I am convinced that the doctrine of the covenant is the backbone of God’s dealing with His people. My take on this doctrine is called “Reformed” and some are suspicious of a Reformed version of this doctrine. Perhaps it seems like going beyond Scripture’s actual teaching, taking a minor theme found in a few texts and extrapolating it into a grand scheme. The result is like building a skyscraper with a foundation that will only support a humble cottage. Sooner or later it’s got to come crashing down, so let’s not go near it. But my conviction is that the doctrine of the covenant is actually just such a skyscraper, and that its foundation is sunk deep and wide in the bedrock of God’s Word.
However, I must explain that I am not about simply giving a “Reformed” understanding of this doctrine. I want to give the best reading of Scripture that I can, one that pays careful attention to the text, that does not ignore any text, one that often shakes up my current understanding and pushes me to a clearer grasp of what the Spirit is saying to the Church. I have identified with the Reformed tradition because it helps me clarify what Scripture says and insists that I stay faithful to Scripture as the only infallible standard for truth and life.
First, some general thoughts on covenants. Covenants are mentioned in the first book of the Bible, defining epochal moments in the LORD’s dealing with man. They are the foundation of God’s dealings with Israel and define the nature of His dealings with all nations in Christ. That is why covenants and their dynamic are found throughout the pages of Scripture. Indeed, the gospel is a fulfillment of the LORD’s promises to Abraham. In order to demonstrate these claims, I have to start where the LORD did: the beginning.
In Genesis 6 through 9 we read about a covenant the LORD made with Noah and all flesh, one that continues today. There were several elements to it:
The LORD’s sovereign establishment of the covenant. (8:21; 9:1; 9:8-12, 17)
The covenant representative: Noah (9:1, etc.)
The subjects of the covenant: all flesh = man, all living creatures. (9:11, 12)
The nature of the covenant: perpetual. (8:22; 9:11-12, 16)
Promises made by the LORD to the subjects of the covenant:
to remember his covenant; (9:15-16)
to never to cut off all flesh by a flood. (9:11, 15)
[ Perhaps we may include the following:
to provide seedtime and harvest perpetually; (8:22)
to bless the offspring of Noah with fruitfulness(9:1,7);
freedom to eat animals as well as plants. (9:3) ]
Obligations for man:
to not eat blood; (9:4)
capital punishment for men who murder other men. (9:5-6)
A sign of his covenant: the rainbow. (9:12-17)
These elements are identified simply as an attempt to understand the nature of this covenant. Others may sort the details a little differently. However, I think this analysis covers the basics.
Surely the LORD expected Noah and his descendants to consider this covenant in the light of what the LORD had done in the flood, and then identify what the LORD promised and then what he expected of them. Some such analysis would have emerged in their minds, especially in the light of their knowledge of later covenants.
The next mention of a covenant is in conjunction with the LORD’s dealings with Abram. First the LORD called Abram to go to the land He would show (Genesis 12:1-3), promising to make make his name great, to make his descendants into a great nation and to ultimately bless “all the families of the earth.” Some time later the LORD made a covenant with Abram, promising that his descendants would be numerous like the stars and would be given the land of Canaan. “Abram believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness,” an epochal moment in God’s dealings with all mankind. The LORD pledged His faithfulness to this covenant as Abram sacrificed a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon. Passing through them in a theophany (a visible manifestation of God’s presence), the LORD pledged that if He failed in his promises, He would be unmade like these animals. Of course, it was impossible for God to be unfaithful; nevertheless, He gave Abram a visible sign of His commitment to keep His covenant.
The LORD elaborated on His covenant with Abraham and his offspring at a later time (Genesis 17:1-14). Since I want to deal with this stage of the covenant in a following post, I’ll just note here that the LORD promised to make Abram the father of many nations, changing his name to “Abraham” which means “father of a multitude.” This development is very important for the gospel. The gospel is the fulfilling of the LORD’s promises to Abraham. Indeed, only those who have faith like Abraham’s will be his true children, and then inherit the blessings promised to Abraham’s offspring. Even those who are physical descendants of Abraham have no hope of salvation unless they become his true children by faith in the promises.
So much more could be said, but for now I’ll offer some final observations. The prophets promised that one day the LORD would establish a new covenant with his people (Example: Jeremiah 31:31ff; ). The New Testament writings make it clear that this new covenant is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Luke’s Gospel opens with multiple references to Old Covenant promises. Furthermore, we celebrate our place in the new covenant by the Lord’s Supper where we are told: “This cup is the new covenant in Christ’s blood.” That this central act of Christian worship is centered in the covenant is itself enough to lead us to examine all of the New Testament and look for what place the covenant has in the gospel of the kingdom of God.
Lord willing, I will continue next with a closer look at Genesis 17. That passage is very helpful for understanding what was involved in the LORD’s covenant with Israel and how the New Covenant in Christ works out today.