Chart of Covenant Theology from A Puritan's Mind
In my first post in this brief series, I looked at how the biblical story has been structured differently. The traditional schema has four parts (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration), Sam Wells (as well as N.T. Wright) sees 5 parts (Creation, Israel, Jesus, Church, Eschaton), while Bartholomew and Goheen see 6 parts (Creation, Fall, Redemption Initiated, Redemption Accomplished, The Mission of the Church, Mission Completed). In this post, I’m going to briefly explain the two-covenant schema of covenant theology. In the last post, I’ll provide some simple reflections on how this two-covenant structure fits with each of the previously-mentioned accounts of the biblical story.
The Two Covenants
As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant” (VII.1). In other words, for there to be a relationship between God and man, there must be a condescension on God’s part. And in Scripture, we find that condescension taking the form of a covenant.
With that in mind, our minds are naturally drawn to Genesis 1-3. While the word for covenant (berith) is not present in those chapters, the elements of a covenant are present. About the covenant, the Confession says:
God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it. (XIX.1)
Of course, as Genesis 3 tells us, man failed to keep the conditions of the covenant. Accordingly, Adam and all mankind are under God’s wrath and curse. Man did not merit eternal life but instead merited eternal death because of his breaking of the covenant in the Garden.
But, as Westminster Shorter Catechism Q2o tells us, God did not choose to leave mankind in this state of “sin and misery.” Instead, he entered into another covenant with man, a covenant of grace. In this covenant, God would provide a Redeemer–his only Son–who would fulfill the conditions of the covenant of works that Adam had failed to keep and take the punishment that God’s people deserved for their rebellion against him. This covenant of grace begins in Genesis 3 with the promise of the Seed of the woman and ends in Revelation with its complete fulfillment in the new heavens and new earth.
What, then, of the other biblical covenants? Each of the covenants in Scripture (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, New) are administrations, or outworkings of the one covenant of grace. Each builds on the one before until the final expression of the new covenant, in which Jesus comes to fulfill all the promises of the covenant of grace. Believers in Christ thus do not merit their own salvation by their works. Rather, they have a place in the new heavens and new earth only because they are united to Christ.
In the next post, I will examine how each of the schemas I discussed before fits with this two-covenant understanding of Scripture.