God graciously chose to covenant with us, and second, he undertook the conditions of the covenants on our behalf when we failed to do so. When we understand this covenant love, we are motivated to respond with lives of grateful obedience. We are inspired to obey his law, not as a means to earn salvation under the Covenant of Works, but as a joyful response to his covenant faithfulness to us.
The Bible is a book about the greatest story, and it touches on hundreds of themes. When we read it, we tend to focus on one of these things; the overall narrative or the themes. Typically we use biblical theology to follow scripture’s story; and systematic theology to trace scripture’s themes. Covenant theology combines these approaches. It helps us step back and see that the Bible tells the story of redemptive history (biblical theology) by using a specific theme or structure: God’s covenants (systematic theology).
Now, this doesn’t mean that covenant theology replaces the other approaches. Covenant theology is really a hermeneutic, a way of reading the scriptures, building on the strengths of both biblical and systematic theology to understand the Bible as a cohesive whole.
In this article, I’ll briefly define a covenant, introduce the Covenants of Works as well as the Covenant of Grace, and in so doing demonstrate how covenant theology helps us understand what Christ has done for us. Some will be familiar with the concepts, while others may have only recently discovered covenant theology. This article is primarily written for the second group, though I hope those of us familiar with these concepts will find our memories refreshed and our hearts encouraged.
What Is a Covenant?
A covenant is a mutual agreement between two parties, where both parties are bound to each other to perform the conditions contracted. At a basic level, it’s a contract. There are blessings for keeping the terms of the covenant, and curses for breaking them. But biblical covenants are deeper than just an agreement to perform a certain action. They connect people to each other and establish a relationship between them; in the scriptures, especially, they connect man and God.
Covenants are typically agreements between equals. So we must for a moment acknowledge the obvious imbalance between God and man. First, we are not equals. Humans depend on God for existence. He is the Creator. We are the creature. Secondly, as part of God’s creation, he has authority over us. He doesn’t need our consent. But God doesn’t force us to simply do as he commands. Instead, he graciously condescends to us, coming to our level and binding himself in covenant to us. By covenanting with us, God chooses to enter into relationship with us. And this means that every covenant is based on God’s grace, even the Covenant of Works.
The Covenant of Works
The Covenant of Works was made with Adam in the Garden of Eden, before the fall. But this covenant doesn’t just involve Adam: God appointed Adam as a representative of all humanity. Adam had a natural right to represent us as the first man, and perhaps more importantly, a legal right which he received from God. This means that Adam’s actions affect us, just as a king who signs a peace treaty signs not just for himself, but for every citizen.
One might summarise the Covenant of Works in this way: “Do this and live.” Note: God does two things here. Firstly, he sets a law (do this) and gives a promise (you will live). If God had only commanded us to do this, there wouldn’t have been any grace. He would simply demand obedience. If God only told us to live, then we’d have a promise but wouldn’t be drawn closer to God. It’s only as a covenant, a mixture of promise and law, that we get the full picture. For it’s by obedience to God that we can draw closer to him and enjoy life. This is the blessing offered under the Covenant of Works.
Let’s expand on that summary. God required Adam to perfectly and personally obey his Law. Adam knew the Law through reason, nature, and of course, God’s plain command. The Ten Commandments would later summarise what Adam was required to obey (Exodus 20:1-26). “Perfectly” and “personally.” These words are important. Perfectly is simple enough to understand.