These two words are often used interchangeably, but they are definitely not the same thing! And this distinction has very important implications for our most vital relationships.
A contract is a legal agreement that spells out the obligations of both parties regarding the fair exchange of goods and services: “If you will do this, I will do that.” Contracts are finite: they exist until a pre-agreed expiration date, and/or they are voided if one or the other party fails to live up to their agreed-upon obligations. Consequently, when drafting a contract, both parties pay a great deal of attention to the ‘terms and conditions’ since both want to be sure that they can exit from their obligations if circumstances change to their disadvantage. Contracts, in other words, are designed to protect the interests of the individual parties.
A covenant is a promise intended to establish a permanent relationship. A true covenant cannot be voided nor does it expire. Covenants are spiritual relationships that are expressed in vows that make an unqualified commitment of one party to the other. Though the benefits of the covenant can be forfeited by the actions of the recipient party, it is the desire of the giving party that the covenant will ultimately be restored. Covenants are usually sealed by actions that express commitment to the relationship.
Much of our daily life is governed by contracts: we contract with our credit card company that they will reimburse our purchases so long as we keep paying off our balance; we contract with an employer that we will receive pay and benefits so long as we perform our job satisfactorily; etc. But the most important human arrangements are not contracts, but covenants – promises to nurture a relationship, regardless.
The most obvious example of a human covenant is marriage. The traditional wedding ceremony involves vows, stated before God and witnesses, that each party will love and honor the other through all circumstances “till death us do part” and is symbolically sealed by the exchange of rings. The goal of the marriage covenant is not to protect the separate interests of the individuals, but to enter into a binding union where “the two shall be one.” Another familiar covenant is that implicitly entered into by parents as they commit to love and care for the children that they bear or adopt.
Human examples of covenants can be terminated by human weakness: marriages fail, parents sometimes disown their children. But the covenants that God makes with His children are another matter. God not only intends to honor His covenants, but He does so faithfully through thick and thin!
There are many Biblical examples of God entering into covenant relationships with His children. There is the one He made with Noah and his descendants and sealed with the sign of the rainbow — that despite human wickedness He would never destroy all life on earth (Genesis 9:8-17). Another is the covenant repeatedly made to the Jews that He would be their God and they His people (Genesis 17:8 and 40 other places) – a vow which He also enforced by episodes of ‘tough love’ discipline. Indeed, virtually all of the Old ‘Testament’ (another word for covenant) is a record of how God instituted, honored, and worked to maintain His covenant with the people He specially chose to be the instruments of His salvation for all of mankind.
However, of the many individual covenants that God made at various times, all are instances of the one great over-riding Covenant of Redemption that was hinted at in Genesis 3:15 when God promised a savior to crush Satan’s power to enslave humanity in sin. It was later made more explicit in the promise that through Abraham’s offspring all the people of earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3). The fulfillment of the Covenant was realized when Jesus paid for the atonement of all mankind through the shedding of His own blood as the final sacrifice for mankind’s sin (Luke 22:20).
Thanks be to God that He doesn’t do contracts! None of us could comply with His just terms and conditions of righteousness! But in His amazing love He has covenanted our salvation and sealed it in the blood of Christ!
“[Nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)