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Covenant Theology — A Primer

By my count, there are 164 churches in our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, with the word “Covenant” in their name. By the end of 2017, the PCA was comprised of 1,568 churches. Given all the options for naming a church, ten percent representation suggests to me that the idea of covenants is pretty important to us reformed and Presbyterian folk. But why are covenants so important to us? You’ll have to come to our Fall Theology Conference next week to find out. However, as a primer to the conference, I’ll spend a brief moment presenting a few general ideas about covenant theology. Hopefully this whets your appetite for next week.

Let’s cut to the chase. Why are covenants and covenant theology important to us? Dr. Ligon Duncan says, “Covenant Theology is the bible’s way of explaining: the atonement, the Christians’ assurance of salvation, sacraments, redemptive history, and the dynamic of God’s sovereignty and our human responsibility in living out the Christian life.” In short, covenant theology is important because it is the framework God has used to reveal his gracious plan of salvation.

If covenant theology is so important, then we should expect to see covenants at the center of the high points in Scripture. And that is, in fact, what we see. Think back to the flood in Genesis 6-9. The rainbow is the covenant sign that God will not destroy the earth again by flood (Gen 9:11). The relative stability of the seasons is an aspect of God’s covenant (Gen 8:22), and this stability points to God’s patience in judgment until all his chosen people have called upon his name (cf. 2 Pet 3:4-10). Covenant theology is thus central to our understanding of God’s patience in his plan of redemption.

But consider also that a covenant is at the center of the promises and sign given to Abraham in Genesis 15-17. The promise that all the nations would be blessed through Abraham and the sign of circumcision which gave assurance of the promise are tied together by a covenant ritual ceremony. Covenant theology is at the heart of the promise that would ultimately be fulfilled in Christ Jesus.

Finally, remember the words of our Lord as he instituted the Last Supper. “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Jesus uses covenantal language to explain the significance of his death. By these words, he ties language from Exodus 24 to language from Jeremiah 31. Covenant theology is thus a central way to understand the grand narrative of God’s plan of redemption that finds its climax in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Given the importance of covenant theology, two words on what covenant theology is not should be mentioned. Covenant theology is not a response to dispensationalism. While covenant theology speaks to the same issues as dispensationalism, it is not a reaction to that 19th century theology made popular in the Scofield reference Bible.

Covenant theology is also not a response to Baptists. Certainly it speaks to the reason why Presbyterians baptize infants, but it is not a reaction to believers-only baptism. In short, covenant theology is not a weapon employed against ideological adversaries. It is an honest look at the teaching Scripture to explain the framework of redemptive history.

By extension, the Fall Theology Conference is not a strategic assault on any reformed Baptists in the congregation. Rather, it is an opportunity for us to consider more carefully the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. It is an opportunity to grasp at the big picture of God’s work of salvation and how it can be that Adam and Jesus are connected. It is an opportunity to have all the more reason to give all glory, laud, and honor to our great God to the praise of his glorious grace.

So, I hope you will join us on October 13 and 14 for our Fall Theology Conference. We are blessed to have Dr. Nick Reid teaching on this subject for us. And since this is a primer for the conference, I’ll close out this reflection with a brief sketch of what Dr. Reid will be teaching.

In the morning session at 10:00 am on Saturday, October 13, Dr. Reid will present “The Ancient Near Eastern Backgrounds to Covenants.” The events of Scripture do not happen in a vacuum, so it is helpful to have some background. However, it’s always important to be mindful of the direction of influence between the world and Scripture.

In the evening session at 5:00 pm on Saturday, Dr. Reid will speak to us on the topic of the Abrahamic covenant. In “Father Abraham Had Many Sons: Our Father in the Faith?” he’ll present to us the importance of that covenant to us.

In Sunday school, Dr. Reid will present “What’s Love Got to Do With It: The Mosaic Covenant” as he lays out crucial teaching on the relevance of the Mosaic Covenant today.

On Sunday, Dr. Reid will preach on Isaiah 54:1-17 which presents God’s eternal covenant of peace that he promises to establish with his people. I do hope that you can join us and profit from this valuable opportunity to learn more about covenant theology.

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