The Covenant

Many in evangelical and even reformed churches lack appreciation for the biblical concept of covenant, finding it obscure and even arcane. The irony is stark. What many perceive as academic smoke is actually just the opposite.

Covenant puts boots on theology. It grounds biblical theology in history. It situates gospel hope in real life. It strips doctrine of any romantic gaze, and cloaks it in flesh, in substance, in life-giving truth.

What water is to a fish and oxygen is to mammals’ lungs God’s covenant is to our spiritual lives. Covenant makes theology sing; it gives theology its very life. As the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith rightly discerned, covenant, in fact, gives us God himself.

In the opening paragraph of chapter 7, “Of God’s Covenant with Man,” they write, “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.”[1]

Yielding to the Bible’s teaching on God’s transcendence—He is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, the Confession rightly affirms the infinite incongruence between God and man. Such incongruence on its own terms renders fellowship an impossibility, human expectation an absurdity, and even reward for obedience fanciful fiction. Though the language style of Westminster Confession 7.1 might sound strange to our ears, its message blares lucidly: without the covenant, we “could never have any fruition of Him as [our] blessedness and reward.”

Apart from the Creator God establishing a covenant, we remain outside the fruition zone! Even before the corruption of sin, mankind’s essence as creature disqualifies him to expect anything from God, to hope for anything from God, or to aspire to any sweet fellowship with his Maker. No covenant, no relational realization. No covenant, no hope. No covenant, no sweet fruition. Creator and creature remain out of reach.

Covenant Kindness

This incongruity, incompatibility warrants further pondering. What could a creature possible due to earn favor with the Creator? The infinite God needs nothing and owes no creature, even man himself, anything! Even the most extraordinary human feat could fall only interminably short of the Almighty and his infinite glory. We marvel at a juggler who manages 6 or 7 balls at a time, but what could begin to impress the Creator who “juggles” every atom in the universe simultaneously, effortlessly, and flawlessly by the Word of his power?

The incongruity of reward pales before the inconceivable disproportionality between the Creator and the created in terms of their respective beings (ontologically). On what basis would we dare interface with the Creator of the universe? What standing could a creature have before the Creator? Even the most carefully crafted finite words woefully understate this grand disparity between God and man, Creator and creature, the Infinite and the finite. Illustrations are tempting, but the attempt itself reduces the distinction to creaturely rhetoric, making the very attempt foolhardy.

So what then? How can Scripture even speak of divine human fellowship or of divine reward for obedience? One answer. Covenant. As the “divines” (the title commonly given to these seventeenth century ministers of the gospel) put it, God acted. He stepped down; he bent over toward us. Since we could in no way get to him, he came to us. He chose to lower himself to our level, and did so out of his own pleasure and wisdom (see Ephesians 1:3–14). His stooping instrument of choice was the covenant.

Rather than leave man in an essential yet impossible obligation, God kindly situated creation and mankind in covenant relationship with him. Promises, reward, and fellowship exist by covenant. God’s covenant dealings began with creation, with Adam himself. “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.”[2]

This relationship, by its very existence, exposes us to the benevolent heart of God. To Adam, Eve and their progeny he came and kindly so. Adam and Eve’s Garden of Eden fellowship with their Creator came because God stooped down to his image-bearers by a creation covenant.[3]

Like a nanny whispering into the ear of a small child in words the young one could understand,[4] God bends over, speaks to Adam and Eve understandably, warmly, and meaningfully. He gave their moral and personal obligations clearly defined parameters: they knew what he expected, were given what they needed to meet those expectations, and were offered promises according to those covenantal expectations. Covenant defined and bounded the divine-human relationship. It does so to this very day.

This divine stooping to issue covenant promise breathed heavenly vitality into man’s purpose, hopes, dreams—his entire life and future. Covenant turned the impossible into the attainable, that is, the achievable sweetness of permanent fellowship with the Creator. In this covenant obligation, God gave explicit command—a command not to eat of a particular tree in the Garden of Eden. Covenant obligation was now explicitly defined; covenant blessing was now explicitly in view.

Covenant Curse and Blessing

Yet it quickly fell out of sight. Adam sinned. Eve sinned. All humanity sinned with them (Romans 5:12–21). In their disobedience, Adam and Eve broke the covenantal obligations placed upon them. Hopes of sweetest fellowship and fruition of fellowship with God crashed into a pit of destruction and damnation. Those in covenant with God face his covenant wrath and not his covenant blessing. Was all hope lost?

The glorious and central message of Scripture explodes off the page here. The God who made covenant with Adam and his progeny would himself absorb the covenant curse and fulfill the covenant demands for those whom he predestined unto adoption (Eph. 1:3–6). By covenant grace, sons of Adam would still become sons of God! This saving God-Man, whose covenant righteousness would count toward the fallen and whose enduring of covenant curse, would obey for them and suffer for them. Jesus himself declares the context of his work, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).

For this reason, Paul, in Romans 5, necessarily argues for the covenant faithfulness of Christ Jesus. Put otherwise, the historic covenantal relationship of Adam situates the work of Jesus covenantally as well. Where Adam failed covenantally, Jesus succeeded covenantally. Jesus secured covenant promise, after Adam had secured covenant curse. “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Heb. 9:15).

The works of obedience by the Last Adam turn God’s covenantal dealings toward us as grace. Pure. Sweet. Dumbfounding. Covenant Grace.

The Covenant of Grace in Christ Jesus

How can it be that we have fellowship with the Almighty God of heaven? How can it be that we as creatures can know God truly, intimately, and securely? How can it be that we enjoy hope, peace, love, forgiveness and reconciliation? How can it be that God remembers our sin against us no more?

Most of us would answer, because of Jesus Christ. That is, of course, exactly right. The central message of all of Scripture is God’s redemptive work in Christ Jesus, the very Son in whom he forgives sin and reconciles himself to sinners by his grace. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” declares Jesus Christ himself. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

But the work and words of Jesus possess an important context. That Jesus is the Center of the Bible and the Redemptive Center of all human history fails to divulge the full story. The ministry of Jesus has a framework: a theological and historical one. That context is the covenant.

Because, by its covenantal boots, theology connects with the turf of human history, the theology of God’s covenant with man is one of the most glorious themes in Scripture. The covenant which God has put in place with his people secures our relationship with him and our receiving the benefits secured for us by his blessed Son. Without the covenant, the ministry of Jesus loses vital traction. Instead, in the God-given covenantal context, the Son of God comes as man to become the Mediator between God and man. His work of mediation and reconciliation are covenantal, and therefore richly relevant.

B. B. Warfield famously described the covenant as the “architectonic principle of the Westminster Confession.”[5] Why did the Westminster divines give covenant this permeating prominence in their ordering and expressing the theology of Scripture? Precisely because they understood Scripture to do so. The decision to make covenant the organizing principle of the Confession was no arbitrary imposition. It was an act of biblical submission. The Bible’s organizing principle is the unfolding covenants. These historic covenants make up a single Covenant of Grace, by which God loves, redeems, and secures his covenant people.

Do you have the hope of heaven? Only because Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the Way of the covenant, the Truth of the covenant, and the Life of the covenant. Our gospel hope is covenant hope in the One covenant Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ the Lord.

The gospel of Christ is the Covenant of Grace. The fruition of him as blessedness and reward is ours.

[1] Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.1

[2]  Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.2.

[3] Sometimes called a Covenant of Works, Covenant of Life or the Edenic Covenant.

[4] John Calvin employs this nanny-with-child metaphor as an analogue to God speaking with us. See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John D. McNeill; 2 Volumes; Philadelphia, 1960), 1.13.1.

[5] Warfield, B. B. (2008). The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (Vol. 6, p. 56). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.


David Garner