Him We Proclaim Appendix: The Broader Covenant Structure of the History of Redemption
Dennis E. Johnson
In Jeremiah 31, when God promised to bring a “new covenant” that will be better than the “old covenant,” that old covenant was God’s compact with Israel forged at Mount Sinai, delivered through Moses, Sinai is not the first time that “covenant” appears in the Bible. In Genesis 12 God made a covenant with Abraham, to bless him with children, give his descendants a homeland, and make him a blessing to all nations. Even earlier, in Genesis 9 God made a covenant with Noah, his family, and all living things, promising never again to wash the world clean of human filth by water (Gen. 6:18; 9:9-17). So the theme of covenant shows us “the lay of the land” in the Bible not only en route from Sinai to Calvary, but even further back in history. How far back?
Though the word “covenant” does not appear in the Bible before Noah, the reality of a covenant bond uniting God the Creator and his human creatures existed. We have reason to believe that God created Adam and Eve into a covenant bond with himself from the start. There were the parties: the Creator and the creatures whom he specially fashioned in his own image. As they stood before him in Eden, innocent and unfallen, he had created an ideal environment for them to express their exclusive trust in and loyalty toward him. His blessing and commission to multiply and to rule entailed both commands to obey and the promise of success as they did. His prohibition of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and his warning that death would ensue if his edict were defied showed the consequences that would follow, if his servant failed to fulfill the obligations. Moreover, their disobedience deprived them of access to the tree of life—a hint of the positive consequence that would have resulted had they stayed loyal. So the key components of a covenant were present.
Later Scriptures confirm this conclusion. In Hosea 6:7 God compares Israel’s violation of the covenant at Sinai with Adam’s first sin: “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” In the New Testament, the comparisons and contrasts between Adam and Christ that we saw in Romans 5 presuppose that God’s original relationship with Adam was covenantal in character. Paul mentions the components of the covenant: parties (Adam and Christ as the human servants), commitment, obligations, and consequences (condemnation or justification, death or life).
There is a biblical basis, then, for the way in which the Westminster Confession described God’s original arrangement with unfallen Adam as a covenant: “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” (7.2). It was a “covenant of works,” because Adam’s avoiding the curse of death and receiving the blessing of life was directly dependent on Adam’s own complete and unswerving obedience as covenant servant—exclusive commitment to the Lord, expressed in continuous and comprehensive fulfillment of the Lord’s commands.
As Genesis, Hosea, Paul, and the whole history of the human race reveal, Adam broke that original covenant at creation. The consequence of covenant curse—alienation, decay, death—began to eat like slow cancer into Adam’s and Eve’s relationships with each other and with God, into the rest of the created world, and into their own bodies.
Yet God was not finished with his covenant servants. Immediately after the fall into sin God gives our guilty human family a ray of hope in his word of curse on Satan the tempter who spoke through the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). The first hint of post-fall covenant, brief as it is, brings into view the participation of both parties to the covenant, Lord and servant, to undo the damage done through Adam’s failure. The restoration of mankind to God’s favor, the reestablishment of covenant communion, will be God’s work—and man’s. We see God's initiative: “I will put enmity between the serpent and the woman." But we also see a crucial role for the woman's seed, the faithful covenant servant, who through his own suffering, his “bruised heel,” will crush the evil one's power, bruising the enemy’s head.