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The God Of The Covenants
Growing up in a faithful Christian home, I never knew the complete worldview realignment that follows accepting God’s revealed Word when one had previously believed in naturalism or another false religion. I was taught to believe that the Bible was the Word of God, and that Jesus was the Son of God sent by the Father to save His people from their sins from my earliest days. God still needed to give me a new heart so that I could be truly united to Christ by faith, but that did not involve having to relearn everything I thought I knew about the world. It was more like finally being able to really believe what I already knew to be true.
In His mercy, God spared me from having to go through the trauma of that kind of complete worldview realignment. That does not mean, however, that I have not had to have my understanding of God’s Word and the nature of the Gospel challenged or realigned. As God has continued to work in my life, I have experienced at least a few times where I felt like I underwent a substantial paradigm shift, as if I were given glasses to finally see things clearly. None of those paradigm shifts have had as widespread an impact on my faith and confidence in the authority of God’s Word as the shift to seeing all of Scripture, and in truth, all of history through a covenantal framework.
From Confusion to Clarity
More than the evolution of my understanding of eschatology, the doctrines of Grace, or even God’s absolute sovereignty over every aspect of salvation, discovering covenant theology and the cohesive picture of all history it reveals has brought God’s Word into focus. It has allowed me to make sense of the various parts of Scripture and God’s plan of redemption that had always either remained mysterious or confusing, or that had seemed to be in conflict one with another.
I grew up in a typical Baptist or evangelical framework that had been heavily influenced by Dispensationalism. I remember when the Left Behind books came out. Like many Christian youth of that generation, I read the stories and even enjoyed them. For a long time, the only three positions on the end times I knew of were pre, mid, and post-tribulation Premillennialism.
Even more concerning than the narrow scope of eschatology to which I had been introduced, was the way that the Dispensational influence left me in a lot of confusion about how God’s Word fit together. I could not make everything fit together. Various parts of the Bible seemed at odds with each other. It appeared as if God’s interaction with men had changed drastically over time. I ended up pitting the words of the Law and of Jesus against those of Paul. It was as though I had to pick a side; to make a choice about which piece of the puzzle carried the most weight or had the greatest evidence.
That is, until I had an incredible experience, as though putting on glasses that brought the world into focus for the first time. I honestly do not remember all the circumstances or influences that God brought into my life, but I remember going through a time of crisis, and then coming out on the other side with a clarity that I had never known. Scripture no longer was in conflict. There was still so much I needed to learn (that I still need to learn), but it no longer seemed like I needed to take a side or choose which verses I was going to believe and obey.
The Metanarrative of History
Scripture, for the first time, became a unified whole. I could see the purpose and function of history, as though laid out against the horizon, from Genesis to Revelation. I came to realize that there was one plan of redemption, what I would come to know as the Covenant of Redemption, that the Triune God had made before the foundation of the world. And that meant there was one unified people of God. All of history has been centered around the Son of God on this earth. Jesus is the focal point of all Scripture, and God has, and is working all things out according to His plan to magnify the Son, through the power of the Spirit, to the glory of the Father.
That is what Covenant Theology does. It provides a framework through which you can make sense of the whole of Scripture. It does not add anything or force you to change the way you approach Scripture, yet it gives the ability to focus, like a corrective lens, so that you can see the big picture clearly.
From the beginning of creation, God has revealed Himself to be a covenant making God. He has interacted with the pinnacle of His creation, mankind made in His own image, through covenants. The history of God’s covenants with men have not been sporadic or isolated. They have been consistent, revealing the unchanging nature of God, and His purpose for His people in His creation. Far from presenting different plans, or means of overcoming the curse of sin, they presented an increasingly clear testimony to God’s predetermined plan to glorify Himself through His creation. An eternal plan that was brought to its ultimate clarity in the person of God’s Son in human flesh.
A History of Covenants
The Covenant of Redemption
The first covenant that is alluded to in Scripture was between the Persons of the Triune God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Covenant Theology speaks of this pre-Creation agreement as the Covenant of Redemption. Though not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, this agreement is spoken of. It is where the Father gave a people to the Son that the Son would then give His life to redeem (John 10:26-30; 17:1-5). The Son would condescend to take on human flesh and suffering, in order that He would be hyper-exalted in victory over sin and death and over all of Creation (Phil 2:5-11). It is the agreement wherein the elect of God would have their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life before the foundation of the world.
Covenant of Works
The rest of the covenants we see in Scripture are the unfolding of that first great covenant, both in the cause of its necessity, and in bringing about its promised salvation. The first covenant we see in Scripture is the Covenant of Works made between God and Adam in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15-17). In this covenant God promised continued life for man if he obeyed God’s commands, and a sure death if he rebelled against them. Mankind had that one opportunity to dwell in a righteousness of his own, and he fell. After the Fall, God gave mankind his first glimpse into the working out of the Covenant of Redemption; the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15).
After this we see God making a covenant with Noah and his offspring. He made a covenant to never destroy all flesh by a flood – a covenant still attested to by each rainbow that stretches across the sky (Gen. 6:18; 9:9-16). Amid the radical depravity of men, God preserved for Himself a faithful line to complete the work of redemption promised in the Garden.
When God called Abram out of idolatry in a foreign land, He promised that He would make his name great, and bless all the families of the earth through him. God made a covenant with Abraham that he would be the father of nations. It is here we see the solemn nature of covenants. God instructed Abram (soon to be known as Abraham) to cut some animals into pieces and place them on two sides of a path. God’s presence passed through the animal pieces as a testament to the seriousness of keeping faith and the consequence of breaking covenant (Gen. 15).
God continued to deal with the promised offspring of Abraham, the nation of Israel, through covenant. At Mount Sinai, God once again gave the people commandments, and then promised life and prosperity should they obey, and death and destruction if they failed. The people promised to do all that the Lord had commanded (Exo. 19, 20). God revealed Himself over time to His people , and taught them about His holy nature and what He required of them. The Law was given as a schoolmaster to prepare the way for, and to help them understand and long for, the redemption that would follow in Christ.
Following the covenant made at Sinai, generations later, God made a covenant with David. This covenant promised that David's descendant would sit on his throne, and it would be an everlasting throne and an everlasting kingdom (Psa. 89:3-4). With the giving of God’s Word through prophets, the intercession of God’s people by the ministry of the priests, and now the rule of the people by God’s anointed king, God revealed how He was going to accomplish the salvation of His people, the perfect fulfillment of all of those types and shadows, in Jesus the Messiah.
While God had revealed Himself to the people through covenants, it was clear that the people could not bear the weight of faithfulness. They broke every covenant. They had earned every curse of disobedience. A new kind of covenant, a better covenant, was needed. And so, in a further revelation of the Covenant of Redemption, the New Covenant was promised whereby God would give His people a new heart and place His Spirit within them (Ezek. 36:25-27; Jer. 31:31-34).
The New Covenant
The ultimate revelation of the Covenant of Redemption came in the New Covenant, the covenant made in and by the blood of Christ (Matt 26:27-28). The salvation of God’s people always was going to require a better sacrifice than the Old Covenant could provide. It needed a better Priest. It needed a greater Prophet. It needed the true Sovereign of Creation to sit on David’s throne.
According to the author of Hebrews, Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God, and the exact imprint of His nature (Heb. 1:1-4). He is the fullness of God’s revelation of Himself to mankind. He is the center and purpose of all history. His purpose, mission, and method all decided before the creation of the world, in that great covenant between the Persons of Godhead. All history prior pointed forward to that time, promising what was to come in types and shadows. Everything since has looked back to what has been accomplished and is now working itself out across creation in the Kingdom of God.
This is the unity and beauty that I see in Covenant Theology. One plan of God to bring about the salvation of God’s people to the glory of His name.
There is a difference between how Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians understand the progression of covenants in Scripture, yet there is great agreement in the cohesiveness of God’s plan of redemption going all the way back to the Covenant of Redemption. There is also agreement on the hermeneutical approach that should be taken to Scripture – often referred to as the analogy of faith. What is more clear should give light to what is less clear. The later revelation, specifically in the New Testament, interprets and gives us the correct lens by which to understand what has come before.
There is also agreement that God’s perfect standard and holy nature has not changed. As such, His moral law still shows us how we ought to live so that we can walk in obedience to the call of Christ. And, as mentioned before, there is agreement that there has always been one people of God. That people was almost (though not entirely) exclusively Jewish under the Old Covenant, but in the New Covenant all who are of the faith of Abraham are included. The natural branches (ethnic Israel) who embraced their Messiah, as well as the wild branches (Gentiles) who are by faith grafted in so that they too can feed off of the roots of the patriarchs.
The major difference between a Reformed Baptist and Presbyterian understanding of Covenant Theology is whether or not the Old Covenant falls under the Covenant of Grace, or under the old system of the Covenant of Works. This ultimately is the major issue that divides their understanding of who is in the Covenant People of God and should therefore receive the sign of the New Covenant, baptism.
Presbyterians hold that all the covenants after the fall, and the first promise of salvation through the seed of the woman, were part of the Covenant of Grace. Therefore, the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are held to be two administrations of the same covenant. That causes them to focus on the consistence between the covenants.
Reformed Baptist View
Reformed Baptists believe that the New Covenant is the Covenant of Grace. It was promised, and revealed in types and shadows throughout the time of the Old Covenant, yet it was not instilled until the blood of Christ was shed. As such, while they recognize the unified whole of God’s working out the Covenant of Redemption between the Old and the New, they see a greater distinction between the Old and New Covenants. The New Covenant really was something new, not just a different administration of what was already in force. As the author of Hebrews stated, the New Covenant was better in every way than the Old, and it was tied in every way to the life and ministry of Jesus.
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I want to end by just quickly offering some resources that can be helpful in exploring, understanding, and seeing the vast implications of Covenant Theology.
For my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, there is a lecture series from Ligon Duncan on Covenant Theology. He obviously takes the typical Presbyterian stance. This was helpful to me until I could find solid resources that matched the historical and confessional Baptist perspective.
For my fellow Reformed Baptist, I would recommend one you visit 1689Federalism.com, as well as read the following books for further study on this topic.
- The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology by Pascal Denault
- The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom by Samuel Renihan
- Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ by Richard Barcellos
- Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ by John Owen and Nehemiah Coxe
Want to learn more about Covenantalism and Reformed Theology?
If you are interested in learning more about what it means to be reformed in faith and practice, check out the Reformed Faith and Family Podcast. Caleb and Lindsey are hosting a series entitled What It Means to Be Reformed. In Part I they discuss the details of TULIP as a part of what it means to be Calvinistic. In Part II they discuss what it means to be Covenantal, and finally in What It Means to Be Reformed Part III, they cover what it means to hold to a Confession.
Listen to Episode 3 on "What It Means To Be Reformed Part II: Covenant Theology" by clicking below:
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Caleb Stomberg is husband to Lindsey and father to their seven children. He is pastor at Legacy Reformed Baptist Church in East Grand Forks, MN. Caleb enjoys woodworking, hunting, and anything Tolkien.