The Heart of The Covenants

The plural “covenants” in the title is important for there is no single over-arching covenant of grace in the scriptures, but rather a series of distinct covenants. There is also no covenant of works with Eve and Adam.[1] Nor shall I begin this essay with the covenant given to Noah,[2] but rather with the more important covenant that was vouchsafed to Abram.[3]

When God assured the elderly Abram that his own issue would be his heir and that from him descendants would multiply to be as numerous as the stars in heaven (Genesis 15:4–5),[4] he took God at his word and this was attributed to Abram as righteousness (v. 6).[5] However, when God then promised to give to him the land of Canaan, Abram’s faith faltered and he queried, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it” (v. 8)? God assured him of its certainty by “cutting a covenant” (Jeremiah 34:18).

Abram is instructed to sever several animals and to lay the divided carcasses out in parallel rows. That evening the divine presence passed between the two lines of carcasses and thus God bound himself with a covenant to keep his promise to give to Abram and his descendants the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,” (Genesis 15:18). So what is a “covenant?” A covenant is a promise (Genesis 21:1–2; Judges 2:1), a promise on oath (Genesis 24:7; 50:24; Deuteronomy 6:23; 8:1), a sworn promise (Exodus 6:8; Deuteronomy 1:8; 4:31; Psalm 89:3; 105:9; Hebrews 6:13–17).

When God makes a binding promise, it is not a negotiated agreement between himself and others; it is more the Lord’s personal guarantee that he will fulfill his stated intentions. It is more like a last will and testament, and this is how it is sometimes understood in the Bible (see Galatians 3:15–17; Hebrews 9:16–18).[6] If we were to promise to leave, on our demise, our house to our children, my wife and I would then bind ourselves to that promise legally by making a last will and testament, and that is analogous to God affirming his promise by making a covenant—the beneficiaries have no control over the matter.

Thus, God’s covenant-promise to Abraham involved three elements.[7] First, that from his seed a multitude of descendants would spring up. Second, that they would possess the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession. And third, that they would be his people and he would be their God (“I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring [seed] after you” (Genesis 17:7 italics added). The last promise, of a relationship between God and his people, is not only the heart of this covenant, but also of all the other covenants, as we shall see.[8]

This unique covenantal relationship between God and Israel is frequently affirmed: I will take you as my people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7); “They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness” (Zechariah 8:8). These three promises were repeated to Isaac and Jacob (Israel) (Exodus 2:4; 6:8; 32:13; Deuteronomy 9:5).

The first fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and his heirs was during the Exodus period. “Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (Joshua 21:45; 1 Kings 8:56). “Not one thing has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised … all have come to pass for you, not one of them has failed” (Joshua 23:14–15). First, the promise that Abraham would be the progenitor of a mighty nation was fulfilled in Egypt where they multiplied at the rate of the proverbial rabbit: “But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). “The Lord your God has multiplied you, so that today you are as numerous as the stars of heaven” (Deuteronomy 1:10–11)![9]

Second, the promise that they would possess the land of Canaan as an inheritance came to pass. After wandering for forty years in the wilderness, the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the land of Canaan and began to take control of it by force. “See, I have set the land before you; go in and take possession of the land that I swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their descendants[seed] after them” (Deuteronomy 1:8). “After he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance” (Acts 13:19; Deuteronomy 7:1).

Third, that the Lord would be their God and they his people. God assured the Israelites that the promise he made to Abraham “to be God to you and to your seed after you” (Genesis 17:7) had now come to pass: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exodus 6:7). “And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:12, see also18:2); “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; it is you the Lord has chosen out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 14:2 see also 26:17, 19; 29:13; 2 Samuel 7:24).

Another important covenant guarantees God’s promise to David and his heirs that his throne would stand forever (2 Samuel 7: 13–16; 1 Kings 8:23–26; Psalm 89:3–4; Isaiah 55:3; Jeremiah 33:19–22). This covenant is not centered in a nation, but in an individual. Again, the heart of this covenant is relational, but as David and his descendents are individuals it is couched in paternal terms (“I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me,” 2 Samuel 7:14).

The second fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham is the New Covenant, by which God promised a second exodus of his people from captivity (that is from Babylon (Isaiah 48:20; Jeremiah 33:26). Again it was about the land; specifically repossessing the land (“In those days the house of Judah shall join the house of Israel, and together they shall come from the land of the north to the land that I gave your ancestors for a heritage” (Jeremiah 3:18; 30:3; 31:8). The captives of Israel and of Judah shall return to the Promised Land united (Ezekiel 37:15–23) and be more numerous than they were before the exile (Isaiah 54:1–3). What of the sins of idolatry etcetera that caused the exile? “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34; 33:26).

There is a personal aspect to the New Covenant; it is an intimate religion, where the law is written on the heart (Jeremiah 31:33), where of course it always should have been written (Deuteronomy 5:29 NKJV, and so it is in the NT—2 Corinthians 3:3; Hebrews 8:10; 10:16). The heart of the covenant is still central: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezekiel 36:28; 37:23, 27). So the New Covenant is new in circumstance but not in content. It is God’s promise to restore Israel as a nation and the land as their inheritance. The God-people relationship is intact. The forgiveness of past iniquities is new as is the personal heart religion that Jeremiah emphasizes. So we turn now, finally, to Ezra and Nehemiah.

Ezra–Nehemiah labored to implement the prophetic vision of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah, including the repossession of the Promised Land and the purity of the elect nation. In their endeavor to achieve the latter all the foreign wives and their children were dismissed (“All these had married foreign women, and they sent them away with their children,” Ezra 10:44; Nehemiah 10:28; 13:1, 3), as foreign women led the elect into sin (Nehemiah 13:26, 30). The people of God made a promise or sworn covenant to God to send away the foreign wives and their offspring (Ezra 10:3–5).

Nehemiah rehearses the history of Israel from the call of Abram from Ur of the Chaldeans until the Exodus and the command “to go in to possess the land that you [God] swore to give them” (Nehemiah 9:15). The giving of the Law of Moses was especially emphasized (God “came down also upon Mount Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven, and gave them right ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments,” v. 13). Israel’s long history of transgression is blamed for the nation’s suffering right down to Ezra and Nehemiah’s own day (vv. 16–37).

However, God is exonerated because he fulfilled all his promises for he is righteous (v. 8) and he is “the great and mighty and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love” forever (v. 32; Ezra 3:11). Therefore, all the leaders and people who had remained separate “from the peoples of the land” made a written covenant-oath “to adhere to the law of God,” and “to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord and his ordinances and his statutes” (Nehemiah 10:28–29).

The stark nationalism that began with Moses and that Ezra and Nehemiah emphasized, hardened in the centuries following their writings (see the Books of Maccabees).Thus, in his effort to incorporate Gentiles into the covenant community, Paul faced a formidable history of Jewish separation from Gentiles. He found a solution in the promise that “all the Gentiles shall be blessed in you [Abraham]” (Galatians 3:8a; Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; Acts 3:25). For Paul, that promise was true gospel, since scripture had thus “declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham” (Galatians 3:8b).

For him, the advent of Christ, the truly promised seed, had made the separation of Israel a temporary situation, for in Christ “those who believe are the descendants of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7), “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (v. 26). The gospel’s country is a better heavenly one (Hebrews 11:16), its people is diverse (Colossians 3:11), it provides forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 10:18), and the heart of its covenant is now universal (“I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” (2 Corinthians 6:16; Revelation 21:7). It’s sometimes referred to as the New Covenant (Luke 22:20; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 9:15), but that’s another story.

Norman Young is a Seventh-day Adventist Christian theologian and New Testament scholar. He recently retired as senior lecturer at Avondale College in New South Wales, Australia.

Photo by Melinda Gimpel on Unsplash

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[1] Hosea 6:7 is a place name and not a reference to the Edenic Adam.

[2] The covenant in Genesis 6:18; 9:9–17 confirms God’s promise to Noah never again to inundate the earth with a flood (see Laurence A. Turner, “The Rainbow as the Sign of the Covenant in Genesis IX 11-13,” Vetus Testamentum 43, [1993], 119–124).

[3] The name Abraham does not occur until Genesis 17:5.

[4] It is also described later to be as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore (Genesis 22:17; 32:12).

[5] Biblical references are from the NRSV unless indicated otherwise.

[6] Hence the somewhat pejorative coupling of Old and New Testaments.

[7] The name change coincided with the promise of him becoming the “father of many nations,” Genesis 17:5 (NIV); Romans 4:17.

[8] “The heart of the covenant is the deity’s claim: ‘I will be your God and you will be my people’” (Patrick D. Miller, “Divine Command and Beyond: The Ethics of the Commandments” in William P. Brown (ed.), The Ten Commandments: The Reciprocity of Faithfulness [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004]16).

[9] Which is as God promised the patriarchs (Genesis 15:5; 26:3–4; Exodus 32:13).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

The take away: God can be trusted to do what He says.

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The two covenants with God, the first between Abraham and later the Israelites, were NOT one sided. Abraham was to move to a new place (after his father died) and the Israelites were given not only the 10 commandments at Sinai but also an entire working set of laws/rules on how to run every aspect of their lives and government. Over the thousands of years since both these covenants were instituted the laws/rules by which the Israelites (Jewish nation) are to live has proven to be one that many other countries have attempted to incorporate into their own governments. This has been done without success because only parts of the covenant were included and not the entire covenant with God! There is much we can learn from this. How should we go forward?

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The Adventist take on this is that Israel failed to live up to its side of the agreement, the “remnant” - spiritual Israel, will be successful. God is still waiting for that to be concluded - for perfection to show up in “His people”.

We are making the same mistake the Israelites made - WE, labelling OUR status as “God’s people, the remnant, the 144,000” - and God is waiting for this group to live up to its side of the bargain (covenant). The book of Hebrews explains that the “new covenant” which was a failure, not that God didn’t live up to His promise; but that the Israelites didn’t.

If the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. Hebrews 8:8 goes on to explain why it was necessary or a “new” covenant, based on the blood of Christ, not on our ability to keep the commandments that were part of the first covenant. That does not negate the commandments, but fulfills them in Christ, which places them into our hearts, rather than on our list of accomplishments.

The likelihood of that shift being made in SDA theology is probably 0%.


So true, Sirje.

We are part of the covenant God made with Abraham. God fulfills all of the covenant. Abraham is asleep when God passed between the pieces of the animals, which means that it is an unconditional covenant that God alone fulfills.

Galatians 3:5-9
So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? 6 So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
7 Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.


My impressions and answer to your comments are that God is perfect and we, HIS children are not. (are we ever really trying to follow God and if so why does God keep trying to give us opportunities? Maybe like a loving parent our God knows we CAN do better but may take a little longer…)

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It’s not about doing better. It’s about never being able to be perfectly sinless. [quote=“DPearson, post:6, topic:19385, full:true”]
My impressions and answer to your comments are that God is perfect and we, HIS children are not. (are we ever really trying to follow God and if so why does God keep trying to give us opportunities? Maybe like a loving parent our God knows we CAN do better but may take a little longer…)

It’s not about doing “better”. It’s about always needing the atonement of Christ. It’s about living in faith. Your reply suggests that we are holding back somehow. It’s not about attaining. It’s about accepting God through Christ.


For Paul, the entire first covenant arrangement was truly over. It had met its historical fulfilment and was brought to its climax in Christ. He says it in so many different ways in Galatians as well as in Romans. Thus, the law as covenant, the terms upon which people relate to God and are identified as his people, was a temporary arrangement.

I doubt that this author would ever admit this, but this is so contra Adventist theology and identity, that it is hard to fathom how Galatians is even understood in the denomination. It simply isn’t. The entire denominational identity is bound up with Law and the Sabbath as covenant sign and eschatological identity marker. It flies totally in the face of what Paul wrote in Galatians, and what he taught as necessary for belonging to the people of God, his new creation in and through the Messiah Jesus.

I dare say that if Paul were here today, his contemporarily updated letter would be called the epistle to the Adventists.




We are studying it in Sabbath School, using reputable commentaries and have come to the same conclusion. Paul could never be an Adventist.

Yes, if you follow Paul then the Law is out, the commandments are out, and so on. Can’t have that.


Maybe my posts have not been as concise and clear as I thought when I wrote them. We are all sinners and will remain that way. God’s forgiveness and our acceptance of that are manifested in our outward/inward change in behavior which should be positive even though we each will continue to sin. Our goal is to follow God and accept that we are not perfect and can not even do better without God and our “daily dying to Him”. Being with God daily does not make us perfect and never can, but our relationship with God is what will show through the change in our daily living, positive interaction with all around us. Through our study and prayer life we can be changed by God, and will continue to show this through our daily living. In no way am I endorsing that we can maintain this positive trajectory without daily contact with God. As long as we maintain our relationship with God, the fruit of the relationship should be manifested outwardly to those around us. The covenant is that we are accepted by God and we agree to try daily to do better because of our relationship with God. Once we begin to believe that we can do it without God, then we sink as Peter did during the storm.

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What I hear still coming through your explanations is the traditional SDA focus on “betterment” through some kind of behaviour. The life changes that accompany the God-cantered life are a natural by-product of a relationship - much like in a marriage.

The only difference in the covenants is that the Sinai covenant depended on the Israelites living up to their promises made after Moses read the ordinances and laws given at Sinai. In one voice they said, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do”. They failed because they focused on the promised blessings. Those requirements were given to those people at that time; and described their relationship to God of :blessings and curses". The new covenant is about Jesus, our representative, living up to our requirements for us, thereby removing the curse. With our focusing on better and better behaviour, we are trying to polish a diamond.

The problem is no one knows how to focus on God rather than our behaviour. Jesus showed us how when he said, “whatsoever you do to the least of these, my brothers, you do to me.” This places our focus on the needs of others - not on the work of making ourselves better (by helping others). This takes heart, rather than commitment.


Betterment in mind. Behavior originates first in the mind and is shown through behavior. My better life does not mean anything more than being led in all things through my relationship with God. Many sermons I have heard talk about the church being the bride of Christ; instead think of how when two individuals from 2 very different lifestyles (all families have differences in lifestyles no matter where they live) get married and need to learn to blend their lives and lifestyles together. There is a time of major change for both of them BUT when you begin a lifetime relationship with God there is only 1 individual who has major changes and blends their life to God’s not God to ours but us to God. When a couple marries you see changes in both of them but with God only one person changes, the individual who has accepted God into their life. Lifestyle changes follow in newly married couples but only one individual has a lifestyle change when they accept God into their life. How else does anyone realize they have been following God, only through their lifestyle changes which amaze each person differently who sees their life changing. Pragmatically there is always change, to say that the change is not due to the relationship is shortchanging that relationships value.

For this quote from Jesus to be accurate you must first have a relationship with Jesus (God). How you relate to others is a reflection of your relationship with Jesus.

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What were the Israelites supposed to say to God who had redeemed them from their Egyptian bondage and gifted to them the land of Canaan? “Get lost, God.”
Theirs were the approriate words: "The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord (Exodus 19:8) and the Lord accepted them in their verbal expression.
“The Lord heard your words when you spoke to me, and the Lord said to me: ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they are right in all that they have spoken. If only they had such a mind [heart] as this, to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children for ever!” (Deuteronomy 5:28-29).
Outside of Christ we shall never be sinless; but in Christ we shall ever be serious about living out his ethical life, and yes indeed for others not for a cloistered pursuit of personal sainthood–Luther long ago demonstrated the folly of that. Grace & peace, Norman


Yes, that is our response too; but just as they couldn’t keep their word, neither can we - not at the level
of perfection. When that becomes apparent we get into the idea that “we do the best we can and Christ makes up for the rest”. Any aim “to do better” is simplifying the issue with a misplaced focus. No matter how much better, it’s not good enough. That is not how God wants us to live - aiming for an impossible goal in frustration. The “abundant” life Jesus promised, is a life that grows in faith, producing a life growing steadily into God’s will; and focusing on something outside of ourselves. It’s like removing a pair of scissors from a toddler. It won’t happen if we focus on the scissors. Not until we offer the kid something better, will he/she let go of the scissors.

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You can’t be in the current Evangelical crowd in the US either:
2Tim 3:1-5


You will be quoted by me in Sabbath School tomorrow. Again.
Local church will benefit. Again.
Thank you. Again.


You can also read Galatians 3 to your church-mates. I know it’s just the Bible and Adventists aren’t that used to actually reading the bible, but in this case I think it’s useful.

Note that for Paul, raised a good Jew in his time, “The Law” would always have meant the first five books of the bible, the Pentateuch, and especially the Mosaic covenant. This includes the 10 commandments as well as all the other rules found there, which the Jews attempted to follow as a means to salvation - to find favor with God:

The Law and the Promise

Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God [with Abraham before the Law existed] and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise [of Christ]; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.

Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised [to Abraham], being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe [apart from the Law, as with Abraham].

Children of God

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian [are no longer under the Law].

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise [not the Law].


I’m grateful to see that there are people such as you and your congregation who are open to these things, Kate. If change would ever happen within Adventism, it would have to come from the grassroots up. The top is too invested in the denominational entity, theologically, socially, and monetarily, to ever consider wholesale alteration of the belief system and an embracing of the NT gospel of the kingdom plus nothing else. And, also taking their rightful place within the multitude of expressions of the family of faith, without looking at them as Babylon.




It’s so obvious, isn’t it? A new way. A person instead of a list.
I’m so excited to have the discussion group tomorrow. Thank you, Tim, for taking time to post the Bible text! We usually read Bible texts.


The reason SDA’s don’t see what Scripture clearly says, is because they have been taught error all of their lives. Everyone around them believes the error as well. The people who believe differently from them are deceived, don’t have the truth, blah, blah, blah. The law that Paul refers to is only the ceremonial law, according to SDA teachings. End of discussion.

As Frank said,

Some church members see the errors, but they aren’t going to be able to change the church, for the reasons stated above. The foundation is EGW, not scripture.