The Counsel of Chalcedon (October 1992) © Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938
The Covenant-Keeping God" (part 1)
By Dr. Greg Bahnsen
Each month the "Cross-Examination" column presents a summary statement of a Reformed and Reconstructionist conviction in theology or ethics, and then offers brief answers to common questions, objections or confusions which people have about that belief. Send issues or questions you would like addressed by Dr. Bahnsen to the editor.
What we know about God we know because of His own self-disclosure to us. As men, and especially as sinful men, we have no ability and no prerogative to determine for ourselves what God would be like. He must reveal Himself to us - which He has clearly done through the created order, the words of Scripture, and supremely in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
We learn a great deal about God from His revelation of Himself in the Bible. We learn that He created all things, that He is personal, and that all men depend upon Him. We learn of His omnipotence and eternality. We learn of His holiness and justice. We learn of His love and mercy - and many other things. When theologians gather together all that the Bible teaches us about God and offer a summary of it, they usually speak about His person and attributes, as well as about His works. The works of God, such as creation, redemption and consummation, are properly understood only in the light of God's person and attributes; likewise, the attributes of God are illustrated and explained in His works.
Of the many things which we can know about God from the scriptures - something which is too often ignored or played down by evangelical theologians - is that He is a covenant-keeping God. This is one of the primary attributes of God which the Bible reveals, an attribute which is intimately involved with what God has done and continues to do - with His works. Thus to know God as He is specifically revealed in His word - to know the God of the Bible - we must think of Him in terms of His covenant.
From the very outset of the Bible we find God, the Creator, in a personal relationship with man, the creature. This relationship was not arbitrary or haphazard; it had a specific character and content. God sovereignly established and transacted the relationship, in virtue of being man's Creator. In this relationship God granted blessings to man which were not, strictly speaking, "earned" or meritorious.
The blessings of existence and providential sustaining were not somehow earned by Adam and Eve. The very first thing God did after creating Adam and Eve, according to the Bible, is this: "And He blessed them" (Gen. 1:28). God's first word was a word of promise or favor, not one of demand or judgment. This was a gracious relationship, one which blessed our first parents before they had done anything good or evil. Further, the blessing of walking and talking with God in intimate communion did not wait until Adam had accomplished certain meritorious works, but was granted from the moment of his creation. And even if Adam had perfectly obeyed God's subsequent commandments (e.g., Gen. 1:28; 2:16-17, 24) he would not have merited any special favor from God - any more than a watch which works properly deserves anything from its maker (it is, after all, only doing what it is made to do).
Adam was called upon to trust the word of the Lord, and to trust it simply on the authority of God. This relationship of trust entailed submission to God, seen in obedience to His commandments - such as the prohibition of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God's command carried the sanction of blessing (continued communion with God) and curse - "in the day that you eat from it you will surely die" (Gen. 2:17). God was bound to this compact as much as were Adam and Eve. God's justice would not allow Him to reverse His word, condemning obedience but overlooking (or even blessing) disobedience. When our first parents transgressed the prohibition of eating from the tree, they separated themselves from the Source of life (in all its facets: spiritual, physical, etc.). According to God's word and character, they had to die. "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23).
The Bible terms the kind of relationship or arrangement which existed between God and Adam a "covenant." We can define "covenant" as a mutually binding compact between God and His people, sovereignly transacted by the Lord, wherein a promise is made by God which calls for trust on the part of His people and entails obligations of submission which are sanctioned by blessings and curses. By checking the preceding discussion we can find all of these theological elements of the concept of a covenant in the relationship between God and Adam. Moreover, the Bible explicitly speaks of Adam's relationship to God in covenantal terms. For instance, in Hosea 6:7 the prophet indicts the rebels of his generation by likening them to the first man, Adam, who rebelled against God. Notice what Hosea says Adam transgressed: "But they like Adam have transgressed the covenant." Scripture speaks of Adam being in "covenant" with God; like Hosea's contemporaries, Adam proved to be a covenant-breaker, rather than a covenant-keeper. In fact, the Bible teaches us that all men are covenant-breakers, where presumably the covenant which they violate is the one transacted between God the Creator and their first parents, Adam and Eve. Isaiah 24:5-6 says: "The earth also is polluted under the inhabitants therefore because they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore has the curse devoured the earth, and they who dwell in it are found guilty."
The point to be made here is that from the very outset of the Biblical story, we find God revealed as the God of the covenant. From a literary standpoint, anybody reading the Bible from the start - from the book of Genesis forward - should not miss this important aspect of God's character and actions. God is the covenant-keeping God. Just a few chapters beyond the account of man's creation and fall, after the crisis of the flood, we read that "God spoke unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying: 'And I, behold I, establish my covenant with you and with your seed after you and with every living creature" (9:8-10). Then in the days of Abraham God called a people to be His own, from among the other families on earth. God appeared to Abraham and uttered both a promise and demands (12:1-3), which are later explained in these words: "Jehovah appeared to Abram and said unto him, I am God Almighty; walk before me and be perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and you..." (17:1-2).
God kept covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their family eventually went down into Egypt and multiplied greatly, but at last came under miserable slavery. What is it that sets up the story of the exodus and conquest of the promised land? We read in Exodus 2:24, "And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob." The background for the redemption from Egypt - and the rest of the Biblical story - is precisely the covenant-keeping character of God. He is the God of the covenant. Accordingly, what God revealed through Moses was the law, but specifically the law "of the covenant" (Ex. 34:27-28). And as Israel prepared to enter the promised land, Moses reminded God's people of the basis and character of their blessing: "Know therefore that Jehovah your God, he is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and lovingkindness with them that love him and keep his commandments..." (Deut. 7:9).
As we read through the Bible this feature of God's character and actions continually comes to our attention. God made a "covenant" with David and his seed (2 Sam. 23:5; Ps. 89). Many years later, in the days of Isaiah, Jehovah declared "I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David" (55:3). When Jeremiah the prophet ministered to God's people, God revealed the coming of that day when all of His previous promises would come to realization and fulfillment - in the days (just as you would expect) of a "new covenant" (31:31-34).
We cannot properly understand the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ without a covenantal perspective. The birth of Jesus was an open declaration that God had remembered "his holy covenant" (Luke 1:72). Before going out to be crucified for the sins of His people, Jesus ordained the cup of the "new covenant" (Luke 22:20). His resurrection and redemptive work were specifically the blessing of "the covenant God made with your [Jewish] fathers" (Acts 3:25-26). The New Testament explicitly calls Jesus "the Mediator of the New Covenant" (Heb. 12:24) and views His work of salvation in covenantal terms: "Now the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant..." (Heb. 13:20).
(To be continued)