2 Kinds of Covenants in the Bible You Need to Know
There are two kinds of covenants in the Bible, and every person needs to know them.
If you are an adult, you have likely signed a contract at some point in time, perhaps for a purchase or to participate in an event of some kind. We find various contracts throughout the Bible, but they are usually called covenants. In order to understand how God makes and keeps his promises, we need to look at the biblical meaning of covenants, because they are involved in all the major parts of the biblical story.
It’s easy to overlook the word covenant since it sounds antiquated and out of date, but understanding this word is the key to making sense of the entire Bible.
There are two main types of covenants in the Bible: conditional and unconditional. Let’s first look at both by using examples from everyday life today. Later, we can apply these distinctions to biblical covenants.
What is a conditional covenant?
A conditional covenant is an agreement between two or more parties that requires certain terms to be met. If the terms are met, there will be one kind of result (favorable). If the terms are not met, there will be a different result (unfavorable). Here are some examples of conditional covenants:
- A company hires a contractor to construct an office building for a certain amount of money. If the contractor fails to complete the building as laid out in the contract agreement, the company will withhold payment to the contractor.
- A woman hires an accountant to help her with filing a tax return. She shows up for the appointment, but the accountant chooses to spend extra time with another client and misses the appointment. The woman decides to fire the accountant and hire someone else who is more reliable.
In both cases, some type of work was expected on the part of a certain person in order to get a certain result. These conditional covenants are also called "covenants of works."
While the Mosaic covenant was an administration of the unconditional Abrahamic covenant of grace, it had a conditional aspect in respect to the physical land promise: the people of Israel needed to keep the stipulations of the covenant in order to stay in the Promised Land (see Isa. 5:1-7). They repeatedly broke the covenant and were eventually sent into exile:
For thus says the Lord GOD, "I will also do with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath by breaking the covenant. (Ezek. 16:59)
What is an unconditional covenant?
An unconditional covenant is an agreement between two or more parties that involves no stipulations of any kind for fulfillment of the agreement. Here are two examples of unconditional covenants:
- A father and mother promise unconditionally to pay for college in full for their child. The child’s grades and general behavior cannot affect the keeping of the promise. Even if the child is a poor student, disrespectful, or involved with drugs, the parents must follow through on their commitment.
- A person bequeaths property to another person in a will/testament, with no conditions needing to be fulfilled by the recipient to receive the property.
An unconditional covenant is also known as a "covenant of grace" or a grant. In unconditional covenants, agreement by both parties is not necessary. One party makes an oath to another person and keeps it, regardless of the opinion/wants of the other party. The Abrahamic covenant is an example of an unconditional covenant. There was nothing Abraham could do to break the covenant God made with him:
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.” (Gen. 15:18-21)
All people—both Christians and non-Christians—need to know whether a biblical covenant is conditional or unconditional, because this distinction determines its meaning for them personally today.
To dig deeper regarding God's covenants, check out “8 Covenants in the Bible and What They Mean for You Personally Today.”
Recommended: Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored (Second Edition) by Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele
This article is adapted from "How to Read Your Bible: God's Promises Made" at cccdiscover.com.