What do we learn about Covenants in Scripture?                  By Jack Kettler

Unfortunately, many believers do not understand the idea of covenant very well. Because of this deficiency of knowledge, the following survey will involve looking at several leading theologians and their writings on God’s covenants that will prove to be invaluable.

This study on God’s Covenants will be in-depth and will utilize some of the best theological sources available.

What is a covenant? A short definition:

A covenant is an agreement between two or more persons.

The Bible depicts a covenant as a way to define first the relationship within the triune God, and second between God and His people in redemptive history. A notable example of the second case of this is when God said, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7 ESV). This covenant in Genesis was made with Abraham and his posterity.

In historic Protestant Theology, a covenant is an interpretive grid for understanding the Scriptures. As will be seen, covenants play a central role in biblical theology. God’s covenants are the model for understanding how He works with humanity throughout history.

Moreover, covenant theology is the idea that God enters into a contract or agreement with humanity either individually or corporately, and there are agreements and stipulations involved between the parties of a covenant. In Genesis 17:7, the head of a family can enter into a covenant with God that includes their posterity for future generations. This covenantal understanding has enormous implications when considering the first man, Adam, and the work of Christ, the second Adam.

Consider an epic foundational covenant in Scripture:

“Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:14 ESV).

From the Romans passage, we see that both Adam and Christ are set forth as the covenantal heads of the human race, Adam is the first head of the fallen race and Christ the second Adam and head of the redeemed race. 

Failure to understand the covenantal motif of Scripture is a failure to understand how God relates to man. The evangelist can ask what race a person is part of, Adam’s race or Christ’s race. To have salvation, one must be in the redeemed spiritual race of Christ.

Consider what Charles H. Spurgeon said about God’s covenant:

“ALL GOD'S dealings with men have had a covenant character. It hath so pleased Him to arrange it, that he will not deal with us except through a covenant, nor can we deal with Him except in the same manner. Adam in the garden was under a covenant with God and God was in covenant with Him.” (1) The highlighting of portions of the text is mine.

As seen from Spurgeon, God dealt with Adam through a covenant in Eden. The Adamic covenant is the name of this covenant.

Francis Turretin was a professor of theology at Geneva during the Reformation. Turretin explains what a covenant is:

“A covenant denotes the agreement of God with man by which God promises his goods (and especially eternal life to him), and by man, in turn, duty and worship are engaged...This is called two‐sided and mutual because it consists of a mutual obligation of the contracting parties: a promise on the part of God and stipulation of the condition on the part of man.” (2)

Herman Witsius was a Dutch theologian, pastor, and a leading professor of the seventeenth century. He concurs with Turretin:

“A covenant of God with man is an agreement between God, about the way of obtaining consummate happiness; including a commination of eternal destruction, with which the contemner of the happiness, offered in that way, is to be punished.” (3)

In this study of God’s covenants, we will look the Covenant of Redemption, the Covenant of Works, the Covenant of Grace, the Adamic covenant, the Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, the Davidic covenant, and the culmination of all covenants, into the New Covenant in Christ. These covenants will be explained adequately in the following overview. 

An overview of the covenants in Scripture:

Theological covenants

“The nature of God's covenantal relationship with his creation is not considered automatic or of necessity. Rather, God voluntarily condescends to establish the connection as a covenant, wherein the terms of the relationship are set down by God alone according to his own will.

In particular, covenant theology teaches that God has established one, eternal covenant, under different administrations.[1] Having created man in His image as a free creature with knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, God entered into a covenant of works whereby the mandate was “do this and live” (Romans 10:5, Galatians 3:12). “Like Adam, they have trespassed the covenant” (Hosea 6:7) is the classic reference to the covenant of works; Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 12:24 the reference that explains God's work of redemption in the Covenant of Grace. [2]

Covenant of redemption

The covenant of redemption is the eternal agreement within the Godhead in which the Father appointed the Son Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit to redeem his elect people from the guilt and power of sin. God appointed Christ to live a life of perfect obedience to the law and to die a penal, substitutionary, sacrificial death (see penal substitution aspect of the atonement) as the covenantal representative for all who trust in him. Some covenant theologians have denied the intra-Trinitarian covenant of redemption, or have questioned the notion of the Son's works leading to the reward of gaining a people for God, or have challenged the covenantal nature of this arrangement. Those who have upheld this covenant point to passages such as Philippians 2:5-11 and Revelation 5:9-10 to support the principle of works leading to reward, and to passages like Psalm 110 in support that this is depicted in Scripture as a covenant.

Covenant of works

The covenant of works was made in the Garden of Eden between God and Adam who represented all mankind as a federal head. (Romans 5:12-21) It promised life for obedience and death for disobedience. Adam, and all mankind in Adam, broke the covenant, thus standing condemned. The covenant of works continues to function after the fall as the moral law.

Though it is not explicitly called a covenant in the opening chapters of Genesis, the comparison of the representative headship of Christ and Adam, as well as passages like Hosea 6:7 have been interpreted to support the idea. It has also been noted that Jeremiah 33:20-26 (cf. 31:35-36) compares the covenant with David to God's covenant with the day and the night and the statutes of heaven and earth, which God laid down at creation. This has led some to understand all of creation as covenantal: the decree establishing the natural laws governing heaven and earth. The covenant of works might then be seen as the moral law component of the broader creational covenant. Thus, the covenant of works has also been called the covenant of creation, indicating that it is not added but constitutive of the human race; the covenant of nature in recognition of its consonance with the natural law in the human heart; and the covenant of life in regard to the promised reward.

Covenant of grace

The covenant of grace promises eternal life for all people who receive forgiveness of sin through Christ. He is the substitutionary covenantal representative fulfilling the covenant of works on their behalf, in both the positive requirements of righteousness and its negative penal consequences (commonly described as his active and passive obedience). It is the historical expression of the eternal covenant of redemption. Genesis 3:15, with the promise of a “seed” of the woman who would crush the serpent's head, is usually identified as the historical inauguration for the covenant of grace.

The covenant of grace became the basis for all future covenants that God made with mankind such as with Noah (Genesis 6, 9), with Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, 17), with Moses (Exodus 19-24), with David (2 Samuel 7), and finally in the New Covenant founded and fulfilled in Christ. These individual covenants are called the biblical covenants because they are explicitly described in the Bible. Under the covenantal overview of the Bible, submission to God's rule and living in accordance with his moral law (expressed concisely in the Ten Commandments) is a response to grace - never something that can earn God's acceptance (legalism). Even in his giving of the Ten Commandments, God introduces his law by reminding the Israelites that he is the one who brought them out of slavery in Egypt (grace).

Adamic covenant

Covenant theology first sees a covenant of works administered with Adam in the Garden of Eden. Upon Adam's failure, God established the covenant of grace in the promised seed Genesis 3:15, and shows his redeeming care in clothing Adam and Eve in garments of skin — perhaps picturing the first instance of animal sacrifice. The specific covenants after the fall of Adam are seen as administered under the overarching theological covenant of grace.

Noahic covenant

The Noahic covenant is found in Genesis 8:20-9:17. Although redemption motifs are prominent as Noah and his family are delivered from the judgment waters, the narrative of the flood plays on the creation motifs of Genesis 1 as de-creation and re-creation. The formal terms of the covenant itself more reflect a reaffirmation of the universal created order, than a particular redemptive promise.

Abrahamic covenant

The Abrahamic covenant is found in Genesis chapters 12, 15, and 17. In contrast with the covenants made with Adam or Noah, which were universal in scope, this covenant was with a particular people. Abraham is promised a seed and a land, although he would not see its fruition within his own lifetime. The Book of Hebrews explains that he was looking to a better and heavenly land, a city with foundations, whose builder and architect is God (11:8-16). The Apostle Paul writes that the promised seed refers in particular to Christ (Galatians 3:16).

The Abrahamic covenant is

1. Exclusive: It is only for Abraham and his (spiritual) descendants. Genesis 17:7

2. Everlasting: It is not replaced by any later covenant. Genesis 17:7

3. Accepted by faith, not works: “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Genesis 15:6

4. The external sign of entering into the Abrahamic covenant was circumcision. Genesis 17:10, but it has to be matched by an internal change, the circumcision of the heart. Jeremiah 4:4

5. According to Paul, since the Abrahamic covenant is eternal, the followers of Christ are “children of Abraham” and therefore part of this covenant through faith. “Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham.” Galatians 3:7

6. Paul makes it clear that baptism is the external sign of faith in Christ, (“ were baptized into Christ...”), and that through faith in Christ the believer is part of the Abrahamic covenant (“Abraham's seed”). This provides the basis for the doctrine that baptism is the New Testament sign of God's covenant with Abraham.

Galatians 3:26 “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

Mosaic covenant

The Mosaic covenant, found in Exodus 19-24 and the book of Deuteronomy, expands on the Abrahamic promise of a people and a land. Repeatedly mentioned is the promise of the Lord, “I will be your God and you will be my people” (cf. Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 26:12), particularly displayed as his glory-presence comes to dwell in the midst of the people. This covenant is the one most in view by the term Old Covenant.

Although it is a gracious covenant beginning with God's redemptive action (cf. Exodus 20:1-2), a layer of law is prominent. Concerning this aspect of the Mosaic Covenant, Charles Hodge makes three points in his Commentary on Second Corinthians: (1) The Law of Moses was in first place a reenactment of the covenant of works; viewed this way, it is the ministration of condemnation and death. (2) It was also a national covenant, giving national blessings based on national obedience; in this way it was purely legal. (3) In the sacrificial system, it points to the Gospel of salvation through a mediator.

Davidic covenant

The Davidic covenant is found in 2Samuel 7. The Lord proclaims that he will build a house and lineage for David, establishing his kingdom and throne forever. This covenant is appealed to as God preserves David's descendants despite their wickedness (cf. 1 Kings 11:26-39, 15:1-8; 2 Kings 8:19, 19:32-34), although it did not stop judgment from finally arriving (compare 2 Kings 21:7, 23:26-27; Jeremiah 13:12-14). Among the prophets of the exile, there is hope of restoration under a Davidic king who will bring peace and justice (cf. Book of Ezekiel 37:24-28).

New Covenant

The New Covenant is anticipated with the hopes of the Davidic messiah, and most explicitly predicted by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 31:34). At the Last Supper, Jesus alludes to this prophecy, as well as to prophecies such as Isaiah 49:8, when he says that the cup of the Passover meal is “the New Covenant in [his] blood.” This use of the Old Testament typology is developed further in the Epistle to the Hebrews (see especially chapters. 7-10). Jesus is the last Adam and Israel's hope and consolation: he is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17-18). He is the prophet greater than Jonah (Matt 12:41), and the Son over the house where Moses was a servant (Hebrews 3:5-6), leading his people to the heavenly promised land. He is the high priest greater than Aaron, offering up himself as the perfect sacrifice once for all (Hebrews 9:12, 26). He is the king greater than Solomon (Matthew 12:42), ruling forever on David's throne (Luke 1:32). The term “New Testament” comes from the Latin translation of the Greek New Covenant and is most often used for the collection of books in the Bible, can also refer to the New Covenant as a theological concept.

Covenantal signs and seals In Reformed theology, a sacrament is usually defined as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace.[3] Since covenant theology today is mainly Protestant and Reformed in its outlook, proponents view Baptism and the Lord's Supper as the only two sacraments in this sense, which are sometimes called “church ordinances.” Along with the preached word, they are identified as an ordinary means of grace for salvation. The benefits of these rites do not occur from participating in the rite itself (ex opere operato), but through the power of the Holy Spirit as they are received by faith.” See article online for footnote sources. (4)

After considering the above overview of the various covenants, more time will be spent on the core understanding of a covenant, and in particular, with emphasis on salvation. The Abrahamic Covenant will be looked at in detail.

Charles Hodge, a 19th century Princeton theologian's thoughts on the Covenant of Grace from his systematic theology, is extensive. In this far-reaching quote, Hodge will focus on the salvation of humanity through His covenant:  

“1. The Plan of Salvation is a Covenant

The plan of salvation is presented under the form of a covenant. This is evident,—

First, from the constant use of the words בְּרִית and διαθήκη in reference to it. With regard to the former of these words, although it is sometimes used for a law, disposition, or arrangement in general, where the elements of a covenant strictly speaking are absent, yet there can be no doubt that according to its prevailing usage in the Old Testament, it means a mutual contract between two or more parties. It is very often used of compacts between individuals, and especially between kings and rulers. Abraham and Abimelech made a covenant. (Genesis 21:27.) Joshua made a covenant with the people. (Joshua 24:25.) Jonathan and David made a covenant. (1Samuel 18:3.) Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David. (1Samuel 20:16.) Ahab made a covenant with Benhadad. (1Kings 20:34.) So we find it constantly. There is therefore no room to doubt that the word בְּרִית when used of transactions between man and man means a mutual compact. We have no right to give it any other sense when used of transactions between God and man. Repeated mention is made of the covenant of God with Abraham, as in Genesis 15:18; 17:13, and afterwards with Isaac and Jacob. Then with the Israelites at Mount Sinai. The Old Testament is founded on this idea of a covenant relation between God and the theocratic people.

The meaning of the word διαθήκη in the Greek Scriptures is just as certain and uniform. It is derived from the verb διατίθημι, to arrange, and, therefore, in ordinary Greek is used for any arrangement, or disposition. In the Scriptures it is almost uniformly used in the sense of a covenant. In the Septuagint it is the translation of בְּרִית in all the cases above referred to. It is the term always used in the New Testament to designate the covenant with Abraham, with the Israelites, and with believers. The old covenant and the new are presented in contrast. Both were covenants. If the word has this meaning when applied to the transaction with Abraham and with the Hebrews, it must have the same meaning when applied to the plan of salvation revealed in the gospel.

Secondly, that the plan of salvation is presented in the Bible under the form of a covenant is proved not only from the signification and usage of the words above mentioned, but also and more decisively from the fact that the elements of a covenant are included in this plan. There are parties, mutual promises or stipulations, and conditions. So that it is in fact a covenant, whatever it may be called. As this is the Scriptural mode of representation, it is of great importance that it should be retained in theology. Our only security for retaining the truths of the Bible, is to adhere to the Scriptures as closely as possible in our mode of presenting the doctrines therein revealed.

2. Different Views of the Nature of this Covenant

It is assumed by many that the parties to the covenant of grace are God and fallen man. Man by his apostasy having forfeited the favour of God, lost the divine image, and involved himself in sin and misery, must have perished in this state, had not God provided a plan of salvation. Moved by compassion for his fallen creatures, God determined to send his Son into the world, to assume their nature, and to do and suffer whatever was requisite for their salvation. On the ground of this redeeming work of Christ, God promises salvation to all who will comply with the terms on which it is offered. This general statement embraces forms of opinion, which differ very much one from the others.

1. It includes even the Pelagian view of the plan of salvation, which assumes that there is no difference between the covenant of works under which Adam was placed, and the covenant of grace, under which men are now, except as to the extent of the obedience required. God promised life to Adam on the condition of perfect obedience, because he was in a condition to render such obedience. He promises salvation to men now on the condition of ouch obedience as they are able to render, whether Jews, Pagans, or Christians. According to this view the parties to the covenant are God and man; the promise is life; the condition is obedience, such as man in the use of his natural powers is able to render.

2. The Remonstrant system does not differ essentially from the Pelagian, so far as the parties, the promise and the condition of the covenant are concerned. The Remonstrants also make God and man the parties, life the promise, and obedience the condition. But they regard fallen men as in a state of sin by nature, as needing supernatural grace which is furnished to all, and the obedience required is the obedience of faith, or fides obsequiosa, faith as including and securing evangelical obedience. Salvation under the gospel is as truly by works as under the law; but the obedience required is not the perfect righteousness demanded of Adam, but such as fallen man, by the aid of the Spirit, is now able to perform.

3. Wesleyan Arminianism greatly exalts the work of Christ, the importance of the Spirit’s influence, and the grace of the gospel above the standard adopted by the Remonstrants. The two systems, however, are essentially the same. The work of Christ has equal reference to all men. It secures for all the promise of salvation on the condition of evangelical obedience; and it obtains for all, Jews and Gentiles, enough measures of divine grace to render such obedience practicable. The salvation of each individual man depends on the use, which he makes of this sufficient grace.

4. The Lutherans also hold that God had the serious purpose to save all men; that Christ died equally for all; that salvation is offered to all who hear the gospel, on the condition, not of works or of evangelical obedience, but of faith alone; faith, however, is the gift of God; men have not the power to believe, but they have the power of effectual resistance; and those, and those only, under the gospel, who wilfully resist, perish, and for that reason. According to all these views, which were more fully stated in the receding chapter, the covenant of grace is a compact between God and fallen man, in which God promises salvation on condition of a compliance with the demands of the gospel. What those demands are, as we have seen, is differently explained.

The essential distinctions between the above-mentioned views of the plan of salvation, or covenant of grace, and the Augustinian system, are, (1.) That, according to the former, its provisions have equal reference to all mankind, whereas according to the latter they have special reference to that portion of our race who are actually saved; and (2.) That Augustinianism says that it is God and not man who determines who are to be saved. As has been already frequently remarked, the question which of these systems is true is not to be decided by ascertaining which is the more agreeable to our feelings or the more plausible to our understanding, but which is consistent with the doctrines of the Bible and the facts of experience. This point has already been discussed. Our present object is simply to state what Augustinians mean by the covenant of grace.

The word grace is used in Scripture and in ordinary religious writings in three senses. (1.) For unmerited love; i.e., love exercised towards the undeserving. (2.) For any unmerited favour, especially for spiritual blessings. Hence, all the fruits of the Spirit in believers are called graces, or unmerited gifts of God. (3.) The word grace often means the supernatural influence of the Holy Ghost. This is preëminently grace, being the great gift secured by the work of Christ, and without which his redemption would not avail to our salvation. In all these senses of the word, the plan of salvation is properly called a covenant of grace. It is of grace because it originated in the mysterious love of God for sinners who deserved only his wrath and curse. Secondly, because it promises salvation, not on the condition of works or anything meritorious on our part, but as an unmerited gift. And, thirdly, because its benefits are secured and applied not in the course of nature, or in the exercise of the natural powers of the sinner, but by the supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit, granted to him as an unmerited gift.

3. Parties to the Covenant

At first view there appears to be some confusion in the statements of the Scriptures as to the parties to this covenant. Sometimes Christ is presented as one of the parties; at others He is represented not as a party, but as the mediator and surety of the covenant; while the parties are represented to be God and his people. As the old covenant was made between God and the Hebrews, and Moses acted as mediator, so the new covenant is commonly represented in the Bible as formed between God and his people, Christ acting as mediator. He is, therefore, called the mediator of a better covenant founded on better promises.

Some theologians propose to reconcile these modes of representation by saying that as the covenant of works was formed with Adam as the representative of his race, and therefore in him with all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation; so the covenant of grace was formed with Christ as the head and representative of his people, and in Him with all those given to Him by the Father. This simplifies the matter, and agrees with the parallel which the Apostle traces between Adam and Christ in Romans 5:12-21, and 1Corinthians 15:21, 22, 47-49. Still it does not remove the incongruity of Christ’s being represented as at once a party and a mediator of the same covenant. There are in fact two covenants relating to the salvation of fallen man, the one between God and Christ, the other between God and his people. These covenants differ not only in their parties, but also in their promises and conditions. Both are so clearly presented in the Bible that they should not be confounded. The latter, the covenant of grace, is founded on the former, the covenant of redemption. Of the one Christ is the mediator and surety; of the other He is one of the contracting parties.

This is a matter, which concerns only perspicuity of statement. There is no doctrinal difference between those who prefer the one statement and those who prefer the other; between those who comprise all the facts of Scripture relating to the subject under one covenant between God and Christ as the representative of his people, and those who distribute them under two. The Westminster standards seem to adopt sometimes the one and sometimes the other mode of representation. In the Confession of Faith it is said,

    ‘Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant [i.e., by the covenant of works], the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.’

Here the implication is that God and his people are the parties; for in a covenant the promises are made to one of the parties, and here it is said that life and salvation are promised to sinners, and that faith is demanded of them. The same view is presented in the Shorter Catechism, according to the natural interpretation of the answer to the twentieth question. It is there said,

    ‘God having out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.’

In the Larger Catechism, however, the other view is expressly adopted. In the answer to the question,

    ‘With whom was the covenant of grace made?’ it is said, ‘The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in Him with all the elect as his seed.’

Two Covenants to be distinguished

This confusion is avoided by distinguishing between the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son, and the covenant of grace between God and his people. The latter supposes the former, and is founded upon it. The two, however, ought not to be confounded, as both are clearly revealed in Scripture, and moreover they differ as to the parties, as to the promises, and as to the conditions. On this subject Turrettin says, 299 “Atque hic superfluum videtur qućrere, An fśdus hoc contractum fuerit cum Christo, tanquam altera parte contrahente, et in ipso cum toto ejus semine, ut primum fśdus cum Adamo pactum fuerat, et in Adamo cum tota ejus posteritate: quod non paucis placet, quia promissiones ipsi dicuntur factć, Gal. iii. 16, et quia, ut Caput et Princeps populi sui, in omnibus primas tenet, ut nihil nisi in ipso et ab ipso obtineri possit: An vero fśdus contractum sit in Christo cum toto semine, ut non tam habeat rationem partis contrahentis, quam partis medić, quć inter dissidentes stat ad eos reconciliandos, ut aliis satius videtur. Superfiuum, inquam, est de eo disceptare, quia res eodem redit; et certum est duplex hic pactum necessario attendendum esse, vel unius ejusdem pacti duas partes et gradus. Prius pactum est, quod inter Patrem et Filium intercedit, ad opus redemptionis exequendum. Posterius est, quod Deus cum electis in Christo contrahit, de illis per et propter Christum salvandis sub conditione fidei et resipiscentić. Prius fit cum Sponsore et capite ad salutem membrorum: Posterius fit cum membris in capite et sponsore.”

 The same view is taken by Witsius: 300 “Ut Fśderis gratić natura penitius perspecta sit, duo imprimis distincte consideranda sunt. (1.) Pactum, quod inter Deum Patrem et mediatorem Christum intercedit. (2.) Testamentaria illa dispositio, qua Deus electis salutem ćternam, et omnia eo pertinentia, immutabili fśdere addicit. Prior conventio Dei cum mediatore est: posterior Dei cum electis. Hćc illam supponit, et in illa fundatur.”

See Chapter 4. Covenant of Redemption, p. 359-362. - Chapter 5. The Covenant of Grace, 362-366 - Chapter 6. The Identity of the Covenant of Grace under all Dispensations, p. 366-373” (5)

Louis Berkhof’s observations on the Biblical definition of the Covenant will supplement the above lengthy quote by Hodge and will be of additional importance:

“1. IN THE OLD TESTAMENT. The Hebrew word for covenant is always berith, a word of uncertain derivation. The most general opinion is that it is derived from the Hebrew verb barah, to cut, and therefore contains a reminder of the ceremony mentioned in Gen. 15:17. Some, however, prefer to think that it is derived from the Assyrian word beritu, meaning “to bind.” This would at once point to the covenant as a bond. The question of the derivation is of no great importance for the construction of the doctrine. The word berith may denote a mutual voluntary agreement (dipleuric), but also a disposition or arrangement imposed by one party on another (monopleuric). Its exact meaning does not depend on the etymology of the word, nor on the historical development of the concept, but simply on the parties concerned. In the measure in which one of the parties is subordinate and has less to say, the covenant acquires the character of a disposition or arrangement imposed by one party on the other. Berith then becomes synonymous with choq (appointed statute or ordinance), Ex. 34:10; Isa. 59:21; Jer. 31:36; 33:20; 34:13. Hence we also find that karath berith (to cut a covenant) is construed not only with the prepositions ’am and ben (with), but also with lamedh (to), Jos. 9:6; Isa. 55:3; 61:8; Jer. 32:40. Naturally, when God establishes a covenant with man, this monopleuric character is very much in evidence, for God and man are not equal parties. God is the Sovereign who imposes His ordinances upon His creatures.

2. IN THE NEW TESTAMENT. In the Septuagint the word berith is rendered diatheke in every passage where it occurs with the exception of Deut. 9:15 (marturion) and I Kings 11:11 (entole). The word diatheke is confined to this usage, except in four passages. This use of the word seems rather peculiar in view of the fact that it is not the usual Greek word for covenant, but really denotes a disposition, and consequently also a testament. The ordinary word for covenant is suntheke. Did the translators intend to substitute another idea for the covenant idea? Evidently not, for in Isa. 28:15 they use the two words synonymously, and there diatheke evidently means a pact or an agreement. Hence there is no doubt about it that they ascribe this meaning to diatheke. But the question remains, Why did they so generally avoid the use of suntheke and substitute for it a word which denotes a disposition rather than an agreement? In all probability, the reason lies in the fact that in the Greek world the covenant idea expressed by suntheke was based to such an extent on the legal equality of the parties, that it could not, without considerable modification, be incorporated in the Scriptural system of thought. The idea that the priority belongs to God in the establishment of the covenant, and that He sovereignly imposes His covenant on man was absent from the usual Greek word. Hence, the substitution of the word in which this was very prominent. The word diatheke thus, like many other words, received a new meaning, when it became the vehicle of divine thought. This change is important in connection with the New Testament use of the word. There has been considerable difference of opinion respecting the proper translation of the word. In about half of the passages in which it occurs the Holland and the Authorized Versions render the word “covenant,” while in the other half they render it “testament.”

The American Revised Version, however, renders it “covenant” throughout, except in Heb. 9:16, 17. It is but natural, therefore, that the question should be raised, what is the New Testament meaning of the word? Some claim that it has its classical meaning of disposition or testament, wherever it is found in the New Testament, while others maintain that it means testament in some places, but that in the great majority of passages the covenant idea is prominently in the foreground. This is undoubtedly the correct view. We would expect a priorily that the New Testament usage would be in general agreement with that of the Septuagint; and a careful study of the relevant passages shows that the American Revised Version is undoubtedly on the right track, when it translates diatheke by “testament” only in Heb. 9:16,17. In all probability there is not a single other passage where this rendering would be correct, not even II Cor. 3:6, 14. The fact that several translations of the New Testament substituted “testament” for “covenant” in so many places is probably due to three causes: (a) the desire to emphasize the priority of God in the transaction; (b) the assumption that the word had to be rendered as much as possible in harmony with Heb. 9:16, 17; and (c) the influence of the Latin translation, which uniformly rendered diatheke by “testamentum.” (6)

Herman Ridderbos is considered one of the twentieth century’s most influential New Testament theologians. His views of the covenant will likewise be of significance:

“In the Septuagint διαθηκη is regularly used as the translation of the covenant of God (berith), rather than the apparently more available word συνθηκη. In this, there is already an expression of the fact that the covenant of God does not have the character of a contract between two parties, but rather that of a one-sided grant. This corresponds with the covenant-idea in the Old Testament, in which berith, even in human relations, sometimes refers to a one-party guarantee which a more favored person gives a less favored one (cf. Josh. 9:6, 15; 1 Sam. 11:1; Ezek. 17:13). And it is most peculiarly true of the divine covenantal deed that it is a one-party guarantee. It comes not from man at all, but from God alone. This does not rule out the fact, of course, that it involves religious and ethical obligation, namely that of faith and obedience (Gen. 17:9-10), and that thus the reciprocal element is taken up in the covenant. Still, such an obligation is not always named, and there is no room to speak at all of a correlation, in the sense that each determines and holds in balance the terms of the other, between the promise of God and the human appropriation of it. It is not the idea of parity, or even that of reciprocity, but that of validity, which determines the essence of the covenant-idea.

God's covenant with Noah, for example, lays down no stipulations, and it has the character of a one-party guarantee. It does of course require the faith of man, but is in its fulfillment in no respect dependent on the faith, and it is validly in force for all coming generations, believing and unbelieving (cf. Gen. 9:9). And in the making of the covenant with Abraham, too, in Gen. 15, the fulfillment of the law is in symbolical form made to depend wholly upon the divine deed. Abraham is deliberately excluded — he is the astonished spectator (cf. Gen. 15:12, 17).

True, in the Sinaitic covenant, the stipulations which God lays down for his people sometimes take the form of actual conditions, so that the realization of the promise is conditioned by them (cf. Lev. 26:15 ff. and Deut. 31:20), but this structural change in the covenant-revelation can be explained in connection with the wider promulgation — it is to extend to the whole nation of Israel — of the covenant, by means of which the covenant-relationship takes on a wider and more external meaning.

It comprises not merely the unconditional guarantee of God to those who walk in the faith and obedience of their father Abraham: it also lays down a special bond constituted by the offer of salvation, on the one side, and by responsibility, on the other side, for those who will not appear to manifest a oneness with their spiritual ancestor. Meanwhile, of course, the fact remains that in all the different dispensations of the covenant of grace, God's unconditional promise to Abraham constitutes its heart and kernel. Consequently, when the “new covenant” (Jer. 31:33) is announced, one thing is expressly made clear: namely, that the disposition, which is indispensable for the human reception of the covenant-benefits, will itself be granted as the gift of God Himself. In other words, that very thing which in the Sinaitic covenant was so plainly set down as a condition, belongs in the new covenant to the benefits promised by God in the covenant itself. The New Testament concept of διαθηκη lies quite in the line of that development, particularly as Paul thinks of it, as is evident in [Galatians 3 and 4], and in such a place as Rom. 9. That New Testament concept points to a salvation whose benefits are guaranteed by God and as a matter of fact are actually given, because in Christ and through Him the conditions of the covenant are fulfilled.” (7)

Biographical information:

Charles Hodge and Louis Berkhof were systematic theologians, and Herman Ridderbos was a critical New Testament theologian, having worked extensively on the history of salvation and biblical theology.

The goal of the above lengthy citations by Hodge, Berkhof, and Ridderbos is that something will stick out in one of the quotes, thus aiding the understanding of God’s covenants for the reader.

The significance of the Abrahamic Covenant and salvation:

As seen, the third appearance of the covenant in history is with Abraham. This covenant is after the earlier Adamic, and Noahic covenants. The covenant with Abraham is crucial since the later covenants, the Mosaic, and the Davidic covenants build upon the covenant with Abraham.

Like the Adamic covenant, God made a covenant with Abraham that was binding upon him and his posterity.

The importance of the Abrahamic Covenant seen in Genesis 15:17 from the Lutheran theologians Keil and Delitzsch:

“When the sun had gone down, and thick darkness had come on (היה impersonal), “behold a smoking furnace, and (with) a fiery torch, which passed between those pieces,” - a description of what Abram saw in his deep prophetic sleep, corresponding to the mysterious character of the whole proceeding. תּנּוּר, a stove, is a cylindrical fire-pot, such as is used in the dwelling-houses of the East. The phenomenon, which passed through the pieces as they lay opposite to one another, resembled such a smoking stove, from which a fiery torch, i.e., a brilliant flame, was streaming forth. In this symbol, Jehovah manifested Himself to Abram, just as He afterwards did to the people of Israel in the pillar of cloud and fire. Passing through the pieces, He ratified the covenant, which He made with Abram. His glory was enveloped in fire and smoke, the produce of the consuming fire, - both symbols of the wrath of God (cf. Psalm 18:9, and Hengstenberg in loc.), whose fiery zeal consumes whatever opposes it (vid. Exodus 3:2). - To establish and give reality to the covenant to be concluded with Abram, Jehovah would have to pass through the seed of Abram when oppressed by the Egyptians and threatened with destruction, and to execute judgment upon their oppressors (Exodus 7:4; Exodus 12:12). In this symbol, the passing of the Lord between the pieces meant something altogether different from the oath of the Lord by Himself in Genesis 22:16, or by His life in Deuteronomy 32:40, or by His soul in Amos 6:8 and Jeremiah 51:14. It set before Abram the condescension of the Lord to his seed, in the fearful glory of His majesty as the judge of their foes. Hence the pieces were not consumed by the fire; for the transaction had reference not to a sacrifice, which God accepted, and in which the soul of the offerer was to ascend in the smoke to God, but to a covenant in which God came down to man. From the nature of this covenant, it followed, however, that God alone went through the pieces in a symbolical representation of Himself, and not Abram also. For although a covenant always establishes a reciprocal relation between two individuals, yet in that covenant which God concluded with a man, the man did not stand on an equality with God, but God established the relation of fellowship by His promise and His gracious condescension to the man, who was at first purely a recipient, and was only qualified and bound to fulfil the obligations consequent upon the covenant by the reception of gifts of grace.” (8)

Puritan, John Gill explains the Abrahamic Covenant in easy to understand language:

“God made a covenant with Abram, as appears from Genesis 15:18; and, as a confirmation of it, passed between the pieces in a lamp of fire, showing that he was and would be the light and salvation of his people, Abram's seed, and an avenger of their enemies; only God passed between the pieces, not Abram, this covenant being as others God makes with men, only on one side; God, in covenanting with men, promises and gives something unto them, but men give nothing to him, but receive from him, as was the case between God and Abram: however, it is very probable, that this lamp of fire consumed the pieces, in like manner as fire from heaven used to fall upon and consume the sacrifices, in token of God's acceptance of them.” (9)

Covenants are not unique to the Bible. Other Near Eastern cultures had treaties and covenants that are similar to biblical covenants.

For example:  

Suzerain Treaties & The Covenant Documents the Bible by Dr. Meredith Kline from the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA:

“Brief Summary of Suzerain Treaties:

In the Ancient Near East, treaties between kings was common. These were treaties drawn up among equals and mostly outlined agreements to honor each other's boundaries, to maintain trade relations, and return run-away slaves. These treaties are preserved in the Mari Tablets and in the Amarna texts. Also preserved in these collections are treaties drafted between a superior and his inferior. If the relationship was familial or friendly, the parties are referred to as “father” and “son.” If the relationship is bereft of kindness and intimacy, the parties are referred to as “lord” and “servant,” or “king” and “vassal,” or “greater king” and “lesser king.” The greater king is the suzerain and the lesser king is a prince, or a lesser lord in the service of the greater king. The lesser lord is a representative of all the common people who are under the protection of the greater king. He enforces the treaty among the masses.

These Suzerain/Vassal treaties open with two sections: 1) The identification of the Suzerain by his name and titles; 2) The historical survey of the Suzerain's dealings with the vassal. The purpose is to illustrate to the vassal how much the Suzerain has done to protect and establish the vassal who therefore owes submission and allegiance to the Suzerain. These two sections are referred to as the “Preamble.”

The next section of these treaties list the “stipulations.” What the vassal is required to do is spelled out in principal and detail. This section is often concluded with the requirement that the vassal deposit his copy of the treaty in his temple, where he is to occasionally read and study it to refresh his memory concerning his duties.

The last section of these treaties contains the blessings and curses of the Suzerain. If the stipulations are met by the vassal, he will receive the Suzerain's blessings, which are listed. If the vassal fails to meet the stipulations, he will receive the Suzerain's curses, which are also listed.

The Suzerain would keep one copy of the treaty and the vassal would keep one copy of the treaty. A number of ratifying ceremonies were used depending upon the era and culture. But the most widely used rite was that of cutting the bodies of animals in halves and placing them in two rows with enough space between for the two parties of the treaty to walk side by side. As they walked between the pieces, they were vowing to each other, “May what has happened to these animals, happen to me if I break this covenant with you.”

Covenant Documents of the Bible Patterned After Suzerain Treaties:

Exodus 20

    (1-2)”Yahweh” is the Suzerain who delivered this Preamble to Moses, the vassal-lord who represents the people under the authority of the Suzerain.

    names & titles = “I am the Lord, your God.”

    historical prologue = “Who brought you out of Egypt...”

    (3-17) Stipulations with selected blessings and curses.

    stipulations = the 10 commandments;

    blessings and curses = (5b-6); (7b); (12b).


    (This entire book of Moses is saturated with Suzerain Treaty language and structure. It is not properly the treaty document itself, but it is based upon such a treaty, making reference to it often. Below are some examples.)

    (4:32-40) Historical Prologue language and structure;

    (4:44 - 5:21) Stipulations;

    (6:4-25) Blessings and Curses;

    (8) Reflects all the sections of a suzerain treaty,

    (11)” ““

    (17:14-20) Reflects the relationship of a vassal king to the Suzerain;

    (20) Reflects the language and structure of war-time arrangements between a Suzerain and his people;

    (27-28) Curses and Blessings;

    (29) Covenant Renewal;

    (30:11-19) Classic presentation of Ancient Near East Treaties!

    (A question along the lines of “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” Did God see fit to present his covenant to his people in a cultural form developed by Near Eastern empires, or did God's original pattern for his covenant in Eden inform and form the cultural pattern of the Ancient Near East?)” (10)

Kline’s question can be answered. God’s covenant came first, and God's original pattern for His covenant in Eden was used to inform and form the cultural pattern of the Ancient Near Eastern treaties. Therefore, biblical covenants were not dependent upon non-Christian sources. Likewise, this is similar to the biblical teaching on the flood and the numerous flood stories in ancient history. The Bible is not dependent upon pagan stories of the flood. The Bible sets forth the true account; the other stories are corrupted remnants of the biblical account. 

In conclusion, from the Westminster Confession on the Covenants:

“Chapter VII. Of God’s Covenant with Man

I. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant, (Isa 40:13-17; Job 9:32-33; 1Sa 2:25; Psalm 113:5-6; Psalm 100:2-3; Job 22:2-3; Job 35:7-8; Luke 17:10; Act 17:24-25).

II. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, (Gal 3:12); wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, (Rom 10:5; Rom 5:12-20); upon condition of perfect and personal obedience, (Gen 2:17; Gal 3:10).

III. Man, by his fall, having made himself uncapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, (Gal 3:21; Rom 8:3; Rom 3:20-21; Gen 3:15; Isa 42:6); commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, (Mar 16:15-16; John 3:16; Rom 10:6, 9; Gal 3:11); and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe, (Ezekiel 36:26-27; John 6:44-45).

IV. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed, (Hebrews 9:15-17; Hebrews 7:22; Luke 22:20; 1Co 11:25).

V. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel, (2Co 3:6-9): under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all fore-signifying Christ to come, (Hebrews 8-10; Rom 4:11; Col 2:11-12; 1Co 5:7); which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, (1Co 10:1-4; Hebrews 11:13; John 8:56); by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old Testament, (Gal 3:7-9, 14).

VI. Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, (Col 2:17); was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, (Mat 28:19-20; 1Co 11:23-25): which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fulness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, (Hebrews 12:22-27; Jerimiah 31:33-34); to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles, (Mat 28:19; Ephesians 2:15-19); and is called the new Testament, (Luke 22:20). There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations, (Gal 3:14, 16; Act 15:11; Rom 3:21-23, 30; Psalm 32:1; Rom 4:3, 6, 16-17, 23-24; Hebrews 13:8).”

Covenantal theology is inescapable. Have you submitted to God’s covenant in Christ? Alternatively, are you in rebellion?

“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)


1.      The Blood of the Everlasting Covenant, A Sermon (No. 273) Delivered on Sabbath Morning, September 4th, 1859, by the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon-Sermons

2.      Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, (Phillipsburg New Jersey, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1992), p.574.

3.      Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Reformation Heritage Books, reprinted 2010), p. 45.

4.       References from Wikipedia, God’s covenants is online at: Wikipedia/Covenant theology

5.      Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, reprinted 1982), pp. 354-359.

6.      Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1949), pp. 262, 263.

7.      Herman Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1953), p. 130-31.

8.      Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans), Reprinted 1986, p. 216, 217.

9.      John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments 9 Volumes, John, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), 2011, p. 286, 287.

10.  Dr. Meredith Kline, Notes from lectures of, presented at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: