Over the past few weeks, I’ve discussed covenant theology with a number of people, and have found that even those who say they definitely hold to it actually have a hard time articulating what covenant theology is. I thought I’d put together a concise overview to help.
So then covenant theology sees the whole story of redemption as a single story. And the covenantal structure of redemptive history could be summarized this way:
The various covenants of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and the promises of them are distributed to the people of God.
1. The Various Covenants of the Old Testament
There are four main covenants that carry along the story of the OT, and a fifth is foretold. These covenants are distinct and yet unified. Each grows organically out of the one before it. The first promise of hope is that a seed of the women would crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). This promise offers hope, but gives very little content. The covenants then begin to gradually specify the content of that first word of hope.
The first covenant is the covenant with Noah (Gen 9:1-17). God promises to delay judgment on the whole earth. This covenant establishes the context in which subsequent covenants will unfold: delayed judgment. O. Palmer Robertson calls this the covenant of preservation.
The second covenant is the covenant with Abraham (Gen 15:1-21). The covenant of Genesis 15 enacts the composite promise of Gen 12:1-2: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.” This is a three-part promise: 1) land, people, blessing. The land is Canaan, the people are the offspring of Abraham, what will become the nation of Israel. The Lord calls this an everlasting covenant (Gen 17:7-8). Robertson calls this the covenant of promise.
The third covenant is the covenant with Moses (Ex 23; Deut 29). The promises of this covenant are the same as the promises of the covenant with Abraham. But the covenant with Moses introduces something new: the law. And this covenant is conditional. If Israel obeys the law, they will be blessed (Deut 28:1ff). If they disobey the law they will be cursed (Deut 28:15ff). Robertson calls this the covenant of law.
The fourth covenant is the covenant with David (2 Sam 7). This covenant reaffirms the promises of prior covenants, “I will appoint a place for my people Israel.” But God adds a particular promise for David, “Your throne shall be established forever.” The line of David will possess an eternal throne. Robertson calls this the covenant of kingdom.
The fifth covenant, the new covenant, is only foretold in the Old Testament ( Jer 31:31-34; cf. Jer 32:27-44; 50:4f; Ezek 16:60-63; 37:15-28). Robertson calls this the covenant of consummation (as it is fulfilled in Jesus Christ).
2. Fulfilled in Jesus Christ
Jesus enacts and fulfills this new covenant. But since covenantalism sees the new covenant fulfilled in Jesus as the covenant of consummation, this means that by fulfilling the new covenant, he is also fulfilling the previous covenants. So the general principle is this: Christ is the fulfillment of the whole covenant of redemption, which was expressed in various stages through the covenants of the OT.
- And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Lk 24:27)
- These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. (Lk 24: 44-45)
- For all the promises of God find their Yes in him (2 Cor 1:20)
So that’s the general principle, but it then remains to be asked, in what sense does Jesus fulfill the covenant(s) and what are the implications of his fulfillment of them.
Jesus is the true Israel. A primary sense in which Jesus fulfills the covenant is that he is true Israel. Matthew presents him as the new Israel (e.g. Matt 2:15). And Paul makes it explicit, Jesus is the offspring of Abraham. “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Gal 2:16).
This is why the term “replacement theology” is inaccurate. The term usually refers to the idea that the church (made up of NT Christians) replaces Israel. But covenant theology does not believe this. Rather, Jesus fulfills Israel, and then Christians are those who find their identity in Jesus.
This means the true heir of the three-part promise to Abraham is Jesus himself. His people are all who follow him by faith. His land is the new heavens and new earth over which he will rule. And his blessing is being perfectly accepted by the Father (Matt 3:17). Ethnic Israel will not receive the land between the rivers (Gen 15:18), because this promise has been fulfilled by something even greater: Jesus receives all things as his inheritance. (However, in another sense it would be accurate to say, “Israel will receive the land between the rivers,” see below).
Jesus is also the descendant of David who sits on the throne forever. This is why the writers to the Hebrews interprets Psalm 110 and Psalm 8 as describing the reign of Jesus: “Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death” (Heb 2:8-9). He is the king who reigns. Though we don’t see it fully just yet, the day is coming when we most certainly will.
So Jesus is the true Israel and the true David, and we could show many other ways in which Jesus is fulfillment of OT covenants and promises. But then what are the implications of Jesus fulfilling these things?
3. Distributed to the People of God
The promises of the covenant are distributed to the people of God. Christians are not the heirs of the promise, but co-heirs. Christians get in on covenant promises only because they are “in Christ” who himself fulfilled the covenants.
So Paul identifies the people of God, those who receive the promises, as those who are in Christ. At the same time, he points out that many who are ethnic Jews should not even be called “Israel.” So not all Israel is Israel. And some who are not Israel actually are Israel. Confusing? It shouldn’t be. Paul is simply introducing a better principle for understanding the “Israel” category: it is a spiritual category, not an ethnic one. Consider the following:
- Rom 2:28-29, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.  But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter”
- Romans 9:6-7, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,  and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring…  This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise that are counted as offspring.”
- Galatians 2:25-29, But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian,  for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith…  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
The promises are for the people of God, as they have always been. For instance, think about the promise of land, made to Abraham, then further specified under the Mosaic covenant. Paul envisions that promise as the future hope of all those who are in Christ (consider Rom 8:18-25).
So Miguel Echevarria says,
Paul envisions the inheritance to be the renewed earth. The apostle does not see a spiritualized existence as his future hope, for he looks forward to what his forefathers, such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had anticipated for centuries: a physical, eternal inheritance under the reign of the promised Messiah. This vision is not exclusive to Paul; it is the vision of the saints who came before him.The Future Inheritance of the Land in Pauline Epistles
So, a covenantal understanding of the promise would agree with the statement, “In the future, Israel will receive the land between the rivers.” But would want to make these clarifications. First, not all Israel are Israel (Rom 9:6-8). Second, Some who are not Israel actually are Israel (Rom 2:25-29; Gal 2:26). Third, in addition to the land between the rivers, this newly defined “Israel” will also receive the whole world, the renewed earth.
Obviously much more could be said about each of these points, but my goal is just to provide a concise summary statement of covenantalism. The various-yet-unified covenants of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and the promises of those covenants are distributed to the people of God, that is, all those who are in Christ. The structure is built around Jesus, who in his life, death and resurrection is the culmination of God’s redemptive plan. The story of redemption is all about the work of God in Christ redeeming his people. The whole story is a single story.