the royal enthronement. . .It is as if the king of Israel has just ascended the throne now. And the Father is saying, 'I have appointed you now as the monarch over all your inheritance, all the chosen people.' And so the Son takes the role of Mediator and of head. You see it in Psalm 89:3 and again it is picked up in Hebrews 10:5-7 and elsewhere, applied to Christ. . .[T]he Covenant of Redemption tells you that when Christ dies for you, it makes your salvation absolutely certain. Why? Because the Father promised the Son, 'If you will take that man's place, I will give him to You.' The whole point is that the Father cannot renege. He has promised the Son in the Covenant.” (From lesson on the History of Covenant Theology).

9 We have some friends living in Asia who adopted a little girl from another country. And the girl that they adopted was mentally handicapped. But it didn't come as a surprise to them. In fact, they sought after this little girl and brought her home to them, knowing full well about her condition from the very beginning. And this is exactly how God has loved us: Our sin doesn't take Him by surprise! Our failings and weaknesses aren't alarming to Him. When He predestined us to adoption as sons from all eternity, He knew all about our imperfections. But He chose us anyway, because He loved us in spite of them all.


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