Covenant theology interprets the Bible through the lenses of two covenants, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Some covenant theologians see a third covenant, the covenant of redemption, but this falls under the umbrella of the covenant of grace. Covenant theology does not disregard individual covenants in the Bible such as the Davidic covenant but see them as part of a broader part of God’s plan.
In the covenant of works, there was a covenant between God and Adam; Adam would obey God and God would provide eternal life. Disobedience would bring death however. This is made clear in Genesis 2:16-17, “And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”
When God’s command was broken, sin and death entered into the world. Adam had sinned as the representative of man and thus all people were born into sin. Man continued to sin individually as well, however, emphasizing the need for salvation from sin.
The covenant of grace is between God and the elect, those who have been or will be saved. Grace is not extended to those who do not accept and enter into the covenant. This is different from the covenant of works because Adam began under this covenant and chose to break it. The covenant of grace is a covenant that man enters into but not all enter. The covenant of grace offers eternal life to all with the condition that they have faith in Jesus Christ.
Because sin and death had entered the world, God had to extend grace to humanity. Grace is found in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Even though this does not occur until the New Testament, the Old Testament is still under the covenant of grace because the people looked forward to Jesus from the moment that God instilled the covenant in Genesis 3:15. There, Eve is promised that her seed would crush the head of the serpent.
The covenant of redemption is a covenant between God the Father and Jesus. Its importance is not so much that it be recognized as a third covenant under covenant theology but simply the fact that the covenant of grace is made possible because of the work of Jesus.
The covenant of redemption states that there was an agreement in eternity past that Jesus would provide redemption for fallen man. This is based off of passages such as Ephesians 1:3-14. The covenant of grace is placed into effect because Jesus came to earth as the “Second Adam” and lived a sinless life but paid the penalty of death that all sinners deserve.
Covenant Theology in the Old and New Testaments
The covenant of works failed the moment that sin entered into the world and the need for the covenant of grace arose. The covenant of grace goes into effect directly after the fall with the first prophecy concerning the coming of Jesus in Genesis 3:15. All of the Old Testament is spent looking forward to Jesus.
Anyone who follows the commands of God and takes part of the sacrifices that God requires does so in anticipation of the death of Jesus and the redemption found in the cross. Therefore Old Testament believers are saved in the same manner in which New Testament believers are saved. Salvation is through Jesus Christ, Old Testament believers are simply looking forward while New Testament believers look back upon the work that has already taken place.
Covenant Theology and Israel
Some reject covenant theology because of its view of God’s treatment of Israel. In short, the promises that God made to Israel were unconditional in that they would be fulfilled by God. However, they are spiritualized in that the promises are passed along to the church – spiritual Israel. Because Israel rejected Jesus, they do not get to enjoy in the promises that are made to Israel but the church will still see these promises fulfilled to them.
The thinking behind extending the promises of Israel to the church goes as follows. The covenant of grace was extended to the elect. In the beginning this was Israel whom God chose as a people for Himself. The promises that were made to Israel were not made to a nation or a people group, but to the elect who were a part of the covenant of grace. When Israel rejected Jesus and stopped placing their faith in the Messiah who they previously had looked forward to, they were no longer a part of the covenant. The church, made up of believing Jews and Gentiles alike, inherited the promises of God by virtue of the fact that they were now the participants of the covenant of grace. Nationality never had anything to do with Israel’s covenant aside from the fact that previously the nation of Israel had been a part of the covenant of grace.
Prophecy and Covenant Theology
Because of covenant theology’s view of Israel, this effects one’s interpretation of the Millennial Kingdom. Premillennialism holds that Jesus will literally reign on David’s throne for 1,000 years. This can’t literally happen if the promises to Israel are fulfilled in the church. For this reason, covenant theologians are amillennial or postmillennial in their view of the Millennial Kingdom.
For centuries it appeared as if the promises to Israel had to be spiritualized because Israel was no longer a nation. It appeared as though God had punished Israel and He was done with them. In 1948 when Israel became a nation again, it became possible for the prophecies about Israel to be literally fulfilled once again. This does not prove that the prophecies must be taken literally, it simply opens the door for them to be literally fulfilled when before that appeared impossible.
Signs of the Covenant
Israel was given circumcision as a sign of the covenant between them and God. All males were to be circumcised on the eighth day after their birth and all converts to Judaism were to be circumcised. Once Israel rejected Jesus, a new sign of the covenant of grace was needed. Baptism was used by the church as a sign of the covenant of grace. Baptism was then used in place of circumcision as a sign of the covenant to distinguish Christianity from Judaism.
It should be noted that there is little scriptural evidence of infant baptism. A few passages in the New Testament reference households being baptized but never imply that babies are baptized. Instead this most likely refers to the fact that the entire household became saved and chose to be baptized together.
Infant baptism is therefore something that is deduced from scripture rather than a direct command. It takes the place of circumcision in order to differentiate the two religions. Much like circumcision did not save a child – they must choose to follow God’s commands and offer the appropriate sacrifices – so should infant baptism not be thought of as an act that causes salvation. A child must make the decision on their own to place their faith in Jesus.