Now we come to another distinctive of reformed churches, the covenant, or as others would call it, covenant theology.
Covenant theology means that God has always dealt with humanity in the same manner, through covenant.
From Genesis to Revelation God says repeatedly, “I will be your God and you shall be My people.” This is not a request, as if God were asking people permission to do this. It is a declaration of what God will do because by His nature He is gracious and kind, wanting to draw men to Himself for His glory. This may seem simple enough, but there are massive implications to the central theme of covenant throughout the Bible.
First, since covenant is God’s way of dealing with His people, covenant must be the lens through which we interpret all of Scripture. Thus, the Old and New Testaments are not to be looked upon as separate books, as if the Old were a Jewish Scripture and the New a Christian one. No, the reformed tradition has always been eager to see the Bible as a unified whole.
In Genesis we see what is called the covenant of works (Hosea 6:7 seems to imply that the Covenant of Grace was here with Adam and Eve as well) begin at creation between Adam and God (Genesis 1:28). Adam was commanded to not eat; he ate and failed to keep the covenant with His Creator. We see similar things with Noah. His son committed evil and failed to keep the covenant as well (Genesis 9:1-2). Then we see something different when Abraham comes into play (Genesis 12-17). Beforehand with Adam and Noah, men received commands from God, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.” But Abraham receives a promise, not a command.
Why the change?
This is what theologians call the move from the covenant of works (which men cannot keep) to the covenant of grace (which men do not have to keep). Abraham is told that one of his descendants will bless the nations. We then see Abraham’s descendants (Israel) come into covenant with God on Mt. Sinai (Exodus). Though Israel has godly men, women, and prophets within it they too prove unfaithful to the covenant with God (Judges – Esther). As you follow along throughout the Old Testament you find yourself yearning for someone to come and be faithful to God. That’s when Jesus comes on the scene.
Jesus, unlike Adam and unlike Israel, is faithful to the covenant, and perfectly obeys every part of it. Jesus is the blessed One, the Descendant of Abraham through whom the world will be blessed. When God’s people were faithless, God was faithful to them through His Son Jesus. This reveals to us that Jesus did not begin a new religion or start over from scratch when He came to earth. Jesus brought the Old Covenant to fulfillment in Himself (Matthew 5:17). Much more Jesus was the fulfillment of all that was previously established in the Old Covenant. Adam failed and tried to grasp equality with God by grasping for the fruit (Genesis 3), while Jesus obeyed and did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but willingly emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, to die on a cross (Phil. 2:6-11).
Israel , God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22) failed to be obedient to God, but Jesus, the true Israel (Son) of God was fully and perfectly obedient to God. Jesus Christ is announced in Hebrews as the mediator of the covenant relationship (Heb. 7:22, 8:6). The gospel offers Christ, and through being united to Christ by faith we enter into a covenant relationship with God. If you do not look at the Bible through the lens of covenant you lose the unity of the Scripture, and thus, redemptive history as a whole. Thus, the gospel cannot be rightly understood outside “covenant.”
This then makes the Church the covenant community.
The preaching of the Word, the practice of shepherding and discipline, the participation in worship together, the sacraments/ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are all signs, seals, expressions, and instruments of the covenant, through which the covenantal benefits and blessings of God pour out onto those who within the covenant community.
The backbone of the Bible is the revelation in space and time of God’s unchanging purpose of having a people on earth to whom He would relate to covenantally for His glory and for their joy – “I will be your God and you will be my people” implies all of this. John Wesley was often heard saying, “Everyone who belongs to Jesus belongs to everyone who belongs to Jesus.” We are part of a covenant people that is not isolated to our church, our denomination, our country, or even our time. By being bound to God in covenant we are bound to Christians forever in a mystical and beautiful way that we can never fully understand.