The Bible isn’t always the easiest book to read. Some parts make more sense than others. It can be hard to know how all the books of the Bible fit together. One phrase that does a good job summing up the Bible is “God’s promises made and kept.”
Have you ever signed a contract? 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 It’s easy to overlook the word covenant since it sounds antiquated and out of date, but understanding this word is the key to making sense of the entire Bible.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 (usually favorable). If the terms are not met, there will be a different result (usually 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.
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.
- Marriage used to be a good example of an unconditional covenant. If you look at the traditional marriage vows, there are no stipulations of any kind—just promises. Many people today no longer view marriage vows with the seriousness they once were given in society.
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 can choose to commit to an oath/promise to another and keep it, regardless of the opinion/wants of the other party. We see this kind of one-sided agreement when someone makes a last will and testament to direct the distribution of his or her property upon death.