What about Covenantalism?
by Mitch Cervinka

One of the prominent features of traditional Reformed Theology is "Covenantalism".  Covenantalism rightly teaches that God, in Scripture, often dealt with men by establishing a "covenant" with them.  A covenant is a solemn agreementmuch like a contractwhereby God promises to do certain things for men, and often they are expected to do certain things in return.  Moreover, a covenant often has a "sign" that serves as a reminder of the covenant, or a "seal" that identifies those who are partakers of the covenant.

So far, so good.  There is no question that, in Scripture, we find the following covenants specifically mentioned...

The Biblical Covenants
Announced to/through... Promises... Conditions... Sign/Seal... References...
Noah God would never flood the earth again None. The Rainbow Genesis 9:8-17
Abraham would be the father of many nations.
God would be a God to Abraham and to his descendants.
Abraham and his descendants would receive the land of Canaan as an eternal possession.
Males must be circumcised. Circumcision Genesis 15:17-21
Genesis 17:4-21
Exodus 2:24
Moses Blessing / judgment upon the Israelites. Obedience to 
God's Law.
The Sabbath Exodus 19:1-20:21
Exodus 31:16
A new heart, a new spirit, forgiveness of sins.
Christ would be their Redeemer.
God would be their God.
He would return them to their land and make it fruitful.
None. Sprinkling with water
Lord's Supper
Jeremiah 31:31-37
Ezekiel 36:24-38
Luke 24:14-20


However, Covenantalism focuses on a different set of covenantscovenants that are never specifically mentioned in Scripture.  I refer to these as the "Theological Covenants", since they are based more on theological speculation than on Biblical revelation...

The Theological Covenants
Name... God's Obligations... Man's Obligations... Sign/Seal
Covenant of Grace God gives His only-begotten Son for His elect people, to die in their place to redeem them from their sins;
God sends His Holy Spirit into their hearts to convert and transform them
God promises to glorify them
Faith, Repentance, Love and Obedience toward God
—not in order to merit His blessing, but only as an expression of loving gratitude.
Circumcision and Passover in the OT.

Baptism and Lord's Supper in the NT.
Covenant of Works God bestows blessing upon obedience,
Or condemnation upon disobedience.
Love God and Obey His Law perfectly in order to merit His blessing. None.
Covenant of Redemption A Divine Agreement made among the members of the Trinity in eternity past...
the Father agreeing to elect a people, 
the Son agreeing to provide redemption for them, 
the Holy Spirit agreeing to quicken them unto eternal life.
None. None.
Covenant with Adam God would grant eternal life to Adam if he was obedient for some unspecified duration of time.
God would visit the curse, death and eternal condemnation upon Adam if he disobeyed.
Loving obedience to God. None. (or perhaps the Forbidden Tree?)

There is no question that much of what is ascribed to these "Theological Covenants" is true, and that these form valuable categories by which to organize and analyze God's promises and man's obligations.

Consider the "Covenant of Grace" and the "Covenant of Redemption"It is certainly true that God, in eternity past, did elect a people for Himself, and He did give His only-begotten Son to die in their place to redeem them from their sins.  He does send His Holy Spirit into their hearts to convert and transform them, and He has promised to glorify all His elect people.  It is also true that faith, repentance and loving obedience are the marks of those who receive these blessings.

Or, consider the "Covenant of Works".  There is certainly a Biblical concept of "hypothetical justification by works", presented in such passages as...



James 2:10 - For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.

... although Scripture is clear that none of us keeps God's law, and hence all of us are condemned by the Law.

The "Covenant with Adam" is a matter of more controversy, since Scripture does not explicitly say whether Adam's probation was a temporary or permanent condition, or whether he could ever have done anything to attain eternal life.  Scripture seems to suggest that, if Adam had eaten of the "Tree of Life" rather than the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil", he would have received eternal life and his probation would have ended...

Genesis 3:22-23 - Then the LORD God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever" —therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken.
Theologians often teach that the reason why God considers Adam's offspring as guilty of Adam's sin is that God had made a covenant with Adam in the garden, stipulating that Adam's offspring would be held guilty if Adam ate of the forbidden fruit.  This concept is known as "Federal Headship"where the word "Federal" comes from the Latin foedus, meaning "covenant".

There is no question that the guilt of Adam's first sin does indeed extend to his offspring.  This is plainly taught in Romans 5, where Adam's one sin resulted in condemnation for all men, and Christ's one act of righteousness resulted in justification for all the elect.

Romans 5:18-19 - So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.  For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.
But where in Romans 5 (or anywhere else in Scripture) is there any mention of a covenant made with Adam?  Is it even necessary to suggest that some hypothetical, undisclosed covenant is the basis for Adam's guilt extending to all men?  I contend that it is not necessary.  Unless, of course, by "covenant" you merely mean an informal "understanding" whereby the sovereign God can require whatever He wishes of His creatures, and can impose whatever punishments He wishes for their disobedience.  If this is all that is meant by "covenant", then we must be careful not confuse this kind of an "informal covenant" with the "formal covenant" described in Genesis 9, Genesis 17 and elsewhere.

The "covenant" with Adam was not apparently ratified with "signs and seals".  It is true that God told Adam not to eat of the tree, and told him the consequences if he did eat of it.  However, there is no evidence that God had to get Adam to agree to the terms of this "covenant" before it would be binding upon Adam.  As a parent, you don't have to get your child's consent before you can administer a spanking.  God didn't have to get Adam's approval before He could expel him from the garden and make him subject to corruption and death for his disobedience.

The chief problem with the Theological Covenants is that they apply the concept of "covenant" to truths that are never spoken of in Scripture as a "covenant".  Whether you consider the so-called "Covenant of Grace", the "Covenant of Works", the "Covenant of Redemption" or the "Covenant with Adam"none of these things are specifically spoken of in Scripture as a "covenant", and it is therefore gratuitous to suggest that they should have all the trappings of a formal covenantwith "signs and seals" and "obligations of the two parties", and the "consent of both parties."

If Covenantalism merely meant to signify, by the term "Covenant", that God had made "solemn, immutable promises" to His elect people, then we would have no complaint with Covenantalism.  But Covenantalism, by applying the term "covenant" to these immutable promises, thereby adds some extra baggage that is not inherent in the promises themselvesnamely, the ideas of "mutual consent" to the covenant, "mutual obligations" under the covenant, and of "signs and seals" that ratify and serve as reminders of the covenant.

One Covenant or Many?

The various Biblical Covenants—the ones specifically mentioned in Scripture, that God made through Noah, Abraham, Moses and Christare viewed in Covenantalism, not as distinct covenants, but as "different administrations of the Covenant of Grace".  Such a view seems to fly in the face of certain scriptures that speak of a multiplicity of covenants that God made with His people, Israel...

Romans 9:4 - who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises,

Hebrews 8:13 - When He said, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.

Paul speaks of the Mosaic Law as a principle contrary to the covenant that God made with Abraham 430 years earlier.  According to the apostle, the Law cannot invalidate God's earlier covenant with Abraham:
Galatians 3:17 - What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.
Jeremiah likewise speaks of the covenant of Sinai as being diametrically opposed to the covenant of Calvary...
Jeremiah 31:31-34 - "Behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. "They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them," declares the LORD, "for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."
and so the author of Hebrews cites this passage in Jeremiah, describing the radical distinction between the two covenants...
Hebrews 8:6-8 - But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. For finding fault with them, He says, "BEHOLD, DAYS ARE COMING, SAYS THE LORD, WHEN I WILL EFFECT A NEW COVENANT WITH THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL AND WITH THE HOUSE OF JUDAH;
It should be noted that, the way that Jeremiah and Hebrews speak of the Mosaic covenant, it is regarded in nearly the same way that Covenantalists speak of "the Covenant of Works".  Yet Covenantalists fondly think of the Mosaic covenant as an adminstration of "the Covenant of Grace", despite the glaring contrasts presented in Jeremiah 31, Hebrews 8 and Galatians 3.

What, then, is the rationale for thinking of the Mosaic covenant as merely an "administration of the covenant of grace" when Scripture so plainly declares the profound contrast between the "Old Covenant" and the "New Covenant"?  The primary concerns seem to be:

  1. An emphasis upon the fact that salvation is always the same in every ageinitiated by God's sovereign election, purchased solely by the work of Christ at Calvary, and effectually applied to God's chosen people when the Holy Spirit sovereignly comes upon them to regenerate their hearts, bringing forth saving faith and true repentance.
  2. The Israelites in the Old Testament were always viewed as being in covenant with God.  Even in times of sin and judgment, God often reminded them of His covenant, and spoke of someday restoring them in covenant mercy.
There is no question that the Old Testament saints were saved in exactly the same way that we are todayby God's sovereign electing grace alone through the redemptive merit of Christ alone.  This fact must remain the same throughout human history, or else we deny the depravity and guilt of man while depreciating the necessity and value of the sacrifice of Christ.

However it is one thing to affirm that there is only one way of salvation throughout Scripture.  It is quite another to use the term "covenant" to express this facta term which carries with it all the additional theological baggage of "signs and seals" and the duties of the various parties.  One thing that is abundantly clear in Scripturethere are NO conditions which men must or can fulfill to be recipients of God's covenant blessings.  Even though men are called upon to trust in Christ and repent of their sins, this is not something they can do of themselvessuch faith and repentance are themselves covenant blessings bestowed by God upon those whom He in sovereign electing love has chosen to give them.

As we have observed, Hebrews 8:6-13 quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 to teach the extraordinary contrast between the covenant of Sinai and the covenant of Calvary.  Hebrews 8:9 says that this new covenant is NOT LIKE the covenant that God made with their fathersstressing the idea that the Old Sinaitic covenant is wholly opposite to the New Covenant of Calvary.  How is it different?

The former covenant (i.e. of Sinai), then, was a covenant of human performanceone in which "THEY DID NOT CONTINUE", and, as a result, God "DID NOT CARE FOR THEM".  This is God's own account, as recorded in the inspired scriptures.

Under the New Covenant (unlike the Old Covenant), God says

Notice that the New Covenant, in contrast to the Old Covenant, is a promise of God's action to do for them that which, under the Old Covenant, the Israelites failed to do.  The Old Covenant was a covenant that depended upon human faithfulness, whereas the New Covenant depends upon God's faithfulness.  Hence the New Covenant is greater, more powerful, and more lasting than the Old.  The New gives life, whereas the Old was a "ministration of death" (2 Cor 3:7).

The great contrast drawn between these two covenants is that the New Covenant (unlike the Old Covenant), brings conversion and forgiveness.

What this means, then, is that we are not to think of the Mosaic Covenant as a covenant of salvation.  The saints of Old Testament times were saved by the blessings of the New Covenant (prematurely bestowed), and not by anything the Old Covenant could do for them.
Romans 3:25 - whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Whereas there was much that was gracious about the Old Covenant, it had no power in itself to convert souls or provide genuine, lasting forgiveness.
Hebrews 10:1-4 -For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
The Old Covenant pointed men to Christ in two important ways:

First, it represented the Law as a means of self-justification, in order that men might see the impossibility of such a system of human effort, and would look instead to the coming Messiah to provide the righteousness that the Law was powerless to produce.

Second, the Old Covenant contained many ceremonies that served as illustrations, pointing men to the Cross, and to the blessings of cleansing and forgiveness that Christ would procure through His death.  However, the Old Covenant did not provide the reality pictured in those ceremonies.

It is a denial of Hebrews 8 and Jeremiah 31 to teach that these are two forms of the same covenant.  Instead, they are contrasting covenantsthe Old showing the need for the New, and pointing men to it.

Galatians 3:24 - Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.
Covenantalism typically uses the alleged "continuity of the covenants" to assert that the New Testament ordinances correspond to the Old Testament ordinances, with only an superficial change in the way the ordinances are to be observed...
The Replacement Theory...
Old Testament... New Testament
Circumcision ... becomes... Water Baptism
Passover ... becomes... the Lord's Supper
Saturday Sabbath ... becomes... Sunday Sabbath

In fact, it is for this reason that Covenantalism forms the primary argument given for the practice of infant baptism.  If the New Covenant is merely a different administration of the Covenant of Sinai, then it makes perfectly good sense that babies ought to baptized today, just as they were circumcised under the former covenant (although it raises a question regarding the baptism of female babies).  In the same way, Covenantalism is often the primary argument given for the present-day observance of a Sabbath.  If, as I believe, the Covenantal theory is fundamentally flawed, then very little support remains for infant baptism or Sabbath observance.

A Better Approach

How, then, are we to understand the Biblical Covenants?  Are they merely a collection of failed experiments in human obedience (as the Dispensationalists seem to suggest), or is there a unifying theme to them?

While affirming the separate and distinctive nature of each of the covenants, I find that each one illustrates (1) something of the nature of Christ and of the redemption He was to one day provide for His people, and (2) something of the relationship between God and God's people.  Moreover, each saint who has ever lived is ultmately saved by the "New Covenant" recorded in Jeremiah 31 and elsewhere.  Even though this "New Covenant" was made at Calvary, its blessings apply to each of God's elect people in every age.  No one in history was ever saved except by the cross of Christ and by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, and this is precisely what the New Covenant describes.

The following table summarizes what each of the Biblical covenants illustrates about Christ's redemptive work, and our salvation:

The Themes of the Biblical Covenants
Regarding Christ Regarding the People of God
Noahic Christ is the ark that saves us from God's judgment.  There is no other way to be saved. We deserve God's judgment, yet God in mercy has provided a means of deliverance.  Just as God promised Noah that He would never again send a flood, so also He promises us that Christ has borne the full penalty for our sins and that we are forever safe from His wrath.
Christ is the consummate "man of faith" and obedience, and the heir who would ultimately receive the blessings.  Male children were circumcised in anticipation of Christ, the male heir who would someday demonstrate perfect faith and obedience.
To be counted among the people of God, we, like Abraham, must trust in God and in His promises.  We receive the inheritance, not by our own works of obedience and merit, but by faith in God and in His provision in Christ.
Mosaic God, in His holiness and justice, demands perfect obedience to His Law.  Christ rendered the perfect obedience God required and bore the punishment demanded by the Law against our sins. God's people ought to live in holiness before God.  God will bring chastisement upon His people who disobey, and will condemn the reprobate, who despise His Law.
New Christ, by fulfilling the former covenants, has made peace with God, and has secured our inheritance.  He is the fount of our forgiveness, and of the blessings communicated to us by the Holy Spirit. God's people are forgiven in Christ alone and are transformed by God's Holy Spirit, to provide the character and behavior demanded by the Law.

One consequence of this approach is that it explains why the Abrahamic sign (circumcision) applied only to males.  The coming Redeemer was to be a male, the Son of God and Son of Man, and the circumcision of the male children looked forward to the descendant who would fulfill the promise and ultimately receive the inheritance.  It is important to realize that we are no longer looking forward to a descendant who will fulfill the promises, and so we no longer need a sign that applies to our children.  The New Covenant emphasizes that Christ has already come, and that salvation belongs solely to those who have faith in Him.  Baptism is therefore not intended to echo circumcision, but focuses instead on the need for faith and repentance.

Who is the True Puritan?

But, in rejecting Covenantalism, aren't we departing from Puritanism? That depends on what you mean by "Puritanism".

It is evident that no one follows the Puritans perfectly in every point of doctrine, for the Puritans themselves were divided over various doctrines.  Some Puritans were of the paedobaptist opinion, while others practiced the baptism of believers.  Some Puritans tolerated the excesses of the Anglican church while others would rather be expelled from the English Church than silently acquiesce to her errors.  On such matters as these, Owen, Bunyan, Knox, Baxter and Sibbes would find much about which to disagree, yet all are rightly considered Puritans.

A true Puritan does not blindly accept the pet theories of his predecessors.  Instead, like the noble Bereans, he diligently searches the Scriptures to see whether these things are so...

Acts 17:11 - Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.
The Puritans would never acknowledge an infallible Pope.  Why then do we suppose that genuine Puritanism involves setting the Puritans upon the pedestal of infallibility?  Let us be Puritans in principle and practice—following the clear teachings of God's infallible Word rather than the fallible speculations of men.

We are true Puritans when we acknowledge the Scriptures as the sole rule of faith and practice, and the undiluted grace of God in Jesus Christ as the sole ground of our salvation.  To affirm that a Sovereign God has unconditionally pledged to save His chosen people does not require us to import the notion of "covenant" into the eternal, redemptive counsels of God.  To affirm that there is only one way of salvation throughout all of human history does not require us to force the Covenant of Sinai under the umbrella of a hypothetical "Covenant of Grace".


I am of the opinion, therefore, that the whole "covenantal" concept, as it is taught in Reformed literature, is contrived, and errantly merges two dissimilar issues.

The one issue is that of the various "Biblical Covenants" that God made with His people in Scripturethe covenants that were announced through Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Christ and the prophets.  The Bible uses the term "covenant" to speak of each of these solemn promises that God made to His covenant people, and these various covenants certainly do often have "signs and seals" attached to them.

The second issue is that of the hypothetical "Theological Covenants"the "Covenant of Grace", "Covenant of Works", "Covenant of Redemption", etc.  While these are certainly valuable and convenient categories by which to speak of God's immutable promise of salvation, and of the hypothetical way of self-justification suggested in Galatians and elsewhere, it is nevertheless gratiutous to apply the term "covenant" to these categories, thereby implying that they necessarily have "signs and seals" associated with them, or that both parties have their respective duties that must be fulfilled under the covenant, etc.

It is especially unwarranted to suppose that the covenant of Calvary is merely the covenant of Sinai wearing a different set of clothes.  If we do not pay particular attention to the profound contrasts between the Old and New Covenants, we will never fully appreciate the significance of Hebrews 8, Jeremiah 31 and other similar passages (e.g. 2 Corinthians 3:1-18; Galatians 3:5-29).

Indeed, by calling it a "New" Covenant, Scripture intends for us to recognize its exceeding superiority over the Old Covenant made at Sinai.  This "New Covenant" is indeed a "Covenant of Grace", in contrast to the former one, which was a "Covenant of Works"...

Hebrews 8:6-8 - But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. For finding fault with them, He says, "BEHOLD, DAYS ARE COMING, SAYS THE LORD, WHEN I WILL EFFECT A NEW COVENANT WITH THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL AND WITH THE HOUSE OF JUDAH;
The Biblical Covenants (plural) are plainly taught in Scripture, and two of them are plainly set in contrast to one anotherone called "Old" and the other "New".  God "found fault" with the Old Covenant, but declares the New Covenant to be "faultless".  The Old Covenant served to reject those who were under it, for they did not continue in it.  The New Covenant is the basis of the acceptance of those who are under it, for it does not depend upon their performance, but rather upon the perfect, finished performance of Christ, who lived a perfect life and died a sacrificial death in their place, as their Substitute.

What plainer witness could there be that these two covenants are polar opposites, and what plainer refutation could there be of the hypothesis that these are simply "different administrations of the Covenant of Grace"?

Home | The Gospel | Search | Comments?
Articles | Books | Conferences | Hymns | Library | Links 
21st Century Puritan Web Site - 1997-2005 Mitch Cervinka