It would be no exaggeration to say that a proper understanding of the two most important covenants that God has made with the human-race is key to understanding the Biblical story, and especially for understanding the apostle Paul’s claim that Christians are not under Law, but under grace. The first of these covenants has become known as the Covenant of Works. God made this covenant with our first parents in the Garden of Eden and then re-instituted it for the nation within which He chose to dwell in a special way, Israel, at Mount Sinai. All humanity, being descended from Adam and Eve, are born under and judged according to this covenant. The second is the New Covenant, which He established through the obedience and atoning death of His Eternal Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Those who put their faith in Christ enter into this covenant. All of the other covenants found in the Bible can be seen to be subordinate to these two.
The Covenant of Works
The Covenant of Works was established in God’s commandment to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Our first parents disobeyed God and thus received the penalty which God had announced beforehand. This is the condition into which all human beings, as descendants of Adam and Eve, are born.
Some in the history of Reformed theology have believed that all of God’s covenantal dealings with humanity after the Fall of our first parents were based on grace. But others have seen the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai as being, in effect, a re-establishment of the original Covenant of Works made with Adam and Eve for Israel. And, in this author’s opinion, this latter view seems better to reflect the New Testament contrast between the Law (or Old Covenant) and the Gospel (or New Covenant). This Mosaic Covenant included a whole set of laws for Israel, including provisions for civil life and for the ceremonial system of sacrifices.
That the covenant made at Sinai is the principal covenant of the Old Testament is seen in the fact that the Law of Moses is repeatedly referred to as the covenant in the Old Testament and as the Old Covenant in the New Testament (in contrast with the New Covenant).
The disputed question is: What kind of a Covenant was it? One that is based on works or one based on grace? I would like to argue that the Covenant given to Israel through Moses was a works covenant, which can be seen in its form, in which blessing is promised for obedience and curses for disobedience (as is especially seen in Deuteronomy 28). It is also seen in its outcome, in which Israel, like Adam and Eve, would fail to keep the covenant and thus come under its curse sanctions (as was foretold in Deuteronomy 31:16-21 and recorded in the Old Testament historical record of the nation of Israel). That the Old Covenant failed is actually proof that it was not a covenant based on God’s grace. But its failure was by God’s intention and design. God declares this through the apostle Paul in Galatians 3:10-14 & 21-22and inRomans 10:5-9.
God’s intention was to make clear to the Israelites that, in spite of the glorious privilege of being the nation in which God chose to dwell for a time and work out his plan of salvation, they were nonetheless still under the curse on all humanity due to the failure of Adam and Eve to keep the original covenant that God had made with them. In other words, they, too, were inevitably covenant-breakers. And not only were they breakers of the original covenant, but they also proved to be violators of its renewal received by Moses on Mount Sinai.
Nevertheless, the covenant that Israel received under Moses served to point in many ways to what God would do in the future in establishing a new covenant. And this covenant, unlike the old one, would actually bring salvation to all who are a part of it. So the Old Covenant (or Law of Moses) served to prepare Israel for the coming of their (and the world’s) Redeemer. And it would also provide the appropriate setting for the Redeemer to do His work.
The entire Old Testament may be seen as focusing on the covenant God established with Israel through Moses – in its historical emergence, its terms, stipulations, sanctions (in those portions traditionally labeled as “the Law”), its applications (in the wisdom literature in the traditionally-labeled “Writings”), and in the covenant lawsuits that God would bring against his people, as expressed in the writings of “the Prophets” & chronicled in the post-Sinai history of the Israelite nation (the historical portion of “the Writings”). At the same time, the New Covenant was anticipated in the Old Testament in many ways, going all the way back to the Garden (in the prophetic promise of Genesis 3:15 and, even, in God providing garments of skin for Adam and Eve in order to cover their nakedness as described in verse 21, as this apparently required a sacrifice of animals).
God’s dealings with Adam and Eve were initially based on a principle of works, in which it was implied that there would be a blessing for obedience (or, at least, a continuation of blessing) and stated directly that there would be a penalty for disobedience (namely, death). This is why it was appropriate to call this arrangement a “Covenant of Works”. It was an arrangement based on obedience or disobedience to a Law. So it is described as “Law”.
Following Adam and Eve’s disobedience it was necessary for God to provide another way back into his favor. Though they had been banished from the Garden, so that they would not be able to eat from the other special tree in the Garden: the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24), it was God’s intention that the human race not remain in this condition. Indeed, free access to the tree of life is one of the promises for those who will live in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 2:7 and 22:1, 2 & 14).
God could have justly destroyed Adam and Eve after they had sinned. That he didn’t do so and also spared a portion of humanity through the Flood shows that He was treating fallen humanity according to grace, rather than according to the strict dictate of the law that he had given to them and despite their ongoing disobedience to him. The promise of eternal life remained. This is why the second stage is described as “Grace”.
God’s gracious forbearance of humanity’s fallen state and continual disobedience and his promise of deliverance continue until this day. But during the period from Moses to Jesus God would enact another Covenant of Works for Israel in the form of the Law of Moses. This law was never intended to save those who were under it. Rather, its principal purpose was to demonstrate their need for a Savior and to prepare for the coming of that Savior. So, there were two principles at work at the same time during this period: grace in the promise of future salvation, and law, which offered blessing for obedience but only brought curses on account of Israel’s inability to keep it. This is why the third stage is described as “grace and law” (with the Law being the temporary subordinate level).
The Covenant of Grace
But in the final stage both the law and God’s gracious promise of salvation were fulfilled by the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. In doing so Christ established the New Covenant through His death (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25), and both fulfilled and ended the Old Covenant.
That the New Testament calls this covenant “new” in itself suggests that a view of the history of God’s covenants which emphasizes a strict continuity between this covenant and God’s previous covenants with his people is incorrect. While there had been many promises of the New Covenant during the Old Testament period, the New Covenant only came into existence when the eternal Son of God established it with his death on the cross.
Furthermore, to see the Law as being an administration of God’s grace (rather than being in contrast with this) is to risk confusing grace and law and, in practice at least, to turn the gospel into a new law. Whenever this occurs, what makes the gospel unique and the only way to salvation becomes obscured, if not lost altogether.
Unlike the Old Covenant, the New Covenant provides only blessings because it has already been fulfilled by Christ on behalf of His children (2 Corinthians 3:6-11; Hebrews 8:6-13). Thus, the New Covenant is characterized by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who brings faith, growth in righteousness (as seen in the fruit of the Spirit) and, eventually, eternal life. This is in contrast to how the Old Covenant worked, as the Letter of the Law brought only judgment upon the futile efforts of both Gentiles and Israelites to keep it by doing works of the flesh.
Here is a diagram that indicates the way I see these two basic covenants having been played out over the history of redemption.
So, what are the practical consequences of all of this for us? Above all, it is that if we are under the New Covenant then we have been permanently delivered from being under the Covenant of Works, both in its original form in God’s command concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden and in its re-instituted form in God’s covenant with Israel.
The first covenant was based on the principle of law: obey and be blessed or disobey and be cursed. But the New Covenant is based on the principle of grace, with only blessing for those who are under it, since Jesus Christ earned God’s blessing forever for us and also took the curse that we were under due to our disobedience to the first covenant.
The first covenant required works. But we both enter and remain in the New Covenant through faith in Christ. The first Covenant addressed us in our sinful state, or in the flesh. It was impossible for us to keep it because we were slaves to sin. But under the New Covenant we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, who progressively guides us so that we grow in righteousness.
Finally, the first covenant only brought judgment from God. But the New Covenant guarantees eternal life for all who are covenant-heirs through faith in Christ.
Christopher Andrus is a graduate of Duke University (A.B. Philosophy) and Westminster Seminary California (M.Div.) and a member of the Presbyterian Church in America who does freelance ministry.
The Covenant Theology laid out in this chapter was largely inspired by the lectures of the former Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary in California, Dr. Meredith G. Kline. Dr. Kline’s work has been variously interpreted. See fn. 2 reference for a summary of the variety.
Even the chosen title for the two parts of the Christian Bible reflects the contrast between the Old Covenant and the New, as a “Testament” can be seen to be a synonym to a “Covenant”. Hebrews 9:15-28 even points out how the New Covenant worked in the same manner as what we today call a “last will and testament”, and that the Old Covenant had also represented this in advance. That Adam and Eve had died as a result of violating the original Covenant in the Garden meant that the only hope for them was if Someone else would take the death penalty that they had incurred on their behalf. The whole sacrificial system given to Israel represented this and pointed to the Ultimate Sacrifice that would be made by the Eternal Son of God.
The New Covenant is especially anticipated in the Old Covenant’s sacrifices, which prefigured Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself, and in God’s promises to Abraham, especially in the covenant that God made with him which is recorded in Genesis 15.