What Do We Mean By God’s Covenant?

Throughout their checkered history the Reformed churches, as we noted in the last article, have grappled with the profound mystery of God’s gracious covenant with man. From the days of Zwingli and Calvin to the present, these churches in preaching and practice strove to reflect systematically the revealed Word of God in terms geared to the thought-pattern and the problems of the age in which they were living.

Like a basic motif, an unending thread of glorious certainty and hope, the concept of the covenant was woven into the fabric of their life as the struggling church on earth. In the sermons which were preached, in the theological tomes which were published, in the practical program outlined for the spiritual growth of their members, and last but not least in the creeds which they formulated and defended with their lifeblood, the Reformed churches spoke of God’s gracious covenant with man as the dominant and dynamic conviction in their life.

The Basic Problem of Faith

But what, we may well ask, is meant by this idea of the covenant?

Here we touch the basic problem of all human life. Centuries ago St. Augustine expressed this unforgettably in his Confessions, when he wrote, “Thou, O Lord, hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it rest in Thee.” The most unhappy and wretched state is to be at a distance from God, on whom all our life and health depends, and man knows no greater infelicity than to be left to himself. Thus he is doomed to wander by himself as an alien in this world which was originally created to be his home. To quote Augustine once more, “As the soul is the life of the body, so God is the life of the soul. As therefore the body perishes when the soul leaves it, so the soul dies when God departs from it.”

The tragic dilemma of man is that he needs God and by nature, that is, left to himself, he cannot find him.

The cause of this misery lies not in his finitude. For although man is limited in his being and therefore also in his knowledge and understanding, the Bible vividly depicts the blessed communion with God which our first parents enjoyed before the Fall in the garden of Eden. Created in the image of God, man was able to fellowship with the Almighty by a voluntary condescension on God’s part. He came down to visit the creature whom he had made after his likeness.

But by his willful disobedience man separated himself from God who was the source of his life and the fountain of all good. Thus he became “involved in blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment; became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections.”1 By this breaking off of relationship with his Creator and Sustainer, man involved himself in the dreadful impasse from which there was no escape by his own efforts. On the one hand he continued to need God desperately, whether he realized this consciously or not, and on the other hand the way to God was forever closed, from his side, by the breach created by his voluntary sin.

The glorious gospel of salvation is that God has come to man, breaking down the high barrier of sin by his eternal love in Jesus Christ, and renewing the heart and life of the sinner by his Spirit so that man could again enjoy fellowship with him.

Examples From Human Life

When the Bible speaks of this fellowship of God with man, it never speaks of this abstractly, but rather portrays it by means of a variety of figures of speech and examples borrowed from the experience of the human race. Thus we read so often in Scripture of this communion as comparable to that of bridegroom and bride, husband and wife, father and son, master and servant, sovereign and subjects, host and guest, and many others. But the most dominant and inclusive figure which is used is that of the covenant. All these other illustrations and examples took on deeper meaning and greater clarity as they were regarded in the light of the covenant as the friendship-bond which God established and sealed with man.

And although other Christian communions made mention of the covenant-relationship, the Reformed churches more than all the others together understood and declared that it was basic to any proper understanding of God’s fellowship with man.

Sometimes this concept was expressed with vivid brevity; sometimes with profound and intricate elaboration. At times it appeared in the teaching of the Reformed churches like a brilliant meteor whose flash lit up for a brief span the whole horizon of the churches’ thought and life. At other times it shone in doctrine and practice with a subdued but steady glow to light up the pathway of spiritual pilgrimage through this world. But always the covenant idea was there, so much so that Reformed faith and practice becomes wholly unintelligible and strange to those who do not understand its significance.

Since the essence of salvation is fellowship with God, the Bible speaks of this theme recurrently. The data in Scripture on the covenant idea is so rich and voluminous that various methods may legitimately be followed to discover and set forth its significance for our lives. Some have tried to answer the question of its essential character by approaching it from the viewpoint of the individual believer hungering for soul-satisfying communion with God as Creator and Redeemer. Others have found in it the answer for the proper organization and program for the church on earth. Still others have noted that it solves the problem of history: its nature, course and goal.

A Comprehensive Doctrine

A study of the references in Scripture to the covenant will immediately call our attention to the complexity of the subject. It alone illumines such strategically important doctrines as divine sovereignty, eternal election,human freedom, salvation by grace, the Headship and Suretyship of Christ, membership in the visible church, the means of grace, and the eternal destiny of the race. From the above as well as from the historical survey sketched in the previous article it is apparent that  the place occupied by the covenant idea in the theology and life of the Reformed churches is by no means easy to define precisely and accurately. It has ramifications which control the whole structure of Christian doctrine.



Rather than considering it as a specific doctrine next to many other doctrines, we should regard it as a basic motif or pattern controlling the theory and practice of our Christian faith and which alone reveals and guarantees saving fellowship with God.

Today the covenant idea has gained new relevance for the life of Christian believers. Wrestling with the profound problems imposed by the tragic dilemmas and contradictions of modern life, Reformed Christians must reawaken to the conviction that in the biblical teaching of God’s covenant with man lies the fundamental solution for man and a world in despair.

In the comforting assurance voiced by the psalmist of old, “Our help standeth in the name of Jehovah who made heaven and earth,” we look to the God of the Scriptures who has so clearly and fully revealed himself to his people, and confess that only in blessed covenant-communion with him as the Source and Goal of our lives lies the answer to all the riddles of our finite and sinful existence. In that covenant revelation God and man, Creator and creature, heaven and earth, time and eternity, sin and grace are indissolubly bound together, so that the tragic conflicts of life are resolved and man as creature of the dust who wrestles with the problem of himself as sinner find life and peace and hope.

The Bible – Sole Source of Covenant Theology

In order to understand what is actually meant by the covenant as the expression of man’s religious communion with his Creator and Redeemer, we must turn directly to the inspired Word. Here alone may we find the infallible rule for the Christian’s faith and practice. “For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light” (Psa. 36:9). Thus apart from what God himself has said about the possibility, basis and purpose of the life of covenant-communion with rum) we will lose ourselves in the mysterious labyrinths of human speculation and sentiment.

That this emphasis on the authority of the Word for a proper understanding of fellowship with God as covenant-communion is necessary should be evident to anyone who has become even in the least acquainted with the procedures followed by liberals and quasi-liberals.

Instead of submitting to the teachings of the Bible they have wandered down the misty and murky bypaths of human reason and experience. Their attempt to understand God’s dealings with man on the basis of an inductive study of man)s nature and history is doomed to failure. For we have then rejected any adequate standard in the light of which human life must and can be evaluated. The only possible procedure on such a basis must and usually does recognize the validity of all human experiences, no matter how contradictory these may be. Thus the end of all those bypaths is agnosticism, which fundamentally denies the reality of both God and man. The final answer to any question concerning religious fellowship between God and man on this basis must consistently be, “We don’t know!”

How rich, therefore, is the Christian who by faith appropriates the Bible as God’s Word. Therein he seeks and finds the answers to the supreme questions concerning God’s dealings with man. In consequence he alone can rejoice with the poet of Psalm 119:

“How I love Thy law, O Lord! Daily joy its truths afford; In its constant light I go,

Wise to conquer every foe. Thy commandments in my heart Truest wisdom can impart;

To my eyes Thy precepts show

Wisdom more than sages know.”2

Here again the road to safe and satisfying religious experience is built on the sound knowledge of God’s special, saving revelation of himself) known as the Bible.

Thus in studying what is meant by the covenant idea, we must turn not first of all to the words of men, no matter how learned and profound and perhaps intriguing these may seem to be, but to the sole source of a truly Christian theology.

Basic Passages From Scripture

What, then, does the Bible have to say about the covenant? In this article we will address ourselves only to some of the more general and basic teachings. It will be impossible in the scope of one article even to begin to cover all the relevant scriptural material. Hence we will restrict ourselves largely to a consideration of a few basic passages and the terms which are employed. In order to set forth these truths as clearly as possible, this material will be presented in the form of questions and answers.

1. What word does the Old Testament use to express the idea of covenant?

For this purpose the word used is berith, which appears some 300 times in the Old Testament. Its derivation is not entirely certain. However) scholars agree that it is the same as the Assyrian word biritu which means both covenant and fetter. The root idea is that of binding.3 Hence the covenant signifies that arrangement or agreement which binds two or more parties together.

2. Where is the covenant first explicitly mentioned?

This is found in the story of God’s dealings with Noah. Having seen the corruption among mankind, God has determined upon the destruction of the world. However, “Noah found favor in the eyes of Jehovah” (Gen. 6:8). Thus he appeared to Noah, spoke of the impending doom, and commanded his servant to make an ark for the saving of himself, his family and some of all the creatures. These dealings are specifically designated as the making of a covenant. “But I will establish my covenant with thee” (Gen. 6:18).

3. What are some of the outstanding elements in this covenant relation with Noah?

The following should be carefully noted. (1) Here the initiative lies entirely with God and not in any sense with man. (2) Secondly, the coming of God signalizes the differentiation which God makes between Noah and those who have not found favor in his sight. (3) Furthermore, by coming to him God makes an ally or confederate of Noah in his attack on the sinful world. Noah appears as God’s friend, so that in effect God and Noah make common cause against the unrighteous world. (4) Also, God’s gracious dealings with Noah are extended to embrace with him his family and the animals. God does not deal with him individualistically but organically, that is, by saving Noah in and with his relation to his family and creation in general. (5) And finally, this covenant guarantees the safety of Noah and those who are with him. This is evident from the strong contrast between verse 17 and verse 18.

4. Did this covenant revelation to Noah require some response on his part?

Indeed, since Noah is commanded to build the ark. This had to be done in accordance with specific instructions given by God (Gen. 6:14–16). Thereupon he was to bring of every living thing into the ark according to God’s command, as well as the necessary food. We read, “Thus did Noah, according to all that God commanded him, so did he” (Gen. 6:22).

5. Which covenant of God is mentioned most frequently in the Bible?

The covenant which God made with the children of Israel. This was first established with Abraham (Gen. 15:18; 17:7, etc.). On the basis of the promises given to his servant God continued to reveal himself to his people and bless them. At Sinai this covenant was renewed in a somewhat different form.4 That there is no inherent contradiction between the two is evident from many passages (Deut. 1:8; Ex. 32: 13; Lev. 26:42; esp. Psa. 105:8–10).

6. Does the Bible ever speak of covenants made among men?

Indeed, especially the Old Testament is replete with examples of this. Among the outstanding examples are: (l) Covenants as treaties or alliances between tribes and nations, for example, Genesis 14:13, between Abraham and his confederates, Marnre, Eshcol and Aner; Genesis 21:27, 32, between Abraham and Abimelech; Genesis 26:28, between Isaac and Abimelech; Joshua 9:15, between Joshua and the Gibeanites; I Samuel 11:1 between Nahash and the men of Jabesh Gilead; I Kings 5:12, between Solomon and Hiram; and many others. (2) Covenants between a sovereign and his subjects, such as II Samuel 3:21; 5:3, between David and Israel; Jeremiah 34 :8-IS, between Zedekiah and Judah; etc. (3) Covenants or pledges between individuals or small groups, such as I Samuel 18:3; 20:8, between David and Jonathan; II Kings 11:4, between Jehoiada and the captains, etc.

7. When speaking of such covenants does the Bible imply or suggest that essentially God’s covenant with man is comparable to these?

Indeed not, for although God makes use of this form of social life to express the religious relationship between himself and his people, the uniqueness of his covenantal dealings is everywhere emphasized.

This uniqueness is stressed in every instance. (1) In God’s dealings with Abraham where every time he takes the initiative, makes the promises, and imposes the obligations (Gen. 12:1f; 15:1f., esp. 15:5; Gen. 17:1–21, etc). (2) God also announced this uniqueness to Israel (Psa. 147:19, 20; Jer. 24:7, 30:22; etc. (3) Finally, this is also directly asserted of the New Testament Church (II Cor. 6:16–18; I Pet. 2:9,10; Rev. 21:3).

8. How does the New Testament describe God’s relation to his people?

As in the Old Testament, so also here several figures of speech are employed, including the idea of the covenant. The word used is diatheke, which closely approaches the meaning of promise, inheritance and testament. Hence it signifies a disposition or arrangement established by God with his people.

9. Who first used the term diatheke to describe God’s reIation to his people?

This was used by the translators of the Hebrew BIble into the Greek language by the seventy (or seventy-two) elders sent from Jerusalem to Alexandria in Egypt for this purpose at the request of Ptolemy II (about 250 B.C.)5 They had to make a choice between two Greek words, diatheke and suntheke, to render the Hebrew word berith. Though the latter expressed the idea of agreement or treaty and was customarily used to denote covenants among men, the translators chose the former to preserve the biblical position of God’s absolute sovereignty in making his covenant with man.

10. In translating the New Testament word diatheke into English what word was customarily used, and why?

There has been widespread difference of opinion as to whether this word should be rendered “covenant” or “testament.” The term is employed more than 30 times, at least 17 times in the book of Hebrews alone. In all except two cases it can only be properly rendered “covenant,” in keeping with the Old

Testament berith. Two passages have been considered debatable by many scholars, Galatians 3:15 and Hebrews 9:15–17. However, in the former the emphasis is clearly on God’s arrangement; hence the term covenant is appropriately used. Likewise, the American Revised Version uses covenant for the latter passage, though mentioning in a footnote that the Greek word also has the force of being a testament.6

The Covenant as Fellowship With God

From the biblical record it is apparent that we must speak of the covenant in a double way: as the relationship between God and man, and as one of the relationships among men.

Although there is clearly a parallel between these two, they may never be equated. God has made known the riches of his fellowship with man through the medium of the covenant concept, and this has become clearer to man as he compared it with developments in his own life. Yet the distinction between the two types of covenants is of the utmost importance and must be carefully and consistently maintained. While in the sphere of human relationships the parties are always to a greater or lesser degree on an equality, this can never be the case in the covenant which God is pleased to establish with man. Very plainly the Bible insists that God alone always takes the initiative. He is said “to make,” “to establish,” “to cut” or “to give” the covenant with man. This order cannot be reversed according to the Bible. God is ever presented as the Creator and Redeemer, while man lives by that grace which he sovereignly bestows.

This relationship of Creator and creature, because it differs radically from all human relationships, is absolutely fundamental to a correct understanding of the covenant as fellowship between God and man. At the outset it safeguards us against the extremes of both pantheism and deism, both of which automatically rule out the possibility of fruitful communion with God.

Pantheism in its various forms, by identifying God with the world in one way or another, overemphasizes the immanence of God in the world. So strong is its insistence that God is in and with the world, that all communion in the sense in which the Bible speaks of it is ruled out. On this account anyone who takes the biblical view of true religion as covenant fellowship must reject all forms of mysticism which seek God in the hidden depths of human personality or which try to identify him with the soul of the world.

On the other hand, deism by its radical insistence on God’s transcendence has so completely removed and confined God to his heaven that there is no room for fellowshiping with man. On that account we take issue  with the dialectical theologians, such as Barth, Brunner, and their disciples, who cannot leave room for covenant fellowship as a continuous and fruitful relationship of grace in which man lives. To them the divine-human encounter, of which they speak often, is such a radical, unique and momentary experience that human contact with God can only be disjointed and transient.

The Creator-Creature Relationship Basic

The significance of the Creator creature relation for the correct estimate of the covenant cannot be over emphasized. Here lie the roots of any truly biblical theology. Such teachings as God’s eternity, his sovereignty, his self-revelation, his plan and purpose, as well as such concepts as time and space, chaos and order, lower and higher forms of created life, and man’s creation in the image of God, definitely limit and define the covenant relationship. The latter cannot be adequately interpreted without taking all these and many other scriptural positions into consideration. Thus any view that the covenant is merely the projection and application of human relationships to the fellowship between God and man is conclusively proved false.

Although covenants were developed among men before God unmistakably revealed the covenant pattern as his method of dealing with the race, we would be doing gross injustice to the biblical data, if we would understand the religious relation of God and man merely in the light of man’s treaties with his fellowmen. The latter have significance and validity only on the ground that man is created in the image of God. Animals make no covenants among themselves. Likewise, we know of none among either angels or devils. It belongs peculiarly to man who has been fashioned after the likeness of almighty God to make such arrangements for the preservation and development of his own life. In this way, also, he reflects something of the attributes of God in his own life. For it is in the trinitarian life of God that we find the original pattern (archetype) of all historical covenants, a covenant in the truest and fullest sense of the word, in which the parties meet as equals (suntheke). Since this is true, the Bible forbids us to cherish any human or earthly conception of the fellowship between God and man. It belongs to a different and higher order than the treaties and leagues which men contract among themselves.

Thus, although the Bible speaks of a type of communion between God and man, it docs so on the presupposition that God is entirely self-sufficient. In no way does he ever need man. The two parties never meet on any plane of equality. God, as the eternal, transcendent, self-sufficient Creator and Sustainer of the universe graciously condescends to enter into relationship with man who was created after his likeness. From the point of view of the origin of the covenant we cannot escape the conclusion that it is monopieurie, that is, one-sided in the sense that it is established by God. Yet in its administration it recognizes and requires the response of man and is thus dipleuric, that is two-sided. By his grace God enables man to act as the second party in the covenant, even though this is only possible when God works in him both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).7

Characteristics of Covenant-Communion

From what the Scriptures plainly teach about this blessed covenant-communion between God and his people the following characteristics have become evident:

1. It is a personal relationship. The Bible never wearies of emphasizing that God is personal. Likewise, it affirms in no uncertain terms that man was created in the image of God. The most intimate communion which man may have with his fellowmen serves as a figure of the communion which he enjoys with his Creator and Redeemer.

2. It is an intelligible and describable relationship. This follows directly from the nature of man as image-bearer, by which he was endowed with the necessary capacities for such personal communion. Any biblical conception of covenant-communion strikes a fatal blow at the heart of all mystical attempts to find blessedness in the merging of self with God.

3. It is a gracious fellowship. God was in no wise bound or compelled to enter into this salutary relationship with man. This has been beautifully and accurately set forth in the Westminster Confession, Article VII, I : “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 hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.”

4. It is an organic relationship. The Bible plainly teaches that God· never deals with man purdy as an individual in isolation from the position which he occupies with reference to the rest of creation. Instead, he deals realistically and concretely and historically with man. Thus the frame of reference always embraces more than the soul or heart of man as individual. It includes his whole life.

5. It is a permanent relationship. In speaking of it thus we stress the revelation which God gives of himself in the covenant as eternal, truthful and faithful to his Word. The Bible also emphasizes plainly that it roots in God’s eternal decree and that he will invariably bring it to its fulfillment in the lives of the elect. Thus, although the covenant demands loving response from man, it is never presented as if the Covenant of Grace were dependent on man’s response.

6. It is a reciprocal relationship, that is, one shared in and exercised by both parties. In spite of our insistence on divine initiative in the covenant, we may not deny the place which Scripture accords human recognition of and response to the covenant bond. Although dependent on the gracious gift of God, this response is always real, personal and voluntary. Thus the covenant may never be construed as either mechanical or magical in its working.

7. It is also a historical relationship, speaking of the coming together (cum venire) of God and man. The fellowship is dependent on and conditioned by what God has revealed. of himself. Herein lies also the uniqueness of God’s covenant people. For in spite of the fact that he has created the whole human race of one blood and bound them together by common ties, nonetheless in establishing his covenant God makes differentiation. In both Old and New Testament the emphasis falls strongly on the peculiarity of his covenant people in distinction from all others. Thus Israel’s God may never be construed as a natural power like the gods of the heathen. And Israel’s religion as covenantal fellowship is sharply distinguished from the efforts of the heathen to bind their gods by means of sacrifices, vows, good works or other religious rites. The historical character of the covenant relationship guarantees its permanence and uniqueness. It rests on his eternal purposes made known to his people in the form of promises and fulfillment.

Erroneous Views

Too much religion which today passes under the name of Christianity stands condemned in the light of the Bible as being only a partial and therefore erroneous presentation of God’s relation to his people.

The Arminian position, prevalent in most orthodox circles in our country today, maintains the responsibility and response of man to God only by denying the equally biblical teaching of God’s absolute sovereignty in the work of grace.

The neo-orthodox or dialectical theologians, with their emphasis on the total “otherness” of God, have of necessity rejected all possibility of an abiding, gracious relation of communion between God and his people in Christ Jesus.


1. Canons of Dort, III–IV, Art. 1.

2. Christian Reformed Church Psalter Hymnal, No. 262, vs. 1.

3. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. II, p. 727f.

4. L. Berkhof: Systematic Theology, p. 295–299.

5. On this subject cf. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “Septuagint,” Vol. IV, p. 2722–2732.

6. On the force of the word “testament” cf. L. Berkhof: Systematic Theology, p. 281–282.

7. Cf. L. Berkhof: Systematic Theology, p. 282.