The notion of “covenant” runs through every page of Scripture. Covenants come with obligations, blessings, and curses. Covenants can be unilateral or bilateral, meaning that one or both parties can have obligations. But generally, the biblical covenants are between God and man.
Why are Adam and Eve removed from Eden? Because they transgressed the covenant of creation. Why were Israel and Judah taken into their respective captivities? Because they transgressed the Mosaic covenant.
There are other covenants, as well, such as the Abrahamic covenant. What differentiates that covenant from the covenants of creation and Moses is that in the covenant made with Abraham, God shoulders all of the responsibility. He will unilaterally ensure that his promises come to fruition, such as the genealogical and land promises. The Noahic covenant is also unilateral; God will never destroy the world again through flooding, despite the faithfulness of mankind.
The London Baptist Confession teaches us mainly about the principle of covenant: God relates to his creatures through covenants. The Confession begins:
The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.
What we owe to God we cannot give him because of our sinfulness. But because God willed that he would be glorified through both justice and mercy, he dispenses both perfectly. He relates to mankind through the covenants.
And this is not in itself bad, that God relates through covenants. It’s a necessary correlation to a being of divine nature relating to beings of created nature. If God is transcendent and we are not, there must necessarily be some means of relationship if there is to be one at all. Because God is both transcendent and immanent, we are able to be in a covenantal relationship with him. That is entirely his doing, or “voluntary condescension”.
Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.
The Baptist tradition is covenantal, meaning that most Baptists recognize a covenant at creation even though it is never called that explicitly.
There were obligations: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28).
There we blessings: “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food” (Genesis 1:29).
There were curses: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). Implied in the opening chapters of Genesis is a blessing of eternal life, since eating of the tree brings death.
Because Adam transgressed the covenant of creation (sometimes called the covenant of works), God then made a covenant of grace. The eternal Godhead had ordained before the creation of the world that they would redeem fallen humanity and undo the curse that it would bring. Jesus Christ was always the means by which we would be saved, from the fall of man onward.
The covenant is eminently Trinitarian. And God displays the same gospel throughout every age. There are not multiple means of salvation, but only one all-sufficient Savior.
This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament; and it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect; and it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality, man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency.
Before the fall, there was always a plan within the Trinity to redeem those who fall. After the fall, God immediately showed fallen mankind what it would take to be redeemed. A substitution on behalf of fallen man was always the plan. God progressively revealed to mankind the means and the meaning of redemption.
The covenant of grace is a convenient way of understanding the one plan of salvation which God has always had. Of course, it was worked out over multiple other covenants, such as the Mosaic, Davidic, and New. The point is always be drawn back to Christ—he has always been the one mediator between a righteous God and fallen man. There is no going back to the covenant of creation/works. We will never again be innocent; we are pardoned through the blood of Christ. But much greater is the new covenant cut in Christ's blood.
Next week, we'll start looking at Christ the Mediator. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the longest entries in the Confession, and we'll spend several weeks studying it.