What’s a Covenant in the Bible?

The Doctrine of Covenant by Michael L. Aiken


Covenant is the way God relates to people. When God speaks he binds us, his image bearers, to
do what he requires of us. The study of covenants is complex, but this paper will seek to summarize
the issues and offer resources for further study.
There are basically three covenants in the Bible.

  1. The covenant of works
  2. The covenant of redemption
  3. The covenant of grace
  4. The covenant of works is between God and Adam and includes Adam’s posterity because he is our
    representative. In Genesis 2:16, 17 God tells Adam to eat from every tree in the garden except for
    the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and that in the day he eats from that tree he will surely
    die. Though the word covenant is not found in this passage, the elements of a covenant are there:
    a. the parties are clearly defined,
    b. the requirements clearly stated,
    c. and the promise and punishment if obeyed or disobeyed given.
    Hosea 6:7 and Romans 7:10 add further proof to this original command by God being a covenant
    (cf. Rom. 5:12-19). God explicitly states Adam will die if he partakes of the forbidden fruit.
    Implicit in this command is a promise of life if Adam continued to obey (cf. Rom. 7:10). In his
    original state of innocence Adam had the ability to obey and disobey God. The blessing of a
    confirmation in righteousness, i.e. glorification, would have occurred if Adam didn’t disobey (cf.
    Gen. 2:9; 3:22 where the tree of life is a symbol of what could have been given if Adam was
    obedient).
    The fall of Adam was no surprise to God and so God from all eternity made a pact within himself
    among the Persons of the Trinity, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. This inter-trinitarian pact is
    called the covenant of redemption (or Latin the pactum salutis). In the one inseparable will of God,
    the Son, the second person of the Trinity, agrees to be the Redeemer of those whom the Father will
    give him (John 6:37-40; 17:1-5). All of God’s works in time are based on his eternal decree and
    this covenant of redemption occurred in eternity past and is expressed in the last covenant which
    will be discussed next (Eph. 1:11; Acts 2:23).
    Since Adam sinned there is another covenant given which is the covenant of grace. This is first
    found in Genesis 3:15 and called the first mention of the gospel (Latin protevangelium). The good
    news God promised is that there will be a seed of the woman (Eve) who will crush the head of the
    serpent. This covenant of grace continues throughout Scripture and is expressed in God’s covenant
    to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3,7; 15:1-21; 17:1-14) and to other key figures (Isaac, Jacob, Moses,
    David, Jeremiah, Ezekiel). The promise reiterated throughout the Old Testament is that God will

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be the God of his covenant people and they shall be his people. These promises are not only for
Abraham’s descendants but for all the nations (Gen. 12:3). Yes, land is promised to Abraham and
to his descendants, but Paul makes it clear that the promises were made to a singular seed which
is Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16). All the physical promises given to Abraham and the patriarchs will give
way to greater realities fulfilled by the promised seed—Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:4; Heb. 9:1-14). The
land promised will give way to the new heavens and new earth (Matt. 5:5; 2 Pet. 3:13). The goal
God had in mind for the redemption of his people was glorification of the body (resurrection)
living in the land he promised which in its glorified state is imperishable and unable of being
defiled or destroyed—the new heavens and the new earth (Isa. 66:22-24; Ezek. 37; Rev. 21:1-4,
22-27; 22:1-5) The types, sacrifices, and festivals are shadows which when the substance to which
they point comes, which is Jesus Christ, they shall cease (Gal 3:25).
The Sinai covenant or the law of Moses is an important provision in God’s redemptive plan and
was given in redemptive history for the purpose of…

  1. revealing sin,
  2. constraining evil,
  3. and to reveal God’s will for his people to follow.
    The law of Moses was temporary and was characterized by obedience to the law. It was not given
    to bring eternal life because that is impossible since all people are sinners. If we could keep it
    perfectly, which we cannot, we could have eternal life (Lev 18:5; Gal 3:10-12, 21). One of the
    main purposes of the law was to be a guardian which would reveal sin and lead the person to Jesus
    Christ (Gal 3:23-26). Many theologians have called the law of Moses the covenant of works, others
    consider the law of Moses to fall under the covenant of grace, but that its “character” or “form” is
    that of a covenant of works.1 For those who designate it a covenant of works, it is not a covenant
    of works in the way it was for Adam because Adam in his state of innocence was able to obey it
    and would have been confirmed in righteousness if he didn’t disobey. Now, as sinners, we are
    already guilty in Adam, and have also inherited his corruption, and are unable to keep the law to
    receive the blessing of eternal life. The law is a covenant of works that all sinners in Adam are
    under which means they are condemned by it. The law is functioning in this way to drive the sinner
    to Jesus for salvation (Rom. 3:19, 20). The three uses of the law, as stated above, are still in use
    today in this New Covenant era (Rom. 13:8-10).

How is covenant theology different between paedobaptists and Baptists?
1 See Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 2, translated and edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Bellingham, WA:
Lexam Press, 2012), 36. Vos explains that “the covenant of grace is the implementation of the covenant of works in
the surety for us….[and that] one must bear in mind that the old dispensation of the covenant of grace bore a legal
character for Israel as a nation and, therefore, in its external form once more kept the covenant of works in view,
although the core of what God established with Israel was of course the continuation of the Abrahamic revelation
of the covenant of grace” (p. 36).

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The answer will be given generally because within each group there is not a consensus about the
nature of the covenants, etc. But historically and generally since the 17th century, when much of
covenant theology was developed, Baptists and paedobaptists had agreement and disagreements.
Both groups agreed to a covenant of works given to Adam. They further agreed there is one
covenant of grace first promised to Adam after the fall and subsequently to Abraham and to the
fathers of Israel with the nations also as recipients. They differed about who was under the
covenant of grace. They also differed in what constitutes the covenant of grace from Gen. 3:15
forward.
• Paedobaptists: See one covenant of grace which includes the Mosaic covenant also.
Further, paedobaptists saw this one covenant of grace having two administrations—one
in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament.
• The Baptists see two covenants running simultaneously in the Old Testament period. For
the Baptists, the Sinai covenant, is not a covenant of grace, but a covenant of works as
described above.
Thus, the paedobaptists see the members of the covenant of grace as including not only the
regenerate (believers) but also the children of believers in both dispensations. While paedobaptists
include unbelieving children in the covenant of grace and administer infant baptism as a seal and
sign of God’s righteousness, they do not believe in baptismal regeneration (Rom. 4:11). These
covenant children are to be nurtured in the gospel and encouraged to make a profession of faith as
they mature. The Baptists concede that under the Old Testament dispensation that there was mixed
membership including believers and their children, plus other adults who were not true believers
(cf. Rom. 2:28, 29). This major point of difference of who are the members of the New Covenant
(Jer. 31:31-34) has ramifications for church membership. Here Baptists believe the members of
the New Covenant are believers only based on Jeremiah 31:34 which states that all under the New
Covenant know the Lord because they have circumcised hearts and God’s law written on their
hearts by the Holy Spirit. Paedobaptists see continuity between the old and new dispensations of
the one covenant of grace and that the promise is for the children of believers also (Gen. 17:11;
Acts 2:39).
The different views of baptism are primarily based on one’s view of covenant membership.
Consequently, our beliefs on covenant will frame our doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) which
in turn will affect our practice of either paedobaptism or credobaptism.

Bibliography for further study (listed from easiest to more complex):
Grudem ,Wayne. “The Covenants Between God and Man.” In Systematic Theology, 515-22.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

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Sproul, R.C.. “Nicknamed Covenant Theology.” In Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed
Theology, 99-114. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997.
——— “Covenant” and “Covenant of Works.” In Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, 71-4.
Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992.
Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology: A Comparison Between
Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist and Paedobaptist Federalism Revised Edition.
Birmingham, Alabama: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2016.
Bavinck, Herman. “The Covenant of Grace.” In Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ.
Volume 3, 193-232. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

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