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Covenants [1]

Among other instances of anthropomorphic forms of speech employed in Scripture is the use of the term covenant, to designate the divine dealings with mankind, or with individuals of the race. In all such cases, the proper idea of a covenant or mutual contract between parties, each of which is bound to render certain benefits to the other, is obviously excluded, and one of a merely analogical nature substituted in its place. Where God is one of the parties, and man the other, in a covenant, all the benefits conferred must be on the part of the former, and all the obligations sustained on the part of the latter. Such a definition, therefore, of a divine covenant as would imply that both parties are under conditions to each other is obviously incorrect, and incompatible with the relative position of the parties. We should prefer defining God's covenant with man as a gracious engagement on the part of God to communicate certain unmerited favors to men, in connection with a particular constitution or system, through means of which these favors are to be enjoyed. Hence in Scripture the covenant of God is called His 'counsel,' His 'oath,' His 'promise' (;;;; , etc.); and it is described as consisting wholly in the gracious bestowal of blessing on men . Hence also the application of the term covenant to designate such fixed arrangements, or laws of nature, as the regular succession of day and night , and such religious institutions as the Sabbath circumcision the Levitical institute and in general any precept or ordinance of God all such appointments forming part of that system or arrangement in connection with which the blessings of God's grace were to be enjoyed.

The divine covenants were ratified with the sacrifice of a peculiar victim, the design of which was to show that without an atonement there would be no communication of blessing from God to man. Thus when God made a covenant with Abraham certain victims were slain and divided into halves, between which a smoking furnace and a burning lamp, the symbols of the divine presence, passed, to indicate the ratification of the promises conveyed in that covenant to Abraham; and here it is deserving of notice, as illustrating the definition of a divine covenant above given, that the divine glory alone passed between the pieces; whereas had the covenant been one of mutual stipulation, Abraham also would have performed the same ceremony . In like manner, the Levitical covenant was ratified by sacrifice and the Apostle expressly affirms, on this ground, the necessity of the death of Christ, as the mediator of the new covenant; declaring that where a covenant is, there also of necessity must be the death of the appointed victim .

Of the divine covenants mentioned in Scripture the first place is due to that which is emphatically styled by Jehovah 'My covenant.' This is God's gracious engagement to confer salvation and eternal glory on all who come to Him through Jesus Christ. It is called sometimes 'the everlasting covenant' , to distinguish it from those more temporary arrangements which were confined to particular individuals or classes; and the second, or new, or better covenant, to distinguish it from the Levitical covenant, which was first in order of time, because first ratified by sacrifice, and became old, and was shown to be inferior, because on the appearance of the Christian dispensation it was superseded, and passed away (;;;;; ). Though this covenant was not, strictly speaking, ratified before the death of Christ, the great sacrificial victim , yet it was revealed to the saints who lived before His advent, and who enjoyed salvation through the retrospective power of His death . To the more highly favored of these, God gave specific assurances of His gracious purpose, and on such occasions He was said to establish or make His covenant with them. Thus He established His covenant with Noah with Abraham and with David . These were not distinct covenants, so much as renewals of the promises of the everlasting covenant, coupled with certain temporal favors, as types and pledges of the fulfillment of these promises.

The old or Sinaitic covenant was that given by God to the Israelites through Moses. It respected especially the inheritance of the land of Canaan, and the temporal blessings therewith connected; but it stood related to the new covenant, as embodying a typical representation of those great truths and blessings which the Christian dispensation unfolds and conveys.

In the system of a certain class of theologians great importance is attached to what they have technically called 'the covenant of works.' By this they intend the constitution established by God with Adam, during the period of his innocence. So far as this phraseology is not understood to imply that man, even in his sinless state, was competent to bind Jehovah by any conditions, it cannot be objected to. It seems also to have the sanction of one passage of Scripture, viz. , which almost all the best interpreters agree in rendering thus: 'But they like Adam have transgressed the covenant.'

Theologians have also spoken of 'the covenant of redemption,' by which they mean an engagement entered into between God the Father and God the Son from all eternity, whereby the former secured to the latter a certain number of ransomed sinners, as his church or elect body, and the latter engaged to become their surety and substitute. By many the propriety of this doctrine has been doubted; but the references to it in Scripture are of such a kind that it seems unreasonable to refuse to admit it. With it stand connected the subjects of election, predestination, the special love of Christ to his people, and the certain salvation of all that the Father hath given him.

Sometimes a mere human contract is called God's covenant, in the sense of involving an appeal to the Almighty, who, as the Judge of the whole earth, will hold both parties bound to fulfill their engagement. Compare;; .