God’s covenant is the key that unlocks the Bible
Guy Waters talks to Peter Hastie
Dr Guy Waters is the James M. Baird Jr Professor of New Testament at the Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson. He is the author of several books on theology including The New Perspective on Paul, a recent commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, and a work on church government, How Jesus Runs the Church. He is married to Sarah and they have three children. He was a visiting lecturer at the Presbyterian Theological College, Victoria, in July, 2015.
How significant is the idea of covenant in the Bible?
Covenant is a very significant idea. We find it first in Genesis and then in every part of the Bible right up to the book of Revelation. Although the word covenant is found frequently in the Scriptures, its real importance lies in the fact that it ties the whole Bible together and helps us to understand its central message. The idea of covenant helps us to appreciate exactly how God has saved us in Christ and how grace, faith and obedience operate in our lives. There is hardly an area of the Christian life that the idea of covenant does not address in some form or another.
What does the word covenant actually mean?
A covenant is a bond between God and people, and through this bond God sovereignly administers promises. When God gives us promises He also imposes certain obligations. The essential promise of God’s covenant is “I will be their God and they will be my people” (Ezek. 37:27; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 32:38; Rev. 21:3). In other words, God pledges Himself to us, and we are pledged to Him – so fellowship and communion with God becomes possible. The glory of God’s covenant is that the Lord supplies all we need in the gospel to fulfill every one of our obligations.
Is it true, therefore, that life becomes a noble and serious business because God enters into a covenant with us?
Absolutely! When God enters into a covenant with us He holds out promises of blessing and the warning of a curse. To the one who lives faithfully in covenant with Him, there is an assurance of blessing. But for those who break faith with Him, who spurn the obligations of the covenant, there is nothing but cursing and judgment. So it is no small thing to be in covenant with God. There are great privileges and also great dangers.
How early in the Bible does the idea of covenant appear?
Well, the word covenant first appears in Genesis 6:18, but the idea is found much earlier. In fact, it goes back to the Garden of Eden and what is known as the Covenant of Works. God says to Adam in Genesis 2:17, “on the day that you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you will surely die”. This tells us that when God came to Adam He warned him that if he disobeyed he would forfeit life. I think that Scripture indicates here and elsewhere that the life that was being held out to Adam was confirmed and continual life – a life of fellowship with God.
Now Adam stood as a representative person. If he had obeyed, then life would have been the result not just for him, but for all those he represented – all his posterity descending from him by ordinary generation. However, as we know, Adam sinned, which is why we are all by nature cursed and subject to death in him.
Now the Scriptures speak of the arrangement that God had with Adam as a covenant. In texts like Roman 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 the Lord Jesus Christ is set in direct parallel with Adam and, of course, His work is represented in the New Testament as covenantal work. He undoes what Adam has done and brings life and righteousness to us through the Covenant of Grace. Therefore, we have to understand that Adam also played a representative role as our covenant head in the Garden of Eden. So the idea of “covenant” goes all the way back to the garden in Genesis 2.
How do you answer people who say, the word covenant is just not there in Genesis 2? How can there be a covenant if the word itself is not used?
I think we have to be careful that we don’t confuse word and concept. We need to remember that the concept of covenant can be present even if the word is not. Just because the word is absent does not mean that the idea is not there. So the question is, “Are the special features of a covenant – a bond with promises and obligations, attended by blessing and a curse – present in Genesis 2? If such a reality is present in the text, whether or not the word is actually used, then you have a covenant. It comes down to this: if Christ and Adam are parallel, and the parallel pertains to what Adam was charged to do or not to do in Genesis 2, and if the Scriptures speak of the works of Christ (His death and obedience) as covenantal, then we are constrained to say that Adam’s work is no less covenantal than Christ’s work. So even though the word covenant does not appear in Genesis 2, I think we can say from a number of different angles that the arrangement is covenantal.
Also, I think it’s only fair to point out that Hosea 6:7 can be translated to read, “like Adam, they have broken the covenant”. I would not defend the existence of a covenant with Adam on the basis of that verse alone, but I think it’s reasonably compelling. If it is an appropriate translation, which I think it is, then you have the prophet Hosea describing the arrangement in the garden as a covenant.
Are there any other places in Scripture where we have a covenant but the word is not used?
Yes. In 2 Samuel 7 God enters into a covenant with David, promising to build his house, bless his descendants for faithfulness and discipline his descendants for disobedience. However, neither in that passage nor in 1 Chronicles 17, its parallel, is the word covenant used. Nevertheless in Psalm 89 the arrangement in 2 Samuel 7 is called a covenant. So, by comparing one Scripture with another, we can say that the arrangement in 2 Samuel 7 is covenantal, even though the word covenant isn’t used there.
What was it that God was actually offering in that original covenant, and how was that meant to effect us?
What God was offering Adam was life. The threat, of course, was death for disobedience. The offer was life for obedience. Adam was created upright. Had he continued in obedience during this period of testing, then God would have given him life. Now, the question is raised at this point, “Well, wasn’t Adam already alive? How is it meaningful to speak of Adam getting something he already had?” In light of, say, 1 Corinthians 15, the life that Adam was being offered was not a mere replication of what he already possessed, but it was life that could not be lost, and a heightened life of consummate fellowship with God. This is what Adam forfeited, but it is what the second Adam won for us, and it is what we have received in Christ. We will enjoy this life to the full in glory.
Why does God have to enter into these covenantal relationships? And what affect is it meant to have on us?
There were different kinds of covenants in the world of ancient Israel – some between equals and others that were imposed. The covenants that God enacted were asymmetrical – they represented an administration that God sovereignly imposed upon His people. These covenants emphasised God’s selfcommitment to us and our salvation. They contained promises in which God bound Himself to us in absolute terms, giving us certainty about the future.
For example, in the symbolism of the covenant ceremony with Abraham in Genesis 15, God shows us that His promises are absolutely binding. He (in effect) says to Abraham, “If I break My word, if I violate My promise, let Me be as these slain animals.” So God’s commitment is life and death, and He is absolutely pledged to fulfil what He has promised, that is, the salvation of sinners through Jesus Christ. Since God is so serious about keeping His covenant, we need to be serious about honouring it too. We certainly cannot be indifferent to anything that God has held out to us in His covenant.
Certainly God’s promise of salvation in the covenant is about far more than getting a benefit here or there; God is offering Himself, and drawing us near to Himself. So what the covenant does is to impress on us the centrality of fellowship with God. This is why we were made, it is why we were redeemed, and it is the most important thing we can ever take up as human beings.
Clearly Adam broke the covenant. What were the consequences?
Well, as God said, he died. Of course, he didn’t drop dead right away, but death came upon him in a number of different ways. Physical death came upon him eventually as a consequence of his sin. He also died in his relationship with God because he hid himself from the Lord and no longer had any interest in approaching Him. Ultimately, he was driven from the garden and exiled (although I believe Adam and Eve left the garden trusting in God’s promise of salvation). A large part of the misery of eternal death is being cast away from the favour and presence of God and suffering the just deserts of our sin.
Is there any hope from this point on that God might restore His blessing to us? Is there any hope for the world?
One of the stunning things about God is that in Genesis 3 He seeks a reluctant Adam and makes a promise – speaking to Satan, but in the presence of Adam and Eve – that He is going to raise up a descendant (Jesus) from Eve, and that this descendant is going to destroy “the serpent” and suffer in the process. When He utters this promise, God signals a division that He is going to impose within humanity. There will be those who continue to be aligned spiritually with the devil, the tempter, but there will be others that God will graciously draw to Himself, and who will be aligned with Him. Thus in the earliest chapters of the Bible we discover the seed of all the gospel promises, and we will see how God’s gracious covenant comes to fruition through the work of Christ, the promised offspring of Eve.
Can you explain to us how we find hope for the future through Genesis 3:15?
Well, Adam and Eve are told in no uncertain terms that the hope for the human race does not lie in themselves but in the “seed” of promise – that is, in the “offspring” that God will raise up from the woman. They are charged with trusting the Saviour that God will provide, because they have no capacity to defeat the devil or to save themselves. This has to be done for them. They are to believe the promise that God has made, and to respond by drawing near in faith to God. So there is hope but it does not lie in us. The hope lies in Christ, who is to be believed.
How does that promise of salvation, that is first intimated in Genesis 3:15, take on fuller form in the rest of the Bible?
Genesis 3:15 is really the “mother promise” of the Gospel – the protevangelium, the first promise from which all other promises of blessing in the Bible flow. So when God speaks to Abraham in Genesis 12, we learn that it is from Abraham that God will raise up this “offspring”, and that He will be a blessing to all nations. We learn of God’s intent to bring salvation to the offspring of Abraham spiritually reckoned, which is, as Paul stresses in Galatians 3, speaking of everyone who trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ.
When we come to the promises that God makes to David, we learn not only that this offspring will be a descendant of David as well as of Abraham, but that He will rule as a King over His people and over all the world.
In Isaiah we learn that David’s descendant is a prophet and servant who will suffer and die on behalf of His people. But all of these promises have their point of origin in the initial burst of light in Genesis 3:15.
How does the Mosaic covenant fit alongside the promises that God made to Abraham? A lot of people think they are mutually contradictory. Are they right?
I think we need to start with Paul’s proposition in Galatians 3 and 4 that what God was doing at Sinai was not something other than, or in contradiction to, what He had done with Abraham. So the Mosaic covenant does not contradict the Abrahamic covenant.
So how do we explain what appear to be two very different covenants? I think we need to see that the Abrahamic and the Mosaic covenants are complementary. Although people often look at the Mosaic covenant as law, at its heart it consists of promises. God pledges to be God to Israel and tells them that by His grace He has delivered them from Egypt to be a holy nation, a kingdom of priests, and a royal priesthood. Further, God says that their deliverance from Egypt is a picture, which we see in Isaiah and the New Testament, of God’s greater deliverance of sinners through Jesus Christ. I think the Scripture shows us that the Mosaic covenant is a gospel covenant that administers gospel promises.
Of course, the Mosaic covenant does have a couple of distinct functions that Paul mentions in Galatians. One of those functions is to point out our sin. It does that by giving us a comprehensive revelation of God’s law, and that was in part to show us the breadth and extent of our sin, and our need for a Saviour. Correspondingly, the Mosaic covenant, through its sacrifices and festivals, points us to the Saviour that we need. If we take this covenant seriously, we will realise that the law is held up as a mirror to our souls, exposing our sin. However, this covenant also sets forth through its institutions and sacrifices the One who can save us from our sin.
However, once the law has driven us to the Saviour, then it directs us, as those who have been redeemed, to obey its moral precepts – not as the way to save ourselves – but as the rule of life for those who have been justified by faith alone. I know some Christians think that all the aspects of the Old Covenant have been completely displaced by the New. The problem with that approach is that Jesus says that if we love Him we will obey what He commands (John 14:15, 21). And He commands us not to break the law of God (Matt. 5:19; 22:37-40). Paul also, following the lead of Jesus, sends us to the moral law as our covenantal rule of life (Rom. 13:8- 10; Gal. 5:13-15; Eph. 6:1-3).
I think we need to be careful not to squeeze the Mosaic covenant into a narrow mould. It certainly points out our sin, but it also reveals God’s holy character as a way of life for us to imitate. We need to see that the Mosaic law works at a number of different levels, and addresses people in a variety of situations in redemptive history.