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Covenant Theology

The Essence of the Covenant: God’s Self-Gift
by James Doerfel

An excerpt from a Sunday School lesson given at Grace Presbyterian Church in Norman, OK

The Concept of Covenant in Scripture

The concept of covenant is one of the richest, most pervasive, and most important studies in all of Scripture. The covenant is one of those central and unifying themes through which the whole of God’s revelation must be understood. As we come to understand this, it becomes clear that everything that God does is covenantal, that is, in accord with His nature as the covenant God and determined by the roles He assumes in the covenants He makes. And we who are made in God’s image are bound by virtue of our creation in His image to live faithfully in accord with the covenant God has made with us as our Creator-God. In other words, we exist solely for the service and glory of our Creator. And according to how faithfully we serve and glorify God as Creator, He has promised us, by covenant, life–a higher level of communion with Him apart from the world and the travail of the flesh. He has also, as free Creator and Sovereign designated the penalty for breaking the covenant, death–separation from Him and from the glory of His face for eternity.

It is not merely immediate benefits in this life (blessing, sustanance, good will) which we receive by keeping the covenant. More essentially, we receive God Himself through Christ who is God’s and through whom are all blessings and sustanance and good will. By the covenant God takes us to Himself as His people. It is intimate fellowship with the living and true God which is the true “benefit” of the covenant, and from this benefit all other blessings in this life and the next flow. The covenant in Scripture is the means by which God gives Himself to His people to be their God. As a legal document it determines the conditions of and protects the relationship (like a marriage licence), but the act of entering into covenant entails the marriage union and the life of union. This reality is most evidently manifest in the historical condescension of Jesus Christ and the joining of the elect to Him. The teleology of the covenant is summed up in one word: Immanuel–God with us (Rev. 21:3). The eschatology of all covenant love is the joyous full and exclusive marriage union which binds person to person, whereby the two become one. And in the covenant God has made with men, this means a marriage of God to His beloved creatures, an elevation of the creature to exist in consummated union (perfect in one) with his Creator. If nothing else, this should drive us to study and cherish and, forsaking all else, cleave to the covenant of God.

A Popular Misconception

It is commonly considered that the covenant revealed in Scripture is all about families, and has something to do with the husband’s headship, the members of his family deriving their identity from him and coming under his representation. And that is not incorrect. But it stops short of the reality on which the covenant is founded (1 Cor 11:3). The danger of imagining that the doctrine of the covenant terminates with “me and my family” is that it takes the focus off of God and puts it on the creature. Many people today, even in the reformed church, imagine that the church exists to serve their families. And that also is not totally false. But ultimately the church exists to serve Christ who is its Head, and the families which make up the church exist to serve Christ primarily by serving Christ’s body, the church. When this biblical perspective is lost we find families leaving the church because “the needs of the family are not being met.” The focus has shifted from that of service to that of collective selfishness, and that because of a misunderstanding of the covenant.

If the principle of covenant headship which derives in God no longer ends with God, then the structure of the covenant collapses. Because Christ is the Head and Husband of the church, and she comes under His representation and derives her identity from Him, then the derivative covenantal units (families) which make up the church exist to serve Christ, and they do this by serving His body from which they derive their identity. The covenant does incorporate the principle of representative or federal headship and that on each various level. But why? It must be recognized that the archetypal covenant is founded in the eternal covenantal relationship within the Trinity, the mystic covenant in which Three Persons are considered One God. With this understanding, the prevalent misconceptions regarding the covenant are safeguarded against, and where they are already present, they are dispelled.

The Covenant-God

The Source and Model for our covenants is God Himself. The covenants which God makes between Himself and His creatures are analogous of the covenant between the Persons of the Godhead. The covenant relationship within the Godhead, and particularly as it takes form for the express purpose of realizing in history the eternal covenant of redemption, is the eternal reality against which all historical covenants ordained by God are patterned. God expresses Himself through His covenant creation, and His special Self-revelation is ordered by a series of exclusive divine-human covenants which reveal the heart the His righteous and benevolent nature. Man created in God’s image, then, finds his relationships with other created beings analogous to his relationship with his Creator-Progenator. Man created in God’s image finds his relationship with God analogous with God’s internal relationship within the Godhead. And these relations teach him 1) of God’s eternal goodness and nature, 2) of the nature of God’s relationship to him, and 3) what duties God requires of him as covenantally bound to his Creator.

In Reformed dogmatic theology this intra-Trinitarian covenant has come to be known as the eternal covenant of redemption, or as Vos terms it, the “Counsel of Peace,” a Pactum Salutis between the Persons of the Godhead. Within the eternal covenant of redemption, the Parties to that covenant assume certain duties and relationships to One Another which They fulfill faithfully and infallibly. “Here it is God who issues the requirement of redemption as the eternal Father. Again it is God who from the fulfillment of that requirement becomes the Guarantor as the eternal Son. Once again, it is God to whom belongs the application of redemption as God the Holy Spirit. In the clear light of eternity, where God alone dwells, the economy of salvation is drawn up for us with pure outlines and not darkened by the assistance of any human hand. It is a creation of the triune One from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things.” (G. Vos)

The Essence of the Covenant

“Among the most important aspects of the covenant is the unique and intimate bond that exists between the living God and His people. The Lord has chosen for Himself a bride out of the world and has given Himself to her in covenantal fidelity. And she, in response, is to give herself in loving faithfulness in covenant submission to Him, to serve Him and bring Him glory. God Himself has condescended to enter into communion with man with the end result being that human religion must reflect the conscious and mutual fellowship and devotion that takes place between God and His church.

This covenantal bond, then, stands at the heart of human religion. And it is in its fundamental make-up historical. In the covenant, God in His covenant Self-disclosure, Special revelation, reveals Himself to His people for their redemption and translation to the estate in which abiding fellowship between Creator and creature can take place. The Creator’s joy, which is to be reflected in the creature in the covenant, is the giving of Himself to His chosen ‘for that full measure of mutual acquaintance and enjoyment of which each side to the relation is capable’ (Vos).

The covenant reciprocation of the believer comes to expression, then, is his giving over of himself to his God in living service, a living sacrifice. Everything is to be done for the glory and enjoyment of the One who has pledged and committed Himself to be a God to His people eternally. This is the only religious devotion that will satisfy not only the true covenant child, but also the Lord Himself. To be satisfied with a communion that is not full and without reserve where life is flowing into life falls short of the goal of the covenant, and that from the garden itself.

But where that communion which has been granted by grace is sought and cultivated, then both Lord and people dwell together in the holy bond of the covenant as the child of God is made to partake of the wonder world of redemption itself in partaking of the goodness of God.

In addition to seeing the covenant as the highest category of religion itself, the covenant is also the means by which man is brought into the fullness of the righteousness, joy and peace of the Kingdom of God. In this sense, it reflects God Himself who stands as both the source and end of salvation. And, this leads into the work of Jesus Christ for how can we talk about the covenant without talking about the Servant and the Lord of the covenant who has made such communion between Lord/people possible through his redemptive work in history.1

Christ and the Covenant of Redemption

Because God has taken upon Himself to satisfy His own covenantal requirement of perfection for us and in us, it falls upon Christ, the second Person of the Godhead, to enter history as a man, the second Adam, to succeed where the first Adam failed, and thus to procure what the first Adam forfeited. And because this was God’s intention from before the foundation of the world, all the covenants God made with men leading up to Christ were not only ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, but also must be recognized as originally intended for Jesus Christ. The demands for perfect covenant keeping as requisite to the promise “I will be you God and you will be My people,” were met and satisfied by the man Jesus Christ. And thus, Jesus Christ, God in Adam’s flesh, by virtue that He was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4) and “the Seed of David” (2 Tim 2:8, Rom 1:3) and “the Seed of Abraham” (Heb 2:16, Rom 4:13, Gal 3:16); has become Heir to eternal life, first for Himself and then for all whom the Father joined to Him in the eternal covenant of redemption (Eph 1:4). This eternal life is synonymous with the eschatological possession of God Himself.

By the covenant of creation Christ earned for Himself the right, as the last Adam, to life and perfect communion with God the Father. By the covenant Christ earned for Himself the right to be God’s own peculiar possession. By the covenant Christ earned for Himself the benefits of redemption. By the covenant Christ earned for Himself God to be His God and Father. This is what it means that all the promises of God are “YES” in Christ (2 Cor 1:20a). But these are things that Christ already possessed in eternity, right? Exactly! Christ’s humiliation was voluntary, an act of His covenantal love and faithfulness to His Father for the purpose of realizing God’s purpose to be the God of men, to give Himself to men for their possession and to possess men as His own. This is what our confession refers to when it says,

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.2

Therefore, Christ’s humiliation, taking on human flesh and becoming in all things like His brothers (Heb 2:17), taking upon Himself our yoke; was, from first to last, a covenantal act–covenantal because it was in submission to His Father’s will and for His glory, and covenantal because it made it possible for mankind to rise to God through Him. The covenant in Scripture, then, is entirely Christocentric in nature. Christ fulfills the demands of the covenant for His people in order that they might enjoy its blessings, chief among which is the covenantal gift of God Himself.

Union With Christ

Because Christ has satisfied by Himself the covenant stipulations, He earned for Himself the covenant blessings, namely God is His God, and He is God’s own Son (Heb 1:5). Because Christ has mediated the new covenant by His death and resurrection by which we are joined to Him by faith, God is now our God and we are now God’s children in Christ and co-heirs with Christ of God. The triumphant announcement rings forth from the empty tomb, “I ascend to My God and your God, to My Father and your Father.” (John 20:17) “The promise and oath-swearing by which God gave Himself to us as our God, and the adoption as children of God and heirs of eternal life, were made to Christ, who is the Seed of Abraham, and to all those who are implanted in that Seed.” (G. Vos) Olevianus, 16th century German reformer from Heidelberg, recognized that “the doctrine of redemption has its actual center of gravity in the doctrine of the pactum et consilium salutis [treaty and counsel of salvation] between the Father and Son, and in the doctrine which rests upon it, namely the planting of the elect in Christ, or in the mystical body of Christ. . . . This relationship is one already established in eternity, and of such a nature that from eternity the Father looks upon the Son in no other way than as the Word to be made flesh, and then in union with the elect, believers who form His mystical body.” (The Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect)

“For the Reformed, the entire ordo salutis beginning with regeneration at its first stage, is bound to the mystical union with Christ. There is no gift that has not been earned by Him.” (Vos) This is what it means that all the promises of God are “AMEN” through us in Christ (2 Cor 1:20b). And this bestowal of covenant blessings to all believers through their union with Christ, plays a large role what has come to be known in the Reformed tradition as the “already/not yet” aspect of eschatology. Because the end of the world intervened in history for Christ, we who are in Him have the privilege of living out our days as members of the kingdom of God over which Christ by His ascension has been made King (Is 9:6). What we mean by the end of the world intervening in history is this: that Christ’s death on the cross was the intrusion of the God’s eschatological judgment on sin, and that His resurrection from the dead was the inauguration of the new creation. (Ridderbos)

Fuller Communion is Ours in Christ even Now

The fuller communion which is promised as the reward of covenant keeping is ours even now through Jesus Christ. We have touched on this already, but we must now take the time to realize that by virtue of our union with Christ, the last, the resurrected, Adam, we who are His by covenant have been made partakers of His glory. We have been ushered with Him into a position where fuller communion with our God is a present reality. As the Apostle Paul says, “We are seated with Him in the heavenly places,” and “your life is hid with Christ in God.” And that present glory is a kind of firstfruits of the eternal glory to be revealed at Christ’s second coming and the consummation of the new creation.

Not only is the Firstfruits of humanity already bodily present in heaven reigning with God, the Firstfruits of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit, is placed in our hearts as a Pledge and Surety of our consummate state (Rom 8:17-23) and the adoption to come with the redemption of our bodies. Not before Jesus ascended and sent His Spirit was such a relationship possible. But now, we have not only a High Priest, God Himself in the Second Person, in the heavenlies whose intercession for us avails perfectly, we have an Intercessor and Helper, God Himself in the Third Person, who lives within our spirits and communes with us, assuring us of our adoption as sons and status as heirs. It is He who is conforming us to the image of Christ, and it is that conformation that demonstrates our covenant union with the Lord. It is for this reason that the Apostle can say, “We have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the general assembly and church of the Firstborn, and to God the Judge of all, to the souls of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling which speaks better than the blood of Abel.” (Heb 12:22-24)

For a moment, let us consider the means by which we are united with Christ. True, union with Christ is mystical and invisible as it is the work of the Holy Spirit who moves like the wind. But He has chosen to work through the means of grace, particularly the sacrament of baptism with water to signify and effect this union in the elect. It is baptism that unites us to the body of Christ, the church, and thus to Christ who is Head of the church. What does your baptism mean to you? The Westminster Standards, the creed of our church, states that baptism is “a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of the believer’s ingrafting into Christ… whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord’s.” Baptism, then, is the outward means by which God has ordained to effect and manifest the mystical uniting of sinner to Christ in His death (Rom 6:3) in order to share in Christ’s life. Union with Christ’s body, the church, has become the gateway to God.

The Eschatological Hope of Adam and the Covenant of Creation

From the beginning, man was created with the hope of a higher eschatological existence in fuller communion with his Maker. This presupposition is so fundamental to understanding the Reformed doctrine of the covenant. This hope was the prize set before Adam in the covenant of creation (also known as the covenant of works). Nor was the covenant of works made with Adam at some point after his creation. Adam was created in covenant with God, witnessed by the fact that he was created in God’s image. Upon satisfaction of his covenant delegation, his labor to protect and cultivate the garden-sanctuary, he was given the hope of entering God’s Sabbath rest, the rest into which God Himself entered upon completion of His creation work. Meredith Kline puts it this way: “The Creator had so made man that he could undergo a consummating transformation. Along with present honors and joys man was thus given the hope of advancing to new dimensions in his experience of God’s presence and of his own dominion over creation.” (Kingdom Prologue) A transformed and heavenly existence in the presence of God was Adam’s eschatology as a living soul. This destiny, transformation into angel-like existence (Mark 12:25), was “built-in,” and would be realized either through his successful completion of his probation or through his failure of that probation. He would either enjoy the full presence of his God like God’s holy angels, or he would suffer utter separation from God like the devil and the fallen angels. This was the life-and-death matter of the original covenant. When Adam fell, he chose the latter, and all in Adam perished with him. Except by the extension of God’s grace through the promise to raise up a Seed from the woman, and the new-covenant provision to be found in another greater Adam, all would have perished. But this would not have realized God’s eternal purpose to be a God to His elect in Christ.

Moses and the Old Covenant

Briefly, let us follow the history of redemption to the Old Covenant mediated by Moses at Sinai. The Sinaitic covenant was unique in that it served as an extension of the unresolved original covenant of works while at the same time serving as a type of the new covenant and becoming the provision for it. And thus it was a continuation and advance in the program of the covenant of grace expressed in the promise Genesis 3:15. The giving of the covenant law served both as a condemnation and as a promise. The people of Israel continually confessed their inability to keep the law; ironically, by observing the intricate sacrificial ordinances prescribed in the law. By offering sacrifices the people of God identified themselves both with God’s eschatological judgment and with God’s eschatological deliverance. Those who were given faith looked to God to raise up that One who would keep the law for them and who would fulfill the law by accepting the penalty, becoming an acceptable sacrifice for them. It was that One whom the ordinances of the covenant law foreshadowed. The moral demands preached Christ’s obedience and called for it. The ceremonial ordinances preached Christ’s high priestly ministry and sacrifice and called for it. And the civil laws preached Christ’s kingdom justice and peace and called for it. Paul, then, affirms that the law is a school-master leading us to Christ. “Moses wrote of Me,” Jesus affirmed.

The Significance of the Passover

It was the nature of the Passover as a perpetual ordinance that God would continue to accept the blood of a lamb until which time He would demand the blood of Israel’s firstborn. The children of Israel were no different than the Egyptians. And that was their confession by slaughtering a lamb. Except that God made provision for the passing over of their house, they too must be judged. Because of the dual nature of the old covenant, Christ was both the Firstborn and also the true Lamb. God continued to pass over Israel, until in one definitive act, He ceased passing over, and poured out His judgment on the Firstborn (Rom 3:25-26), justifying Himself and the whole world in one eschatological act.

(for more on the Passover see my article “Koinwni�# and Conjugal Rights” on the Biblical Theology webpage)

The Last Adam and the New Covenant

The work of the Mediator, with respect to the covenant of grace, was nothing but a carrying through of the covenant of works broken in Adam and a procuring of that eschatological hope which Adam forfeited. “Christ therefore our Mediator, subjected Himself unto the covenant of works and unto the law four our sake, and did both fulfill the condition of the covenant of works in His holy and good life… and also did undergo that [eschatological] curse with which man was threatened in the covenant of works, if that condition of good and holy works was not kept…. Wherefore we see Christ in two respects, to wit, in doing and in suffering subject to the covenant of works, and in both respects He has most perfectly fulfilled it, and that for our sakes whose Mediator He is become.” (Rollock)

The Last Adam, Jesus Christ, having procured for Himself eternal life by the covenant, has, by a new covenant, given it to the elect. And because of their union with Him, His righteous life comes to expression in them. Because they have been made partakers of the heavenly nature, the elect are blessed to fellowship with God Himself through the covenant. Because they have been seated with Christ their Head in the heavenlies, they share now in the glory of His grace. He has made them co-kings with Him and co-priests to His God and theirs. They may commune with their God here below in Spirit and in truth. They may come before Him with unprecedented boldness. The new day of access is announced by the removal of the veil of Presence.

The Covenant of Grace and the Doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints

Because Christ has not merely restored us to the state of Adam before the fall, a state in which fall was a possibility, but has brought us into the perfected image which Adam forfeited by original sin, there is no possibility of our losing our salvation just as there is no possibility of the risen Christ losing His resurrection-status as Son of God and Savior. Because Christ through probation earned for Himself a state of confirmed righteousness, a state proffered to Adam in the probation, we who have been joined to Him share in that blessed state. “The fixity of the covenant of works [with Adam] depended both on God and man. Therefore, it was a temporal, uncertain covenant. The covenant of grace has its fixity in God alone, who answers for both parties, and effects man’s willing and working by the Holy Spirit. Its fixity does not lie at the end as an ideal to be reached, but in the beginning, in the work of the Mediator, which in turn is grounded in His eternal guaranty. Hence, it is an unalterable covenant, which extends into eternity.” (Vos) Election is election into Christ. And therefore it cannot be compromised.

The Vehicle: Redemptive History

Now comes the application. When we read our Bibles what are we looking for? What do we expect to find there? We would affirm that exactly what is outlined above is the central and permeating idea, the plot-line, the unifying theme of all of Scripture. God has revealed Himself in the Scriptures to His covenant people. He has worked in history through various progressive covenants to bring about redemption for His elect through a Messiah, to the end that they might have life, that is that “they might know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.” (John 17:3) That’s what the message of the covenant is all about. And God has chosen history to be the vehicle by which He realizes that eternal purpose. That is His prerogative as sovereign Author of history, and that is good news for us historical beings.

“The gospel is an event,” you will hear Rev. Olinger say over and over if you get to know him. The message of Scripture is redemptive historical. It is founded on and brought to light by the progression of historical events brought on by God’s acts of promise and deliverance. History, then, is a product of God’s covenant. It continues and is sustained by God’s covenant. And it ends in God’s covenant. Your faith is in historical fact. Your hope is in the promises of God (which you foretaste as you worship every Sabbath) is to be revealed by history. Your past is characterized by Christ’s life. Your present is characterized by Christ’s cross. Your future is characterized by Christ’s resurrection. In other words, “your life is hid with Christ in God.”

The whole Bible proclaims the Christ of the covenant and His covenantal redemption. The Old Testament as well as the New. Of the Old Testament histories Paul writes, “These things were written for YOUR sakes, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” (1 Cor 10:11) You are to find yourselves in the text. For that is the nature of God’s covenant revelation. It is orgainic. The Bible is alive, unlike any other book. It reaches out to encompass you. It does so precisely because it is covenantal. It does so because the Author of the text is the sovereign and omniscient Author and Lord of history and the eternal Lover of your souls. And He has placed you in it as He has placed the age in your hearts in order that you might understand the end from the beginning. He delights in you. He delights to give you the kingdom. He delights to give you Himself. Saints of God, delight yourself in the Lord.


As this church stands at a crossroads, this is what you are going to need to commit yourselves to unreservedly: the doctrine of the covenant and the faithful covenant service and enjoyment of God Himself as God’s special people. This is what you must demand of your preacher (whoever he might be) that he preach in season and out. This is what is at the heart of the gospel account. This is what transforms lives for Jesus Christ. This is what builds the church. This is your singular hope for the future and this is your life even now: to glorify and enjoy your Creator-Redeemer with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength; from this time forth, both now and forever. Amen.