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Federal or covenant theology is the heart of biblical Protestantism. Reformed, Particular Baptists, Anabaptists, Methodists, etc. all have a form of federal or covenant theology at the foundation of their theological systems. For example Methodist Minster Dr. Frank Charles Thompson of the Thompson Chain Reference Bible often used covenantal headings to organize his chain references.
If you are new to theology or covenant theology in particular read A. W. Pink’s introduction for a better understanding of the preliminaries.
From The Divine Covenants,
“The covenants occupy no subordinate place on the pages of divine revelation, as even a superficial perusal of Scripture will show. The word covenant is found no fewer than twenty-five times in the very first book of the Bible; and occurs again scores of times in the remaining books of the Pentateuch, in the Psalms and in the Prophets. Nor is the word inconspicuous in the New Testament. When instituting the great memorial of His death, the Savior said, This cup is the new covenant in my blood (Luke 22:20). When enumerating the special blessings which God had conferred on the Israelites, Paul declared that to them belonged the covenants (Rom. 9:4). To the Galatians he expounded the two covenants (4:24-31). The Ephesian saints were reminded that in their unregenerate days they were strangers to the covenants of promise. The entire Epistle to the Hebrews is an exposition of the better covenant of which Christ is mediator (8:6).
Salvation through Jesus Christ is according to the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23), and He was pleased to make known His eternal purpose of mercy unto the fathers, in the form of covenants, which were of different characters and revealed at various times. These covenants enter into the very nature, and pervade with their peculiar qualities, the whole system of divine truth. They have an intimate connection with each other and a common relation to a single purpose, being, in fact, so many successive stages in the unfolding of the scheme of divine grace. They treat the divine side of things, disclosing the source from which all blessings come to men, and making known the channel (Christ) through which they flow to them. Each one reveals some new and fundamental aspect of truth, and in considering them in their Scriptural order we may clearly perceive the progress of revelation which they respectively indicated. They set forth the great design of God accomplished by the redeemer of His people.
It has been well pointed out that “it is very obvious that because God is an intelligence He must have a plan. If He be an absolutely perfect intelligence, desiring and designing nothing but good; if He be an eternal and immutable intelligence, His plan must be one, eternal, all-comprehensive, immutable; that is, all things from His point of view must constitute one system and sustain a perfect logical relation in all its parts. Nevertheless, like all other comprehensive systems it must itself be composed of an infinite number of subordinate systems. In this respect it is like these heavens which He has made, and which He has hung before our eyes, as a type and pattern of His mode of thinking and planning in all providence.
“We know that in the solar system our earth is a satellite of one of the great suns, and of this particular system we have a knowledge because of our position, but we know that this system is only one of myriads, with variations, that have been launched in the great abyss of space. So we know that this great, all-comprehensive plan of God, considered as one system, must contain a great many subordinate systems which might be studied profitably if we were in the position to do so, as self-contained whole, separate from the rest” (Lectures by A. A. Hodge). That “one system” or the eternal “plan” of God was comprised in the everlasting covenant; the many “subordinate systems” are the various covenants God made with different ones from time.
The everlasting covenant, with its shadowings forth His temporal covenants, form the basis of all His dealings with His people. Many proofs of this are to be met with in Holy Writ. For example, when God heard the groanings of the Hebrews in Egypt, we are told that He remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob (Ex. 2:24; cf. 6:2-8). When Israel was oppressed by the Syrians in the days of Jehoahaz, we read, And the Lord was gracious unto them, and had compassion on them, and had respect unto them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (2 Kings 13:23; cf. Ps. 106:43-45). At a later period, when God determined to show mercy unto Israel, after He had sorely afflicted them for their sins, He expressed it thus, Nevertheless I will remember my covenant with thee in the days of thy youth (Ezek. 16:60). As the psalmist declared, He hath given meat unto them that fear him: he will ever be mindful of his covenant (111:5).
The same blessed truth is set forth in the New Testament that the covenant is the foundation from which proceed all the gracious works of God. This is rendered as the reason for sending Christ into the world: To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant (Luke 1:72). Remarkable too is that word in Hebrews 13:20: Now the God of peace that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant. Another illustration of the same principle is found in Hebrews 10:15,16: Whereof the Holy Spirit also is a witness to us: for after that he had said before, This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them the words .. supply proof that the good which God does unto His people is grounded on His covenant. Anything which in Scripture is said to be done unto us for Christ’s sake signifies it is done by virtue of that covenant which God made with Christ as the head of His mystical body.
In like manner, when God is said to bind Himself by oath to the heirs of promise – Wherein God, willing more abundantly to show unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath (Heb. 6:17)— it is upon the ground of His covenant engagement that He does so. In fact the one merges into the other, for in Scripture covenanting is often called by the name of swearing, and a covenant is called an oath. That thou shouldest enter into covenant with the Lord thy God, and into his oath, which the Lord thy God maketh with thee this day. . . Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath (Deut. 29:12,14). Be ye mindful always of his covenant, the word which he commanded to a thousand generations: even of the covenant which he made with Abraham, and of his oath unto Isaac (1 Chron. 16:15,16). And they entered into a covenant to seek the Lord God of their fathers with all their heart and with all their soul. . .And they sware unto the Lord with a loud voice … And all Judah rejoiced at the oath (l Chron. 15:12,14, l5).
Sufficient should have already been said to impress us with the weightiness of our present theme, and the great importance of arriving at a right understanding of the divine covenants. A true knowledge of the covenants is indispensable to a correct presentation of the gospel, for he who is ignorant of the fundamental difference which obtains between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace is utterly incompetent for evangelism. But by whom among us are the different covenants clearly understood? Refer unto them to the average preacher, and you at once perceive you are speaking to him in an unknown tongue. Few today discern what the covenants are in themselves, their relations to each other, and their consequent bearings upon the design of God in the Redeemer. Since the covenants pertain unto the very “rudiments of the doctrine of Christ,” ignorance of them must cause obscurity to rest upon the whole gospel system.
During the palmy days of the Puritans considerable attention was given to the subject of the covenants, as their writings evince, particularly the works of Usher, Witsius, Blake, and Boston. But alas, with the exception of a few high Calvinists, their massive volumes fell into general neglect, until a generation arose who had no light thereon. This made it easier for certain men to impose upon them the crudities and vagaries, and make their poor dupes believe a wonderful discovery had been made in the rightly dividing of the word of truth. These men shuffled Scripture until they arranged the passages treating of the covenants to arbitrarily divide time into “seven dispensations” and partitioned off the Bible accordingly. How dreadfully superficial and faulty their findings are appear from the popular (far too popular to be of much value—Luke 16:15!) Scofield Bible, where no less than eight covenants are noticed, and nothing is said about the everlasting covenant!
If some think we have exaggerated the ignorance which now obtains upon this subject, let them put the following questions to their best-informed Christian friends, and see how many can give satisfactory answers. What did David mean when he said, Although my house be not so with God; yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure: for this is all my salvation (1 Sam. 23:5? What is meant by The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him, and he will show them his covenant (Ps. 25:14)? What does the Lord mean when He speaks of those who take hold of my covenant (Isa. 56:6)? What does God intend when He says to the Mediator: As for thee also, by the blood of thy covenant, I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water? To what does the apostle refer when he says, That the covenant, that was confirmed before of God is (or “to”) Christ (Gal. 3:17)?
Before attempting to furnish any answers to these questions, let us point out the nature of a covenant: in what it consists. “An absolute agreement between distinct persons, about the order and dispensing of things in their power, unto their mutual concern and advantage” (John Owen). Blackstone, the great commentator upon English law, speaking of the parts of a deed, says, “After warrants, usually follow covenants, or conventions, which are clauses of agreement contained in a deed, whereby either party may stipulate for the truth of certain facts, or may bind himself to perform, or give something to the other” (Vol. 2, p. 20). So he includes three things: the parties, the terms, the binding agreement. Reducing it to still simpler language, we may say that a covenant is the entering into of a mutual agreement, a benefit being assured on the fulfillment of certain conditions.
We read of Jonathan and David making a covenant (1 Sam. 18:3) which, in view of 1 Samuel 20:11-17,42, evidently signified that they entered into a solemn compact (ratified by an oath: 1 Sam. 20:17) that in return for Jonathan’s kindness in informing him of his father’s plans—making possible his escape—David, when he ascended the throne, would show mercy to his descendants: (cf. 2 Sam. 9:1). Again, in 1 Chronicles 11:3 we are told that all the elders of Israel (who had previously been opposed to him) came to David and he made a covenant with them, which, in the light of 2 Samuel 5:1-3 evidently means that, on the consideration of his captaining their armies against the common foe, they were willing to submit unto him as their king. Once more, in 2 Chronicles 23:16 we read of Jehoiada the priest making a covenant with the people and the king that they should be the Lord’s people, which, in the light of what immediately follows obviously denotes that he agreed to grant them certain religious privileges in return for their undertaking to destroy the system of Baal worship. A careful consideration of these human examples will enable us to understand better the covenants which God has been pleased to enter into.
Now as we pointed out in previous paragraphs, God’s dealings with men are all based upon His covenant engagements with them—He promising certain blessings upon their fulfillment of certain conditions. This being so, as G. S. Bishop pointed out, “It is clear that there can be but two and only two covenants possible between God and men—a covenant founded upon what man shall do for salvation, a covenant founded upon what God shall do for him to save him: in other words, a Covenant of Works and a Covenant of Grace” (Grace in Galatians, p. 72). Just as all the divine promises in the Old Testament are summed up in two chief ones—the sending of Christ and the pouring out of the Spirit—so all the divine covenants may be reduced unto two, the other subordinate ones being only confirmations or adumbrations of them, or having to do with their economical administration.
We shall then take up in the chapters which follow, first, the everlasting covenant or covenant of grace, which God made with His elect in the person of their head, and show how that is the sure foundation from which proceed all blessings unto then. Next we shall consider the covenant of works, that compact into which the Creator entered with the whole race in the person of their human and federal head, and show how that had to be broken before the blessings agreed upon in the covenant of grace could be bestowed. Then we shall look briefly at the covenant God made with Noah, and more fully at the one with Abraham, in which the everlasting covenant was shadowed forth. Then we shall ponder the more difficult Sinaitic covenant, viewing it as a confirmation of the covenant of works and also in its peculiar relation to the national polity of Israel. Some consideration will also have to be given to the Davidic covenant, concerning which we feel greatly in need of more light. Finally, we shall point out how the everlasting covenant has been administered under the old and new covenants or economies. May the Holy Spirit graciously preserve us from all serious error, and enable us to write that which shall be to the glory of our covenant God and the blessing of His covenant people.”
For more of Pink’s work on the subject visit the work online here.