Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored

Michael Brown
Zach Keele
Sunday, July 1st 2018
Jul/Aug 2018

Modern Reformation recently sat down with pastors Michael Brown and Zach Keele to talk about their book, Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored, 2nd ed., with a foreword by Michael Horton (Wyoming, MI: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 2017).

MR: How does the whole story of the Bible fit together?

ZK: How much time do you have! There are so many things that could be pointed out that hold together the drama of the Bible, yet Scripture itself lays a framework for its story, a drama centered on a relationship—“I will be their God and they will be my people”—which is called the covenant formula. This formula is present implicitly in the opening chapters of Genesis, it is explicitly announced as perfected in Revelation 21, and it salts and peppers the pages of Scripture everywhere else in between. The covenant formula is the glue of the Bible, and we learn the layers of the covenant formula by the different covenants God makes with his people.

MR: Is there a key to unlocking the Bible?

ZK: Simply put, no. Furthermore, I don’t think it is wise to simplify Scripture as having one key or secret formula that makes everything clear. The truth about the Bible is that it is complex and beautiful and there are many tensions and paradoxes in God’s word. We do a disservice to God’s word if we try to simplify it with a single key, theme, or topic. That said, there are tools that aid in our understanding the Bible from beginning to end. The first is Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself said in Luke 24, it is all about him. We read the Bible as Jesus read the Bible. A second is covenant theology, because this is the Scripture’s own structure for its self-understanding. The covenants of the Bible are the bones that the muscles of the stories grow on.

MR: Could you summarize “covenant theology”?

MB: Covenant theology is a way of reading and interpreting the Bible through the lens of God’s covenants. As anyone who has read the Bible knows, the word covenant seems to be one of God’s favorites. It appears more than three hundred times. That’s because it is one of the most important themes of sacred Scripture. Covenant is the way in which God has chosen to relate to human beings. The book of Genesis is primarily about God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The book of Exodus is in large measure about God’s covenant at Mount Sinai with Moses and the nation of Israel. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament—in its historical, poetical, and prophetical books—we find continual references to the Abrahamic and the Mosaic covenants. Then there are important covenants with Noah and David. When we come to the New Testament, we read of Jesus instituting a new covenant, the same covenant of which the prophet Jeremiah foretold (Jer. 31:31–34). The apostle Paul and the writer to the Hebrews elaborate on the vital differences between the old (Mosaic) and new covenants (Gal. 3–4; 2 Cor. 3; Heb. 7–10).

What do all of these covenants mean? Does it really make any difference how well we understand them? Answering those questions is the task of covenant theology. Covenant theology is not an interpretive grid we impose on Scripture, nor is it a system invented by Calvinists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rather, it is the Bible’s own method of interpreting itself. This is why covenant theology has enjoyed such a prominent place in the Reformed tradition. The Protestant Reformation saw covenant theology as God’s prescribed method for interpreting Scripture. It is impossible, therefore, to interpret Scripture faithfully without understanding the meaning of these covenants. As J. I. Packer puts it, “The Word of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame.” *

MR: Why did you write this book?

MB: We wrote the book because we both recognized the need to provide our congregants with a clear and simple resource on covenant theology. In the early to mid-2000s, I taught several courses on covenant theology to my congregation, because I wanted to provide them with the right categories, vocabulary, and distinctions for reading the Scriptures well. During those classes, people often asked me to recommend a book on basic covenant theology. At the time, there were some great books in print, such as Michael Horton’s excellent work God of Promise, but nothing written at an introductory level for the average layperson. I began working on the project and then reached out to Zach to see if he wanted to write it with me. We have been friends since seminary and have always shared a passion for covenant theology. Like me, Zach saw the same need for helping people understand the person and work of Christ and the message of the gospel as it unfolds in redemptive history.

MR: How will this book impact the way lay Christians read the Bible devotionally?

MB: Our prayer is that reading Sacred Bond will help you know how to read and interpret the Bible more faithfully. Studying God’s covenants has one primary goal: to know God and our relationship with him more fully. Studying the covenants should never be a dry academic exercise. It has immense pastoral and practical value for the Christian. It revolutionizes our approach to Scripture, providing us with helpful categories to understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. It shows us that the Bible is actually one book with one story, told on the stage of real human history. It highlights the plotline and central point of Scripture, setting every story in the context of the larger story about Christ. More importantly, it comforts us as we learn that God accepts us not on the basis of our covenant faithfulness but on the basis of Christ’s. It sweetens our fellowship with the Father as we come to know his oath and promises to us, promises that are “yes” and “amen” through the Mediator of the new covenant. It changes our view of the local church as we discover that we are part of God’s covenant community and worship him in a covenant-renewal ceremony every Lord’s Day. It transforms the way we see our children—namely, as the baptized members of God’s covenant of grace. It helps us understand that covenant is not a means to an end, but it is the end itself—the communion between God and his people.

Since we first wrote Sacred Bond in 2012, we have been humbled and amazed by how God answered our prayers and used this little book to help people grasp more clearly what the Bible is all about. In fact, he did far more abundantly than we ever asked or thought. This book has reached people far and wide and has been published in six languages. We have received a steady stream of encouraging e-mails and messages from believers all over the world who tell us how Sacred Bond has helped them to see Christ more clearly on the pages of Scripture and understand their relationship with him in the new covenant.

MR: What have you learned in writing this book, something new that you didn’t know before?

ZK: This is a popular book in which we were trying to make clear many complex topics and passages; it is a distillation of a host of intricate issues. It is hard to say how much new information we learned. Yet, I think the better word is appreciation. Deeper understanding sprouts from the soil of teaching it to others. So the process of condensing, summarizing, and applying the rich beauties of covenant theology definitely impressed on us a more profound appreciation for God’s word. To put it another way, the writing of this book made us love Jesus Christ and the drama of redemption all the more.

Michael G. Brown is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, California. He is the author of Christ and the Condition: The Covenant Theology of Samuel Petto, and editor and contributing author ofCalled to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons.

Zach Keele is pastor of Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Escondido, California, and lecturer in Greek, Hebrew, and English Bible Survey at Westminster Seminary California. He is the author of a commentary on Judges for the Rafiki Foundation (2009) and several articles and books reviews in New Horizons, the denominational magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

* J. I. Packer, “Introduction: On Covenant Theology,” in Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man (Kingsburg, CA: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1990), 5–8.

Sunday, July 1st 2018

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