What is a Biblical Covenant?


A covenant is a formal, solemn, and binding agreement or pledge. In most modern cases, a covenant is written down in the form of a legal document (such as a contract), and signed by the parties involved in the covenant. 


God also enters into covenants with His people. His covenants, though similar, have distinct differences from typical man-made covenants or contracts. 


Typically, covenants or contracts are made from somewhat equal bargaining positions, and both parties are free not to sign the contract. However, biblical covenants follow a pattern common to the ancient Near East suzerain-vassal treaties.  A suzerain-vassal treaty was made between a conquering king and the conquered people, with no negotiation. Likewise, our sovereign God has established a covenant with His subjects, without negotiation. At this point, it is important to remember that unlike any treaty made by an earthly king, God has made His covenant with us out of His own infinite wisdom, power and love for the subjects He creates and sustains.


There are four characteristic elements of biblical covenants. The 10 Commandments are a clear example of a biblical covenant, referred to as the “words of the covenant” in Exodus 34:28, containing all four characteristic elements.


The first element is the preamble, which lists the respective parties of the covenant. God declares, “I am the LORD your God.” in Exodus 20:2. God has established Himself as the sovereign, and the people of Israel are the subjects.


The second element of the covenant is the historical prologue, in which God recounts to His subjects why they owe Him their allegiance. In The 10 Commandments, God reminds His people that He has delivered them from slavery in Egypt. God reveals His grace towards His people, in bringing them to Himself.


The third element is the stipulations of the covenant. The Lord lists what He will require of His subjects. Because of who God is as the sovereign, and what He has done for the Israelites, this is how they are to express their loyalty to Him - they are to keep His 10 Commandments.


The fourth element of a biblical covenant is the promise of blessings and curses. Blessings will follow faithfulness to the covenant, but curses will follow failure to keep the covenant. For example, in the second commandment God promises punishment to those who engage in idol worship, “punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me”. But to those who love the LORD, and keep the second commandment, “showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”


Biblical covenants are found throughout the Old Testament, and in biblical times were ratified in blood (see Jeremiah 34:18 and Genesis 15:7-21). God’s covenants and covenantal language are seen throughout the Old Testament and find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who establishes the “new covenant” (Luke 22:20). This new covenant is the covenant of grace, ratified by the shed blood of Christ upon the cross. God has not only promised to redeem all who put their trust in Jesus Christ, but has sealed and confirmed His pledge with a holy vow. The first promise of salvation (the gospel) is seen in Genesis 3:15, where God proclaims that the offspring of Eve will crush the head of the serpent (Satan). Through Christ’s death and resurrection, God has fulfilled His covenant to save His people from sin and has provided the way for us to be able to dwell with Him in holiness for all eternity.


For further study:


Calvin, John, Institutes of The Christian Religion Book II

RC Sproul - Essential Truths of the Christian Faith

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