Jon Moffitt: Welcome to the education series on An Introduction to Covenant Theology. Your host for this series is going to be Jimmy Buehler, pastor of Christ Community Church in Willmar, Minnesota, Justin Perdue, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Asheville, North Carolina, and I’m Jon Moffitt, pastor of Grace Reformed Church here in Spring Hill, Tennessee.
Jimmy, tell us a little bit about this series and what it is that we’re trying to accomplish.
Jimmy Buehler: This is an introductory episode into covenant theology. As we think about the structure and framework of the Bible, Christians universally believe that God is a covenant-keeping God. As we look throughout the Old Testament, we see the Abrahamic covenant, the Noahic covenant, and so on. What we want to present today is an idea of what is known as covenant theology. Our churches, or the three churches represented here today, all subscribe to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. In chapter seven of that confession, you begin to see language around God’s covenant like the covenant of grace, the covenant of works, or the covenant of redemption. These categories might seem foreign to you. If you’re new to this, this is what we are going to spend time looking at in this series. We will look at it from our perspective and understanding of Reformed covenant theology.
Justin Perdue: We want to be really clear that when we talk about covenant theology, we don’t just mean that there are covenants in the Bible; we don’t just mean that God works through covenants. When we talk about covenant theology, what we are describing is a framework through which we understand and interpret Scripture.
We talk a lot about the redemptive-historical framework of the Bible. As we move along in this series, it’s going to become increasingly clear that redemptive-historical framework and a covenantal framework go together. In one sense, covenant theology, along with the redemptive-historical piece, is like a map to help people orient themselves in Scripture to understand that we can open up to almost any text and know where north, south, east, and west are. Where am I in this great story and plan of redemption that God is accomplishing?
Jimmy Buehler: When a lot of people approach the Bible, it can be very dense and overwhelming. We always have to remember that we’re dealing with ancient texts that cover thousands of years of history, specifically redemptive history. It is of utmost importance because the Bible gives us an understanding of how God relates to man and how God has sent Christ into the world to redeem sinners. Covenant theology gives us a proper framework not just to understand church and the Christian life, but it gives us a proper framework to understand the Bible in its totality.
Justin Perdue: It gives us a proper framework to understand redemption.
We talk about rest, assurance, peace, and the sufficiency of Jesus all the time. All of these are absolutely linked to covenant theology.
Jon Moffitt: Everyone that goes through the Bible has a framework or a structure. It may not be one that has been handed down to you from the church historically, but maybe it is one that you have formulated yourself. If you’ve been born and raised in a Christian evangelical church, then most likely you have some understanding of the Trinity. Whenever you read a passage that says, God, Yahweh, Jesus, or Holy Spirit, you automatically place that text into a Trinitarian framework. You never read it outside of that; you always interpret them as not being three separate Gods: this is one God that is a Trinitarian God. That’s a structure that you seem to place upon the text, but it’s not that you place the structure upon it – it’s derivative of all of Scripture and then interpreted in that way. When people say you placed it upon the text, what that means is we’re taking the entire structure of Trinitarian theology and then using that to interpret Scripture.
Justin Perdue: There’s something known as the word-concept fallacy where, for example, people will object to covenant theology because certain terms like the covenant of works are not specifically in Scripture. The word Trinity is not in Scripture, either. Even some things like church membership – that many churches practice – are not in Scripture, but the principles are there.
What we are trying to do is reason from the text. When we talk about covenant theology, it’s not something that we are laying down and imposing upon the text – it’s something that comes up out of the text. It helps us to understand and clearly summarize what is contained in all of Scripture: how God works and how God redeems.
Jimmy Buehler: What would be helpful now is if we move into the question of where this understanding of covenant theology came from.
Justin, you have some historical insight into this whole idea of covenant theology. Why don’t you kind of give us a little bit of that?
Justin Perdue: Many will be familiar with the Protestant Reformation. Most of us would agree that it began most substantially in 1517. In the centuries that follow the Reformation, as doctrine is being hammered out, discussed, and debated, there are various groups that flow out of the Reformation. One of those groups is understood as Reformed Christianity, and underneath that banner of Reformed Christians, you have several different kinds. You have Presbyterians who held to the Westminster Confession that was written in the 1640s. You had Independents or Congregationalists who held to what was called the Savoy Declaration of 1658. Then you also have Particular Baptists who held to the 1689 London Baptist Confession.
The thing about all of those people is that all of them understood themselves to be covenantal; all of them understood themselves to be Reformed and to be within that covenantal Reformed heritage. They understood each other to be covenantal and so there was a lot of unity when it came to covenant theology.
Properly understood, Reformed theology is covenant theology. We have so much in common with other brothers and sisters who might not hold to the exact same confession that we do, but we are confessing and believing in teaching the same high-level truths about covenant theology. Of course, there are going to be some distinctions and that’s fine. We all come from the same place and we all hail from the Reformation.
Jon Moffitt: What we can do now is give an overview of what the rest of the series is going to be about so that you have a glossary. When we reference things, you will easily understand what it is that we mean.
Let’s start with where we’re going to begin in our next episode, which is the covenant of redemption. Jimmy, what does the covenant of redemption mean?
Jimmy Buehler: Keeping in tune that this is not something that we are placing upon a text, but something that we are deriving from the text, opening your Bible to Ephesians 1 would be really helpful as we think about the covenant of redemption – specifically, Ephesians 1:3-14.
When we think about the covenant of redemption, it is the formal agreement within the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This formal agreement was made before the foundation of the world to redeem God’s elect. We see this very clearly in Ephesians 1: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” What we see arising out of the text is seemingly an agreement; there is some sort of idea within the Godhead. We see later in verse 13 and 14 that the Holy Spirit is the One who seals that adoption in Christ for us. There is some sort of agreement made before the foundation of the world that God would redeem sinners.
Something that is simple and helpful is God the Father has planned redemption, God the Son has accomplished redemption, and God the Holy Spirit is who applies redemption. That is a simple and succinct understanding of the covenant of redemption.
Justin Perdue: There are other texts that are helpful when it comes to the covenant of redemption, or what is sometimes referred to as the pactum salutis. You have 2 Timothy 1:9 where Paul talks about how God has saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works, but because of His own purpose and grace which He gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began. Right. Titus 1:2 talks about the hope of eternal life, which Paul is writing about, “which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began.” We have this language of the eternity past and God deciding on something. You will hear Jesus in John 17 speak of this a lot in his prayer to the Father. Jesus talks about the relationship that existed between him and the Father before the world began, and the plans that they had – glory and love – and even the end goal that Christ’s people would be with him to see the glory that the Father gave him before the ages began. It is that language that we’re picking up on this covenant amongst the Godhead – this agreement amongst the Godhead in eternity past to save a people.
Jon Moffitt: This is a great example of knowing how to read your Bible from back to front. Generally, we start with Genesis and we read forward from the beginning of the story – which is fine. However, the end of the story has come to us; the book has been completed and handed to us. What the Reformation has done to help explain the Old Testament is by looking at it through the lenses of the New Testament. A great example of that is if you start in Genesis and read forward, you would see the whole story unfold until you get to the Book of Revelation. At a certain point, you’re going to hit Ephesians and hear this language of redemption happening before Genesis started. Then you go back and read it again with the lens of redemption, this time knowing that before the world began, the Trinity made a covenant. This is covenantal language. Now you’re going to read the whole story with an entirely different lens because it is being unfolded in light of what happened at the end.
Jimmy Buehler: Everybody reads and interprets Scripture through lenses. It is impossible to go through the Bible and take it for what it is without reading anything into it. We need to be very clear that the greatest interpreter of Scripture is Scripture itself. These ideas concerning covenants arise out of Scripture in that the New Testament tells us how to read the book.
Justin Perdue: We understand the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. A man named Nehemiah Coxe, who lived in the 17th century, explained it best. He said that the best interpreter of the Old Testament is the Holy Spirit speaking to us in the New Testament. We interpret Scripture with Scripture, and we allow the apostles to teach us how to interpret the Old Testament. That is what covenant theology is.
To think that we come to Scripture without any presuppositions or any kind of framework or system is completely naive, and frankly, ridiculous. We all have a system; we all have a framework. The question is, is your system any good or not? Is your framework any good or not? Where does it come from? What we’re talking about is a framework that comes out of Scripture, that is faithful to the text, and that helps us understand the whole picture.
Jon Moffitt: We will get more into this as the series goes on. Even Jesus, when he was on the Emmaus road, he says that the Law and the prophets were about him. Jesus is now interpreting. We are going to fit all that together. Once you understand that the framework of Scripture is the unfolding covenant that the Father made with the Son and will be applied by the Spirit, the question now is how does that happen?
Justin Perdue: In one sense, all of Scripture is the unfolding of the accomplishment of the covenant of redemption.
Jon Moffitt: It does feel strange to tell people to go to the New Testament first before reading the Old Testament. As an illustration, when the Old Testament writers were unfolding the history of Israel, it was almost like they were putting together a puzzle – only it was upside down. They saw the puzzle pieces and they were trying to connect them together, but they didn’t really see the whole picture. The New Testament is basically someone handing you the box cover where there is a picture of the puzzle all pieced together. Now you get to go back and see how it all comes together. The covenant of redemption is the box cover.
Jimmy Buehler: Again, lest we think that this is foreign and that it is something that we are placing on Scripture, the one sermon we don’t have in the Bible that all of us would probably like to hear is when Jesus was on the road to Emmaus. He was telling these guys how all of the Scriptures – the Law and the prophets – are about him.
An understanding of terminology comes into need as we talk about types and shadows. When you read through the Old Testament, it is very easy to be confused with a lot of the obscure language and stories. Something that all of us emphasize is we constantly have to look at scripture in a unified whole. An easy illustration is when during the Exodus, we see the blood of the Passover lamb being wiped on the doorposts. If you were reading the Bible for the first time and you got to that part without any concept of who Christ is and what he came to accomplish, you might read that and think that it is very odd. What do we see later in the New Testament? How does John the Baptist introduce Christ? He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. What we see is that these types and shadows in the Old Testament come into further view and understanding in the New Testament.
Justin Perdue: We will sometimes use the language of types and antitypes. Types reveal something greater in other than themselves, meaning they reveal ultimately the antitype. Antitypes are things that are greater, more ultimate, and are distinct from the types themselves. Types are things in and of themselves. Jimmy, your example is great: the Passover is a thing that in and of itself, and it happened in time, space, and history. It meant something for Israel. It pointed to something even greater to come: the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, would be shed and would be used. Then as God, the Father would look at that blood, it would cover the sins and the iniquity of God’s people. We would then be passed over and saved. That is just one example of so many that we could use where it’s a thing in and of itself, but it points to something greater that will come later in redemptive history that is ultimate.
Jon Moffitt: An illustration I would use is when you sit down at a restaurant and they have pictures of their food. You’re looking at a type of the food. What do they do with the menu after you order your food? In time later, they’re going to bring you the antitype. You don’t need the type anymore because you have the real substance.
Justin Perdue: Also, the type finds its end and its fulfillment in the antitype. Once the antitype comes, the fulfillment comes, and the type is no longer needed other than to continue to help us understand the ultimate picture.
Jimmy Buehler: This is the book of Hebrews. This is what the author or preacher of Hebrews or is saying to the church. As he’s writing to Jewish believers, he says that all of the things they recognize in the Scriptures find their greater fulfillment in Christ. I think it was Tim Keller who famously coined the idea that Jesus is the truer and better insert-whatever-you-may about the Old Testament.
Jon Moffitt: Part of covenant theology then, and understanding types, shadows, and antitype, is a concept called bicovenantalism, meaning two covenants. We understand that the covenant of redemption is what all of Scripture is about. How was that accomplished? It’s accomplished through two covenants: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. All of Scripture really falls under these two categories.
In Genesis 3, we find Adam and Eve in the garden. They are given one rule.
Justin Perdue: One prohibition. They’re given things to do positively, but with one prohibition.
Jon Moffitt: That prohibition is not to eat of a particular tree. God says to them that if they eat of that tree, they will die – we all know the story – they eat of the tree. In the covenant of works, the reason why they call it work is that if Adam had fulfilled this one prohibition and refrained from eating of the fruit, what he would have earned for himself and all of his descendants is eternity with God in the garden.
Justin Perdue: In a consummated, redeemed, perfect state.
Jon Moffitt: Right. Forever. The reason why we use the word “earn” is because later on, Paul says that where Adam failed, Christ comes and succeeds. What you have throughout the rest of Scripture is this reference and pointing back to Adam’s failure and the nature of his failure being passed down to his descendants.
Justin Perdue: One of the other reasons we call it a covenant of works is because it is conditioned upon what man does. Had Adam positively done the things he was told to do and had he abstained from the one thing he was told not to do, all would be well forever. We would be with God in a perfect state, living in a perfect relationship with Him and with each other forever.
Jimmy Buehler: We see this clearly not only in Genesis, but Paul expounds on this very clearly in the book of Romans in chapter 5. If you’re new to covenant theology, you might say it doesn’t seem right or fair. We always have to remind ourselves that as we relate to an infinite being, that is God, He is the one who sets the standards of how we relate to Him. As our confession states, it pleases God to relate to us through covenants. If God relates to us through Adam and the covenant of works, and you might think that that’s unfair, then you’re not going to like the covenant of grace.
Justin Perdue: Because it is also not fair. The Bible is clear that not only are there covenants of works and grace, but there are two covenant heads or two federal heads (federal being another term for covenant in one sense), and those two covenant heads in Scripture are Adam and Christ.
Jon Moffitt: Another way of saying that is like a representative. A king is the representative of his people.
Justin Perdue: Correct. A representative. That’s why in Scripture, Paul will use the language of being “in Adam” or “in Christ”. He does this in Romans 5 and in 1 Corinthians 15. In Adam, all die; in Christ, all are made alive. There is that distinction between the two. Adam was given a covenant to fulfill that was conditioned upon his performance and he failed. So then the question,
Jon Moffitt: Because he’s the federal head or the representative, all now are guilty.
Justin Perdue: Guilty, corrupt, and ruined.
Jimmy Buehler: As Paul says, “As in one man’s disobedience, all men died.” It’s so important to remember that when Adam sinned in the garden, we all sinned in the garden. We would have done the same thing. Nobody can look back at a pre-Genesis 3 world and say, “I wish I was there because I would have done it differently.” The fact of the matter is no, actually, you would not have.
Justin Perdue: The covenant of grace is different from the covenant of works. The covenant of works was conditioned upon Adam’s obedience and performance. We could even just say it’s conditioned upon man’s obedience or performance. The covenant of grace is different in that it is not conditioned upon our performance – it is conditioned upon Christ and his work. In one sense, the covenant of grace simply is Jesus coming to fulfill the covenant of works that Adam failed in and broke. Then the merit, satisfaction, righteousness, and new creation inheritance that is Christ’s is given to sinners by faith. It is not conditioned upon what we do – we receive what Christ has done.
The covenant of grace is promised and revealed in Genesis 3. When the fall occurs – sin enters the world, man falls, becomes ruined, and dies – in Genesis 3:15, God promises a Redeemer who will come; the seed of the woman who will come to crush the head of the snake and be the Redeemer.
It’s very clear that Adam and Eve understand something of that. Even the fact that Adam names Eve and understands that life is going to come. Then we see that the promise of the covenant of grace continues to be revealed more and more throughout the Old Testament. Finally, it is established and accomplished by Jesus in the new covenant. We’ll talk more about the particulars of that but to understand that distinction between covenant of works and grace is important to start with, and then we’ll unpack it.
Jon Moffitt: There are two things we need to unfold. We have already given the structure and now, there are two explanations we need to offer. One is promise versus covenant. It’s like when someone says I’m a Christian – that could mean a hundred different things. What kind of Christianity are we talking about? The same thing can happen here. When we say covenant, what do we mean by it? Let’s give a definition of covenant that will help wrap people’s minds around covenant of works. The biggest argumentation for covenant of works, which we will give a full explanation to later on in the series, is that the word “covenant” was never used in the garden with Adam and Eve. Let’s first define what covenant is and then that will help us explain why we would hold that position.
Jimmy Buehler: I’ll leave some technical definition to you guys, but I want to share a little analogy. 10 years ago, in the month of June, I went to my wife and I made her a promise to remain faithful to her until our marriage day when that promise became fulfilled in that we became united in one flesh. As we think about the idea of promise and covenant, think of it in terms of a relationship today: in terms of engagement in marriage. Engagement is a promise of a formal relationship. Nobody stays engaged for their entire relationship. What is the point of the engagement? You are engaged to be married. As we think about promise and covenant, it’s the same idea.
Justin Perdue: With a covenant, you have multiple parties and those parties are identifiable. There are commitments that the parties make and there are sanctions attached to the agreement as well.
Jon Moffitt: There are different kinds of covenants in the Bible. As an example, the covenant that God made with Noah between two parties: between God and the world. There is a sign, which is the bow. But in that covenant, there’s only one who is active and that’s God. That would be a different kind of covenant. Then you have covenants that God makes between Israel and Himself. What kind of covenant would that be?
Justin Perdue: There are two actors in it.
Jon Moffitt: Right, but it’s conditional. There’s a condition. The Noahic covenant has no condition. The Mosaic, when He gives him the Law and tells him to obey it and then the covenant will remain between the two of them.
Justin Perdue: There are unconditional covenants, there are conditional covenants, and there are also unconditional promises.
We understand that the unconditional promise of the covenant of grace is revealed in Genesis 3:15, and then throughout the Old Testament in various ways. There are conditional covenants made in the old covenant that we’ll unpack more as we go along. Then there is the unconditional covenant, or the covenant of grace, that we understand to be established and accomplished by Jesus in the new covenant. It has nothing to do with us; we don’t contribute a thing; it’s all about what Jesus has done and we simply receive that.
Jon Moffitt: For a lot of Christianity, covenant theology was only really explained when we were talking about Noah and somewhat of a little bit of an understanding between Moses. Even going through Bible college, I didn’t even understand the Abrahamic covenant and the significance of it. There are many who are listening to this thinking that the word “covenant” is so foreign and strange to them.
Justin Perdue: We’ve got several episodes coming for people to get more information on these various topics that we are opening up. Maybe we can land the plane here in the remaining minutes and talk with people about why covenant theology matters for them. If somebody is listening and wanting help in further understanding what this means for them and why they should care about covenant theology, what does this mean for them on a Tuesday morning or a Friday evening or when I’m having a bad day? How is covenant theology helpful?
Jimmy Buehler: Something I like to remind our church consistently is that one, God is a covenant-keeping God, and two, God is a promise-keeping God. As we think about our Christian life, we are often drawn to the questions, “What do I need to do for Jesus today? How do I maintain my relationship with Jesus today?” The most airtime that we gave in this episode was to the covenant of redemption. I invite you to read Ephesians 1 and sit on it for a long time. I want you to be in Paul’s seat. Ephesians is a letter that he wrote from prison and he had some time to sit down and think. What did he want to tell people? He wanted to give people this unbreakable assurance that they are saved and redeemed; this is not based on who they are, what they’ve done, how they’ve sinned, or how they’ve been good or bad, but rather they are saved and safe based off of the eternal promise and covenant made between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the covenant of redemption.
The more we understand it, the more we see it throughout the entire narrative of the Bible. We have increased assurance in our God that when He says something, it is true. When He says that we are forgiven, we can bank on it based on what we see in the covenant of redemption.
Justin Perdue: Here on Theocast, we talk a lot about resting in Christ. We talk about the sufficiency of Jesus, and how he’s done everything that we need in order to be saved and have peace with God. We talk a lot about assurance. How can we know that we’re safe? How can we know that things are not just okay for me today, but they’re going to be okay for me forever? Covenant theology is inextricably linked to that and that will become increasingly clear over this series. In seeing what Jesus accomplished in the covenant of grace, by fulfilling the covenant of works, in order to accomplish the covenant of redemption, there is certainty and a rock to put under our feet. It helps us understand how there is no room left for anything else to be contributed. Jesus has done this and because of that, I’m in him and I’m safe. That matters more than anything for sinners in a fallen world.
Jon Moffitt: Our goal is not for you to gain head knowledge or for you to just know more about the Bible. Because we understand the Bible to unfold in this way, it brings the entire Bible to relevancy and it brings it to life. Every verse applies to our life because it’s the unfolding, promise-keeping God who was faithful in the old and will be faithful in the new.
We will go ahead and move on to our next session. Thank you for listening.