The doctrine of the covenant was one of the theological contributions that came to the church through the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Undeveloped earlier, it made its appearance in the writings of Zwingli and Bullinger, who were driven to the subject by Anabaptists in and around Zurich. From them it passed to Calvin and other Reformers, was further developed by their successors, and played a dominant role in much Reformed theology of the seventeenth century when it came to be known as covenant, or federal, theology. Covenant theology sees the relation of God to mankind as a compact which God established as a reflection of the relationship existing between the three persons of the Holy Trinity.
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Inasmuch as he was acting not only for himself but representatively for mankind, Adam was a public person. His fall therefore affected the entire human race that was to come after him; all are now conceived and born in sin. Without a special intervention of God there would be no hope; all would be lost forever.
The good news, however, is that God has intervened in behalf of mankind with another covenant. Unlike the earlier covenant of works, whose mandate was "Do this and you shall live" (cf. Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12), the covenant of grace is bestowed on men in their sinful condition with the promise that, in spite of their inability to keep any of the commandments of God, out of sheer grace he forgives their sin and accepts them as his children through the merits of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, on the condition of Faith.
On this foundation covenant theology affirms that God the Father and God the Son covenanted together for the redemption of the human race, the Father appointing the Son to be the mediator, the Second Adam, whose life would be given for the salvation of the world, and the Son accepting the commission, promising that he would do the work which the Father had given him to do and fulfill all righteousness by obeying the law of God. Thus before the foundation of the world, within the eternal being of God, it had been determined that creation would not be destroyed by sin, but that rebellion and iniquity would be overcome by God's grace, that Christ would become the new head of humanity, the Savior of the world, and that God would be glorified.
Thus Heb. 7:22 calls Jesus the "surety" or "guarantee" of the new covenant, which is better than that which came through Moses. Within the context of this last passage repeated mention is made of God's promise to Christ and his people. He will be their God and they will be his people. He will bestow on them the grace they need to confess his name and live with him forever; in humble dependence on him for their every need, they will live in trustful obedience from day to day. This latter, called faith in Scripture, is the sole condition of the covenant, and even it is a gift of God (Eph. 2:8 - 9).
Although the covenant of grace includes various dispensations of history, it is essentially one. From the promise in the garden (Gen. 3:15), through the covenant made with Noah (Gen. 6 - 9), to the day that the covenant was established with Abraham, there is abundant evidence of God's grace. With Abraham a new beginning is made which the later, Sinaitic covenant implements and strengthens. At Sinai the covenant assumes a national form and stress is laid on the law of God. This is not intended to alter the gracious character of the covenant, however (Gal. 3:17 - 18), but it is to serve to train Israel until the time would come when God himself would appear in its midst. In Jesus the new form of the covenant that had been promised by the prophets is manifest, and that which was of a temporary nature in the old form of the covenant disappears (Jer. 31:31 - 34; Heb. 8). While there is unity and continuity in the covenant of grace throughout history, the coming of Christ and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit have brought rich gifts unknown in an earlier age.
These are a foretaste of future blessedness when this present world passes away and the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven from God (Rev. 21:2).
M E Osterhaven
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
L Berkhof, Systematic Theology; C Hodge, Systematic Theology, II; H Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics; H Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith; G Schrenk, Gottesreich und Bund in alteren Protestantismus; H H Wolf, Die Einheit des Bundes.
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