Sjolander Road Fellowship

Declaring the God of Unconditional Love

covenant and promise


Many Christians are familiar with the biblical term "covenant". God is thought to operate in relationship to man in accordance with a covenant. In the Old Testament the emphasis is on God's relationship with a single group, the Israelites. In the New Testament the emphasis is more universal, extending the divine relationship to all humanity.

In the Old Testament scriptures the word "covenant" appears well over 200 times. In the NT the word "covenant" appears only 20 times, mostly in the book of Hebrews. However, the same Greek word which translates generally as "covenant" is also translated 13 times as "testament", which has more the connotation of a will or document granting an inheritance.

Even though the term is frequently used religiously, I wonder if we really have a common understanding of what a covenant is? I suspect most of us view a covenant as similar to a legal contract, outlining the duties and responsibilities of each party and stipulating the benefits accruing to both.

In Deuteronomy 28-29 the Bible records a covenant between God and Israel which uses the word "if". The covenant appears to be conditional. God will perform His part, if Israel does theirs. Otherwise, maybe not.  It is easy to conclude that all aspects of God's promises are thus contingent on man. But is it really true?

Another word in the NT, that is closely related to the word "covenant", is "promise" This word appears over 50 times in the KJV, in some cases in the same verse as the word "covenant". The word 'promise" is very prominent in the book of Hebrews as is the word "covenant".  Is there a difference between a promise and a covenant?

One thing we notice from the Bible is that, despite Israel's failures, God never actually gave up on Israel. He may have threatened upon occasion to destroy them, but it never really happened though he could have based on their covenant performance. Yes, they suffered for it; but Israel's malfeasance never thwarted God's ultimate plan for them or mankind. So, whatever the apparent conditional nature of God's covenant(s) might mean, it did not effect the fulfillment of God's ultimate promise. From this observation I conclude that God's promise, as an element of his covenant(s) with Israel, was not contingent; it was inalterable, dependent on God alone.

To see God's promise to fulfill His divine purpose for mankind as non-contingent is powerful. Though there may have been temporal and conditional aspects to God's covenants, the essential aspects never were. Paul tells us as much in Galatians 3 when He says that God's promise trumps the Law of Moses. The law cannot invalidate God's promise. The covenant was merely the vehicle to convey and fulfill the contained promises, which were the vital element and therefore not subject to abrogation. God willed it so; and it was thus sure, based  entirely on God, His power, His integrity, His divine purpose.