What Is Covenant Theology and Why Should I Care?

Covenant. As anyone who has read the Bible knows, that word seems to be one of God’s favorites. Yet it is more than just a word that appears frequently (over 300 times); it is one of the most important themes of sacred Scripture. The book of Genesis is primarily about God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The book of Exodus is in large part about God’s covenant at Mount Sinai with the nation Israel. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament — in its historical, poetical, and prophetical books — we find continual references to these two covenants: the Abrahamic and the Mosaic. We then come to the New Testament and read of Jesus instituting a new covenant, the same covenant of which the prophet Jeremiah foretold (Jer. 31:31–34). The apostle Paul and the writer to the Hebrews elaborate on the vital differences between the old (Mosaic) and new covenants (Galatians 3–4; 2 Corinthians 3; Hebrews 7–10). On top of this, the Bible also reveals how God made important covenants with Noah and David. What do all of these covenants mean? Does it really make any difference how well we understand them?

Answering those questions is the task of covenant theology. Covenant theology is a way of reading and interpreting the Bible through the lens of God’s covenants. It is not an interpretive grid that we impose upon Scripture, nor is it a system invented by Calvinists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rather, it is the Bible’s own method of interpreting itself. This is why covenant theology has enjoyed such a prominent place in the Reformed tradition. With its emphasis upon the authority of Scripture, the Protestant Reformation saw covenant theology as God’s prescribed method for interpreting his revelation, for covenant is the way in which God has chosen to relate to human beings. It is impossible, therefore, to interpret Scripture faithfully without understanding the meaning of these covenants. As J.I. Packer put it, “The Word of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame.”

This post is the first in a series that will concisely explore covenant theology. We will work our way chronologically from the covenant of redemption to the new covenant. If you find that these posts whet your appetite for further study, consider reading Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored, a book I wrote with co-author Zach Keele and published by Reformed Fellowship. That resource expands on the material found in this series of posts.

Studying God’s covenants should never be a dry academic exercise. Nor should it be for the purpose of debating and arguing with our brothers in Christ. Studying God’s covenants has one primary goal: to know God and understand our relationship with him more fully. In this way, covenant theology has immense pastoral and practical value for the Christian. It revolutionizes our approach to Scripture, providing us with helpful categories to understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. It shows us that the Bible is actually onebook with one story, told on the stage of real human history. It highlights the plotline and central point of Scripture, setting every story in the context of the larger story about Christ.

More importantly, covenant theology provides us with the deepest comfort as we learn that God accepts us not on the basis of our covenant-faithfulness, but on the basis of Christ’s. It sweetens our fellowship with the Father as we come to know of his oath and promises to us, promises that are ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ through the Mediator of the new covenant. It changes our view of the local church as we discover that we are part of God’s covenant community and worship him in a covenant-renewal ceremony every Lord’s Day. It transforms the way we see our children, namely, as the baptized members of God’s covenant of grace. It helps us understand that covenant is not a means to an end, but it is the end itself—the communion between God and his people.

~ Michael Brown