What is Covenant Theology?

What is covenant theology? This is a question I get periodically, so that it would be helpful to write a brief introduction on it. In the past I have defined the beliefs of dispensationalism (as well as the things that do NOT define dispensationalism). Thus, it is only fair now that I spent some time defining covenant theology.

picture of the founder of covenant theology, Ulrich Zwingli
Ulrich Zwingli (by Hans Asper)

Adherents of covenant theology claim that covenant theology is the natural outworking of God’s covenantal relationship with humanity.[1] Although that general statement would find very few detractors, the details of covenant theology are often debated, even among proponents. Although Ulrich Zwingli is referred to as the initiator of covenant theology,[2] it developed into a full-fledged system through the contributions of Zwingli’s successors.[3] Within this system there is broad agreement as to how the system is constituted. Covenant theologian, Michael Horton, notes,

A broad consensus emerged in this Reformed (federal) theology with respect to the existence in Scripture of three distinct covenants: the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis), the covenant of creation (foederus naturae), and the covenant of grace (foederus gratiae). The other covenants in Scripture (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic) are all grouped under these broader arrangements.[4]

These three covenants—covenant of redemption, covenant of creation (covenant of works)[5], and covenant of grace—form the basis of covenant theology.

Covenant Theology and the Covenant of Redemption

The covenant of redemption can be defined as “an eternal pact between the persons of the Trinity. The Father elects a people in the Son as their mediator to be brought to saving faith through the Spirit. Thus, this covenant made by the Trinity in eternity already takes the fall of the human race into account.”[6] Or, in the words of Berkof, “The covenant of redemption may be defined as the agreement between the Father, giving the Son as Head and Redeemer of the elect, and the Son, voluntarily taking the place of those whom the Father had given Him.[7] In other words, this is the pre-Fall covenantal agreement between the members of the Trinity to save the elect.

Covenant Theology and the Covenant of Works

The covenant of works is defined by the Westminster Confession (7.2), “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” Obviously, Adam failed to keep this covenant, and thereby failed to secure eternal life for himself and his posterity. According to Frame, the covenant of works is important to covenant theology because, first of all, human beings are identified inherently as covenant breakers in Adam. Additionally, human beings see God’s perfect standard, which only Jesus can fulfill on our behalf.[8]

Covenant Theology and the Covenant of Grace

The final covenant which makes up the foundation of covenant theology is the covenant of grace. Berkhof defines the covenant of grace as, “that gracious agreement between the offended God and the offending but elect sinner, in which God promises salvation through faith in Christ, and the sinner accepts this believingly, promising a life of faith and obedience.”[9] The Westminster Confession defines and compares this covenant to the covenant of works as follows (7.3):

Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant [the covenant of works], the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace: wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.

Importantly, covenant theology views the covenant of grace as a unified covenant spanning both Old and New Testaments, although it shows up in various administrations. While arguing against the Anabaptists, Zwingli described this covenant as follows: “God therefore made no other covenant with the miserable race of man than that he had already conceived before man was formed. One and the same testament has always been in force.”[10]

This one covenant of grace has many administrations, but it must be essentially the same throughout both Old and New Testament, according to covenant theology.[11] Frame notes, “Scripture mentions covenants that God made with Noah, Abraham, and others. Theologians have gathered these covenants together under a master title that includes all of them: the covenant of grace.”[12] Thus, for covenant theology, although Scripture speaks of multiple covenants, these covenants are viewed as a manifestation of the one, unified covenant of grace between God and humanity.

[1] Michael Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 1–14.

[2] Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 311. Lillback notes, “Calvin is not the initiator of covenant theology, since this honor must really fall to Zwingli. He is not the designer of the first paradigm of covenant thought, since this distinction falls to Bulllinger.”

[3] To trace the historical development of covenant theology, see the fine work of Larry D. Pettegrew, “Israel and the Dark Side of the Reformation,” in Forsaking Israel: How It Happened and Why It Matters, 2nd ed. (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Biblical Resources, 2021), 78–105.

[4] Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology, 70.

[5] The covenant of works has been referred to as covenant of creation, works, Edenic covenant, or Adamic covenant.

[6] Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology, 70.

[7] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938), 271. Emphasis Berkhof’s.

[8] John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2013), 119.

[9] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 277. Emphasis Berkhof’s.

[10] Ulrich Zwingli, Selected Works of Huldreich Zwingli, ed. Samuel Macauley, trans. Lawrence A. McClouth, Henry Preble, and George W. Gilmore (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1901), 234.

[11] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 279; Cornelis P. Venema, “Covenant Theology and Baptism,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, ed. Gregg Strawbridge (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2003), 217.

[12] Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, 119.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.


  • Dwight Osborne

    In his next article, Goeman again engages in profligating and disseminating his own brand of satanic lies. He makes the claim that the apostles gave a BROAD definition of what the gospel ios. A lie originating from the deepest pits of the abyss. The apostles gave a very exact, clear and concise precise definition of the gospel-the death, burial and resurrection of Messiah. I don’t know who this fellow is but he is lost as the catholic, jw and mormon. Maybe one of those counterfeit religions would accept him into their fold. But there’s no room for hi deception within the true body of Messiah.

    • Peter Goeman

      I’m a little confused by your comment here. If it was a different article in which I am guilty of heresy, I suggest you comment on that article rather than here. Additionally, it is helpful to me and others if you back up accusations with quotes and/or evidence. In fact, in leu of such evidence, it is simply slander–which the Bible speaks strongly against.

      In observing a few of your comments on the blog, I would suggest you consider reevaluating how you speak to and about others.

  • Roger McKinney

    Election is just an old word for choosing. No covenant theologian has explained to me what criteria Gid used to choose people. Either God has criteria or he is capricious like Allah.

    Some have argued that we can’t know God’s criteria, but if true, that makes the Bible a book of trivia because if God has criteria for eternal salvation then nothing is more important.

    The criteria is clearly faith, but some have responded that God gives us faith. There are two problems with that. 1) The Greek doesnt support that view from Ephesians since the gender of faith and the pronoun don’t match and 2) even if it were true, it only moves the problem back one step so that we would ask what criteria does God use to give faith to some and not others?

    Since God chose his people before creation, and faith is the only viable criteria, then God must have chosen those he foresaw would have faith.

    • Nathan Newton

      Ephesians 1:6 answers your question about what the criteria is for election. The elect are chosen for the praise of his glorious grace. Those whom God has chosen bring God the most glory.

    • Dwight Osborne

      Election is totally dependent on God’s grace and free will. There is no criteria. Whatever He does is by His own sovereign free will. Covenant theology is one of those theological systems that is a lie from its onset all the way through to its conclusion. As we know from the Bible, election has to do with being called to service. While believers of the church age are elect, they are saved. But in the Old Testament, ALL of Israel is the elect and still are today but not Israel was saved then nor will they all be saved now. The 1/3 remnant who survives the great tribulation will be saved but the 2/3 remnant who will die in the upcoming antichrist’s holocaust will perish apart from faith in Messiah.

  • Dwight Osborne

    No matter how you cut it, chop, slice or dice it, covenant theology is false theology. As the word of Yehovah plainly shows, dispensationalism is the correct theology and God is the Head Dispensationalist. Christian Zionism is correct, not to mention premillennialism and God is the Head Zionist, approving of and anointing all 3 of these views. Anyone who says differently has yielded to satan’s deception and calls the Bible a lie and the Author a liar.

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