The Covenants in Scripture
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In 2018, a senior pastor in Atlanta created something of a buzz when he said, “Christians need to unhitch the Old Testament from their faith.” Immediately, Bible-loving Christians responded with alarm that a prominent pastor would state, essentially, that the Old Testament is unnecessary for believers. The pastor’s attempts at clarification did not help assuage concerns. Even according to the most charitable reading, he devalues the Old Testament. He may claim it is inspired, but it is difficult to see what that means when he has said there is little divine grace in the Old Testament and that it should not be “the go-to source regarding any behavior in the church.”
Sadly, I think this pastor’s comments reflect an approach all too common in the church. Few professing Christians take the route of the ancient heretic Marcion and cut the Old Testament out of their Bibles entirely. Yet, many Christians effectively follow advice like that above—to unhitch the Old Testament from our faith. We may not do this consciously, but many of us do not know what to do with the Old Testament. Things begin to fall into place, however, when we learn the covenantal structure of Scripture.
THREE OVERARCHING COVENANTS
The overall covenantal structure of Scripture is evident in the three overarching covenants that structure the entirety of the biblical story from Genesis to Revelation: the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace.
The covenant of redemption. The covenant of redemption refers to the covenant made in eternity past between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to redeem a people for the glory of God and the eternal good of His children. According to the terms of this covenant, the Father chose a people to save, the Son agreed to redeem this people through His life, death, and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit consented to apply the redeeming work of the Son to those whom the Father has chosen. The covenant of redemption is the foundation of all that God does in history to save His people from their sin, and it reveals that the Lord has an eternal plan for humanity that involves His saving sinners and commissioning the church to declare this salvation to the nations.
While we do not find the phrase covenant of redemption as such in Scripture, allusions to this covenant can be found in texts such as John 6:37, which says that the Father has given a people to the Son for salvation; Philippians 2:5–11, which speaks of the Son’s freely humbling Himself in the incarnation and in death on our behalf; and John 14:16–17, where Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit. While there is debate over whether we can speak of an intra-Trinitarian covenant of redemption between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Scripture clearly affirms that our sovereign and triune God planned from all eternity to save His people in a specific way regardless of whether we call this plan a covenant.The covenant of grace does not abolish the covenant of works. Under its terms, Christ Jesus our Lord keeps the covenant of works for us.SHARE
The covenant of works. Sometimes called the covenant of creation or the Adamic covenant, the covenant of works is the covenant between God and Adam as the representative of all people who descend from him by ordinary generation. Under the terms of this covenant, God promised to confirm Adam in a state of life—to give him eternal life—if Adam were to obey Him perfectly in taking dominion over the earth and in not eating the forbidden fruit. In this covenant, Adam is the federal head of humanity. That is, he represented us in such a way that God pledged to count what he did to us. If he had obeyed, his obedience would be ours and all people would have eternal life.
Like the phrase covenant of redemption, the phrase covenant of works does not appear in Scripture. All the major elements of a covenant, however, appear in the key texts that address Adam’s probation in the garden of Eden. God issues a demand for obedience, commanding Adam to take dominion over the earth and to refrain from eating the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He attaches a curse of death to breaking His word (Gen. 1:26–28; 2:15–17). A curse of death for disobedience carries with it an implicit promise of life for obedience, a promise we find explained more in Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22. We see in those texts that Jesus succeeded where Adam failed, granting eternal life to His people. He gives us the life that Adam did not grant.
As Romans 5:12–21 teaches, Adam sinned; thus, his disobedience is counted to us and we are born in sin and estranged from God. This does not mean the Lord set the covenant of works aside. God holds us accountable for Adam’s sin in part because the covenant of works remains in force.
The covenant of grace. When Adam disobeyed and ate from the forbidden tree, God could have justly left all of us in a state of sin and misery, cut off from eternal life. However, He has chosen to show grace to some, saving them from sin and guilt through the person and work of Jesus Christ, who fulfills the covenant of grace that the Lord made with His people.
The covenant of grace does not abolish the covenant of works. It is a gracious covenant because under its terms, Christ Jesus our Lord keeps the covenant of works for us. As the last Adam, He renders the perfect obedience God demanded of the first Adam, and He atones for the sin of His people, removing God’s wrath. Christ replaces Adam as the federal head of those who trust only in Jesus for salvation. Through faith alone, His perfect obedience is imputed to us—it is put on our accounts before God—and God declares us righteous and as having fulfilled the covenant of works. Therefore, we inherit eternal life. When God looks at our record in His heavenly courtroom, He sees the perfect obedience of His Son.
Again, the phrase covenant of grace does not appear in Scripture. But the concept is everywhere. Genesis 3:15, where God promises to crush the serpent who introduced sin into the world, first announces the covenant of grace. The specific work of Christ in fulfilling God’s demands by His obedience is revealed in texts such as Matthew 3:15 and Romans 5:12–21. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us is revealed in passages including Romans 3:21–4:25 and 2 Corinthians 5:21. The covenant of grace is also seen in its unfolding through a series of sub-covenants that clarify God’s promises and demands and point us to the coming of the Savior.
THE COVENANT OF GRACE UNFOLDED
The covenant of grace between God and His people is expanded on over time in five other covenants in which God makes promises to His children and they pledge to respond in true faith, which faith bears fruit in obedience. These five covenants are the Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, the Davidic covenant, and the new covenant in Christ.