A covenant is some kind agreement between two parties with terms which regulate the relationship or the exchange.
Are covenants important to our understanding of the Bible?
Covenants are extremely important to an accurate understanding of the Bible seeing that God uses covenants as His primary means of relating to His people. Rollock writes:
Now, therefore, we are to speak of the Word, or of the Covenant of God, having first set down this ground, that all the word of God appertains to some covenant; for God speaks nothing to man without the covenant. source
Where in the Bible do we find God relating to man by way of a covenant?
The first time we find the word covenant in the Bible is when God made a covenant with Noah.
And behold, I will bring floodwaters upon the earth to destroy every creature under the heavens that has the breath of life. Everything on the earth will perish. But I will establish My covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. (Genesis 6:17,18)
Is this the first time that God made a covenant with someone?
It is not. We read that God made a covenant with Adam (Hosea 6:7) and that God made a covenant with Jesus (Luke 22:29).
What other covenants do we read about in Scripture?
We read of God making a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:18), Israel (Exodus 24:8), and David (Psalm 89:3). Furthermore, we read in the prophets of a new covenant that God will make with His people (Jeremiah 31:31; Luke 22:20; Hebrews 12:24).
The Covenant of Grace
Let’s start at the beginning. What is the very first covenant that we encounter in the Bible?
This would be the covenant made between God the Father and God the Son in eternity past before the creation of the world. We will call this covenant God’s “covenant of grace.”
Why do you call it a covenant of grace?
In order to distinguish it from another covenant that God made with men, i.e. the covenant of works.
Where does the Bible teach us about this?
We find this covenant referred to in a variety of different places throughout Scripture. First, consider Paul’s letter to Titus:
Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness, 2 in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago, 3 but at the proper time manifested, [even] His word, in the proclamation with which I was entrusted according to the commandment of God our Savior… (Titus 1:1-3)
How does this verse teach us about God’s covenant with Jesus in eternity past?
From this verse, we learn that God made a promise of salvation “long ages ago” or πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων. This means that God made a promise of salvation before time began, before the time of creation. The question naturally is asked, to whom did God make this promise? If there was no creation, then God could not have made this promise to any person.
Does Scripture teach us who this might be?
It does. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He emphasizes that He is on a mission from the Father.
I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. (John 5:30)
I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another shall come in his own name, you will receive him. (John 5:43)
We see this most clearly in Jesus’ High Priestly prayer where Jesus refers to the authority which His Father had given Him:
Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, 2 even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. (John 17:1-2)
He speaks of the work that the Father had given Him to do:
I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. (John 17:4)
The message Jesus had was given Him from the Father:
Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received [them] and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. (John 17:7-8)
What else does Jesus teach us about His mission?
He teaches us that it was intended for a certain group of people. He says that He was praying on their behalf:
I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; (John 17:9)
Furthermore, Jesus prayers for this group of people is not just for those who are His people now but also for those who will become His people in the future.
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word; (John 17:20)
Where else does Jesus describe His mission in these words?
We have the most succinct statement of this in John 6:
For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:38-40)
What can we conclude from all this?
From these verses, we conclude that the first and second person of the holy Trinity had an agreement. The terms of this agreement was that the Son would come to earth and redeem a select number of people whom the Father had chosen and given to Him for that purpose. This teaches us that Jesus was sent on a mission by His Father in heaven.
When did this agreement take place?
It took place in eternity past. We have a hint of this already in the high priestly prayer. Jesus prayed:
Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:24)
What does “before the foundation of the world” mean?
This means before the founding (καταβολῆς) or creating of the world.
What other reasons can be given in support of the idea that God the Father and God the Son entered into this agreement in eternity past?
First, what other possibility is there? Second, we have already learned from Paul that salvation was promised “long ages ago” or πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων. The NLT translates this verse:
This truth gives them confidence that they have eternal life, which God—who does not lie—promised them before the world began. (Titus 1:2)
To whom would God have given this promise of salvation if there was no one yet even created?
God the Father gave this promise to His Son.
What meaning would a promise of salvation have if there was no one yet created much less fallen sinners who needed salvation?
Here we must conclude that all this was part of God’s eternal decree of creating mankind and saving them when they fell. We know that God planned all these things
What Scriptures teach us about God’s eternal plan of salvation?
There is an expression in Scripture which is important for this truth. It is the phrase “before the foundation of the world.” See Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 1:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. (Ephesians 1:3-4)
Note that believers are blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ and that they are elect in Christ. From this, we conclude:
- All spiritual blessings come only to those are united to Christ;
- Believers were united to Christ long before they were ever created;
- The election of believers also happened in Christ.
Where else do we find this expression “before the foundation of the world”?
See Peter’s teaching in First Peter 1:
If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay [on earth;] knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, [the blood] of Christ. For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you… (1 Peter 1:17-20)
Again, we see that Christ was known by God before creation ever took place. This knowledge was not a simple knowing but a knowing with affection and with choice. In light of the previous passages, we conclude that God the Father chose or elected Jesus and all those who are united with Him.
Jesus also promises those on His right that they will inherit a kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world. (Matt 25:34)
Yes, and this is to be understood as before the foundation or creation of the world. Bengel writes:
ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου, from the foundation of the world. The preposition ἀπὸ, from, corresponds with the Hebrew מ, which signifies before; cf. Eph. 1:4. source
Above, you said that there was a covenant between the Father and the Son. So far, we have seen that there was an agreement of sorts and that the Father sent the Son on a mission of salvation. Why do you call this agreement a covenant?
Jesus teaches us this in Luke 22.
And there arose also a dispute among them [as to] which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ “But [it is] not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. “For who is greater, the one who reclines [at the table] or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines [at the table?] But I am among you as the one who serves. “You are those who have stood by Me in My trials; and just as My Father has granted Me a kingdom, I grant you that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Luke 22:24-30)
Note the word “grant.” This is the word for covenanting; see here. This verse could very well be translated:
“…and just as My Father has covenanted to Me a kingdom, so I covenant to you…”
What other indications do we have that there was a covenant between God the Father and God the Son in eternity past?
Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3 certainly lend itself to this understanding. Paul writes:
Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as [referring] to many, but [rather] to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. 17 What I am saying is this… (Galatians 3:15-17)
Here Paul says the same thing as what he said in Titus 1:2. God made a promise to Abraham and his seed, but then Paul shows that really the promises were made to Christ. This is who we are to understand by “seed” in this verse. A few verses later, Paul says it again:
Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. (Galatians 3:19)
Again, Paul clearly teaches that God made a promise of salvation to the seed; i.e. to Christ. Believers participate in this salvation only as they are joined to Christ. Where there is no union with Christ, there is no salvation.
Are there other Scriptures which teach a covenant between God the Father and God the Son?
Yes, in Psalm 2, Jesus announces that He will speak about God’s decree:
I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You. 8 ‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, And the very ends of the earth as Your possession. (Psalm 2:7-8) more here.
How can we know that Jesus is speaking in this Psalm?
In three separate places, the New Testament authors speak of this Psalm. First, Paul references this Psalm in his Pisidian Antioch sermon:
…that God has fulfilled this [promise] to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘YOU ARE MY SON; TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU.’ (Acts 13:33)
The author of Hebrews also quotes the second Psalm:
For to which of the angels did He ever say [what he said to Jesus], “YOU ARE MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU“? (Hebrews 1:5)
Finally, the author of Hebrews again:
So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him, “YOU ARE MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU; (Hebrews 5:5)
In each of these, the assumption is that Jesus is speaking in this Psalm about God the Father’s mandate to Him in eternity past.
Why do you call it a “mandate”?
The word decree in v7 means a prescribed task or a mandate; see this explained here.
I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You. (Psalm 2:7)
From all of the above, what conclusions can we draw?
We conclude that God made a covenant with the Son in eternity past concerning the salvation of His elect people. God the Father gave His chosen people to His Son and sent Jesus to earth to save these people from their sin and to reconcile them to Himself.
Why did you previously call this a covenant of grace?
Because this is a covenant which brings grace or unearned favor to sinful men. To understand this properly, we see it over against God’s covenant with Adam in the garden of Eden.
The Covenant of Works
What was God’s covenant with Adam?
After God created Adam and Eve, He placed them in a garden of unparalleled beauty and goodness. In this garden, God made a covenant with Adam. You can read a detailed translation and paraphrase of Genesis 2 here.
Why do you call this agreement between Adam and God a covenant when the word covenant is not found in Genesis 1 or 2?
First, the actual word “covenant” does not need to be present for their to be an actual covenant. We see this in 2Samuel 7 where God made a covenant with David (2Samuel 23:5; Psalm 89:3) and yet the word “covenant” is not used in this chapter.
Second, God’s interaction with Adam is called a covenant by Hosea: “But like Adam, you broke my covenant and betrayed my trust.” (Hosea 6:7) Wyrtzen writes:
Hosea indicates a familiarity with the traditions recorded in the beginning chapters of Genesis. Bibliotheca Sacra 141 (1984).
What were the terms of this covenant?
God gave Adam and Eve a simple, positive command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Of all the other trees in the garden, they could eat as much as they liked and whenever they liked including even the celebrated tree of life.
Why do you call this a positive command?
A positive command is to be distinguished from a moral command. The difference is that a moral command has its morality inherent in it. A positive command does not. We can see the rightness/wrongness of a moral command. The rightness/wrongness of a positive command is not something that can be seen simply in the command itself. For example, if a father trains his son to tell the truth in all occasions and to be honest, the morality of this command is inherent in the command itself. It is morally right to tell the truth even if his father had said nothing about it.
A positive command, on the other hand, is when the father would tell his son to enter the house by the front door, instead of the side door. There is nothing inherently moral or immoral about entering the house via one door or the other. The command is obligatory only because the father directed his son to do it. If the father had not given his son this order, the son would have done nothing wrong if he had entered by the side door. This is the kind of command that was given to Adam.
See this distinction further explained by Isaac Watts.
Why did God use a positive command to test Adam’s loyalty?
Because a positive command highlights more clearly that Adam would obey God simply because God had commanded him so to do. It shows more clearly the relation between God’s will and the good; they are one and the same. To Adam and Eve, there was no visible difference between the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The only reason for Adam to abstain from the one tree was the simple, naked command of God. Thornwell writes on this:
Under a dispensation which was to try the fidelity of man as a servant preparatory to his introduction into a higher state, there was a peculiar fitness in making the matter of the trial turn upon positive observances. This species of precept brings the will of the master to bear distinctly, in its naked character as will, upon the will of the subject. The whole issue resolves itself into a question of authority. The case is simply, Which shall be the supreme, the will of man or the will of God? The whole doctrine of sin and holiness in their last determinations is found precisely here. Sin is essentially selfishness, as we shall see hereafter; holiness in a creature is the complete submergence of his will in the will of his Maker. “I have a right to be and do as I please,” is the language of sin. “The will of God should alone be done,” is the language of obedience. The very core of moral distinctions, the central principle upon which men are determined to be either sinful or holy, is brought out into trial under circumstances which make it certain that it shall be a trial purely without foreign and extraneous influences, an unmixed trial of its supremacy in man, by making the question of his destiny turn immediately upon a positive command. The very depths of his moral nature were sounded and explored in that command. …
The end to be attained is that the finite creature shall make God its supreme end; the will of God its supreme law; the glory of God its highest good. To attain this end the creature must renounce its own self as a law, and determine its will only by the will of God. The degree to which it renounces self-will and embraces the Divine will determines the degree in which it is conformed, consciously and reflectively, to the moral law. If, therefore, the main question is that of the relation of the finite to the infinite will, it ought to be so stated as to rule out all secondary and collateral issues. God’s will must come into contact with man’s, nakedly and exclusively, as will. The command must seem to be arbitrary—no reason in the nature of the thing presented. The case will then test man’s faith in God, and his readiness to follow Him with implicit confidence, simply and exclusively because He is God. There is, consequently, the profoundest wisdom in the Divine dispensation which made the trial of the first pair turn upon a positive command. It brought their wills face to face with the will of God; it asked the question, Who should reign? It made no side issues; it put at once upon test the fundamental principle upon which alone their native purity could be made the ingredients—the fixed contents of their will. source
It seems that God had much more in mind than simply preventing Adam from eating the fruit of a particular tree.
Yes, for sure. Paul teaches us this in Romans 5.
What does Paul teach us in Romans 5?
Paul puts Adam and Christ in parallel:
For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive an abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! 18So then, just as one trespass brought condemnation for all men, so also one act of righteousness brought justification and life for all men. 19For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:17-19)
The central idea here is that Adam’s disobedience brought death and misery to all who are in him while Christ’s obedience brings life and salvation to all who are in Him.
Why is this important for our understanding of God’s covenant with Adam?
It teaches us several things. First, it teaches us that Adam and Christ were both in a position where they had to merit or earn the benefits which God had promised. Adam had to perform the conditions of the covenant God had made with him, and Jesus had to perform the conditions of the same covenant. Edwards writes:
Covenant is taken very variously in Scripture, sometimes for a divine promise, sometimes for a divine promise on conditions. But if we speak of the covenant God has made with man stating the condition of eternal life, God never made but one with man to wit, the covenant of works; which never yet was abrogated, but is a covenant stands in full force to all eternity without the failing of one tittle. The covenant of grace is not another covenant made with man upon the abrogation of this, but a covenant made with Christ to fulfill it. And for this end came Christ into the world, to fulfill the law, or covenant of works, for all that receive him. source
How do you know that Adam and Christ were held to the terms of the same covenant?
This is not explicitly taught anywhere in Scripture. Nonetheless, if Adam and Christ are held to the same terms, it stands to reason that they are under the same covenant.
Why do you say that Adam and Christ were held to the same terms?
Because Paul makes such a clear parallel between what Adam did and what Christ did. (Rom 5:18-19) This is how Paul wants us to think about the saving work of Christ. Now the obedience of Christ was a flawless obedience without the slightest blemish (Hebrews 4:15) by which He earned the right to save all those who the Father had given Him. In light of Paul’s parallel, we go on to understand that God also required from Adam a perfect obedience to His every command if he would earn God’s favor. In this, the first Adam failed, and the Second Adam succeeded.
Is there any other Scripture which supports this understanding?
Yes, many students of the Bible have understood the biblical authors to be portraying Jesus as the new Adam. Some times it is explicit as in 1Cor 15:47 where Paul mentions Adam as the “first man” and Christ as the “second man.” A more common theme with the same meaning is Jesus as the “new Israel.”
Where does the Bible present Jesus as the new Israel?
Consider Romans 8:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For in Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man, as an offering for sin. He thus condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous standard of the law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)
The word “condemnation” in v1 means a guilty verdict which tells us that the metaphor here is that of the courtroom. Note, however, that the comparison here is not between Adam and Christ but between the law and Christ. The thought, however, is the same as the comparison with Adam. Israel tried to keep God’s covenant by their own obedience and failed. In this sense, the law failed. It was not able to accomplish what Paul says, “…that the righteous standard of the law might be fulfilled in us.” Jesus, however, was able to do what the law could not; and in this sense, we can say that He was the “new Israel” just as in Romans 5 He is the “new Adam.” Further translation and paraphrase of Romans 8 is here.
How do you know that Adam was not acting merely for himself and that his action would have consequences for all those under him?
This also is clearly taught in Romans 5 where Paul teaches that the one transgression of Adam caused “the many” to die just as the action of Jesus brought God’s gift to “the many.” (Romans 5:15)
What is meant here by “the many”?
Paul writes in Romans 5:
But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. … For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Rom 5:15, 19)
By this term, Paul means to refer to all those are in Adam and all those who are in Christ. Stuart objects to this:
One point more deserves special notice here. Paul points out in these verses, as has been observed, the principal features of dissimilitude or inequality between the type and antitype. If now it be true, as some confidently maintain, that the many on whom blessings are bestowed, means only the elect in Christ; and the many who suffer on account of Adam’s sin, means all mankind without exception; then how can we suppose that the apostle would have here neglected to mention this οὐχ ὡς, i.e., this point of dissimilitude? A point surely of not less magnitude, interest, or importance, than any one which he has mentioned. So far is he, however, from pointing out such a prominent feature of dissimilitude, that he has apparently taken a course directly the reverse of this, and such a one as could scarcely fail to mislead more or less of his readers, provided his design be in reality that which is alleged. Does he name the mass of men who are injuriously affected by the sin of Adam οἱ πολλοί in verse 15? In the very same verse he calls those on whom Christ bestows favors τοὺς πολλοὺς. Does he again call the first class (in verse 18) πάντες ἄνθρωποι? In the same verse he names the second class πάντες ἄνθρωποι. Does he again call the first class οἱ πολλοί, in verse 19? The very same designation he there again applies to the second. No common principle of philology, then, what ever our theological systems may demand, can of itself justify us in making an immeasurable distinction here as to numbers, while the apostle (whose specific object here is to point out the dissimilitudes of the two cases), has not given us any intimation by the language which he employs, that such a distinction is here intended to be designated by him. source
What are we to make of Stuart’s comments here?
They make Paul to be inconsistent with himself. Consider what Paul teaches in 1Cor 15:
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming… (1 Corinthians 15:20-23)
Consider this text as Stuart would have us to understand it. Upon his principles, the number of those people who are made alive by Christ is the same as those who died in Adam. If this is the case, Paul would be teaching here that every single human person is going to be resurrected to life at Christ’s second coming. This is clearly not consistent with Paul’s teaching elsewhere. (2Thess 1:9)
Something of this is also implied in Romans 5:17 where it is those “who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness” who “will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” This also shows us that more are dead in Adam than will be made alive in Christ.
How are we to understand these texts?
We are to understand Adam and Christ both in terms of those who are bound up with them. All mankind as they are born in sin are bound up with Adam. All those who are united to Christ are bound up with Him. The older theologians called Adam and Christ “common persons” by which they meant that they acted as representatives for a larger group. Usher writes:
Adam was not a private Man in this Business, but sustained the Person of all Mankind, as he who had received Strength for himself and all his Posterity, and so lost the same for all. For Adam received the Promise of Life for himself and us, with this condition, if he had stood: But seeing he stood not, he lost the Promise of Life both from himself and from us. And as his Felicity should have been ours, if he had stood in it; so was his Transgression and Misery ours. So that as in the second Covenant, the Righteousness of the second Adam (CHRIST JESUS the Mediator) is reckoned to those that are begotten of him by spiritual Regeneration, (even those that believe in his Name) although they never did it: So in the Covenant, the sin of the first Adam (who herein sustained a common Person) is reckoned to all the Posterity that descend from him by Carnal Generation, because they were in him, and of him, and one with him (Rom. 5:15, 16, 17, 18, 19). source
And Goodwin uses the expression many times:
God in creating Adam created all mankind, as in blessing Adam he blessed all mankind. Yea, the creation of Adam was all the creation that the rest of mankind had. For though they exist by generation successively, yet in him were they created virtually, and then only. Thus in choosing Christ, God looked upon him as a Common Person, as a second Adam, and chose us in him. And therefore you shall find in 1 Cor. 15:47, that God speaks of Christ and of Adam as if there had been but those two men in the world. ‘The first man,’ says he, ‘and the second man.’ Was there but a first man and a second man? Yes; but these two men stood for all the rest. Or, in a word, Jesus Christ was not only a Common Person in his dying for us, but in his being chosen also, (as I shall shew by and by,) and so we were elected in him. This is the meaning of it. source