2 What Makes a Covenant?
by Hubert F. Sturges, www.everlastingcovenant.com, Decmber 2013
For when God made promise to
Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself,
Saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will
multiply thee. Hebrews 6:13, 14
God’s words contain power.
Whatever God promises is
as certain as already accomplished. In God’s
plan to redeem humankind, He made redemption more than a promise; He
made it a covenant. God made a commitment to save His creation,
including humankind. Even more, He committed Himself to meet the
challenge, having established the government of God on love, freedom,
and creativity for the whole universe forever. God will reveal that He
is a God of mercy and justice.
The Law of God Is Holy, Just, and Good
The whole of God’s universe is under the laws of nature,
which provide for order and beauty in all created things.1
human beings in His image and wrote the moral law in their hearts. God
placed within human beings the desire to be like God to the limits of
human capability. Love and harmony guided all their actions.
God created intelligent beings with free will, they needed a moral law
to guide their interactions with God and with other created beings. A
loving God values free will in angelic and human beings; He desires that
His creatures give their love freely by their own choice rather than by
compulsion or instinct. Free will makes life attractive and offers
pleasant surprises. It opens the door to new beauty in music and art.
Freedom, however, can only exist within the boundaries of the law.
When Satan rebelled against God, he challenged the concept of a
moral law, claiming that angels and human beings were so wise that they
did not need a law. Satan raised questions about God’s character,
asserting that God is arbitrary, selfish, and unwilling to accept for
Himself the conditions under which He expected humans to live. Without
law, he said, angels and human beings could be free! Free! Free! (or so
When Satan objected to a moral law, why did God not
deal with him immediately? The very nature of God’s government, based on
requires that angels and human beings see the nature of sin
and contrast the methods of Satan with the plans and purposes of God (1
Cor. 4:9). They must see that God is merciful and just (Ps. 85:10; Rev.
15:3). They must also see that, in God, there is love, freedom, life and
joy, while, in sin, there is noth but death (Ringom. 6:23).2
Was There a Covenant Before Sin?
It is not clear whether sinless
beings-the uncounted millions of angels in heaven or the beings on other
planets (Rev. 5:11; 14:4; Job 1:6)-knew of an objective law. In their
happy and holy state, they willingly patterned their lives after their
heavenly Father (John 13:15; 1 Peter 2:21; Matt. 5:45, 48). God’s
actions were an example for them; the law was and is a transcript of His
Why then is a law needed at all? As soon as God
created the second angel with intelligence and free will, He had to lay
down rules for the behavior of intelligent beings. It is only within the
boundaries of law that freedom can exist. Without law, there is anarchy,
oppression, and tyranny. The results of Satan’s attack on the law of God
are all too evident in the world today.
In Eden, God gave Adam
and Eve instructions and responsibilities. Since there were just two
people, the whole earth was theirs to enjoy. Imagine how big it must
have seemed to them! They were to demonstrate their loyalty and
obedience to God by not eating of a certain tree in the garden (Gen.
As sinless human beings, the law of God was their
God wrote this law on the hearts of every human being when He
created the first humans in His image. In Eden, they did not focus on
law but rather on how best to praise and honor their Creator, thereby
reaching far beyond the law and surpassing its minimum requirements.
Sinless beings lived only to do God’s will; they kept the law of God by
their very nature.
Today, if people keep the minimum requirements
of the civil law, they will stay out of jail. This is what many choose
to do with God’s law; they keep the bare minimum-that which is written
in stone. The problem is that, when people keep a law that is written
only on stone, obedience is mechanical and without love. God wants to
write His law in our hearts so that we can keep His law from a heart
filled with love for Him and our fellow human beings. When Jesus came to
earth, He introduced the kingdom of grace. In the Sermon on the Mount,
He emphasized keeping the law from the motives and attitudes of the
The everlasting covenant, with its promise of grace and
redemption, became effective only after sin but remained a mystery until
Levels of Agreement
One can use
different terms to describe an agreement between parties. These vary in
commitment. Intent to do something is often unspoken and is subject to
the whims of the individual. A promise must be kept to meet another’s
expectations. When a person makes a promise and breaks it, it lessens
the credibility of the person who promised. A vow is a more serious
commitment than a promise and must be fulfilled to avoid a specified
A covenant includes the concepts of intent, promise,
and vow. A covenant is formal and includes commitment, stipulations, and
consequences. In ancient times, signatories often sealed a covenant by
blood, either that of both parties, of one party, or by animals
representing the parties. A covenant may be one-sided or binding on both
sides. By contrast, a modern contract incurs only monetary loss.
Scripture uses the term “everlasting covenant” to describe the covenant
made in the council of the Godhead before the foundation of the world.
Scripture also uses the term for the covenant that God made with Abraham
(Gen. 17), showing that the covenant has two aspects. That God called
“My covenant” shows that He considers it to be uniquely His own,
especially because the term bears close relation to two other terms,
which establish its independence from humans: the everlasting covenant
and the new covenant. That Abraham had to accept it by faith shows that
humans have a role to play in accepting the covenant.
Careful reading will show that God expected a faith
response from humans every time He gave them His covenant. He assumed
this response from Adam and Eve when, fresh out of Eden, they sinned.
Noah responded in faith by preaching and building the ark over the
course of 120 years. Abraham responded in faith, believing that God
would do all that He promised.
However, this response was missing
when the people at Sinai made their own promises instead of receiving
the covenant in faith.6
Obedience has always been important, and it is
important today. It was God’s will that people have faith in the
prophesied Redeemer to take hold of grace for power to do God’s will.
The issue of faith was and is always critical.
After Israel broke
their covenant of human promises, Moses interceded with God four times
until God took them back into His covenant. God said, “Behold, I make a
covenant: “ (Exod. 34:10).
Whenever God makes a covenant, it is
serious business. He had already made a covenant with Abraham. The real
and effective ratification was yet to come when Jesus gave Himself in
sacrifice on the cross. What covenant then did God make with Israel in
Exodus 34:10? He had already given Israel what He referred to as “My
covenant” in Exodus 19:5.
One must distinguish God’s unique “My
covenant” from other covenants He has made
with humans. In Exodus 34:10,
God is not speaking of His “My covenant,” which humanity cannot change
or break but can only accept by faith. It is the faith response that
makes it a covenant between God and the human family. On that occasion,
they showed their faith by liberally contributing gold, silver, and
other materials, and their meticulous handwork to make the sanctuary.
The Covenant of God Is More Than a Promise
God made much,
much more than a promise; He made an everlasting covenant, which is a
formal commitment to humanity. The Creator of this earth covenanted to
live on this sinful planet as a human being and die that we might live!
The plan of salvation and the everlasting gospel are terms that express
the same idea as the everlasting covenant. When we understand the
covenant, it brings into sharp focus the gospel and the plan of
God’s commitment to the covenant assures us of the
permanence of His intent. Jesus Christ confirmed the everlasting
covenant at Calvary. The cross makes clear the meaning of all doctrines
and makes possible the promises and blessings of God.
knows “the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10). This makes His answers
to problems always the best. The Godhead, in council before the creation
of the world, made God’s everlasting covenant. Human beings cannot break
this covenant, for they had no part in making it. We can only trust and
have confidence in God’s solemn promise (Heb. 6:13-16).
concept of the covenant is ancient, and it takes a number of forms.
Since ancient times, covenants between men and nations were common. Some
scholars look to the covenant of God with Adam after sin for the origin
of the covenant. Others look to the classic ancient covenant of the
Hittite Suzerainty Treaty, the components of which are listed below.
• First came a preamble, introducing the parties involved and
describing the gifts they were to exchange.
• Then there was a
prologue, discussing the ability of each party to perform expected
• At this point, there was often a blood ceremony.
• Then came the stipulations, delineating the actions that were
expected of either one or both parties for the duration of the treaty.
These were followed by blessings if the stipulations of the treaty were
upheld and curses if they were not.
• Lastly, the parties shared
a sacrificial meal to symbolize their joint participation in the treaty.
Scripture does not always use the terms “covenant” or “testament” in
every presentation of the covenant. Often it identifies the covenant by
using the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or by repeating the promise
of land. Since a covenant with God is either long lasting or permanent,
Scripture often does not repeat all the same details. The promise of a
Redeemer, of pardon for sins, of salvation, and of restoration are
permanent aspects of God’s covenant. When God “makes” a covenant with
humankind, it often includes promises specific
to a local situation or
the promise of land. Many of God’s promises in Scripture are not
covenants. These He gave in response to particular needs. The focus on
Jesus’ sinless life and sacrifice on the cross identifies the
everlasting covenant. The specific covenant promise is, “I will be to
them a God, and they shall be to me a people” (Heb. 8:10).7,8
The creation is kept under the laws of God (Gen. 1;
John 1:1-3; Ps. 8:3, 136:7-9; Isa. 40:26).
role in the origin of sin, see Ellen G. White, “Why Was Sin Permitted?”
Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing
Association, 2005), pp. 35-43.
“The law of God is as sacred as
God Himself. It is a revelation of His will, a transcript of His
character, the expression of divine love and wisdom” (Patriarchs and
Prophets, p. 52).4.
When God created Adam and Eve, He gave them
instructions on how to live (Gen. 1:26-2:24). This will be expanded in
our next chapter, “Adam and Eve in Eden.”
The plan of
salvation was a mystery hidden from the foundation of the world (Rom.
16:25-26; 1 Cor. 2:6-9; Eph. 3:9-11, 17-19; Col. 1:26-28). What Makes a
That the missing ingredient was faith is seen in
Paul’s statement in Hebrews 4: “For unto us was the gospel preached, as
well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being
mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Heb. 4:2).
forms of “I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people” are
repeated throughout Scripture (Gen. 17:7,8.
covenant promise. "I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to
you a God." Exod. 6:7; 33:14-17;
Lev. 26:12; Deut. 29:13; Jer. 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezek.
11:20; 14:11; 34:30; 36:28; 37:23, 26, 27; 39:22; Hosea 2:23; Zech. 8:8;
13:9; 2 Cor. 6:16; Heb. 8:10; and Rev. 21:3, 7).