When a bride and groom say wedding vows and sign a marriage certificate, they make their love and commitment to each other official. It becomes public and binding. They cannot simply change their minds without consequences. Making their love official is a sign of true commitment and love.
Similarly, covenant is God’s way of making his love and commitment to us official. God uses the common, ancient Middle Eastern concept of covenant to bind himself to his people in the Old Testament, and he renews that covenant through Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Like the rings and certificate that act as official signs of a marriage, God gives us the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as signs and seals of his covenant with us.
God has made his love official. God will not change his mind. We can be secure in God’s love.
Easy to Misunderstand
It’s easy to misunderstand God’s covenant as a contract, in which God exchanges services and obligations with us. But, unlike a contract, covenantal promises and obligations are not the basis of our relationship but the expressions of a relationship based on the following: “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Exod. 6:7).
Our relationship with God is first and foremost a spiritual covenant of grace. God brings us into a relationship with him not because of our works but because of God’s grace. As the apostle Paul argues in Romans 4, the covenant is not based on our keeping God’s commandments, but on faith: “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (v. 3, see also Gen. 15:6).
Keeping the Ten Commandments is how we express our love to God, not how we secure God’s covenant promises. Leviticus 19:2 tells us, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” We are not called to be holy in order that the Lord will be our God, but we should be holy because the Lord is our God.
The Bible is filled with examples of God covenanting with his people: Genesis 9 (with Noah), Genesis 15 and 17 (with Abraham), Deuteronomy 5 (with Moses and Israel), and 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17 (with David). These, however, are not different covenants but different renewals of one covenant of grace.
The New Covenant
When a married couple renews their vows, they do not make a new marriage but recommit to the same marriage. Similarly, the “new covenant” that the prophet Jeremiah foresaw (Jer. 31:31-34) is a renewed covenant; it has the same spiritual foundation as the old: “I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jer. 31:33). Jesus Christ established this new covenant in the New Testament: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20; see also 1 Cor. 11:25).
This new covenant does not cancel God’s covenant in the Old Testament but continues it. For instance, God’s promise of establishing David’s throne forever (1 Chron. 17:11-14) is fulfilled in Jesus. Although some signs of that covenant may change—for example, circumcision in the old, baptism in the new—the covenant is ultimately the same.
Finally, God’s covenant with us is communal in character–“they will be my people”—hence, we have communal obligations as Christians. We make and keep promises to love and support each other, to help bring our children to Christ, to serve God in the church as official members, and more. This is an important antidote to our North American individualism.
Covenant theology is one main reason why Reformed Christians see the Old and New Testaments as unified, why we baptize infants, and why we stress communal expressions of faith such as Christian schooling and church membership.