The OT term berith (BDB 136, KB 157), "covenant," is not easy to define. There is no matching verb in Hebrew. All attempts to derive an etymological or cognate definition have proved unconvincing. Possibly the best guess is "to cut" (BDB 144), denoting the animal sacrifice that accompanied covenants (cf. Gen. 15:10,17). However, the obvious centrality of the concept has forced scholars to examine the word's usage in an attempt to determine its functional meaning.

Covenant is the means by which the one true God (see Special  Topic: Monotheism) deals with His human creation. The concept of covenant, treaty, or agreement is crucial in understanding the biblical revelation. The tension between God's sovereignty and human free-will are clearly seen in the concept of covenant. Some covenants are based exclusively on God's character and actions.

1. creation itself (cf. Genesis 1-2)

2. the preservation and promise to Noah (cf. Genesis 6-9)

3. the call of Abraham (cf. Genesis 12)

4. the covenant with Abraham (cf. Genesis 15)

However, the very nature of covenant demands a response.

1. by faith Adam must obey God and not eat of the tree in the midst of Eden

2. by faith Noah must build a huge boat far from water and gather the animals

3. by faith Abraham must leave his family, follow God, and believe in future descendants

4. by faith Moses brought the Israelites out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai and received specific guidelines for religious and social life with promises of blessings and cursings (cf. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 27-28)

This same tension involving God's relationship to humanity is addressed in the "new covenant" (cf. Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 7:22; 8:6,8,13; 9:15; 12:24). The tension can be clearly seen in comparing Ezek. 18:31 with Ezek. 36:27-38 (YHWH's action). Is the covenant based on God's gracious actions or a mandated human response? This is the burning issue between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The goals of both are the same:

1. the restoration of fellowship with YHWH lost in Genesis 3

2. the establishment of a righteous people who reflect God's character.

The new covenant of Jer. 31:31-34 solves the tension by removing human performance as the means of attaining acceptance. God's law becomes an internal desire instead of an external legal code. The goal of a godly, righteous people remains the same, but the methodology changes. Fallen mankind proved themselves inadequate to be God's reflected image. The problem was not God's covenant, but human sinfulness and weakness (cf. Genesis 3; Romans 7; Galatians 3).

The same tension between OT unconditional and conditional covenants remains in the NT. Salvation is absolutely free in the finished work of Jesus Christ, but it requires repentance and faith (both initially and continually, see  Special Topic: Believe in the NT).  Jesus calls His new relationship with believers "a new covenant" (cf. Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). It is both a legal pronouncement (forensic) and a call to Christlikeness (cf. Matt. 5:48; Rom. 8:29-30; 2 Cor. 3:18; 7:1; Gal. 4:19; Eph. 1:4; 4:13; 1 Thess. 3:13; 4:3,7; 5:23; 1 Pet. 1:15), an indicative statement of acceptance (Romans 4) and an imperative call to holiness (Matt. 5:48)! Believers are not saved by their performance, but unto obedience (cf. Eph. 2:8-10; 2 Cor. 3:5-6). Godly living becomes the evidence of salvation, not the means of salvation (i.e., James and 1 John). However, eternal life has observable characteristics! This tension is clearly seen in the warnings in the NT (see S pecial T opic: Apostasy).

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