UNITY OF THE DIVINE COVENANTS


The Bible consists of sixty-six books written by some forty different authors over a span of more than a thousand five hundred years. Yet, the Bible is not merely an anthology of historical works, stories, poetries and other literary works. The Bible itself declares that all parts of it are given by inspiration of God (2 Tim 3:16). This can be verified to a certain degree even by a superficial reading of the Bible. But much more than that, the Christian, reading and examining the Bible with the illuminating help of the Holy Spirit, will surely not miss the fact that it is indeed one book whose ultimate author is God Himself. However, the average reader of the Bible, unaided by knowledge of systematic theology, may find it difficult to see a central theme or unifying principle running through the Scriptures. Thus, it may be difficult for a person who has no sympathy with systematic theology, though having a high regard for the Scripture, to see the biblical basis behind the Covenant Theology expressed in our Confession of Faith, such as:

This covenant [of grace] was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: 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, 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, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation, and is called the Old Testament (WCF 7.5).


One may well point to Romans 5:12–21 and perhaps Hebrews 8–10 to show that there is indeed a covenant of salvation centring on Christ. But our inquirer or objector (as the case may be) may well point out: firstly that the phrase “covenant of grace” does not occur in the Scripture, and secondly, there are many references to covenants which God made with different individuals in the Old Testament, e.g., Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, but there does not appear to be one that spans the different eras covered by scriptural history. How do we respond to such a person?


In this short article, we would like to make an attempt to answer the second objection, namely, we would like to show that there is indeed a covenant initiated by God that spans scriptural history which, we believe, corresponds to the Covenant of Grace. This covenant, we believe, is manifested or renewed with different persons at different times in revelational history, so that they appear as different covenants, but are, in fact, referring to one and the same covenant progressively revealed. In a follow-up article, we shall show the unilateral and gracious character of these divine covenants (or subordinate covenants) in order to show that the one covenant spanning redemptive history may rightly be called “the Covenant of Grace.” Note, however, that in the interest of brevity, these articles are necessarily introductory. Those interested in a fuller treatment may consult: O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (P&R, 1980), 308 pages.


We will show the unity of the divinely initiated divine covenants by first looking at the testimony of the New Testament; secondly, looking at how the covenants are structurally united, i.e., how later covenants build upon earlier ones; and thirdly, by showing that each of the covenants has the same theme.


Testimony of the New Testament


Immediately after John the Baptist was born, Zacharias his father was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied saying:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David; As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began: That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; The oath which he sware to our father Abraham (Lk 1:68–73).


Notice how Zacharias explicitly refers to the Abrahamic Covenant, but then (1) he refers to it as a covenant which has been spoken of since the creation of the world; and (2) he seems to include the promise of the Davidic Covenant under it. The most obvious explanation of this apparent inaccuracy on Zacharias’ part is to see that he recognises that the Old Testament covenants, whether made with Adam, Abraham or David, all refer to the same covenant.


The writer of Hebrews also hints at this thought when he speaks about the blood of Christ as being “the blood of the everlasting covenant” (Heb 13:20). It may be thought that this everlasting covenant refers only to the New Covenant which was inaugurated by Christ at His death and will never be disannulled (e.g., Jer 32:40). But this interpretation is highly unlikely when we consider the fact that the phrase “everlasting covenant” occurs many times in the Old Testament. It was used to describe the Noahic Covenant (Gen 9:16), the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen 17:7), and the Davidic Covenant (Isa 55:3). The book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who would have been very familiar with the Old Testament. When they read the term “everlasting covenant” (diathêkê aiônios), they would no doubt call to mind references to the “everlasting covenant” in the Old Testament (exactly the same words in the Greek translation of the OT, the LXX). Again, therefore, there is a strong evidence that the writer of Hebrews, writing under inspiration, considers the Noahic Covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant, and the Davidic Covenant as one and the same covenant.


Structural Unity of the Covenants


We have already referred to the Adamic Covenant, the Noahic Covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, the Davidic Covenant and the New Covenant. These are the divine covenants, which God appears to have made with individuals in the course of revelational history. To show that these are all aspects of the same covenant, progressively revealed, we need to prove, apart from the New Testament testimony, that they are structurally and thematically united.


Structural unity has to do with unity arising out of the circumstances surrounding the inauguration and administration of the covenants. Simply stated, two covenants are structurally united if the later of the two covenants refers to, or builds upon the earlier covenant. Put in another way, two covenants are structurally united if the stipulations or promises of both of them are at the same time effective. It is not difficult to see that two everlasting covenants with the same theme that are in force in the same time must be referring to different aspects of the same covenant.


Bearing this in mind, it can be seen that the Mosaic Covenant is structurally united to the Abrahamic Covenant by the context of the establishment of the later covenant. In Exodus 2:24, which anticipates the establishment of the Mosaic Covenant, we are told: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” John Murray notes that “The only interpretation of this is that the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and the bringing them into the land of promise is in fulfilment of the covenant promise to Abraham respecting the possession of the land of Canaan (Ex 3:16, 17, 6:4–8; Pss 105:8–12, 42–45; 106:45)” (John Murray, The Covenant of Grace, [P&R, 1988], 20). Thus, it may be said that the Mosaic Covenant developed from the Abrahamic Covenant, and thus the two subordinate covenants are structurally united.


The Apostle Paul also hints at the structural unity between the Abrahamic Covenant and the Mosaic Covenant when he affirms that the Abrahamic Covenant remains in force when the Mosaic Covenant was inaugurated: “And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect” (Gal 3:17).


Again, we see that the Davidic Covenant and the Mosaic Covenant are structurally united since Solomon comes under the scope of the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam 23:5; Ps 89:3–4; cf. 2 Sam 7:12–16), but David charged him to keep the stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant: “And keep the charge of the LORD thy God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, and his commandments, and his judgments, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, that thou mayest prosper in all that thou doest, and whithersoever thou turnest thyself” (1 Kgs 2:3).


Even more strikingly, the Lord draws four of the subordinate covenants together in Ezekiel 37:24–26:

And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd [promise of the Davidic Covenant—Ps 89:3–4]: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes [stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant—Ex 24:7], and do them. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children [promise of the Abrahamic Covenant—Gen 15:18], and their children’s children for ever: and my servant David shall be their prince for ever. Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore[promise of the New Covenant].


What about the New Covenant? Numerous statements in the New Testament appear to suggest that there is a discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant (e.g., Heb 8:6–7). Is there a structural unity between the New Covenant and the Old Covenant? The term “Old Covenant” (cf. Heb 8:13), we must remember, is not a precise theological term. It is a comparative term to highlight the newness of the New Covenant. But in what sense is the New Covenant new? Very simply, it is new in that its promises and administration are the substance or antitype of the shadows and types in the Old Covenant. This is what the writer of Hebrews mean by “better covenant” and “better promises” (Heb 8:6). The tabernacle of the Old is replaced by Christ, the Emmanuel (Heb 9:11; Mt 1:23) who tabernacled among us (Jn 1:14). The sacrifices of the Old which cannot really take away sin (Heb 10:4) ceased with the perfect propitiatory sacrifice of Christ Himself (Heb 9:14; Mt 26:28). The priestly administration of Old finds its fulfilment in the mediatorship of Christ (Heb 4:15–16; 7:24–25). The land promised of Old finds its real substance in the promise of eternal inheritance in Christ (Heb 6:18–19; 11:10, 16). The King promised in the Davidic Covenant is now seated on the throne reigning as King of kings and Lord of lords.


Moreover, the New Covenant does not do away with every aspect of the Old Covenant. Though the ceremonial laws of the Mosaic Covenant have been fulfilled, the Moral Laws remain as a principle of life or the regulations of covenant life of New Covenant saints (Mt 5:18–20, etc.). The Sabbath remains a sign between God and His people (Ex 31:11, 16; cf. Heb 4:9 [note: “rest” translates sabbatismos]). The promise of the Abrahamic Covenant is still for believers and their seed (Acts 2:39). The sacraments of the Old Covenant: Circumcision (Abrahamic Covenant) and Passover (Mosaic Covenant) remains as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.


The evidence is quite conclusive, I believe: the divine covenants that God made with representative individuals in the Old Testament, are structurally united to one another. None of the covenants were simply cancelled or disannulled. All the covenants built upon one another and culminated at the New Covenant where what is shadowy and typical finds their fulfilment in Christ.


Thematic Unity of the Covenants


The divine covenants are not just structurally united. An examination of each of them will reveal that there is a soteriological theme that runs through each of them. This theme is best captured in the phrase: “I will be your God and you will be my people,” which constantly recurs in various forms in the summation of the covenants (see ICR 2.10.8; Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology [BOT, 1958], 277; Robertson, Covenants, 45).


Adamic Covenant

The most important statement in the Adamic Covenant is no doubt Genesis 3:15, “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” This verse, which has long been dubbed the protevangelium, however carries much interpretative difficulties. In particular, many commentators struggle with the meaning of the phrase “her seed.” Does the seed refer to Christ or to Christians? Interestingly, a search through the literature on the subject would reveal that by and large, most commentators would eventually arrive at the conclusion that it has a primary and secondary meaning. Matthew Poole’s puts it very well:

… first and principally, [“her seed” refers to] the Lord Christ, who with respect to this text and promise is called, by way of eminency, the seed, Galatians 3:16, 19; whose work it is to break the serpent’s head, i.e., to destroy the devil, Hebrews 2:14.… Secondly, by way of participation, all the members of Christ, all believers and holy men, who are called the children of Christ, Hebrews 2:13… are the implacable enemies of the devil, whom also by Christ’s merit and strength they do overcome (Comm. in loc.).


This is confirmed by the Apostle Paul’s commentary on the verse in Romans 16:20, “And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your [plural] feet shortly.” So Robertson notes that “Paul sees the ultimate realisation of this earliest word of prophesy in the destruction of Satan under the feet of believers at the end of the age” (Robertson, Covenants, 99). This distinction of believers from unbelievers demonstrates that the major theme of the Adamic Covenant is in fact the said: “I will be your God and you will be my people” (cf. 2 Cor 6:14–16). This is further confirmed in Genesis 3:20, where Adam named his wife Eve, “because she was the mother of all living.” Adam is now the father of all who will die (Rom 5:12), but the woman, through the prophesied virgin birth of Christ, has become the mother of all who will live. Genesis 3:21 supports this interpretation with the slaying of the animal to make the coats of skin, typifying the perfect sacrifice at the Cross, by which the Lord redeems a people for Himself.


Noahic Covenant

Although not specifically mentioned, the theme, “I will be your God and you will be my people,” can also be seen in the Noahic Covenant. This is first implied in the Lord’s choice of Noah and his family, out of all the families on the earth, to be saved from the deluge. The phrase, “Noah found grace in the eye of the LORD” (Gen 6:8), surely is an indication of the first part of the theme, i.e., “I will be your God.” And undoubtedly, “Noah walked with God” (Gen 6:9) indicates the second part of the theme: “you will be my people.”


Similarly, after the flood, the soteriological theme can again be seen. Firstly, it is seen in Genesis 9:9, “I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you.” It is true that on the surface, this covenant might appear merely to be a promise that God would not destroy the earth by flood again (v. 11). However, there is more to it. The Apostle Peter, certainly refers to this very statement in the phrase “by the same word” in 2 Peter 3:7, and his commentary is that the reason why the earth is “kept in store” by that promise is that the Lord is “longsuffering to usward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). The Noahic Covenant must therefore be understood as exhibiting the same commitment of God to redeem a people unto Himself, just as in the Adamic Covenant.


The Noahic Covenant, we may conclude, is not a new covenant, but a development of the Adamic Covenant.


Abrahamic Covenant

The theme of the Abrahamic Covenant is much more explicitly stated than in the previous two subordinate covenants from which it develops. This is first seen in the use of the thematic formula in conjunction with the establishment of circumcision as a sign and seal of the covenant in Genesis 17:7: “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seedafter thee” (italics mine). The fact that this pronouncement is not merely to establish the Jewish nation, but a redeemed covenant people, is clear from the Apostle Paul’s testimony: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29).


In the same way, the circumcision is not so much to mark out the Jewish people, but to be a sign of inward grace. The Apostle Paul himself says, “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Rom 2:28–29).


We have, moreover, seen that the land promised in the Abrahamic Covenant points rather to the heavenly “city which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God” (Heb 11:10), i.e., an eternal inheritance in Christ. The Dispensational contention that the Abrahamic Covenant deals largely with ethnic Israel rather than with the redeemed body of Christ, as we have seen to be the case of the previous two covenants, is therefore answered in the New Testament. And so once again, we see that the Abrahamic Covenant is, in fact, a development of the earlier covenant rather than a new one.


Mosaic Covenant

Under the Mosaic Covenant, the thematic formula appears even more frequently in the institution and essence of the covenant. The phrase first appears explicitly when Moses approached God after his initial failure with Pharaoh. God first assured Moses of what He would do for Israel (Ex 6:1–7), and then He revealed the purpose of what He was about to do: “And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Ex 6:7; italics mine).


This purpose was confirmed when Israel was eventually brought out of Egypt, and the Mosaic Covenant was about to be inaugurated. As Moses stood before God at Mount Sinai, God reminded Israel through him: “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine” (Ex 19:4–5).


This same theme is also found elsewhere in the Pentateuch as a summary of the essence of the covenant and Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. We see this in Leviticus 11:45, where God said: “For I am the LORD that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” In the same way, Moses reminded the new generation of Israelites: “But the LORD hath taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt,to be unto him a people of inheritance, as ye are this day” (Deut 4:20). Later, as they stood in the plains of Moab to renew the bonds of the covenant, Moses declared to them the purpose of their gathering: “That he may establish thee to day for a people unto himself, and that he may be unto thee a God, as he hath said unto thee, and as he hath sworn unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut 29:13). Thus the very purpose of the Mosaic Covenant is the establishment of a people for Himself.


It is also significant to note how Moses points out that the covenant was already made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, thus indicating unity of the Mosaic Covenant with the Abrahamic Covenant, and therefore with the previous covenants.


Davidic Covenant

The Davidic Covenant was inaugurated in 2 Samuel 7:12–16. Although the word “covenant” does not appear there, it appears in Psalm 89:

I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto David my servant, Thy seed will I establish for ever, and build up thy throne to all generations.… My mercy will I keep for him for evermore, and my covenant shall stand fast with him. His seed also will I make to endure for ever, and his throne as the days of heaven.… (Ps 89:3–4, 28–29).


Is this covenant distinct from all the preceding covenants in that it is made only with David and his seed, and has to do with the throne and nothing else? If that be the case, then this covenant has no meaning for anyone who is not a physical descendant of David, yet the Lord invites all through Isaiah: “Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David” (Isa 55:3). The Apostle Paul quoted this verse in his sermon in Antioch of Pisidia to prove to the people that through Christ was preached unto them the forgiveness of sin (Acts 13:34, 38). Quite obviously, then, the Davidic Covenant is not only a standalone covenant; rather it has the same theme as the previous covenants: the redemption of a people unto God, only now it is revealed how He would be a God unto them. He would be God unto them through the rule of Christ the greater David.


New Covenant

It is almost superfluous to have to show that the theme of the New Covenant is as with the preceding covenants, for it is explicitly stated in Jeremiah 31:33, “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people” (cf. Heb 8:10; 2 Cor 6:16).

We noted earlier, the New Covenant is not entirely new. It is the culmination of the Old Testament covenants. Now, confirming that it is thematically united with the earlier covenants, we essentially prove that it is one with all the earlier covenants.


Conclusion


We have shown that the divine covenants inaugurated by God are not in fact standalone covenants. They are all structurally and thematically united to one another. The theme that threads through each one of them is that of redemption, but redemption can only be mediated through Christ (Acts 4:12; Jn 14:6; etc.). We can only conclude that Christ, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8), is the Mediator in all these divine covenants. His blood seals each of the covenants. And His blood is “the blood of the everlasting covenant” (Heb 13:20). We may conclude that each of the divine covenants is an administration of the same everlasting covenant. This will become even clearer when we examine the gracious character of each of the subordinate covenants.


JJ Lim