Covenant Theology


A Simple Definition of Covenant Theology

Over the last three to four hun­dred years Bible-believing schol­ars have developed two distinct approaches to expositing the Bible’s philosophy of history. Each approach has produced a system of theology. One of these systems is known as Covenant Theology.

Covenant Theology could be defined very simply as follows: Covenant Theology is a system of theology which attempts to de­velop the Bible’s philosophy of history on the basis of two or three covenants. It represents the whole of Scripture and history as being covered by two or three covenants.

The History of Covenant Theology

Covenant Theology did not be­gin as a system until the six­teenth and seventeenth centuries. It did not exist in the early church. Louis Berkhof, a prominent Cov­enant Theologian, writes: “In the early Church Fathers the cov­enant idea is not found at all.”1  In addition, the system was not de­veloped during the Middle Ages or by the prominent Reformers Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or Mel­anchthon.

According to Berkhof, Kaspar Olevianus (1536-1587) was the real founder of a well-developed Covenant Theology “in which the concept of the covenant became for the first time the constitutive and determinative principle of the whole system.” 2 The system started in the Reformed Church­es of Switzerland and Germany and passed to the Netherlands, Scotland, and England. In 1647 the Westminster Confession of Faith in England became the first confession of faith to refer to Covenant Theology.3

In the Netherlands Johannes Cocceius played a significant role in making Covenant Theology widely accepted through his publication in 1648. In Cocceius’ treatment “the whole develop­ment of sacred history is gov­erned by this thought” (the cov­enant idea).4 A later writer, Herman Witsius (1636-1708), tied the covenant idea together with the eternal decrees of God.5 This gave rise to the idea that in eternity past God determined to govern the whole course of his­tory on the basis of one or two covenants.

Covenant Theology was intro­duced to America primarily through the Puritans. Major examples of prominent Covenant Theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would be Charles Hodge of America and Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper of Holland.

A Description of Covenant Theology

As noted earlier, Covenant Theology attempts to develop the Bible’s philosophy of history on the basis of covenants. Cov­enant Theologians disagree con­cerning the number of these covenants. Some say there are two (the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace). Others say there are three (the Covenant of Redemption, the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace). Those who propose only two covenants combine the Cov­enant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace. For example, Shedd writes:

Though this distinction (be­tween the covenant of re­demption and the covenant of grace) is favored by Scrip­ture statements, it does not follow that there are two separate and independent covenants…. The covenant of grace and redemption are two modes or phases of the one evangelical covenant of mercy.” 6

Berkhof claims that most Cov­enant Theologians favor the three covenant view. In light of this, this study will examine that view.

The Covenant of Redemption

According to Berkhof, the Cov­enant of Redemption was estab­lished between God the Father and God the Son. In this covenant the Father granted the Son to be Head and Redeemer of the elect. In return, the Son voluntarily agreed to take the place of those whom the Father had given Him.

The Covenant of Redemption was established in eternity past. God knew ahead of time that man would fall away from Him, thus, in eternity past God determined to provide redemption during the course of history for the elect.7

The Covenant of Redemption placed certain requirements up­on the Son:

The Father required of the Son. . . that He should make amends for the sin of Adam and of those whom the Father had given Him, and should do what Adam failed to do by keeping the law and thus se­curing eternal life for all His spiritual progeny.8

This involved the Son’s becom­ing human, yet without sin, and being placed under the Mosaic Law.

In return for what the Son would do in providing redemp­tion, the Father promised several things to the Son: resurrection (Ps. 16:8-11; Acts 2:25-28), a numerous seed (Ps. 22:27; 72:17), all power in Heaven and earth (Mt. 28:18; Eph. 1:20-22; Heb. 2:5-9), and great glory (Jn. 17:5; Phil. 2:9-11).9

According to Berkhof there is a threefold relationship between the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace. First, the Covenant of Redemption is the eternal model after which the historical Covenant of Grace is patterned. Second, the Covenant of Redemption is the foundation of the Covenant of Grace. It makes the Covenant of Grace possible. Third, the Covenant of Redemp­tion provides the means for the establishment and execution of the Covenant of Grace.10

The Covenant of Works

According to Covenant Theol­ogy, the Covenant of Works was established between the triune God and Adam. In this covenant God made Adam the represen­tative head of the human race,so that Adam could act for all his descendants.

The Covenant of Works was established between the times of the creation and fall of man.Thus, unlike the Covenant of Redemp­tion, it was made during the course of world history. 11

In the Covenant of Works God required “implicit and perfect obedience” of Adam.12  Adam was placed on probation tempo­rarily in order to determine whether he would willingly sub­ject his will to the will of God.

God promised eternal life (not natural life) to Adam and his descendants in return for Adam’s perfect obedience. Berkhof ad­mits that no such promise is stat­ed in the Bible, but “the threat­ened penalty clearly implies such a promise.” 13

Since Adam had been appoint­ed representative head of the human race, if he were to disobey God, he and his descendants would be penalized with death, “including physical, spiritual, and eternal death.”14

The Covenant of Grace

According to Covenant Theol­ogy, God established the Cov­enant of Grace because Adam broke the Covenant of Works. Berkhof defines the Covenant of Grace as follows: it is “that gra­cious agreement between the of­fended God and the offending but elect sinner, in which God promises salvation through faith in Christ, and the sinner accepts this believingly, promising a life of faith and obedience.”15 This definition clearly indicates that the first party of the Covenant of Grace is God, who acts as a gra­cious, forgiving Father.

Covenant Theologians dis­agree concerning the second party of the covenant. Beridiof says: “It is not easy to determine precisely who the second party is.:” 16 Some say the second party is the sinner; others say it is the elect or the elect sinner in Christ; others say it is believers and their seed.17 Berkhof is convinced that the Covenant of Grace “is fully realized only in the elect. ..,” but “the covenant as a historical phenomenon is perpetuated in successive generations and includes many in whom the cov­enant life is never realized.”18 In other words, even some people who never become regenerate are included in the Covenant of Grace.

But how can the Covenant of Grace include both those who become regenerate and some who never become regenerate? According to Berkhof, the Cov­enant of Grace has two aspects. It exists both as “a communion of life” and as “a purely legal re­lationship.” 19 Only the regen­erate experience the covenant as a communion of life, for only they enter fully into the spiritual life intended by the covenant. But both the regenerate and their children experience the covenant as a legal relationship. This means, then, that unregenerate children of believers are in the Covenant of Grace. They enter the covenant by virtue of their physical birth to parents who are in the covenant.20

What is involved in experienc­ing the Covenant of Grace as a legal relationship? To express it another way — how are the unre­generate children of believers in that covenant? Berkhof gives a fourfold answer to these ques­tions. First, “They are in the cov­enant as far as their responsi­bility is concerned.”21 They are responsible to repent and believe.

Second, “They are in the cov­enant in the sense that they may lay claim to the promises which God gave when He established His covenant with believers and their seed.” 22 God promised to produce spiritual life in the seed of believers. This does not mean that God will save every child of every believer, for His promise was “given to the seed of believers collectively, and not individ­ually.”23 But it does mean that children of believers exist in a privileged position, for “as a rule God gathers the number of His elect out of those who stand in this covenant relationship.” 24

Third, They are in the covenant in the sense that they are sub­ject to the ministrations of the covenant. They are con­stantly admonished and ex­horted to live according to the requirements of the covenant. The church treats them as covenant children, offers them the seals of the covenant, and exhorts them to a proper use of these. They are the guests who are first called to the supper, the children of the kingdom, to whom the word must be preached first of all, Matthew 8:12; Luke 14:16-24; Acts 13:46.25

Fourth, “They are in the cov­enant also as far as the common covenant blessings are concerned.”26 Unregenerate chil­dren of believers are subject to certain special ministries of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit strives with them, convicts of sin, en­lightens in a measure and gives blessings of common grace (Gen. 6:3; Mt. 13:18-22; Heb. 6:4-6).27

When these children reach their years of discernment, they are responsible to accept their covenant obligations voluntarily by entering the communion of life aspect of the covenant through a true confession of faith.28 But what happens to a person who does not do this? “If one who stands in the legal covenant rela­tionship does not enter upon the covenant life, he is nevertheless regarded as a member of the cov­enant.”29

Berkhof made one other in­teresting observation concerning such children: “As long as the children of the covenant do not reveal the contrary, we shall have to proceed on the assumption that they are in possession of the covenant life.” 30

Other aspects of Covenant Theology’s Covenant of Grace will be examined in the next article.

  1. Louis Berkhof, Sys­tematic Theology (second revised and enlarged edi­tion; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Com­pany, 1941), p. 211.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Charles Caidwell Ryrie. Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), p. 179.
  4. James Orr, The Progress of Dogma (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publish­ing Co., n.d.), p. 303.
  5. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, p.182.
  6. William G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, II (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.), p. 360.
  7. Berkhof, Systematic The­ology, pp. 269-271.
  8. Ibid , p. 269.
  9. Ibid.,p.270.
  10. lbid.
  11. lbid., p. 215.
  12. Ibid., p. 216.,
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., p. 217.
  15. Ibid., p. 277.
  16. Ibid., p. 273.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., p. 276.
  19. Ibid., p. 286.
  20. Ibid., pp. 286-87.
  21. Ibid.., p. 289.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid., p. 288.
  24. Ibid., p, 289.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid., p. 288.
  29. Ibid., p. 289.
  30. Ibid., p. 288.


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