Covenant Clarified

"You keep using that word—I do not think it means what you think it means." 

Reflecting on an essay he wrote some years ago, Richard Phillips once referenced this humorous quote from The Princess Bride to illustrate the confusion that abounds over the biblical term "covenant." [1]  Such confusion is regrettable when we consider the importance of this term. The description of last November’s Bold North Conference puts it well:

"Covenant stands at the center of all true religion between God and man. Covenant theology is more than an idea, it is the heart of correct biblical interpretation. Reformed theology stands on covenant theology, because it stands on the Bible as properly read and understood … With [covenant theology], believers will become better equipped to rightly divide the Word of Truth."[2]

This is not a unique claim. The Testimony of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America notes that, "The covenant character of revelation appears in all the Scripture and binds the sixty-six books together in one unified Word of God … The covenant concept lies at the heart of the Westminster Confession of Faith …"[3]  R.C. Sproul writes, "The concept of covenant … provides the structure or framework of redemptive history and of the whole scope of theology."[4]  In his article, "The Covenant: Key to Bible Understanding," E. Clarke Copeland asserts, "… God’s covenant effects the whole of His redemptive purpose.  It lies at the heart of His special self-revealing activity.  It is a key concept for understanding the Bible."[5]

Covenant is a principal theme in Scripture, evidenced by the words frequency[6] and the way it operates in context.  While clarifying Scripture’s use of this term may seem inconceivable to some, chapter seven of the Westminster Confession of Faith offers us a helpful guide. We plan to look through this chapter over the next four weeks, outlining what the Confession says and why it matters to us today.[7]

It is best to begin where the Confession begins:

WCF 7:1: 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.[8]

We could have no meaningful relationship with God if He did not stoop to our level by way of covenant relations.  This doctrine of God’s "transcendence" emphasizes the Creator-creature distinction.  He voluntarily condescends, or as Calvin puts it, leans over to "lisp" in language we can understand.[9]  But this "baby talk" should be understood as intelligible.[10]  God communicates to be comprehended, accommodating Himself to our inferior human limitations via covenant. 

Covenant Defined and Described as an Agreement

First, it should be noted that the Confession does not define but rather assumes an understanding of "covenant," which R.C. Sproul summarizes "in the simplest terms" as "a formal agreement between two or more parties."[11]  J.I. Packer explains that "Covenants in Scripture are solemn agreements, negotiated or unilaterally imposed, that bind the parties to each other in permanent defined relationships, with specific promises, claims, and obligations on both sides …"[12]  A.A. Hodge calls a covenant a "conditional promise,"[13] or as Wallace A. Bell expresses, "a promise suspended upon a condition."[14]  Helpful to consider is that in "The Practical Use of Saving Knowledge" (contemporary to the Confession), we see the word "covenant" is used interchangeably with "bargain" and "contract" to which people need to "consent."[15]

A Scriptural covenant can be described as containing: 1) parties or persons; 2) mutually understood and agreed upon conditions or stipulations; and 3) promises of resulting wages of reward (positive or negative) based on merit for obedience or demerit for disobedience to those conditions.[16]  In the case of a "suzerain covenant," the agreement and its stipulations are self-imposed by the king or feudal lord as well as upon his vassal subject, the latter only being in the position of potential obedience or disobedience and thus reward for merit or punishment for demerit.  We see this ancient Near Eastern peace treaty formula between a conquering king and its vassal subjects reflected in the structure of the Ten Commandments (and the entire book of Deuteronomy).[17]  

In all covenants between God and man, God is the King who initiates and imposes them.  Still, notice Scripture’s language of such covenants always emphasizing "between" (with extra "betweens" often in the literal Hebrew), demonstrating the reciprocal nature of covenants.[18]  J. G. McConville points to Deuteronomy 5:28-30 as clearly evidencing that "a mutuality in the covenant relationship is signified."[19]  As well, in covenant, God binds Himself by oath to His Word—He voluntarily obliges Himself by His promise, which He never violates (see Genesis 15:7-21; Hebrews 6:13 on Genesis 22:16; and Psalm 110:4).[20]  As Joel Beeke explains, covenant is "The way by which God carries out what He has bound Himself to do."[21]  Further, as the perfect promise keeper, God rewards Himself and especially Christ the Mediator ultimately as He eternally covenants to so glorify Himself (see Psalm 2:7-8, Psalm 110:1-4; and 1 Cor. 15:24-27).

Objections to Understanding a Covenant as an Agreement

While many describe and define "covenant" as an agreement, others find this problematic. In the first place, objectors admirably endeavor to protect Gods sovereignty by denying such mutuality in a covenant concerned that the word "agreement" implies mankind as alike in status within a bi-lateral situation—but the agreeing parties are not automatically understood to be equal in every Scriptural case.  A.A. Hodge states, "… although Adams will was not consulted, yet his will was unquestionably cordially consenting to this divine constitution and all the terms thereof, and hence the transaction did embrace all the elements of a covenant."[22]  Conversely, as Rowland S. Ward notes, "The covenants with Abraham, Moses and David embody the promise: I will be your God’ … God commits himself to those with whom he makes covenant."[23]

An authority freely and willingly initiating and establishing an arrangement with inferiors does not remove his superiority over them by so doing. In fact, this emphasizes it, just as a boss recruiting, hiring, and agreeing to an interviewee’s compensation does not forfeit his right to manage the employee and his business.[24]  J. Gresham Machen explains:

"Plainly God did … enter into what, according to Scriptural language … was a covenant … man though one of the parties has no choice whatever as to whether he will enter into the arrangement or not.  At least, he certainly has no freedom of proposing any other arrangement to put into its place … God remains absolutely sovereign, in His covenants as in everything else that He does.  Man does not contract with Him on anything in the remotest degree resembling equality … [Still] these covenants involve a promise on the part of God—a promise with a condition.  God … was not obliged so to engage; He was perfectly free not to do so: but … when He has once established the covenant, His honor is involved in the fulfilment of His part of it. So it was in the case of that covenant into which God entered with man in the estate wherein He had created him … But although He entered into it freely, and not under any sort of pressure from or obligation to the other party, man, yet when He had once entered into it man could be quite sure that He would fulfill His part of it to the full …"[25]

The equally great concern expressed against "covenant" being understood as "agreement" is that it allegedly neglects—or worse, negates—the overarching purpose of a relationship between God and man.  However, as Richard Phillips correctly states: "Covenant is the means by which two parties are bound in relationship; it is a basis for relationship and not the relationship itself.  Covenants provide the terms of agreement that structure a relationship …"[26] Frank Thielman notes that "The purpose of the covenant was to confirm and guarantee his relationship with his people."[27]

The argument for covenant being a relationship is often based upon a philosophical reading back into the ontological Trinity; but this is an exegetical mistake (which also risks teaching tritheism).  As Thomas Ridgeley advises, "The word commonly used in the Old Testament to signify a covenant … may be understood better by observing how it is used in those places where we find it …"[28]  Important to add is that the phrase "and you will be my people" often follows "I will be your God" in Scripture, thus demonstrating the mutual arrangement of the covenant with God.  Wayne R. Spear writes: "The terms of a covenant specify the basis, nature, and conditions of a relationship."[29]  It is helpful to note that the earlier referenced, "Practical Use of Saving Knowledge" also speaks of entering into "friendship" with God by way of "covenant." 

Notice that "covenant" and "agreement" are used in poetic parallelism as synonyms in the following Scripture:

"Because ye have said, We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement … And your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand …"  — Isaiah 28:15, 18 (emphasis added by the author)

Though here the "parties" and their commitment are quite dismal, yet the synonymic usage with "agreement" makes for elementary exegesis of the general meaning of "covenant" in Scripture.[30]

The Significance of Understanding Covenant as an Agreement in Scripture

Why does this matter?  It matters because it changes the entire framework of the Bible, albeit perhaps inadvertently and inconsistently. If we deny the essential nature of a covenant, we cannot have the Covenant of Works, which is itself the basis of the Covenant of Grace.[31]

What is more, some argue that an agreement is a "cold, bare, business-like pact," and point to marriage as an illustration that a covenant is instead a relationship. However, notice that a man and woman are not in a marriage relationship of husband and wife until they so agree in a binding matrimonial contract before God, the Church, and the State (usually including in written form with signatures by both parties and their officiator and witnesses confirmed with notarization).  I welcome the marriage objection and counter, "The reason your wife is not mine, and mine is not yours, is because our exclusively devoted relationships to forsake all others are established by way of formal marriage covenants."  Marriage is a legally binding moral arrangement between two people that institutes their uniquely precious spiritual and relational bond.[32]  Wedding covenants are serious and solemn and thus particularly warm, special, and celebrated.[33]  On this note, Thomas Watson writes of the "second covenant" of grace between God and His people: "This is a marriage covenant … [Jer. 3:14]."[34]

Perhaps it could be said ultimately through the Covenant of Grace that God "proposes" to the Church, for God "condescends" to us "by way" of covenant says the Confession; God "bends down" to make a covenant with us.[35]  As C.H. Spurgeon writes, "He, stooping from His majesty, takes hold of your hand and makes a covenant with you …"[36]  God was not obliged, but He lovingly did so through Christ in human time reflecting His eternal commitment (Jer. 31:3; Eph. 1:4; John 3:16).

As well, Adam and Eve were, upon their first breath as images of God, self-consciously covenant creatures imposed with their Creators moral and legal arrangement of temporal "married" life in the Garden. God more explicitly explains and defines the covenant relationship, but even before He does so the arrangement exists.[37] This we call a Covenant of Works, and we will look more closely at it in our next post.


Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Reformed Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  He and his wife, Fernanda, have six covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, Isaac, Gabriel, and Gideon.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.


Related Links

Podcast: "Foundations of Covenant Theology"

Podcast: "Race and Covenant"

"Themes in Puritan Theology: Covenants" by Bob McKelvey

Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives, edited by Guy Waters, J. Nicholas Reid, and John Muether

Backdrop for a Glorious Gospel: The Covenant of Works according to William Strong by Thomas Parr


Notes

[1] See alliancenet.org/covenant-confusion.  To date, this is the article the author most recommends on common debates about the proper exegetical understanding of "covenant" in Scripture and how it applies.

[2] Source: alliancenet.org/bold-north-conference-on-reformed-theology (accessed February 5, 2022).  For recordings of the conference to download, see reformedresources.org/covenant-theology-and-the-promised-messiah-downloads (these lectures also can be ordered to ship as digital mp3 files on CD or as audio files in a CD set; search the conference title at reformedresources.org for those other options).

[3] Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, The Constitution of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2004), A-1.  J.V. Fesko writes, " … Tyndale also sees the covenant as the central means for comprehending Scripture: ‘The right way, yea, and the only way, to understand the scripture unto salvation, is that we earnestly and above all things search for the profession of our baptism, or covenants made between God and us’ … salvation comes to man … by way of covenant." J.V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2014), 130.  O. Palmer Robertson writes, "Covenantal history thus displays the unifying purposes of God in the world."  O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ and the Covenants (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1980), 206.  P. C. Craigie notes, "It may be argued that the covenant provides a basic principle for interpreting not only Deuteronomy, but the whole biblical tradition." P. C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1976), 36 (footnote 49).  J. Ridderbos recognizes that " … the Scriptures speak of the covenant on every page."  J. Ridderbos, The Bible Student’s Commentary—Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 28.

[4] "It provides the context within which God reveals himself to us, ministers to us, and acts to redeem us … The language and idea of covenant pervade redemptive history and the Bible."  R.C. Sproul, The Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, vol. 1, The Triune God (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2006), 205.

[5] E. Clarke Copeland, "The Covenant: Key to Bible Understanding", in The Book of Books: Essays on the Scriptures in Honor of Johannes G. Vos, ed. John H. White (Presbyterian and Reformed: location?, 1978) , 30.

[6] Covenant is used almost 300 times in the KJV.  Wayne R. Spear, Faith of Our Fathers: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2006), 44.

[7] For part one of the author’s membership/enquirers class lectures on this topic from which these articles are developed (both mp3 of the audio and pdf of the extensive handout notes), visit sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=1292167297172.  Part two of these lectures on God’s Covenant with Man follows in that section of the SermonAudio lecture series (the Westminster Confession of Faith).

[8] See: Isa. 40:13-17; Job 9:32-33; 1 Sam. 2:25; Ps. 113:5-6; Ps. 100:2-3; Job 22:2-3; Job 35:7-8; Luke 17:10; Acts 17:24-25.

[9] Often by figurative expressions such as anthropomorphism and anthropopathism.

[10] Not infant coos as some illustrate.

[11] Sproul, 205; he also says it could be called a "pact."  John Brown teaches that, "The Hebrew and Greek words rendered ‘covenant’, signify, "a disposition," "arrangement," and are applicable not only to [human] covenants or bargains, properly so called, but to laws and promises."  John Brown, An Exposition of Galatians (Marshallton, Del.: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1970) , 141.  Van Dixhoorn puts it this way: " … set terms where we could have fellowship with him, an arrangement which we call a covenant … Any time one spots a sovereignly determined and administered arrangement between God and man, with penalties and promises, you have a covenant … God sets the terms, man owes him obedience." Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A reader's guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2014), 96-97. 

[12] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndall House Publishers, Inc., 1993), 87.

[13] A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 120.

[14] Wallace A. Bell, Puritan Reformed Presbyterian Church (previously Puritan Evangelical Church of America), membership tapes, San Diego, Calif., 1982.  See also Charles Hodge: "A covenant is simply a promise suspended upon a condition," Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, date?), 57. Green concurs: "In the covenant idea, promise is prominent …"  James Benjamin Green, A Harmony of the Westminster Presbyterian Standards with Explanatory Notes, 7th Printing (Location?: Wm. Collins World, 1976), 53.  O. Palmer Robertson recognizes, " … it may be affirmed that each of God’s covenants has a conditional aspect.  The purpose of God to redeem a people to himself makes it certain that these conditions shall be met.  But this certainty cannot relieve the individual from his obligation before the stipulations of the covenant," Robertson, 247. Later, he writes, "The false idea of a wholly unconditional covenant relationship was proven to rest on an improper assumption," Ibid, 272.  See part four of this article series on WCF 7:3.

[15] Often included in the "package" of the Westminster Standards printed by the Church of Scotland, although not written or sanctioned by it or the Assembly. "The Sum of Saving Knowledge, & … The Practical Use Thereof", in Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 2003), 319-343. Presumed to be written by David Dickson and James Durham.

[16] Note that the use of "blood" to essentially seal the covenant is not always involved in Scripture as we consider the word in its most basic meaning (some include it in their rudimentary descriptions): of course, it always is involved in the Covenant of Grace and its various administrations through the Old and New Testaments.

[17] R.C. Sproul describes its elements: 1) a preamble, which identified the suzerain (the overlord in a vassal state), Ex. 20:2; 2) an historical prologue, in which the king briefly summarized the history of his relationship with his vassals, Ex. 20:2; 3) promises and stipulations, Ex. 20:3-17; 4) sanctions, Ex. 19:8; 5) an oath or sacred vow that established the covenant by way of a cutting or blood rite ratification, Ex. 24:3, 7; and 6) duplicate copies of the covenant were made, one for the king and one for the vassals, Ex. 24:6, 8.  Sproul, 207-213.  This summary reflects (as Sproul notes) the work of Meredith Kline.  Packer affirms, "God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai took the form of a Near Eastern suzerainty treaty, that is, a royal covenant imposed unilaterally [by] a vassal king [upon] a servant people." Packer, 88.  O. Palmer Robertson also affirms the reality of this peace treaty formula in the Ten Commandments and Deuteronomy as a whole, citing Kline.  Robertson, 169.  Similarly, E. Clarke Copland reflects Kline’s outline and approves the title of his commentary on Deuteronomy as "appropriately" named, The Treaty of the Great King. Copeland, 31.  For sermons by the author that demonstrate this ancient Near Eastern peace treaty formula, visit the introductions to the Ten Commandments at Exodus 20:1 and Deuteronomy 5:6, as well as the book of Deuteronomy as a whole at sermonaudio.com/puritanchurch.

[18] "The covenant is mutual," Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Whole Commentary on the Bible, vol. 1, Genesis-Deuteronomy (New York: Flming H. Revell Co., date?), 65.  Hamilton concurs, " … even in a unilateral covenant there must be reciprocity."  Victor Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 85.

[19] J. G. McConville, Deuteronomy: Apollos Old Testament Commentary, vol. 5 (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 133.

[20] The latter being the Covenant of Grace between God and His redeemed through Christ.

[21] Joel Beeke, in one of his sermons at sermonaudio.com/hnrc on "covenant" (apologies that the author did not note which one at the time of listening and there are many on the site). See the author's audio sermon on Gen. 15:7-21, "God Has Obligated Himself to You": sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=82211239332

[22]  A.A. Hodge, 121-122.

[23] Rowland S. Ward, The Westminster Confession of Faith: A Study Guide (Wantirna, Victoria, Australia: New Melbourne Press, 1996), 66.

[24] J. Ridderbos points out that, "The Hebrew berît, when applied to a covenant between two people, indicates primarily a legal relationship (or the arrangement that creates this relationship), although it is not always limited to a legal sense … When the concept ‘covenant’ is applied to the relationship between God and man, two things should be noted.  On the one hand, the legal character of the word … On the other hand, there is of course a modification because the relationship between God and man has a unique character that can never find a perfect analogy in human relationships … one of the parties in the relationship is absolutely dominant."  Ridderbos, 26-27.

[25] J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man (Grand Rapid: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1947), 179-180.  See also, John Ball: "Though God had put many abilities and honourable privileges upon man, yet he remained his Sovereign, which by an act of restraint, he was pleased to make man thus exalted to know, which he did by requiring and commanding his creature to abstain from one fruit in itself pleasant to the eye, and good for meat … God in his Sovereignty set a punishment upon the breach of this his Commandment, that man might know his inferiority, and that things betwixt God and him were not as between equals.  The subject of this Covenant is man entire and perfect, made after the Image of God in Righteousness and true holiness, furnished not only with a reasonable soul and faculties beseeming, but with divine qualities created from the whole Trinity, infused into the whole man, lifting up every faculty and power above his first frame, and enabling and fitting him to obey the will of God entirely, willingly, exactly, for matter and measure." John Ball, A Treatise on the Covenant of Grace (London: Simeon Ash, 1645), 10.

[26]  " … what is evidenced in every single covenant depicted in the Bible, namely, a pact or agreement for the attainment of blessing …"  Richard Phillips, Ibid.  E. Clarke Copeland put it this way: "The covenant is an act of God by which He enters into union with man.  Within this union God brings about the promised blessings through the responses that the covenant requires of man, or He personally administers the penalties upon covenant breakers.  Thus God is the sovereign Lord who declares His gracious purpose to man in the form of promises demanding response.  He is also the guarantor of the covenant, making man, at the same time, His servant-ally in achieving the covenant." Copeland, 35.

[27] Frank Thielman, The NIV Application Commentary: Philippians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 177.

[28] Thomas Ridgeley, Commentary on the Larger Catechism, vol. 1 (Edmonton, A.B. Canada: Still Waters Revival Books, 1993), 440.  For his detailed discussion proving the mutual nature of the covenant with both God and man as well as the doctrine of the Covenant of Works as correct and necessary, see his section on "Providence Towards Man in Paradise", 374-390.

[29] Spear, 44.

[30] Of myriad other exegetical examples, we see Abraham and Abimelech "covenant" in Genesis 21:27-32, agreeing to respect one another’s territory.  Sometimes the word berith in the Hebrew is even translated, "league" (Joshua 9:6-7; 1 Kings 5:12).  As well, Judas "covenanted" with the Pharisees for money to betray Jesus (it is a different Greek word than the usual diatheke, but the context derives the same consistent contractual meaning).  See the exegetical guidance of Thomas Ridgeley quoted earlier in this article.

[31] Christ not only paying our penalty dying on the cross but earning our reward living righteously on this earth.  The Westminster Larger Catechism, 30-32, points out that the Covenant of Grace was between the Father and the Son, and this was based on what Christ would do as the Second Adam—His works both of sacrifice and a righteous life on behalf of the elect: see Psalms 2, 40, and 110 for example.  Though an agreement is not always between equal parties, in the Covenant of Grace betwixt the Trinity it certainly is. 

[32] This relational bond established by formal agreement is in fact so special that one is held accountable for violation of it by Church and State at great cost with legal and fiduciary ramifications. 

[33] Robertson notes, "In its most essential aspect, a covenant is that which binds people together."  Robertson, 4.  He adds, "The result of a covenant commitment is the establishment of a relationship ‘in connection with,’ ‘with’ or ‘between’ people … a covenant in its essence is a bond.  A covenant commits people to one another … This closeness of relationship between oath and covenant emphasizes that a covenant in its essence is a bond.  By the covenant, persons become committed to one another"; Ibid, 6-7.  In a footnote on page 6, he says "a covenant is an oath."  Sadly, Robertson, like many Reformed past and present, later seems to shift between definitions of "covenant," sometimes saying it is not an agreement, and at other times admitting it is (see pp. 127 and 130).

[34] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity: Contained in Sermons Upon the Westminster Assembly’s Catechism (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1970), 156.

[35] Some read "covenant" as "condescension" because of the language in this paragraph, but this is not careful: God’s condescension is not itself a covenant.

[36] C.H. Spurgeon, Morning by Morning: Meditations for Daily Living, December 21 (Springdale, Pa.: Whitaker House, 1984), 358.

[37] Seen in Joseph's denying Potiphar's wife before the time of Mt. Sinai.  By God putting the Law on the hearts of mankind: "We infer that Adam had intuitive, divinely implanted knowledge of the law of God." Spear, 46. See also WCF 19:1, 2.  Thus He puts Christ on the heart of His elect, for the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms all speak of Him (Luke 24:44).