Review: Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored By Michael Brown And Zach Keele

The concept of covenant is found cover to cover in the Bible. It is not simply derived from the Hebrew and Greek words translated “covenant” in English (berit and diatheke, respectively). The covenantal structure goes far deeper into the biblical drama than what appears on the textual surface. Indeed, this is how God works and reveals himself—through bonding covenants of sacred origin to a people he calls by name into his gracious kingdom.

In Sacred Bond, Michael Brown and Zach Keele have clearly and concisely brought together the elemental themes of the Bible in less than one-hundred and fifty pages. On showcase in this work is the covenant-making, triune God. The Father in the Son by the Spirit works through covenants. The Reformed tradition calls this covenant theology, which is reflected in the subtitle: Covenant Theology Explored. This is exactly what they undertake to do for today’s inquirers.

Those familiar with the Bible and church history will recognize this book is not a seventeenth-century treatise on the subject. It is written without overly technical terms, but does not skimp on meaning. When certain necessary terms are used, they are thoroughly explained in meekness. Even with its short length, this book does not fail to explore the theological depths of covenant theology. Do not let this swift page-turner fool you. Each jot and tittle bring forth a bounty of precious, doxological truth.

Short And Sweet: An Introduction

The first chapter of Sacred Bond is an introduction to the concept of covenant as found throughout God’s dealings with his creatures in the Bible. As noted above, covenant is found often and readily in Hebrew and in Greek, and the concept is also found in related themes, powerfully undergirding Scripture’s pages (11–12). The chapter provides several analogous comparisons of the biblical covenants to what humans experience everyday: government and law, marriage and family, parents with children and their neighbors––all have a relational-legal bond. The authors define it this way: “A covenant is a formal agreement that creates a relationship with legal aspects” (12). The idea of covenant not only surrounds us in multiple facets of life; it also makes up the “very fabric” of the Bible—“God’s chosen framework” of revelation (12).

Having demonstrated the covenant concept to our modern minds with this common background, the authors explain the contextual background of the writers of the Old Testament. The Ancient Near East nations would compile documents (treaties) to form covenants between the ruling kingdoms and the ruled peoples (document-forms which Israel models in its own writing and which God uses to communicate his supreme sovereignty in calling them a nation unto himself) (14–18).1 These treaty-covenants carried with them a preamble identifier, a historical prologue describing the supreme’s benevolent action, stipulations and sanctions between the higher and lower parties, documents for witness of the treaty-covenant, and a ritual-ceremony to ratify as official the new binding law.2

In the context of Israel within the Ancient Near East, and with the examples of today, Brown and Keele further define the covenant concept: “A covenant is a solemn agreement with oaths and/or promises, which imply certain sanctions or legality” (18). It is important to discern in these covenants the parties involved, for in the biblical covenants it makes a difference. Some of these covenants are between equals, and some are between unequals. It is in this distinction—and how these covenants are administered in history—that God rules his creation-kingdom and his redemptive-kingdom of new creation (19–21).

The Covenants

Brown and Keele go through the biblical covenant system chronologically, as well as in the order of redemptive history. The book is arranged such that the canonical-historical covenants of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the new covenant follow the redemptive-historical covenants of redemption, works/creation, and grace. Each chapter is outlined in similar fashion. A brief biblical-theological description is given about each covenant, followed by exegetical-biblical support. Each chapter includes a helpful section explaining the importance of the doctrine for the Christian life—this is the book’s most vital asset for today. Finally, a list of questions is proposed at the end of the chapter for further reflection.

Covenant of Redemption

The pactum salutis is the covenant that envelopes all other covenants. This pact is located in the eternal, intra-Trinitarian counsel of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to redeem by grace a people out of fallen humanity. As the authors put it, the pactum salutis is “God’s blueprint for our salvation” (25). Established in this eternal covenant are the two main covenants in God’s revelation: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace (27).3 As is seen in later chapters and throughout covenant theology generally, all the covenants subsume under this foundation from before time. This is important because “if you are a Christian, it is because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit covenanted together in eternity to save you” (39) That is a blessed assurance.

Covenant of Works

The covenant of works (also called the covenant of creation or the commandment of life [Belgic Confession 14]) speaks of God’s covenantal creative acts and the decree for his special creature, Adam (and Eve), to serve him as ruler of the land. What God speaks into existence owes God for its existence. Adam and Eve, as the image-bearers of God, have a special role to fill, and this according to covenant: “At creation, God commits himself to his creation to sustain them and be God to them. So also, being created in the image of God by necessity obligates Adam to God” (45). Since creation was pronounced very good by God, Adam—as the head of all humanity—was actually able to carry out all of God’s commands, with the promise of eschatological Sabbath-life upon success of his work. Instead, he failed at the judgment tree. The resulting divine-intrusion in the Spirit of the Day’s judgment-administration was quickly followed by God initiating the covenant of grace, beginning the progression of time for the covenant of redemption to be enacted in the fullness of time. In a word, “The covenant of grace is the historical outworking of God’s eternal plan of salvation in the covenant of redemption” (61).

Covenant of Grace

The covenant of works bears heavily on our understanding of the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ (57–58). Nevertheless, grace begins in Genesis 3. “Although it has been administered differently during different epochs of redemptive history, its substance remains the same in all periods” (60) This succinctly describes this one covenant of salvation since the fall, which boils down to the fact that Christ is the mediator of this better covenant––the covenant surety of the eternal pactum for his people through all of time. Old Testament saints are saints because of Jesus the Messiah. Both in Abraham’s day and in our own, we are of the same church, the one body of Christ. This covenant is one of grace because of Jesus, who came to fulfill the Pactum, the counsel of peace, taking and fulfilling the role of Adam as the better second Adam. Likewise, he bears the punishment that all deserve under the broken covenant of works. But to those who by faith believe, he gives the right, by his righteousness, to eternal life as children (62). This is good news (71–73).

Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the New Covenant

These covenants are made by God under the dispensation of the covenant of grace with the covenant of works in the background.4 The works required for life (perpetual, personal, and perfect [Westminster Larger Catechism 93]) have always been in effect, but after the fall they are impossible to carry out. Since Genesis 3:15, wrath has been averted and the way of salvation is now always by grace through the covenant’s mediator (who performed the covenant of works absolutely).

The authors then discuss the Abrahamic covenant, the two stages of its fulfillment, and how the underlying covenant of grace is applied to households (88–91). This covenant ties into the next one, for the Mosaic is the first-stage fulfillment of Abraham’s promise (94–95). The Mosaic broadly is a gracious administration, driving the people to Christ; but it is also a covenant of law (104–8). It acts to prepare for the historical fulfillment of the second stage of Abraham’s promise. Later on, this also becomes David’s promise––that the Son of David would come to initiate the new covenant and new creation, with an everlasting throne and kingdom heirs, fulfilling all prophecy (95–97; 125; 137–9).5

This new covenant work spans all of redemptive history (142). This is the covenant of grace fulfilled for God’s people by their Christ Jesus, who fulfills the covenant of works where Adam failed, likewise fulfilling the covenant of redemption. Those in Christ are in a covenant of grace—now termed the new covenant. The difference in this new covenant is the permanence of Christ as mediator and the Holy Spirit poured out as re-Creator (139–41). This has far-reaching implications for all of life—and indeed, all of creation.

Going Forward

This short book is much needed in the church today. It seems little is known about covenant theology outside of the Reformed tradition, and its doctrines are often misunderstood. This should not be, and this book helps to rectify any false notions.

The book closes by detailing reasons why understanding the new covenant, with reference to the full discussion of the covenants that came before it, is important for the Christian life today (148–52). The triune God has fulfilled all his promises. Prophecy and the covenants have been kept. His kingdom has come and is upheld, even today, with a glorious future everlasting ahead.6 The kingdom is wrapped up in covenant, “because God is accomplishing the consummation according to a pre-determined plan.”7 Thus, salvation, life, and the kingdom are sure and one in the Trinity.8 The focal point is Christ, the covenant-keeper, king of the kingdom, “in whom God brings the salvation, and in whose exaltation he will establish his kingdom with power” because, “God is busy fulfilling the promise and realizing the consummation.”9

Conclusion

Sacred Bond not only fills a need for literature on Reformed covenant theology for lay people in the English-speaking world, but also does its part in spreading these teachings around the globe. It has already been published in Chinese, Korean, Italian, and Spanish. Now a host of other believers can benefit from this excellent treatment and learn of these doctrines of the covenant and of the triune God’s revealed faithful work.

Michael Brown and Zach Keele have done a tremendous job with this short-but-deep, praiseworthy book. But as the pages of this work will tell you, and the authors would affirm as well, one can only respond to reading the marvelous truths contained therein with praise to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—the God who faithfully keeps covenant.

Notes

  1. Meredith Kline sees this connection as the end-all be-all of Scripture’s authority proof, to which I agree. The Structure of Biblical Authority (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997).
  2. Adapted from Michael Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009), 23–8. In Kingdom Prologue, Part I–Section A, Meredith Kline details this development of the treaty-covenant in Genesis 1–3; Meredith Kline, Kingdom Prologue (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006).
  3. J. V. Fesko, The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption (Ross-shire, GB: Mentor, 2016), 131–40.
  4. The one exception is the Noahic covenant that God made with all creation. After the waters receded and the dry ground appeared, God renews another covenant with all of creation, not to destroy it again with a deluge. As the authors helpfully explain, this is sovereign graciousness, but not redemptive grace.
  5. See also Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 332.
  6. This applies to the believer in inaugurated blessings and future-consummated blessings: “We will not become heirs in the future––we are that now.” S. M. Baugh, The Majesty on High (Self-published, 2017), 140.
  7. Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom (Philadelphia, PA: P&R Publishing, 1962), 518.
  8. Helpful here is Geerhardus Vos, “The Kingdom of God,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980), 304–16, especially page 315 as summary.
  9. Ridderbos, Coming of the Kingdom, 523.

© Charles Vaughn. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Brown & Zach Keele, Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored (Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 2017).


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Posted by Charles Vaughn | Thursday, March 14, 2024 | Categorized in Covenant Theology, Reviews. Charles Vaughn. Bookmark the permalink.

About Charles Vaughn

Charles lives in San Diego county with his wife and four covenant children. He has a B.A. in Biblical & Theological Studies from Regent University and an M.A. in both Biblical and Theological Studies from Westminster Seminary California. Charles works as a Junior High history teacher at a Christian school in Escondido, CA.

14 comments

  1. Just a dumb question here… why are we seeing this 3 Covenant model emerging when the Westminster states clearly 2 ?

    • Mike,

      What makes you think that? The Pactum Salutis was widely taught, including some prominent Divines, when the Confession was framed.

      Many see it implied in the Confession. Its omission was a major and unfortunate revision of Reformed theology.

      https://heidelblog.net/2023/08/with-the-guilt-grace-gratitude-podcast-on-the-covenant-of-redemption/

      Consider these sections of chapter 8:

      3. The Lord Jesus, in his human nature thus united to the divine, was sanctified, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, above measure, having in him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; in whom it pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell; to the end that, being holy, harmless, undefiled, and full of grace and truth, he might be thoroughly furnished to execute the office of a mediator, and surety. Which office he took not unto himself, but was thereunto called by his Father, who put all power and judgment into his hand, and gave him commandment to execute the same.

      4. This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake; which that he might discharge, he was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfill it; endured most grievous torments immediately in his soul, and most painful sufferings in his body; was crucified, and died, was buried, and remained under the power of death, yet saw no corruption. On the third day he arose from the dead, with the same body in which he suffered, with which also he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of his Father, making intercession, and shall return, to judge men and angels, at the end of the world.

      5. The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience, and sacrifice of himself, which he, through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him.

      This is the language of the covenant of redemption/pactum salutis. When was the Son called by the Father to execute the office of mediator? When did the Father give him that commandment? When did the Son “most willingly undertake” too fulfill “this office” and “fulfill it”?

      The very mention of the Son as “surety” is a clear sign that the Divines were thinking about the pre-temporal covenant of redemption. We’ll make work of publishing more material on the HB to help clarify this.

      • Mike,

        J. V. Fesko’s historical and theological survey of the Westminster Standards is helpful here, besides his separate volume on the Covenant of Redemption.

        • Hi Dr thanks for this post i keep going back to this article so many times. Saved this article on my phone so i can go back and read and have a right definition of the covenants. When you say though “Many see it implied in the Confession. Its omission was a major and unfortunate revision of Reformed theology.” what do you mean by its omission when the language of the covenant of redemption is in chapter eight of the confession? Thanks again for the blog Dr always amazing stuff!! Oh the blog is not letting me reply to you Dr. the post button isn’t showing up thats why im replying where Charles’s comment is. Thanks again Dr

  2. This short book would indeed be a great read for those of the “evangelical” persuasion, but as the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Seems like their beliefs, steeped both in their traditions and sentimentality, are antithetical to anything coming from outside. Yet, most of them often refer to themselves as “Calvinists” with no more knowledge of what that means (or “Reformed” for that matter) other than “five points.” I’ve provided Richard Muller’s concise and excellent work on this phenomenon (“How Many Points?”) on occasion only to have it rejected, accusing him of setting up a straw man and then tearing it down bit by bit.

    • George,

      I understand your frustration. I get and respond to a lot of email but the good news is that there are lots of people discovering the Reformed confession, including Reformed covenant theology. It’s not all bad news. It’s a long, slow process but it does happen. E.g., Sovereign Grace Bakersfield, an entire congregation, is in process of uniting with the United Reformed Churches and that’s just one example. I know of other cases where, in part by reading the HB and listening to the Heidelcast, whole congregations have joined other NAPARC denominations. Be encouraged. The Brown/Keele book is part of that process. People are reading it and they are growing becoming Reformed.

      • Dr. Clark,
        Thank you for your tireless dedication to Recovering The ‘entire’ Reformed Confession’ – it is one work that will only be complete when Christ returns to Consummate the Kingdom of God He inaugurated when He sat down a God’s right hand, to rule in such a a way as to allow His enemies to do evil as He places them under His feet. I am grateful.

        In this process, I am learning to distinguish ‘the full coat’ of Classical Reformed Covenantal Theology that is Christ-centered, OT/NT. Theologians who wear ‘the full coat’ understand and believe and support Covenant Theology – of Works, of Grace, of Redemption. You have made a helpful distinction between Classical Reformed Theology and Revised Reformed Theology, some theologians wear only a partial coat.

        Isn’t this our work of believers in Christ – by Grace through Faith – in the Kingdom of God He has inaugurated?

  3. Charles Vaughn,

    Thank you for writing and posting a review of ‘A Sacred-Bond: Covenant Theology Explored’. I smiled a face-full of happiness; a friend of mine who graduated from WSC recommended this book on Monday. I bought the book ($6, Kindle) on Tuesday.

    Because it is written to me, a lay person, the historical context establishes a broad application of God’s specialized relationship with me, one of His grateful-chosen and blessed-called.

    I plan to recommend ‘Sacred-Bond’ to every person I know who professes to believe in Christ.

    • Catherine,

      Thank you. I do hope the book gets a large and wide reading. Many folks are indeed discovering the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms, and making them their own.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    I investigated O.Palmer Robertson’s critique and rejection of the Pactum Salutis. As I read it I wondered if there were colleagues with whom he discussed this idea/conclusion – or had the matter been set in his mind based on his mentor’s idea at WS Philadelpia?

    To void the Pactum Salutis seems spiritually illogical (like a spiritual suicide). I am not able or willing to disconnect the Covenants of Grace and Works from the Covenant of Redemption. How does this impact Ministerial students?

  5. To date this is one of my two favorite Introductions to Covenant Theology. The other is
    by Dr. Dan McManigal called “Encountering Christ in the Covenants” published by Monergism Books. His volume has a distinctive Redemptive Historical flavor and along with the Brown/Keele volume argues for the recapitulation of the covenant of works in the Mosaic economy. These books have filled in a long ignored gap to introduce folks to a foundational construct to interpret and understand our Bibles. Thank God for such well written contributions!

  6. One of my first reads after the discovery of a reformed covenantal understanding. It was very helpful. Nothing settles us in the faith like the understanding of covenantal promises. I think it’s more helpful that systematic theology alone.

  7. Great review, sir! This book is a staple work. I place it right alongside Hyde’s Welcome to a Reformed Church and Cruse’s What Happens When We Worship. All three should be on the handout table on Sundays.

    Keep confessing those united standards, amigo!

  8. Dr. Clark,
    I am new to Reformed/Covenant theology, coming from a Pentecostal background. I read and appreciated Sacred Bond. I also still appreciate seeing summaries like this one. I stumbled across your blog a couple of years ago, and due to your influence, I started attending a confessional Presbyterian church 5 months ago.

    Elsewhere you have wrote, “For the Reformed the Noahic covenant in Genesis 6… is an administration of the covenant of grace… The covenant of Genesis 6 was a covenant of grace, redemptive and particular. The second covenant, in chapter 9, was a covenant of common grace, a promise that the Lord would restrain evil and preserve the world until the final judgment.” https://heidelblog.net/2018/02/engaging-with-1689-1/

    In Sacred Bond, they only refer to the Noahic covenant in Genesis 8:20-9:17 which is the basis for common grace. Is this more commonly known as “the” Noahic covenant? Why do you think they don’t mention the distinction between this and the one pertaining to salvation?

    If you can bear another question, which is more critical to me. On the topic of intro to CT, I also read and appreciated Covenants Made Simple by Jonty Rhodes. It was recommended by someone at the PCA church. Are you familiar with this work? If so, would you comment on possible differences in his views and your own?

    One apparent difference would be that he explains that Kline and Horton hold to the Mosaic being a republication of the covenant of works, which he says may be the minority view. He says that he holds to the view that the Mosaic was essentially no different than that made with Abraham. What are the practical implications of the differences between these two views?

    In his last chapter on Covenant Life, he talks about Jesus coming as a man and living in the power of the Spirit. Then he talks about the Spirit giving us the power to obey through our union with Christ. He says that God promises that we will make progress in holiness as we struggle day by day and humbly do our best while seeking God. The path we are to follow is God’s moral law as summarized by the 10 commandments. Though we aren’t under law unto righteousness, it is our guide to what God desires for us. It convicts us of our sin, as well as teaching us how to live after we have applied the gospel. If the law is misused by focusing on rules or rejecting Christ, then it becomes a covenant of works that condemns and kills. But the law doesn’t have to be a burden after we receive the gospel. The gospel contains “law” in the narrow sense that there are conditions of obedience, but it remains gracious because Christ alone supplies the power to obey. It is not the grounds of our salvation, but the result of it. When we are unfaithful, God often disciplines to bring us back to our senses. This is not to put us back under works, but so that we may repent and believe the gospel promises again. Then we may again progress in the fight for holiness. He speaks of the balance of justification, so that we do not focus on our works, and sanctification, so that we do not think of obedience as irrelevant.

    Is the above mostly agreed upon, regardless of how you view the Mosaic? Is the idea of the gospel containing commands a major sticking point? Again, how would this practically impact how you view sanctification and Christian living? As long as you keep the balance between justification and sanctification, not looking to your works, then is it just two different ways of looking at the same thing? I will continue to read your resources on these issues, but I appreciate your comments as sometimes that can more quickly help connect the dots.

    Thanks,
    Matt

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