by Michael Horton
Let’s say that several villages on the outskirts of an empire have banded together to try to form something like a league or confederacy. They may perhaps have enough in the way of resources as means of exchange, and they may be capable of setting up institutions for their common welfare. However, they cannot provide for a standing army beyond a small militia that is hardly sufficient to stave off a sizable band of villains, much less an invading imperial force. So the leader of the confederacy, perhaps himself a king, turns to a great king, usually an emperor with forces in the region large enough to protect the client state. In such a case, the lesser king (vassal) could enter into a covenant with the great king (suzerain), or as often happened, a suzerain could rescue a vassal from impending doom and therefore claim his right to annex the beneficiaries of his kindness by covenant to his empire. They would be his people, and he would be their suzerain. Their own king might continue to rule locally but as viceroy of the emperor.
What is often present in these ancient treaties and missing in modern analogies is the fact that these were not merely legal contacts but involved the deepest affections. The great king was the father adopting the captives he had liberated from oppression. Consequently, he was not simply to be obeyed externally, but loved; not only feared, but revered; not only known as the legal lord of the realm, but acknowledged openly as the rightful sovereign. Of course, there were good suzerains and bad one, but there was widespread agreement at least in the ancient Near East that this is what constituted a lawful covenant.
“The most widely attested form of swearing to a covenant, however, involved cutting up an animal,” notes Hillers.
The man taking the oath is identified with the slaughtered animal. “Just as this calf is cut up, so may Matiel be cut up,” is the way it is put in the text of an Aramaic treaty from the eighth century BC, and an earlier document describes a similar ceremony: “Abba-An swore to Yarim-Lim the oath of the gods, and but the neck of a lamb, (saying): ‘If I take back what I gave you….’” Among the Israelites it seems that a common way of identifying the parties was to cut up the animal and pass between the parts [See Jer. 34:18.] From the ceremony is derived the Hebrew idiom for making a treaty, karat berit, “to cut a treaty.”
A. Concerning the covenantal unity of the two testaments:
1. “Law and “promise” do not represent the Old and New Testaments or berit and diatheke, respectively, but characterize two different kinds of covenants that obtain within the same history.
2. No less than new covenant believers, those under the old covenant were united to Christ by faith in the promise that was heard, although it could only be adumbrated under the figures of the Mosaic economy.
1. The covenants with Adam after the fall, as with Noah, Abraham, and David, represent unconditional divine oaths. In these instances, Yahweh (the suzerain) freely and mercifully obligates himself to fulfill a promise despite the opposition he encounters even from the beneficiaries of the oath. We may call these “royal grants,” “promissory oaths,” “unconditional dispositions,” or any number of terms drawn from ancient legal custom, but they are distinguished sharply from suzerainty pacts in which a greater party (suzerain) obligates a lesser party (vassal) to serve faithfully and in which blessings or curses are held out as recompense.
2. This latter type of covenant is constitutive for the pact between Yahweh and Israel at Sinai through
its successive cycles of vilation, restoration, transgression, and finally exile. Although this covenant governing the theocracy served a vital pedagogical function, making Israel aware of their sinfulness and need for atonement, even anticipating that atonement through the elaborate sacrificial and temple system, ti could not take away sin and left all who sought to be justified by it under its curse. So while it is true that Old Testament saints were justified by faith according to the Abrahamic promise, the theocracy itself was to be maintained and vindicated by strict adherence to Torah.
3. In this light, it hardly seems possible to reduce the history of God’s relationship with his people to
a covenant of grace. Abraham and David witness to an “everlasting covenant: fulfilled solely by Yahweh’s unconditional resolve, while the Sinaitic covenant was intended in the first place as a temporary, transitional order anticipating the eschatological kingdom of God throughout the whole earth. The covenant of grace is uninterrupted from Adam after the fall to the present, while the Sinai Pact, conditional and typological, has now become obsolete (Heb. 8:131), its mission having been fulfilled (Gal. 3:23-4:7).
We were not just created and then given a covenant; we were created as covenant creatures – partners not in deity, to be sure, but in the drama that was about to unfold in history. As covenant creatures by nature, ever person has a relationship with God.
The same is true in Reformed theology. The covenant is the framework, but it is far from a central dogma.
Salvation has always come through a covenant of grace (founded on an eternal and unilateral covenant of redemption), rather than on a contract or one’s personal fulfillment of the law. So we have two principles or “laws” at work, which in Galatians 4 Paul actually calls “covenants”: a covenant of law, which promises blessing upon perfect obedience and curses for any transgression, and a covenant of promise, which promises blessing as a gift resulting from the personal performance f another. Both covenants have eh same goal, promise the same blessing, and threaten the same curses. However, according to one, the blessing is attained by us personally, and in the other, it is bestowed as an inheritance.
On one hand, we must resist concluding that the covenant concept is inherently conditioned upon personal performance and, on the other, that it is inherently gracious in character. In both cases, we are making a priori judgments about what a covenant can and cannot be rather than attending to the diverse ways in which the word is used in the Scriptures. Covenant is both Old and New Testaments, so we have argued, is a broad term encompassing a variety of arrangements – most notably, conditional covenants of law and unconditional covenants of promise.
Within the Old Testament itself, Paul finds two discrete covenantal traditions: Abrahamic and Sinaitic. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the unilateral promises of the first and the typological fulfillment of the bilateral conditions of the second. Thus, he is the true seed of Abraham and also the true Israel, the one who has fulfilled the terms of the covenant at Sinai in the place of those who have said “We will do all these things,” and yet have in fact fallen short. To belong to God’s gracious covenant, one must come by way of Christ rather than Moses – or, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, Mount Zion rather than Mount Sinai (Heb. 12:22).
Sometimes covenant theology is also called federal theology because of its emphasis on solidarity in a representative head. A representative system of government is called “federal.” And Scripture calls us to see ourselves not simply as individuals but as those who are either “in Adam” or “in Christ.”
1. The Covenant of Redemption
Most biblical covenants are historical pacts God has made with creatures. The covenant of redemption, however, is an eternal pact between the persons of the Trinity. The Father elects a people in the Son as their mediator to be brought to saving faith through the Spirit. Thus, this covenant made by the Trinity in eternity already takes the fall of the human race into account. Chosen out of the condemned mass of humanity, the elect are no better or no more qualified than the rest. God has simply chosen according to his own freedom to display both his justice and his mercy, and the covenant of redemption is the opening act in this drama of redemption.
Already we can see how such a covenantal framework challenges the idea of a solitary despot. The Father elects a people in the Son through the Spirit. Our salvation, therefore, arises first of all out of the joint solidarity of the divine persons. The joy of giving and receiving experienced by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit spills over, as it were, into the Creator-creature relationship. In the covenant of redemption, the love of the Father and the Sprit for the Son is demonstrated in the gift of a people who will have him as their living head. At the same time, the Son’s love for the Father and the Spirit is demonstrated in his pledge to redeem that family at the greatest personal cost.
The covenant of redemption, therefore, is as clearly revealed in Scripture as the Trinity and the eternal decree to elect, redeem, call, justify, sanctify, and glorify a people for the Son.
2. The Covenant of Creation (Works)
Founded in creation itself, the covenant made initially between God and his viceroy has been variously labeled the covenant of creation, nature, law, and works. All of these terms are appropriates, as I contend below. This pact presupposes a righteous and holy human servant entirely capable of fulfilling the stipulations of God’s law. It promises blessing on the basis of obedience and curse upon transgression. It pertains to humanity in a state of unblemished nature, not in a state of grace.
This covenantal arrangement is “God’s pact with Adam in his integrity, as the head of the whole human race, by which God requiring of man the perfect obedience of the law of works promised him if obedient eternal life in heaven, but threatened him if he transgressed with eternal death; and on his part man promised perfect obedience to God’s requirement (Heidegger IX, 15).”
The point that this covenant was made “with Adam in his integrity” is crucial. Prior to the fall, humanity in Adam was neither sinful nor confirmed in righteousness. He was on trial: would he follow his covenant Lord’s pattern of working and resting, subduing and reigning, or would he go his own way and seek his own good apart form God’s Word? Created for obedience, he was entirely capable of maintaining himself in a state of integrity.
Israel’s story recapitulates Adam’s creation and fall. Like Adam, Israel is placed in a beautiful garden they did not make, with God’s Sabbath enthronement held out as the prize for faithful stewardship in the land. Therefore, Israel’s probation pointed to Christ in two ways: by reiterating the inability of humanity to fulfill the law because of sin and by establishing ceremonies, sacrifices, a temple, a kingship, and a priesthood, as shadows of the Coming One, the true and faithful Adam-Israel. It is he who, in his royal entrance, brings captives in his train, claiming the reward for his obedience for himself and for his coheirs. Thus, in him, law and gospel embrace without being confused; justice and grace are equally displayed without being synthesized.
This account provides the soil for a robust notion of the humanity of Christ. God alone cold not have saved us. Our Savior had to be the second Adam. Throughout his relatively brief messianic career, Jesus recapitulated Adam’s testing in the garden and Israel’s forty-year testing in his own forty-day probation in the desert and, in fact, the eternity of his life. On the basis of his having fulfilled the covenant of creation representatively (i.e. federally), he can now dispense his reward to us within a covenant of grace.
3. The Covenant of Grace
The third covenant in the federal scheme is the covenant of grace. Once the second Adam has successfully fulfilled this covenant (“For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified” [John 17:19 NIV]), the benefits of this feat are dispersed by the Sprit according to a gracious covenant. Thus, the terms of the divine benediction here are reversed. Instead of acknowledging the inherent goodness, truth, and beauty of sinners, Jesus pronounces them just on the basis of the inherent justice of another (iustitia alienum). It is a true judgment rather than a legal fiction because the requisite covenantal righteousness is indeed fully present in the covenantal head (by fulfilling the creation covenant) and therefore belongs to his body by incorporation.
Like the covenant of creation, this covenant is made between God and human partners – in this case, fallen Adam, Seth, Abraham, and David. IT is in this covenant that provisions are made for offenders, based on another’s fulfillment of the legal covenant on their behalf. Thus, instead of it being a covenant based on law (“Do this and you shall live”), it is based on promise (“Live and you will do this”). There are real partners in this covenant (God with believers and their children) and real conditions (repentance and faith), but as it is grounded in the eternal covenant of redemption and the Mediator’s fulfillment of the covenant of works, even the meeting of these conditions is graciously given and not simply required.
Excerpts from God of Promise by Michael Horton
Excerpts from God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology by Michael Horton
Whether new to Reformed theology or not, every believer needs to understand the importance of covenants. God of Promise unpacks covenant theology so you can explore the core of Christianity: knowing--and honoring--the promises of our Creator.
Since biblical times covenants have been a part of everyday life. Simply put, they are promises, agreements, or contracts. But how do they translate into faith and the reading of Scripture? Are covenants merely elements of a narrative? Or do they represent something more? And what are the eternal implications of "cutting" a covenant with God?
In God of Promise, author Michael Horton unwinds the intricacies of crucial covenant concepts, showing how they provide a significant organizational structure for all of Scripture. They give us a context in which to understand the voices and message of the biblical narrative. They provide life with a goal and history with a meaning.