Covenant and contract — are they different things?
Is there a difference between a covenant and a contract? Many Christians think there is.
In modern parlance there is difference: the word ‘covenant’ suggests an emotional relationship, whereas the word ‘contract’ connotes a non-emotional relationship which is entered into solely for material or financial benefits. For us, contracts are legal documents that are drawn up in precise language to carefully specify the expected duties and responsibilities of the respective parties, to safeguard the rights of the parties, and to spell out penalties or consequences if one party reneges..
So we think we know what contracts and covenants are. And we believe there is a big difference between them.
But in the Bible, that big difference does not exist. The Bible does not use the word “contract”. And when it uses the word ‘covenant’, its meaning embraces quite a lot of what we mean by the word “contract” — terms, expectations, rights, duties, recourse and consequences if one party reneges.
Dear reader, please humor me as I clumsily imitate the oratory of our Lord:
You have heard it said “Marriage is a covenant; not a contract.” But I say to you, this is incorrect. This notion has come about by taking modern distinctions of terminology and laying them onto the Bible with little respect or understanding for how the Old Testament and New Testament writers used the term “covenant”.
Those who say “Marriage is a covenant; not a contract” are confused, or ignorant. Or worse: they may be wittingly falsely contrasting covenants and contracts in order to keep victims of destructive marriages entrapped in destructive marriages.
The confusion about covenant and contract takes a bit of unpacking to explain, so let me take you step by step though it. Are you ready to work out quadratic equations with your fingers and toes? I hope so, because it’s almost that complicated.
1) The modern English-speaking world ascribes different meanings to the words “covenant” and “contract”; but the Bible did not do so.
2) The Bible used only one word, “covenant”, but it uses the word “covenant” in two different ways.
3) The two different uses of the Biblical word “covenant” are NOT congruent with the two different meanings of “covenant” and “contract” in modern English.
No wonder people have got confused!
4) The confounding of the two Biblical usages of “covenant” has caused a lot of confusion in the church at large, and it has piled spiritual abuse on victims of marital abuse.
The Bible does not make a distinction between “covenant” and “contract” in the same way that we do. In the Bible, the word “covenant” covers a lot of the semantic range that our word “contract” covers.
We see this exemplified in the many instances in the Old Testament where a ruler of a dominant nation such as Assyria or Babylon made a covenant with a vassal state. The ruler of the dominant nation said, “You guys have to pay me tribute and obey the administrators I appoint for your area, and if you do this, I and my administration will not make war on you, we will allow you to live under our rule. But if you don’t obey or pay tribute, well we will make war with you and kill you or take you into captivity so you can no longer live in your land.” That is a rather like a contract in our modern day sense, is it not? In modern contracts, the penalty for breaking the contract is not usually death or captivity but there is still a basic agreement: I do this for you; you do this for me, and the arrangement give each of us benefits. The Bible and the cultures in the Ancient Near East called this a covenant, and the ‘cutting’ of the covenant was equivalent to the signing of a modern day contract.
Here is what David Instone-Brewer says about this:
As originally written [in the Bible], there was no distinction between “covenant” and “contract”. There is only one word [in Biblical Hebrew] for both and there is no reason to believe that this word represented more than one type of agreement. This applies not only to the OT use of the term “covenant” but also to its use in the NT and beyond into the Church Fathers. Throughout this period, the term “covenant” meant a contract that could be broken if either side reneged on their half of the agreement. [emphasis added]
In the New Testament and beyond, there was also a second, entirely separate meaning of “covenant” as the “New Covenant” (i.e., New Testament). This [second meaning] developed alongside the traditional meaning of covenant as contract.
The theological [the second] meaning of “covenant” is an agreement that a faithful person would not break even if the partner to whom that person is in covenant breaks the stipulations of the covenant. This new meaning of “covenant” is based on the covenantal relationship between God and his people in the later prophets and the New Testament. In the later prophets, God promised that he would keep his side of the agreement whether or not his people kept theirs. God would be faithful even if his people were faithless. This irrevocable covenant was portrayed in Ezekeil 36-37 and Jeremiah 31 as a “new covenant”. This is different to every other type of covenant found in the ancient Near East or in the Old Testament. It is this difference that made the “new covenant” so special.
Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context, David Instone-Brewer, p. 17. [*Affiliate link]
So, there are two kinds of covenant in the Bible: unconditional, and conditional.
An unconditional covenant is a unilateral covenant.
A conditional covenant is a bilateral covenant
In Not Under Bondage [*Affiliate link] pp. 69-71, I talk about how the New Covenant is an unconditional covenant. As believers who have been given the gift of saving faith, we have been made positionally righteous before God but we still battle with the flesh and we still sin —and it grieves us. We are never going to be perfectly holy while awaiting our redemption in the new heavens and new earth that God has promised. But God will be faithful even when we are faithless. This is what makes the New Covenant so unique. God chooses to bestow His grace upon us — favor that we have not merited — simply because He chooses to. You can’t “go figure”: it is not about fairness or logic or desert, it’s just — amazing.
The New Covenant is particularly unique and extraordinary because in a sense there is one condition: our repentance; but that condition is met by God (!) who gives us conviction of sin and reveals Christ to us, giving us the new birth and bringing us into the New Covenant, the Kingdom of God, with all its blessings of adoption, justification and redemption. He does this out of his sheer grace and loving kindness towards us which he lavished upon us in Christ Jesus.
All other covenants — all interpersonal covenants between human beings, or between nation states or groups of people — are not unconditional. They are conditional covenants. They are bilateral; which means if one party to the covenant reneges on the terms, the other party is at liberty to walk away and declare the covenant void because of the other party has reneged.
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I originally published a version of this article as a comment in another thread on this blog, but since it is such a major confusion, I think it deserves a post on its own as well. You can see my original version here, with an extensive comment thread after it. Thank you to Valerie, because it was her comment in that thread which provoked me to write this. And thank you to the people who commented in that other thread, as your comments have helped me hammer and polish this post.
*Amazon affiliate link — ACFJ gets a small percentage if you purchase via this link.
- Posted in: Christianity
- Tagged: Barbara Roberts, David Instone-Brewer, divorce, getting free, interpreting Scripture
A very good post, on an important topic, Barbara!
I recently encountered a guy who not only made some rather confused (and incorrect) distinctions between covenants and contracts, but also believed all covenants to be unilateral, and described marriage as reciprocal unilateral covenants. I struggled knowing where even to begin addressing such a confused perspective, for which there is absolutely no basis in the biblical record, the historical record, nor the literary record.
Years ago, when I first began studying biblical covenants, the bilateral (conditional) and unilateral (unconditional) covenants were explained to me, much as you have described here, and that model made sense to me, at the time.
Over time, my perspective has shifted somewhat, from this model. I no longer see any basis or need for the concept of a unilateral (unconditional) covenant.
Our New Covenant with God through Christ is certainly unique. However, I see it as unique, not in nature or definition, but rather in fulfillment. It is an eternal covenant, not because there are no covenant terms, but rather because Jesus Christ has already fulfilled those terms on our behalf.
As I explained it in a recent post on my blog, “To put it in modern contract terms, Father and the Holy Spirit signed on the God signature line while Jesus signed on the man signature line.”
There are several ways of demonstrating this, using several scripture passages. This post describes one way I see scripture bearing out this concept: Covenant Seed [Internet Archive link]
Thank you for a good post on an important topic…and an area in which there seems to be much confusion adding to the guilt and bondage of believer’s ensnared in abusive marriages.
Yikes! that is a tangled mess that I wouldn’t know how to untangle either. I couldn’t even hope to find the ends of the string, assuming there were ends and it wasn’t just a circular piece of string that had no end.
Yes, I wound up simply challenging him to review the many scriptures referring to breaking covenant, violating covenant, or acting treacherously toward a covenant partner, and to consider how it would be possible to violate a covenant that had no terms or conditions.
well done, Joe! that’s an impressive list
I do not think the new covenant is the only example of a one sided covenant, which is also called a promise covenant or just a promise.
Gal 3:17 This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.
What Paul is saying is that the Mosaic covenant did not annul the Abrahamic covenant, which was a promise covenant.
Rom 9:8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.
Rom 9:9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.”
Gen 17:19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.
It is a little complicated as God made 3 covenants with Abraham, in Gen 12, 15, and 17.
I see covenants as the bones of the Bible as the other parts hang off of them (so to speak) so it is important to understand them.
Another example is God’s promise to David.
2 Ch 13:5 Ought you not to know that the LORD God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?
I like that.
I think you and I may agree more than is immediately self evident, Don, and I’m sorry if the wording of my post was not as good as it could have been. I agree with you that God made a promise (or ‘promise-covenant’) to Abraham, and reiterated its essence to David. I see those promises as pointing to the New Covenant. Thanks for chiming in.
Don, I absolutely agree with your reference to covenant as “the bones of the Bible as the other parts hang off of.” I have sometimes referred to covenant as the fabric of the biblical cultures or the common thread that ties promises in Genesis to prophecies in Revelation.
I also agree with your references to the “promise covenants.” However, I see the promise covenants not as lacking terms and conditions, but rather as being enacted based on the promise of a future fulfillment of the terms and conditions by Adam’s heir, Abraham’s seed, and the off-shoot of David, the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
All covenants have terms and conditions, but one difference is whether one party is responsible for fulfilling them or whether each party has responsibilities.
The concept of a covenant is simple, but some have tried to make it into something it is not. It is an agreement with responsibilities and benefits and if a party does not meet the responsibilities they accepted, then the other party can choose to terminate the covenant or not. One aspect is that God always keeps his part of the bargain, we have a covenant keeping God; this is in contrast to the Islamic conception, who can violate the conditions if he wants; but the Judeo-Christian God keeps his covenant promises.
Just to clarify, my perspective of the promise covenants is that they have terms and conditions that each part is responsible for fulfilling, just as with any other covenant.
The difference is that with the promise covenant, God enacts the covenant on the basis of man’s covenant obligations being fulfilled at a future date by an heir that God promises to provide, who is capable of fulfilling man’s covenant obligations.
For example, in God’s covenant with Abraham, the covenant both promises a seed (Jesus, the Messiah, who is heir to Abraham and to Abraham’s covenants) and relies on that seed (Jesus) to ratify the covenant and to fulfill the covenant requirements for Abraham and Abraham’s heirs.
Here is a post where I explain this in a little more detail: Covenant Seed [Internet Archive link]
Blessings to you!
I do not see any covenant requirements for Abraham in Gen 15. Yes, he set up the animal pathway for the covenant initiation ceremony, but God went thru it, not Abraham. This indicates that God is the one making the vows and will keep them, not Abraham.
Well, your perspective, I’m sure, matches the majority. I thought you might enjoy reading a little different perspective.
Thanks for reading and responding.
Well said Barbara, well said! Once again, I have been left with the feeling someone at ACFJ must have been sitting in on the awful counseling sessions I endured….
Wow, So much to take in. I read this through then had to give my brain a rest, take a nap and then go back through it. It’s getting clearer now.
This seems to be where those with the no other way but the permanence view of marriage are camped out at. God was keeping his part of the covenant no matter what we did. I know that Piper’s This Momentary Marriage clearly states that if your spouse doesn’t keep up their end of the covenant the injured spouse must continue to keep up their part no matter what. It does seem clear however, that God was making his final covenant. He wasn’t renegotiating. He wasn’t saying anything about earthly marriage. This was between Him and His people only.
Yes I think you’re right, Brenda. The permanence crowd are camped there.
A little detour on this thread:
Here’s what my n-husband said (who said he got this from his Christian mentor) that marriage is basically a contract where the husband provides guidance, protection, and finances in exchange for the wife providing sex, caring for the children & house. This was his way of trying to drive home I owe him sex.
yet another example of how abusers can turn each and every flower pot on its head!
You “owe” no one nothing. Jesus said to Love the Lord your God with all you heart and love your neighbor as yourself. I see no where in scripture what H is describing. There are many 2 parent working families. The remainder of the work has to be divided somehow as a team. If your husband is getting this from a Christian mentor, he needs to find a new one.
Forgot to mention, he didn’t provide guidance (unless you call “do it my way or else”) guidance. As far as protection, I needed someone to protect me from him. Finances he let me handle, but now I have no access to where he deposits the pay check. But by golly, he still wants sex—-not happening due to a serious health problem I have. Sorry buddy that is now restricted!
UPDATE Sept 2021: I have come to believe that Jeff Crippen does not practise what he preaches. He vilely persecuted an abuse victim and spiritually abused many other people in the Tillamook congregation. Go here to read the evidence. Jeff has not gone to the people that he spiritually and emotionally abused. He has not apologised to them, let alone asked for their forgiveness.
Yep friends, Jeff and I each published a post this Sunday! Woops.
We have been very busy and tired. Never mind. You got one heady doctrinal post, and one psalm of encouragement post, so take what you please.
The more the merrier.
Amen! I am reminded of God’s first covenant with Abraham, who was given unto sleep while God Himself passed through the carcasses in the form of a smoking firepot and flaming torch. It was God Himself Who did the work then and does the work now – requiring from us only repentance, which He Himself again grants – our faith being a gift of God ( Ephesians 2:8-9). It is conditional upon repentance, but God gives what we need to meet His conditions. I am reminded also of Augustine’s words, “Grant what Thou commandest and command what Thou wilt.”
Still Reforming, thanks for this. I read that narrative from Genesis to my unsaved daughter a few months ago, when we were having a sweet d and m (deep and meaningful) chat on my bed late at night. She, for all her – as yet – rejection of the gospel, was moved deeply by the story.
For me, that is one of the biblical stories that always takes my breath away.
Thanks Barbara for this thought provoking post. I’ve always seen marriage as symbolic of the picture of Christ’s covenant love for the church as stated in Ephesians. The scriptural ideal is for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and wives submitting to their husbands as to Christ. I see God’s covenant with us as unilateral in that it is extended to all, yet all will not receive it making it a conditional covenant of sorts on our part. I think I view marriage similarly. I believe in the permanence view of marriage as Christ’s ideal. Adam and Eve not sinning was also God’s ideal. I believe our hearts should enter marriage with the view that this is forever YET also that we take vows to only work for the good of our partner (meaning as a whole, since as imperfect people we will sometimes act selfishly). As I understand scripture various places indicate that the Spirit can be quenched to the point we can no longer hear God. We can harden our hearts to the point that we can no longer have opportunity to partake of God’s covenant with us.
So going back to the symbolism of marriage, I believe that marriage is a covenant but one that can be quenched through the hardening of hearts to the point the covenant is no longer possible, just as there is a point a covenant with God is no longer possible. Just my take on it. I have not thoroughly processed all the aspects of this post yet.
Perhaps where more confusion arises is from those who take the symbolism of marriage to the extent that they also believe we give ourselves up for our spouse in order to save/redeem them. This we can not do!