Covenant theology is a hermeneutical framework that seeks to understand the Bible according to its covenantal structure. Covenant theology is particularly associated with Reformed theology, as the Reformed tradition has devoted much attention to studying the biblical covenants. As Dr. R.C. Sproul frequently observed, “Reformed theology is covenant theology.”
A covenant is a formal arrangement between two or more parties. Biblical covenants usually involve both parties to the covenant making certain promises to one another. While biblical covenants have some things in common with modern contracts, biblical covenants are not mere legal agreements between two or more parties. Covenants in Scripture are grounded in a relationship of love and trust between two parties.
Reformed theologians have historically identified three overarching covenants in the Bible:
1. 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 had chosen. Note, however, that each person of the Trinity is involved in each of these aspects of the covenant of redemption.
2. 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 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. Since Adam disobeyed, however, his disobedience is counted to us and we are born in a state of sin and estrangement from God. Nevertheless, the demands of the covenant of works remain in place for all people. The Bible reveals the covenant of works in texts such as Genesis 1:26–28; 2:15–17; and Romans 5:12–21.
3. The covenant of grace. When Adam disobeyed and ate from the forbidden tree, God would have been entirely just to leave humanity in a state of sin and misery, cut off from eternal life. However, the Bible tells us that the Lord did not do that. Instead, He has chosen to show grace to some, saving them from sin and guilt through the person and work of Jesus Christ. He made a covenant of grace with His people, pledging to save us in Christ. In turn, we respond in faith, trusting Jesus alone for salvation, which faith bears fruit in a life of faith and obedience.
The covenant of grace is not so called because no works are involved. Instead, it is a gracious covenant because someone else—Christ Jesus our Lord—fulfills 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, assuaging God’s wrath. In the covenant of grace, Christ is the federal head of His people. Thus, when we trust Christ, 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. The covenant of grace is first announced in Genesis 3:15, where God promises to crush the serpent who introduced sin into the world. 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.
Uniquely, the covenant of grace is unfolded in the history of salvation in a series of covenants that make God’s promises to His people clearer and point to the coming of the Savior.
1. The Noahic Covenant. Also called the covenant of continuation, the Noahic covenant is the covenant between God and Noah in which the Lord promises to preserve the earth and never again send a flood to destroy all life. Genesis 8:20–9:17 reveals the Noahic covenant.
2. The Abrahamic Covenant. The Abrahamic covenant, also known as the covenant of promise, reveals God’s promise to bless the entire world through one family and through one Son from that family in particular. God made a covenant with the patriarch Abraham to give him many descendants, a good land, and a great name. We find the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12:1–3; 15; 17; 22:1–19; Romans 4; and Galatians 3:15–29.
3. The Mosaic Covenant. The Mosaic covenant, also known as the old covenant or law covenant, stands out for its extensive legal regulations and sacrificial system. Covenant theology recognizes that men and women were redeemed under the Mosaic covenant through faith in God’s promises alone, just as they are saved under every other era during the covenant of grace. Nevertheless, the Mosaic law and covenant, as Paul tells us in Galatians 3:10–14, holds out the promise of eternal life to all those who keep it perfectly (see also Lev. 18:5). Yet, God never intended the Mosaic law to be a means of salvation for sinners; instead, the Mosaic law, in showing us that we cannot keep it, points us to Jesus, who kept the Mosaic covenant in our behalf, fulfilling also the covenant of works (Gal. 3:15–29). In short, the Mosaic covenant reminds us of the covenant of works but it is not itself a covenant of works for sinners to fulfill. It is rooted in grace, in God’s free choice to save Israel and then provide guidance in what pleases Him.
4. The Davidic Covenant. The Davidic covenant, also known as the covenant of kingship or royal covenant, identifies the one family descended from Abraham in whom God would accomplish all the promises to His people. God chose David out of all the people of Israel to hold the kingship over Israel permanently. In the Davidic covenant, God promised David, from the tribe of Judah, an everlasting throne and a son to build Him a temple. The Davidic covenant is given in 2 Samuel 7, 1 Chronicles 17, and Psalm 89. Genesis 49:10 and Isaiah 11 predict the exaltation of David’s throne over the nations, and texts such as Isaiah 53 describe how the Son of David pays for the sin of David and all his people.
5. The New Covenant. All of the other covenants under the covenant of grace and, indeed, the covenant of grace itself, is fulfilled in the new covenant made by God in Christ with His people. The new covenant is announced in Jeremiah 31:31–34; inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ; continued in the ministry of the church; and consummated at the return of Jesus at the end of history. The new covenant began in the work of Christ, but the fullness of its blessings will not arrive until Jesus returns. All the earlier covenants point forward to the new covenant, and Jesus in various ways fulfills the promises and goals of these covenants between God and His people.
One cannot read Scripture for very long before it becomes obvious that covenant is a key concept in the Bible.
The Fulfillment of the Promises of God: An Explanation of Covenant Theology
Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.
By understanding correctly God’s initiatives in establishing covenants in history, a solid foundation will be laid for unravelling the complex question of the relation of the two testaments.
We can be a part of the family of God only because our God makes and keeps covenants.
God reveals His Word and His plan biblically through the structure of various covenants.