Disciple Hour: Systematic Theology (The Covenants Between God and Man – Chapter 25)

Systematic Theology: The Covenants Between God and Man[1]

Lecture Notes[2] Chapter 25


26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all,
27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God

(Acts 20:26-27)

Explanation and Scriptural Basis

In this section we will be exploring the question of how it is that God relates to man. And more specifically: what principles determine the way in which God relates to man? In order to answer this question sufficiently we must understand that since the beginning of creation, God’s relationship to man has been defined by specific requirements and promises. Ultimately, God communicates to man how He wants them to act, and at the same time, also makes promises about how He will act toward them in various circumstances. In accordance with Scripture the term covenant is used to signify this relationship. So, we may define covenant in the following way: a covenant is an unchangeable, divinely imposed legal agreement between God and man that stipulates the conditions of their relationship.

It is important to note the language used in our definition. A covenant is indeed an agreement between two parties—God and man—but is also “divinely imposed.” The idea that God “divinely imposes” a covenant upon man indicates that man can never negotiate with God concerning the terms of the covenant; man can only accept God’s covenant obligations or reject them. Furthermore, this definition also recognizes that God’s divinely imposed covenants are unchangeable. They may be superseded or replaced by a different covenant, but they may not be changed once they are established.

Of fundamental importance to us as Christians is the fact that the essential element at the heart of God’s covenanting with His people is that promise that, “I will be their God and they will be my people” (Cf., Jer 24:7; 31:33; 32:36, 38; Ezek 11:20; 14:11; 37:27; Zech 8:8; 2 Cor 6:16; Heb 8:10; Rev 21:3). Perhaps no other phrase in all of Scripture should invoke a feeling of longing and anticipation for the salvation of God as this. It is also necessary to know that God’s covenanting with man occurs in various forms throughout the whole of Scripture. This is not to suggest that God is divided in His thinking about His plan of salvation, but rather to suggest that God employs the discipline of progressive revelation; the notion that as redemptive history unfolds, God reveals more details about His plan which culminates in Christ. With that, our focus this Lord’s Day, and also next Lord’s Day, is to focus on what is known as “The Covenant of Works”, “The Covenant of Redemption”, and “The Covenant of Grace”. We will begin by looking at the covenant of works.

Excurses- Covenant Form[3]

            To take a second to recognize the historical significance of God’s covenantal relations with man is intended here. Looking at the historical background provides much needed and appreciated insight. When we say that God entered into a covenant with His people, we mean that God initiated a form of agreement that originated in the legal customs of the ancient world. The treaties of the ancient world, along with the covenants of Scripture, share many similarities and are characteristic of the mid-second millennium B.C., around the time Israel stood before God at Mount Sinai.

Perhaps the best model for a better understanding the nature of a covenant is to consider the treaty format as used by the neighbors of Israel—the Hittites. These types of treaties were known as “suzerainty treaties” because they represent the relationship between a sovereign king (the suzerain) and a loyal subject (the vassal.). This treaty relationship established a firm relationship between the suzerain and the vassal. However, the vassal was subject the suzerain and was bound by an oath to the sovereign king. The vassal was also required to obey certain stipulations that ensured the vassal’s loyalty as they were only binding on the vassal. On the other hand, the suzerain promised to help the vassal in time of need, but was under no obligation to do so. The following elements were characteristic of a suzerainty treaty:

(1) Preamble: Formal introduction identifying the author of the treaty, the suzerain.

(2) Historical prologue: A section describing, in detail, the previous relationship between the suzerain and vassal, with emphasis on the suzerain’s benevolent deeds in the past.

(3) Stipulations: Specific obligations of the vassal, to ensure absolute loyalty.

(4) Provision for the deposit of the covenant-treaty document in a central sanctuary and for its periodic public reading.

(5) List of witnesses.

(6) Curses and blessings: served as a warning against breaking the stipulations.

(7) Formal oath ceremony: Accompanied the vassal’s sworn oath of obedience.

*Cf. Exodus 19-24 as an example.

  1. The Covenant of Works

            The idea behind the so called “Covenant of Works” may be summarized by chapter VII and section II of the Westminster Confession of Faith:

“The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.”

In other words, God divinely imposed specific obligations upon Adam after being created in the garden (Cf., Gen 1:28-30; 2:15). Also, there were specific legal obligations as well: “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Gen 2:16-17). Found within God’s statement to Adam about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is a promise of punishment for disobedience (death) but also an implicit promise of blessing for obedience (eternal life). The implication, then, is that the potential blessings of the covenant of works were dependent upon obedience, or “works”, on the part of Adam and Eve.

However, not all are convinced that the events of Eden should constitute a covenant proper. After all, the language of man’s works meriting eternal life is against our understanding of salvation by grace through faith. Nevertheless, consider the following information for why we should view the covenant of works as being legitimate:

  1. Hosea 6:7 says the following: “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.”
  2. Though the word covenant is not actually used in Genesis, the essential parts of the covenant are all there—a clear definition of the parties involved, a legally binding set of provisions that stipulates the conditions of their relationship, the promise of blessings for obedience, and the conditions for obtaining those blessings.
  3. The New Testament parallels between Adam and Christ imply that in the same way that Jesus is the federal representative of the Church in the New Covenant, so was Adam the representative of mankind in the garden (Rom 5:12-19; 1 Cor 15:22, 45-49).
  4. Paul speaks in the New Testament as though perfect obedience, if it were possible, would actually lead to eternal life (Lev 18:5; Rom 7:10; 10:5; Gal 3:12).

The evidence seems to suggest that we must refer to God’s relationship with Adam and Eve as a covenant. Moreover, this is important because the fact that God covenants with man reveals that God comes to us and relates to us (cf. Gen 2:7). This is an expression of God’s Fatherly love for the man and woman He had created. Also, seeing the events in Eden as a covenant prepares us for understanding what is to come in the covenant of grace.

Concluding Thoughts

            This may beg the question then of whether the covenant of works is still in force. The answer may require a yes and a no. In some sense, the covenant of works still lingers as Paul implies that perfect obedience to the law, if it were possible, would lead to life (see #4 above). Also, the punishment God instituted in the covenant of works is still in effect: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). So, apart from Christ, the covenant of works still applies though sinful man can never fulfill its requirements to receive blessing. Perhaps most importantly however, is the fact that Christ fulfilled this covenant perfectly since He committed no sin (1 Pe 2:22).

Also, there is some sense in which the covenant of works does not remain in force: No longer is man faced with the specific command to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Also, since we are all sinners by nature, none is able to fulfill the provisions of the covenant on our own to receive its benefits. Further, for Christians, Christ has fulfilled the provisions of the covenant successfully so that we gain the benefits of the covenant of works based on His work (this is the covenant of grace!).

In reflection then, it is vital to see the importance of understanding God’s relationship with Adam and Eve to be on covenantal nature. Accepting this goes far in helping us to appreciate the grace of God in Christ.

Application Questions

  1. How does this initial discussion of covenant help you to understand your relationship with God better?
  2. How does your understanding of the covenant of works help you see our need for Christ?
  3. How does an understanding of the covenant of works help you to appreciate the benefits you’ve received from Christ fulfilling requirements of it?


















[1] Based on and various Quotes from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Zondervan

[2] All Scripture from ESV Bible, Crossway

[3] Based on various quotes and insight from John H. Sailhamer’s Old Testament History, Zondervan. 43-44. 1998.

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