A Tale of Two Covenants

Redemptive History by Richard Phillips, Reformed Theology Articles at LigonierTabletalk Magazine, October 1st, 2006.

Richard PhillipsThe Bible’s primary message deals with two great issues: sin and redemption. It relates these to two different covenants, one of which man broke and other of which Christ fulfilled. These two covenants — the covenant of works and the covenant of grace — provide the architecture on which the Bible’s teaching is erected and serve as the key to our understanding of salvation.

As I told my Jewish neighbor, God entered into a covenant with Adam. In this way, God imposed the terms by which Adam and his posterity might continue to enjoy life in the garden, namely, “perfect and personal obedience” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.2). A test was implemented with regard to one tree: “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” God ordained that “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Through obedience, Adam would retain life in the garden, but if he broke the covenant, he would suffer death. Reformed theology refers to this as “the covenant of works,” since by Adam’s own works he would either stand or fall.

Adam’s breach of the covenant of works is the great problem for which the rest of the Bible presents God’s answer. This answer is the covenant of grace, which God promised as His remedy for the broken covenant of works. Since the serpent (representing the devil) had tempted the first humans into sin, God’s grace was first presented in terms of his defeat. God told the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). Theologians call this the Protoevangelion, that is, the first preaching of the Gospel. God then displayed how the covenant of grace would succeed: a sinless sacrifice would die in the place of sinners, providing His righteousness for them and paying their penalty in His blood. Genesis 3:21 says, “The Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.”

The covenant of grace provides unity to the Gospel’s unfolding in successive generations. God’s covenant with Noah preserved the covenant of grace, so that the human race would continue until the birth of its Savior. God’s covenant with Abraham promised not just many offspring, but also the single offspring in whom the covenant would be fulfilled (see Gal. 3:16). By the time of Moses, Abraham’s family had become a nation, and God’s covenant with Moses provided priests who would offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins. God’s kingdom also needed a sovereign, and God’s covenant with David promised a king who would never fail or die.

But through all the long generations, the broken covenant of works remained unfulfilled — Adam and his line still needed the righteousness that comes only through perfect obedience. So, as Paul put it, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4–5). This is covenant theology at its finest. As Jesus stated, He came to fulfill the Law (Matt. 5:17); that is, he came to fulfill the covenant of works on our behalf. Then, by dying on the cross, Jesus laid the foundation for God’s grace for sinners in the covenant of grace. This is the meaning of Christ’s words in establishing His “new covenant,” bringing the covenant of grace to fruition for those who believe. Anticipating His atoning death, Jesus declared, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28).

Covenant theology is vital not merely for understanding the Old Testament and the Gospels, but also for the apostolic doctrine taught in the Epistles. How, for instance, can God be just and yet be “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26)? Covenant theology provides the answer: believers in Christ are justified both by His fulfilling the covenant of works on our behalf and by the atonement in His blood offered by the covenant of grace. Here is another important question: How can faith make us righteous before God, apart from works of our own? Covenant theology gives the Bible’s answer: Jesus performed the works we owe to God under the covenant of works, which we receive by faith alone under the covenant of grace. more