A Covenant Theology Primer

Distinguishing Features and Applications
Our God is infinitely and wonderfully complex, His ways past finding out and His wisdom boundless and eternal. The Lord has, nonetheless, been pleased to bend low to reveal much about Himself. He has shown us His power and engineering discretion in the physical creation. He has revealed His holiness, justice and mercy through the giving of the law, and His great kindness and patience through the prophets and Scripture writers. The clearest and fullest revelation was given to us through the coming of the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. It is in the face of Christ that we are able to determine most specifically what God is like, how He governs His creation and how He saves and brings a people unto Himself. In Christ we have justice and mercy perfectly alloyed, righteous wrath against the sinner and perfect love made possible and joined together.

Pattern In Covenant Theology
Trying to think God’s thoughts and to describe His ways we soon discover the severity of our limitations. Like a swimmer attempting to navigate the Pacific Ocean, we progress only a few yards at a time. We have awareness of but a few square miles on the great expanse. In spite of this inadequacy, there are distinct patterns that God has wisely ordained. When we attempt to analyze His strategies and to examine the course and methodology that He uses we become better able to grasp and retain the truth. This analysis is like figuring out the "game plan," getting an understanding of how everything has been made to work in God’s universe. The pattern that the Church has historically discerned in the workings of the sovereign God is called Covenant Theology. This pattern portrays God the Father as first, the Absolute Determiner of all things and events; second, the Only Begotten Son, the One who causes all things to happen, moving life and history forward; and third, as the Holy Spirit, who generates life, sustains creation and gives insight to all with whom He savingly strives.

Of God As A Covenant God
His being a Covenant God means that He lives in consummate covenant life in Himself. Within the three Persons of the Holy Trinity there is nothing of loneliness or need of any kind. This is true because God knows Himself exhaustively and exists within Himself in perfect fellowship and love.1 Thus, God, indeed, is One. This forms the essence and basis of the Covenant of Grace, the pact concerning His elect that the Father made with Jesus Christ, as the Head of man. Because of the perfection already existing in the Lord God, through the mechanism of the Covenant, man is able to participate in and taste, in a creaturely way, something of the harmony.

As a benefit then of the existing perfection (koinonia) in God, the Covenant of Grace was instituted to reveal the awesome permanence and continuity of the way of the Lord. This is the part of the Decree that reflects the brightness of God’s glory in showing how comprehensive is His design and how, in shaping His universe nothing was left out, nor was "chance" licensed or the Pagan concept of randomness entitled.

This holy Covenant was made between God the Father and His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ in His human nature, standing at the head of and as sovereign Representative of the elect. Those fallen men upon whom God had set His love, those rebels not being able or willing to come to repentance and faith, in fact, running from any fellowship with their Creator, are thus undeservedly represented in Christ. They are not left to their self-centered defiance and insurrection, but are brought to humility and submission before the Savior who died for their sin.

The Covenant Applied To Experience - How It Works In Practice
Presented with the Gospel these sinners turn away and run for cover just as do all unregenerate people. If left to themselves, their own sin-enslaved wills and evil desires, they would invariably continue to reject Christ and His proffered mercy. On the other hand, if they are subjects of the contract between the Heavenly Father and His Eternal Son they sooner or later will be found slowing down in their baneful spiritual descent, beginning to think with a somewhat enlightened mind and starting to realize the hopelessness of their plight.

This point is reached in the human heart only by the blessed intrusion of the Holy Spirit. Now when presented with the Gospel, in its many forms and graces, the sinful heart listens. It begins to consider the truthfulness of the indictment and the sweetness of the offer. Then, in God’s time, the sinner’s heart and mind are brought to repentance and faith. God’s eternal will and plan are carried out and His people, for whom He covenanted, are brought into the safety and productiveness of His Kingdom. Their fallen natures are renewed, their actual sins are confessed and forgiven, their faithless and valueless works are shelved. After this, listed in the Father’s Book Of Life, are the righteous works of Christ Jesus, now accounted under their names and to their credit. These regenerated lives are set on a course of change and obedience. New works begin to reflect the blessings of salvation.

Covenant Applied To History
God has wisely engineered history, both personal and corporate, to nurture and influence His people. From before human conception to the point of conversion their names are known to Him.2 Their individual characters have been designed and created in the same way as their physical bodies were formed. For example, God spoke of His servant Abraham as a man who was "known" in a creative and generative sense.3 This truth should be understood dynamically, not in some reflexively mechanical or involuntary way. God made the spiritual fidelity of His chosen ones a certainty and, by the same eternal decree, personal faithfulness their singular delight. We are graciously allowed to view the double-sided coin of God’s love and justice.

Erroneous Concepts Examined
The idea of "covenant" has, on occasion, seen wrong application or distortion. Some Christians mistakenly think of God’s promise of care and salvation as "automatic" regeneration, as though it would occur without the awareness or concern of the person. Indeed, there have been erroneous applications of theology that would tend to suggest this mistake. There have been children of the Covenant who lived lives of self indulgence and debauchery, while at the same time, considering themselves "officially" to be believers. This fault does not render the position to be wrong. Covenant theology is not erased by covenant breakers who despised their heritage in the same way as did Esau.4

The idea of "covenant" is only rightly grasped by the one who realizes something of the depth of his own spiritual need, the one who has been brought to face the hopelessness of his inability and the fickleness of his determination to change. The ultimate covenant breaker, in reality, lives out of himself, nothing more. He reveals and confirms the fact that he is not included in the number of those given to the Son. On the other hand, the covenant keeper reveals the opposite. His eventual faith is lived out of the power of God’s Spirit and grace. Thus, the staying power and certainty engendered by the knowledge of God’s covenant promises expand into the precious basis for stability in the life of the maturing believer. Looking to God as the Author, as well as the Finisher of our faith is the apt summary of an accurate view of redemption. As stated above, other views are too weak and man-oriented.

Covenant And World View
Covenant theology is also the basis for the best and most comprehensive world view. This is because it assumes that God is sovereign and has always carried out, with perfection, His plan for His world, for man and all of history. It holds that every event, big or small, significant or (seemingly) insignificant, comes about as part of the totality that God designed. It catalogs the comprehensive fulfillment of the promise that "God causes all things to work together for those who love Him and are the called according to His purpose."5

A Covenant world view always maintains the cardinal point that the sovereign God is the center of the universe, the focus of the one as well as the many, each and every event and the many circumstances and happenings of all history. It marvels at His wisdom and power. It engenders fascination at His justice and mercy, able to account for the economic and political status of nations, and the difficulties and inequities that dog even the keen and principled philosopher. It never sees God as a mere genie who waits in his bottle until summoned by a rub from man.

Opposing Systems Handled
The widely popular opposing view, there being only one, helps us to understand the importance of the covenantal emphasis. Humanism, the religion of man, irrepressibly asserts its starting point with man, not God. Its maligning chant centers around, as should be anticipated, the salvation of man. Its litany exposes an underlying dogma consisting of a carping lamentation about the economic and physical condition, the endless needs of various sectors of society and man’s stalking death sentence. Expressed in simple terms, man wants with all his heart to believe the fantasy that God doesn’t exist and that, simultaneously, He is responsible for all the pain and suffering endured by a humanity that is essentially neutral, if not innocent.

Certain inadequate "Christian" world views persist in one form or another. Evangelicals and Arminians sheepishly propose a well-meaning god, one who does his best to keep order in history and to stamp out the fires of defiance and sedition. His chief purpose being to provide personal salvation to man, He is presented as always standing by, anticipating the momentary decision of any who might turn to Him with favor. Their gospel of salvation is based, as it should be, on the substitutionary blood atonement of Christ, but its hope is all in the future tense, divorced from the larger vista of conflict and Kingdom and the vindication of Christ.6 Man’s free will and genius, in their view, interfere with the righteous proposals of God, thus He can’t be blamed for bad things that happen, but spiritual contention is seen too much as on an equal footing.

Modernists and liberals, other spin-offs from the Faith, profess the same empty prospect as do the Humanists, seeking man’s good only in economic, political and psychological progress. They see no conquest over evil in the cross and resurrection, nor do they hope for an eternity in heaven. This "non-pagan" philosophy contents itself with befriending the enemies of Christ and mimicking their complaint, while wearing a costume of the church.

Conclusion And Application
Covenant Theology then calls to mind the full-orbed biblical truth, the most God-centered statement of His revelation. It maintains in top billing the idea of the absolute sovereignty of God. This great doctrine is the controlling feature and starting point of every subsequent and supporting doctrine. A God who acts only with perfect righteousness in everything He says and does needs no bargain apologies from His ministers on earth. He requires no spin doctors or sales-oriented divines who can invent more appealing versions of character or create a better press to explain His acts of judgment or mercy.

One
Application ONE of Covenant Theology establishes that it is to be received because of its peremptory biblical mandate. The Bible says that God promised to bless Abraham and his seed, the seed we learn that is found in Christ. His promise had application for all time and for all people who are, by grace, in that favored category.7 (In the book of Galations we are taught that these are all the people of faith, those blessed with faithful Isaac.) We cannot ignorantly dismiss covenant consciousness because of some misunderstanding or alleged misuse. Nor can we arrogantly construct some other understanding of God’s ways.

Two
Application TWO; either God has planned and continually brings about all events, personal and corporate, with precision and righteousness or He doesn’t. If He does not or cannot do this, the alternative must be accepted, Man is his own god.8 The uniqueness of Covenant thinking points up the certainty, the formal and reliable legal aspect of everything that God has said in His Word. It reassures us that Christ was and is victorious, that He, indeed, continues to bring to greater light, within the confines of history, the reality of His Kingdom on earth and the glory of His present rule. We are personally humbled, our own salvation being thus, the more assured. Resting on the contractual certainty of the Book of Life, the entry of our name having been written in the blood of the cross, we revel in the faithfulness of the Savior and in His ability to keep that which we have committed until the final consummation.

Three
Application THREE is the fact that Covenant Theology reflects, most profoundly, the glory and majesty of God. All of history comes about as the outworking of His eternal decree, not as a construct of the combined or assimilated decisions and works of man. Our salvation is the subject of this all encompassing compact between the Father and Son. The circumstances and the final outcome of our lives issue forth as fully determined and significant from God’s throne room and we are particularly privileged to be enabled to partake in the covenant communion of the Triune God.

Four
A FOURTH application is evident with regard to the holy sacraments. We baptize our new born children in faith. Having received them from the hand of God we rejoice with them as having a part in the Promise.9 We cannot biblically count them among the reprobate, or dependent on personal good will, ingenuity or spiritual discernment. They are God’s to create and to cause to be born in a covenant home, our home. We are commanded to treat them as such. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper has the same rationale. We do not excommunicate our children as soon as they enter the world. Rather, having received them from God’s hand, we include them in the eating and drinking of the life-giving bread and wine. Their discernment is not as great as our own, as adults, but the required level of perception must only be commensurate with one’s ability. Thus, the aged and the senile are not excluded because of their lack. The Lord doesn’t require of us, sitting in the pew, the understandng of Luther or Calvin. Nor do we demand of our toddlers a seminarian’s grasp of doctrine. Those born within or adopted under the cover of the Promise are included in the blessing.

Covenant Theology rightly acknowledges the honor of God and is energized by Divine initiative. It draws attention away from man and self. This superior emphasis is noted throughout the entire spectrum of theological subjects. The wise accent on representation is especially noteworthy and helpful. Those who rejoice under the covering of God’s holy promise know something of the confidence that is found only in the government of our Covenant-keeping elder Brother, Savior and King, Jesus Christ.

Rev. Dale K. Dykema


Endnotes:
1 See Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, Reformed Free Pub. Assoc., Grand Rapids, MI, 1966, p. 319.
2 Jeremiah 1:5 reveals the prior knowledge of God and His sovereign direction in the life of the prophet.
3 Genesis 18:19 speaks of God’s creative "knowledge" of Abraham that insured his faithfulness in rearing his covenant children.
4 Hebrews 12: 11-17
5 See Romans 8:28. This wonderful pledge is often used to crow about something that is considered beneficial and good. It must also be remembered at times and events that are disappointing and not understood.
6 Psalm 149:5-9. This Psalm, along with many others, portrays the ultimate victory of our Lord, in history. Scripture teaches that Christ’s honor will be vindicated before the kings, political leaders and nations. His rule will be increasingly manifested while the failure and defeat of Humanism becomes undeniably evident.
7 See Galatians 3:16 and 4:4. Here in these verses we see the application of Genesis 3:15 as God declared it in the Garden of Eden.
8 See Romans 8:26-28. For this statement of God’s sovereignty to be true and sustainable He must ordain and control with absolute certainty, all things, big and small. Nothing can be left to chance or incertitude, since everything is related and dependent.
9 See Gen.17:1-17. Father Abraham puts the mark of the Covenant on his child and upon his hired servants. He thus notes the significance of both familial and other relationships.

 
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