What is Covenant Theology?

Rev. Reggie Kimbro is the minister of Grace FPC in Winston-Salem, NC. He also teaches at Geneva Reformed Seminary. We interviewed him on the subject of Covenant Theology.

What is Covenant Theology?

Covenant Theology (CT) is a title given to a system that officially stems from the post-Reformation period. The system of CT is a very simple system which closely follows the Bible’s teaching regarding the Two Adams (cf. Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15). CT views the whole of history and of man’s relation to God under two covenants, usually called the “Covenant of Works” and the “Covenant of Grace.” The Covenant of Works refers to man’s original relation to God and his obligation to fulfill the Moral Law (which is summarized by our Savior as loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbor as our self (Mark 12:30-31), or as Paul phrased it, “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13: 10; Galatians 5:14). Adam failed in this great obligation, casting all of his race into a state of sin and inability to merit righteousness, since all of his posterity sinned in him and fell short of the glory of God. Instead of consigning Adam and his race immediately to hell, God initiated a new covenant, commonly called the “Covenant of Grace.” CT sees all of God’s gracious dealings with fallen man coming under this covenant, which was made with Christ as a new Federal Head. (“Federal Theology” is another name for CT).

It’s important also to recognize what Covenant Theology is not, because in the debate with Dispensational theology, many people get confused on certain points. CT does not dictate a particular view of baptism. Many people wrongly assume that CT forces its adherents to hold to infant baptism. That is not the case. Also, many people wrongly assume that CT demands an amillennial view of the end times. It does not.

What are the main benefits of seeing the Bible as having one plan of redemption from Genesis 3 to the end of history?

This is indeed one of the chief benefits of Covenant Theology. While there are different ages or “dispensations” in the Scripture, the differences between these ages are outward and ceremonial, not inward and spiritual. We don’t sacrifice animals today in a temple with a Levitical priesthood. But the OT people who did were still being directed by that system to look forward to the same Christ and the same message of grace and faith that we embrace today with the fuller light of Christ’s finished work. CT clearly emphasizes Christ and grace at the heart of every age. Even though there are significant differences between the Old Testament and New Testament dispensations , I like to phrase it this way, “Greater light is not different light.”

Did the OT saints enjoy the same gospel as NT believers?

Absolutely. The sacrificial system (which really started outside the gates of Eden and not at Mt. Sinai) contains the message of the promised seed (Genesis 3:15) in a nutshell. Just take one beautiful example among many. When the OT offeror brought his offering to the priest, before the animal was slain, the offeror would lay his hands upon the head of the lamb to symbolize the transfer of guilt from himself to this appointed substitute. Think of the impact as John the Baptist announced, “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world!”

Does the Westminster Confession of Faith teach Covenant Theology?

Yes, like the other major Reformed Confessions, the WCF sets forth CT very clearly in chapter seven. There, the framers of the Confession even indicate that what they were putting into that Confessional framework was the general understanding of God’s people. They speak of what is “commonly called the Covenant of Grace.”

Does Covenant Theology create a unity of interpretation?

Yes, that’s perhaps the greatest strength of CT. It’s a very simple and basic framework for understanding Scripture. There may be some matters that are difficult to determine, like the mode and subjects of baptism, or the different views of the millennium, but these are all intramural debates underneath the clear outline of Scripture with regard to the gospel itself. All men sinned and died in Adam, the first man. In order to be saved, one must flee by faith to Christ, the second man. This is the fundamental point at issue.

What comforts or assurances can a believer gain from covenantal views of the gospel?

I have known many believers who have come to greater depths of assurance and peace when they were investigating the system of Covenant Theology. At the heart of the doctrine of justification is the imputed righteousness of Christ. Virtually every believer is aware of the teaching of Christ’s substitutionary death in paying the penalty of our transgressions of God’s law, but many modern believers have had little teaching with regard to Christ being their representative in fulfilling the positive demands of God’s law and actually meriting life for them. There is an overwhelming peace that flows from the knowledge that God didn’t lower or change His standard of holiness or perfection when He saved me. Christ was placed under the very same law as Adam and all His posterity, only Christ “fulfilled all righteousness” as my new Representative and that perfect righteousness is counted as belonging to every one of His believing people.

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By Ian Goligher

Rev. Ian Goligher is the pastor of Cloverdale FPC, Vancouver, BC. He was Editor of Current from 2014 to 2019.