As we consider our moment in history, it is important that we not lose sight of the way God has always dealt with His people over the course of history: through covenant. Covenant is the name of the relationship God has determined to have with His people and ultimately the whole world. But because of who God is, the dominant theme is death and resurrection – which means that God will always keep His promises. We keep covenant in history by believing that.
“Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, and to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should omake the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:16-24).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Paul has been explaining covenant history to the Galatians who have been “bewitched” into going backwards, covenantally speaking (Gal. 3:1, 2:18). Specifically, they have succumbed to the Judaizing heresy that wanted to accept Christ as Messiah but continue under the Old Covenant, making distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised (Gal. 2:12). Paul’s argument is that God does not forget or annul any of His promises (Gal. 3:16-18). What God was doing in the time of the law has to be understood in terms of what God began to do with Abraham. The law is not opposed to the promises of God, but it was a schoolmaster to bring us to maturity in Christ (Gal. 3:19-24).
THE COVENANT SCHOOLHOUSE
Paul uses the term “law” somewhat interchangeably with the Mosaic law and the Old Covenant. Clearly he’s talking about Moses in Gal. 3:17, but as he goes on, he seems to be talking about the entire Old Covenant leading up to Christ (Gal. 4:21-22), the era of “tutors and governors” (Gal. 4:2). This image underlines the fact that God’s covenants do not expire and become obsolete and therefore maturity means understanding how they were preparation for growing up into our inheritance in Christ (Gal. 4:7).
The first covenant was made with Adam, and it is called the Covenant of Creation (or sometimes the Covenant of Life or Covenant of Works). While Genesis 2 doesn’t use the word “covenant” all the elements are there, and Hosea says, “But they like men/Adam have transgressed the covenant…” (6:7). A covenant is an agreement between two or more persons, sovereignly administered, with attendant blessings and curses. We can add to this basic definition the common practice of giving covenant signs and seals. In the Covenant of Creation with Adam, the agreement was that Adam would live forever under God’s blessing as he was perfectly obedient to the commands of God, but if he ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he would surely die. The Tree of Life functioned as the sign and seal of the covenant.
THE COVENANT OF GRACE
The Covenant of Grace is what we call the overarching covenant that God made with Christ after Adam sinned. The promise is that the seed of the woman will one day crush the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15), and the requirement is that Adam believe. The sign of God’s covenant promise is the skins God clothed them with (Gen. 3:21). Within this one, overarching Covenant of Grace are the Old and New Covenants, and within the Old Covenant are a number of covenant renewals that function as those schoolmasters and tutors: covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Ezra. In each covenant era, the previous covenant is not annulled, but each one functions as a teacher to bring us to Christ. Think of it as one overarching story, or like a math course where the lessons are cumulative.
What God taught us in the Noahic Covenant is still true: the death penalty is still applicable for murder, and God will never destroy the world again with a flood. But God came and expanded that covenant to include particular promises to Abraham and his seed for the blessing of all the nations of the earth. Likewise, God remembered that covenant with Abraham and brought Israel out of Egypt and gave them the law and the tabernacle. And then God gave them kings and the temple, and after exile, He renewed covenant once again under the leadership of Ezra, teaching His people how to be faithful in an era of pagan empires. All of these covenants are talking about Christ. He is the seed of the woman, the ark of the gospel, the seed of Abraham/the heir of the world, the Word made flesh who “tabernacled” among us, the Son of David, the true Temple, and our teacher (cf. Lk. 24:27).
COVENANT & SALVATION
Two additional points emerge from reading the Bible this way: First, faith has always been the way of salvation. The Old Covenant saints were saved by believing God’s promises to send the Seed who would crush the head of the serpent, and in the New Covenant we are saved by believing that Jesus is the Seed that has crushed the serpent on the cross. Second, the New Covenant is not made out of stainless steel. It is a new and better covenant, the final covenant, that is far more potent and glorious (Jer. 31) that will fill the whole world, and our election is absolutely sure (e.g. Rom. 8:35), but the Bible teaches that we stand in this certainty by faith alone. New Covenant members can fall away just like in old Israel (1 Cor. 10, Jn. 15, Heb. 10).
CONCLUSION: THE FAITH THAT OVERCOMES THE WORLD
Fundamentally, saving faith is faith in the God of resurrection: “He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able to perform” (Rom. 4:19-21). The same faith was on display when God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac (Heb. 11:19). This was the faith that overcame the world through obedient deliverance and suffering (Heb. 11:34-37). It is the same with covenant history: God takes His people (and the world) into graves and out again.