What is Covenant Theology?

What is Covenant Theology?

“Covenant Theology understands the whole of history after man’s fall into sin as unifying under the provisions of the covenant of redemption (or more traditionally, the covenant of grace). Beginning with the first promise to Adam-in-sin and continuing throughout history to the consummation of the ages, God orders all things in view of his singular purpose of redeeming a people to himself.”  – Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants

We commonly talk about being ‘in a relationship’ with God, but what does that relationship look like?  It is a covenant relationship.  The marriage covenant is the closest analogy.  A married woman isn’t just “in a relationship with a man.”  Rather, she is in a “marriage covenant with her husband.”  

In the Bible we can see that a covenant is a legal and relational agreement, initiated by God to establish and secure the conditions and expectations for a binding relationship with his people.  God sets the terms of the covenant relationship including conditions and obligations, promises and blessings, penalties and curses.

Covenants form the backbone of the Bible’s metanarrative.  

“The Bible is not a random collection of laws, moral principles, and stories.  It is a story that goes somewhere; it is the story of redemption, the story of God’s kingdom.  And the story unfolds and advances through the covenants God made with his people.”  – Thomas Schreiner, Why We Must Understand the Covenants to Understand the Bible

And so, the single storyline of Scripture can be traced through the covenants that God makes with his people:

  • Covenant with Adam: God creates the world and sets Adam and Eve as his representatives to rule over creation.  Rather than obey and walk in God’s blessing, they disobey and receive God’s curse.  After the fall, God establishes a promise in Genesis 3:15 that through the offspring of the woman the serpent will be crushed – thus beginning the Covenant of Grace fulfilled in Christ, the offspring of Adam.  
  • Covenant with Noah: The consequences of Adam and Eve’s rebellion spiral out of control until the corruption of sin has so permeated the world, God sends a flood to cleanse it and begin again.  After the flood, God establishes a new covenant with Noah and his descendants promising to never again destroy the world with a flood and continue to carry out his plan of redemption. 
  • Covenant with Abraham:  From the descendants of Adam and Noah, God narrows his covenant promises to one man, Abraham.  Abraham and his descendants are chosen to be God’s covenant people and receive the fulfillment of three promises: 1) People: to multiply their offspring to be more numerous than the stars.  2) Land: to give them an eternal homeland. 3) to bless them and through the chosen offspring to bless all the nations of the earth. 
  • Covenant with Israel through Moses:  Abraham fathers Isaac, Isaac Jacob, and Jacob’s 12 sons become the 12 tribes of Israel.  After their slavery and redemption from Egypt, there is a covenant renewal at Mount Sinai and the covenant with Abraham extends out to the entire nation of Israel through all the stipulations, responsibilities, laws, blessings, and curses given through Moses.  The nation will be given the promise land and dwell as God’s people.  This covenant with Israel is sometimes called the Mosaic Covenant or simply the Old Covenant.  
  • Covenant with David:  The covenant of redemption to send a Savior through the seed of the woman flows through the descendants of Adam, Noah, Abraham, and then is further narrowed through God’s covenant with David.  Through his line would come an everlasting King to accomplish redemption and rule on an everlasting throne.  But the kings of Israel are not faithful, and the nation spirals into unfaithfulness and eventually receive God’s judgment and are exiled from the Promise Land. 
  • New Covenant in Christ:  For a time, the Old Covenant, centered on the covenant with Abraham, (which includes the covenant with nation of Israel and the kingly line of David) seemed to be ending in tragedy.  Israel had not lived as God’s people. The people broke the covenant and were expelled from the promise land, only to return to a broken city, under the rule of foreign powers, with no David king on the throne.  Yet, God’s eternal covenant of redemption would culminate in a New Covenant in Christ, prophesied in Jeremiah 31.  

The New Testament makes clear that the Old Covenant finds its climax and fulfillment in the death and resurrection of Christ (see Luke 22:20, 24:27-47; Act 10:42-43, 13:29-34, 26:6-7, 22-23; 2Cor 1:20, 3:7-15; Heb. 8, 10).  In Christ’s work, redemption has been accomplished, the Kingdom of God has been established, and all will culminate and be fully realized in his second coming.  The first and second coming of Jesus are one unified work.  

Whereas Dispensational Theology emphasizes distinction between the different periods in God’s plan – distinction between the Old Covenant and New Covenant, separation between Israel and the Church – Covenant Theology emphasizes unity in God’s single plan culminating in Christ.  The Old Testament and the New Testament, Israel and the Church, Christ’s first coming and second coming, and all the biblical covenants are unified in God’s covenant of redemption, culminating and climaxing in the New Covenant through the work of Christ to establish his kingdom on earth. 

Jesus didn’t come to start something new, but finish something very, very old.  As I wrote in a recent blog, “The Old Testament is About Jesus!”  “For all the promises of God find their ‘Yes’ in him” (2 Cor 1:20).

“As one biblical covenant leads to the next, all of them find their telos (terminus) and fulfillment in Christ, the mediator of the new covenant…when the new covenant arrives, we have the ultimate fulfilment of all of God’s promises, the reversal of the effects of sin and death brought about my Adam, and the establishment of the new creation…Individually, and corporately, Christians are God’s new covenant people, and it is in Messiah Jesus – the last Adam, true Israel, and David’s greater Son – that all of God’s promises are fulfilled.  In Christ, Jew and Gentile are now the one new man, the church.  Together and equally, we inherit all of God’s promises in Christ Jesus our Lord…God has not replaced Israel by the church; instead, he has brought Israel’s role to its fulfillment in Christ and to Christ’s people…There are no outstanding promises for national Israel which are not first fulfilled in Messiah Jesus and then given to Christ’s people, the church, comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles.”  – Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants

For more on this topic, you can listen to or watch the two-part Seminar from Living Hope Church on “Covenant & Kingdom.”