The Components of Biblical Covenants
“Covenant” is the biblical way to say “relationship.” But “covenant” refers to a particular kind of interpersonal relationship. There are all sorts of interpersonal relationships in society: superficial acquaintance, business contracts, employment agreements, international treaties, friendship, casual dating, marriage, and more. Biblical covenants between the Lord and human beings are like some of these in some respects, and radically different from others. To pick up the clues to “the lay of the land” that the covenant-focus of the Bible provides, we need to identify the components that come together in biblical covenants. Although the covenants in the Bible differ in some details, I believe that this simplified description captures what they have in common:
A biblical covenant is a bond of interpersonal commitment and exclusive loyalty between the Lord and his servants, sovereignly instituted and structured by the Lord, expressed through mutual obligations, and enforced through life-or-death consequences (adapted from Robertson, Christ of the Covenants).
A covenant is, first, a committed relationship, a relationship of exclusive loyalty. The bond between the Lord and his people is intimate and affectionate, so it is compared to marriage. And like a good marriage, the covenant partners are committed to be faithful to each other exclusively. The Lord is jealous for his people, wanting them to love and trust him alone, not wandering after any other master and protector. In the first of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:3), the Lord insists: “No other gods in my presence! No rivals for your affections!”
This bond is also legal and structured, so often biblical covenants have formal features that make them resemble international treaties among Ancient Near Eastern. Words—written words—are crucial to God’s covenants, for through his words God binds himself in promise to his people and binds his people to himself through command.
Biblical covenants are bonds that are sovereignly instituted and structured by the Lord. They are not negotiated contracts between equals, but commitments imposed by the Lord whose powerful prior actions make the covenant possible in the first place. Covenants begin with what God has done (creation, exodus, cross), and from God’s actions flow the motive, rationale, and form for our response as his servants (Exod. 20:1-2).
Finally, the responses of the parties to the obligations of the covenant have consequences. Shed blood in covenant ratification ceremonies graphically represents the life-or-death consequences of covenant loyalty or treachery (Exod. 24:3-8; Jer. 34:17-20). Not surprisingly, we see the consequences most graphically from the servant’s side of the relationship. Because the Lord is faithful and true clear through, he always keeps his commitments. Therefore he always deserves his servant’s complete trust and allegiance. Yet, in Genesis 15 the Lord secures his promise by putting his own life on the line, invoking judgment on himself in the (impossible) event that he should fail to keep his word. As for the human servants bound in covenant to their divine King, alternative consequences are real possibilities and they are severe: loyal obedience will lead to unimaginable blessing and life, but rebellion will lead to unbearable cursing and death (Exod. 20:5, 7, 12; see Deut. 27-28).
The Bible’s “lay of the land”—the slope that directs the flow of Scripture’s every stream (every event and individual, every book and theme)—is the story of God’s covenant with humanity (its initiation at creation, disruption by sin, restoration through grace, and future consummation in glory). So how does this help us find our bearings as we try to read and preach Christ from all the Scriptures in a way that handles every text with integrity and fidelity?
In every text, look for the roles, responsibilities, and actions of the two parties to the covenant, the covenant Lord and the covenant Servant.
Among the most prominent themes associated with Yahweh’s role as covenant Lord are: Creator (Gen. 1:1), Provider (Isaiah 25:6-9), Rescuer and Protector (Exodus 3:1-6, 13-15), Commander (Deuteronomy 6:4-6), and Judge (Daniel 7:9-14). Among the prominent themes associated with the role of God’s human covenant servants are:
a. Primacy and privilege (Adam among the animals, Genesis 1:26-28; 2:15, 19-20; Israel among the nations, Exodus 19:5-6; the Son above all creation, Col. 1:15-22)
b. Provision (Adam in the garden, Genesis 2:8-14; Israel in Canaan, Exod. 3:8; Deut. 6:10-14; Christ by his body, Heb. 10:5-10 and the Spirit, Luke 3:21-22, Heb. 9:13-14)
c. Probation (Adam with respect to the tree, Gen. 2:16; 3:1-7; Israel with respect to the Law, Exod. 24:3-11; Deut. 6:20-25; Christ in the wilderness, Gethesemane, Golgotha and every moment in between, Luke 4:1-13; 22:39-46)
d. Product of probation:
- For Adam and his descendants, and for Israel: disobedience leading to banishment and death
- Adam, Genesis 3:8-19; Romans 5:12-14;
- Israel [exile], Deut. 11:26-29; ch. 27-28
2. For Jesus and all who are in Christ: obedience leading to resurrection life! (Acts 2:24-28; 1 Cor. 15:20-26; Rom. 8:8-11, 22-24)
Dr. Mark Futato, formerly my colleague at WSC and now professor of OT and dean of RTS Orlando, suggested a threefold way of viewing Jesus’ role as the ultimate Servant of the covenant, and our union with him in his covenant-service:
- In our place Christ fulfilled the kept the conditions of the covenant: devoted loyalty, dependent trust, eager obedience. He obeyed all God’s commands on our behalf (his “active obedience,” ground of our justification as the declaration of righteousness). Therefore he can claim by right all the blessings promised by God to the faithful covenant-keeping servant…and he shares these blessings with us!
- In our place Christ endured the consequence of our violation of the covenant: God’s righteous wrath inflicted on Jesus the condemnation, forsakenness, and death that he (Jesus) did not deserve—but we did. He endured the curses of the covenant on our behalf (his “passive obedience,” ground of our justification as the forgiveness of sins and the reconciliation of our relation to God—from hostility to peace). God the righteous judge has pronounced our debt to his justice “paid in full”—no charge or crime remains on our record—and welcomes us as beloved children (our adoption).
These are the two dimensions of the forensic, legal, objective, extrinsic aspect of our salvation—the dual ground of our justification: Christ’s flawless keeping of God’s Law and Christ’s endurance of the Law’s curse against its violators. They are grounded in our representative union with Christ Jesus.
But there is more. Christ’s saving work conveys a dual benefit, not only addressing our objective guilt before God’s righteous tribunal (in the act of justification) but also addressing our subjective defilement (in the ongoing work of sanctification) (Clark, Duplex Beneficium). As Augustus Toplady prayed in “Rock of Ages,” “Be of sin the double cure: cleanse me from its guilt and power.” The Spirit of God unites us to Christ vitally, applying his resurrection life to begin and maintain, as Paul wrote in Phil. 1:6 “a good work in you”: the subjective, internal transformation of our allegiance, values, affections, and ultimately actions, to conform us to the image of Christ :
3. In our hearts Christ enlivens, renews, and transforms us through his Spirit so that we begin to live for God’s glory by obeying the Lord’s commands, out of gratitude for grace and love for the Lord who first loved us (our regeneration and sanctification).
Only Jesus can free us from curse and give us title to blessing! Still, salvation is more than justification; and it is more than justification and adoption. It also includes sanctification (freeing us from the tyranny of sin) and ultimately glorification (freeing us from the very presence of sin, and its result in death).
This perspective helps us see the deep substructure that unites the apostles’ proclamation of Christ’s redemptive achievement from the Old Testament and their appeal to those same Scriptures as moral warning and example to the new covenant people of God—the aspect of apostolic hermeneutics and homiletics to which Jason Hood called attention in his recent essay.
Questions to ask in order to “get the lay of the land” and so proclaim Christ from all the Scriptures:
- Does this passage show me the Lord (as creator, provider, protector, commander judge)? How does Jesus fulfill those roles?
- Does this passage show me the Servant (preeminence, provision, probation, product of probation)? How did Jesus fulfill the Servant’s role for me? How does his Spirit remake me to be a faithful servant in Christ?
Remembering that the Bible, as a covenant document, is always two-sided—addressing the relationship between the divine Lord and his human servants—will help us keep our balance as we preach the diverse texts in the Bible:
- The Lord of the covenant reveals his majesty, power, purity, mercy—revealed through his initiatives in creation and redemption—as grounds for the response he expects from his servants.
- The commanded response of the covenant servants is never presented as a mere “categorical imperative,” a bare duty. Our obligation to obey is always a genuine and fitting response to the self-disclosure and the prior action of the Lord of the covenant. So then,
For texts that stress the servant’s responsibility, we will want to scan the contexts to discover the Lord’s initiative and activity, the basis of our obligation and fountain of our motivation. For texts that stress the Lord’s activity, we will scan the contexts to discover the response expected from the servant.
Apostolic Christocentric preaching is big enough to encompass not only redemption accomplished but also redemption applied. Christ-centered preaching announces redemption accomplished: what Jesus did for us once-for-all in history, fulfilling all the Father’s promises as covenant Lord, and all our obligations as covenant servant—and, more than that, enduring the covenant curse that our treason so richly deserve! But it also announces the benefits of redemption applied, the death-to-life difference that Christ’s once-for-all accomplishment effects in those who are united to this new covenant mediator by faith, And those redemptive benefits applied to us by the Spirit of Christ are wide enough to embrace both his rectifying of our sordid record and the renovation of our corrupted hearts: regeneration, forgiveness, vindication, reconciliation, adoption, sanctification, and glorification.
Next Wednesday is the final post of "Him We Proclaim": an appendix on broader covenant structure.