When considering the category of covenant, an obvious question emerges: What is a covenant? In Scripture, a covenant is a binding relationship among parties that involves both blessings and obligations (e.g., Josh. 9:3–21). In many ways, marriage is a good example of a covenant relationship. Marriage is a relationship to which both parties are solemnly committed, and that relationship brings both blessings and obligations to husband and to wife. Stated differently, a covenant is a relationship within parameters.
If a covenant is a relationship within parameters, what is covenant theology? Covenant theology seeks to use the biblically prominent covenants to inform our knowledge of God and of His work. Specifically, covenant theology contends that God has been working throughout history to gather His people to Himself through covenantal relationship.
The Covenant of Works
The first covenantal relationship one encounters in the Scriptures is the covenant of works, which is the relationship in the garden of Eden between God and Adam as the representative or head of all mankind. This relationship between God and Adam is a rich one. God has made humanity—both man and woman—in His own image (Gen. 1:26–27), He has breathed life itself into Adam (Gen. 2:7), He has placed His image bearers in a garden overflowing with abundant provision for all their needs (Gen. 1:29–30; 2:8–9), and in that place of blessing, man enjoys immediate communion with God Himself (Gen. 3:8). Even more, God has given Adam commands that instruct him how he is to live as God’s image bearer. Under these creation ordinances, man is commanded to exercise dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:28; 2:19), to labor (Gen. 2:15), to marry (Gen. 2:24–25), to fill the earth (Gen. 1:28), and to enjoy doxological rest on the Sabbath day (Gen. 2:3). Adam and Eve are God’s image bearers, living in God’s paradise, in fellowship with their Creator, and with instructions on how to reflect the glory of God Himself. Nestled amid these blessings, God also has commanded Adam that he is not to eat of one tree in the garden—the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If Adam eats of that tree, he will die (Gen. 2:16–17). But if Adam lives out a life of “perfect and personal obedience” (Westminster Confession of Faith 7.2), he will attain everlasting life. In His condescending love for His image bearers, God is holding out a way that finite man can inherit everlasting life in His presence. By covenant, God would gather humanity fully to Himself.
An Eternal Covenant of Grace
Adam, of course, failed to uphold that covenant. In an act of flagrant rebellion, Adam ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree and brought the covenantal curse of death not only upon himself but also upon all the posterity whom he had represented in the covenant (Rom. 5:12–14; 1 Cor. 15:22). In the shambles of Adam’s rebellion, however, God declared a promise. Despite Adam and Eve’s rebellion, God would preserve a people to Himself, from generation to generation, and ultimately, from that people, God would raise up One who would destroy the enemy of the souls of His people (Gen. 3:15). This was the promise of a Messiah and of a people who belonged to Him. It was God’s announcement not of the covenant of works but of His covenant of grace.