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What is Covenant Theology?

What is Covenant Theology?

A Guide for Leaders to Articulate the Core of Reformed Belief

Jon Delger

Executive Pastor

Peace Church

Published On:

February 21, 2024

What is Covenant Theology?

Covenant Theology is a way of understanding the complete story of the Bible from beginning to end, including how the old and new testaments fit together. 

Covenant Theology is “Reformed” theology, and is taught in historic confessions such as the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Confession & Catechisms. 

The opposite of Covenant Theology is Dispensationalism. 

Key Points of Covenant Theology

What is a covenant? A relationship sealed by promises. (Like a marriage)

What are the components of a covenant? Promises, conditions, blessings, curses. 

What is the Bible about? The Bible is the story of God’s relationship to human beings which takes the form of a covenant. God loves his people, promises relationship to them on the condition of obedience, the blessing of obedience is life with God, the curse for disobedience is death. 

What are the main (big picture) covenants in the Bible?

Covenant of Works

Text: Genesis 1-3.

Promise/Blessing: eternal life with God. 

Condition: obedience (the tree). 

Curse: death. 

Story: God creates human beings, places them in paradise where He will live with them, and gives them only one rule. Man violates the covenant by disobeying God. 

In His mercy and patience, God gives man only part of the curse and leaves the possibility for another man to fulfill the conditions of the covenant, pay the price for the broken covenant, and thereby restore the relationship between God and man, earn the blessing of eternal life with God, and remove the curse of death.

Covenant of Grace

Text: Genesis 3 - Revelation 22 (the rest of the Bible).

Promise/Blessing: eternal life with God. 

Condition: obedience. 

Curse: death. 

Story: After the failure of Adam, God doesn’t give up. From Genesis 3 through the end of the old testament, we read a story of God continuing to pursue humans even though they keep sinning against him. We’re still waiting for someone to come and be faithful to the covenant like Adam was supposed to. Heroes rise up like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, but even they fail. A whole nation (Israel) arises who is supposed to be faithful to God, but the old testament ends with that nation in exile because of their sin and God has stopped sending prophets, priests, or kings. 

Finally, the new testament opens with the birth of someone special - Jesus. He is fully man, but also fully God. He lives a life of perfect obedience, fulfilling the condition of the covenant like Adam was supposed to. He dies on the cross not for his own sin, but for the sin of all who trust him, paying the price for the broken covenant under Adam. His sacrifice is accepted by God who resurrects Jesus from the grave. For all who are in Christ by faith and repentance, the curse is broken and they will receive the promise and blessing of eternal life with God. 

Relationship of the Covenant of Works & Grace

The Covenant of Works is so named because Adam had the chance to earn eternal life by his works in the garden. 

The Covenant of Grace is so named because God offers humans salvation by grace through faith. But really, this is a continuation of the same covenant. Our salvation is still earned by works, but by JESUS’ works, not our own. 

What are the specific covenants recorded in the Bible?

There are several, such as the covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, and the new covenant. These covenants fit within the big picture of the covenants of works & grace. 

These covenants progressively reveal more about God, his will, and his gracious plans for his people. 

Best resource for studying these texts in detail: Robertson, Christ of the Covenants.

Applications of Covenant Theology

How do the old and new testaments relate to each other? 

They are one continuous story. The old testament is before Christ, the New Testament begins with the birth of Christ. 

How were people saved in the old testament versus the new? 

They were saved in basically the same way - by God’s grace, by repenting of their sin and putting their faith in God’s savior. Old Testament believers were saved through faith looking ahead to the coming savior. New Testament believers are saved through faith looking back to the savior who has already come. 

How do Israel and the church relate to each other?

In the old testament, the nation of Israel is the form that God’s people take. It is the covenant community, those who have faith in God, worship God, seek to live according to God’s Word, repent of sin to God, share with others about God. Scripture is clear that Israel was a mixed bag (ie. Romans 9), not all Israelites were true believers or faithful to God. 

In the new testament, the church is the form that God’s people take. It is the covenant community, those who have faith in God, worship God, seek to live according to God’s Word, repent of sin to God, share with others about God. Like Israel, we are also a mixed bag, not all who call themselves Christians or go to church are true believers or faithful to God. 

Israel and the church are two manifestations of God’s people from different times in the history of God’s people. The church is the fulfillment of Israel, God’s people of every tribe and tongue. 

What are the sacraments?

The sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant. In the Old Testament, circumcision and the Passover were signs of God’s covenant with Israel. In the New Testament, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are signs and seals of the covenant. 

These are not primarily signs from us to the world, but from God to us. For example, in baptism, God is providing us with a visible sign and seal that his conditional promise is true - all who believe will be saved. 

In the old testament, children received the covenant sign of circumcision. Likewise, in the new testament, children should receive the covenant sign of baptism. 

What do we believe about the end times?

While views on the end vary among reformed theologians, they are united in rejecting dispensational premillennialism, the view popularized by the book series, Left Behind. 

Resources for Further Study

  • Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel & Kingdom

  • O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants

  • Gregg Strawbridge, The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism

  • Systematic Theologies by Berkhof, Horton, or Frame

  • Waters, Reid, Muether, Covenant Theology

  • Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology

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