The UK Bible Students Website
Christian Biblical Studies
Scripture references are to the
New International Version, UK print edition of 1984.
Q. What is a covenant?
A. A covenant is a promise, often implemented through a contractual arrangement, and may be of a more or less formal nature. The principle of the covenant is found in secular law and in the Scriptures, and consists of two main categories.
One is the conditional, or bi-lateral covenant – a contract made between two parties, each of whom agrees to keep certain stipulations of the agreement. Such contracts invariably include sanctions – penalties for failing to keep to the terms. A commonplace example of this type of contract is a lease or rental of a flat or house, in which continuance of residence is dependent upon one party making regular payments to the other party. In the biblical sphere, the Jewish Law Covenant is probably the best illustration of a conditional covenant. God would do such and such for Israel, if Israel would adhere to certain stipulated terms. Should they fail to do so, condign punishment would follow. Israel did consent to the arrangement, thus binding itself (Ex. 24:1-8).
The other is unconditional, or uni-lateral. By its nature, the unconditional contract is a pledge made by one party to another. The first party carries all the liabilities of fulfilment; the second party is the recipient of the benefits offered, and may not be required to do much or anything at all to receive the benefits. One instance of this type is a simple bequest. An example of the unconditional contract in the biblical context is that in which God vows to bless Abraham and his offspring (Gen. 12:1-3):
1 The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’
Later, in Gen. 22:16-18, God reiterates this promise, but prefixes an affirmation to it:
16 . . . I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that . . . 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me. [emphasis added]
Because there is no authority higher than God, the Almighty and Self-Existent One, God swears on his own nature, thus rendering the promise immutable – incapable of alteration. In so doing, he rests his reputation on the fulfilment of this promise, and in the process demonstrates his compliance with his own law of fidelity, which we may view as an act of divine humility. This promise, often referred to as the Oath-Bound Covenant, is the basis on which the Gospel rests, as explained in Heb. 6 (emphases added):
13 When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no-one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, 14 saying, ʻI will surely bless you and give you many descendants.ʼ 15 And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised. 16 Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. 17 Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. 18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.
The Apostle Paul elaborates on this argument in Gal. 3:
7 Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ʻAll nations will be blessed through you.ʼ 9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.