As you study Scripture, be sure to spend time in the covenants that God makes with human beings. Covenants run from the beginning to the end of the Bible. See what a great salvation your God has prepared for you. And see what a great God invites you to draw near to Him.
Covenant is not a word that we use often in the West. But it is a word that can show up in surprising places. Some of us live in “covenant communities”—neighborhoods where each resident agrees to abide by a written set of standards designed to make people’s homes and yards look neat and presentable. Or perhaps you have been to a wedding recently and heard the word covenant used during the ceremony. In both of these examples, covenant is not tossed around casually. Investment in a home and in the lifelong union of a husband and a wife are weighty matters that deeply affect people’s lives. In an age not known for its seriousness or thoughtfulness, covenant manages to carry the sense of something important and abiding.
That weightiness lines up with the Bible’s teaching about covenants. What does the Bible have to say about what a “covenant” is? The answer to this question is far-reaching. Covenant sits at the very heart of the Bible’s teaching about what God is doing in the lives of human beings. If we want to understand the Bible’s teaching, then we should have a good handle on what the Bible says about the covenants.
What is a covenant? In brief, a covenant formalizes a relationship between two parties, and it does so in terms of promises, conditions, and signs. Covenants in Scripture, then, typically have parties, promises, conditions, and one or more signs. Let’s look at each of these.
Covenants in Scripture involve two parties. These parties are God and human beings. God and human beings are, of course, already in relationship before a covenant is made. God has made all people and preserves all people. In the garden, that relationship was one of open fellowship. Since the fall, that relationship is one of enmity. Because of sin, people are at war with God, and God is justly angry with them.
This relationship helps us see something important about biblical covenants. In Scripture, we never see people approach God to make a covenant with Him. It is always the other way around. God pursues us. This pursuit is an act of grace. God seeks out His enemies.
God’s initiative shows us something else. In biblical covenants, we do not stand with God on the platform as equals. God condescends (comes down) to take us into covenant with Himself. And this was true even before the fall. In the garden, the distance between Creator and (sinless) man was so great that God condescended to enter into covenant with Adam.
When we think about parties to the covenants of Scripture, there remains something else we need to see. We have been thinking about the individual dimension of biblical covenants. But there is a corporate dimension as well. When God entered into covenant with Adam in the garden, Adam stood as the representative of all human beings who descended from him (except for Jesus, of course). That is what Paul teaches in Romans 5:12–21. When God made a covenant with Abraham, He told Abraham, “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:7). This principle continues into the new covenant. The gospel promise, Peter told his hearers on the day of Pentecost, “is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39, emphasis added).
So, there is a personal dimension to God’s covenants and there is a corporate dimension to God’s covenants. How can we hold these two dimensions in their biblical balance? In the first place, the Bible is clear that simply being a member of the covenant community does not save you. What counts, Paul tells the Galatians, is not whether you have Abraham’s DNA in your body. What counts is whether you trust in the God of promise, just as Abraham did (Gal. 3:7–9, 29). God did not choose to save every physical descendant of Abraham (Rom. 9:1–13). Only those whom God has chosen in eternity and effectively calls in time enjoy all the blessings of the covenant. Only those who have repented of their sin and have believed in Jesus Christ can know that they are walking in covenant with God in the fullest sense of the word (10:9–13).