The Nature of God’s Covenant

Nature of Gods Covenant

Francis Roberts (1609-1675)
Mysterium & Medulla Bibliorum
The Mystery and Marrow of the Bible
Book 1, Chapter 2.

Of the Name, General Nature, and Distribution of God’s Covenant.


The names given to God’s Covenant with his Church in Scripture, are principally two, namely, בְּרִית (berith) in the Hebrew Original of the Old Testament, and διαθήκη (diatheke), in the Greek Original of the New Testament. The true meaning and use of which two names will somewhat conduce to the understanding of God’s Covenant.

To this end consider: 1. The notation of these two names. 2. The various acceptations of them in Scripture.

I. The notation of these two names take thus briefly.

1. The Hebrew name בְּרִית (berith) a covenant, is by learned men derived from several roots.

1. Some derive it from בָּרָא (bara) “to create“—because God’s Covenant hath been with his people even ever since the Creation. But this seems too far-fetched as Pareus thinks.

2. Some derive it from בָּרַר (barar) “to purify, make clear,” etc. Because by Covenants open and clear amity is confirmed, and faithfulness is clearly declared and ratified without sophistication betwixt covenanters. And things are made plain and clear betwixt them.

3. Some derive it from ברת (berath), which imports “firmness,” (whence בְּרוֹת (beroth), is the name of firm and strong tree (Cant. 1:17) as the Ash, Cypress, or Fig tree) because Covenants are firm and sure, and things are confirmed by them.

4. Some derive it from בָּרָה (barah), as it signifies “to choose.” Because in making Covenants, there is a choice made of persons betwixt whom, and of things or conditions about which there is covenanting. Or from בָּרָה (barah), as it signifies “to eat,” because they usually had a feast at making of Covenants.

5. Some derive it from בָּרָא (bara), or בָּרָה (barah), “to smite, strike, cut, or divide,” (as both these words signify) because in making Covenants commonly sacrifices were stricken and slain for confirmation and solemnity.

This last is the common opinion about the original of this name, thinks that learned Rivet: and doubtless to be preferred before all the former. So this word berith, covenant, seems to sound as much, as כְּרִית (kerith), “a smiting or striking,” because of sacrifices slain in covenanting. Hence the word covenant is often joined with כָּרַת (karath), which signifies “striking of covenant.”

An example of this beyond all exception (saith Rivet) is in that sacrifice wherein God by Moses made a Covenant with all the people of Israel, and bound them to obey his Law. The description of it is Exodus 24. For when Moses had built an altar at the bottom of Mount Sinai, and had erected twelve pillars according to the twelve tribes, he caused the young men to sacrifice burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, and he took half of the blood, and put it in basons, and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. And he took the Book of the Covenant, and read in the audience of the people. And they said, All that the LORD hath said, will we do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the Covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words. And sometimes the sacrifices slain in covenanting were cut in twain, and the parties covenanting passed between the parts for confirmation of the Covenant, as Gen. 15:9-10, 17, etc.; Jer. 34:18-20. And the Heathen in their covenanting used sacrifices and divided them, passing between the parts, as learned men have observed, and probably in imitation of God’s people. And that phrase, “a covenant of salt” (Lev. 2:13; Num. 18:19; 2 Chron. 13:5), denoting a perpetual Covenant, is thought hence to have taken its rise. Not because salt resisting putrefaction preserves things, but because salt by a perpetual law was to be used in all sacrifices, and sacrifices were still used in covenanting. As Oleaster, and after him Rivet, and after them both, M. Ball hath well observed.

2. The Greek name διαθήκη (diatheke), a covenant, or a testament, is the word by which, not only the LXXII Greek translators of the Old Testament do generally, yea everywhere (except only in Deut. 9:15) render the Hebrew name berith (as some learned men observe), but also upon diligent search I find that this is the only word by which the Apostles and holy penmen in the New Testament render the Hebrew word berith. And this Greek word being translated sometimes Covenant, sometimes Testament, is the only word that is used in the whole New Testament for Covenant and Testament: wheresoever either of these are mentioned, it is still diatheke, namely, for covenant in Luke 1:72; Acts 3:25 & 7:8; Rom. 9:4 & 11:27; Gal. 3:15, 17; 4:24; Eph. 2:12; Heb. 8:6-10 & 9:1, 4 & 10:16. & 12:24. & 13:20. For Testament in Mat. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6, 14; Heb. 7:22 & 9:15-18: Rev. 11:19. And I find it not used at all in any other places of the New Testament. So that it concerns us much to understand the meaning of this word aright.

Now diatheke, being derived from διατιθεμαι (diatithemai), signifying, to dispose, compose, constitute, or make. Generally it signifies a disposition or a disposal, but yet such a disposal wherein a promise is contained expressly or implicitly. And particularly it signifies either such a disposal as is merely federal, namely, a compact betwixt the living. Or such a disposal as is testamentary, namely, a last will or testament of one dying whereby he disposeth of his goods and affairs by word or writing. This is to be noted against Papists, who much mistake the genuine signification of the Greek word, diatheke, restraining it only to a testamentary disposition. And in the New Testament it is used for a federal disposition, as well as for a testamental, as our translators have well rendered it both ways. And God’s Covenant expressed by it (think some) is mixed of the properties of both Covenant and of Testament, as the Apostle sheweth in Heb. 9:16-17, and of both may be named, a Testamental Covenant, or a Covenanting Testament, whereby the disposing of God’s favours and good things to us his children is declared.

II. The various uses of the term Covenant.

II. The various acceptation and use of these two names in Old and New Testament is also considerable for the opening of the Covenant.

1. Berith.

1. The Hebrew berith is used in the New Testament for compacts or agreements, 1. Religious. 2. Civil. 3. Sinful.

1. For religious compacts or agreements. 1. Of God with his Church and People. 2. Of God’s People with God.

1. Of God with his Church & People: which is 1. general, and 2. special.

1. More general, with his whole Church. So God’s Covenant is used 1. properly and 2. improperly.

1. Properly.

1. For God’s gracious agreement with his people in Christ, for their happiness and salvation. Thus the word is used in Gen. 6:18 & 17:4, 11; Exod. 34:28; Jer. 31:31-32; Heb. 8:6-9. And in this sense its used most frequently.

2. For some branch or additional only to that agreement: By a synechdoche of the part for the whole. As Covenant for not drowning the world, Gen. 9:9-18. For continuing day and night, etc. Jer. 33:20, 25 with Gen. 8:21-22. For earthly blessings, Hos. 2.18-23. Against the particular sin of idolatry, as God’s Covenant with Israel in the land of Moab, Deut. 29:1.

2. Improperly.

1. For Christ, the Mediator of the Covenant. By a metonymy. As Isa. 42:6. & 49:8.

2. For circumcision, the token and seal of the Covenant. By a metonymy of the sign for the thing signified, Gen. 17:13.

2. More special and peculiar, with some particular persons, or sorts of persons only. Thus the word is used for God’s Covenant agreement with:

1. Priests and Levites, about their office and maintenance, Num. 18:19; Neh. 13:29; Mal. 2:4-5, 8.

2. Phineahs, for an everlasting Priesthood, Num. 25:12-13.

3. David, for a perpetual Kingdom, 2 Chron. 13:5.

2. Of God’s people with God, engaging themselves to Duty. And this either

1. More solemnly in public covenants for reformation. As Josh. 24-25; 2 Kings 11:17 & 23:3; 2 Chron. 15:12 & 20:10; Ezra 10:3.

2. More secretly in private resolutions and promises touching points of sanctification, Job 31:1.

2. For Civil Compacts or Agreements.

1. Of man and woman in marriage, Mal. 2:19; Prov. 2:17.

2. Of particular persons, societies or states about other secular affairs, Gen. 21:27, 32; Exod. 23:32; 1 Sam. 18:3 and 20:16.

3. For Sinful Compacts or Agreements.

1. With idols, by idolatry. Metaphorically. Isa. 57:8.

2. With death and Hell, by security. Metaphorically. Isa. 28:15, 18.

These are the several acceptations of the Hebrew word berith, Covenant in the Old Testament, and I find not any other. Now here the word is considered in the first sense, as it denoteth a religious compact and agreement of God with his people, more generally, in order to their happiness and salvation.

2. Diatheke.

2. The Greek name diatheke is used also in the New Testament, 1. In a religious; 2. In a civil sense.

1. In a religious use, this name diatheke is taken

1. More properly, and that sometimes:

1. In a larger sense, for God’s Covenant of Faith. As Acts 3:25; Gal. 3:17; Heb. 8:6. etc. & 9:1 etc.

2. In a stricter sense, for God’s Testament, or for God’s Covenant as it is testamentary, and ratified by the death and blood of a testator. By typical blood of sacrifices: So it denotes the Old Testament. Heb. 9:18-20. By anti-typical or true blood of Christ, the anti-type: So it denotes the New Testament in his blood, Mat. 26:28; Luke 22:20; Heb. 9:15.

2. More improperly and metonymically, for circumcision. By a metonymy of the sign. As Acts 7:8.

2. In a civil use, this name diatheke, in the New Testament, is applied to signify a man’s will or testament whereby he disposeth of his outward Estate, how it shall be bestowed or employed after his decease. Gal. 3.15. Heb. 9.16-17.

Here, treating of God’s Covenant, we are not to consider the word Covenant or Testament, in a civil, but in a religious sense. And that, as it more properly signifies, God’s Covenant, in a larger, or God’s Testament, in a stricter acceptation.

Thus of the names given to God’s Covenant in Scripture, both in respect of their grammatical notation, and of their various theological acceptations. As for the English word Covenant, or League, and the Latin words Foedus, Pactum, Testamentum, I insist not upon them, because they are not in the Scripture-Originals. Now to the thing itself.


God’s Covenant (in the general notion of it) is his gratuitous agreement with his people, promising them eternal happiness and all subordinate good: and requiring from them all due dependence upon God, and obedience unto him, in order to his glory.

This description of God’s Covenant (generally considered) is of such latitude as to comprehend in it the nature of all God’s Covenants with his people, though most variously administered to them in their greatest varieties of conditions, both before and after the Fall. This will best appear if we show it in the particulars. In this description note, 1. The general nature of God’s Covenants. 2. The special difference of them from all other Covenants.

I. The General Nature of God’s Covenants.

I. The general nature of God’s Covenants with his people, it is an agreement. All Covenants, divine and human, consist in some agreement. Can two walk together, except they be agreed? Concord is the foundation of all contracts. Now God’s agreement with his people is twofold:

1. Implicit only. So God’s agreement with Adam was implied, partly by the inscription of his Law, and Covenant in his heart, which Adam was to perform. Partly by threatening his disobedience with death, under which was implied a promise of life upon his obedience.

2. Explicit; wherein God plainly expresseth his agreement with his people. This he doth: (1) Sometimes by word only, as to Abraham and the Fathers before Moses, before any Scripture was written. (2) Sometimes by writing also, as to Israel by Moses, and afterwards. Hence such frequent mention of the Tables of the Covenant, and of the Book of the Covenant.

II. The Specifics of God’s Covenants.

II. The special difference betwixt God’s Covenants and all other Covenants, is contained in the residue of the description. Chiefly in the 1. Efficient. 2. Matter. 3. Form. And 4. End of God’s Covenant.

1. The Efficient Cause of God’s Covenant.

1. The efficient cause or author of this Covenant is God. It is God’s gracious agreement. In human covenants, where there is some proportion and equality betwixt the parties covenanting, they jointly are con-causes, or joint authors of their covenants mutually agreed upon. But betwixt the most high God and man, finite and infinite, there being no equality or proportion at all, God alone is the author of the Covenant betwixt him and his people. And they must accept what Covenant, and upon what terms, God will please to propound, or none at all. Hence the Covenants betwixt God and his people, are seldom referred to the people as their Covenants (though in some sense they may be styled theirs, namely, as they are parties to them, and obliged to perform the conditions of them). But generally they are all still in Scripture referred to God, counted his Covenants, and said to be made by him with them. Thus God alone is the author of the Covenant. And his free grace or favour, is the only inward impulsive, or moving cause why he makes a Covenant with his people. Its his gratuitous agreement with them, God is a most free agent, and works all things according to the counsel and good pleasure of his own will. It is an act of his grace and mercy to make Covenant with his people—but having made a Covenant with them, it is an act of his justice, truth, and faithfulness to make good and perform Covenant. God freely makes himself our debtor by covenanting. God faithfully and justly pays his debt in performing Covenant with us.

2. The Material Cause of God’s Covenant.

2. The matter of God’s Covenant with his people, is, 1. on God’s part, eternal happiness and all subordinate good, promised to them. 2. On his people’s part, all due dependence upon God and obedience to him, required of them, and restipulated by them.

1. That eternal happiness is the subject matter in all God’s Covenants after the Fall, is evident by the tenor of them (as will after appear particularly), and in God’s Covenant also before the Fall it cannot be justly doubted. For, when death, not only corporal and spiritual, but also eternal was threatened and inflicted upon disobedience. Consequently not only a corporal and spiritual, but also eternal life was promised and should have been performed upon obedience. Now where eternal happiness is promised, all lesser and subordinate good must needs be included, as leading thereunto. And this is clear in all God’s Covenants if exactly considered; which are bundles of promises touching the life that now is, and that which is to come.

2. And reciprocally God’s people’s due dependence upon God, and obedience unto him, is expressed or implied in all God’s Covenants with them. Adam must depend upon God for life, and be exactly obedient unto God, not only in keeping the Law moral writ in his heart, but in observing the Law of trial touching the forbidden fruit. Noah must depend upon God, for preservation from the Flood, and also be duly obedient to God in making an Ark for his preservation. Abraham must depend upon God for Canaan covenanted, and for the blessedness of all nations in his seed promised, and he must also duly obey God, in walking before God, in being perfect, and in circumcising all his males. And the like may be said of all God’s Covenants with his people.

3. The Formal Cause of God’s Covenant.

3. The form of God’s Covenant consists in God’s promising to his people, and his people’s restipulation to God. Promise and restipulation betwixt federates make up the formality of federal obligation. God’s promise is not always expressed, but sometimes necessarily and by consequence implied. As the promise of life is implied in the threatening of death to Adam. And God’s people’s restipulation is sometimes only implied; As in God’s Covenant with Adam after the Fall, God expressly promiseth that the Seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head; And Adam implicitly restipulateth by faith to accept this Seed of the woman, Christ.

4. The Final Cause of God’s Covenant.

4. The end of God’s Covenant with his people, is his own glory. In all things God seeks his own glory, and so should we seek his glory above all. God by his Covenant displays his glory most gloriously. Herein shines: the glory of his free grace in willing it; the glory of his wisdom in contriving it; the glory of his goodness mercy and loving-kindness in condescending and stooping to mean man, and that so familiarly in a Covenantal way; the glory of his liberty in accepting whom, when, where, and upon what terms he pleaseth, into Covenant with himself, and rejecting also at his pleasure; the glory of his justice and faithfulness in performing exactly all the promises and threats of his Covenant in their season; and the glory of his power in enabling his people acceptably to perform Covenant with him unto the end.


God’s Covenant with his people is not only one, but diverse. And it is diverse both for kind, degree, and circumstances. It may be thus distributed or distinguished. God’s Covenant is: I. Of Works, in the first Adam, before the Fall. II. Of Faith, in the second Adam, after the Fall. This Covenant of Faith is sub-distinguished gradually and accidentally, in respect of the promise and performance of Christ the second Adam, into: 1. The Covenants of Promise, under the Old Testament; (1) with Adam; (2) with Noah; (3) with Abraham; (4) with Israel at Sinai; (5) with David; (6) with the Jews about their Return from Babylon. 2. The New Covenant, under the New Testament both with Jews and Gentiles. As in the ensuing scheme:

God’s Covenant is Two-fold:

1. A Covenant of Works, in the first Adam, before the Fall.
2. A Covenant of Faith in the second Adam, after the Fall; comprehending:

1. The Covenants of Promise, under the Old Testament.

1. With Adam.
2. With Noah.
3. With Abraham.
4. With Israel in Mount Sinai.
5. With David.
6. With the Jews about their return from Babylon.

2. The Covenant of Performance, or the New Covenant, under the New Testament.

This distribution of God’s Covenant, I like best to follow, as contriving it (without prejudice to any man’s judgment) most clear, full and unexceptionable. For explaining the branches of it, consider:

1. Covenant of Works vs. Covenant of Faith.

1. God’s Covenant is First distributed into 1. A Covenant of Works, and 2. A Covenant of Faith. This is a division of God’s Covenant, into its several species or kinds, which are directly opposite to each other. For the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Faith are two opposite kinds of covenants. This upon the matter seems to be the Apostle’s distribution: “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.” (Rom. 3:27). Here the Apostle is treating of God’s free justification of us in Christ, the way to eternal happiness, which God covenants with his people: and he shews that God’s justification is such, as all boasting is excluded. How? Not by the Law of Works, but by the Law of Faith. These amount to as much as the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Faith. And again it is said, “the promise that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham or to his seed, through the Law (i.e. the works of the Law) but through the righteousness of Faith.” (Rom. 4:13). Which intimates thus much, that God’s Covenant with Abraham and his seed to make him heir of the world, was not a Covenant of Works, but of Faith. Again, this distribution ariseth from the opposite stipulations required, Works and Faith. From the opposite foundations of the Covenants, the first Adam, and the second Adam; and from the opposite states of mankind when these Covenants were made, namely, before the Fall, and after the Fall, and therefore it seems very clear.

And inasmuch as all covenants of God with his people may be referred to one of these two heads, namely, Works in the first Adam before the Fall, or Faith in the second Adam since the Fall, it seems very full.

Hence we may the better see what to judge of other distinctions of God’s Covenant.

1. Some distinguish God’s Covenant, into the Covenant of Works, and Covenant of Grace. But the members of this distinction are not opposite; for it was an act of God’s grace and favour that he would enter into a Covenant of Works with Adam, before as well as after the Fall.

2. Some, into the Legal and Evangelical Covenant. But if by Legal Covenant, they understand the Law and Covenant as published on Mount Sinai, etc. (as usually men do) that seems a great mistake—for that was a publication Evangelical of the Covenant of Faith, not of Works. If by Legal, they mean God’s Covenant with Adam before the Fall, then the Legal and Evangelical Covenant is for substance the same with the Covenant of Works and of Faith.

3. Some, into the Covenant of Nature, of Grace, and Subservient to the Covenant of Grace. The first was made with Adam in his natural integrity. The second with Adam, Abraham, etc. after the Fall, through Christ. The third with Israel at Mount Sinai which is called the Old Testament. But (though this be the distinction of a learned author, probably devised to avoid some difficulties about the Covenant of Faith, as published on Mount Sinai, yet) it is not without its inconveniences. For, God’s Covenant with Adam in innocency was not so Natural, but that it was also Gratuitous, and of divine favour, that God would deal so familiarly with Adam as by way of Covenant, from whom as his creature he might have exacted obedience by an absolute command. And this Covenant on Mount Sinai, called Subservient to the Covenant of Grace, is not a distinct species or kind of Covenant from the Covenant of Faith, or Grace, but a distinct publication of the same Covenant, the manner of administration being single, and the degree of manifestation clearer than of all before. In respect of which degree and manner, it was subservient indeed to the Covenant of Grace, namely, for clearing the foregoing publications, and for preparing to the following publications, especially to that of the New Covenant.

2. The Covenant of Faith.

2. God’s Covenant of Faith, in the second Adam, after the Fall, is sub-distinguished into: 1. The Covenants of Promise. 2. The New Covenant. This distinction is grounded upon Christ the only Mediator and foundation of the Covenant of Faith, and upon his different representation in this Covenant. Christ is represented herein:

1. As promised and to come afterwards, to work our redemption. And so he is set forth in the Covenants of Promise, to Adam, Noah, etc.

2. As performed, incarnate, and having suffered already. And so he is set forth in the New Covenant or New Testament solemnly established by his death. Now the Covenants of Promise, and the New Covenant are essentially one and the same Covenant of Faith. Therefore I say, The Covenant of Faith comprehends them: but they differ only gradually and accidentally, as after in due place will appear.

3. The Covenants of Promise.

3. In the Covenants of Promise, I find no writers observing above five eminent gradual steps or administrations. God’s Covenant with Noah, being generally (but I think, causelessly) omitted by them. Therefore adding that, I produce six. And why God’s Covenant with Noah is to be ranked among the eminent discoveries of the Covenant of Faith, shall be evidenced in handling of that particular.


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