Conversations in Reformed biblical theology

covenant (Main)

Covenant theology primer

What is the connection between the covenant and salvation? What is the shape of the biblical doctrine of the covenant? Such questions arise when we seek to listen afresh both to Scripture and to 16th century Reformed theology.

The Reformers tended to affirm that God's covenant embraces believers and their children in an objective way. The covenant of grace is not simply an invisible entity made only with the eternally elect, and thus unknowable. Rather, the covenant is objective, marked out by Trinitarian baptism. This covenant places God's name upon real people in real time and space - people who can readily be identified by others.

The fundamental promise of the biblical covenant is: “I will be your God, and you will be My people.” The fundamental shape of this covenant is two-sided: promise and demand (see Covenant [3] for more on this shape of covenant life). God everywhere chooses His covenant partner - Abram does not seek God out, but the reverse. God rescues Abram from the world of idolatry, and then calls upon Abram to walk before Him and be blameless. So too, God delivers Israel out of the slavery of Egypt, and then gives Israel His law. The indicative of divine salvation precedes the imperative, the calling of obedience; and the imperative is always accompanied by promises. Man is respondent, not equal partner.

This all fits, of course, with the Reformed accent upon the primacy of grace. God comes before man and calls him into a relationship, of which God Himself sets the terms. And even in man’s obedience, he can never offer more than a response to the God who just keeps on giving. That’s the covenant.


Disclaimer: inclusion of material in the bibliography implies neither endorsement of all views expressed in the material, nor that the author of the material endorses (or, if deceased, would have endorsed) the views of this web site. The criterion for inclusion of material in this list is genuine helpfulness to the discussion, not uniformity of viewpoint.

John Barach: “Covenant and Election.” (In The Federal Vision; Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, eds. Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2004, pp. 15-44.) A pastoral reflection upon how Scripture addresses the people of God, and a plea to do our preaching and theologizing in imitation of that pattern.

Dennis Bratcher: “The Concepts of Conditionality and Apostasy in Relation to the Covenant.” A massive and influential dissertation.

Tim Gallant: “Covenant, Predestination, and Dogmatic Method.” Suggests that theologizing needs to take account of the way a doctrine functions in Scripture, rather than simply treating it as independent and making a long string of deductions from it which Scripture itself does not make.

David G. Hagopian, ed.: Back to Basics: Rediscovering the Richness of the Reformed Faith. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1996.) Part 2 of this collaborative effort is a fine introduction to covenant theology, by Douglas Jones. The entire book is well worthwhile, and quite easy reading.

Peter Lillback: The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.) An important scholarly study of the development of the doctrine of the covenant among the early Reformed, particularly Calvin. Magisterial.

Klaas Schilder: Extra-Scriptural Binding - A New Danger. (Bound together with Jelle Faber, American Secession Theologians on Covenant and Baptism. T. vanLaar, trans. Neerlandia, AB: Inheritance, 1996.) Less a book than a collection of articles which Schilder wrote in response to statements of Herman Hoeksema. A robust defense of the view that there are different sorts of “conditions,” some of which are dangerous, and some of which are necessary. Thus the covenant of grace has “conditions,” carefully defined. Not smooth reading but provocative and thoughtful.

Steve Schlissel: “A New Way of Seeing?” In The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision. (E. Calvin Beisner, ed.; Ft. Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004). Suggests that post-Reformation concerns have led to a tendency toward over-systematization, blunting much of the biblical message.

C. A. Schouls: “The Covenant of Grace: Its Scriptural Origins and Development in Continental Reformed Theology.” An ambitious, helpful and generally balanced discussion.

Ralph A. Smith: The Covenantal Structure of the Bible: An Introduction to the Bible. An online book which expounds salvation-history as a succession of covenantal arrangements. Click here for a pdf of a more recent, revised version of this online book.

Ralph A. Smith: Eternal Covenant: How the Trinity Reshapes Covenant Theology. (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2003.) A valuable recent work which reflects upon the relationship between the Trinity and God’s covenant with man.

Ralph A. Smith: “The Trinitarian Covenant in John 17.” An exploration of the covenantal shape of Trinitarian life, as shown through an exposition of Jesus’ High Priestly prayer.

Ralph A. Smith: “Trinity and Covenant.” Essentially an online book. An ambitious work, aiming at drawing together a coherent picture of reality by means of focus upon the Trinity and covenant theology.

George Syms: “The Primacy of the Covenant: Its Relationship to Election and Regeneration.” (Preceding link is Part 1; Part 2 is here.) Very brief and readable pair of short articles.

Dr. C. van der Waal: The Covenantal Gospel. (Neerlandia, AB: Inheritance, 1990.) Van der Waal overstates the continuity between the covenants, but this is an important work.

Peter Wallace: “Covenant and Inheritance.” An attempt to find a sort of via media in the contemporary debate regarding the covenant.

Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, eds.: The Federal Vision. (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2004.) A wide-ranging collection of essays on historical and biblical theology from contemporary thinkers reflecting upon issues related to covenant theology, ecclesiology, and the sacraments. Provocative and stimulating.

Douglas Wilson: “Reformed” is not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the Covenant. (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2002.) The vigorous defense of the view that the covenant is not hidden in the decrees of God, but comes to expression in a visible community.

Herman Witsius: The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man: A Complete Body of Divinity in Two Volumes. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1990 [1677].) An early classic theological opus which reflects the importance of covenant theology in the Reformed tradition.


What difference is there between the Old and the New Testament? Very much and very little, I reply. Very little if you regard those chief points which concern God and us; very much if you regard what concerns us alone. The sum is here: God is our God, we are His people. In these there is the least, in fact, no difference.

- Ulrich Zwingli, Refutation of the Tricks of the Anabaptists 1527

The Old Testament or Covenant that the Lord had made with the Israelites had not been limited to earthly things, but contained a promise of spiritual and eternal life.

- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.10.23

We now consider how the covenant is rightly kept; namely, when the word precedes, and we embrace the sign as a testimony and pledge of grace; for as God binds Himself to keep the promise given to us; so the consent of faith and of obedience is demanded from us.

- John Calvin, Commentaries on Genesis at Gen 17.9