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The Covenantal Kingdom

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Chapter Four


How Important Is the Covenant?

The covenant can, without exaggeration, be called the key to understanding Scripture. The Bible itself is a covenantal book recording for us the covenantal dealings of our covenantal God with His covenantal kingdom. Reformed theology teaches that the inter-personal relationships among the Persons of the Trinity are presented in Scripture as covenantal,[27] though this cannot be proved by simply referring to a proof text.

To understand why, we must remember not to limit our understanding of the covenant only to those passages in Scripture where the word is used. The Bible itself regards promissory agreements as covenantal even where the word "covenant" does not appear in the original record. When God refers to His covenant with Noah in Genesis 6:18, for example, the implication is that God has already established a covenant relationship with man.[28] The covenant with Abraham is clearly established in Genesis 12, though the official covenantal ceremony does not occur until Genesis 15. God promised David an enduring dynasty, but the word covenant does not appear in 2 Samuel 7. Only later, in Psalm 89, is the Davidic promise referred to as a covenant. The conclusion is that where the substance of a covenant appears, a covenant exists.

Although there has been debate among Reformed theologians about the details, there has been general agreement that the work of redemption in history is based upon covenantal arrangements among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[29] Geerhardus Vos sees in this the genius of the Reformed principle: the Three Persons of the Triune God for their own glory covenanted among themselves to save the world from sin. In Vos' words:

In the dogma of the counsel of peace, then, the doctrine of the covenant has found its genuinely theological rest point. Only when it becomes plain how it is rooted, not in something that did not come into existence until creation, but in God's being itself, only then has this rest point been reached and only then can the covenant idea be thought of theologically.[30]

The covenantal outline may be applied to the covenant between the Father and the Son. First, the eternal counsel of God is the most profound example of covenantal transcendence -- the three Persons of the Trinity from eternity covenanting to save man from sin. Second, Christ is appointed to be the representative of the Godhead among men to reveal God (Jn. 1:18) and also to be the last Adam, to represent man before God (1 Cor. 15:45, 47; Rom. 5:12ff.). Third, Christ was given an appointed work (Jn. 17:4). Born under the law, He kept the law both for Himself and for those whom He would redeem (Gal. 4:4-5). His death for our sins was the supreme work assigned to Him from eternity (1 Pet. 1:19-20; Rom. 5:18-19). Fourth, God promised Christ a reward for His work -- the men whom He redeemed (Is. 42:6-7; 52:15; 53:10; Jn. 17:6, 9, 11-12, etc.). Fifth, the Messiah is predestined to become the "heir of all things" (Heb. 1:2), as the Last Adam who defeated sin and death (1 Cor. 15:21-28), as the true Seed of Abraham (cf. Rom. 4:13; Gal. 3:16), and as the Son of David who inherits the throne of the kingdom (Is. 49:8; Dn. 7:13-14; Heb. 1:2-14).

Because God is a covenantal God, He created the world in covenant with Him. Creation itself was a covenantal act.[31] When God created man, He created him in covenantal relation to Him and revealed Himself covenantally (Gn. 1:26-28). Adam had to recognize God as His sovereign King. He knew that he was, as God's image, His vice-regent on earth and the representative head of humanity. God required obedience of Adam and specifically tested him at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The promise of blessing and the threat of the curse were revealed to Adam. Had Adam obeyed, he would have inherited the world.

Robert Rollock put it succinctly: "God says nothing to man apart from the covenant."[32] A fundamental principle of Biblical and of Reformed theology is that revelation is always covenantal. God is a covenantal God. His creation of the world was a covenantal act that brought into being a covenantal kingdom, in which man was appointed as God's covenantal representative. The covenant is the key to understanding the Scripture. It follows that it is also the key to understanding eschatology.

But Reformed theologians have not followed through on this Biblical insight.[33] Until Ray Sutton's That You May Prosper, only the dispensationalists had anything approaching a covenantal eschatology.


27. See: Jordan, The Law of the Covenant, pp. 4-8.

28. For a detailed discussion of this and other passages, see: W. J. Dumbrell, Covenant & Creation: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (Grand Rapids and Carlisle, U.K.: Baker Book House and The Paternoster Press, [1984] 1993), especially pp. 11-26.

29. See: Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., ed., Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), pp. 245ff.

30. Ibid., p. 247.

31. See: Dumbrell, Covenant & Creation.

32. Quoted in: Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, p. 239.

33. Even Herman Witsius' lengthy discussion of the covenants between God and man does not develop eschatology in any distinctly covenantal manner. Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man, 2 vol. (Escondido, Cal: The den Dulk Christian Foundation, reprint 1990).

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