Covenants in Covenant Theology

covenantThe concept of the covenant is highly important for understanding Scripture.  It is the key to interpreting and appreciating the Scriptures. When we understand the covenants and what their purpose, design and functions are then it helps us understand what is happening in the big picture of the bible. Covenants are often compared to marriage. However, this is one type of covenant that is not the type of covenant upon which all of Scripture is built. In Redemptive History there are three major covenants (Covenant of Redemption, Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace). These covenants are not all alike. If marriage is a covenant, which I think it is, it is a parity covenant. A covenant of two equal parties coming together. This is not the type of covenant Adam was in nor is it the type of covenant Abram entered into. 

We can see how those who translated the septuagint (LXX) understood covenant as they translated the hebrew into greek. They translated the hebrew word berit to the greek word diatheke. Diatheke is a type of covenant that is put in place when a sovereign imposes the covenant on another party. It is not a covenant of equals (this would have been the greek word syntheke). Robert Letham, in his book The Work of Christ, rightly states that those who were translating the Old Testament understood covenants made by God with humans to be one-sided. There are no equal parties with God when he makes a covenant. Letham writes:

These treaties were imposed on defeated vassal nations. They were not pacts between equals. Rather, they contained promises of benefits the suzerain was to grant and listed the obligations to which the vassal was bound. (40)

The Reformation held the covenant as a central interpretive theme for understanding Scripture. It was used for understanding our views of baptism, original sin, justification, election and assurance. This is why when our baptist brothers speak about baptism without reference to the covenantal grid, they are speaking right past us. When a non-Calvinist argues against Calvinism ignoring the covenantal grid, they are not reaching us. The covenantal structure for the Reformed churches is the central structure, skeleton, edifice upon which all our theology is built.

At the heart of the covenant is a promise, “I will be your God, you shall be my people”. This is usually followed by a covenant meal (Exodus 24) a ratification of the covenant. This is also why would take it weekly, if the Sunday service is a covenant renewal ceremony. The covenant therefore is intimate and relational. In this case, the intimacy and friendship of a marriage covenant would reflect that aspect of the biblical covenants. In the covenant, according to Murray, it is a “sovereign administration of grace and of promise”. But for Meredith Kline it was an administration where law has priority. (Letham, 40) Kline makes this distinction based on the nature of God. God is just by nature. God to be gracious however is based on something, that is it is dependent on his will.

This leads us to the great discussion Paul has of the law and promise in Galatians. (Gal 3:17-22) Here the covenant is certainly seen as a a gracious covenant of grace to man. We must see the covenant not coming on equal parties but as a sovereign giving this covenant to rebels. This does not mean the law is set aside. The law is regulative of the covenant. It has a function within the covenant. While grace can be seen as the basis of the covenant to begin with. The law is not destroyed in Jesus, it is fulfilled.

One thought on “Covenants in Covenant Theology

  1. Good post – helpful to us who are on the outside of proper Reformed theology trying to step inside.

    Some additional thoughts, and tell me if anything I say is skewing Covenant theology.

    In Isaiah 49, Yahweh is making covenant promises to the restored nation, among which (in v. 8) He actually uses the term berit, translated in the Septuagint as diatheke. The amazing thing is that He is speaking of His Servant – and the same one that is suffering in 52:10-53:12 in redeeming the people. The Servant will be the covenant – the unilateral covenant of the Suzerain.

    And so here’s what I’m seeing: Jesus is the New Covenant – and it is ratified in His blood. Jesus is the new Law – as you touch on in your last sentence, yet in His being the new Law, the regulations of the Old Covenant are abrogated. Our being in Him by grace alone through faith alone is the covenant requirement, and is counted as our Law-keeping.

    The Law, as discussed by Paul in Gal. 3, is no longer our guide or tutor, as he says

    23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

    In other words, the old Law with its regulations and ceremonial rigors has been put away because it is fulfilled. It was not “set aside,” but rather we are counted as having kept it in Christ – and therefore we now follow Jesus in His ethic, His example, and by His Spirit who wrote the Christian ethic on our hearts in order to live according to what pleases Him.

    An example of this is the Sabbath. It is of course ridiculous to claim that the Sabbath Law is no longer a part of God’s moral Law, yet the ceremonial regulations surrounding it have been subsumed under the rubric of Christ’s obedience imputed to us. As such we are Sabbath keepers in so far as we are trusting in Christ Jesus’ offer of rest (Matt. 11:28-30 ff.; Heb. 3-4). This rest is absolutely essential for the Christian, because by definition the Christian is resting his works and striving for justification/sanctification to the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit. We are “Sabbathing” in the Lord Jesus – He is the promised rest that was foreshadowed on the seventh day of creation, and in the literal keeping of a day under Moses.

    The way that a person breaks the Sabbath Law then, is by attempting to keep a moral Law as a means of drawing near to Yahweh; by refusing His prescribed Sabbath rest from our works by refusing to hear Jesus in John 6:29, etc.

    In this, ironically the Sabbatarian runs afoul of the commandment by attempting to attain sanctification by the keeping of Sunday with special regulations and rules. This is a cross-over to synergism, and a stepping outside of God’s gift of rest and Sabbath fulfillment.

    With that said, the creational principal of one day in seven as a day of rest and special focus on things divine is of course pure grace and gift – yet if we legislate it and enforce it as a matter of church discipline we actually risk driving the sheep back to Moses, away from Christ, and under the veil of the Old Covenant once again (2 Cor. 3:14-18).

    Without having done heavy-duty study of Systematic theology, these have been my findings by the reading of Scripture and tutelage under quasi-Reformed pastors for the past number of years.

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