Understanding the Difference between Covenant and Salvation in order to Avoid Conflation

God is a covenantal God, but what does that mean? Is there a difference between covenant and salvation? Can a person be a member of the covenant community and yet still not be saved; a true believer? More often than not, I find that Christians will often conflate the two terms covenant and salvation, as if the two words meant the same thing. From this a skewed understanding ensues in regards to many of the conditional statements made in the Bible—i.e. the “if,” “then” clause or syllogism.

For example, a person reading the O.T. may look at God’s comments to Israel in Exodus 19 and think that people were saved differently during that dispensation than in the newer dispensation’s covenant.1

  • “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19.5-6).2

There is a similar use of wording found in Deuteronomy at the head of the blessing and cursing portion of that book:

  • “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth” (Deut 28.1).

The implications from both portions of the Pentateuch are in essence the same. “If” you do this, “then” this will be the case. The emphasis in both passages is placed upon obedience to the Word of God; His Law-Word. That is the “if” clause. These verses do not attribute ability to the recipients (i.e. participants), but rather illustrate that necessary condition in order for the second half of the syllogism to be true. As in Exodus 19 “If” it is true that you obey the voice and God and keep His covenant with Him, “then” it is true that you will be “my treasured possession among all peoples;” “then” you will be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Or in Deut 28 “if” it is true that you listen to God by keeping “all his commandments,” “then” it is true that your stature will be “above all the nations of the earth.”

Failure by members of the covenant community to obey the voice of the Lord and honor the covenantal agreement between them will negate the possibility of the “then” statements being true. Therefore, the apostle Paul could rightly state later in history that not everyone born of Israel was really Israel, nor was everyone a Jew truly a Jew (Rom 9.6-7; 2.29). What determined that was whether or not the individuals’ in question had the faith of Abraham—that is to say the heart disposition of Abraham—evidenced by genuine obedience to the Law-Word of God (Rom 4.16; John 8.39-40).

True obedience is not identified by outward observances, but inward motivations. Those “actions” of the heart were not always readily identifiable by members of the covenant community, and so in an ultimate sense it was left to God to judge and determine the hearts of those in question (cf. Jer 17.10). That being said, to purposefully disregard the covenantal obligations would earn the unrepentant individual the reward of being “cut-off” from the covenantal community.

Now what’s interesting is that we see this same sort of “If, then” talk by Jesus in the N.T. On more than one occasion Jesus points out to His followers that if they would truly be His disciples that they need abide by His Word—that is to be obedient (cf. John 8.31-32). Some, because Jesus disregarded the oral traditions/laws of the rabbis, assumed that Jesus was setting up some new Law system that His followers were to abide by. Unfortunately, there have been those within certain Christian circles that have taken a similar approach and wrongly interpreted the Lord’s teaching on the Mount (cf. Matt 5-7; Luke 6). However, if we pay careful attention to Jesus words at that time we find that he immediately sought to squash such a misunderstanding.

  • Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill [i.e. uphold] them” (Matt 5.17; italics added).

Jesus is adamant in this verse that doing away with God’s Law-Word is not what He came to do nor what He did. Rather, He upheld the Law of God by faith the very same thing that we are taught to do (cf. Rom 3.31). Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that Jesus uses the same form of language that we find in the Exodus and Deuteronomy when he says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14.15). He then reiterates this to his disciples in John 15:10, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” The “then” is not explicit, but implied. What is interesting is that this follows His discussion on Him being the True Vine (John 15.1).

Commentators often note that Jesus is offering Himself in contrast to Israel, for Israel in the past had been identified as the vine in numerous O.T. passages (e.g. Psa 80.8; Isa 5.1-7; Jer 2.2; Hos 10.1). Jesus explains that His father being the vinedresser (v. 1) will tend the vine in order to keep it healthy. He will prune where necessary, removing those branches that do not bear fruit (v. 2). Those that bear good fruit will be blessed; those that do not will be cursed. Those that do will be identified as those that remain in Jesus (v. 5), but those that do not will be cut-off and thrown away into the fire (v. 6). Good fruit versus bad fruit is the comparison between that which is obedient to Christ’s commandments and those that are not (this is why we find these statements sandwiched in-between John 14.10, 15.10). The branches that listen to (obey) God’s Law-Word are those that are seen abiding in Christ and honoring the Father (vv. 7-8). Some mistake this language as proof of being able to lose one’s salvation, but this is not a discussion over salvation; rather, it is a discussion over covenantal faithfulness.

You see, a person can be apart of the covenantal community and yet not be saved. As I said earlier, people often conflate the meaning of the two—covenant and salvation—but they are not the same thing. To be sure they share a relationship, but they are not synonymous terms.

What is a covenant?

A covenant is a binding oath between two parties. Some often refer to a covenant as being “cut” this in reference to what we witness in Genesis 15 where Abraham is instructed to cut a variety of sacrificial animals in half and then a flaming pot (which symbolizes the Lord God) passes between them as Abraham is in a deep sleep (cf. Gen 15.9-18). The hewn animals serve as a reminder of the seriousness of the oath. To break it means death, to be hacked apart. God being a covenantal God always deals with mankind (His creature) in terms of covenant. It is not an equal party pact, for one party is above the other. Biblical covenants highlight the Creator vs. creature distinction; or divide.

Perhaps the best work that I have read regarding biblical covenants is Ray R. Sutton’s work entitled “That You May Prosper.”3 In this book he outlines what he discovered in his studies regarding the biblical covenant; a five-point covenantal system which forms the outline for the book of Deuteronomy, the Ten Commandments, etc. Here are those five biblical elements of the type of covenant the Bible teaches:

  1. Transcendence/immanence—God is distinct (transcendent) from His creation and yet personally present (immanence).
  2. Hierarchy/Representation—God is the ultimate authority as Creator (hierarchy) and He has created Image Bearers to Mirror Him (representation).
  3. Ethics/Law—God has the right to set the standard of how His creatures ought to live (Ethics), and He has established these moral precepts (Laws) which reflect His Holy heart.
  4. Sanctions/Blessing or Cursing—God as Judge with execute judgment (sanctions), giving good (blessing) to the obedient and bad (cursing) to the disobedient creatures He has made.
  5. Continuity/Inheritance—God promises either life or death (continuity), and our reaction to our Creator affects our future (inheritance) both temporally and eternally.

**Although, it is tempting to disclose how this covenant model is seen in the early chapters of Genesis, I will pass that opportunity for now in order to address the true point of this post.

What’s the difference between covenant and salvation?

For starters, a person may be a member of the covenant community and not be saved (this I said earlier, but it bears repeating). And yet, the converse reality is that a person cannot be saved and not part of the covenant community. How so? Allow me to explain.

The difference is that anyone can join (become a member) of the covenantal community (externally speaking). All they have to do is be willing to go through the rites of passage.

In the O.T. what was required to become a member of the covenant community?

The first rite of passage was circumcision. God gave to Abraham this seal (sign, symbol) of the covenant. In order to be a member of the covenantal family, one needed to be circumcised (obviously this only applied to males, but females were grafted in under the patriarchal head):

  • “And God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Gen 17.9-11; italics added).

This sign was accessible to any who entered the household of Abraham, be they natural born or foreigner (cf. Gen 17.12-13). This important to know because of the failure of some to understand that the “grafting” in process has always been intended by God. While, it is true He has set Abraham aside and his offspring after him, those counted as members of his household (i.e. offspring) was not limited to those naturally born. My only point is that this was not a new teaching when Paul later expounds on it in his letter to the Galatians (cf. 3:16, 29; 4:22-31).

The second rite of passage is the covenantal meal. After God promises the covenant with Abraham with the sign of circumcision, the Lord then appears to him with two others (angels). In this encounter, Abraham has a meal prepared and breaks bread with the Lord—a sign of fellowship (Gen 18.1-8). This predates the meal that the Lord prepares for Abraham’s offspring in the book of Exodus; the Passover (see Exod 12). The Passover, like circumcision, is a sign of union with God but it also signifies more than that; for it is a sign of life.

Just as the old flesh was cut off (circumcised) in order to be in covenantal relationship with God the Passover served as a sign of God giving new life to those in covenant with Him. Only those who had been circumcised in their flesh could participate in this feast that the Lord had prepared for His people (cf. Exod 12.43-46); for it was designated for “all the congregation of Israel…[to] keep it” (Exod 12.47). And yet, we find that God does make a provision for the foreigner who wants to share in this meal of blessing (of life):

  • “If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it” (Exod 12.48; italics added).

Again, we see the grafting in principle that I mentioned earlier. God considered foreigners who participated in the rite of circumcision as members of the covenant community; as a child of Israel.

In the N.T. what was required to become a member of the covenant community?

As with the past, we find that God’s making new does not mean He starts from scratch, but rather improves what was insufficient. The first rite of the New Covenant is baptism, which according to the apostle Paul is true circumcision (perfecting of that which was imperfect; a shadowy type):

  • “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Rom 2.28-29).
  • “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal 6.15).
  • “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2.11-12; cf. 1Pet 3.21).

By being baptized one identifies with Christ and becomes a member of that covenant community. The result is that this person then gains access to the second rite of the New Covenant, the Lord’s Supper. Which likewise replaced the former rite (Passover) in that rather than a lamb being slain and its blood applied to the door frame of the home, the Lamb of God has been slain and His blood has been applied to the heart of the believer. The Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. communion/Eucharist), like the Passover, signifies the individual’s transference from death to life.

Why being a member of the covenant does not equate salvation.

In both instances, O.T. and N.T. a person could perform the entrance rite into the covenant community (circumcision or baptism) and partake the meal that the Lord has provided (Passover or Communion/Eucharist), and still not be a believer. All one has to do is read through the Pentateuch, books of History and the Prophets to see that not every member of the Old Covenant were truly believers in God. One glaring instance is that found in the book of Numbers when the people are given the opportunity to take what God has promised them and they balk; they rebel. The reason was that the majority of those who rebelled against God and yearned for Egypt had no faith, a point the writer of Hebrews drives home to his audience (cf. Heb 4.2 compare Numb 14.33). Similarly, we find that Judas Iscariot participated in the covenantal meal with the Lord, drinking from the cup of the covenant and eating the dipped bread, and yet he betrayed the One he professed loyalty to that very night.4

Just because someone professes loyalty and faith in God, in Christ, and thereby becomes a member of the covenant community does not mean that they are genuinely saved. Several, Jesus says will say to Him “Lord, Lord” (Matt 7.21; cf. 13.18-22), but will have no part of Him. Keep in mind that these are members of the community, but are not saved. The only way to identify such people is by their fruit. Is it good or bad? How do we know if we do not have an objective standard to appeal to? We do, it is the Law-Word of God. This is Jesus’ point in John 15, and it is the point He has already taught Israel in the past in the Pentateuch. When we fail to understand the biblical covenant conflating it with salvation, we end up drawing wrong conclusions about a lot of things.



1 It should be noted to the reader that I use the term “dispensation” in its classical sense and not in the way that modern Dispensationalists use the term in light of C. I. Scofield’s teaching. Salvation has always been based on faith, never on works. If on works, then Cain’s sacrifice would have been acceptable before God. It was not on the grounds that Cain offered to God a form of worship that was not based on faith; whereas, his brother Abel did. True some the circumstances were different—sacrifice of animals vs. sacrifice of the God-Man Jesus—but the object, the Lord God, was the same. “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2.9); always has, always will.

2 All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).

3 Ray R. Sutton, That You May Proper: Dominion by Covenant, 3rd Printing (Tyler, TX: Institute of Christian Economics, [1987], 1997).

4 For the individual who would like to point out that Judas Iscariot was not baptized, I only turn them to John 13:1-11 where Jesus “cleans” them before the meal. Baptism is a sign of regenerational cleansing that has supposedly taken place in the heart of the one who professes faith in Christ. All of the disciples that night professed faith in the Lord, and yet Jesus points out one of them are a devil (cf. John 6.70; 13.2).