October 20, 2022

What Is Covenant Theology?

Nathan W. Bingham & Sinclair Ferguson
What Is Covenant Theology?

How do the covenants found in Scripture shape our theology? Today, listen as Sinclair Ferguson demonstrates how understanding covenant theology can give Christians a framework for understanding all of Scripture.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: What is covenant theology? We’re recording live from Ligonier’s 2022 National Conference. And this week I’m joined by one of Ligonier’s 2022 national conference’s teaching fellows, Dr. Sinclair Ferguson. Dr. Ferguson, what is covenant theology?

DR. SINCLAIR FERGUSON: Well, covenant theology is really simply put the basic understanding of the whole Bible story and a description of the way in which God relates to His creation and to humanity. For example, I think one way into this is, in Romans 1, when Paul describes the sinfulness of man, he describes him as a covenant breaker. And this implies that right from the very beginning of creation, the relationship between God and man has been a covenant one, in which God commits Himself to be Himself to man, gives certain promises to man. And because of those promises, because of the character of God, He calls man to respond to Him in faith and obedience.

And when you grasp that principle, I think you see a couple of things. One is that all the way through the Bible there runs a theme of the two ways. You find it, for example, at the beginning of the Psalms, there are two ways for men and women to respond to God. There is the way of the righteous, and there is the way of the unrighteous, the way of faith and the way of disobedience. When you come to the teaching of the Gospels, Jesus says there are two ways: there’s the way of faith, there’s the way of disobedience. So although the word covenant is not always used, it’s the undergirding principle of the whole. You might say that it’s the reality that explains everything.

And we know that in that first relationship, God promised so much to Adam and that Adam and Eve rebelled against Him and broke that covenant, and that God therefore came in with promises that were new in order to restore fallen humanity. And the story of the Bible from that point onwards is simply a story of a series of covenants that God makes with His people that all belong to the same theme of fulfilling the covenant promise of Genesis 3:15, and more and more show us how this covenant promise will be fulfilled.

So that, for example, when God made the covenant with Abraham, Abraham knew that in his seed, somewhere in his line, someone would come in whom all the nations would be blessed. But he didn’t know all that much more about how this was going to happen. In Moses’ day, Moses learned that there would be a prophet, so that the One who would fulfill the covenant would be a prophet. He was given all these regulations that were pictures of the way in which God’s promise would be fulfilled. When David’s covenant was made, David learned that one of his descendants would be the fulfillment of the promise; when Isaiah prophesied about the Suffering Servant, when Daniel had his vision of the Son of Man, all of this is building up the picture of how this covenant is to be fulfilled. And so eventually in the New Testament, we come to the evening before Jesus’ crucifixion, in which He summarizes His own ministry by saying to now the 11 disciples who are faithful to Him, “This is the blood of the covenant.”

And this is a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy that God would make a new covenant. And Jesus speaks about the shedding of His blood as the way in which that covenant is brought to fruition. So that when we come to trust in Jesus, we know Jesus as our covenant Lord and Savior, and we are called therefore to respond to Him in faith and obedience. And at the end of the day, in the book of Revelation, we see how this is all fulfilled in the way in which God, right at the end, says, “I will be a Father to you. And you will be my son,” which is actually what Adam was created to be right at the beginning. And so, the whole storyline of the Bible is the story; it’s not the only thing, but it is the undergirding structure that unites the whole, makes sense of the whole.

And also I think enables us to see how it is that Old Testament believers were saved, justified in the same way New Testament believers are saved and justified, although they didn’t have the fullness of God’s revelation that we do. And this is why for us, covenant theology is such an important insight into how to understand the Scriptures.