Excerpt 2 | What is a Covenant?


What is a Covenant?

There is no debate that the concept of the covenant is a significant idea in Scripture (1 Corinthians 11:25, Hebrews 8, Galatians 4:21-31). But there is much debate concerning what is a covenant and how we are able to identify a covenant.

Let’s first tackle the question as to exactly what is a covenant? I would say that a covenant is some sort of an arrangement between two parties. In saying what I have said I am very aware that my definition is a bit vague, but it is vague by design. In Scripture there are a variety of types of covenants. We will examine each covenant in its biblical context and allow Scripture to interpret itself, or to say it another way, to allow God to interpret his own word. We must remember that the final determiner of meaning is the context of the passage or concept in question.

As to the identification of a covenant much needs to be said. To say that something is a covenant you need to have it described as a covenant in its original context or you need it described as a covenant in another passage of Scripture. The Davidic Covenant is a clear example. In its original context there is no mention of the word covenant (2 Samuel 7:1-16). In 2 Samuel 23:5 David himself describes the promise that God had made with him in 2 Samuel 7 as a covenant.


Is not my house right with God? Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part?[1]


But what should you do when you think something is a covenant but there is no mention of it as a covenant in its original context? There is also no mention of it as a covenant in any other passage of Scripture. If this is the case then we must conclude that if the divine author of Scripture wanted us to understand something as a covenant then he would give us clear language to come to the conclusion that it was a covenant. Without God interpreting his own word we are left to the mercy of guessing, and guessing has no place in interpreting of the word of God.



Is there a Covenant with Adam?

            Now let us look at Adam in the Garden of Eden. Was there a covenant established between God and Adam? According to the system of Covenant Theology, as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) there was a covenant in the Garden of Eden.


The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon the condition of perfect and personal obedience.[2]


As we read the account of Genesis 2 we see no mention of a covenant. All that we see is that God is telling Adam that he is free to eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden except the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If he should eat any fruit of that tree he will die.


The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “ You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” [3]


While there is no mention of a covenant in Genesis 2 there might be a covenant mentioned in some other portion of Scripture that describes a covenant as being established in the Garden of Eden with Adam. In Romans 5:12-21 we are told by the Apostle Paul of a relationship with Adam and all mankind.


Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.[4]


When Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden he represented everyone. This means that we are all blamed and held guilty for Adam’s one sin, his trespass, in the garden. We are blamed for something that we did not do. In this portion of Romans Paul is teaching that the method by which we get accepted by God is by representation. Adam represented all men, except Jesus, and Jesus represented all those for whom he died.[5] While we agree that there is a relationship between Adam and everyone else it is never described in terms of a covenant. In fact, I would so far as to say that there is nothing in the language of Genesis 2 that would give anyone the clue that a covenant was being established between God and man.


In seeking to defend the view that there is a covenant in the garden writers read between the lines and then draw conclusions that defend their point of view. In this instance I see nothing in this context that says anything about a covenant. The only way that you could find a covenant in Genesis 2 is to believe that you are compelled to find it by other Scripture.


Let us now turn to the Old Testament where we do find one mention of covenant with the name Adam. It is found in the book of Hosea.


As at Adam, they have broken the covenant; they were unfaithful to me there.[6]


But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.[7]


The context of this passage is describing the on-going rebellion of Israel as they live under the Old or Mosaic Covenant. The problem with interpreting this text of Scripture is that it is capable of so many different meanings. Here are some of the options that are available to us.


  1. Following the NIV Adam would refer to a location. Verses 8 and 9 refer to examples of Israel’s rebellion at both Gilead and Shechem. It should also be noted that “Adam” as a place location is mentioned in Joshua 3:16, but it should also be noted that no mention is made of any specific rebellion by Israel at that location. The covenant that is mentioned would then be the Old or Mosaic Covenant.
  2. Following the ESV Adam could refer to mankind in general, since the Hebrew word could refer either to mankind or Adam as a proper name.  If Adam refers to mankind in general then Hosea would be saying that Israel is rebellious like the rest of the world. That in spite of Israel’s covenant relationship with the Lord, which marked them out as a special people, they were still acting like the Gentiles and are covenant breakers. It is also possible to say that the reference to mankind would refer to their breaking the Covenant of Works in the garden.
  3. If you take “Adam” as referring to the historical Adam from the Garden of Eden then you could be saying that Israel broke the Old Covenant just like Adam broke the Covenant made with him in the garden.
  4. You could also say that Israel broke the Old Covenant and they were faithless just like Adam was disobedient in the garden. In this case you would not be referring to covenant breaking by Adam but to disobedience to the one law given to him by God in the garden.


In light of the above it is hard to be absolutely certain of the meaning of this passage. We would need some other passage to tell us about a covenant with Adam in the garden. God has to interpret his own word. Unfortunately, there is no such passage of Scripture. Therefore, since there is no clear mention of a covenant with Adam in the garden it would be wrong to make an educated guess and then declare there to be a covenant in the garden as a foundational truth upon which we can build our understanding of God’s plan of salvation. Even John Calvin saw the problem of taking Hosea 6:7 as referring to a covenant with Adam.


Others explain the words thus, “They have transgressed as Adam the covenant.” But the word, Adam, we know, is taken indefinitely for men. This exposition (the view that he is disagreeing with) is frigid and diluted, “They have transgressed as Adam the covenant;” that is, they have followed or imitated the example of their father Adam, who had immediately at the beginning transgressed God’s commandment. I do not to refute this comment; for we see that it is in itself vapid.[8]


Another Covenant Theologian, John Murray, also states that there was no mention of a covenant with Adam in Hosea 6:7 or in the garden.


It is not designated a covenant in Scripture. Hosea 6:7 may be interpreted otherwise and does not provide the basis for such a construction of the Adamic economy. Besides, Scripture always uses the term covenant, when applied to God’s administration to men, in reference to a provision that is redemptive or closely related to redemptive design.[9]


So as I conclude this segment let me summarize what we have found in the opening chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 1 it is stated that God made Adam and Eve in the image of God. It then states that God gave them responsibility to rule over all the earth as well as all animal life. In Genesis 2 Adam is given the role of taking care of the Garden of Eden. Adam is given a partner in Eve who was made out of a rib of Adam. God does give Adam one command, not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and a consequence, which is death, for disobedience to his command.

Without reading into these first two chapters of Genesis, that is seeing something there that is not stated but is assumed from other Scripture passages, we are left with no other conclusion then that there is no covenant made with Adam in the garden. Clear Scripture in context must establish every truth of our system of understanding of how the Bible fits together.








[1] 2 Samuel 23:5 NIV

[2] Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 7, paragraph 2

[3] Genesis 2:15-17 NIV

[4] Romans 5:18 NIV

[5] The argument of Romans 5:12-21 will not tell us exactly who Jesus represented, but it will tell us what he accomplished by his death on the cross. To determine who Romans 5:18 is referring to we will have to go to 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 where it is stated that the “all men” refers to “those who belong to him.” Therefore by letting God interpret his own word we understand that Jesus only died for those who will believe the gospel message. These are those that the Father chose to save. Ephesians 1:3-5

[6] Hosea 6:7 NIV

[7] Hosea 6:7 ESV)

[8] John Calvin, HOSEA, The Minor Prophets: Volume 1, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986, page 235. The dictionary would define “vapid” as something that is not interesting. Calvin did not give this interpretation a high rating.

[9] John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 2: Systematic Theology, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, page 49.

2 thoughts on “Excerpt 2 | What is a Covenant?

  1. Under sub-title What is a Covenant? second paragraph, second line,omit the word “an”.Also In the 4th line, it should read “in Scripture there is (not are) a variety…”

    Question: Does a Covenant always contain a promise? One or more obligations? Can every
    covenant be broken?

    Since there is no explicit promise accompanying God’s command to Adam, in order to assume a covenant would one have to infer a promise? is this what you meant when you said “writers read between the lines and then draw conclusions that defend their point of view” ? That seems a bit vague to me.

    In the fifth paragraph under Covenant in the Garden,the repeated use of the word covenant seems awkward to me. I would omit “a covenant mentioned in” in the second line.
    In the introduction of the discussion of Romans 5:12-21, I think you should explain that some would point to this passage as an indication of a covenant in the Garden.
    At the end of the quote from Calvin regarding the covenant omit the word”to” before “refute” unless that was in the original.
    In the last paragraph,the first sentence, a comma is needed after “that is,” and “no other conclusion “than” (not then).

  2. https:/

    I am in agreement that, with the exception of Hosea 6:7 there are no explicit passages that mention Adam and whether or not he was in “covenant” with God. There is a sense that, by definition, “covenant” is more than an arrangement between two or more parties.

    In Hebrews 6:13-20 the reader’s attention is drawn to God’s dealings with Abraham, “For when God made a promise to Abraham since he had no one greater to swear by, he swore by himself…” (v. 13). The “promise” to Abraham was a “sworn oath” a guaranteed that the conditions of “covenant” with Abraham take place exactly has had been promised.

    Where does God ever establish “relationship” outside that which is defined by “covenant.” When God SPEAKS it is the language of “covenant” as His “sworn oath.” From Genesis 1:1 onward, God’s declaration is His “sworn oath” by which everyone can be certain that whatever He said will come to pass in the time, manner, and purpose for which it was intended.

    Covenant defines the terms of the “relationship.”
    Law defines life inside the relationship determined by covenant.

    In the case of Adam and Eve there is more than one command given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden:

    “And God blessed them, and God said to them, ”
    1. Be fruitful and multiply
    2. Fill the earth
    3. Subdue it
    4. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of heaven, and over every animal that moves upon the earth.”
    5. Every plant that bears seed and every kind of tree that bears fruit. They shall be yours as food.
    6. Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

    We focus only on the prohibitive command, but disobedience was possible with any of them. The prohibitive command was the only one suitable for direct willful transgression against the God. We understand this commandment is “law” but is it possible to have “law” without “covenant” that defines the “relationship”

    I believe there is enough evidence to suggest that whenever God SPEAKS, He speaks in the language of covenant and that in fact, Genesis-Revelation is “covenant” language in its entirety.

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