Understanding Covenant


One of the key features of Christian faith is the fact that God invites us into a covenant relationship with himself. What is a covenant? In short, a covenant is a radical commitment to a person. 

By contrast, a contract is an agreement with a person, but it is a commitment to a mutually agreed-upon set of behaviors. For example, I agree to pay you “x” number of dollars in exchange for such-and-such services rendered. One party’s failure to fufill the terms of the contract voids the other party’s responsibility. If you don’t render services, I don’t have to pay you. If I don’t pay you, you don’t have to render services. 

Covenant is not based on a set of behaviors, but is rather a commitment to a person. Marriage is the par excellence example of covenant in the natural world. There are certain behaviors that are necessary for living out covenant well, but should my wife fall short in some of these areas, my responsibility to be a good husband is not lessened in the slightest. And if sickness or disability should render her completely incapable of fulfilling the responsibilities that would normally be expected of a spouse, the covenant bond remains in effect, being rooted in the person, not a set of behaviors. 

God established various covenants with Israel through history, culminating in the New Covenant made available in Jesus. Jesus is, as it were, God’s proposal to man. He is the offer of a mutual, life-long covenant commitment. 

And this covenant commitment comes on the front end of relationship. It is not the reward for having successfully fulfilled a set of behaviors. Jacob worked for seven years and then was wedded to Leah - this is an image of the Old Covenant, based on the law. But Jacob married Rachel prior to completing seven years of work he had promised - a picture of the New Covenant, where we are joined to the bridegroom Jesus and then participate in his works (see Genesis 29:14-30).

Indeed, I may not even understand all that covenant requires of me when I say “I do” to God through Jesus. The same can be said in the natural, as my wedding-day self could only guess at what love would require 5 years in, much less 25 or 50 years from now. Those are details that get worked out within relationship, but the commitment is no less real for its unknowing, for it is a commitment to a very real and concrete person. Just so, covenant with God is a commitment to a very real, concrete person, the details of which I come to understand through relationship over time.

What of God’s covenanting Himself to us? Surely we will fall short of living out covenant perfectly, but does this mean God withdraws from us when we do? No, that would be a contractual relationship. But God’s covenant love means that “if we are unfaithful, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).

Have you covenanted yourself to God? Have you said “I do” to the bridegroom, Jesus? Does the way you relate to God resemble a covenant relationship or a contractual one? What about the way you perceive God relating to you?