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Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored

Andy Wilson

Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored, by Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele. Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, 2012, 168 pages, $16.00, paper.

One of the great benefits of covenant theology is that it helps us to see the unity of Scripture while also giving due attention to its remarkable variety. This dual benefit is demonstrated throughout the pages of Sacred Bond, an introductory-level text on covenant theology by ministers Michael Brown (URCNA) and Zach Keele (OPC). The book is both clear and well organized, making it ideal for use in an adult Sunday school class or small group study. Sacred Bond contains chapters on eight biblical covenants: the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, the Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, the Davidic covenant, and the new covenant. Each chapter follows the same basic outline, with the following sections: (1) a brief theological description of the covenant under discussion; (2) an examination of the biblical evidence for that covenant; (3) an explanation of how that covenant has been expressed by Reformed confessions and theologians; and (4) a consideration of how this covenant is relevant for the Christian life.

After an introductory chapter in which the concept of covenant is defined, the authors focus upon the three overarching covenants that are at the heart of covenant theology: the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. In these chapters, Brown and Keele carefully examine the key biblical texts that led the church to formulate these overarching covenants. This is extremely helpful, because it is sometimes argued that the Reformed schema of covenant theology is artificially imposed upon the Bible. For example, one biblical scholar contends that

although “Reformed” or “covenant” theology has correctly underlined the centrality of the covenant concept in biblical theology, it has tended to go beyond the exegetical evidence. The primary example of this tendency is the introduction into the discussion of non-biblical terminology and ideas (e.g., covenants of redemption, creation, works, and grace). Such hypothetical covenants are without solid exegetical support, and primarily serve to bolster the unnecessary premise that all God’s actions must be understood within a covenantal framework.[1]

The problem with this kind of argument is that it fails to see the importance of the principle of “good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1.6) in the formulation of biblical doctrine. Not all of the doctrines revealed in the Scriptures are set forth explicitly in the Scriptures. Some need to be inferred and pieced together from a number of passages, as with doctrines like the Trinity or infant baptism. The same is true when it comes to covenant theology. The writers of Sacred Bond convincingly argue that the Bible needs to be understood through the lens of covenant because it is built on a covenantal framework. Covenant theology is not a matter of trying to make all of God’s actions fit within a manmade framework. On the contrary, it is necessary because “covenant is the very fabric of Scripture. It is God’s chosen framework for the Bible” (11).

In the remainder of the book, Brown and Keele explain the unique aspects of the individual biblical covenants while also showing how they relate to the overarching covenants that summarize the plan of redemption. The chapter on the Noahic covenant explains that it is a non-redemptive, common grace covenant with all creation that provides the stage upon which the drama of redemption is carried out. The chapter on the Davidic covenant explains how it connects the conditions that were laid down in the earlier Mosaic covenant with the promise of a King who will fulfill those conditions on behalf of God’s people. And the chapter on the new covenant explains that this covenant is new in relation to the Mosaic covenant, with which it is contrasted in Jeremiah 31:31–32: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke.” In other words, the newness of the new covenant centers upon the fact that it is a covenant of promise rather than a covenant of law (137).

This relates to a key emphasis in Sacred Bond: the significance of the distinction between the unconditional and conditional elements in the various biblical covenants. Not all biblical covenants are gracious in nature. While it is certainly true that God’s dealings with man before the fall were completely unmerited on man’s part and free of any obligation on God’s part, the covenant of works promised God’s blessings to man if he fulfilled the condition of perfect performance of what God commanded. The operative principle was not grace but merit. By way of contrast, the distinguishing feature of the covenant of grace is that it has God bestowing his blessings upon those who have only merited his wrath and curse.

This distinction is also seen in Brown and Keele’s treatment of the Mosaic covenant, which they understand to be in one sense a “republication” of the covenant of works. Because the Mosaic covenant made Israel’s tenure in the Promised Land dependent upon their performance of the covenant stipulations, it served as a typological picture that God set up to demonstrate the futility of trying to obtain his blessings through the covenant of works. This is how the Mosaic covenant led God’s people to Christ. It is important to clarify that Brown and Keele are not saying that the Mosaic covenant taught that salvation could be obtained on the basis of works. The Mosaic covenant was ultimately an administration of the covenant of grace, but it also had a works-principle. Brown and Keele explain this by saying that the Mosaic covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace in its broad sense and an administration of the covenant of works in a narrow sense. They write:

The means by which God led Israel to Christ was through his demands of obedience to the terms of the covenant upon which physical blessings or curses were received ... The Mosaic covenant is God’s law covenant with Israel, wherein he graciously leads them to Christ by showing them the perfect righteousness that only Christ could fulfill to redeem sinners. (103, 106)

While not everyone who embraces covenant theology is comfortable with the notion of republication, there is no getting around the fact that the Mosaic covenant had a conditional element that stands in contrast to the unilateral promise found in the earlier Abrahamic covenant, a contrast that Paul sees as extremely significant in Galatians 3 and 4. It should also be noted that republication is consistent with the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith (see WCF 19.1–2) and that many Reformed theologians have held to some version of republication. John Owen said that the Mosaic covenant “is no other but the covenant of works revived” (111). And Robert Shaw concluded that “the law, therefore, was published at Sinai as a covenant of works in subservience to the covenant of grace.”[2]

Sacred Bond is made even more useful by the inclusion of study/discussion questions at the end of each chapter, a glossary of key terms, and a Scripture index. I cannot think of anything negative to say about this book, except that it might have enjoyed a broader readership if it had been published by a better-known publisher. That being said, thanks are due to Reformed Fellowship for giving us such a fine introduction to covenant theology.

Endnotes



[1] P.R. Williamson, “Covenant,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, T. Desmond Alexander, Brian S. Rosner, D.A. Carson, and Graeme Goldsworthy, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 420.

[2] Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith (Ross-shire: Christian Focus), 256.

Andy Wilson is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Laconia, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant, May 2013.

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