For the one who reads their Bible the concept of covenant is found cover to cover. It is not simply located in the Hebrew and Greek words translated “covenant” in English (berit and diatheke, respectively). The concept of covenant goes far deeper into the biblical drama than what appears on the textual surface. Indeed, this is how God works and reveals himself – through bonding covenants of sacred origin to a people he calls by name into his gracious kingdom.
Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele with their book Sacred Bond, in a clear and concise manner, have brought together the elemental themes of the Bible in less than one-hundred fifty pages. On showcase in this work is the covenant making, triune God. The Father in the Son by the Spirit works through covenants. The Reformed tradition calls this Covenant Theology, which is in the subtitle of Brown and Keele’s labor of love, Covenant Theology Explored. This is exactly what they undertake to do for today’s inquirers.
Considering the Attention Span Of Today
Those more familiar with the Bible and church history would recognize that this book is not a 17th century treatise on the subject. (Recall, it is less than one-hundred fifty pages!) There may not be extensive detail on every intricacy of doctrine, but that is where the value lies. Even with its short length, it does not fail to explore the theological depths of Covenant Theology. Do not let this swift page-turner fool you. Each jot and tittle brings forth a bounty of precious, doxological truth.
This book is ideal for our modern context. In the current age of screens and the drive to be entertained, a book like Sacred Bond is up to the task. It is written without overly technical terms of theology, but does not skimp on meaning. When certain necessary terms are used, they are thoroughly explained in meekness. The oft-bored, less-than-apt reader should not be worried. In its nine chapters not a single one exceeds twenty pages. This does well for dwindling attention spans.
Short And Sweet: An Introduction
The first chapter of Sacred Bond is an introduction to the concept of covenant found throughout God’s dealings with his creatures in the Bible. As noted above, covenant is found often and readily in Hebrew and in Greek, and the concept is also found in related themes powerfully hidden in Scripture’s pages (Brown & Keele 11-12). At the beginning of this intro, some analogous comparisons of the biblical covenants to what humans experience everyday are given: government and law, marriage and family, parents with children and their neighbors––all have a relational-legal bond. The authors define it this way: “A covenant is a formal agreement that creates a relationship with legal aspects” (B&K 12). The idea of covenant is not just all around us in multiple facets of life, but it nevertheless makes up the “very fabric” of the Bible – “God’s chosen framework” of revelation (B&K 12).
Understanding the covenant concept with this common background for our modern minds, the authors then briefly show the contextual background of the writers of the Old Testament. The Ancient Near East nations were often compiling documents (treaties) to form covenants, between the power-Suzerain-kingdoms and the ruled-vassal-peoples (document forms which Israel models in its own writing and God uses as a means to accommodate to them his supreme sovereignty in calling them a nation unto himself). These treaty-covenants carried with them a Preamble identifier, a Historical Prologue describing the supreme’s benevolent action, Stipulations and Sanctions between the higher and lower parties, Documents for witness of the treaty-covenant, and a Ritual-Ceremony to ratify as official the new binding law (Michael Horton 23-28; Meredith Kline 8-137).
In the context of Israel within the Ancient Near East, and with the examples of today, Brown and Keele further define the covenant concept: “[A] covenant is a solemn agreement with oaths and/or promises, which imply certain sanctions or legality” (B&K 18). It is important to discern in these covenants then the parties involved, for in the biblical covenants it makes a difference. Some of these covenants are between equals, and some are between unequals. It is in this distinction––and how these covenants are administered in history––with the various terminologies of covenant and its synonyms, that God rules his creation-kingdom and his redemptive-kingdom of new creation (B&K 19-21).
Rightly and logically, Brown and Keele go through the biblical covenant system chronologically, that is, in the order of the canon of Scripture, but also in the order of redemptive-historical. In the chapter division, the canonical-historical covenants of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the New Covenant follow the redemptive-historical covenants of redemption, works/creation, and grace. Before a brief look at these covenants, a quick note is needed on how well the authors have compiled the chapters describing these covenants. Each chapter is outlined in similar fashion. After some introductory words, a brief biblical-theological description is given on each covenant. Some exegetical-biblical support from Scripture texts follow. A most helpful inclusion is a section explaining the importance of the doctrine for the Christian life. This is the book’s most vital asset for today. Finally, to aid in what comes before it, a helpful list of questions are proposed at the end of the chapter for further reflection.
Covenant of Redemption
The Pactum Salutis is the covenant that envelopes all other covenants. This pact is located in the eternal, intratrinitarian counsel of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to redeem by grace a people out of fallen humanity, or as the authors put it, “God’s blueprint for our salvation” (B&K 25). Established in this foundational covenant is actually the two covenants that follow in God’s revelation: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace (B&K 27; J. V. Fesko 131-140). As is seen in later chapters and throughout Covenant Theology generally, all the covenants subsume under this sure foundation from before time. This is important because, “If you are a Christian, it is because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit covenanted together in eternity to save you” (B&K 39). That is a blessed assurance.
Covenant of Works
The covenant of works, or covenant of creation (as it is also called, along with the commandment of life [Belgic Confession 14]), speaks of God’s covenantal creative acts and the decree for his special creature Adam (and Eve) to serve him as rulers of the terrain. What God speaks into existence and now exists, in turn, owes God for their existence. Adam and Eve as the image-bearers of God have a special role to fill, and this according to covenant: “At creation, God commits himself to his creation to sustain them and be God to them. So also, being created in the image of God by necessity obligates Adam to God” (B&K 45). Since creation was pronounced very good by God, Adam – as the head of all humanity – was actually able to carry out all of God’s commands, with the promise of eschatological Sabbath-life upon success of his work. Instead failure occurred at the judgement tree. The resulting divine intrusion in the Spirit of the Day’s judgment-administration issued forth the covenant of grace, beginning the progression of time for the covenant of redemption to be enacted in the fullness of time. In a word, “The covenant of grace is the historical outworking of God’s eternal plan of salvation in the covenant of redemption” (B&K 61).
Covenant of Grace
The Covenant of Works bares heavily on our understanding of the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ (B&K 57-58). Nevertheless, grace begins in Genesis 3. “Although it has been administered differently during different epochs of redemptive history, its substance remains the same in all periods” (B&K 60). This is a great way of succinctly describing this one covenant of salvation since the Fall. This boils down to the fact that Christ is the Mediator of this better covenant––the covenant Surety of the eternal Pactum for his people through all of time. Old Testament saints are saints because of Jesus the Messiah. Both in Abraham’s day and in our own, we are of the same church, the one body of Christ. This covenant is one of grace because of Jesus, who came to fulfill the Pactum, the counsel of peace, taking and fulfilling the role of Adam as the better second Adam, whom likewise bears the punishment that all deserve under the broken covenant of works, but to those who by faith believe, he gives the right by his righteousness to eternal life as children (B&K 62). This is good news (B&K 71-73)!
Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the New Covenant
These covenants are made by God under the dispensation of the covenant of grace with the covenant of works in the background, meaning, that the works required for life (perpetual, personal, and perfect [WLC 93]) were always in effect, but after the Fall impossible to attain, and since Genesis 3:15, wrath was averted and the way of salvation is now always by grace through the covenant’s Mediator (who performed the covenant of works absolutely). The one exception is the Noahic covenant with all creation. Before the flood, Noah and his family is saved by a graceful covenant already established. After the waters receded and the dry ground appeared, God renews another covenant with all of creation, not to destroy it again with a deluge. This is sovereign graciousness, but not redemptive grace.
The authors go on to talk about the Abrahamic covenant, the two stages of its fulfillment, and how the underlying covenant of grace is applied to households (B&K 88-91). This covenant ties right into the next one, for the Mosaic is the first stage fulfillment of Abraham’s promise (B&K 94-95). The Mosaic broadly is a gracious administration, driving the people to Christ, but it is also a covenant of Law (B&K 104-108). It acts to teach in place for the historical fulfillment of the second stage of Abraham’s promise, which later on is also David’s promise––that the Son of David would come to initiate the New Covenant and new creation, with an everlasting throne and kingdom heirs, fulfilling all prophecy (B&K 95-97, 125, 137-139; Kline 332).
This New Covenant work is really one that spans all of redemptive history (B&K 142). This is the covenant of grace fulfilled for God’s people by their Mediator Christ Jesus, who fulfills the covenant of works where Adam failed, likewise fulfilling the covenant of redemption. Those in Christ are in a covenant of grace – now termed, the New Covenant. The difference in this covenant is the permanence of Christ as Mediator and the Holy Spirit poured out as re-Creator (B&K 139-141). This has far-reaching implications for all of life, and indeed, all of creation.
This short little book is much needed in the church today. It seems that little is known about Covenant Theology outside of the Reformed tradition. The doctrines contained within Covenant Theology may even be reckoned a curse word in most evangelical churches in America! This should not be, and this book helps to rectify any false notions.
The last section of the last chapter details some great reasons why understanding the New Covenant, with reference to the full discussion of the covenants that came before it, is important for the Christian life today (B&K 148-152). The triune God has fulfilled all his promises. Prophecy and the covenants have been kept. His kingdom has come and is upheld, even today, with a glorious future everlasting ahead! The kingdom is wrapped up in covenant, “because God is accomplishing the consummation according to a pre-determined plan” (Herman Ridderbos 518). Thus salvation, life, and the kingdom are sure and one in the Trinity (Geerhardus Vos 304-316). The focal point is Christ, the covenant-keeper, King of the kingdom, “in whom God brings the salvation, and in whose exaltation he will establish his kingdom with power” because, “God is busy fulfilling the promise and realizing the consummation” (Ridderbos 523).
Sacred Bond is doing its part in advancing the kingdom of God. A fuller approach to the Bible through an understanding of the covenants is needed, and this short, stimulating book is doing just that. It deserves to go further than just the English language! And it has––already published in Chinese, Korean, and Italian. In the preface to this second edition of Sacred Bond (2016), the authors mention the translation work into Spanish with the help of Dr. Charles Telfer, formerly professor of languages at Westminster Seminary California (B&K 8). With much excitement, just as recent as November of 2019, the book has been released into Spanish, entitled Vinculo Sagrado. Now a host of Spanish-speaking-only Christians can learn of these doctrines of the covenant, the triune God’s revealed faithful work.
Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele have done a tremendous job with this short-but-deep, praiseworthy book. But as the pages of this work will tell you, and the authors would confirm it as well, that upon reading the words contained therein, one can only respond in praise to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit––the God who faithfully keeps covenant.
Brown, Michael G., Keele, Zach. Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored. 2nd ed. U.S.A: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 2017.
Fesko, J. V. The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption. Ross-shire, GB: Mentor, 2016.
Horton, Michael S. Introducing Covenant Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker books, 2009.
Kline, Meredith G. Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006.
Ridderbos, Herman N. The Coming of the Kingdom. Jongste, H. de, trans. Zorn, Raymond O., ed. Philadelphia, PA: P&R Publishing, 1962.
Vos, Geerhardus. Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos. Gaffin Jr., Richard B., ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980.