Preaching on “the blood of the everlasting covenant” (Heb.13:20), Charles Spurgeon declared in 1859 that “All God’s dealings with men have had a covenant character. It hath so pleased Him to arrange it, that He will not deal with us except through a covenant, nor can we deal with Him except in the same manner.” Covenant theology indeed helps us to see how the Old and New Testaments connect, and give us hope and assurance that God deals consistently and graciously with His people.
In the Bible, the word “covenant” is not used to describe God’s relationship with Adam in Genesis 1-3, although Hosea 6:7 surely refers to it in those terms. John Murray started the trend of calling the covenant of works with Adam an “administration”. This has proved less than helpful, and Jonty Rhodes had reason to say that it was “a bit like calling a cow a domesticated ungulate of the subfamily Bovinae”.
There are specifically said to be covenants with Noah (Gen. 6:18), Abraham (Gen. 15:18), Israel (Ex. 24:8), and David (Ps. 89:3), as well as the promise of a new covenant (Jer. 31:31), which Jesus alludes to at the Last Supper (Luke 22:20). In addition, there are covenant renewals, but these do not add anything to the pre-existing covenants (e.g. Josh. 24; Neh. 9-10). Each successive covenant builds on the previous relationship; there is a progressive enrichment and unfolding of God’s purposes.
In O. Palmer Robertson’s definition, “a covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered”. God’s covenants with humanity are mutual in their obligations, but they are not the result of negotiation. There is one over-arching covenant of grace which is gradually unfolded. The substance remains the same in all ages, though the outward forms may change. The successive covenants do not supplant one another – as they do in dispensational theology – but supplement one another.
So, for example, God gave wonderful promises of land, people, and worldwide blessing to Abraham, and Christ fulfills these in a far greater way. Yet there is continuity: “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29). The new covenant promises to Judah and Israel in Jeremiah 31:31-34 are fulfilled in expanded Judah and Israel in Hebrews 8. Being in the covenant does not of itself save anyone (Rom. 2:25-29; Amos (3:2), yet there are many spiritual advantages associated with being in the covenant (Rom.3:1-2; 9:4-5). And for the elect, they come to their consummation in Christ the Lord.