Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Doctrine of the Covenant

What is a covenant? A covenant is an oath that establishes a relationship between two parties and defines its nature and obligations, binding them to mutual fidelity. Or more simply, a covenant is a bond and alliance between two parties. For example, covenants were made between kings and their vassals, between friends or peoples (e.g. David and Jonathan, Israel and the Gibeonites), and between husband and wife. 

What is God’s covenant? When God makes a covenant with people, he establishes a mutual bond of fellowship and loyalty with them, taking them under his special care, promising eternal life and blessing. "And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people" (Lev. 26:12). 

What is the covenant of works? Initially, God’s covenant with man was conditioned upon perfect obedience, upon pain of death (Gen. 2:17). This covenant with man in Adam we call the “covenant of works.” In it, God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, blessed them as his children, confirmed his promise of life with the tree of life, and they served him in accordance with his commands. Yet, this covenant was broken by sin and we lost fellowship with God. Outside of grace, all the heirs of Adam are condemned as treacherous covenant-breakers.

What is the covenant of grace? God was pleased to make a second arrangement, establishing his covenant with sinners through Jesus Christ, requiring faith as the condition to receive the benefits of Christ’s mediation, promising life and salvation in him. This covenant we call the “covenant of grace.” God made his covenant with sinners on this basis beginning in Genesis 3. There he promised to deliver his people by creating enmity between them and the serpent and by giving them salvation through the “seed of the woman” (i.e. Jesus Christ). In this covenant of grace, sinners are saved by God to be his people, that they might enjoy fellowship with him and serve him in holiness and righteousness forever (Luke 1:68-75).

How did God administer this covenant before Christ? The broken covenant of works and its condemnation is always the background of God’s covenant dealings. It is our default context apart from the gracious provisions of the second covenant. But ever since the fall, God has made his covenant with his people on the basis of grace through Christ. God called them to faith in Christ before his coming through promises, sacrifices, and other types and ceremonies. We find this covenant revealed in increasing detail as God renewed it with his people from generation to generation, especially in his dealings with his people under Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David.

What is the new covenant? With the coming of Christ, this covenant of grace reached its final and permanent form, known sometimes as the “new covenant” (Heb. 8:13). Jesus came to fulfill the covenant of grace by providing its basis in his death and resurrection. He made the former ceremonies obsolete, fulfilling them and instituting simpler and clearer ordinances by which the covenant would be administered, namely, the preaching of the Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. He also poured out the Holy Spirit in great abundance so that this covenant is held forth in greater fullness and efficacy to all nations.

How has God dealt with the children of believers when he has made his covenant? In the Old Testament, the covenant was made with the believer’s household and offspring. Consider Noah (Gen. 6:18; 9:9), Abraham (Gen. 17:7-14), and the Israelites (Deut. 29:10-15). Believers entered into an alliance with God, an engagement to be the Lord’s, with their households. As Joshua said when the covenant was renewed, "But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD" (Joshua 24:15). God always welcomed the believer and his household into this alliance. Male infants received the sign and seal of the covenant, circumcision (Gen. 17:7-14, Rom. 4:11). The children of believers grew up with special obligations and privileges as members of God’s people, being treated like the rest as visible saints, heirs of the promise. The covenant was still conditional on faith and apostasy was possible, so each generation was to be exhorted to keep the covenant and hold fast to the Lord (Deut. 10:12-22).  The practice of including the believer’s household was not changed in the new covenant, but rather was affirmed in the proclamation of the new covenant (Acts 2:38-39, 16:31-34).

What was the condition of the covenant made with Israel? If membership was conditioned on works, it would not have lasted a day. If membership was conditioned on physical descent, none could have ever broken it. Membership was conditioned on faith, and therefore it belonged to all those with true faith in the Savior, a faith which proved itself by its works (Heb. 3:7-4:13, James 2:14-26). The covenant sign bound all the heirs of the covenant to share the faith of their father Abraham. Otherwise, they would be cut off as covenant breakers. Today, the true heirs of the covenant and its promises are those who believe in Christ, along with their children, who like the Israelite children of old are called to keep covenant by exercising faith in the Savior.

“They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear.” -Romans 11:20

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