Covenant Theology for Dummies
by Joseph Franks
People quite often accuse Presbyterians of making too big of a deal about covenants. In my particular ecclesiastical tradition, we have Covenant College and Covenant Seminary. We read books from Crown and Covenant Publications. We enter into covenant matrimony, have covenant children, wash them in covenant baptism before the covenant community waiting for them to partake of the covenant meal. Perhaps they have a point, except for the fact that Scripture makes a huge deal about covenants.
However, Presbyterians are not the only ones who emphasize God’s covenantal distinctions. Our Baptist brothers do so as well, they just prefer to use the term dispensation in place of covenant. They have seven dispensations; we have seven covenants. Ultimately we both see them as ways in which the Sovereign God has graciously determined to deal with mankind. The seven covenants in Reformed Covenantal theology are as follows:
- Covenant of Works – Presented to Adam
- Covenant of Grace – Presented to Adam and Eve
- Covenant of Grace – Presented to Noah
- Covenant of Grace – Presented to Abraham
- Covenant of Grace – Presented to Moses
- Covenant of Grace – Presented to David
- Covenant of Grace – Fulfilled in Jesus Christ
But, if you carefully look at the list above, you will see that there are really two primary covenants: the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace.
The Covenant of Works was in one sense presented first to Lucifer and the Angels, but Scripture explicitly presents it first being given to Adam in the Garden of Eden. The Covenant of Works was a promise wherein communion with God was based upon perfect obedience. Eternal excommunication was promised where perfect obedience was lacking. The angels who obeyed were able to enjoy the presence of God. Lucifer and the demons who rebelled, they were booted from heaven. Likewise, while Adam and Eve obeyed, they walked and talked with God. However, when they questioned God, lusted, and partook of the forbidden fruit, they were immediately excommunicated from God and paradise.
However, the Covenant Grace was also presented to Adam. God does not owe this additional covenant of grace to anyone. It was not presented to the fallen angels, but it was presented to the first couple. Despite their sin, communion could still be enjoyed, but this reconciliation and communion would be based upon a coming Son. This Son would suffer; he would be attacked by the serpent, but ultimately this Son would be victorious. To symbolize the Suffering Son, an animal was killed by God and Adam and Eve were clothed with its hide. Sinful Adam and Eve were covered by the substitutionary sacrifice of the animal.
Well, throughout Scripture, God continued to present his Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace. Continually, the Israelites were reminded of the Moral, Ceremonial and Civil Laws they were required to keep. Blessing was based upon obedience. However, when they recognized their unrighteousness and inability to keep the Law, they were encouraged to run to the Tabernacle and Temple. There, animals were slaughtered and blood was poured out. There they were reminded of the substitutionary sacrifice to come. There they were reminded of the hope that came, not through the man’s obedience to the Covenant of Works, but through the God’s Covenant of Grace.
It is here, in Ezekiel 20:10-13, that the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace are presented again:
So I led them out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. I gave them my statutes and made known to them my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live. Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not walk in my statutes but rejected my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; and my Sabbaths they greatly profaned. “Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them in the wilderness, to make a full end of them.
But then later, in Ezekiel 20:40-44, the Covenant of Grace is presented:
Ezekiel 20:40–44 “For on my holy mountain, the mountain height of Israel, declares the Lord God, there all the house of Israel, all of them, shall serve me in the land. There I will accept them, and there I will require your contributions and the choicest of your gifts, with all your sacred offerings. As a pleasing aroma I will accept you, when I bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you have been scattered. And I will manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I bring you into the land of Israel, the country that I swore to give to your fathers. And there you shall remember your ways and all your deeds with which you have defiled yourselves, and you shall loathe yourselves for all the evils that you have committed. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for my name’s sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt deeds, O house of Israel, declares the Lord God.”
So, what does this have to do with us today? I would encourage you to understand you have been damned by the Covenant of Works, gloriously saved by the Covenant of Grace, with the divine intent that you might enjoy worshiping God by doing good works and becoming more and more like Jesus Christ — the Good Worker.
Moralists have it all wrong. They believe one receives grace from God in order to do good works and earn paradise. That which is not accomplished on earth is ultimately made up for by the excess merit of deceased saints or finished in purgatory. In the end, all people who enjoy heaven will be able to say, “We are here because we have been righteous; we have kept the Covenant of Works.” What they do not understand is perfection. Perfection is the standard; once a person is imperfect he can never again be perfect. There is nothing a man can do to make up for the sins of yesterday. All who sin are damned. These dear friends need to find rest and comfort in the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ — alone.
Immoralists (Antinomians) have it wrong as well. They believe that one receives grace from God and nothing else is required. It is true that nothing else is required for justification, but growth in holiness is both expected and required by our loving Heavenly Father. In grace and mercy, God reconciled Adam and Eve to himself; then he commanded them to walk in holiness. In grace and mercy, God rescued Israel from the bondage of Egypt; then he commanded them to keep his laws and statutes. The same is true for the believer today. John says, “If you say you love Jesus, and keep not his commandments, you are a liar and the truth is not in you.” Jesus says, “By this may all men know you are mine, if you do good works.”
So how ought we to live as grace-based Covenant Theologians? Understand our damned condition as violators of the Covenant of Works. Confidently enjoy reconciliation and communion with God due to the Covenant of Grace. Love and adore the Suffering Son by doing what he desires and seeking to be conformed to his will. Let us covenant to strive to look like Jesus more and more each day.
Scripture Reading Plan
Wednesday, November 20, 2013: Ezekiel 20-21; James 1
Thursday, November 21, 2013: Ezekiel 22-23; James 2
Friday, November 22, 2013: Ezekiel 24-26; James 3
Saturday, November 23, 2013: Ezekiel 27-28; James 4
Starting January 1, 2014, this blog will most likely follow a Chronological Reading Plan that will read through the Scriptures in one year. If you have never done this before, it will help your grasp of biblical history to read the Bible in this manner. More information will be coming regarding the particular plan.