On Covenant Theology

Sermon preached on Genesis 2:9-3:24 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 03/05/2023 in Petaluma, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.

We will be spending two weeks on this passage.  This week we will be considering it from a high level to think about covenant theology and its value.  Next week we’ll delve into the details to consider the fall of mankind.  So, today we’ll consider covenant theology.  Maybe you’ve heard people use that terminology and didn’t know what it meant.  Or maybe you’ve never heard that terminology.  Today, you will get a primer on it.  It is a foundational concept that will help you to properly interpret Scripture wherever you happen to be studying in the Bible.  Because it is so foundational, we are not surprised to find its foundations right here at the beginning of Genesis.  So then, today I will first give you a brief overview of covenant theology.  Then, I’ll show how we find what is called the covenant of works here.  Lastly, I’ll show the beginning of the covenant of grace here as well.

Let’s begin then with an overview of covenant theology, starting with a definition.  What is a covenant?  In general, it’s a formal agreement or contract between two parties, often accompanied by oaths, signs, and ceremonies.  This commonly seen today when people get married, the couple is entering into a marriage covenant and there is typically oaths, signs, and a ceremony to solemnize that.  It is important to note that covenants are not always between equal parties.  Many of the examples of covenants that we have from the ancient Near East are suzerain-vassal treaties.  In those treaties, the suzerain is the superior and the vassal is the inferior in the covenant.  Those covenants would usually include certain stipulations for the vassal to keep, with the suzerain promising blessings if they do and threatening curses if they don’t.  So then, in the Bible, we see various covenants throughout, some just between humans, but others where God is covenanting with mankind.

That is what we are interested when we talk about covenant theology.  We are talking about the covenants that we see between God and man in the Bible.  This is a framework for reading and understanding the Bible, because it’s a framework for understanding our relationship with God at any point in history.  Wherever you are at in the Bible, you ask, “What specific covenant between God and man is operating here?”  That is important context proper interpretation of any Bible passage.

To understand covenant theology, we need to recognize that there are two main covenants that we see expressed in human history.  There is the covenant of works, and there is the covenant of grace.  The covenant of works was made here with Adam and all his posterity.  When he broke it, all humanity broke it with him.  That left all humanity condemned under the judgment of God according to our failed works.  But after that first covenant was broken, God graciously made a new covenant with man, specifically with his elect, called the covenant of grace.  The covenant of grace is the one overarching covenant by which God saves his chosen people through a salvation that is by grace through faith in a savior.  I say that it is an overarching covenant because as we study the Bible, we see that there are various historical administrations of it in the Bible.  We will see it first promised here at Genesis 3:15.  Afterwards we’ll see a number of specific administrations of it, including the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, and the Davidic Covenant, which all have unique aspects to them.  And then when Jesus comes, he institutes what is called the New Covenant.  But all these are different administrations in history of the one covenant of grace.  That is why there is ultimately one people and one way of salvation behind it all, because there is one covenant of grace underlying it all.  This framework will become clearer as we look at both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace separately today.

So, with that brief overview of covenant theology, let us now turn to consider the covenant of works that we find here in Genesis.  On a side note, the covenant of works that we find here has also gone by other names too.  Sometimes, it is has been referred to as the covenant of creation, since it was made here when things were first created.  It has also been referred to as the covenant of life, it held out life if the covenant was kept.  But I would say that calling it to the covenant of works  is especially helpful because it so clearly distinguishes it and contrasts it with the covenant of grace that we’ll talk further about in a moment.

So then, let me point out the obvious today.  While we have here the establishment of the covenant of works, the word “covenant” doesn’t actually appear in this chapter.  Some have thus wondered if it is appropriate to call what is going on here as a covenant.  But let me answer that question by an analogy.  As we’ll focus on in next week’s sermon, this chapter is where mankind’s fall into sin is recorded.  But the word “sin” doesn’t appear in this chapter.  Nor does any of the others synonyms for sin either.  It’s not that like concept of sin doesn’t get developed until later, because the very next chapter will use the word sin to refer to Cain’s sin.  But this chapter definitely talks about mankind’s first sin, even though the word doesn’t appear here.  The same can be observed here about the covenant of works.  There are various typical marks of a covenant found here.

So then, that covenant is summarized in 2:16, “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘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.’”  For starters, I would note that this is oath-like language.  Those words translated into English as “surely” is formal and emphatic language in the Hebrew not often found in covenantal oaths.  As described more fully elsewhere, God makes covenants so as to bind himself by oath to what he promises to man.  We can also note that here we begin to see the parties of the covenant.  The covenant is made initially between God and the first man, Adam.  But it becomes clear that God’s covenant is not made simply with Adam individually but with all humanity.  Adam here is the federal head of all humanity, and so all who are under him and in him are also part of this covenant.  This can clearly be inferred in 3:2 when the woman reiterates the covenant as something for her too.  Adam is Eve’s head, and she too becomes a part of the covenant.  Their descendants can also be inferred as part of the covenant when we see the covenant curses described here apply to them as well, even though it was Adam and Eve who sinned.

So then, that summary of the covenant in 2:16 lists both the stipulations of the covenant, along with the blessings and curses attached to it.  The specific stipulation is that they could eat of any tree in the garden, except for this one forbidden one.  They weren’t allowed to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  If they obeyed, they’d live.  If they disobeyed, they’d die.  That’s the blessings and curses.  I love how the Westminster Confession summarizes this in chapter 19.1, saying, “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it.”  The Confession goes on to say that this law given to Adam is the same sort of moral law that God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  In other words, this one prohibition about this forbidden tree embodied the principal of God’s moral law.  That God was in charge of man and we need to obey him.  And under the covenant of works that obedience would yield life, and disobedience would yield death.

So then, we’ve already seen various typical parts of a covenant here as we’ve considered the covenant of works.  Let us also notice that we have these two special trees and they are surely to be understood to be sacramental in nature, that they are signs bound up with the covenant.  There are all these trees in the garden, but two are highlighted for us: this tree of the knowledge of good and evil and this tree of life.  To understand them as sacramental is to say that we are probably not meant to interpret them as possessing some physical properties that would cause some physical effect.  It’s probably not that the tree of life had some special super fruit that could physically convey immortality, but that God chose to convey life sacramentally through it.  This is explicitly shown with the other tree.  They are told that if the eat of tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they will die, and that was sacramentally true, yet that was clearly not a physical fact.  It wasn’t that this tree had poisonous fruit, rather 2:6 says that the fruit was good fruit, physically speaking.  But if they ate of it, they would fall into sin and thus plunge themselves into a state of death.  So, the tree had a sacramental value in that it served to highlight what would happen in terms of man’s interaction with it in light of the covenant.  Notice, it’s not called the tree of death, which would be true for them only if they ate of it.  But it stood sacramentally as more than that, so that its name of the knowledge of good and evil was fitting in all circumstances.  If they did eat of the tree, they would in their sin come to have an experiential knowledge of good and evil by those who chose evil over good and suffered the consequences of their evil.  But if they did not eat of the forbidden tree, even resisting temptation to do so, they would experientially come to the knowledge of good over evil, and enjoy the reward of their goodness.  Either way, their state would be changed, either advanced in their knowledge, or debased in it.  And the tree played a real part in this change of state, though surely not because of some physical effect of eating its fruit.

So too then, surely, with the tree of life.  While this tree of life is mentioned first in 1:9, it is again mentioned in 3:22 after the fall into sin.  We are to understand that when Adam and Eve fell into sin, they had not yet eaten of this tree of life, but if they did eventually eat of it, it would somehow give to them an eternal life that they did not yet enjoy.  John Calvin’s described the tree as a  “sacrament as a guarantee of immortality”.  As they ate of it, they would be assured by God that he would give them such eternal life.  But since they broke the covenant by eating of the forbidden tree, they were no longer qualified under the terms of the covenant to partake of the tree of life.  Consequently, they are banished from the garden to keep them from that tree.

The fact that they apparently had not eaten of the tree of life yet, has led many a theologian to understand that what is going on here in the garden is a probation.  God was testing to see if they would live for good or for evil.  If they were confirmed as good, they would live.  If they chose to do evil, they would die.  The idea is that once they had passed the test and proven their righteousness by their works, then they would eventually have opportunity to partake of this tree of life and thus live forever.  So, the tree of life represented what they would be rewarded with after they had passed the test.

Let us then comment that this blessing of life and the curse of death is only begun to be revealed here in terms of its full significance.  The eternal life that Adam and his posterity would have to come have earned, was surely more than just a physical continuance in the state they began in.  Likewise, the death that God threatened would come upon them was surely more than just physically dying.  The eternal life would embody all that we learn elsewhere is in store for us as Christians who are saved by grace.  It will be in a paradise where there will be only good things, with no pain, sorrow, or death, with no more sin evermore, and God will dwell with us in a temple-like experience, and we will have glorified bodies.  Similarly, the eternal death would embody all that we learn elsewhere is in store for the ungodly.  That death is physical and spiritual, ultimately in a place of everlasting conscious punishment described as a lake of fire.  While those two final states are detailed elsewhere in the Bible, there are hints to both right here.  That such eternal life was more than just their current physical life can be found in how they would eventually be able to partake of the tree of life, suggesting something greater to come than their current life existence.  And that such death was more than just something physical is seen by the fact that on the day they eat of the forbidden tree they don’t immediately physically die, though they did begin to experience death that very day (Rom 8:10, Eph 2:5).  The promised blessing of life and the threatened curse of death held out in the covenant of works is something far more than just the mere physical life or death that we know of in this age.  The rest of the Bible makes this clearer, but it is here too in Genesis, that we should not understand the life and death here in a simplistic way.

So then, we have found here in Genesis that this arrangement between God and man has the general parts of a covenant, and so we can rightly recognize it as the covenant of works.  Sadly, man broke it and showed himself to be evil and not good.  Left to this state, none in Adam could be justified by works.  Rather, we would be declared evil and damned to God’s just wrath in an eternal death.  But praise be to God, here in this chapter we find the first expression of the covenant of grace. 

I refer then to Genesis 3:15.  There, speaking in terms of curse to the serpent, God says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”  Next week we’ll talk more of the serpent and how it was ultimately Satan behind this creature.  So realize what Genesis 3:15 is saying.  Surely, we shouldn’t take it as just some statement that people will hate snakes, and even sometimes get bit by them.  Surely, we are to see more here, that we are to see the demonic behind the snake.  If we understand this as ultimately a conflict between Satan and mankind, then we come to recognize 3:15 for what it is, namely, the first promise of the covenant of grace.

So understand 3:15 from that perspective.  It would then in the literal language look ahead to the future and see ongoing enmity between the serpent’s offspring and the women’s offspring.  In other words, it would see that there will be ongoing hostility and opposition between Satan with his allies, and us humans.  But there will one day come a descendant of Adam and Eve that will strike the head of the serpent’s descendant.  Yet, at the same time as that serpent’s head is struck, the serpent will be striking that descendant of Adam and Eve.  I would note that in ordinary circumstances, one might consider how such an encounter between a snake and a human could be deadly to both.  But when we think beyond mere outward snakes, we realize this is speaking of a final ultimate confrontation between Satan and a human.  That human would be Jesus.

In fact, this climactic confrontation happened at the cross of Jesus Christ.  There, the Scriptures tells us that it was Satan who was behind Judas Iscariot betraying Jesus to his death.  The cross was Satan lashing out to strike at the heel of Jesus, ultimately to kill him.  Yet, in the wonders of God’s plan, that was simultaneously Jesus delivering a death blow to Satan.  As 1 John 3:8 says, the reason Jesus came was to destroy the works of the devil.  Satan has become a defeated enemy, an already, not yet, death blow.  As Revelation 12:11 says, Satan has been conquered by the blood of Jesus.  And in a glorious turn of events, Jesus is raised from the dead in the ultimate demonstration of victory over the devil.

Now it is true that the cross of Jesus did more than just conquer Satan.  The cross also was a propitiatory offering to God for our sin, to turn away God’s wrath, and to put away the guilt of our sin.  God’s covenant of grace is able to fully save us from our fallen estate because of the fullness of what Jesus’ death on the cross meant for us.  But I think it quite fitting that the first promise of the gospel in the covenant of grace is a promise of this ancient serpent’s defeat.

In other words, as the Bible continues to unveil this covenant of grace, we learn that it is a way God brings salvation to those whom God would redeem.  It is not something that we work to get.  In other words, it is not something we earn.  We had that opportunity under the covenant of works and failed.  But this covenant of grace is the way that God brings salvation as a gift.  And he has told us ever since that if we want to be a beneficiary of this covenant of grace, then we need to have faith.  We need to believe that God will bring salvation by his grace in a redeemer.  The redeemer is prophesied and promised right here in Genesis 3:15.  From here, God’s people could begin to trust in faith that God would save them.  So that this death that they had begun to experience would not become consummated.  Rather they and we would be raised to eternal life out of this death, even like Jesus was raised from death to life!  So that we would yet enjoy the eternal life God had prepared for his image bearers.

So then, we have here in Genesis the framework for the whole Bible.  The two covenants of works and grace reveal to us both the law and the gospel.  In the covenant of works we have failed to merit eternal life and have instead earned eternal death.  But in God’s great grace, he has provided this way of salvation in Jesus our redeemer, by faith in his name.

So then, may this framework of covenant theology aid us in our study of the Scriptures.  May this framework aid us in distinguishing works from grace.  May this framework remind us of our failings and our need for God to save us.  May this framework remind us of God’s faithfulness to save us, even as he has covenantally sworn to us grace.  May this framework then assure us of that salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus.  And may this framework of covenant theology result in our praise of our Great and Gracious God. 


Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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