2. What is the Covenant?
There are many and varied descriptions of what the Bible means by the word “covenant” (Hebrew: berith). We are tempted to write that there are as many definitions of “covenant” as their are covenant theologians. Because this is a short introductory book we shall not take up who said what, and argue for one view of another. Rather, we shall allow systematic and philosophical reflection on the Biblical data to help us rise to a full and broad understanding of covenant.
Clearly, a covenant is some kind of personal relationship that involves a bond and a structure. Such a bond is real — breaking it is painful, and this pain is the pain of death.1 Thus, we shall call it a bond of life or a living bond. At its most basic, then, a covenant is a personal and structural bond between two or more persons. We can see this in the marriage covenant, which involves two people, life-bonded together, in a structured relationship with the husband as head who gives himself sacrificially to the wife who subjects herself to him.
(footnote: Since God’s life is Triune, human beings made in his image experience death when they are isolated from other people and from God. See the book of Job. We too often think of “life” only as individual life, but there is no life apart from community. This means human life, for God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” even though God was with him (Genesis 2:18). Old people who live alone, widows and widowers, need cats and dogs to keep them company. Life does not exist in isolation, but only in bondedness with others. That is why those who are “alive” in hell are also “eternally dead,” for they are cut off from God and from all other persons.)
This is how God himself exists, and so the ultimate root of covenant is in the life of the Trinity. The Trinity exists as three related persons, with the Father as the Source of personality in some sense. These persons live in a living bond with one another, with the Spirit who moves between Father and Son as the Source of life-bonding in some sense. They also exist in a structure, with the Father as Father to the Son, and the Spirit as sent by the Father to the Son, and by the Son back to the Father. The Son is the Source of this structure in some sense, as he is the Word “in whom all things are linked together” (Colossians 1:16-17).
God is one in his being or essence, but he is also one because the three persons are in covenant together. They form one ultimate society.
When God created the universe, that covenant was extended to the universe. It could not be otherwise. The universe could not be some neutral thing outside of its relationship with God. The very act of creating was simultaneously the act of extending God’s internal covenant to that creation.
This is seen in the fact that the Spirit, the bond of the eternal covenant, is found in the creation from the very beginning. Genesis 1:2 says that the Spirit was already moving in the creation. He was not sent into the creation after it was made, but was in the creation from the beginning. The act of creating the universe is simultaneously the act of sending the Spirit, the life and bond of the covenant, into that creation. We can distinguish these two actions, but we cannot separate them.
God intended to have a personal relationship with the universe. He worked to grow the earth to the point where it was ready to receive the Spirit into itself in a special way. The Spirit entered into the dust of creation and formed mankind. Mankind, thus, is the self-consciousness of the creation. Mankind is the face of the creation in its personal relationship with God. We can say that the eternal covenant is “mediated” to the rest of creation through mankind.
We must not say that God created mankind with some kind of neutral “nature” and then entered into covenant with humanity later on. Because the Spirit is there from the beginning, and because the Spirit is essential to human existence, the covenant was there from the beginning. And we must not say that mankind was created with the possibility of having more than one covenant with God, because there is only one ultimate covenant, only one Creator God, only one Spirit. God does not switch out various covenants with mankind. Rather, God transforms the one covenant with mankind through various phases, as mankind matures.
There are some other errors about the covenant that we must seek to avoid. The first is the notion that the covenant only came into being as a way to redeem fallen humanity. To be sure, the one covenant takes on a specific application and quality in God’s work of redemption. Now blood must be shed to bring about the restoration of man’s proper covenantal relationship with God. Jesus must die. But as we shall see shortly, each person of God delights to humble himself for the glory of the other two, and it is only an extension of that principle of God’s covenantal inner life when the Son humbles himself to redeem and glorify his future bride. The essence of the covenant remains a personal-structural bond of life.
In his death while on the cross, Jesus experienced isolation from his life-bond with the Father and the Spirit: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It is we who deserved to be cut off from this life-bond. Jesus took our place for three hours, which was enough. We are put back into the covenant life-bond (in a new way) by the death of Jesus, but the covenant itself does not come into being on the basis of his death. Rather, the covenant exists eternally and before Jesus’ death, and his death restores us to it.
The second error is to try and divide the covenants of the Bible into conditional and unconditional covenants. Since there is only one covenant in various phases, there cannot be two kinds of covenants. In fact, all the covenants of the Bible are “unconditional” in the sense that God sovereignly brings them to pass, and also “conditional” in that they must be received by faith and maintained by faith-full works.
The third error, very common in Calvinistic theology in the latter half of the 20th century, is to start with the notion that in his covenant with mankind, God is king and we are slaves. This is usually called the “suzereignty treaty” view of the covenant. While it is true that at Mount Sinai Yahweh came as king and the people were his slaves or vassals, this is not the most basic idea in the covenant. Before Sinai Yahweh had said, “Israel is my son, my firstborn” (Exodus 4:22). In Galatians 4:1-3, Paul says that a child does not differ from a slave. Both are ruled by masters, by law. In God, and thus in the ultimate covenant, the relationship is Father to Son, not Master to Slave. God is weaving humanity more and more fully into that relationship, so that we are positioned in union with the Son as both his younger brothers and as his bride. Because under the Law we were young children, it is as if we were slaves — but only “as if.” The master-slave relationship is not the ultimate or most important covenantal category. The Father-Son relationship through the Spirit is ultimate, and is the foundation for all the covenants God remakes with humanity.
With this fact in mind, that the young son is like a slave, we can understand better the fact that there is a master-slave aspect to the Law. We can begin by noting that in Genesis 1, God the Father spoke his Word (the Son) to the creation, and sent the Spirit into it. The Son-Word is not yet in the world. He stands above it, and gives his Law-Word to it. Thus, before the coming of the Son into the world, there is a stress on God’s giving commands from outside of us, and our obeying those commands in faith, enabled by the Spirit who is with us in the world. Before the incarnation, the Son came as an Angel, from heaven, from outside, to give us the Law. Even when he came into the Tabernacle and Temple in the shekinah glory, he was still separated from us by the veils. He was not fully with us as he is now.
After the Son comes into the world, and sends the Spirit from himself to make him ever-present to us, things change. The Law still tells us what God wants us to do, but not primarily as something outside of us, over us. We are now “in Christ,” and we do what the Law says because our hearts completely agree with it. We are no longer child-slaves “under” the Law, but partners with Jesus “in Christ” affirming the Law.
Of course, because we are sinners we must sometimes hear and obey God’s commands whether we agree with them and like them or not. And it is also true that believers before Pentecost also had the Law on their hearts (Dt. 30:14) and were to rejoice in it and agree with it (Ps. 119). But what was true of believers by way of anticipation in the Old Creation has now become true of believers in its fullness in the New Creation.
In summary, before the coming of the Son into the world, the Spirit was sent by the Father to bring us to the Son. The Son and his Word stood over us, commanding us as children or slaves, until we became adults. This is the primary emphasis in the covenant in its Old Creation administration, though it is also true that the Word was already in our hearts even then. In the New Creation, the Spirit has been sent by the Son to bring us, with him, to the Father. We are now adults, a grown daughter, married as bride to the Son. Now the Son and his Word are “in” us, no longer commanding us as children or slaves, but encouraging us as junior partners in the marriage, as adult younger brothers. This is the primary emphasis in the covenant in the New Creation administration, though because the Son is God, there will always be an element of sheer authority in his relationship with us.
A fourth error is to make too much of the language of being cut off from the covenant, or of being strangers to the covenant, which we find in the Scriptures. Ultimately it is not possible for people to be cut off completely from God. Indeed, Revelation 14:10 says that the lake of hell-fire burns right in front of the throne of God, in the presence of the Lamb. Men are always either rightly or wrongly related to God, and thus are either rightly or wrongly “in” covenant with God. For those in hell, the personal-structural life-bond with God is still in place. They experience God’s personal anger and wrath. They are crushed at the bottom of the structural heirarchy. And they experience the absence of the life-bond, for if they did not experience the pain of isolation, they would not suffer. Thus, when the Bible speaks of those cut off from the covenant, or those alienated from it, it does not mean that they are in some neutral position. It means that they experience the covenant in a negative way.
A final error, which has plagued some Calvinistic theology for generations, is to think that there were two covenants: a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. It is the phrase “covenant of works” that is the problem. Theologians vary in how far into error they go as they try to use this bad term, but one way or another the idea seems to be that Adam was supposed to earn eternal life through good works. Since he failed, Jesus came and did it for us. This error is compounded when some theologians say that we “receive” the “covenant of grace” by faith, as if Adam was supposed to earn his merits apart from faith!
This notion is in error. It is based on Roman Catholic ideas of merit that the Reformation did not fully overcome. There is no “merit theology” in the Bible. God does not expect us to merit anything, but to remain faithful and become mature. The issue is “merit versus maturity.”
Adam was created a child — that’s why he was naked — and he was supposed to grow up in the Garden (kindergarten) by remaining faith-full towards God and by keeping his hands off of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He was not supposed to “earn” anything. When he was mature, he would enter into a new phase of the One Covenant, the adult phase as we have described it. He would leave the Garden and go out into the wider world. Since he rebelled, he remained essentially a child, though since he claimed to be an adult, God sent him into the wider world. Humanity as a whole remained a child until Jesus became the first real adult. Now, in him, we are all adults.
To be sure, God does indeed deal with us by offering rewards for faithful obedience. But this way of dealing is secondary to God’s desire for us to grow up and become mature. There is nothing about meriting rewards in Genesis 2 or in any of the passages later in the Bible that reflect on Adam and his fall. When we were children, God offered us rewards along the way, but he only gave us the adult form of the covenant when we were mature. Now that we are adults, God still offers us rewards along the way, but becoming fully mature as elders will come only when we are ready, not as a result of specific actions that earn rewards.
The rewards offered to Adam in the Garden were this: He would get to remain in the Garden and enjoy its easy free food. This is the same reward-promise given to Israel in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28: They would get to stay in the Promised Land and be blessed in it. The reward is not that someday they would earn the right to move out of the Promised Land and take over the world. Graduation to adult status is not a matter of reward, but of maturity.
The threat implied to Adam was that if he was unfaithful and disobeyed, he would not become mature. He would be driven into the world, where he would suffer under its afflictions, instead of graduating into the world as an adult and ruling it. The same threat is given to Israel. If they insisted on being like the nations, if they tried to “move into the wider world,” before they were mature, God would indeed send them there, but they would suffer and not rule.
Thus, it is not a matter of earning merits. It is a matter of remaining faithful and becoming mature. If we remain faithful, and wait upon the Lord, we will become more mature and be given greater areas of dominion to oversee. If we are faithless, our dominion will be decreased.
We shall have more to say about this when we get to Genesis 2 and the fall of Adam.