The study of Covenant Theology is a topic vital to pastoral ministry and, frankly, to Christian ministry of any kind. And so I am convinced that the time that you put into your study will be well spent. It will pay not only you dividends but the people of God whom you serve dividends for years to come. Let’s hear God’s word in Hebrews chapter 6, we’ll begin in verse 9.
“But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, “I WILL SURELY BLESS YOU, AND I WILL SURELY MULTIPLY YOU.” And thus, having patiently waited, he obtained the promise. For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute. In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement, we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Thus ends this reading of God’s holy and inspired Word, may He add His blessing to it. Let’s look to Him in prayer.
“Our Lord and our God, we thank You for these words. Words of Scripture, words inspired by the Holy Spirit. Words about the covenant designed to strengthen us in the faith and comfort us in the everlasting hope. As we study the truths of the covenant, we pray that not only would our minds be enlightened, but that our whole heart, the very essence and inner aspect of our being would be captivated, mind, will, affections. That our desires would be moved as we see the glories of Your covenant displayed in Your Word. We ask that You would help us today even as we begin this study. May we honor You in our work. For Your glory and our good, we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
I want to note just a couple of things about this passage. This passage puts something very important in perspective about the covenant. The whole function of the covenant, and especially of the covenant signs, is to assure us of God’s favor. This passage talks about God confirming His promise by the covenant, a mechanism that He put in place in order to assure us of His purposes in salvation towards us. Every one of us as believers, from time to time, struggles with doubt. And when we struggle with doubt, usually corresponding to that, there is a struggle with assurance. Isn’t it comforting for you to know that one of the things that God has spent the most time on in His inspired Word from the very beginning, from the book of Genesis, is the assurance of believers. When Abraham was wavering in his faith in Genesis 15 and in Genesis 17, what did God come to his rescue with? The signs of the covenant. When David was wavering in his faith in II Samuel 7, what did God do? He established His covenant with David, establishing David’s line on the throne. When we waver in our faith, about the purposes of God towards us, what has God given us to be strengthened in assurance? The signs of the covenant: Communion, The Lord’s Supper, the covenant meal, and Baptism, which we see administered from time after time, reminding us of God’s initiative for us. So the covenant constantly functions to assure believers of God’s steadfast purposes toward them. Even though we are fickle, He is not, and the covenant speaks to that issue. He is a God who binds Himself. He comes towards us and He says, “I will do this. And I not only promise it to you, I bind Myself by oath, and since there is no one greater than me, I bind myself by my own oath, to perform the promises that I have made to you.” Don’t forget that that is what the Covenant is about, very close to its heart, the assurance of God’s people of God’s purposes towards them. Now, I want to read to you a quote and I want you to guess who said this:
“The doctrine of the Covenant lies at the root of all true theology. It has been said that he who well understands the distinction between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace is a master of divinity. I am persuaded that most of the mistakes which men make concerning the doctrines of Scriptures are based upon fundamental errors with regard to the covenants of law and the covenants of grace. May God grant us now the power to instruct and you the grace to receive instruction on this vital subject.”
That wasn’t a Presbyterian. That wasn’t even an Anglican. That was a Baptist. His name was C.H. Spurgeon. And he knew that Covenant Theology is at the heart of the Gospel ministry because Covenant Theology is the Gospel. And if you don’t understand Covenant Theology, you are not ready to convey the Gospel in all of its glory and in all of it fullness to the people of God and to those outside of the covenant in order to draw them in to the experience of the fullness of the Covenant mercies. So what we are talking about is not something peripheral. We are not talking about something that simply divides Christians, like Dispensationalists or Baptists and Presbyterians. We are talking about something that strikes at the very heart of our understanding of the person and work of Christ, of the Gospel of salvation, of redemptive history, of the relationship between the Old and the New Testament. Covenant Theology is that central.
Goals and objectives.
Now before we look at the syllabus of the course, I want to tell you my goals and objectives here. First of all, it will be my goal to communicate useful information and knowledge to you, about the biblical and historical and theological teaching about the covenant. Primarily, of course, this information will consist of the knowledge of God revealed in the Scriptures, but it will also properly involve our knowledge of God’s creation, including ourselves, our time, the world, our own flock. And of course the major source of this knowledge will be the special revelation of Scripture. So I want you to come armed with your Scriptures, your Hebrew and your Greek, because we will be delving into God’s Word and plumbing its depths.
Secondly, my goal is to explain and encourage you towards a right use of this knowledge. I don’t simply want you to have understanding; I don’t want you simply to stockpile information. I am aiming for something more than a cognitive grasp of this truth. I want you to know how to use this truth in your own life and in the lives of others. The sort of knowledge of God which can be taught in a theology class is never an end in itself. It is always a means to a deeper and higher end. And that end is, of course, the glory of God and union with Him. And that flows from communion with God. We learn about God in order that we might know Him. And by knowing Him, I mean entering into a full relationship and fellowship with Him. If I could repeat this in another way, saving knowledge of God is covenant knowledge, and covenant knowledge is personal knowledge. It is not just knowledge about God; it is knowledge of God Himself. Covenant knowledge is the knowledge of communion and fellowship with the living God.
Propositional knowledge is knowledge that we can express in sentences speaking about God. Propositional knowledge is an essential element of that personal saving knowledge. There are a lot of people today who would like to tell you that you cannot express truth in words. Rubbish. That is a truth expressed in words. It is an untruth I might add, but it is a proposition expressed in words. You cannot talk about truth apart from the Word. The idea of truth being nonpropositional is one of the biggest and most ridiculous statements being made today. Propositional knowledge is essential for us to have a personal and saving knowledge of God and hence, it is imperative in the spiritual walk of all Christians.
But that is not the only element of saving knowledge. There are plenty of people who are capable of cognitively grasping the teachings of the covenant who are as far away from the experience of the true knowledge of God as they could possibly be. In fact, one could argue that the greater grasp that you have cognitively of the truth, paralleled with a lack of true experience, actually puts you farther from God, rather than nearer, because you are more apt to be blinded to your lack of personal relationship with God, because you have all this cognitive information about Him. So knowledge is a dangerous thing. And we pursue it wisely only when we are pursuing our cognitive knowledge and our systematic studies with a view to a personal knowledge of the Lord.
Thirdly, one of the other goals that I want to pursue is the development of your analytical skills. You need to develop your ability of discernment to the point that you are capable of synthesizing knowledge and capable of critical thought and possessed of good judgment so that you can pick up a book on the covenants and you can rapidly come to know where that person is coming from theologically, where the gaps are in their teaching, or where the strengths are in their teaching. And most of you are going to become a walking reference source for the people that you serve, even if you are training for something other than the Gospel ministry. If you have a special training from a seminary and you are working in Christian ministry, you may be assured that people will view you as a person who has special expertise. And hence, they will use you as a resource to guide them in their own growth. And I want to give you the kind of discernment, or help you to obtain the kind of discernment and analytical abilities, that you need for that.
Fourth, it is a goal of mine to inspire you to learn and to obey and to worship, and if it is applicable to you, to pastor. We should be thirsty for the knowledge of the Word of God and for the knowledge of His world, including God’s people in their context. And not all of us are going to be equally interested in the same things, but each of us should be hungry for commanding knowledge of something. We must not only be hungry to put this knowledge to work in the service of our studies, but we must be hungry to put this knowledge to work in the service of our own growth in obedience. Now there are a lot of folks who are very practically oriented and they are very impatient about doing the hard work of thinking through and getting things right. I mean, they just want to get on with the Christian living. And there is something admirable about that at a certain level, but it can lead to real problems. Especially if you have left some very essential work undone in the area of the understanding of God’s Word. Zeal without knowledge is not more spiritual. It is less spiritual. Zeal without knowledge is in fact prideful, because it is saying, “I don’t need that knowledge that God took a lot of time to sit down in His Word. I am just going to live the Christian life.” And God didn’t design us to work that way. He designed us to understand His Word and to operate from the base of His Word in Christian living. So we must burn in our hearts to worship the Lord even in our pursuit of knowledge. To glorify Him as we pursue knowledge that we might learn and obey.
Let me also warn you of the sober work to which we are called as we go into the Christian ministry and the danger that accompanies that for our own souls, should we be careless in that calling. We are called to be stewards of the mysteries of God, and one day, we will stand before the Lord and we will give an account of how we handled those mysteries. Spiritual self-examination and self-criticism is a very important part of that. Seminary was a rich time of experience for me, but it was also a hard time, because I had to take a good hard look at me. And it was not very often a pretty picture. And as we study the Word, there are going to be some things here, and I mean this for your encouragement, that if you take them and you look at them and you use them in the process of self-examination, they may be very discouraging. Don’t be ultimately discouraged by that struggle. That struggle ought to be there. And we are not here simply to fill our notebooks. We are here to see our own hearts transformed. We are here to grow in grace. We need to be open to rebuke from the Word and correction from the Word. That is absolutely essential if we are going to avoid the pitfalls of Christian ministry.
One last thing: it is my goal to encourage a warm, full, natural, practical piety in godliness in our study. That godliness ought to be characterized by a reverence to God and a love of neighbor and a seriousness of purpose in your calling and a determination to holiness. My desire is that you would be God-centered in your thoughts and God-fearing in your hearts and God honoring in your lives. So I say that upfront, because I want you to know what I am trying to do. I am not simply trying to make you these creatures with really big heads and tiny little hearts and tiny little legs and hands. I hope that the truth set forth in our study will be something that will impact you in every aspect of your character in spiritual growth, for yourself and for the sake of the Kingdom. Now let’s look at the syllabus together.
The Syllabus: Resources and References.
In your syllabus, you will see that this is Covenant Theology and we are going to be looking at Covenant Theology from an exegetical and a historical perspective. We will be doing Scripture exegesis. As you see the description of the course and the course objectives, we will be referring to the following required texts.
Standard Track [For students who desire a basic grasp of Covenant Theology.]
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology [211-218; 262-301]
- Vern Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists
- O. Palmer Robertson, Christ of the Covenants
- Donald Macleod Covenant Theology in DSCH&T, 214-218
- Donald Macleod, Covenant: 2 in Banner of Truth [BoT] 141:22-28
- Donald Macleod, Federal Theology—An Oppressive Legalism? in BoT 125:21-28
- Donald Macleod, The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace in BoT 64:16-22
- Donald Macleod, Qualifications for Communion in BoT 65:14-20
- Donald Macleod, The Real Presence in BoT 66:13-16
- The Westminster Confession of Faith 7: Of God’s Covenant with Man
- Larger Catechism Questions 20-22,30-36
- Shorter Catechism Questions 12,16, & 20
Advanced Track [For students who have already read Vos, Biblical Theology and Robertson, Christ of the Covenants, and who are well-grounded in Covenant Theology. ThM students are required to master the Advanced Track material, as well as the Standard.]
- Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture
- John L. Girardeau, The Federal Theology
- O. Palmer Robertson, Christ of the Covenants‡
- Donald Macleod, Covenant Theology in DSCH&T, 214-218
- Donald Macleod, Covenant: 2 in Banner of Truth [BoT] 141:22-28
- Donald Macleod, Federal Theology — An Oppressive Legalism? in BoT 125:21-28
- Donald Macleod, The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace in BoT 64:16-22
- Donald Macleod, Qualifications for Communion in BoT 65:14
- Donald Macleod, The Real Presence in BoT 66:13-16
- Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics [281-319; 371-409]
- Covenant with Man
- Larger Catechism Questions 20-22,30-36
- Shorter Catechism Questions 12,16, & 20
Every Reformed minister should be a master of the federal theology, historically and theologically. Though the following works are by older divines, and are hence written in a less accessible style, they are a veritable gold mine for the pastor and Bible student alike. Each will provide interesting historical and theological discussions of covenant theology, and will prove to be rich resources for preaching the covenants.
1. Anonymous (E.F.), The Marrow of Modern Divinity [with Thomas Boston’s notes]
The Marrow is a thorough-going expression of federal theology, not only valuable for its historical significance but for its insights for preaching and applying the covenants. Boston’s notes make it even more worthwhile.
2. Thomas Boston, A View of the Covenant of Grace, Collected Writings, Vol. 8
A representative treatment of the subject by the famous “Marrow Man”.
3. Thomas Boston, A View of the Covenant of Works, Collected Writings, Vol. 11
Boston’’s exposition of the pre-fall relations between God and Adam place him squarely in the tradition of Reformed federal theology. His understanding of the theological implications of the covenant of works is evident throughout, and his searching (and moving) pastoral applications are those of both a seasoned shepherd and an astute theologian.
4. James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification
Buchanan’s established study of justification reveals the necessity of the covenantal framework for a proper understanding of this cardinal doctrine of the Reformation.
5. Hugh Martin, The Atonement
Another theological treasure from a Free Church of Scotland minister, this work relates the covenant theology to the Biblical doctrine of the atonement, and (implicitly) responds to various contemporary (nineteenth-century) errors on the subject.
6. Herman Witsius, An Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man
Recently republished with a lengthy commendation by J.I. Packer, this is a exemplary presentation of continental covenant theology.
The following works are by twentieth-century scholars (save for Fairbairn, who is included on merit) who have ably carried the Reformed tradition of covenant theology into a new era. Some of the volumes and articles are historical in nature. Others are exegetical or theological. They represent a quality sampling of the best Reformed, conservative scholarship on the covenants available today. The pastor and diligent layman will find here treasures both old and new.
1. O. Palmer Robertson, Christ of the Covenants
The best book-length, conservative, scholarly, exegetical treatment of covenant theology to appear in the past hundred years. Robertson utilizes the insights of G.E. Mendenhall and Meredith Kline, and steers a middle course between John Murray’s and Meredith Kline’s divergent views on the unilateral/bilateral nature of the divine covenants.
2. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology
The standard conservative treatment of biblical theology (“the study of special revelation from the standpoint of the history of redemption”). Not easy reading, but rewarding nevertheless.
3. Geerhardus Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation
A good historical overview of the history of the doctrine of the covenants in the Reformed tradition (it is nicely complemented by Louis Berkhof’s helpful sketch in his Systematic Theology 211-213, 265). This article is not the last word on the subject but a good start.
4. Patrick Fairbairn, Typology of Scripture (19th century)
Classical covenantal exposition of the subject of biblical typology by a great nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian Old Testament scholar.
5. Patrick Fairbairn, The Interpretation of Prophecy (19th century)
Fairbairn again brings his formidable powers to bear on the subject of the proper method of interpretation of prophecy. This book (along with his other great works Typology, Hermeneutics Manual, and The Revelation of Law in Scripture) are sturdy treatments of themes which have been neglected or mishandled in our own time.
6. Meredith Kline, By Oath Consigned
In this book, as in his Treaty of the Great King, Kline draws on the twentieth-century discoveries regarding Near-Eastern treaty forms to elucidate the biblical doctrine of the sacraments. Kline is helpful and innovative, but sometimes eccentric.
7. John Murray, The Covenant of Grace
This seminal pamphlet by John Murray provides a good introduction to covenantal thought for the beginner. The more advanced student will pick up quickly on Murray’s stress on the unilateral nature of the divine covenants (he is following Vos).
8. John Murray, “Covenant Theology” in Collected Writings, vol. 4
Another useful historical introduction to Covenant Theology, though Murray’s own reticence about the covenant of works does show through at points.
9. Donald Macleod, “Covenant: 1” in BoT 139:19-22; “Covenant: 2” in BoT 141:22-28; “Federal Theology—An Oppressive Legalism?” in BoT 125:21-28; and “Covenant Theology,” in Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), 214-218.
In these articles, Macleod shows himself to be an able twentieth-century expositor and defender of the traditional federal theology of the Westminster standards. In the later two articles, he specifically responds to the standard “new” (neo-orthodox) criticisms of covenant theology.
10. John von Rohr, The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought
The best available historical-theological survey of the federal theology of the Puritans. It successfully avoids the “Calvin versus the Puritans” mythology and provides a helpful review of current (and errant) theories on the development of covenant theology.
11. Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation
A collection of the writings (not all related to the covenant idea) by one of the most distinguished recent propopents of covenant theology. Vos’s evident exegetical powers combined with his historical-theological competence (traits not often seen in tandem in Biblical studies specialists today) make his works quite valuable and formidable enough to still demand a reckoning with. He was a major influence on John Murray.
In addition to the above-recommend texts, the following books provide interesting historical and theological discussions of the covenants and covenant theology:
O.T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church
A study of the biblical doctrine of the church in the OT and NT from a covenantal perspective, designed to respond to old-style dispensational errors (especially the “church as the ‘great parenthesis’” doctrine).
C. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism
An informative historical account of the origins of old-style dispensationalism, as well as a critique (especially with regard to John Nelson Darby.
C.A. Blaising & D.L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism* [* written from a Dispensationalist perspective.]
A presentation of a new form of dispensationalism, and a comparison of it with what it calls ‘classical’ and ‘revised’ forms of dispensationalism. Blaising and Bock define these three forms of dispensationalism with reference to the “two purposes of God/two peoples of God theory.” Classical dispensationalism, then, holds to this theory, revised dispensationalism significantly modifies this theory, and progressive dispensationalism jettisons this distinction altogether. An important book for any evangelical who wants to intelligently dialogue with modern day dispensationalists of whatever ilk.
John Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth
A controversial polemical work critiquing dispensationalism. It is a scaled-down version of a massive treatment that Gerstner had been working on for years. It could still use some editing, evidences some theological quirks, and was poorly received in the dispensational community (surprise, surprise!) but nevertheless contains a number of insightful points of critique.
John L. Mackay, The Covenants of the Bible
A new work produced by the Professor of OT at the Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh. Mackay’s lecture at the Banner of Truth Conference on Covenant Theology is probably the best brief introduction, overview and analysis of covenant theology available on tape.
O. Palmer Robertson, Covenants: God’s way with his people
This is the “Sunday School version” of Christ of the Covenants produced for Great Commissions Publications. It has some material not found in Christ of the Covenants and is easily understandable.
C.C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today* [* indicates a book written from a Dispensationalist perspective.]
Ryrie’s attempt to respond to the criticisms of dispensationalism which have been leveled by evangelical covenant theologians.
David Weir, The Origins of Federal Theology
A former-Th.M thesis (St Andrews) and one of the better historical treatments of the origins of covenant theology. Nevertheless, there are gaps in this treatment and Weir himself is sometimes too reliant on the revisionist Torrance historiography of covenant theology.
If you feel like, “Well, I have already mastered Robertson, Christ of the Covenants, and I have read the section on the Covenants in Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, and I have a good grasp of it and I think I could articulate an outline of Covenant Theology. I know that I am a Covenant Theologian and I disagree with Dispensationalists at this point and I have really wanted to be challenged by some of the historical material that I haven’t read.” Well then, the advanced track is for you. Perhaps you feel like you are coming into Covenant Theology, as I came into Covenant Theology in seminary, not exactly quite knowing what it was. I was interested in the guy who was going to teach it, his name was O. Palmer Robertson, but a little bit suspicious. I wasn’t sure what this Covenant Theology was, and it took him three days, and he had me hook, line and sinker. But I needed to start from the bottom.
For the advanced track, Fairbairn, Typology of Scripture. Robertson once said, “Sell all that you have and by Fairbairn.” Fairbairn’s works are invaluable, Interpretation of Prophecy, Typology of Scripture, Revelation of Law in Scripture, Pastoral Theology, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles. Anything that you can get your hands on by Fairbairn, you ought to buy and have in your library. Also Girardeau’s Federal Theology, a little paper that he gave on the subject of Covenant Theology.
Walking through the articles in the syllabus, let me tell you just a little bit about them. The first article in the syllabus is Macleod’s essay from the Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology on Covenant Theology. It is the best single thing in print giving a theological and historical overview of Covenant Theology, period, and that is why I ask you to read it. Then, his articles, all of which are drawn from the Banner of Truth, are excellent for a variety of reasons. First of all, they are exegetically confident. Second of all, he has a commanding grasp of Historical Theology. Thirdly, Macleod is constantly interacting with Barthian theology. And you need to understand that Barth and his successors within the Reformed and Protestant mainstream community have been the loudest critics of traditional orthodox Covenant Theology, period. Often times, those of us that come from an evangelical background, and have grown up in a general evangelical or fundamental setting, are more aware of the battles between Dispensationalists and Covenant Theologians. That is, in a sense, a popgun fight at the pool, compared to the argument which has been going on between the Barthians and traditional Covenant Theologians. In Church Dogmatics, Barth has a ten-page footnote, small print, interacting with seventeenth century Covenant Theology, critiquing Witsius and several other seventeenth century men who worked on Covenant Theology. And Barth knew those men and appreciated their writings to a certain extent, but he hated certain aspects of their theology and his followers have ever since been doing their dead level best to try and scuttle traditional Covenant Theology.
And one reason why Macleod is so helpful is that he writes in the backyard of Barth’s biggest bulldogs on this question, T.F. Torrance and J.B. Torrance. These two men have devoted their lives to trying to destroy Covenant Theology and so Macleod has a sensitivity to the attacks that have come against Covenant Theology and so does an exposition of it that is very, very helpful.
Now one last thing in your syllabus. You will see immediately after the last Macleod article a large print version of the section on the Covenants of Works and the Covenants of Grace from Heinrich Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics. This is sort of a compendium, statements about the covenants, from some of the historic Protestant scholastic theologians, and it is very rich and we will be referring to it. So that is the material in your syllabus.
Why study Covenant Theology?
I want to start off with the question of, “Why study Covenant Theology?” Why study Covenant Theology? I want to give you several answers to that question.
The first answer to that question is this: Because biblically and theologically speaking, the covenant is the bridge between anthropology and soteriology. What I mean by that is, as you study the biblical doctrine of man and you find him fallen, the answer to the question as to “How God gets man out of that predicament?” is found in the area of the doctrine of the covenants. It is by a covenantal redemptive design that God saves us. A design that begins before the foundation of the world, I might add. And so the covenant is the bridge between your doctrine of fallen man and your doctrine of salvation, theologically speaking.
Secondly, because the covenants structure the Scripture. Covenant Theology is important because the covenants structure the Scriptures. The Covenants give order to creation and redemption. They delineate the Bible’s various historical periods. Many of us are familiar with Scofield’s arrangements of dispensations. That is an entirely artificial arrangement from the standpoint of the Scriptures themselves. But all you have to do is turn to say, Psalm 89 or to the book of Hebrews, and know that the Bible itself talks about the epics of Scripture in terms of covenants. So this isn’t something that men had to think up on their own. The Bible itself talks about God’s history of redemption in covenantal epics. And of course, the covenants have even given us the titles of the Old and the New Testaments.
Now that brings us to those words, Covenant and Testament and such. You know that the Old Testament word for Covenant is berith. Now that word is translated into Greek one of two ways. It can be translated into Greek as diatheke or it can be translated into Greek as syntheke. We will talk about the differences in those words at some point, too. And the Greek word, diatheke, is translated into Latin in one of three ways, but the most common translation is testamentum.
Now, berith in the Old Testament signifies a binding, mutual relationship with mutual obligations, a binding mutual relationship with attendant obligations. Think of the covenant relationship between Jacob and Laban. Jacob had to do certain things. Laban had to do certain things. Laban was a little dishonest to deal with. Jacob was a little dishonest to deal with. The Gibeonites and the children of Israel, in Joshua 9, entered into a covenant relationship, a binding relationship with attendant obligations. The Gibeonites got to draw water all their lives, and the Israelites didn’t kill them. This was a binding relationship with mutual obligations. Diatheke in Greek is often used to describe a “Last Will and Testament.” Other times, diatheke is used to describe more precisely this kind of a binding, living, personal relationship.
Covenant or Testament?
Now this is a nice little philological study because it gives us an opportunity to address a really fundamental difference between a covenant and a testament. Covenants are made between the living. Testaments are activated when someone dies. When you enter into a covenant, a covenant is, by its very definition, something between two people who are alive or two parties who are alive. Testaments are made by a party who is alive, but are not effected until the death of that person. So, remember the Greek term diatheke is rather elastic because it can both be used to describe this binding, living relationship spoken of in the Old Testament in the berith, but it can also be used to describe a last will and testament.
And there, by the way, is one of the problems with the early understanding of what a covenant was and one reason why we lost some rich theology for a number of years in the Church. Syntheke is a Greek term, which tends to be used to translate the idea of covenant as a treaty, especially in terms of a political agreement. And as we have already mentioned, covenant is used that way in the Old Testament, for instance, in Joshua 9 and 10. In fact, some of your Bibles, some of your NIV Bibles will translate some of the passages in the Old Testament where the word berith is used, and they will translate it as treaty. And that is not necessarily a bad translation of the term—although it is nice to see the word covenant there so that you know what is behind that word, treaty.
In Latin these words were used, especially in the second, third, fourth centuries relatively interchangeably. Pactum can be used to describe a covenant. Foedus can be used to describe a testament. Now you can see in each of these Latin words the roots of English words. A pact come from pactum. From foedus comes a word that you may be aware of, federal. That is why Covenant Theology is sometimes called Federal Theology, spinning off the Latin root foedus. Federal Theology from that standpoint is identical and synonymous with Covenant Theology. Testamentum is, of course, also a Latin word which can be perfectly and naturally translated as covenant.
Although we tend to think of Old Testament and New Testament, those designations of the Scripture were first given in a context where the covenantal understanding of diatheke and berith were alive and well. And so your Scriptures bear the titles of the covenants, old and new, on the very front pieces. We just call them testaments, but more accurately, they are really covenants. So, why study the covenants? Because they structure the Scriptures.
Thirdly, why study the covenants? Because they unify the Scriptures. The covenants unify the Scriptures. The very heart of the covenant is the Immanuel principle, “I will be your God and you will be My people.” This is the very heart of the Scriptures. We could stop today and do a survey of that and you would see that theme of God being our God and of us being His people runs from Genesis to Revelation, as the very essence of God’s design for us. And that principle is a covenantal principal. It pervades and unifies the history of salvation recorded in the Bible. The book of Hebrews, at the very end, in chapter 13, speaks of this everlasting covenant.
Furthermore, the Old Testament covenant forms relate to New Testament covenant realities. Let me give you an example of that. If you pick up the Last Supper narratives in any of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, or Luke, and you look at Jesus’ words as He is explaining the bread and the cup, those passages are undergirded by Old Testament passages, especially Isaiah 53, Exodus 24, especially verse 8, and Jeremiah 31.
Now two of those three Old Testament passages are explicitly covenant passages. And the third of them, Isaiah 53, is implicitly covenantal and we will explain how later on. But two of the three are explicitly passages talking about the covenant. And what is Jesus claiming as He explains His death at the Last Supper and at the inauguration of the Lord’s Supper? What He is saying is, “I am the fulfillment of these covenant signs and forms for which we have been waiting to be fulfilled, as the people of God, for hundreds of years, for over a millennium. So, Covenant Theology is important to study because the covenants unify the Scriptures.
Fourthly, Covenant Theology is important to study because of the amount of material concerning the covenant in the Bible. The word covenant appears around 300 times in the Bible. If you pick up a large concordance, the references cover two pages of small print. Now, there are words that occur more frequently than covenant, and simple numbers of occurrence are not an argument in and of itself. But the term covenant, when it appears, is almost always at the focal point of the passage in which it appears. And thus, the vast repetition of the term covenant ought to tip you off that this is something that God is very concerned that we understand. God is a good teacher and good teachers repeat themselves so that we get it. And He tells us things over and over and over again, and nigh unto 300 times we hear from Him about the covenant in Scripture. Around thirty times in the New Testament, around 280 or 290 times in the Old Testament. These are significant numbers of references to the covenant.
The fifth reason for studying Covenant Theology is because of the modern development and popularity of the discipline of biblical theology. Now, perhaps you’re asking, “What is biblical theology?” Simply, it is a survey of the whole picture. But from what perspective? Yes, redemptive history is the key there. Biblical theology is the study of the history of redemption from the perspective of a particular theological theme traced through the eras of that history of redemption.
For instance, you might want to study the holiness of God, and ask the question, “What was revealed about the holiness of God in the Patriarchal era?” And then compare that to what was revealed about the holiness of God in the Mosaic era. And then compare that to what was revealed about the holiness of God in the Prophetic era. And what have you just done? You have just done a redemptive historical study of how God unfolded the one truth about His holiness over time. You have just done a biblical theological study. You are paying special attention to what God revealed during certain times. When you are studying biblical theology, you are picking the Bible up and you are asking, “What does the progress of redemption help me understand about this particular biblical topic?” So it is a study of special revelation from a redemptive historical perspective.
Now that type of study has been made very popular in this century by Geerhardus Vos, and John Murray, and Richard Gaffin, and we could name scads of other people who have been very interested in doing that kind of study of scriptural teaching. Even non-Reformed Christianity is beginning to utilize that kind of tool for doing doctrinal study. And so we need to be conversant with historic Covenant Theology, so that we will be able to supply useful and constructive criticism to those other schools who are now doing biblical theology, but who are doing it without the benefit of the long history of biblical theology in the Reformed tradition.
There is a real sense in which the Reformed branch of the Reformation did more work in this area earlier than any other branch. From Bullinger to Zwingli to Calvin, you will see over and over study in this whole area of redemptive history. And we need to be conversant with our Covenant Theology and its development so that we are able to interact with these other, diverse theological traditions that have now recognized the significance of the covenants.
Many of you know, for instance, that dispensationalism has undergone radical changes, and if you pick up a book today, even by professing dispensationalists, they will tell you that there are at least three classifications of dispensationalists now. There are classic dispensationalists, there are modified dispensationalists, and there are progressive dispensationalists, and all of them have been impacted by biblical theology in the method in which they are approaching redemptive history. Liberation Theology has picked up on the theme of Covenant Theology and does a lot with the doctrine of the Covenants. There are many Roman Catholic scholars who are doing work on the covenants. For instance, the famous Protestant who converted to Roman Catholicism, Scott Hahn, is projected to be producing a volume on the covenants, which he actually plagiarized from his professor at Gordon-Conwell, Gordon Hugenberger. And so Gordon quickly printed his material on the covenants so that it would be apparent to all that that this gentleman’s thesis was a plagiarized thesis.
As I said, virtually every school of biblical interpretation today has come to appreciate the significance of the covenants in their understanding of the distinctive message of Scripture. Just one example, the Lutheran German scholar, Walter Eichrodt, in his theology of the Old Testaments uses—surprise—the covenant concept as the unifying principal for his exposition for every aspect of Old Testament thought. So even those who are outside of what we would call an Orthodox Reformed tradition of theology have recognized how central the covenants are to our understanding of theology. So that is another reason why we need to study Covenant Theology.
A sixth reason why it is a good thing to study Covenant Theology is because there is a massive volume of material out there on the covenants. It is staggering. The work on covenants, of course, is most prolific in the Old Testament. But it is also quite extensive in the New Testament in church history, especially during the Reformation, also in post Reformation historical theology, nineteenth century historical theology and, of course, in popular literature from the nineteenth century until now because of the dispensational controversies. So there is a lot of material out there, and some is incredibly bad teaching.
You need to be able to discern bad teaching. At the church we have a committee that is looking at family life education and we are using an excellent book, but the gentlemen who wrote the book, though he knows a great deal about sociology, is an evangelical Christian and is explicitly trying to come at his material from a theological base. He also comes from a dispensational background, and it is amazing that even in the issue, or we might say, especially in the issue of family life, how the covenant impinges upon how you look at things. So his distinctive eschatology and his views of the covenants come into his teaching about family relations. It is amazing how the covenant is pervasive in every area theologically. So it is important for us to be able to able to discern the truth as we weed through the material on the covenants.
There is a seventh reason why we ought to study Covenant Theology and that is because of the importance of Covenant Theology in the literature on the history of the development of Protestant doctrine. Covenant Theology is related directly to several hot topics. Many of you will have heard of the famous “Calvin vs. the Calvinists” approach to Reformed history. And that approach basically says that Calvin’s theology was different from the Calvinists, his later followers. And there have been even two schools which have approached that question differently. One school, dominated by Karl Barth and his successors, suggests that Calvin is good and Calvinists are bad. They assert that Calvin did not believe what the Calvinists teach and the Calvinists have come with all sorts of new teachings that really distort the real genius of John Calvin’s teaching. And so they would see Calvin as good and everybody after Beza up to Karl Barth as bad. And then they would say, “You see, Calvin and Barth, they were on the same team and everybody else is wrong, so just throw them out.” And there is a whole market and whole industry of historical material trying to substantiate that hopelessly flawed thesis.
Now on the other hand, Perry Miller, the famous Puritan scholar from Harvard, was an atheist, but who loved the Puritans, and he knew very little about John Calvin, except that he didn’t like him and that he didn’t agree with predestination. By the way, that is about what most people think of John Calvin. Perry Miller knew a lot about the Puritans and not much about Calvin, and so as he attempted to rehabilitate the Puritans in the 1930s. And you can imagine, in the 1930s in America, the Puritans wouldn’t have been on the top of the charts, as they are not on the top of the charts today. They were in ill repute in academic studies, and he devoted his life to getting people to realize the brilliance of the Puritans and their impact on the culture. But one of the ways in which he attempted to do that was to say that the Puritans had actually come up with some ideas that even Calvin had not come up with.
And Miller attempted to argue that the Puritans had, in fact, attempted to do two things to Calvin’s theology. They had attempted to try and tone down his predestinarian emphasis. How anybody who has read the Puritans and read Calvin and can draw that conclusion is incomprehensible, but this is what he thought. And secondly, he thought that the Puritans had figured a way to get works back into salvation by means, he says, of Covenant Theology. Now again, how anyone could understand anything about Covenant Theology and make that kind of statement, I do not know, but he did. And unfortunately many very intelligent people for many years have repeated his myth, that the Puritans invented Covenant Theology, and that no one had ever heard of Covenant Theology before the Puritans came along. So this whole issue of Covenant Theology is wrapped with some very important church historical theological debates that have been going on.
It is also related, for instance, to the issue of the doctrine of limited atonement. In fact, the reason that Karl Barth hated Covenant Theology so badly was because the Covenant Theologians, as they showed the parallel between Adam and Christ, explained that the atonement was definite and that its intent was, in fact, to purchase salvation for God’s chosen. And of course, Barth hated that idea of saying that the atonement was not universal, because for Barth, the incarnation was the decisive point, and the incarnation was a universal platform because he had this view of Christ’s humanity as a universal humanity. And so he hated the doctrine of limited atonement.
There has also recently been in connection with this, a big argument about the doctrine of assurance in Calvin and the Puritans. And if you have done any reading in the area of historical theology of Calvin and the Puritans, you have seen some people who have argued that the Puritans had a doctrine of assurance which actually lead people to despair, whereas Calvin had this wonderful, warm, fuzzy view of assurance and thought that assurance was the essence of everyone’s faith. And the Puritans, the mean and nasty people that they were, came along and separated faith and assurance and caused all these pastoral problems amongst people. But you will find these myths out there very eloquently and elegantly presented, and so it is important for us to study Covenant Theology so that you will know firsthand what Covenant Theology says, as opposed to what some people would like to say that Covenant Theology says.
Eighth. Why study Covenant Theology? Because of the importance of Covenant Theology to your preaching, to your teaching, to your pastoring, your Christian living, your counseling, your parenting, can I go on? Covenant Theology is not just an argument for baptizing babies. And for my Baptist friends out there who think that my ultimate agenda in life in Covenant Theology is to have people get their babies wet, you misunderstand the essence of Covenant Theology. Covenant Theology is at the very heart of Christian theology. As my dear Southern Baptist friend, Dr. Mark Dever, the pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, a former J.B. Lightfoot scholar at Cambridge University, the author of a study on the Puritan, Richard Sibbes, and his doctrine on the Covenant says, “Lig, Covenant Theology is just the Gospel.” Now I assure you that Mark has no interest, whatsoever, in getting your baby baptized, but he knows that Covenant Theology is right at the heart of the doctrine of the work of Christ, of the offices of Christ, of the doctrine of salvation, of the doctrine of the church, and we could go on adding to it. It is something very, very central. Covenant Theology has a fundamental place in the Christian message and it is too important to be relegated simply as a subset of our doctrine of the sacraments. And unfortunately, that is pretty much where it has been relegated in theology.
I listened to a very interesting debate in which Donald Macleod was expounding Covenant Theology and he made the statement that Covenant Theology in Scotland today is dead, that it is absent. And he is not speaking about the liberal churches. He is speaking about the evangelical church. He says our people do not know what Covenant Theology is, they are not preaching it. It is not impacting the way they proclaim. And of course, for those of you who are going to be preachers, teachers and proclaimers, one of my agendas will be that you will catch a vision and an understanding of Covenant Theology and it will transform the way you are preaching the Gospel, because it is rich, and I believe that you present the objective truth of the Gospel in the richest way possible as you present Covenant Theology because it is the Scripture. So this is what we will study together.
What is a Covenant?
Now, what is a Covenant? What is a Covenant? We have already said that the word covenant comes from the Hebrew berith/birit, and from the Greek, diatheke, and from the Latin, pactum, foedus, or testamentum. Now the concept of covenant is not restricted to the Bible. We have numerous examples of secular Near Eastern covenants that were happening concurrently as biblical covenants, which were described to us. We have documents, we have ceremonies, we have information from other near eastern cultures that employed covenants from the second millennium BC, for instance, and those covenants come in various forms.
Sometimes covenants were agreements between families. They might be an agreement not to disagree about land rights. Do you remember when Isaac was having trouble with people fighting over the wells? So he packs up and moves away and digs new wells. Well, in that kind of situation, one of the ways in the Near East that a problem might have been worked out is that a covenant might have been made. A mutual agreement, saying, “Okay, we will work here, we’ll farm here, we’ll draw water here and my herdsman won’t go in and draw water from your wells and yours shouldn’t come over to my wells and draw water, etc.” It was a legal way, a contractual way of dealing with problems in day-to-day life.
There were other forms of covenants as well. For instance, covenants were used as international treaties. Let’s say a suzerain, and by a suzerain I mean some sort of petty monarch, someone who has the power over a particular region, conquers another tribe. It was not uncommon in the ancient Near East for a suzerain to go into an area, conquer a people, and basically require them to make a covenant with him, and that covenant would go something like this: “If you will pay me a tithe of your plantings, your yield at harvest time, if you will promise to offer your sons of fighting age to me in military service in times of war; if you will promise not to rebel against me, and if you will promise to recognize my lordship over you, then I will (a) not slaughter you immediately, and (b) provide a system of justice and courts and establish order in your land and we’ll get along.” And in that context the relationship was rather unequal. The suzerain had all the chips and the vassal basically had the choice: I either enter into this agreement or we are wiped out.
Now that, by the way, is exactly the circumstance that we find in Joshua 9-10 with the Gibeonites. Do you remember? The Gibeonites had heard that the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea on dry land. They had heard of the power and miracles done by Moses, that Israel had wiped out two large cities, Jericho and Ai, and were heading for them. And everybody else, you remember, in Joshua 9 verses 1-2, decided they would what? They would band together in a military compact and fight together against Joshua and Israel. And from Joshua 9:3 and following, we see that the Gibeonites were the one exception. They knew that to fight against Israel was going to mean sure doom. And so they knew that their only hope was to do what? Get a covenant with the Israelites.
Now the only problem was that the Lord had told the Israelites not to make a covenant with anybody in the land. But that did not phase the Gibeonites, because they understood correctly that if they couldn’t get a covenant, they were going to die, and so whatever they had to do to get a covenant, that looked like a good option. And so by hook or by crook, the Gibeonites pretended as if they did not live in the land of Canaan, as if they were a tribe from outside the land of Canaan that had heard about Israel moving into the land of Canaan, and they just wanted to snuggle up with them and be buddies and make a covenant. And so they exchanged food. What was that? A covenantal meal. We will talk about that later. And they entered into a covenant with Israel, but the elders of Israel forgot to do what? Ask the Lord. And then, a few days later, they discover that the Gibeonites are Canaanites, they do live within the land. And what did the people want the elders of Israel and Joshua to do? Kill them all. And what does Joshua say? We cannot kill them, because we have made a covenant with them. There was the understanding that the Gibeonites had entered into a relationship with the Lord by the relationship that they had entered into with Israel with the covenant. And so that kind of treaty between suzerain and vassal is even illustrated in Scripture. So a covenant is not something that is unique to Scripture. It is a type of commitment, whether it is a personal commitment or an international treaty commitment, not unknown outside of Scripture.
But I would like to suggest to you, following Robertson’s definition, that a covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered. And I would like to look at all three components of that definition. A covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered. That definition does not say everything that you need to say about the covenant, but it is a good start.
A covenant is a bond.
First of all, a covenant is a bond. That is, it is an oath-bound commitment. It is a bond. That is what I want to stress. It is a bond. A covenant is an oath-bound commitment. As we saw in Joshua 9, once the covenant is made, the relationship is solidified. It is a commitment of the highest order. And various solemnizing rituals are used in administering the covenant. For instance, you remember in Jacob and Laban’s covenant agreement, there was the strange event of passing under the rod. What is that? That is a covenant sign. In Exodus 24:8, when the covenant of Moses was inaugurated formally, what did Moses do? He took the blood of a heifer and he sprinkled some of it on the altar and he sprinkled some of it on the children of Israel, doing what? Confirming that a solemn bond had been established and confirmed between God and His people.
Eating a meal can be a sign of the covenant. And you see the underlying significance of that in Near Eastern cultures, as in many other cultures, when sharing a meal with someone creates a special relationship. The idea is if I open my home up to you and we sit down and break bread together, some form of fellowship has happened that really commits me to treat you in a certain way. And so just like the ancient handshake was a way of showing your enemy that you didn’t have a weapon that you were going to pull out on him, so sitting down and eating a meal together was an indication that you had at least enough of a relationship that was formed that you were not going to attack one another or take advantage of one another.
And we have things from our cultural past that can help illustrate the significance of that sitting down and having a meal as a sign of the inauguration or of the confirmation of a bond. You will remember that in 1688, William of Orange, and Mary, his wife came to the throne of Britain, and they replaced the Stewart monarchy. The Stewarts were from Scotland and though the Stewarts were very unpopular monarchs, they were the monarchs and because many of the people in the northwest Highlands of Scotland were Catholics and the Stewarts had very definite Catholic sympathies, the Stewarts were thus very popular among those clans. When William and Mary came to the throne, first in England and then in Scotland, though they were welcomed by the vast majority of Protestants, there were many of these clans in the Highlands of Scotland that were not excited at all about them coming to the throne. And so one of the things that was done in Scotland immediately by the House of Orange was that they sent out a pledge that was to be signed by all the chiefs of the clans, basically saying, “We are not going to rebel against you as king. We recognize that you are the lawful king of Scotland and/or the king of Great Britain and we recognize you as the king.” And all the clan chieftains were either required to come to Inverness or Edinburgh and sign this document and do it by a certain date. And there were several clans whose chieftains did not do that. And one of those clans was the McDonalds of Glencoe. They were a small, motley, and rather unpopular clan known for cattle thieving from their neighbors, and they lived there in the valley of Glencoe, a very beautiful place if you have ever seen it. And their clan chieftain got on his horse and made his way to Inverness and got to Inverness a day before the thing was to be signed and was told no, you are supposed to go to Edinburgh to sign yours. So, he showed up in Edinburgh several days late to sign his little pledge of loyalty. And the government in Edinburgh decided that he was going to be made an example of, and so some Campbells from Argyle were sent up with a regiment to Glencoe in the dead of winter, a month or so later, with the assignment of slaughtering all of the McDonalds in Glencoe. And this was going to be a message sent to all of the Highland clans that if you mess with us, we’re going to attack you and kill you. And so the army regiment from Argyle that was given this job of slaughtering all of the McDonalds showed up in the valley of Glencoe in the middle of a driving snowstorm and they bumped into some of the McDonalds, who promptly invited them into their home, and feasted them for three days. They slaughtered their best-fattened calves and they gave them the best food, the best wine, the best everything that they could find, never knowing that these people were sent to slaughter them. And in the middle of the night on the third day, the regiment got up and began to systematically slaughter the McDonalds. The women and children had to escape over the mountains in the middle of two or three feet of snow and make it to the next village and some of the survived to tell the tale, but most of the men were slaughtered by this regiment of soldiers. Well, as you can imagine, the outrage against this act was heard all over Scotland. In fact, until recently, if you were a Campbell, you couldn’t get a bed at an inn in the Highlands. And if you go, and your last name is Campbell, say your name is Smith and you will stand a better job of getting a bed in an inn. The part of the infamy of the deed was that these people had accepted hospitality. Their feet had been under the table of the McDonalds and then they had turned against them. And it was the ultimate breach of not only honor, but of Highland hospitality, because the man whose feet had been under your table and has received your favor is not to return disfavor. And so you can see how the eating of a meal in the Near East would be a very sacred act, showing some sort of bond forming between two peoples or two tribes.
And so these sorts of signs of the covenant are given to us in the Old Testament and that is why you see the Gibeonites in Joshua 9:14 exchange bread and supplies with the Israelites. You see what is going on there? They are sharing supplies for a meal there. That is the forming of a covenant. That is a ritual aspect of the covenant.
Note also, that these signs of commitment factor into God’s covenants with us. In the time of Noah in Genesis 9, the sign of the rainbow is given by God to assure Noah of the certainty of His promises. When Abram is struggling in Genesis 17, at his massively advanced age to believe that God is really going to give him an heir, he is given the sign of circumcision, a visible, tangible sign designed to assure him of God’s purposes, God’s promises. In Exodus 31:13 and 17, when Israel is being set apart as different from all the other nations, the sign of the Sabbath is a sign to them as something that shows their uniqueness amongst all the tribes around them. It serves—this sign serves—not only to assure the believer, but it serves a witness function, to show the world whose you are. So a covenant is a bond, it is an oath bound commitment.
A covenant is a bond in blood.
The second thing that we need to see about a covenant is that it is a bond in blood. That is, it is a life and death relationship. There is a life and death obligation involved in the bond of the covenant. It is a bond in blood.
Two examples of this. Turn with me to Genesis. We will look at Genesis in greater detail later, but I want you to see what happens here. You remember in a suzerain-vassal treaty, we talked about the overlord coming in and conquering a tribe and the tribe has to make promises to the overlord that they will not rebel and that they will provide military service and they will pay their tithe, etc. And then the lord declares that He won’t kill them, etc.
Let me tell you how that was normally made. In the Near East, very frequently, the way that covenant would have been solemnized is that animals would have been slaughtered and the animals would have been parted and the leaders of the conquered people would have been asked as vassals, as servants, as those who had been conquered, to walk between the pieces. By walking between the pieces, they were taking what is known as a self-maledictory oath. Now a malediction of course is just a bad word. So a self-maledictory oath is a self-curse. In other words, “Be it done to us, as we have done to these animals if we are not faithful to our commitments that we have made to you in the covenant. Slaughter us, overlord, just like we have slaughtered these animals, if we break our commitments that we have made in the covenant.”
Now in Genesis, 15, we see something very interesting. Abram asks a question of the Lord. In verse 8 of Genesis 15, Abram says, “Oh Lord God, how may I know that I shall possess it,” and he is talking about the land of Canaan. “How may I know that I may possess it?” And the Lord says to him in verse 9, “‘Bring me a three year old heifer and a three year old female goat and a three year old ram and a turtle dove and a young pigeon’. Then he brought all of these to him and cut them in two and lay each half opposite the other, but he did not cut the birds, and the birds of prey came down upon the carcasses and Abram drove them away, and now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. And God said to Abram, ‘know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs where they will be enslaved and oppressed 400 years. But I will judge the nation whom they will serve and afterwards, they will come out with many possessions. And as for you, you will go to your fathers in peace, and you shall be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation, they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete’. And when it came about when the sun had set, it became very dark and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and flaming torch which passed between these pieces.”
Now that bizarre scene in response to the simple question, “How am I going to know that I am going to have the land, Lord?” is simply a covenant-making ceremony, where animals are slaughtered and the vassal of the covenant walks between the pieces, right? Wrong. The vassal in that covenant didn’t walk between the pieces. The suzerain, the sovereign, walked between the pieces. And therefore, he was saying to Abram, “Abram, if I do not give you the land, be it done to me as we have done to these animals.” Now anybody in the Near Eastern world, who picked that up and was familiar with how covenants ought to be made, would be on the floor having read that passage, because there is no example in any other world religion of either, (a) a God who enters into covenant with His people, or, (b) a God who takes upon Himself the self-malediction for the fulfillment of the promises of the covenant.
Now we will speak more of that when we get to Genesis 15. But you see here this relationship is a life-and-death relationship. It is of the utmost seriousness. When God calls down curses upon Himself, it is serious. This is not the only place, by the way, where this occurs. If you would turn to Jeremiah 34, and the interesting thing about this is that this event with Abram is occurring circa 2000 BC, and Jeremiah 34 is going to be occurring about 600 B.C. And at the beginning of the end of the history of the Abrahamic line as a nation, we have proof that the children of Israel still understood the significance of that covenant-making ceremony. Here in Genesis 15 there is the covenant-making ceremony (2000 BC), and now we have the same ceremony in Jeremiah 34. Do you remember what happens? Do you remember what was going on? Jeremiah had told the people, “Look, you are breaking God’s law, you are taking Hebrews as slaves. You are not following the laws of Leviticus. God is going to curse you. He is going to send you into exile. He is going to capture you. He is going to destroy you. He is going to bring in the Babylonians. They are going to pillage and plunder you.” And suddenly, everybody got religion. And they suddenly say, “Oh we’ll do everything that the Lord has said.” And they freed their slaves and they started walking right. They sort of turned over a new leaf, had a sawdust trail conversion, and they actually walked between pieces. We are told here in Jeremiah 34 that the leaders of Israel walked between the pieces. Look at the passage there. “The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people who were in Jerusalem to proclaim release to them.” And then you see Jeremiah’s condemnation of the fact that the children of Israel had made this covenant and then backed off on it.
Now look at what he says in verse 18: “And I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not fulfilled the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between its parts, the officials of Judah, and the officials of Jerusalem, the court officers, and the priests, and all the people of the land, who passed between the parts of the calf, and I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life. And their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth. And Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials I will give into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of those who seek their life, and into the hand of the army of the king of Babylon which has gone away from you. ‘Behold, I am going to command,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring them back to this city; and they shall fight against it and take it and burn it with fire; and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant.’”
Now you know what had happened. They tried their reform for a while, they didn’t like it, they decided to break God’s law again, and to take back their slaves. And the Lord said, “You can’t do that to Me. You renewed the covenant, you parted the calf. You walked between the pieces. You recommitted yourself to being faithful to the vows that you took all the way back at Sinai so long ago and then you reneged on it and therefore, I am going to bring judgment against you.”
It is very, very graphic, isn’t it, what He says there in verses 18, 19, 20. Understand the picture that is being given there, when he talks about their bodies being food for the birds of the skies. He is saying, “I am so going to cut you off. There is not going to be anyone left to bury you.” The ultimate curse of the covenant is to be cut off from your people. There isn’t going to be anyone left to bury you. The birds of the sky are going to pick at you like carrion in the road. That is the kind of curse I am going to bring against you. Why? Because you walked between the pieces and you didn’t fulfill your vow. So a covenant is not just a bond. It is a bond in blood.
A covenant is sovereignly administered.
And finally, it is sovereignly administered. A covenant is a bond in blood and it is sovereignly administered. In the biblical covenants, God does not bargain with us. He doesn’t say, “Well if you will think about doing this and get back with Me tomorrow, I’ll think about doing that.” In Genesis 2, when He lays down the ordinances for Adam in the Garden, Adam does not have input into whether he will keep those ordinances or not. In Exodus 20, when Moses comes down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments, there is no Israeli mediation team to discuss which of the Ten Commandments are going to be kept and which are going to be bargained away. They are sovereignly administered by the suzerain, the Lord. The Overlord comes in and declares what the nature of the relationship will be. So the relationship is unequal at some levels in the sense that it is the sovereign who determines the nature of the relationship. But in our case, that relationship is established on a gracious basis.
God’s covenant has conditions
Now that in and of itself raises the issue of whether a covenant is unilateral or bilateral. Now this is going to be hard, so hang with me here for a second. This is a big discussion. Is a covenant unilateral or bilateral? That is, is it one-sided or is it two-sided? Is a covenant wholly promissory or is there mutuality? Are there mutual responsibilities and obligations and requirements in the covenant? That is a big debate. The Barthians, in particular, have attempted to argue strenuously that the covenant is wholly one-sided. It is not a mutual compact. They hate the word contract and they will attempt to argue, “No, the Old Testament word, berith, does not mean contract. It means a one-sided promissory testament of God with His people.”
But is that the case? Is a covenant one sided or two sided? I remember that question being asked of Palmer Robertson in our Biblical Theology class. A student said, “Dr. Robertson, is a covenant unilateral or bilateral?” And Dr. Robertson responded, “Yes.” And, that is the right answer. But you have got to say more, if that is your answer. So here is a beginning of an answer to that question. The covenant is both unilateral and bilateral. It is both sovereign and mutual. It is both conditional and unconditional. Or to use another word, and you will see this word show up when you read Heppe, and I would encourage all of you, even if you don’t have to read Heppe, to read Heppe because it is relatively brief and you will have a mound of historical terms at your fingertips after you have read Heppe. But you will see the terms, monopluron and dipluron used over and over in Heppe. Those words are basically words speaking of the covenant being monergistic or synergistic. Do we cooperate in the covenant (synergistic) or is it one sided: only the power of God is involved (monergistic)? Well, you will see these terms in Heppe. Let’s give an answer.
A covenant by definition has conditions. There in no such thing as a wholly unconditional covenant. Don’t ever let anybody sell you a bill of goods that there is such a thing as an unconditional covenant. Why? Because you have to have two sides before you have a covenant. And if you have two sides, then you’ve got requirements. So a covenant by definition has conditions. And so the covenant of grace is both unilateral and bilateral. It is conditional and unconditional. It is monergistic and synergistic. You can pile up all those words that we are paralleling and stick them in there. There are aspects in the covenant of grace connected with both those elements. Let’s talk about them.
First, God’s covenant of grace is sovereignly established. God is not obligated to come into covenant with us. He does not have to. He chooses to because of His love. He chooses to enter into a relationship with us because of His own determinate counsel. And He enters into this relationship by a sheer act of grace. He chooses man, and not man Him. In that sense, the covenant is unilateral. It is initiated by God. But even in that sense, it is bilateral, because it is a relationship and there is no such thing as a relationship that is not mutual. The minute you say the word relationship, you have just said the word bilateral, because there are two sides to it. It goes both ways. The minute you say the word relationship, there can be no covenant in solitude. And that is why there is no such thing as a unilateral covenant, a wholly unequivocally unilateral covenant. There can’t be a covenant in solitude. You have to have two to have a covenant. The minute you say relationship, you are saying mutual.
Secondly, God sovereignly administers the covenant. Man does not bargain with God. He does not choose his own terms. God is, as it were, the sovereign, the overlord, and man is the vassal. God declares the nature of the relationship, He declares its obligations, and in that sense the covenant is unilateral. It is divinely initiated in its administration. But it is still bilateral because there are two parties to the covenant. And it is conditional, in that sense, because there are specified conditions to be filled by the parties. And that is just as true as the covenant of Abraham as it is in the covenant of Moses. We will see that in detail.
We can also say, thirdly, that God sovereignly fulfills the conditions of the covenant. Man, because of his sinfulness, cannot fulfill the conditions of the covenant relationship, and so God, in His grace, sovereignly elects to fulfill not only His own conditions, but also His people’s conditions. So you see that is the grace part of the covenant of grace. And so in the covenant of grace, God allows the curse of the covenant to fall upon His own Son. The condition is fulfilled, though it is not fulfilled against us, but for us, on our behalf by the Lord in our place. So in the covenant of grace, we see God acting unilaterally. He freely chooses, neither under compulsion or obligation to save us. It is bilateral in the sense that there is a mutual relationship there. It is conditional in the sense that God does not forgive us without justice being done.
This is what gets Paul excited in Romans 1 and 2. Don’t misunderstand Paul. Paul is not excited that God is merciful. Paul knows his God is merciful. That doesn’t surprise Paul. What blows Paul away? In Romans 1 and 2, He has shown us His mercy in a way that does not sacrifice His justice. That is what he is talking about in Romans 1 and 2, when he says that “He showed Himself to be just and the justifier” in the propitiation of Jesus Christ. At the cross, we see both God’s justice and His mercy at work, because the cross is simultaneously the vehicle of His justice, or the expression of His justice and the vehicle of His mercy. And of course, that covenant of grace is unconditional in the sense that God chooses to fulfill our conditions on our behalf.
Covenants are conditional.
Now, I could go on, but all I want to stress to you is that you cannot simply talk about covenants as conditional or unconditional. It is not that simple, theologically. There is no such thing as a completely unconditional covenant. Covenants by definition are contracts. But the beauty of the covenant of grace is that God comes in and He Himself provides the basis of our part of the relationship. Propitiation in Christ and then by His grace, He enables us to believe and appropriate the benefits of the covenant.
Now, when you start to get to that point, you are beginning to see why Covenant Theology is so close to the heart of the Gospel. Because the Gospel is about how God provides for salvation, in spite of ourselves and draws us back into saving relationship with Him.
What therefore is Covenant Theology? Covenant Theology is a blend of biblical and systematic theology. Let me go back again. We discussed biblical theology before. If Biblical Theology is the study of Scripture from the perspective of redemptive history, then we could call Covenant Theology Biblical Theology. What do I mean by that? I mean that the Bible structures itself covenantally. When Paul wants to structure creation and redemption, he parallels Adam as covenant head with Christ as covenantal head. And he speaks of Adam’s responsibility and failure in the world of the fall comparing that with Christ and so he gives us a two-point outline of redemptive history. Creation, separation by fall, and redemption. When the author of Hebrews wants to talk about the progress of God in redemptive history, what does he do? He compares the Old Covenant and New Covenant. Primarily, he has in focus, the contrast of the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant established in Christ. But what is the tool he uses when he wants to give a panoramic overview of Old Testament and New Testament relations? The covenant. When the author of Psalm 89 wants to recount the history of God’s dealings with Israel, what does he use to structure his story? The covenants.
So Covenant Theology is not merely an inspired inference from the weight of Scripture. It is explicitly the way the Bible structures redemptive history. Now that does not mean that it is illegitimate to say I am going to do a biblical theological study of the holiness of God in history and I am going to show the difference between Old Covenant and New Covenant as to what we find about what God reveals about His holiness in the Mosaic period, the Davidic period, the Prophetic period, and then in the New Covenant under Christ and the Apostles. There is nothing illegitimate about that. But that is not how God in the Scriptures structures redemptive history, He uses covenants to do that. And so there is a sense in which Covenant Theology is Biblical Theology.
Covenant Theology needs to be Systematic
But Covenant Theology is more than Biblical Theology. The one great shortcoming of Biblical Theology is that it can only be thematic, it cannot be ultimately systematic. You have to have Systematic Theology. Now I am not just saying that because I am a systematic theologian, although it helps. Systematic Theology does not simply look at exegesis, which draws out of the text what the text is teaching. Systematic Theology just does not simply look at the history of redemption and themes in the history of redemption. Systematic Theology integrates everything we know from the history of redemption, from the study of Biblical Theology, from the study of exegetical theology, from the study of Historical Theology and Pastoral Theology and everything. And it brings it all to bear and gives a well-rounded, biblical, synthesized presentation of truth.
So Covenant Theology is not only Biblical Theology, it is Systematic Theology, too. Because Covenant Theology shows us how to relate the truth about Adam and Christ, and parallels the federal headships of Adam and Christ. It shows us how to relate that to the doctrine of the person and work of Christ. And it shows us how to relate that to the doctrine of the church, it shows us how that relates to the doctrine of the sacraments, and it shows us how that relates to the doctrine of salvation. It connects a whole host of biblical truths and synthesizes it in a digestible form and even more importantly than that, it gives it a shape in which it can be presented for the sake of expressing the Gospel. If you learn Covenant Theology, you will learn more deeply what the atonement was and did, and how it ought to be proclaimed for the sake of building up Christians and drawing unbelievers to Christ. So Covenant Theology is both Biblical and Systematic Theology. We might call it biblical Biblical Theology, but it is also a form a Systematic Theology because it integrates a whole set of other themes which are related to the idea of covenant, in both Old Testament and New Testament.
And what we are going to be doing in this study is attempting to unpack what the Scriptures say about the covenant. We will do it progressively and chronologically and we will try and integrate that with what we know about the doctrines of the covenants in history and we will try and synthesize that in the work of Systematic Theology. And we will try and do it in such a form that it will be digestible enough that you can then articulate it yourself, whether you are teaching third grade Sunday School or whether you are teaching grad students at Vanderbilt, or whether you are teaching farmers from Morton, so that you can proclaim the Gospel with covenantal eyes. Because that is the framework by which our Lord Jesus on the last night of His public ministry before the crucifixion, that is the framework by which He determined to explain the meaning of His life and death to His closest disciples. Let’s look to the Lord in prayer.