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What is Covenant?

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

Covenant as Foundational:

To understand the storyline of the bible, one must become aware of the skeletal structure that binds the parts into one dynamic whole. Some such parts can be condensed down to what is Scripturally called covenants. Comprehending the covenantal component not only assists in grasping the “how” of redemptive history but also the “why.” Meaning, salvation afforded to the elect is rooted upon the basis that we serve the covenanting Lord Himself. Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum conclude winsomely that,

God’s one, eternal plan unfolds in history through a plurality of interrelated covenants, starting with Adam and creation and culminating in Christ and the new covenant. The creation covenant serves as the foundation that continues in all the covenants, and it, along with all the covenants, is fulfilled in Christ and his obedient work. As God’s eternal plan is enacted on the stage of human history, it moves from creation in Adam to consummation in Christ. [1]

The backdrop, then, in understanding the doctrinal formation of the Christian faith is rooted upon the notion of covenant (cf. Noahic Covenant, Abrahamic Covenant, Mosaic Covenant, Davidic Covenant, and the New Covenant). The triune God is grounded upon His covenantal (intra-trinitarian and, thus, relational) nature. The Scriptures are themselves the covenantal documents (cf. Deut. 8:18; Ex. 2:24) for the covenantal community, the church (cf. Eph. 2:20). The Savior is the covenantal means (cf. Lk. 22:20). The Spirit is the covenantal seal (cf. Eph. 1:13-14). The eschaton is the formation of the covenantal promise. The conceptual framing of covenant is no small task in capturing the outworking of redemptive history.


The Notion of Covenant:


Before we proceed forward, it will be helpful to articulate a clear and functional definition of covenant. According to Michael S. Horton a covenant is simply “a relationship of ‘oaths and bonds’ and involves mutual, though not necessarily equal, commitments.”[2] Thus, covenants should not merely be condensed down to a contractional concept, but rather should be understood within martial and/or relational ties. Meaning, its components are not based upon supply/demand paradigms. Rather its premise is grounded upon relational commitments, loyalties, and responsibilities. Covenants, then, can be set underneath the rubric of kingdom and family.


Covenant as Kingdom. When covenants are formulated within the biblical narrative, it is conceived amid the ancient near eastern (ANE) context. In doing so, the treaties and oaths are generally established between two parties; two kingdoms. Amid those structures, there are usually a lesser kingdom, technically called the vassal, and a stronger kingdom, the suzerain. Covenants are formulated for various reasons but none as common as protection, livelihood, and life itself. Covenants, therefore, unite two parties amid loyal and committed grounds which death is payment for failures to up-keep the demands.[3] This is indicative of what is seen amid the Abrahamic Covenant. Abram brought to God animals in which He "cut . . . in half, and laid each half over against the other" (Gen. 15:10, italics mine). Such agreements can also be rendered as the cutting of a covenant. Samuel Renihan rightly concludes,

Covenants function as the legal basis upon which God interacts with man in a given kingdom. Covenants establish the boundaries of a kingdom, appoint federal heads, grant promises, impose laws, define the offspring of the federal head, and specify all other pertinent and necessary details of how God will exercise His dominion through the federal head and his offspring. By way of covenant, every party involved in a kingdom can know how to act and what to expect. Kingdoms manifests themselves in visible forms through the terms of their covenants The kingdom is the covenant realized, implemented and actualized.[4]

Covenant as Family. As covenants establish perimeters of the kingdom, they also unite the two parties within familial terms. The depth and intimacy amid the realities of the covenant are severe. Treat espouses that a "covenant is, therefore, a kinship bond, and is based not on natural relations but rather on elected relations, on two parties choosing to be like family."[5] This is indicative of the phenomenon of marriage. Two independent parties come together in martial union, now, hold a bond that is stronger than mother/father or brother/sister (cf. Gen. 2:24). Though the blood coursing through their veins are different, the covenant itself binds them wholly together more so than the previous familial bond. Similarly, the blood of Christ not only saves us from the condemnation of our sin (cf. Rom. 3:25; Heb. 9:14; 1 Jn. 1:7), but unites us in adoption as sons to the Father (cf. Rom. 8:15, 23; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5).


Children of God through Christ:


Covenant, then, operates as the backbone to the biblical narrative which substantiates God's salvific ploy in redeeming a people for Himself. The cross and resurrection of Christ is not merely an arbitrary event within the wider scope of history, but rather is the cutting of a covenant which is the bedrock "in bringing many sons to glory" (Heb. 2:10). Jeffrey D. Johnson rightly concludes, then, that the "promised seed was the elect in Christ. By Christ willingly accepting the elect seed as His own people, He legally took responsibility for their eternal well being. Christ and His people are legally one."[6]


In order, then, to grasp the meta-narrative of Scripture one must familiarize themselves with the concept of covenant. In doing so, she will place herself in the scheme and metric of the biblical structure which affords the proper lens in formulating a worthy appeal in understanding the Gospel narrative. Not only will these truths run deep intellectually, but the realities amid the familial ties in the cross work of Christ will strengthen her life toward the "obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5; cf. 1 Jn. 5:2-3). Soli Deo Gloria!

 

***footnotes***


[1] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, 2nd Edition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 36. italics mine.


[2] Michael S. Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 10.


[3] O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980), 7-15.


[4] Samuel Renihan, The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant & His Kingdom (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2019), 54.


[5] Jeremy R. Treat, "Atonement and Covenant: Binding Together Aspects of Christ's Work," Locating Atonement: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics, ed. Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 103.


[6] Jeffrey D. Johnson, The Kingdom of God: A Baptist Expression of Covenant & Biblical Theology (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2016), 111.

 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; ThM, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary)


He is the husband to Debbie Yang and the father to McCayden (11), McCoy (10), McColsen (8), and DeYoung (5).  He is one of the Teaching Pastors at Covenant City Church which is a church-plant in St. Paul, MN. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO where he hopes to obtain his PhD in Systematic Theology. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens. McYoung enjoys reading/writing, sports, and playing with his children.

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