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What Are the Main Covenants?

When I was first introduced to Reformed covenant theology, things were really confusing. I kept trying to figure out how many covenants there were and how they related to one another. I was hearing ideas from a wide range of voices, but over time, I started to become more convinced of and more familiar with the classical, typical confessional view of covenant theology that we find perhaps best encapsulated and codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechisms, the Larger Catechism and the Shorter Catechism.

Quite simply, there are two main covenants that God establishes with mankind. The first is called the covenant of works. Sometimes it’s called the covenant of life or the covenant of creation. This is the covenant established in Genesis 2:16–17. In this passage, God commands Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for in the day that he would eat of it, he would surely die. That was a covenant.

Implicit in that covenant is also the promise of life. If Adam would have obeyed throughout the time of his probation, he would have entered into glorified, consummate life in the new heavens and new earth. If you’d like more details, we seek to demonstrate this exegetically in my course, Introduction to Covenant Theology.

But Adam did not successfully pass through his probation; he fell into sin. He broke the terms of that covenant and was cursed. And he brought all human kind into condemnation with him—all but our savior Jesus Christ. Jesus did not descend from Adam in terms of ordinary generation, but he was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. And praise be to God for that for now we have a redeemer.

Just as soon as Adam fell into sin and brought condemnation upon the whole human race, God promised a champion, a redeemer. He promised the seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent. Right there in Genesis 3, we learn of the promise of a new covenant, a covenant of salvation, a covenant of grace.

So there are two main covenants. All human beings find themselves in one or the other. Either in the covenant of works under the federal headship or representation of Adam as fallen or as a member of the covenant of grace as one who is redeemed by our lord and savior Jesus Christ. You can find this in many different passages throughout the scriptures, but perhaps most notably Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 15.

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