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.
Adherents of covenant theology claim that covenant theology is the natural outworking of God’s covenantal relationship with humanity. 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, it developed into a full-fledged system through the contributions of Zwingli’s successors. 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.
These three covenants—covenant of redemption, covenant of creation (covenant of works), 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.” 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.” 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.
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.” 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.”
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. 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.” 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.
 Michael Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 1–14.
 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.”
 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.
 Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology, 70.
 The covenant of works has been referred to as covenant of creation, works, Edenic covenant, or Adamic covenant.
 Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology, 70.
 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938), 271. Emphasis Berkhof’s.
 John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2013), 119.
 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 277. Emphasis Berkhof’s.
 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.
 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.
 Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, 119.