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.
, 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.