Covenant theology is a framework for understanding Scripture. If you don’t know what covenant theology is, this post will help you understand the basics of it. It will also provide insight as to how we see covenant theology play out in the Bible and why it should matter to you.
What is covenant theology? A covenant is a serious contract or sacred agreement between two parties. Covenant theology states we view the Scriptures through the lens of two overarching covenants. It’s the idea that God deals with His people through a series of agreements.
These are the two main views used today: covenant theology and dispensationalism. Now, let’s dig more into covenant theology.
Table of Contents:
The two viewpoints from Scripture are covenant theology and dispensationalism. If you don’t take on covenant theology, you take on a dispensationalism view. Dispensationalism is another framework of interpreting Scripture. This theology divides the Bible into different dispensations, commonly known as different ages or time periods. Sometimes people will ask, “Why do I have to pick one or the other? Can’t I just pick both?” but the reality is you are going to interpret the Bible through your lens, the lens in which you view the world. You are going to have some personal bias that comes into play. All of us do, therefore, we have to understand our bias. You are not wrong for having a bias, but it’s important to know your bias.
It’s also important to note that within modern Northern America Protest, dispensationalism was very popular and grew during the 1800s, exploded in the 1900s, and has been growing since then up until today. Dispensationalism has been more popular today in America and Northern America than the covenant view.
Covenant was much more popular before this, but died down and is now making a come back within presbyterian, reformed baptist circles, and a few other circles. But overall, dispensationalism is the most popular view in America.
If you grew up in the American church you might be dispensationalism and not even realize it. Here are a few examples of dispensational beliefs:
- If you believe in the rapture of the church, you believe one day all Christians will be raptured before the tribulation. The only reason you would believe this is because you saw some things in Scripture through a dispensationalism view. If you saw Scripture through a covenant lens of Scripture, you would interpret those Scriptures very differently.
What you believe about Israel:
- If you happen to believe that Israel is God’s chosen place and people, then you have a dispensationalism perspective. Covenant theology doesn’t believe that Israel and the church are separate, but that Israel was God’s people and it was expanded, and the Gentiles were added. I will go more in-depth about this point later in this blog.
We all have a bias in how we read Scripture, which will affect how we interpret Scripture. Therefore, it is appropriate and responsible to study both frameworks, both dispensationalism and covenant theology, to see which one is more consistent. Then we use that framework to help us study Scripture and not allow our personal bias to get in the way.
Covenant of Works
The phrase “covenant theology” is not mentioned in the Bible and people against this view will point that out. While this is true, there are many things not explicitly said in Scripture that we believe, for example, the trinity. There is no doubt when you study the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, that God is three in one from reading Scripture, but the Bible never uses the word “trinity” in it.
I believe the same goes for Covenant theology. There are themes in Scripture that show God has one way of dealing with His people; covenant. God doesn’t change the way people can come to Him and have a relationship with Him, and that is through covenant with Him.
As we look through the Scripture we see a variety of covenants, different contracts, and agreements with people. All of these are “subcontracts” to a larger convent that is a theme we see throughout Scripture. God has one overarching covenant that started in the Garden of Eden. This is the idea that humans would be judged by our works.
Metaphorically speaking, each person has a report card. God is keeping track of the good and bad actions we have. He treats us in accordance to our resume and determines how He will treat us based on our works. This is called a covenant of works.
God made an agreement with Adam in the Garden of Eden to judge him based on works. He made a promise that if he does what He tells him to do and to not eat from the forbidden tree, he will have dominion over the earth. But because Adam broke the covenant, humans have suffered the consequences of one man’s sin and now live in a fallen and broken world. Look to Romans 1, 2, and 3 to see the discourse the apostle Paul lays out: we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but the good news is because of the atoning work of the cross, we are now under the covenant of grace.
Covenant of Grace
But the good news is that there is one way to not be judged by your resume; to be a believer in Jesus Christ. Colossians 1:22 tells us “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” If you are a genuine believer in the one true God, then you become righteous, holy. and blameless. There is no longer any accusation of wrong held against you. God replaces your resume with His resume.
In theology circles, we call this imputation where God has transferred His resume of righteous and track record of success and gives it to us. The old covenant was you are judged by your works, but the new covenant is if you put your faith in God, you are given a new resume and there is no record of wrong against you.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His loving devotion for those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.Psalm 103:12
Covenant of Redemption
There is a third covenant called the covenant of Redemption. This is about how the trinity has an agreement as to how they are going to bring about redemption and how they are going to bring about saving humanity, bringing us into the family of God. There is some divide between covenant theologians about if that is a real covenant or not and how do we use that covenant to interpret Scriptures (you can listen to my podcast on this topic here to learn more).
All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.John 6:37
Old Testament Examples
We see this in the pages of the Old Testament long before the cross. For example, in Genesis with Adam and Eve. They had a covenant with God which is where the covenant of works was first established. Adam and Eve broke the covenant by sinning, but God established a new covenant and a promised Messiah.
Adam and Eve
God foreshadows a Messiah in Genesis because He kills an animal to cover Adam and Eve after they realized they were naked, which wasn’t until after they sinned.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?Genesis 3:8-11
God kills an animal and uses the skin to cover them and their shame, which is a foreshadowing of the cross where Jesus will cover our shame. This is the covenant of grace on display. What an incredible foreshadowing of the ultimate covenant that would be established at the cross.
The covenant of grace would also be established with Noah. The contract that God with Noah was an extension of the grander covenant at work: the covenant of grace. God establishes these covenants throughout the Old Testament, but they are connected back to the grander covenant of grace.
We also see this in the story of Abraham to make him a great nation. God chooses these people from the line of Abraham to be the Israelite people. God sets a contract with them that again is within the larger overarching covenant. It’s not with individual people, but with a whole nation. The nation is treated as one unit. The nation has a resume, but God does not judge them with their resume, but with the one He has transferred to them.
In order to keep this covenant and to keep going forward, God requires certain sacrifices to be made by the people. Fast forward to Jesus; He comes to planet earth as God incarnate, as an Israelite, to be the rescuer of humanity; the Messiah. He makes the final sacrifice of grace. Because He was the ultimate sacrifice, humanity is set free from having to make a sacrifice again; the covenant is renewed in grand fashion.
The New Covenant
The good news is that the renewed covenant of grace is not just for Israelite people, but for all of humanity. We refer to this as the new covenant. In the new covenant, there is no longer a need for bloodshed which is why we no longer require circumcision. In the Old Testament, circumcision was a sign of the covenant. We no longer use this, we use baptism to show we have been washed of our sins.
Any person who follows Jesus will be accredited with God’s resume. Romans 10:9 tells us if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you become apart of the covenant of grace (you are saved).
The covenant of grace was established on earth before Jesus ever came to earth. He treated the Jews like they were His own. He did not judge or treat other nations this way. The covenant was made new in the New Testament and expanded to all people.
For All People
I am not Jewish and most of you reading this are probably not Jewish as well. This covenant of grace has been expanded and anyone can join the covenant of grace, no matter your background. The way the covenant was expanded before is people were born into it, but now, any person can jump into the covenant of grace and be new in Christ.
You see, there is no distinction between the church and the people of Israel. We are all one people and we are all people of God. This means that we are all in the covenant of grace. The New Testament word for the assembly of people, Ekklesia, is translated to mean church. In the Old Testament the covenant of grace was just for Jews, but in the New Testament people of the covenant of grace are now made up of Jews and Gentiles.
Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.Hebrews 9:15
More Than One
All throughout the Bible, God is making covenants with people saying “If you do this… I will do this.” This is a contract and agreement. Every single one is an extension of a grander covenant of works or grace.
As we look through the pages of the Old Testament, we see covenant after covenant. Each one is a foreshadowing of the Cross. God has one overarching covenant of grace. God has one contract on humanity and that is Jesus.
So all of the Old Testament foreshadows and points to the cross and all of the New Testament points back to the cross and what Jesus did on the cross. You see, Jesus is not just in the New Testament, He is in the pages of the Old Testament too.
You cannot see Jesus in the Old Testament if you don’t understand the covenant of grace. Covenant theology is Christocentric meaning it is looking to Jesus and what He did because the story of redemption is all about Jesus.
Why It Matters
Now there are people out there who would attack covenant theology and the idea of it. They claim it is “replacement theology” and the church has replaced Israel. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Covenant theology does not see a sharp distinction between Israel and the church because the people of Israel were always the people of God.
It’s just simply been expanded. It is the same group, made bigger and available to everyone now. As the New Testament says, we as Gentiles are grafted into Israel. Israel was the people of God in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, anyone who believes in God, Jew or Gentile is a part of the family of God.
Jews & The New Covenant
Jews today, who choose to reject Jesus, are not apart of the new covenant of Grace. In the Old Testament, to be a part of the covenant you had to be born into it. Even though people today are being born Jewish, we are now under a new covenant, a better covenant in which we must be believers to be in the covenant of grace.
Originally only the Jews were in the covenant and everyone outside of them was judged by the covenant of works. However, today anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is not apart of the expanded group of Israel. Even if you are born ethnically apart of Israel, you are not apart of the covenant of grace if you do not believe in Jesus.
This is what Paul says in Romans, not everyone who is a part of Israel the nation is a part of spiritual Israel to be apart of the spiritual Israel you have to put your faith in Jesus. You see if you are born Jewish today, ethnically speaking, and you don’t put your faith in Jesus, you are not under the covenant of grace and you will be judged under the covenant of works.
You see, all people who exercise the same faith that Abraham exercises back in Genesis, all of us become apart of the covenant people of God. We all join the group of Israel. We are all people of God. That is what Galatians chapter 3 is talking about anyone who puts their faith in Jesus is judged under the covenant of grace. Any person who does not put their faith in God is still under the covenant of works.
How You View Scripture
Here is the bottom line, when you understand covenant theology it impacts how you see the world and Scripture. When you understand covenant theology you end up viewing Scripture through the lens of two overarching covenants, whenever we are reading and interpreting the Bible, we always see it through the lens of these two covenants the covenant of grace and the covenant of works.
Some would say, “Doesn’t that tint your view of the Bible? Doesn’t that make you more bias? Doesn’t that make you more likely to misunderstand?” It’s the opposite, understand covenant theology brings things into focus that you otherwise might miss. Understanding covenant theology has a dramatic impact on how to see and interpret the Scriptures.
There are some passages more than others where it really has a big impact such as the book of Revelation, the book of Romans, some passages in the Gospels, and many parts of the Old Testament, in particular, the prophetic or speaking of future events, Messianic prophecy or things of that nature. It dramatically impacts how you see the Bible. Most importantly, what covenant theology makes clear the unfolding of God’s plan of redemption in a way that is beautiful.
Another reminder of utmost importance is that all humans are born under default underneath the covenant of works. That’s the covenant by which God is going to judge you, but if you want to be transferred to the covenant of grace and want God to judge and treat you underneath the covenant of grace, then you need to be a part of the people of God. How do you do that? It’s simple: put all of your hope and faith in Jesus Christ and in Christ alone.
If you have questions about how to do that and want to dialogue with someone, I would love to have a conversation with you. Send me an email and we can set up a time to chat, I’d love to chat with you putting all your faith and hope in Christ and Christ alone. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are three more questions on the topic of covenants and the Bible.
What is a Covenant in the Bible?
A covenant in a contract between two people. It means both people are agreeing to something. In the Bible, God made many covenants, especially in the Old Testament. God makes a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 which says:
“Now the Lord had said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”‘
Abraham had to leave the city of Haran and go where God was leading. If he kept his part of the covenant, then God would make him a great nation, bless him, make his name great, bless people who bless him and curse people who curse him. God would also bless all the members of his family. This is just one example of many covenants made in the Old Testament.
Whatever God has promised gets stamped with the Yes of Jesus. In him, this is what we preach and pray, the great Amen, God’s Yes and our Yes together, gloriously evident. God affirms us, making us a sure thing in Christ, putting his Yes within us. By his Spirit he has stamped us with his eternal pledge—a sure beginning of what he is destined to complete.2 Corinthians 1:20 (MSG)
What is the Difference Between a Promise and Covenant?
A promise is a verbal agreement to do something, for example, “I will make lunch tomorrow.” Whereas, a covenant is an important agreement. Covenants are to be taken seriously by both parties involved. For example, God makes a covenant with Abram in Genesis 17.
In verse four God states the covenant, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations.” Then in verse 10-12, He says, “This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring.”
As you can see, a covenant is a serious agreement. Covenants are not to be taken lightly by either party involved.
Why Was Circumcision a Covenant?
In Genesis, God promises Abram He will be the father of many nations and that he is to circumcise every male among his people. Genesis 17:23 reads, “On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him.”
Circumcision was used as an act of obedience to God. They were keeping their part of the covenant with God. It was a physical difference that set them apart from people who were not following God or from the line of Abraham. Circumcision showed they were listening to God and keeping their part of the covenant.
By which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.2 Peter 1:4