Theses on Covenant Theology

1. Prolegomena

  1. Covenant theology structures all of Biblical revelation.
  2. The form of the covenants revealed in Scripture was borrowed from and is accommodated to the ancient near eastern world and must be understood in that context.
  3. Covenant is the most coherent explanation for Biblical revelation and the nature and authority of the canon.

2. Historical/Theological

  1. Covenant theology did not arise de novo in the 16th or 17th centuries but virtually all the elements which made up Reformed covenant theology existed inchoately in earlier epochs.
  2. Reformed orthodoxy turned to covenant theology to give redemptive historical expression to their exegetical (biblical) and dogmatic theology.
  3. As understood and practiced by Reformed orthodoxy, there was no meaningful distinction between covenant and federal theology.
  4. Orthodox Lutheranism appears to have rejected Reformed covenant theology because they saw in it a confusion of Law and Gospel.
  5. Reformed theology turned to covenant theology however, not to revise or reject Luther’s breakthrough, but in order to preserve the Protestant soteriology and relate coherently justification to sanctification.
  6. Classical Reformed theology taught three covenants: the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis), the covenant of works (foedus operum) and the covenant of grace (foedus gratiae).

3. Biblical/Exegetical

  1. The God of the Bible relates to his creatures covenantally from eternity (pactum salutis), in creation (covenant of works), in providence (covenant of preservation) and in redemption (covenant of grace).
  2. Hosea 6:7 (“like Adam”) confirms the consciousness of the Biblical authors of a prelapsarian covenant of works.
  3. The Apostle Paul presupposes the existence of a prelapsarian covenant of works in passages such as Romans 2:13 and 4:4).
  4. The excommunication from the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:22–24) confirms the probationary nature of the covenant of works.
  5. There were multiple signs and seals of the covenant of works including the creational Sabbath, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life.
  6. The first Gospel promise in Genesis 3:15 announces the covenant of grace, i.e. redemption of the elect by the Mediator.
  7. The covenant of grace is the progressive historical account of the administration of the Gospel in the history of redemption.
  8. The first Noahic covenant (Genesis 6:17–19) was particular and an administration of the covenant of grace.
  9. The second Noahic covenant (Genesis 9:8–17) was a universal non-soteric covenant promising the restraint of judgment until the last day.
  10. The Abrahamic covenant is a renewal of the postlapsarian covenant/promise made to Adam (Genesis 3:15; 17).
  11. In the history of redemption, the covenant of grace was renewed in Abraham such that he is the father of all who believe (Romans 4:11; John 8:56).
  12. The Abrahamic covenant is logically as well as historically prior to the Mosaic.
  13. The Mosaic covenant was not renewed under Christ, but the Abrahamic covenant was.
  14. The land promise made to Abraham (Genesis 15:18; Exodus 6:4; Judges 2:1) was typical of the coming blessings of the New Covenant (Genesis 2:4; Galatians 3:14; Hebrews 8) and the final state (Hebrews 11:10).
  15. All those justified under Moses were justified by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.
  16. With regard to the land promise, the Mosaic covenant was, mutandis, for pedagogical reasons (Galatians 3:23—4:7), a republication of the Adamic covenant of works.
  17. With regard to justification and salvation, the Mosaic covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace.
  18. The Israelites were given the land and kept it by grace (2 Kings 13:23) but were expelled for failure to keep a temporary, typical, pedagogical, covenant of works (Genesis 12:7; Exodus 6:4; Deuteronomy 29:19–29; 2 Kings 17:6–7; Ezekiel 17).
  19. The covenant of grace, initiated in history after the fall, was
    in its antepenultimate state under Adam, Noah, and Abraham, its penultimate state under the New Covenant administration and shall reach its ultimate (eschatological) state in the consummation.
  20. The term “Old Covenant” as used in Scripture refers to the Mosaic epoch not every epoch before the incarnation nor to all of the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures indiscriminately.
  21. The New Covenant is new relative to Moses, not Abraham.
  22. The Old Covenant was temporary and typical of the New Covenant.
  23. In redemptive historical terms, the Old (Mosaic) Covenant was weighted toward the ministry of the Law (“the letter”) whereas the New Covenant is weighted toward the ministry of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3).
  24. The New Covenant is the fulfillment of the promise made to Adam (Genesis 3:15) and the (Abrahamic) covenant of grace.
  25. The New Covenant is the reality typified by the pre-incarnational types and shadows (2 Corinthians 1:20; John 6:32; Hebrews 7—9).
  26. Law (covenant of works) and gospel (covenant of grace) may be distinguished historically and hermeneutically.
  27. The hermeneutical distinction between law (covenant of works) and gospel (covenant of grace) is the distinction between our personal and perpetual obligation to keep the law perfectly for justification and the announcement that Christ has kept the law perfectly for us.
  28. The historical distinction between law and gospel may be reckoned as the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.
  29. The historical distinction between law and gospel may also be reckoned as the distinction between Moses and Christ.
  30. When the law/gospel distinction is reckoned as that between Moses and Christ, there may be said to be gospel in the law and law in the gospel. This way of speaking, however, may not be used properly when considering the law/gospel distinction hermeneutically or theologically.

4. Systematic/Dogmatic

  1. Covenant theology is so of the essence of Reformed theology that to revise its covenant theology is to revise the substance of Reformed theology.
  2. The covenantal arrangement of the history of redemption and the covenantal progressive revelation of Scripture is not a mere convention, but rather a reflection of the intra-Trinitarian relations.
  3. All the covenants revealed in Scripture contain both promised blessing and threatened jeopardy.

5. The Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis; consilium pacis)

  1. The pre-temporal covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) stands behind the covenant of works and covenant of grace and orders the history of redemption.
  2. In the history of redemption, the pactum salutis means works for the Son and grace for us.
  3. The pactum salutis is biblically grounded in Psalm 110, John 5:30; 6:38–40; 17; Gal 3:20 among other places.
  4. Christ fulfilled the legal obligations of the pactum salutis in his active and passive obedience as the representative of the elect.
  5. The allegation that the pactum salutis tends to tritheism seems to ignore the distinction between the economic and ontological Trinity.
  6. The work of the Holy Spirit has not always been discussed under the pactum salutis only because it focuses on the accomplishment of redemption rather than the application of redemption.
  7. Since the Spirit certainly consented to apply Christ’s work to the elect (John 15:26), there is no reason why the Holy Spirit’s work cannot be integrated into the pactum salutis.

6. The Covenant of Works (foedus operum)

  1. The pre-lapsarian covenant may be called a covenant of works in respect to its terms, a covenant of life in respect to its goals and a covenant of nature in respect to its setting. All three names describe the same covenant.
  2. In Reformed theology, the covenant of works is identical to the Law which says: Do this and live.
  3. Jesus Christ fulfilled the covenant works in his active and passive obedience to God’s law on behalf of his people.
  4. The covenant of works was abrogated as a way to eternal life by the fall.
  5. Post-lapsum the terms of the covenant of works continue to obligate all rational creatures and must be perfectly fulfilled personally or vicariously.
  6. Anyone who denies the prelapsarian covenant of works jeopardizes the Biblical and Protestant doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

7. The Covenant of Grace (foedus gratiae)

  1. When we speak in covenantal terms we should always specify to which covenant we refer.
  2. The pactum salutis is distinct from and the basis of the covenant of grace.
  3. It is a grievous theological error to confuse the covenant of works with the covenant of grace.
  4. The term covenant of grace can be used broadly and narrowly. When used broadly, it refers to everyone who is baptized into the Christ confessing covenant community. When used narrowly, it refers to those who have received the double benefit of Christ: justification and sanctification.
  5. Used in the broader sense, the covenant of grace is not synonymous with election so that all the elect are in the covenant of grace, but not all in the covenant of grace are elect.
  6. Used in the narrow sense, the covenant of grace refers only to the elect.
  7. There is a just and necessary distinction to be made between those who are in the covenant broadly (externally) and those who are in the covenant both broadly and narrowly (internally).
  8. The internal/external distinction is a corollary of the distinction between the church considered visibly and invisibly.
  9. Denial of the “internal/external” distinction leads necessarily to confusing election and the decree or to positing two types of election, decretal and “covenantal” (i.e., a temporary, historical, conditional election) as is evident in the so-called “Federal Vision” theology.
  10. The Gospel is not a promise of election but of a gracious and sovereign salvation from sin which salvation is received through faith alone.
  11. There are two chief benefits of the covenant of grace: justification and sanctification of which justification has logical priority.
  12. The sole ground of justification is the fulfillment of the condition of the covenant of works by Christ in his active and passive obedience.
  13. The sole object of justifying faith is Christ the Surety of the covenant of redemption for us, and the fulfillment of the covenant of works for us, and the Mediator of the covenant of grace to us.
  14. The sole instrument of justification and condition of the covenant of grace is a receptive, resting, extra-spective, faith which trusts in Christ’s keeping of the covenant of works.
  15. Only believers receive the chief benefits of the covenant.
  16. In Reformed theology the covenant of grace is a Gospel covenant having precisely the same terms and conditions as the Gospel.
  17. Justifying faith may be said to be the only proper condition or instrument of the covenant of grace.
  18. The covenant of grace was inaugurated post-lapsum and is to be distinguished sharply from the covenant of works.
  19. The covenant of grace is monopleural in origin and dipleural in administration, i.e. the Gospel offer is unconditional in origin but the reception of its benefits is conditioned upon justifying faith which is itself only God’s free gift to the elect.
  20. Monocovenantalism or refusal to distinguish between the covenants of works and grace implies a confusion of Law and Gospel.
  21. The slogan “in by grace, stay in by works,” sometimes associated with the so-called “New Perspective on
    Paul,” is nothing less than the Galatian heresy condemned by the Apostle Paul.
  22. Faith receives the benefits of the covenant of grace because of God’s grace and the virtue of its object (Christ) not because of its qualities, virtues, or sanctity.
  23. It is unnecessary to juxtapose the legal and relational aspects of covenant theology. In all three covenants, personal relations are premised upon just legal relations.
  24. Sanctity is the second benefit of the covenant of grace and flows from justification.
  25. Sanctity is as gracious as justification.
  26. Sanctity is logically and morally necessary as evidence of regeneration, faith and justification.
  27. Considered relative to sanctification (in distinction from justification) faith can be said to be active and is begun and sustained by grace but involves human cooperation with sanctifying grace.
  28. Sanctity is no instrument or ground of justification.
  29. Sanctity flows out of proper use of the divinely ordained covenant signs and seals.
  30. The third use of the moral law is norm of covenant life.
  31. Denial of the third use of the Law (tertius usus legis) leads to antinomianism.
  32. The third use of the law, like the first use, also drives us to Christ.

8. Ecclesiastical

  1. The church is both the universal and local Christ confessing covenant community.
  2. God has ordained three special offices in the Christ confessing covenant community: minister, elder and deacon.
  3. Christians are obligated to join themselves to a true Christ confessing covenant community.
  4. The marks of a true, Christ confessing, covenant community are the pure preaching of the Gospel (the covenant of grace), the pure administration of the covenant signs and seals (sacraments) and the administration of discipline.
  5. A genuinely Christian life cannot ordinarily be lived outside a true Christ confessing covenant community.
  6. Members of the Christ confessing covenant community who have received the sign and seal of the covenant are morally obligated to live in fidelity to that community and to make regular and consistent use of the means of grace (Word and sacrament).
  7. Attendance to the means of grace may be said to be stipulations or moral obligations or even second order conditions of the covenant of grace so long as they are distinguished from the proper condition or instrument of the covenant of grace.
  8. The Word of the covenant is in two parts: Law and Gospel.
  9. The proclamation of the Gospel is the divinely ordained means by which the Holy Spirit works faith in the hearts of members of the covenant of grace.
  10. There are two signs and seals (sacraments) of the covenant of grace, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
  11. The sacraments signify and seal the identity with and union of the believer with the death and burial of Christ.
  12. As signs and seals of the covenant of grace, they are Gospel not Law.
  13. The sacraments are signs to all and seals to the elect.
  14. The covenant signs and seals are a blessing to the elect but come also with jeopardy to the reprobate.
  15. Because of the visible/invisible distinction (internal/external) it is possible to participate in the covenant signs and seals to one’s harm (1 Corinthians 10; Hebrews 6; 10).
  16. The covenant signs and seals are means of grace for all believers whereby their faith is genuinely strengthened and their sanctification advanced.
  17. Because they deny the internal/external distinction, advocates of “covenant objectivity” teach a view of the sacraments which is virtually indistinguishable from the Roman ex opera operato view.
  18. In distinction from the Lord’s Supper, Baptism is the sign and seal of initiation into the covenant of grace.
  19. In the history of redemption, baptism succeeded circumcision as the sign and seal of initiation.
  20. All baptized persons can be said to be in the covenant of grace in the broad sense. Not everyone who is baptized receives the substance or benefits of the covenant of grace.
  21. Baptism does not itself regenerate or necessarily unite the baptized to Christ.
  22. Scripture requires the baptism of adult converts who have not been previously baptized.
  23. Scripture teaches the baptism of covenant children.
  24. We do not baptize covenant children on the presumption of their regeneration, but on basis of the divine command and promises attached to baptism.
  25. Every objection made against covenant (infant) baptism which can be made against covenant (infant) circumcision as practiced under Abraham the father of New Covenant believers is for that reason invalid.
  26. Just as the old sign and seal of covenant initiation (circumcision) could only be observed once so the new sign and seal of covenant initiation (baptism) can only be observed once.
  27. In distinction from Baptism, the Supper is the sign and seal of covenant renewal.
  28. As a sign of covenant renewal the Supper is not appropriate for those who cannot understand the nature of Christ’s presence or the blessing and jeopardy which attach to the Supper.
  29. The Lord’s Supper is the fulfillment of all the typical Israelite feasts.
  30. Just as believers fed on the Passover lamb, as the true Lamb of God, Christ is really and truly present in the Supper.
  31. In the Supper, believers feed on Christ’s true body and blood by faith, through the operation of the Holy Spirit.
  32. Because the old covenant community feasted every time they assembled and because the Supper is Christ’s ordained sign and seal of covenant renewal it ought to be observed every time the new covenant community assembles.

9. Polemics

  1. Like Dispensationalism, “New Covenant” theology (NCT) is not sufficiently Trinitarian in its hermeneutic.
  2. NCT ignores the unity of the covenant of grace.
  3. It is unclear how NCT does not tend toward a radical discontinuity between Moses and Christ.
  4. NCT does not account for the distinction between Moses and Abraham.
  5. NCT tends toward antinomianism.
  6. Dispensationalism
  7. Of the three stages in the history of Dispensationalism (classic, modified, progressive), the first two are inimical to covenant theology.
  8. Classic and modified Dispensationalism tend to a radical (Marcionite) disjunction between Moses and Christ.
  9. Like Theonomy, Dispensationalism wrongly makes the Mosaic covenant the goal rather than a temporary, typical arrangement.
  10. By positing two peoples, Dispensationalism resurrects the dividing wall which Christ abolished in his flesh.
  11. Because the civil and ceremonial laws were specifically and intentionally tied to the Old (Mosaic) covenant, they were fulfilled in the Kingly and Priestly work of Christ and are therefore no longer binding on the Christian.
  12. The Mosaic civil law, because it was specifically and intentionally tied to the temporary and typical Old (Mosaic) covenant, it was never intended to serve as norm for any other state than Mosaic-Davidic theocracy.
  13. Any attempt to re-impose the Mosaic civil laws or their penalties fails to understand the typological, temporary, national character of the Old (Mosaic) covenant.
  14. The moral law, to the degree it expresses the substance of God’s moral will and is not tied to the ceremonies of the Old
    covenant continues to bind all human beings.
  15. In the New Covenant, only the second table of the Law can be said to bind the state.
  16. There are two kingdoms: that of the right hand and that of the left.
  17. Both kingdoms are under the authority of Christ, but are administered in diverse ways.
  18. In each kingdom, Christians live under Christ’s lordship according to the nature of that kingdom.
  19. The kingdom of the Right hand describes the ministry of Word and sacrament.
  20. The kingdom of the left hand describes the exercise of power in the ecclesiastical and civil realms.
  21. Because of the distinction between the two kingdoms and because the Decalogue is substantially identical with natural law, Christians should advocate laws and policies in the civil realm on the basis of the universal, natural knowledge of the second table of the law.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!