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What is Covenant Theology?

Barry is the founder and Professor of the M.Div. program for Mindanao Grace Seminary, Philippines.


What is Covenant Theology?

Many who reject Covenant Theology do so because they do not understand what it is. Dispensationalists are one such group. They hear the word “covenant” and think only in terms of their perspective. They automatically consider the covenants that God made with man (Adamic, Noahic, Mosaic, etc.). The Dispensationalist speak of covenants only as they relate to the Doctrine of Eschatology. From the Reformed Perspective, this is a categorical error. We are not talking about eschatology but rather using the term in relation to the Doctrine of Soteriology. This is not to say that the doctrines are not related. Indeed, all doctrines are related but eschatology and soteriology are two very different things.

Others who reject Covenant Theology assume that the scheme was concocted only to justify infant baptism. Again, this is a categorical error. The starting place for covenant theology is not ecclesiology (the Doctrine of the Church), but rather soteriology. This error is most often committed by those who hold to a reformed view in some areas but are reacting to infant baptism. What we believe about Covenant Theology will certainly affect our view of the church, but the church is not the starting place for the discussion

The Covenant of Redemption

Covenant Theology is the working out of God’s plan in time. Covenant Theology does not start in the Garden of Eden. It starts in the Trinity. God the Father elects a people to redeem from fallen humanity. God the Son will pay the penalty for their sins and God the Holy Spirit will regenerate those people. This was the plan of God before time began.

"All who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain." Revelation 13:8

"Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him." Ephesians 1:4

Before time, God decided to redeem a people for Himself. This is the Covenant of Redemption.


Covenant of Works and Covenant of grace

When Adam sinned in the Garden, he broke the Law of God and he broke the covenant of God. Adam represented man to God. The reason why we suffer under the curse and with sin is that Adam was our representative. If he had not sinned, we would not be sinful and we would not die.

Historically, this has been called the Covenant of Works. It was by the actions of Adam that we were lost and it could have been by the obedience of Adam that we would have access to the Tree of Life. After Adam sinned, fellowship with God was severed and he was put out of the Garden.

Some might want to protest here and say that this cannot be called the Covenant of Works because we know that works cannot save. The statement is being misapplied. Adam is not lost. Prior to the Fall, Adam does not need to be saved. So the Covenant of Works is not to save people who are lost. Rather, by his actions of obedience, Adam is able to maintain a right standing with God for himself and for humanity.

Adam the Federal Head of Humanity

"Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned" Romans 5: 12

"For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive." 1 Corinthians 15:21-22

In Genesis chapter 3, we have the story of how Eve was deceived by the serpent and Adam disobeyed God. Later in this same chapter, God pronounces the curses on the Serpent, on Eve and on Adam. The curse pronounced upon Adam includes the entire creation, even those who would be born after Adam. God then throws Adam out of the Garden and makes it impossible for Adam to eat of the Tree of Life. We die because we are under the curse.

If we all die because Adam sinned, it stands to reason that if Adam had not sinned, we would not die. It further stands to reason that had Adam not eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, he would have been permitted to eat from the Tree of Life.

“You were dead in your trespasses and sins.” Ephesians 2:1

We are born sinners. All Christians agree with this statement. And the Scripture is clear that we are born dying physically because we are under the curse. This is because of the acts of Adam. Out of those who were born in Adam, God had elected a people before the foundation of the world. If election occurred before creation, then God must have known that Adam would sin and bring a curse upon all humanity. Election and salvation in Christ was part of the plan and the Fall was also part of the plan.


Jesus the Federal Head of the Elect

"Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come." Romans 5:14

Christ is the fulfillment of the type. Adam represented the human race before God. Adam sinned and the human race was cursed. Jesus represents His people before God. On the cross, Jesus takes the wrath of God for the people of God. He is the representative of the elect.

"Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them." Hebrews 7:25

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