10 Things You Should Know about Covenant Theology

This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.

1. Covenant theology is about the gospel.

Romans 5:12–21 is a great example of covenant theology on display in the Bible. Paul explains the gospel by discussing how sin entered into the world through the transgression of one man and through him, all were made sinners. But just as the many were made sinful by Adam’s disobedience, the many will be justified through Jesus Christ’s perfect obedience. This biblical and theological reflection on redemptive history is the model covenant theology seeks to exemplify. Covenant theology is at its core about the gospel, showing us how sinners are made right with God.

2. Covenant theology is scriptural.

Covenant theology is not just about how we are saved. The arc of the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, consecration, and consummation is captured in covenant theology. Covenant theology situates our salvation in its proper context of the greater purposes of God. When God created the world, it was all very good (Gen. 1:31). But through the fall, sin entered the world (Gen 3:1-13), and with sin came death (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:21). Death reigned until Jesus Christ defeated sin and death on the cross and in the grave (1 Cor. 15:56-57). While believers live in a fallen and sinful world with fallen and sinful hearts, we await Christ’s return and the resurrection of our bodies when the perishable will put on the imperishable (1 Cor. 15:53). No longer will we struggle with sin and death, for God’s kingdom will be fully consummated and we will worship Christ in the fullness of what he died to make us (Rev. 21-22).

3. Covenant theology is exegetical.

Covenant theology is derived from Scripture, not an imposition upon it. Covenant theology is on display throughout the Bible, and not just in Romans 5 or 1 Corinthians 15. For example, God’s relationship with Abraham is covenantal (Gen. 15–22). Just prior to the exodus, God remembers his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod. 2:24). The entire book of Deuteronomy is a covenantal document. David’s eternal kingship and a secure throne are covenantal (2 Sam. 7; Ps. 89). The hope of salvation for the people of God is consistently proclaimed in the prophets in terms of a new covenant that fulfills and supersedes the covenants of the past (Isa. 54; Jer. 31; Ezek. 11, 36, 37, etc.). Such reflection is also picked up in the New Testament, where we learn how the new covenant is better than the old (Heb. 8).

4. Covenant theology is theological.

As demonstrated above, covenant theology teaches us about God and how he has worked throughout redemptive history. Such reflection is called biblical theology. But covenant theology is also systematic or dogmatic theological reflection. Such reflection tells us what we are to believe and confess about God in view of the totality of Scripture. Covenant theology, as such, is not the goal of systematic theology. The study of God and all things in relation to God is the goal of systematic theology, and one of the key ways that the Bible teaches us about God and all things in relation to him is through covenants. So while covenant is not the central theme in the Bible, it is certainly a central theme of the Bible and should be studied alongside other key themes, such as God’s kingdom.

5. Covenant theology is practical.

Covenant theology is practical. In-depth theological reflection can seem aloof and pedantic if one does not understand the implications. For example, people frequently struggle with assurance. While more modern attempts to address assurance have focused on the subjective experience by emphasizing fruit, covenant theology appropriately situates our experience in the broader context of God’s plan. By so doing, the objective and finished work of Christ is restored to its central place as the primary source of our assurance. The gift of faith belongs as the secondary source of our assurance followed by fruit. Covenant theology, as such, normalizes the Christian experience of salvation, demonstrating that we have been saved, are being saved, and will one day finally be saved when Christ’s kingdom comes in its fullness.

6. Covenant theology is personal.

When God enters into covenant with human beings, that covenant confirms his personal relationship with individual people. God gives us promises to believe, commands to obey, and holds out to us blessings and curses. But most of all, he gives us himself. The Father did not spare his only Son (Rom 8:32). The Son of God has loved us and given himself for us (Gal 2:20). The Holy Spirit has committed to dwell within us and never leave us (Rom 8:9–11). And the self-giving triune God asks nothing less of us than ourselves (1 Cor 3:21–23). Covenant theology helps us to grasp the depths of our relationship with God.

God gives us promises to believe, commands to obey, and holds out to us blessings and curses. But most of all, he gives us himself.

7. Covenant theology is communal.

God’s covenants involve individuals, but not only individuals. God took Abraham and his offspring into covenant with him (Gen. 17). God entered into covenant with the nation of Israel (Ex. 19). And the church is the new covenant community in Jesus Christ. That reality helps us to appreciate how special the church—God’s one people across redemptive history—is to God. God is so committed to his people that he has pledged that the gates of hell will not prevail against us (Matt. 16:18). The closing chapters of Revelation show us the glorious destiny of God’s covenant people. If God is that committed to his people, then we should commit ourselves to worship with God’s people and to serve them.

8. Covenant theology helps us to understand the sacraments.

Sadly, the sacraments have been occasions of deep disagreement or profound confusion within the Christian church. Understanding covenant theology helps us to see what God intends for the two sacraments that he has given his people: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The sacraments are signs and seals of the gracious benefits that our God has poured out upon his covenant people. Sacraments have no power in themselves. Rather, they point us to our Savior and Redeemer. They give us a glimpse of his steadfast love and faithfulness to us. They confirm to us his commitment to his people. Every time we come to the Lord’s Table, God reminds us of his lavish provision of salvation in Jesus Christ to the undeserving, and he nourishes us as we spiritually commune with the Savior. Sacraments are practical ways that God impresses upon his covenant commitment to us and calls us to respond in covenant relationship with him.

9. Covenant theology helps us to appreciate church history.

Covenant theology finds its foundation in the Scripture alone. When we stand alongside our fellow believers across twenty centuries of church history, we see that they help us to better understand the covenant theology of the Bible. The church fathers and the medievals recognized that the Bible is covenantal in its structure and message. When the gospel emerged with renewed clarity and power at the time of the Reformation, the Reformers recovered and advanced the Bible’s teaching on covenant. Ulrich Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, John Calvin, and their heirs have helped the church to see the succession of covenants in Scripture. The Westminster Standards have given clear and insightful testimony to the covenant theology of Scripture. In doing so, they help us to see the utter graciousness of the gospel, the full testimony of Scripture to the work of the second Adam, Jesus Christ, and the unbroken commitment of our covenant God to his people. Believers in all ages have recognized the beauty of the Bible’s covenant theology, and the fruit of their reflection helps us to do the same.

10. Covenant theology points us to Jesus.

The Bible is a book about God’s plan to glorify himself by saving sinners through the work of his Son, Jesus Christ. At every point, Scripture’s covenant theology leads us to Jesus. When Adam (representing us) broke God’s covenant in the garden of Eden, God introduced a gracious covenant, through which God redeems sinners in every age (Gen. 3:15). He administers that one gracious covenant in several administrations—his covenants with Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David, for example. That covenant comes to its intended fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Every time, then, we study the covenants of Scripture, we are looking at Jesus Christ. Covenants prior to Christ point ahead to him. The New Covenant shows us his finished work and prepares us eagerly to await his glorious return. Covenant theology helps us never to stray from the Bible’s main message—Christ and him crucified.

Guy Prentiss Waters and J. Nicholas Reid are coeditors, along with John Muether of Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives.

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