What Is a Covenant?

Brian J. Lee
Thursday, July 5th 2007
Jul/Aug 2000

God reveals himself through-out the Scriptures as a covenant-making God: "I will establish my covenant with you" (Gen. 6:18). A covenant is primarily a legal arrangement between two parties, usually established with an oath and defined by the divinely sanctioned commitments involved. There are only two ways in which a covenant may be treated by the parties: observation and violation. The covenant itself dictates blessings or curses contingent upon this outcome. Thus, covenants function as instruments of God's kingly rule, determining his relationship both with man in general, and with his particular people. (1) Thus, covenants are neither always redemptive, nor always gracious. All men relate to God via covenants.

The objection that this is a "legalistic" way of viewing God is unfounded and misunderstands the fundamental nature of a covenant, which is flexible enough to express both pure justice and perfect love-both law and Gospel. It does not lessen a father's love for a son if this is expressed by the father's unconditional pledgeto care tenderly for him, come what may. Nor is the love between man and wife lessened because it is sealed with an irrevocable covenant.

In the following pages we will seek to establish a series of key distinctions. First, there are three major covenants in the Scriptures as determined by the parties involved: 1) The Creator's covenant with man; 2) The Father's covenant with the Son; 3) The Lord's covenant with his Church. Second, these covenants are informed either by the basic principle of works or grace. Third, we must properly distinguish between the various administrations of the Lord's gracious covenant with his church throughout the history of redemption. (2)

1 [ Back ] God covenants with man in general in the creation covenant and in the covenant of common grace (Gen. 1-3, 9), while he covenants with particular people in the unfolding work of his redemption (Gen. 6, 15; Ex. 19, Matt. 6:26ff).
2 [ Back ] The following series of sidebars depend heavily both in content and organization upon the work of Meredith Kline, both in his self-published text Kingdom Prologue (Meredith G. Kline, 1993) and in lectures delivered at Westminster Theological Seminary in California in 1996 ("Pentateuch"). Other sources include Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, translated (from the fourth edition, 1712) by William Crookshank, D.D. (London: R. Baynes, 1822). Reprinted by the den Dulk Christian Foundation in 1990; Geerhardus Vos's Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975); and Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1941). Berkhof is especially helpful in providing a brief history of the development of this doctrine.
Thursday, July 5th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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