The Bible regularly speaks of covenants. Covenants aren’t very complicated, but we often confuse them with contracts. A covenant is quite different from a contract.
A contract is a mutual agreement where one party agrees to exchange something of value with another party for something else of value. I walk into a guitar store, pick up a Fender Stratocaster, and say, “I’ll take it!” The store clerk agrees to give me the guitar in exchange for something of equal value (in this case, money). A contract could be far more formal, such as when I sign dozens of official documents to buy a house, but most are very informal. To recap, a contract goes like this: If you give me X then I will give you Y.
A covenant, however, is unilateral, meaning that only one of the two parties sets the terms. In covenants, the term-setting party promises reward or punishment based upon the behavior of the second party. It is not negotiated. As with a contract, though, both parties are bound by the covenant’s conditions. So, a covenant usually is an “if/then” statement. Like this: If you do behavior X, then I’ll reward and/or punish with Y.
Just like informal contracts, we encounter covenants all the time without thinking about them. Imagine a mother has just finished icing a beautiful cake when her 5-year old son walks into the kitchen. She knows her boy and says sternly, “If you touch that icing, you’re going to get a spanking!” That is a covenant. A teenage girl studying for final exams hears, “If you get As on your exams I’ll take you to see an off-Broadway show.” That’s a covenant. The conditions for the reward or punishment are clearly laid out, but the second party has no negotiating ability. They only get to choose which outcome they will get based on their behavior. The choice is not imposed upon the second party – only the conditions by which each outcome is unlocked.
The covenant, therefore, is unilateral and put in place by someone in a place of authority over the other. No wonder God uses them so often in Scripture. God could never barter with humans as an equal party, as happens with a contract. As the ultimate Authority, He dictates to us the conditions by which we either receive His blessings, or receive His punishment. We cannot barter for different terms, but we have the free will to choose which outcome we will receive.
God establishes many covenants in the Bible Whenever you see the word if in the Bible pay attention because usually it means that God is about to lay out the terms of a covenant, and you are likely (even today) bound by those terms.
Can you think of any if/then terms (covenants) stated in the Bible that apply to your life? Do some of them frighten you? Since God has supreme authority to impose a behavioral covenant, and we can only accept those terms, it is understandable that we get uncomfortable with His covenants. Do any of them bring you joy? Many do, because they promise rewards unimaginable for good behavior.
In Covenants – Part II we’ll examine some of the more well-known covenants from God’s Word. If you come back then you’ll be blessed. (See what I did there?)