When is a covenant not a covenant? First; we need to define the word:the simplest definition is perhaps the most ready and apt; according to the Westminster Dictionary of the Bible ( Davis rev. Gehman-1944 ), a covenant is 'an agreement between two or more persons'. I believe that most any dictionary will give you pretty much the same definition as this, and while , as Davis goes on to say 'Various covenants between man and man are mentioned in Scripture ( Genesis 21:27, 32, I Samuel 18:3, 23:18, I Kings 20:34, etc. ). More important are those in which God condescended to be a covenanting party. His covenant with man is a free promise on His part, generally based upon the fulfillment of certain conditions by man'. Let's stop right there for a minute; is a gift conditional? If so, can it truly be said to be free? I agree, in the sense of Davis' words above, that God 'condescended to become a covenanting party', but can we really say that He is merely a 'party' to the covenant? This all goes right to the nature of God! As our Creator, that really was a condescension of God to humble Himself to come down to our level ( created being ) and covenant with us, and in that sense, this covenant may be described as conditional, but when God first decided within Himself, within the Godhead, you might say, to 'make man in Our image' ( Genesis 1:26 ), He did not ask man if he wanted to be made, and when God saw that there was no 'helper comparable to him', He did not first ask Adam whether he would rather be alone ( in fact, God formed the animals first out of the ground, and brought them to Adam ), but rather, put Adam under ( into 'a deep sleep' ), removed a part of him, and formed Eve, whom He then brought to Adam. He did not say that Adam could have Eve as long as certain conditions were met, although He did tell Adam, in other words, that if he refrained from eating of the forbidden tree, he would be able to keep his life, his 'breath' ( Genesis 2:17 ( 2:7 ).
It is becoming more popular, as it has been in the past, in Christian circles, anyway, to have, and sign a marriage covenant, and not just to have a legal document from any certain state, recognized by that state as legal and binding. The marriage covenant is, like we saw earlier, 'an agreement between two or more people'. Not trying to be weird here, but witnesses, to say nothing of THE Witness, are just as important to this covenant as the two who are getting married. There are certain conditions, based upon mutual agreement, to be met, or the covenant can be considered null and void. For instance; if either party ( husband or wife ) is unfaithful to the vows of this covenant, the other party may gracefully ( and legally ) 'bow out' of said covenant. This brings up an interesting question, 'is it legal in God's eyes, just because it's legal in the eyes of the state?' It is true that God instituted the marriage covenant, when He 'brought her to the man' ( Genesis 2:22 ), but the Scriptures do not record that God's gift to Adam was conditional; He did not tell Adam, 'if you will go to sleep; I will make you a helper', or 'if you will allow me; I will bring you a wife to hold', instead, He saw what was needed, and having covenanted with Himself, did what needed done!
There is no doubt, for Scripture is very clear, that God based His dealings with His creation upon covenant, but did He covenant with His creation, or did His creation come to be through His covenant? As we saw earlier, though the word 'covenant' is not mentioned, in Genesis 1, 2, or 3, the principle of covenant between God and man is most clearly laid out in Genesis 2:16 & 17, 'Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it, you shall surely die'. This most surely does imply, at least, a conditional covenant, a covenant, legal and binding, between two parties.
Deuteronomy, chapters 27-31, outlines, if you will, the terms and conditions of the covenant that God instituted with His people, where God promised to bless them, and they promised to obey His 'terms and conditions'. The terms and conditions of this covenant were met, to varying degrees, and God kept His part, and blessed them, to varying degrees, but eventually, 'in the fullness of time', God revealed the superiority of His Covenant, the One He made with Himself and 'sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were born under the law' ( Galatians 4:4 ), in other words, those born under the old covenant.
In a sense, the 'new covenant' that God instituted in favorite passages like Jeremiah 31:31-34, Isaiah 65:17, and etc., is such a covenant as well, 'an agreement between two or more parties', but in an even greater sense, it is One and the same with THE Covenant! It has been pointed out to me, from passages such as I John 1:9, that this new covenant WAS made conditional; 'If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive [ us ] sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness', 'Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments' ( 2:3 ), 'if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin'. Peter wrote, speaking of the 'progressive graces', 'if these things are yours, and abound, you [ will be ] neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ' ( II Peter 1:8 ), while Paul wrote 'Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth', ( Colossians 2:2 ), and 'work out your own salvation with fear and trembling' ( Philippians 1:12b ), but are these conditions, or are they simply out-workings of the Covenant, of what God has done? We have a responsibility, there can be no doubt, to do all these things, and yes, if we do not do these things, 'and abound', we will not enjoy the blessings of His covenant, so in that sense, it is not the Covenant that is conditional, but the blessings of that Covenant!
The writer to the Hebrews reminded his readers that 'if that first [ covenant? ] had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says, 'Behold, the days are coming, that I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah-not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant and I disregarded them', says the Lord. 'For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days', says the Lord; 'I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his brother, and none his neighbor, saying, 'Know the Lord', for all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their un-righteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds, I will remember no more'. Quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34 here, in Hebrews 8:7-12, the writer reminded his people that it was because of the failure of His people to obey His covenant, the agreement they had made ( Joshua 24:21-24 ), that He instituted, and established, a 'new' covenant, a covenant which He signed Himself, and sealed, by sending of Himself, in the form of Jesus, the Son of Man ( Matthew 1:21 ), and the Comforter ( John 16:7-16 ( 14:26 ). Again; there is no asking here: God did not ask to put His 'laws in their mind and write them on their hearts', He just did it, and there is no hint of the people asking God to forgive their sins, but He announced that 'I will be merciful to their un-righteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds, I will remember no more'.
It is clear to me that the Covenant that God created, through which man came to be, was not a conditional one, although He did institute one with man, what might be called a 'test case' ( Paul called it a 'tutor' (Galatians 3:24 ),that had conditions that must be met ( perfectly ), thereby showing man that he could not keep an agreement, but that he must have a substitute, One that could keep that agreement, those terms and conditions to the letter!
In the love of God, and for His people,
Charles Haddon Shank