Scripture: Genesis 17:1-22
For some, the truth of the covenant is familiar; for some, it may be controversial; for others, it may be virtually unknown. All should be convinced of the importance of the covenant. This cannot be taken for granted today on either side of the Atlantic. There is a loss of covenant consciousness among Christians. This is true even of Reformed and Presbyterian Christians among whom consciousness of the covenant once was lively.
Where today do professing Christians think of their salvation as a matter of God’s making His covenant with them? Rather, salvation is commonly thought of as their making a decision for Christ.
Where today do Christians practice the Christian life of holiness as a matter of keeping the covenant? Rather, they devote their life to Jesus, or imitate the life of Christ, or obey certain rules laid down in the Bible.
The covenant is of the greatest importance according to Scripture. When God began to work out the salvation of His people in the nation of Israel in the Old Testament—a work that would culminate in the coming of Jesus the Messiah and His redemption of the people of God—God began that work by making His covenant with Abraham and his seed ( Gen. 12 ). The history of the Old Testament from this point on is covenant history. Since this history has Jesus Christ as its goal, Jesus Christ came into the world to fulfil the covenant and on behalf of the covenant. This is how Zacharias explained the birth of Jesus in Luke 1:72 , 73: “to remember his holy covenant; the oath which he sware to our father Abraham."
The entire saving work of Jesus Christ is making the covenant—the new covenant—with the elect church and each member in particular. This is the teaching of Hebrews 8:6-13 . By Jesus Christ, the high priest, God makes a new covenant with His people as He promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34 . By His atoning death, Jesus earned the right for God’s people to receive the covenant. By His Spirit and Word, Jesus actually makes the covenant with each of God’s people personally. Therefore, Hebrews 8:6 gives Jesus the title, the mediator of the covenant.
Such is the importance of the covenant that it is salvation for a person. That God made His covenant with Abraham was Abraham’s salvation. The various blessings Abraham received from God were covenant blessings, particularly, justification ( Gen. 15:6 ). Galatians 3:6ff . instructs us New Testament Christians that the covenant is our salvation and that we receive and enjoy salvation only in the covenant. Indeed, the passage teaches that the covenant God made with Abraham is our salvation. Verse 8 describes the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 17 and other places as God’s preaching of the gospel to Abraham, particularly, the gospel that God would justify the heathen through faith. Verse 13 teaches that Christ’s redemptive death was the fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham. The entire passage teaches us Gentile believers that our justification by faith, our receiving the Holy Spirit, and our inheriting eternal life are blessings that come to us in the covenant made with Abraham and his seed.
It is necessary that we know this. It is necessary that we know that all the blessings we have from God are covenant blessings. What husband would be pleased that his wife received all his love, care, and gifts while remaining oblivious to the marriage in which and on account of which he lavished his love upon her? God’s love, salvation, and care come to His people in and on behalf of the covenant, which is the real marriage.
As will become plain when we see what the covenant is, God already revealed the covenant in the very first promise of the gospel, in Genesis 3:15 : “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”
This importance of the covenant lends urgency to our calling to keep the covenant. No duty we may possibly have outstrips the duty to keep the covenant. Indeed, for the believer and the child of believers all duties, whether earthly or heavenly, are, in reality, the duty to keep the covenant.
What is the covenant? What is this truth that looms so large in the Bible—announced in Paradise, established with Abraham, and perfected by Jesus Christ?
The Nature of the Covenant
There is much ignorance and confusion among professing Christians concerning the covenant. Even though I do not intend to refute all kinds of erroneous teachings about the covenant, I warn that there are serious errors on the doctrine of the covenant, not only in the evangelical churches, but also in Presbyterian and Reformed churches. In recent developments in North America in reputedly conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches, it has become plain that these errors concerning the covenant fatally compromise the gospel of salvation by the grace of God in Jesus Christ alone. Particularly, the fundamental doctrine of justification by faith alone is corrupted and denied.
My purpose, however, is to teach the truth of the covenant positively, demonstrating from Scripture that it is the truth.
The covenant of God with His people is a unique relationship of intimate fellowship in mutual love. That was the covenant announced to Adam and Eve in the garden immediately after the fall. That was the covenant established with Abraham. That was the covenant as administered to Israel, even though the covenant with Israel was burdened with the law. This is the nature of the perfect form of the covenant with believers and our children in the present, gospel age.
We must not think of the covenant as comparable to a bargain struck by two businessmen, dependent upon stipulated conditions, for the purpose of the advantage of them both. But we must think of the covenant of God with men and women as a delightful marriage, or as a warm friendship. It should be evident at once that it makes a world of difference regarding our keeping of the covenant, whether we think of the covenant between God and ourselves as comparable to a cold, business-like, conditional bargain, or as comparable to a marriage, or a friendship. A wife and a friend behave differently than a businessman, especially with regard to the motives of the heart.
Scripture on the Covenant
We must learn the nature of the covenant from Scripture. We do not learn what the covenant is from extra-biblical sources, specifically, the treaties that heathen nations made with each other in ancient times. Scripture teaches the covenant, and Scripture reveals what the covenant is. At stake here are the truth that Scripture interprets Scripture, the truth of the sufficiency of Scripture, and the truth that every believer can understand Scripture in its fundamental doctrines.
Scripture describes the covenant as a loving relationship of close communion between God and us. Scripture teaches this clearly, so that there is no excuse for the errors, the confusion, and the ignorance concerning the covenant on the part of many Christians and churches. First, in virtually every passage where the covenant is on the foreground, especially, where there is a new, progressive development of the covenant, the same words occur. They are the words, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” By these words, God reveals to us what the covenant is, the nature of the covenant. They are found in Genesis 17:7 , where God establishes the covenant with Abraham; in the preface to the ten commandments, by which God established the covenant with Israel as a nation, in Exodus 20:2 ; in Jeremiah 31:33 , where God promised the new covenant with Israel and Judah; and in Revelation 21:3, where John saw the new creation and the glorified church in the day of Christ.
These words are the “covenant formula.” They describe the covenant as a bond of love. They are similar to a man’s saying to a woman, “I will be your husband, and you will be my wife.” They are like the words of a man to a boy, “I will be your father, and you will be my son.” Running throughout the entire Bible, they show the unity of the covenant.
That the covenant is a relationship of fellowship is proved, secondly, in that the two earthly realities to which Scripture compares the covenant are both close, indeed, the closest, relation-ships of love. They are the father/son relationship and marriage ( Ex. 4:23 ; Ezek. 16:8 ).
Third, Scripture finds the essence of the covenant, and the enjoyment of the life of the covenant, in the tabernacle and temple. The tabernacle was the place where God dwelt with His people and where they, therefore, could draw near to their God, to live with Him in His presence, glorify Him, and enjoy Him. In one word, the tabernacle, or temple, which was at the centre of Israel, was fellowship. It was not a stock exchange, or a lawyer’s office, where spiritual deals were made, but it was home.
In this connection, I remind us that the incarnation of Jesus, according to the Greek text of John 1:14 , was the Word’s “tabernacling” with us (the AV has “dwelt among us”). Also, the New Testament teaches that the church is the temple of God (I P et. 2:5) and the house of God ( I Tim. 3:15 ); the children of God (II Cor. 6:18); and the bride of Christ ( Eph. 5:22-33 ). All of these descriptions of the church express close communion between God and His people. According to Revelation 21 , heaven will be this, that the tabernacle of God will be with men, that is, the fullest enjoyment of the covenant.
Fourth, in light of Scripture’s teaching that the covenant is God’s fellowship with us, and our communion with Him, we can see the announcement of the covenant in Genesis 3:15 . God put enmity—hatred and hostility—between His chosen people and the devil, implying that He restores friendship between some of the fallen human race and Himself. By the fall, all the human race became hostile to God and friendly to the old serpent. By thepromise of the gospel of Genesis 3:15 , God delivered some from their friendship with Satan and created friendship with Himself. Enmity between the seed of the woman and Satan means friendship between the seed of the woman and God.
Fifth, with regard to Abraham personally, God’s covenant with him makes Abraham “the friend of God” ( James 2:23 ). God and Abraham expressed and enjoyed their friendship. On one occasion, God came down from heaven to have a meal with Abraham. God told Abraham the secrets of His plan concerning Sodom. Abraham freely spoke with God about his hopes and fears. Abraham and God walked together “as good friends do, and true” ( Gen. 18 ).
Likewise, God has His meal with us in the Lord’s Supper. He tells us all His heart in the preaching of the gospel. We unburden our hearts to God in prayer and song. We walk with Him, consciously living in His presence, as He is with us by the Spirit of Christ in our hearts.
The Highest Good
Fellowship with God, which is the covenant, is the greatest good, the highest privilege, and the supreme bliss for humans. Fellowship is the most delightful pleasure in everyday, earthly life: friend with friend, family life, and especially the sharing of life in marriage. Even though the early church may not have used the word “covenant” in describing the highest good for Christians, it taught the truth of the covenant when it proposed the “beatific vision”—the sight of God—as the high point of salvation and as the supreme bliss of heaven. Heaven will be home, because Father dwells there, and we will live with Him.
As fellowship with God, the covenant is not a temporal means to a higher, better, eternal end, or goal. The covenant is the end, or goal, itself. The Bible teaches that the covenant is everlasting: “I will establish my covenant,” God promised to Abraham, “for an everlasting covenant” ( Gen. 17:7 ). Hebrews 13:20 speaks of the blood of our Lord Jesus as “the blood of the everlasting covenant.”
As communion with God, the communion of children with their heavenly Father, the covenant reflects God’s own blessed life. God does not merely exist, like a lonely hermit. He lives in a communion of persons. His rich life is triune life: the fellowship of love of the Father and the Son in the Holy Ghost. John 1:18 teaches that the Son lies eternally in the bosom of the Father. The life of God is the original family life. This is why family is basic in creation and in the church. In grace, the triune God reveals His own life, which is fellowship, in His covenant with us. Indeed, He lets us share, in a creaturely way, in His life.
Established in Christ
Jesus Christ laid the basis of the covenant in His death, obtaining for God’s people the right to become friends of God ( Heb. 8, 9). Now, as risen, Jesus creates the living bond between each of God’s people and God by His gospel and Holy Spirit. The realization of the covenant was Jesus’ prayer in John 17 : “that they also may be one in us” (v. 21). This prayer God would answer the next day by the redemption of the cross. Therefore, Jesus is called the mediator of the covenant ( Heb. 9:15 ).
Since Jesus is the mediator of the covenant, the only way into the covenant, and the only experience of the covenant, is faith in Jesus Christ. We come to the Father only by faith in Jesus Christ ( John 14:6 ).
But there is another sense in which God has established the covenant in Christ. God has made the covenant with Jesus Christ personally. The covenant is not made with the elect directly. It is made directly with Jesus Christ. The covenant is made with us only because and inasmuch as we belong to Jesus Christ. According to Genesis 17:7 , God made His covenant with Abraham’s “seed.” Commonly, we think of Isaac, or perhaps of all Abraham’sphysical children. This is a mistake.
That “seed” was Christ. This is the explicit teaching of Galatians 3:16: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” God made the promise of the covenant to Christ. Thus, He established His covenant with Christ as head of the covenant. As head, Christ is the legal representative of all God’s people. Just as the covenant of creation in Paradise was made with Adam as head of the race, so the covenant of grace was made with Christ as head of the new human race of the elect out of all nations. Romans 5:12ff . compares Adam and Christ as two heads of the covenants in history.
This implies that God makes His covenant with those whom He has elected in Christ unto salvation. God does not establish His covenant with all men without exception. He does not establish it with all the natural children of Abraham. He does not establish it with all the physical children of believers. Galatians 3:29 makes this application of the truth of Christ’s headship in the covenant. Galatians 3:16 has stated that God established the covenant with Christ, as the “seed” of Abraham. Verse 29 teaches, “if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.” The promise, the covenant, and the inheritance are for those who are Christ’s.
A Gracious Covenant
Established in Christ, the covenant is gracious. It is truly the “covenant of grace,” as Scripture and the Reformed confessions name it. It is not a covenant of human works, of human will, or of human worth.
God decreed the covenant in His eternal counsel, out of grace alone. God confirmed the covenant in the cross of Christ, out of grace alone. God establishes the covenant in the hearts of elect believers and the genuine children of believers—the “children of the promise” ( Rom. 9:8 ) —by the regenerating Spirit, out of grace alone. God maintains the covenant and perfects it with all those who are Christ’s, preserving His covenant friends, out of grace alone.
The covenant is unconditional: it does not depend upon the sinner. The teaching that the covenant is conditional is a form of the denial of salvation by grace alone. This doctrine makes salvation in the covenant a matter of man’s willing and running, which Romans 9:16 rejects: “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth.” I note in passing that the grievous contemporary heresy in the reputedly conservative Reformed churches in NorthAmerica that denies justification by faith alone bases itself on, and arises from, the doctrine of a conditional covenant.
In light of what the covenant is, namely, fellowship between God and His people, fellowship established in Christ, and fellowship that is gracious, we can understand rightly what Scripture means when it admonishes us to keep the covenant.
The Idea of Keeping the Covenant
Those with whom God makes His covenant are called by God to keep the covenant. After God promised His covenant to Abraham in Genesis 17:7 , He commanded Abraham, “Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations” (v. 9).
The ten commandments were God’s demand to Israel, to keep His covenant. Exodus 34:28 calls the ten commandments “the words of the covenant.” Still today, the ten commandments are binding upon the church as the rule for the church’s life with God in the covenant. In the ten commandments, God demands that believers and their children keep His covenant.
Christians are called to keep the covenant in the sense of observing the covenant, doing what God requires of His covenant friends, living the kind of life that is fitting for the covenant. Christians are to keep the covenant as a wife’s submission to her husband keeps, or properly observes, the marriage, and as a child’s honoring his parents is fitting for family life.
Keeping the covenant is not a work of man upon which the covenant depends, or that cooperates with God’s work, to make the covenant promise effectual, or to bring the covenant to perfection. If this were the case, the covenant and salvation in the covenant would not be by grace, but by works. Such a doctrine of covenant keeping is a denial of the gospel of grace.
The conclusive evidence that keeping the covenant is not a work of man upon which the covenant depends is the plain teaching of the Bible that our keeping of the covenant is itself the gracious gift of God to us and in us. All our obedience and good works are part of the covenant itself. The prophet promised the new covenant with the church in these words: “this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; after those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts” ( Jer. 31:33 ). Love for God in the heart and obedience to all the commandments are not a work of the sinner upon which the covenant depends. Rather, they are the gift of God to the elect church and her members in His great work of making His covenant with them. Obedience to the law is not a condition unto the covenant, but a privilege and blessing of the covenant.
Similar is the teaching of Genesis 18:19 . Jehovah said to Abraham, with whom He had established His covenant, “I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.” As is also true for us parents in the new covenant, it was necessary that Abraham keep the covenant by commandinghis children to “keep the way of the LORD.” But Abraham’s commanding of his children was the fruit of Jehovah’s knowing Abraham. The word “that” in the phrase, “I know him, that he will command his children” is the conjunction of purpose in the Hebrew, “in order that”: “I know him [Abraham], in order that he [Abraham] will command his children.” Abraham’s commanding his children to keep the way of the Lord is the fruit of the Lord’sown mighty covenant love. It is the fruit of election. It is as if Jehovah said, “I will cause Abraham to command his children.”
Our sanctification (and this is what our keeping the covenant is) is not our work upon which our salvation depends, or our work cooperating with God’s work. Away with this notion, once and for all, from the thinking and teaching of Christians! Nor does this notion stimulate lazy Christians to work harder. Rather, it terrifies the people of God, makes others proud Pharisees, and causes others to work for God as slaves. God works in us all ourwilling and doing (Phil. 2:13).
The Necessity of Keeping the Covenant
Although not a work of man upon which the covenant depends, keeping the covenant is important, indeed, necessary. It is necessary, because God demands it, because it is the way in which we are saved, and know we are saved, and because it glorifies God, which is the chief end of the covenant.
But covenant keeping is necessary also in view of the fact that the covenant is a relationship of fellowship between God and us. We have a part in the covenant, just as God also has a part. In an earthly relationship, both of those who are related to each other must do their duty. The husband loves his wife and cares for her, and the wife submits to her husband and helps him. Parents rear their children in love, and the children honor their father andmother. So in the spiritual relationship of the covenant, God in Christ loves and saves His friends and children, according to His own free promise. His people love, reverence, serve, and obey Him, which is His demand of us, and our calling.
Even though God works in us to do our part in the covenant, He works in such a way that we keep the covenant freely, willingly, cheerfully, and carefully. And this pleases God, pleases God immensely, as it pleases a husband that his wife loves him and willingly is a help. It displeases God, displeases Him greatly, that we fail to keep the covenant. Therefore, He chastens His children for disobedience, sometimes severely.
In addition, so important to God is our covenant keeping that He tries, or tests, our commitment to Him. Such was the trial (not “temptation,” as the AV has in Genesis 22:1 ) of Abraham in the matter of offering Isaac to God as a sacrifice. When we pass the test, as Abraham did, although only by the grace of God, which is mighty in us, as it was in Abraham, God is pleased with us, as He was with Abraham: “now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Gen. 22:12).
It is not possible that one with whom God has established His covenant can, by failing to keep the covenant, break the covenant in the sense of cutting off the relationship and nullifying both God’s gracious covenant purpose and God’s gracious covenant work. God preserves His covenant saints (Canons of Dordt, V). Having begun a good work of covenant grace in one, God will “perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
Scripture does warn against the great sin of breaking the covenant. Genesis 17:14 threatens that the uncircumcised man-child “shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant” (a warning all Baptist parents should heed). The grave warnings in Hebrews 6:4-8 and Hebrews 10:26-31 are the same. Covenant breakers violate and transgress the covenant, which, although not made with them personally, is revealed to them. In the sphere of this covenant they live. The life of this covenant is their duty. Refusing to keep the covenant, they render themselves guilty of despising the covenant. They bring down on themselves the curse of the covenant. These are the men, women, and young people described by the apostle in Romans 9:6 as being “of Israel,” in distinction from the elect covenant keepers, who are “Israel.”
The nature of the covenant as fellowship with God and the truth of covenant keeping as living rightly with God in this bond of love determine the manner of our keeping the covenant.
The Manner of Keeping the Covenant
Here we take note of certain basic characteristics of our life as covenant keepers. These characteristics apply to every aspect of our life: worship, marriage, family, citizenship, and work.
First, keeping the covenant consists of obeying God’s commandments. Psalm 103:17, 18 affirms God’s covenant faithfulness “to such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.” The Hebrew parallelism of the psalms teaches here that keeping the covenant consists of remembering God’s commandments, to do them. Covenant keeping is simply this: obedience to God’s commandments in holy Scripture. Ignoring the commandments of God, whether by a church or an individual, is covenant breaking, even though the church or individual ignores the commandments on behalf of a better worship of God (“progressive worship”), or of a service of God that is more acceptable to contemporary society (women in church office and the denial of the headship of the husband in marriage), or of sympathetic love for the neighbor (permission of unbiblical divorce and remarriage). The great principle of covenant life was stated by the prophet Samuel in the Old Testament: “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” ( I Sam. 15:22 ).
Second, we keep the covenant by loving God as our heavenly father, our husband in Jesus Christ, our redeemer from sin and death, and our dear friend. We keep the covenant by love for God in our heart. Love is the demand of the husband from his wife and of the parents from their children. Love is the demand of God from us. This love, which is the essence of covenant keeping, is grateful love. It is love that is, and must be, greater than love foranything or anyone else, so that all else is given up, if need be, in love for God. This love proves itself genuine by right worship of the triune God alone.
In order to love Him, we must know Him, and the more we know Him, the more we will want to know Him. Love for God shows itself in study of the Word, attendance at sound sermons, and the reading of solid theological books and magazines.
Third, the manner of covenant keeping is drawing near to God, as Hebrews 10:22 exhorts: “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” It is a troubled marriage in which the wife keeps her distance from her husband. We draw near to God in prayer. We draw near to God by seeking Him where He is to be found: in the true church; in the preaching of the gospel; in the sacraments, particularly, the sacrament of the Supper.
Fourth, it belongs to the manner of keeping the covenant that we keep the covenant unconditionally. God’s covenant is unconditional on His part. This is comfort for us. But the covenant is likewise unconditional on our part. This is often suffering for us. Covenant keeping means loss, sacrifice, self-denial, suffering, and even death. Scripture describes all of this as the “cross” (Mark 8:34). Parents have given up the friendship of their children; wiveshave lost a husband; men have denied themselves sexually; all the members of the covenant suffer reproach; many have paid the price of their life.
Covenant keeping is not only for the time when it is convenient and easy, but also for times when keeping the covenant sails against the wind. This is what the apostate churches and false prophets of the twenty-first century deny, and what the people gladly ignore.
The command in the covenant is, “Unconditionally, be faithful to your husband or wife!” “Unconditionally, confess the truth!” “Unconditionally, bring up your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord Jesus Christ!” “Unconditionally, see to it that you join a true church, and remain a lively member of it!”
Fifth, we keep the covenant in our generations. The covenant is always with Christ and His chosen people in such a way that the covenant and its salvation run in the lines of believers and their children. This was true in the Old Testament: “… between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations” (Gen. 17:7). This is true in the New Testament: “the promise is unto you, and to your children” ( Acts 2:39 ). The believer does not onlykeep the covenant himself personally, but he also keeps it with regard to his children and grandchildren. He has children, when God blesses his marriage with conception and birth; he presents his children for baptism in a true church; he teaches his children the truth; he rears them in love; he disciplines them. He does not live individualistically and for the moment, but thinks and acts covenantally for the welfare of his descendants for years to come.
Last, we keep the covenant in the hope of future, everlasting blessedness, which will be a gracious reward of our covenant keeping. Abraham had this hope. He looked for a heavenly country ( Heb. 11:16 ).
What is this future blessedness?
This, that the tabernacle of God will be with men, and God will dwell with us. We will be His people, and God Himself will be our God. God will then wipe away all tears from our eyes, and there will be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying. Neither will there be any more pain, because God will make all things new ( Rev. 21:3-5 ).
Communion with God!
The consummation of the covenant of grace!