A covenant is seen in Scripture as a solemn bond of loyalty or solemn agreement, frequently confirmed by oath. Thus marriage is described as a covenant relationship in Malachi 2:14, ” … she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.”
THE COVENANT IS OF DIVINE ORIGIN
The idea of covenant originates with God himself, for it is He who establishes a covenant with His people, and does so in terms of a marriage relationship (Jer.3:14).This takes place within the framework of the Covenant of Grace which is the historical outworking of God’s eternal purpose of grace in Christ, a purpose first made known to man in the promise of Genesis 3:15. At his creation man stood in a relationship of covenant loyalty to God. God was his King and God’s Law was his rule. When man sinned he broke his covenant relationship with God and transferred his allegiance to Satan. In the Covenant of Grace, Christ stands as the Head of a ‘given’ people (Jn.17:2) and in grace God restores the broken fellowship for all who are in Christ and they gladly respond to that grace in terms of loyalty and new obedience. Thus the covenant relationship between God and man is restored and in Christ it is now guaranteed.
The fact that God sovereignly establishes His covenant with His people, so that He is their God and they are His people, receives considerable emphasis in Scripture. Again and again God declares “I will establish my covenant with you.” In each case where God so speaks, the obedience and loyalty of His people are either stated or implied. Even when we read in Scripture of bilateral covenants, covenants between man and man, the essential element is that of sworn fidelity. Thus, when Abraham and Abimelech made a covenant to end the friction over water-rights, they confirmed it with an oath (Gen.21). From now on they would trust each other. Fidelity based on oath was of the very essence of their bond. The contractual aspect of a covenant, as, for example, in marriage, is necessary; but it is not of the essence of a covenant; that must exist in the underlying concept of loyalty.
COVENANT-RESPONSE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Israel as a nation first responded to God in covenant terms at Sinai. There Moses “wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant – the Ten Commandments.” God said to Moses on that occasion “In accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” The response of the people was emphatic: “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.” To Moses they said “Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey.” That covenant was established by God and the people responded whole-heartedly.
Covenant-responses, initiated in times of national crisis by leaders like Asa (2 Chron.15:12), Hezekiah (2 Chron.29:10), Jehoiada (2 Kgs.11:17), Josiah (2 Kgs.23:1-3) and Nehemiah (9:32-38), related to all of life. They included every sphere of human activity. Such covenanting was a response in faith and obedience to the Covenant of Grace. It was simply a covenant-keeping on the part of the Lord’s people.
It would be wrong to view these covenants as simply man-initiated acts. No act of consecration and obedience should be so described. In conversion the regenerate soul obeys the Gospel, and in sanctification the believer works out his salvation with fear and trembling. Man’s activity is definitely there, but Scripture declares that the initiative is with God and not with man (Phil.2:12,13). In the old administration of the Covenant of Grace, the Lord’s people were obligated to loyalty and obedience. When they forgot God and turned to idols they had to repent and renew their covenant-allegiance. When restored to their own land after a generation in exile, they had to renew their covenant obedience before God. They were never released from their total response to the Covenant of Grace. Their happiness and peace were found only as they remained covenant- keepers.
COVENANT-OBLIGATION IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
There is nothing in the New Testament to indicate that believers are in a radically different position, vis-a-vis the Covenant of Grace, from that of believers in Old Testament times. Admittedly, the covenant is now differently administered. Outward forms have changed. Much that was symbolic has been fulfilled. Yet, as stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith ch.7 para. 6, “there are not …. two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.” The Old Testament itself indicates that the covenanting principle will still apply in the new economy of Christ’s day. Covenant-response is seen as a feature of the future Gospel age (Isa.19:18-25; 49:6-12; Jer.31:31f; 50:4,5; Zech.8:22,23). Fulfilment does not and cannot mean the casting off of something which was originally intrinsic. It is fallacious to argue that because the Old Testament passages (which envisage the covenanting spirit in the new dispensation) have been fulfilled in Christ, the concept of covenant-response now falls away. The status of covenant-response in the New Testament may be summarised as follows:
The New Testament, focusing on Jesus Christ, the Mediator-King, presents the ‘new’ covenant as the fulfilment of the ‘old’. This is clear from a passage like Luke 1:72. There we read Zechariah’s words, ” … to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his Holy covenant, the oath He swore to our father Abraham … .” There is both unity and diversity between the old and new administrations of the covenant. What is abundantly clear is that the Covenant of Grace remains essential in the Kingdom of God. Differences in form and administration in no way weaken that continuity and underlying oneness.
This feature is clearly seen at Pentecost when the Church was removed from the swaddling clothes of Jewish nationalism, ceased to be national and became supranational. Thus it was completely restructured for its task of world-mission and equipped in a new way by the Spirit of God to enable it to obey the Great Commission. This restructuring of the Church did not result in discarding anything which previously had been essential and intrinsic. The Church remained a covenant society and the people of God were still bound in covenant loyalty to their Lord. Paul sees the covenant, which was renewed with the patriarchs, as the perpetual charter of the Church, something which the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years after the patriarchs, could not disannul. (Gal.3:14-18).
In the New Testament, covenanting, like the position and privileges of children in God’s Church, is not expressly commanded or defined; but, because this has been done in the Old Testament and has never been abrogated, it remains in full force. It is clear, however, from the New Testament that God’s relationship with His people remains covenantal. For example, the Lord’s Supper is a covenant-renewal sacrament. At the institution of the Supper, Christ said “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The Church is described in covenantal terms taken from the Old Testament, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God … “. There is, therefore, no biblical ground for assuming that we may now dispense with individual and corporate covenant-response any more than we can assume that the position of the children of believers is radically different to what it was in Old Testament times, or that God cares less about the Sabbath now than when He gave the fourth commandment to Moses. It is readily agreed that symbolic rites and ceremonies which have been fulfilled in Christ are now set aside, but those things which have to do with man’s faith, love and loyalty to God remain and can never become obsolete. Sabbath-keeping, covenant-response and the like are in a completely different category from typical rites and ceremonies.
4. Pre-eminence of Christ
Christ is “the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy.” Here the primacy of Christ is stressed, His primacy in creation and in redemption. His lordship is absolute. Christians are called to acknowledge that total lordship in every area of life. It is thus that their covenant-response reaches its climax in this personal devotion and loyalty to their Royal Saviour. Thus it must be concluded that covenanting is not an optional extra. It is intrinsic in Christianity. It is simply the conscious outworking of what is intrinsic in conversion to all of life.
In terms of biblical history, covenanting is linked to the moral law rather than to the ceremonial law, and the moral law proclaims God’s supreme authority and man’s accountability to God; therefore, covenanting is always a proper duty. Whenever God’s people assemble in worship, the covenanting principle is implied. The members of that gathering meet in joint dedication to God, vowing to perform all religious duties, presenting in prayer the desires of the heart, uniting in praise with oneness of mind and affection joyfully expressed and presenting themselves as a living sacrifice to God. Covenanting is the formal, solemn and conscious expression of that. It is the statement and application of the very quintessence of Christian discipleship. It is not a sectarian practice, but the fullest expression of the believer’s, the Church’s and the Nation’s allegiance to the Lord God.
Since apostolic times, formal covenanting has occurred either in times of crisis or during revival. The Waldensians ratified their testimony by solemn oath and the Pilgrim Fathers renewed their solemn covenant on several occasions. During the time of the Reformation, there were covenants in Geneva, Hungary, Holland and France. Bands or covenants occurred in Scotland at intervals from 1556, the most famous being the National Covenant of Scotland (1638) and the Solemn League and Covenant of England, Scotland and Ireland (1643). Godly men and women died because of their acceptance of Christ’s royal prerogatives as stated in those covenants, their motto being “For Christ’s Crown and Covenant.”
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland inherits the convictions and insights of the Scottish Covenanters and upholds the great principles of the Scottish Covenants, covenants which, like those of Old Testament times, were a response to God’s Covenant of Grace. The question immediately arises as to whether such a covenant can bind posterity. There is clear Biblical proof that it can and does. From the stand-point of God’s initiative, this is beyond question. Moses could say with God’s authority “I am making this covenant, with this oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today, in the presence of the Lord our God, but also with those who are not here today.” Much earlier God declared to Abram, “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you.” Abram’s descendants were perpetually obligated to covenant obedience primarily by what God had done.
Some of the Old Testament covenant-responses were patently relevant to posterity. Jeremiah charged the Jewish nation with breaking the covenant made with their fathers and gave this as the reason why the land suffered from the Chaldean invasion (Jer.11:1 – 11; 34:13f.). This implied the continuing identity of a people and society and of continuing obligation. So strong is this continuing identity with its consequent inescapable responsibility that God could say to the Israelites almost a millenium after the Exodus, “I covenanted with YOU when YOU came out of Egypt.” Later, Peter was to remind the Jews “You are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers.”
The State, as a divine institution (Rom.13:1) distinct from the Church, is equally under obligation to recognise the Lordship of Christ and in covenant obedience to honour and uphold His laws and protect His Church (Ps.2:8-12; Isa.49:23). God repeatedly asserts His authority over the nations and warns the apostate State of judgment (Ps.9:17; Isa.60:12). He blesses the nations that own Him (Ps.33:12) and breaks in pieces the nations that reject Him. This is the whole tenor of Scripture. Christ is the “King of kings and Lord of lords.” His mediatorial dominion is a fact, whether the world recognises it or not.
The Biblical principle of covenanting can be applied in any country. The total lordship of Christ should be acknowledged in every area of human activity – politics, business, science, hygiene, medicine, legislation etc. The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland regards the principles of the Scottish Covenants as still binding, unreservedly accepts the obligation imposed by them, and grieves because they have been repudiated by the nation to its incalculable loss. It is imperative that, in the present day, Christians should recognise the duty of covenant-response in the light of God’s ever-abiding Covenant of Grace within which they are confronted with the claims of Christ, their rightful King.