Jun 26, 2024

5 Things You Should Know about Covenant Theology

4 Min Read

Some topics are covered frequently enough in Reformed churches that it might be easy to lose track of the basics. One such topic is covenant theology. Let’s look at five things that Christians should know about covenant theology.

1. Covenant theology is about our relationship with God.

A covenant is a formal relationship. Marriage best exemplifies this kind of relationship (Mal. 2:14). Marriage is the most intimate bond two people can have. This supremely personal and loving partnership is also a legal arrangement. Covenants work in a like manner.

Covenant theology helps us better appreciate how God relates to us. Walking with the Lord would be very difficult if He were not clear about what our relationship with Him is like. If we had to guess about things such as how God feels about us, whether He accepts us, how He accepts us, and the best ways to pursue Him, then we would frequently feel uncertain about our standing with Him.

Covenant theology affirms that God clearly explains what our relationship with Him is supposed to be like. Holy Scripture is God’s written, clear revelation of how we can have a right relationship with Him. Because a covenant is a formal relationship, God gives us certainty about our relationship with Him as He commits to us in that fixed bond.

2. Covenant theology helps us understand the relationship between works and grace.

Ephesians 2:8–9 captures a critical aspect of how Reformation Protestants have understood salvation: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Sometimes, we struggle to explain how this free offer of salvation by grace alone relates to the point in verse 10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). How do we hold together the freedom grace brings with our responsibility to live well?

In the traditional Reformed understanding, covenant theology distinguishes between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. God made the covenant of works with Adam before the fall, and it had the condition of perfect obedience. In the covenant of grace, brought by the second Adam, Jesus Christ, God accepts us as His people by faith in Christ’s atoning work alone. These two covenants clarify that works and grace are two different and opposed ways of seeking to secure salvation and right standing with God.

Covenant theology then helps us relate grace and works because our works cannot be the basis of our relationship with God, even though good works will be produced in the lives of true believers. Because our works are not the condition of God’s covenant with believers for salvation, they cannot be the reason that we are right with God.

3. Covenant theology helps us to see Christ in all of Scripture.

Colossians 2:17 explains that many features of Israel’s religious life “are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Although the Old Testament period imposed many ceremonies on God’s people, these practices taught them about the One who had been promised in Genesis 3:15, the coming Redeemer in whom they were to place their faith. Because faith in Christ has been the only way of salvation since the fall, covenant theology reminds us that Christ is the substance of all God’s dealings with us in Scripture.

4. Covenant theology helps us to see the importance of the church.

In the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19–20, Jesus instructed the church to disciple all nations by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” These external ordinances of administering the sacraments and teaching God’s Word are the means of advancing our mission as God’s people.

Covenant theology reminds us not only that Christ is the substance of all the Scriptures, but also that He comes to His people to do His spiritual work upon us through the ordinary means of grace that He has given to His church. Westminster Shorter Catechism 88 reminds us that the church’s means of grace are the Word, sacraments, and prayer. These outward means, which deliver Christ as the substance of the covenant to believers, have often been called the covenant’s “external administration.” The church is a necessary part of the Christian life because it is how we participate in this external administration where we meet Christ.

5. Covenant theology helps us to have deeper assurance as we pursue holiness.

Ephesians 1:13–14 explains that the Spirit’s indwelling of believers in Christ is the guarantee of our everlasting life:

In him [Christ] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

We have this divine Helper to spur us forward in holiness as we walk with Christ.

Covenant theology reminds us that our Spirit-empowered holiness is a gift that Christ has earned for us. Christ has fulfilled every condition of perfect obedience on our behalf. He equips us with His Spirit so that we can pursue Him in faithfulness. This gift of the Spirit is evidence that we already belong to Christ and have the assurance of life with Him in eternity.

This article is part of the 5 Things You Should Know collection.