I. What is Covenant Theology?
Imagine that you have the day off, and you take a book with you to the park. After you stop off for a cup of coffee, you walk to the park and find a comfortable spot to read. You are excited. You love coffee, you love the park, and you love to read, especially when the book is good. And the book you've been reading is really good. You're almost done with it, just another few chapters to go. As you put the coffee down beside you and take the book out of your bag, trying to find the place where you left off, someone approaches you. It's a kind looking man about your age. He saw the title of the book as you pulled it out. He had heard really good things about the book but didn't know much about it. So as he was walking by, he stops and says to you, “Do you mind if I ask, what is that book all about?” Now, there's one more thing I haven't told you yet: the book that you have in your hand is the Bible. So, what would you say? How would you answer this man's question? How would you describe the Bible in just a few sentences?
What is the big picture of the Bible? How do you put it all together? Is it a reliable record of ancient history? Is it a handbook for life? Is it a book of rules (or examples) to follow? A love letter from God? Some of us get really interested about particular details in the Bible but find it hard to see the big picture. Maybe you love the Scriptures but never knew there was a big picture. Well, there isa big picture. And Covenant Theology is something that is meant to help us understand what it is. Covenant Theology helps us to see that the Bible is one beautiful story. There are lots of characters, there are lots of chapters, and there are still many things we don't fully understand yet, but there is one unifying, overarching story that runs from Genesis to Revelation: The Bible is a story about redemption. Well, actually, it's a story about ruin and redemption. It's a story about how through one man (Adam), ruin came to us all—but through another man (Jesus), redemption would come for us all. The Bible is a story about ruin and redemption.
How is it, you ask, that Covenant Theology helps us understand all of this? Because the primary way the Bible tells the story of ruin and redemption is through God's covenants. Adam hurled all humanity into ruin when he ate the fruit and transgressed the covenant God had made with him. But that wouldn't be the end of the story, for God would make a second covenant in and through a second Adam whereby He would redeem Adam's fallen race. These two covenants are the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace; and it's in and through these two covenants that Scripture tells us it's own story. Scottish pastor and theologian Thomas Boston put it this way: “As man's ruin was originally owing to the breaking of the covenant of works, so his recovery, from the first to the last step thereof, is owing purely to the fulfilling of the covenant of grace. . .” Or, to put it more simply: “Covenant Theology is just the gospel.” The Bible is one beautiful story of redemption. And Covenant Theology helps to show us how it all fits together.1
II. Why Study Covenant Theology?
1. We can't fully understand THE SCRIPTURES apart from the covenants:
A) The covenants PERMEATE the Scriptures: In other words, you can't get away from a covenantal way of thinking as you read through the Bible. Scripture itself won't let you do it! This is true, first of all, NUMERICALLY. The word “covenant” appears over 300 times in the Bible; roughly 30 times in the New Testament, and approximately 280 times in the Old Testament. That's pretty significant!
But there's more, because the covenants also permeate the Scriptures THEMATICALLY. It's not just that the word “covenant” shows up all over the Bible, it's that every page of the Bible is inherently related to God's covenantal dealings—even when the word itself isn't there. For instance, it would be difficult to make any sense of the book of Genesis apart from the context of the covenant God made with Abraham and with his seed after him. Nor could you make any sense of the book of Exodus, because it's in light of God's covenantal promises in Genesis that the Lord raises up Moses to deliver the people of Israel (Exodus 2:24). God's covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, in turn, serves as the contextual backdrop, not only of the book of Exodus, but of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And it doesn't stop there either, because when God brings Israel into Canaan in the book of Joshua, He does so on account of the covenant promises He had made to Abraham back in Genesis (Joshua 1:6; Genesis15:18). We could go on and on, tracing God's covenantal dealings throughout Scripture.
Francis Roberts was an English Puritan in the 17th century who wrote a massive, 1700-page discourse on the covenants; and this is what he said: “God's covenant administrations [are] like a thread of gold running through the books both of Old and New Testament.” And J.I. Packer put it this way: “The books of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, are. . .God's own record of the progressive unfolding of his purpose to have a people in covenant with himself here on earth. The covenantal character of God's relationships with human beings. . .is in fact reflected one way and another on just about every page of the Bible.” Indeed, the concept of covenant is all over the Bible. So if we don't understand what covenant is all about, there's going to be a lot we don't understand in Scripture. For this reason alone, we ought to commit ourselves to better understanding the biblical doctrine of the covenants.2
B) The covenants STRUCTURE the Scriptures: God's covenants in Scripture are like the frame of a house. It's the covenants that frame and hold together everything else in the Bible. The rooms of a house and the furniture inside those rooms can only exist as they fit into the larger framework of that house. So too, the covenants are the framework that God himself has given us in His Word; and it's into this covenantal framework that all the various and particular truths and doctrines of the Bible fit together. Again, J.I. Packer gives us a helpful illustration as he explains this truth in his own words:
“If you are hunting on a map of the Pacific for a particular Polynesian island, your eye will catch dozens of island names, however small they are printed, but the chances are you will never notice the large letters spelling PACIFIC OCEAN that straddle the map completely. Similarly, we may, and I think often do, study such realities as God's promises; faith; the plan of salvation; Jesus Christ the God-man, our prophet, priest and king; the church in both testaments, along with circumcision, passover, baptism, the Lord's Supper, the intricacies of Old Testament worship and the simplicities of its New Testament counterpart; the work of the Holy Spirit in believers; the nature and standards of Christian obedience in holiness and neighbor-love; prayer and communion with God; and many more such themes, without noticing that these relational realities are all covenantal in their very essence. As each Polynesian island is anchored in the Pacific, so each of the matters just mentioned is anchored in God's resolve to relate to his human creatures, and have us relate to him, in covenant. . .From this, perhaps, we can begin to see how big and significant a thing the covenantal category is both in biblical teaching and in real life.”3
One way we see this truth exemplified is through the very names, Old and New Testament. It's true that we call them by these names, but it would actually be more accurate to call them the Old and the New Covenants. This is because the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the word used for covenant in the original Hebrew is berith. This Hebrew word, berith, was consistently translated into the New Testament Greek as diatheke. And it's the Greek diatheke, which, in turn, was commonly translated into Latin as testamentum. And, as you might guess, this is where we get the English word Testament. So,“Although we tend to think of Old Testament and New Testament. . .your Scriptures bear the titles of the covenants, old and new. . .We just call them testaments, but more accurately, they are really covenants. So, why study the covenants? Because they structure the Scriptures.”4
C) The covenants UNIFY the Scriptures: The covenants help us to tie all of Scripture into one story. They help us see how everything fits together. Most of the Bible is made up of the Old Testament, and unfortunately, many of us as Christians don't know what to do with it. For some of us, the Old Testament is pre-Christian, or even sub-Christian revelation; and we just can't wait to get to the New Testament. But Covenant Theology helps us understand how to rightly interpret the Old Testament, doing so in such a way that allows us, on the one hand, to recognize the distinctions between the Old and the New Testaments, while at the same time, acknowledging their profound unity. Indeed, what we're going to see is that the Old Covenant is just as much about the gospel as the New; for the only way sinners have ever come to God is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Covenant Theology is the Bible's way of deepening our understanding of the unity and continuity of Scripture.5
2. We can't fully understand THE SAVIOR apart from the covenants:
At the very beginning of the gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel comes to a man named Zacharias, and tells him that he would have a son in his old age—and not just any son—but that his child would be the one who would go as a forerunner before the Messiah. Because he doesn't believe God's message at first (maybe it sounded too good to be true), he's unable to speak for a time; but when God opens up his lips once again, he begins to prophecy about the coming of the Savior; and this is what he says:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant—as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old—salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us; to show mercy toward our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to Abraham our father, to grant that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear. . .” (Luke 1:68-74).
Here as Zacharias glories in the coming of the Christ, there's two references that he makes to the Old Testament Scriptures. His first reference, to 'the house of David', is an allusion to the covenant that God had made with David back in 2 Samuel. And his second reference is to the covenant that God had made with Abraham. And so, here at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, the Scriptures themselves are trying to help us see that we can only properly understand who Jesus is in light of all the covenant promises that have gone before. Indeed, we can't understand the Savior apart from the covenants.6
3. We can't fully understand THE CROSS apart from the covenants:
At the Last Supper, when Jesus wanted to explain the significance of His death to His disciples, how did He do it? He referred back to the doctrines of the covenant. Jesus said in Matthew 26:28, “This is My blood of the covenant.” What's He saying? He's quoting Exodus 24:8, which is a reference to the covenant that God had made with Israel at Sinai, when Moses had taken the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, “Behold, the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you. . .” In Luke's description, Jesus says it a little differently: “This cup. . .is the new covenant in My blood” (22:20). This language of “new covenant” is a reference to Jeremiah 31. But in both instances, what's Jesus doing? He's telling His disciples that what He's about to do on the cross is bring to fulfillment the covenant realities that Moses and Jeremiah had foretold. Surely, there's nothing more important for us to understand than the cross; and we can't fully understand the cross apart from the covenants.7
4. We can't fully understand OUR SALVATION apart from the covenants:
This is really clear from Romans 5. In Romans 5:12-21, Paul is teaching us about justification. And the way that he explains it is by setting forth Adam and Christ as two distinct covenant representatives. Paul tells us that we are justified in Christ in exactly the same way that we were condemned in Adam. And what we learn is that God deals with men through covenant representatives. Adam represented all humanity, so that when he fell, all humanity was condemned with him. And it works the same way with justification. Christ came into the world as the second Adam. And Paul argues here in Romans 5 that just like Adam, Christ is the covenant representative of all those who believe in Him. So, just as all humanity was condemned on the basis of Adam's disobedience, so too, all those who belong to the Savior are justified on the basis of Jesus' obedience as their covenant representative. What we see here is that the doctrine of justification is wholly covenantal; indeed, we can't understand our salvation apart from a covenantal framework, for: “It is by a covenantal redemptive design that God saves us.”8
5. We can't fully understand THE SACRAMENTS apart from the covenants:
The covenants are also the way Scripture explains and deepens our understanding of the sacraments. The two sacraments that we celebrate now in the new covenant—baptism and the Lord's Supper—are founded upon the reality of Old Testament covenant signs. Baptism has now replaced circumcision, which was the sign of God's covenant with Abraham; and the Lord's Supper has replaced Passover, which was given in the context of God's covenant with Israel under Moses. Scripture teaches us that sacraments are signs and seals of covenant promises. In God's covenant with Noah, the rainbow was given as an outward sign of God's covenantal promise (Genesis 9:12-13); and our sacraments function in exactly the same way. They're given as tangible representations of God's faithful mercies. They're things we can see and smell and taste in the midst of the darkness that so often surrounds us. They're given to confirm the covenant promises that God has made to us, and thereby to strengthen our faith. So truly, we cannot rightly understand the sacraments apart from an understanding of the covenants.9
Summary: In other words, understanding the covenants is something that's absolutely vital: “What we are talking about is not something peripheral. . .We are talking about something that strikes at the very heart of our understanding of the person and work of Christ, of the Gospel of salvation, of redemptive history, [and] of the relationship between the Old and the New Testament. Covenant Theology is that central.”10
1 The quote from Boston is the very first line in his work, A View of the Covenant of Grace (p1), a post-humorous publication that first appeared in 1734. The second quote is from Mark Dever, cited from Ligon Duncan's Covenant Theology course.
2 Roberts' massive work is called The Mystery and Marrow of the Bible; his quote is from p9. This volume was compiled over the course of weekly lectures to his congregation, taking the span of six years. You will see him quoted often throughout these lessons on the covenants. I personally regard Roberts' volume as the very best on the covenants from a biblical perspective, and Boston's View of the Covenant of Grace as the very best on the covenants from a systematic perspective. J.I. Packer's quote is from his Introduction to Herman Witsius' Economy of the Covenants (P&R Publishing, 1990). We could quote others here as well. Ezekiel Hopkins began his treatise on the covenants in this way: “Of all the mysterious depths in Christian religion, there is none more necessary for our information, or more influential upon our practice, than a right apprehension and a distinct knowledge of the doctrine of the covenants. For if we be ignorant or mistaken in this, we must needs be liable to false or confused notions of the Law and Gospel, of our Fall in Adam and Restoration by Christ, of the true grounds of mens condemnation, and the means and terms of their justification; of the justice of God in punishing sinners, and His glorious mercy in saving believers. And consequently neither can many perplexing doubts and questions be resolved, the necessity and yet different concurrence of faith and obedience unto salvation cleared, the utter insufficiency of our own righteousness to procure acceptance for us with God evinced, His justice vindicated, nor His grace glorified. For all these great and important truths will readily own themselves to be built upon the foundation of God's covenant and stipulation with man. . .”(Doctrine of the Two Covenants, pp2-3). Charles Spurgeon said: “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 Scriptures are based upon fundamental errors with regard to the covenants of law and the covenants of grace.” (Wondrous Covenant;Sermon #3326).
3 J.I. Packer, Introduction to Herman Witsius' The Economy of the Covenants. Again,Packer says it this way:“The backbone of the Bible, to which all the expository, homiletical, moral, liturgical, and devotional material relates, is the unfolding in space and time of God's unchanging intention of having a people on earth to whom he would relate covenantally for his and their joy. . .The story that forms this backbone of the Bible has to do with man's covenant relationship with God first ruined and then restored. . .[E]very book of the Bible in effect asks to be read in terms of these unities, and as contributing to the exposition of them, and is actually misunderstood if it is not so read.” Packer continues: “As artists and decorators know, the frame is important for setting off the picture, and you do in fact see the picture better when it is appropriately framed. So with the riches of the gospel; the covenant is their proper frame, and you only see them in their full glory when this frame surrounds them, as in Scripture it actually does, and as in theology it always should.” And again: “[T]he gospel of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame. Jesus Christ, whose saving ministry is the sum and substance of the gospel, is announced in Hebrews the mediator and guarantor of the covenant relationship (Hebrews 7:22; 8:6). The gospel promises. . .are therefore invitations to enter and enjoy a covenant relationship with God. Faith in Jesus Christ is accordingly the embracing of the covenant, and the Christian life. . .has at its heart covenant communion between the Savior and the sinner. The church. . .is the community of the covenant, and the preaching of the Word, the practice of pastoral care and discipline, and manifold exercises of worship together, and the administration of baptism and the Lord's Supper (corresponding to circumcision and Passover in former days) are all signs, tokens, expressions, and instruments of the covenant. . .As artists and decorators know, the frame is important for setting off the picture, and you do in fact see the picture better when it is appropriately framed. So with the riches of the gospel; the covenant is their proper frame, and you only see them in their full glory when this frame surrounds them, as in Scripture it actually does, and as in theology it always should.”
4 The quote is from Ligon Duncan in his Covenant Theology course. Francis Roberts drew out the same truth when he wrote: “This covenant of God is the key that unlocks the whole Scriptures. . .Yea God's covenant is such a primary subject of the whole Scripture, that the whole Word of God receives its denomination from God's covenant, being styled The Old and New Testament; or, The Old and New Covenant. And surely no context of holy Scripture can be solidly explicated, no common place of divinity can be rightly handled, no polemical or controversial point can be dexterously decided, no case of conscience or practical question can be accurately resolved, no Christian duty can be skillfully urged or advised, without due respect and scope had to the Covenant of God. Hereupon it is reported of Olevianus, that he styled himself, Concionatorem foederis; that is, a preacher of the Covenant. And so should every faithful and skillful minister have it principally in design, to be a preacher of God's Covenant; and every prudent Christian to be a hearer and practitioner of God's Covenant. . .” (Roberts, p9).
5 We'll get into this in more detail later in this lesson. But for now, Ezekiel 37:24-28 can serve as an example, where the New Covenant is spoken of as the fulfillment of the Davidic, Mosaic, and Abrahamic Covenants; which means it's not something fundamentally different but rather the fulfillment of everything that went before. Duncan cites an example from the gospels: “If you pick up the Last Supper narratives in any of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, or Luke, and you look at Jesus’ words as He is explaining the bread and the cup, those passages are undergirded by Old Testament passages, especially Isaiah 53, Exodus 24. . .and Jeremiah 31. . .What is Jesus claiming as He explains His death. . . ? What He is saying is, 'I am the fulfillment of these covenant signs and forms for which we have been waiting to be fulfilled, as the people of God, for hundreds of years, for over a millennium.' So, Covenant Theology is important to study because the covenants unify the Scriptures.” And Jonty Rhodes notes: “Covenant is the theme that links the different books of the Bible to make them one united story, blazing through the Old Testament like a firework, before exploding into full color in the coming of Christ.”(Covenants Made Simple).
6 As Rhodes notes again: “Zechariah knew that God was about to do something enormous, something that would shake the world. He also knew that the origin of this plan had been the covenant God had made with Abraham right back in Genesis.”
7 Insight gleaned from Ligon Duncan in his Covenant Theology course. Jonty Rhodes writes: “My blood of the covenant [Matthew 26:28]. Why 'covenant'? Wouldn't 'This is my blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins' have been enough? Most Christians have at least some understanding that Jesus shed his blood so that we might be forgiven. Far fewer, I suggest, would be able to explain what Jesus meant by calling his blood covenant blood. In fact, many of us could put our finger over the word 'covenant' and read the verse just the same. . .The death of Christ stands at the heart of the Christian gospel. And Jesus, for one, thought 'covenant' best unlocked the meaning of that death.” (Covenants Made Simple, chapter 1).
8 The quote is from Ligon Duncan's Covenant Theology course. Francis Roberts notes: “Mans enjoyment of God, by natural conformity to His will before the fall, and by supernatural union to Christ since the fall, are instrumentally established and effected by God's covenants with man: that, by his Covenant of Works; this, by His Covenant of Faith.” (pp1-2). And again: “God is pleased in all times and ages, from the beginning to the end of the world, to deal with His church and people by way of covenant. . .For, 1) Before the fall, God dealt with the first Adam, and in him with all his seed, then in a state of innocency and integrity, by way of covenant, and that a Covenant of Works. . .2) After the fall God deals with His church and people also by way of covenant; and that the Covenant of Faith in Jesus Christ the last Adam.” (Roberts, pp3-5). And: “The Covenant of Works before man's fall; [and] the Covenants of Faith, since his fall—either in Christ promised, as all the covenant[s] of promise; or in Christ performed, as the new covenant, do plainly take up the whole body and series of the Scriptures.”(p1650). And Packer asserts: “Scripture directs us to covenantal thinking. . .by the specific parallel between Christ and Adam that Paul draws in Romans 5:12-18. . .God deals with mankind through two representative men, Adam and Christ. . .This far-reaching parallel is clearly foundational to Paul's understanding of God's ways with our race, and it is a covenantal way of thinking. . .”
9 As the Westminster Confession says: “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace. . .” (27:1). Alec Motyer puts it this way: “Covenant signs declare covenant promises to covenant people. [A covenant sign] is a token and guarantee of the word of God.” (Covenant and Promise; Evangel, 1983). We'll talk more about this in the lessons on Noah and Abraham.
10 Quoted from Ligon Duncan's Covenant Theology course (Chapter 1: Introduction to Covenant Theology).