The word “covenant” is difficult to understand, yet central to biblical interpretation. But is it really all that important?
The late R.C. Sproul answers assuredly, “Yes!”
In this excerpt from The Promises of God, free this month, Sproul distinguishes biblical covenants from man-made contracts and affirms what makes biblical covenants so unique.
The concept of covenant is integral and foundational to the divine revelation. We could even say that God reveals His Word and His plan biblically through the structure of various covenants. The covenants are prominent in the Old Testament and play a significant role in the teaching of the New Testament.
Despite the prominence of this structure, there is much confusion over the meaning of the term covenant. For example, we speak frequently about the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant, but we also speak of the Old Testament and the New Testament, and we have a tendency to use those terms interchangeably, seeing “Old Testament” as a synonym for “old covenant” and “New Testament” as a synonym for “new covenant.” Of course, these terms are closely related, but they are not really synonyms. They do not mean exactly the same thing.
There is also confusion because of the ways in which the idea of covenant is handled in twenty-first-century cultures. For instance, covenants were quite foundational for the United States as a nation. The political theory that was implemented in the grand experiment that is the United States relied heavily on John Locke’s idea of the social contract. This concept held that there is a relationship between the rulers and those who are ruled, between the government and the people, whereby the leaders are selected or elected by the people and are empowered to rule only by the consent of the people. In essence, there is an agreement, a mutual promise of fidelity, between the people, who pledge their allegiance to their government, and the government officials, who take oaths of office to uphold the Constitution. There is a contract or a pact, an agreement binding these two sides to each other.
In addition, we often talk about the industrial contract, which comes in many forms. When a person goes to work for a company, he may sign a contract wherein the employer promises him certain remuneration, benefits, and so on, and wherein the employee promises to give so much of his time in working for the company. We see this kind of covenant in labor agreements. Also, on a more popular level, every time we buy something with a credit card or on an installment basis, we enter into a contract or an agreement to pay the full amount for the merchandise or the service over time. Even more significant is the marriage contract, an agreement that involves oaths and vows, sanctions and promises, between two people. All of these agreements are covenants.
Now, all of these covenants have elements of similarity to the biblical covenants, but they are not identical. Though the biblical covenants have elements of promise, one thing makes them different from these other kinds of agreements—biblical covenants are established on the basis of a divine sanction. That is, they are established not on the foundation of promises made by equal parties, but on the foundation of the divine promise of God. In the biblical covenants, it is God who declares the terms and makes the promises.1
See with fresh eyes how biblical covenants provide the framework for redemptive history.
Pick up your copy of The Promises of God, free this month.