The Everlasting Covenant

Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

This is the first promise made to Abram by God, concerning those aspects of the promise given in Genesis 3:15, in which the Seed of the woman will ultimately bring about the grace of God to all nations through that Seed, which is Jesus Christ. [1]

Historically and Biblically, this is looked upon, in Covenant Theology, as the historical establishment of the Covenant of Grace; however, the covenant made with Abraham is not mentioned until Genesis 15:18, and the rudiments of that covenant, when it is mentioned, are the promises of the land for the people which shall spring out of Abraham’s loins. This is set forth in Genesis 17:

Genesis 17:7-13: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.

There has been much great study, and subsequently much written, on the nature of what constitutes a covenant in Scripture, therefore it is not the intention of this article to explore that which has been so adroitly handled by many qualified men of God throughout the history of the church. What will be looked at is the difference between a promise of God (particularly “the promise,” as given in seed form in Genesis 3:15, and fleshed out in the promises to Abraham concerning his seed), and a covenant of God. Particularly, we will explore the meaning of “everlasting covenant” as it occurs in the cited verses, with the aid of Scripture, both those under consideration, and subsequent revelation which clarifies the understanding of the words “promise” and “everlasting.” That these terms must be considered in the context of that covenant in which they occur should be needless to mention, for, according to the analogia fides [2] (analogy of faith) and the analogia Scripturae [3] (analogy of Scripture), there is clearer light to be shed on every aspect of Scripture which is difficult to determine in and of itself; i.e., Scripture interprets Scripture, and the overall theology of Scripture, being consistent in and of itself as that which determines our faith and practice, clarifies itself in consideration of the organic whole.

We have also already shown this relation of the words rendered “everlasting” and “eternal,” in regards to the historical covenants God has made with mankind, in a former blog article entitled “Forever in Scripture and Covenant Language,” [4] which should be of some value to the reader regarding the usage of this word.

Now, concerning God’s words to Abraham in the first instance, it must be noted that this was not the institution of the Covenant of Grace with Abraham, but contained both the seed of that former promise in the Garden, regarding the woman’s seed, and the seeds of that covenant which God would establish with Abraham in the latter instance. In the establishment of the covenant with Abraham, God tells him that He shall establish His covenant with Abraham’s seed, Isaac (Genesis 17:19, 21), in direct contradiction to the prayer of Abraham to God that Ishmael might live before God (Genesis 17:18).

Now, we know that Ishmael was considered before God from these verses, and that his seed was established after him, pertaining to becoming a great nation, and fathering twelve princes; however, although Ishmael was considered before God, and even a part of the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 17:28), it was not with a view to that election through which all the nations and peoples of the world would be blessed, so, at least regarding Ishmael, there was an application of the covenant made with Abraham which did not encompass and insure the eternal life and attendant blessings with which the people, land, nation and kingdom of God’s (elect) people would be further demonstrated through additional covenants. (5) It must also be insisted upon, at this point, that those who were foreigners who were added to the covenant were also not necessarily encompassed in the promises of the Covenant of Grace. It can be said that this is a foreshadowing of those of the church of Christ which would be encompassed within the Covenant of Grace who were not of ethnic, national Israel, but a foreshadow is not the substance, anymore than a promise is a covenant (Colossians 2:17; Hebrews 8:5-6; Galatians 3:17-18). This can also be applied to ethnic, national Israel, who, though receiving so much by way of covenants God made with them, were, of themselves, not all necessarily encompassed within that which the apostle denotes as not being of Israel, although descended, according to the flesh, from Abraham (Romans 9:1-8). That this is a clear delineation between the spiritual seed of Abraham (and so spiritual Israel) and the fleshly seed of Abraham (and so ethnic, national Israel), none will deny.

The question naturally arises: Are all who are of the natural seed encompassed within the eternal covenant given to Abraham, in regard to that spiritual Seed, who is Christ?

The apostle again gives an answer in the negative to this question:

Galatians 3:16: Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his seed. It does not say, “And to seeds,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your seed,” who is Christ.

It must also be noted that the promises were that which within the New Covenant were, in shadow form, then present, especially from consideration of the verses we have cited; therefore, the Abrahamic Covenant itself, although given with promises, was not the ratification of that Covenant of Grace which we now know to be the New Covenant in Christ’s blood, and to this, the writer to the Hebrews gives irrefutable evidence:

Hebrews 9:15-18: For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives. Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood.

It is therefore without controversy that the Covenant of Grace, in order to be ratified in God’s redemptive history, was in need of the death of the testator for that ratification. Historically, it cannot be said, with any degree of truth, that the historic ratification of the Covenant of Grace took place before the death of He who inaugurated it by His life, and sealed it by His death. Likewise, the shadowy form of the Sinaitic Covenant is shown to be that which showed, by such types and figures, the pattern, but not the substance, of that heavenly covenant which God alone gave and sanctioned in His Son.

Now, the phrase, everlasting covenant (or eternal covenant), as it pertains to that covenant made with Abraham by God, must be ascertained with regard to the elements of which it pertained; I do not say that such must be done regarding the promises made to Abraham concerning God blessing all the earth in his Seed, which is Christ, and in whom we are incorporated, by His life, death, and resurrection, to be of that spiritual seed of the spiritual Israel (which also means the spiritual seed of Abraham), for I trust that has been well established, as to its meaning.

That there was the reemphasizing and expansion, in the Abrahamic Covenant, of the promise made to the woman after the fall, none will doubt or take exception to; that this was yet in shadow, as to the final form in which our Savior and Lord was and is the surety and substance concerning, none will doubt, either. Again we note, however, that a shadow, however expanded it may be, is not the substance of the antitype which it represents in less clear form, so we say that the promises in the Abrahamic Covenant, regarding the historical entry into actual form, concerning the Covenant of Grace, could not be that which our final Testator Himself sealed with His own life blood.

What, then, does it mean, when God tells Abraham that He has made an everlasting covenant with him? Since it is not the redemptive historical entry and finalizing of that Covenant of Grace promised by God immediately after the fall of man, but, rather, a furthering of that promise (as indeed all the historic covenants hold shadows of various shades of that which our Savior alone gave form too), what, exactly, was eternal about the covenant itself?

Since the terms of a covenant that God makes with man determine the contextual meaning of the words we find in Scripture regarding that covenant, it is important to note that the covenant made with Abraham was deemed eternal in regards to the context of his offspring which would inherit the land of Canaan. We see this in the above cited text of Genesis 17. Furthermore, the seed of Abraham which would be bound to the terms of this covenant are identified, in that text, as those who would be circumcised in their flesh – this is coextensive with the promise of the land and temporal blessings of being in the land in obedience to God, according to the conditions He set forth. This is why the Abrahamic Covenant is also referred to, in later Scripture, as the covenant of circumcision (Acts 7:8).

Therefore, this covenant contained, as its main condition, that of being circumcised in the flesh, and from Scripture, we understand that this sign of circumcision carried with it an obligation to follow and obey the Lord, to the extent that He had revealed Himself and His precepts at that time, which is explained by God in Genesis 18:19: “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” The promise referenced here is not the seed comprised of the yet-unrealized, yet-unratified CoG, but the inheritance of the land of Canaan (which is a type of that which is to come, and we know that types are not intended to last, but point to and somewhat define the substance of the antitype they represent). Thus, at this point, eternal covenant is not intended to go beyond the terms of the covenant God gives to Abraham (which covenant is not coextensive with the eternal promise of the CoG), which terms were all temporal, and context demands that the understanding of eternal, within the bounds of this particular, temporal covenant, must be understood as referring to these terms and conditions, so that the definition of the word at this point should be understood as applying to the people as long as the economy of that particular covenant was operational. This covenant was eternal in the sense that it applied to the fleshly seed and the spiritual seed of the first gospel promise, which promise was also reiterated (but not ratified by the death of the testator) in further, yet still shadowy form, to Abraham, but it was eternal to both seeds as a covenant in the sense that it was to them throughout their generations, according to the sign in the flesh, and the obedience they rendered God, without which said sign and obedience the covenant would be broken.

In the second sense, it may be said it represented that CoG which was yet to be ratified in redemptive history by the coming Seed who would bruise the serpents head, but since this part of the Abrahamic Covenant was given in promissory form only (a covenant must be ratified by the blood of the sacrifice, and in the sense of the culmination of the CoG, this also was by that new and better wayHebrews 7:22; 9:11-15), it has reference to that which was to come, not in a temporal sense, but in that exact eternal sense contained within the promise. Since the promise had been in effect, it was neither nullified nor changed by the Abrahamic and other historic covenants (such as Sinai, mentioned in the context of the above quoted Scripture), but had reference to that which was yet to come. Thus, all the great Reformed Confessions state that none were ever saved to eternal life but by this same CoG, by its promise prior to ratification, and by its real presence and substance afterwards – (see Chapters 7 of the WCF, Savoy Declaration [hereafter SD] and LBCF 2) [6].

This, however, is the thrust and sense of our article, which should already be apparent to the reader: Whereas the WCF and SD declare it to be properly administered, as to its substance, within the various historic covenants in diverse manners, the LBCF 2 declares that this administration of the substance was done not according to the historic covenants having that substance in and of themselves, but of the original promise in the protoevangelium. That is, the promises of spiritual blessing contained within (but distinct from) the Abrahamic Covenant are of the same nature as the first promise of the gospel in Genesis 3:15, and the substance of all these promises, while being within the historic covenants, concerning the elect of all ages of the church of God, remained in promissory form (as we have said above). These promises alone containing the substance of the CoG, they alone were of the first promise and subsequent types and shadows in further historic covenants, not as pertaining to the covenantally established substance of each of the historic covenants, which, while containing the promise of the CoG – that the graces and blessings of eternal life in Christ were administered to the elect recipients in all ages – nevertheless, themselves, were not that confirmation or administration of the original CoG, especially as pertaining to their exact substance, whether under the formative historic covenants, or subsequent to the historic establishment of the CoG in the New Covenant of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, it cannot be said that this substance of the CoG was necessarily contained within, or the same, as the substance of any of the historic covenants, including but not limited to the Abrahamic. This is because these covenants, while holding within them, in various shades, forms, and promises, the substance of the original promise, were themselves to give that present form to the church which God decreed for the bringing about of said promise as a formal covenant. This they did, utilizing various religious and moral forms in types and shadows which represented the ongoing efficacy of the promise without, themselves, being of the same substance of that promise, their substance being of an entirely different nature which would pass away when that which was the ratified CoG, which we call the New Covenant, came into existence in redemptive history at the proper time, as we have noted, and which is further proven by various Scriptures of the New Testament (1 Timothy 2:5-6; Titus 1:2-3).

This is why the apostle calls the historic covenants the covenants of promise (Ephesians 2:12), because in those historic covenants, the promise was inherent, having its own substance, but not of the same substance as the historic covenants themselves. These historic covenants were, broadly speaking and reiterating, for the purpose of bringing about the realization of those promises, specifically of the new covenant as a formal covenant in particular, when and by the One who did ratify the CoG came into this world.

In this sense, all the historic covenants contained, in seed form, the promise, additionally defined by various and further promises, types and shadows within these covenants, which covenants may be understood to be types and shadows of that final covenant themselves. If we apply the appellation eternal or everlasting to any of the historic covenants, in the sense in which they would last into and after the eschaton, we do a disservice to the contextual usage of the word within those historical covenant perimeters, for it is plain, as to their own substance and the administration thereof, they were only intended as vehicles which would bring about the final form of the CoG in the New Covenant of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is true of the promise; it never was true of any of the historic covenants themselves until that final historic covenant made actual by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Until such a time, the historic covenants themselves never were intended to save any unto eternal life, so that the words eternal and everlasting were to be understood within the boundaries set forth by the very context of those covenants. Having such contexts, the perimeters were defined and set forth by God.

In our concluding thoughts, two things must be again stressed: 1. regarding the understanding put forth, in Scripture, concerning the words eternal and everlasting, as applied to the historic covenants through which the promise of the Redeemer was carried, these words must be understood as referring, regarding the substance of each historic covenant, to that economy which God brought about to insure the line of the Redeemer, and when said economy ceased to function in such a manner, that was the terminus to which these words referred, regarding finite ends they were to insure. This sense of the words only relates to the substance of each historic covenant, not that initial promise of the protoevangelium, which is to say, not their own substance, since the historic covenants were to bring about the people, land, nation and kingdom through which the promise of the Redeemer would be, ultimately, fulfilled. Once these historic covenants were fulfilled regarding bringing about the people, land, nation and kingdom through which the Redeemer would come, their particular functions, being fulfilled, ceased, at the proper time appointed by God to establish His CoG in historic, redemptive form as the New Covenant of our Lord Jesus Christ. 2. That which was truly eternal, or everlasting, of the historic covenants was never other than the promise of the Redeemer, which alone had, and has, that eternal substance that none of the historic covenants had as their primary substance to administer, since their form fulfilled a finite end subservient to the eternal end realized in the coming of the Redeemer. The CoG was not a formal covenant until the birth, life and death of the testator, the Lord Jesus Christ. In this manner, that which is said of the Abrahamic Covenant (in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed) was and is realized not within the context, or of the substance of the Abrahamic Covenant itself, but in the true everlasting covenant which was contained only in promissory form within that covenant with Abraham (Galatians 3:8).

In Christ Jesus, our God established as a formal covenant, in His redemptive history, the CoG promised since the fall in Adam, as decreed from before the foundation of the world. None other covenant had the administration of this except by types, shadows and promises which expanded the original CoG promise. Thus, the only formal administration of this CoG is realized in the New Covenant of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was only administered in such types, shadows and promissory form until that final, formalized covenant should be set forth.

Soli Deo Gloria – Bill

[1] Many thanks to my brothers in Christ Brandon Solberg and Patrick McWilliams for reading this and offering their suggestions.

[2] The analogy of faith; the use of a general sense of the meaning of Scripture, constructed from the clear or unambiguous loci (q.v., locus), as the basis for interpreting unclear or ambiguous texts. As distinct from the more basic analogia Scripturae (q.v.), the analogia fidei presupposes a sense of the theological meaning of Scripture. Richard A. Muller. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Kindle Locations 325-326). Kindle Edition

[3] Analogy of Scripture; the interpretation of unclear, difficult, or ambiguous passages of Scripture by comparison with clear and unambiguous passages that refer to the same teaching or event. SE analogia fides – Richard A. Muller. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Kindle Locations 327-328). Kindle Edition.

[4] Available for viewing on Means Of Grace, Forever in Scripture and Covenant Language, published 1/16/2014 by the author

[5] This is expressed as “further steps” in Chap. 7.3 of the 1689 LBCF, regarding how God progressively revealed the CoG in promissory, shadowy and typical form until such a time as that substance contained within the promises of the historic covenants was, itself, brought forth in redemptive history through the person and work of Christ.

[6] The 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith; The 1658 Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order, and The 1677/1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith

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One thought on “The Everlasting Covenant

  1. Pingback: Answering An Arminian Objection-1 | Reformedontheweb's Blog

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