One of the many doctrines that is unique to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the belief in making covenants with the Lord. In fact, Latter-day Saints often refer to themselves as a covenant making people. But why do we make covenants? Why are they necessary? How do they apply to the atonement of Christ and our individual salvation?
Before answering these questions, it's interesting to note that, rather than us being required to make a covenant with God, the scriptures most generally records that is God who makes covenants with us. Too often we think of God as a dictator of rules whom we must go to for heavenly blessings. Instead, the scriptures show that it is God who is anxious to enter into a covenantal arrangement with man, and that He is the one who often instigates the process.
The first recorded instance of a covenant in the scriptures is found in Genesis 6:18 where God made a covenant with Noah. God then made covenants with Abram (Genesis 15:18), with Isaac (Genesis 17:21), with Jacob (Leviticus 26:42), and with the children of Israel (Deuteronomy 29:1 ).
Jeremiah prophesied, "Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah" (Jeremiah 31:31). The apostle Paul quoted this verse of scripture when he wrote, "But now hath he (Jesus) obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah" (Hebrew 8:6-8). A little later in this same epistle, Paul referred "to Jesus [as] the mediator of the new covenant" (Hebrews 12:24).
Thus, we see that there were two covenants. One was made with Abraham and his posterity through the children of Israel, and the second was "a better covenant" which contain even "better promises" than the first. Jehovah was the author of the first, and Jesus was the mediator of the second. However, rather than refer to these as the first and second covenant, we usually refer to them as the old and new convenant.
To understand the differences between the two we need to first know what each of these covenants contained. Speaking about the first covenant, the Bible tells us, "And he (God) wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments" (Exodus 34:28). In other word, the Ten Commandments constituted, or contained the words of the covenant God made with the children of Israel. Furthermore the Bible tells us, "And I [Solomon] have set there a place for the ark, wherein is the covenant of the Lord, which he made with our fathers, when he brought them out of the land of Egypt" (1 Kings 8:21 emphasis added). The covenant which God had made with Israel was kept inside the ark, and one of the three things that God required to be placed in the ark was the tablets of stone which contained the ten commandments Moses received on Mt. Sinai. In fact, throughout the scriptures the ark is usually referred to as "the ark of the covenant."
Thus it is clear that the Ten Commandments was the basis upon which God made His covenant with Israel. This also included the other commandments found in the Law of Moses. The Lord clearly declared that those who do not keep His statues and commandments were guilty of breaking His covenant. (see Leviticus 26:15, 2 Kings 18:12, 2 Chronicles 34:31, Psalms 103:18. Isaiah 24:5, Jeremiah 11:3 ).
When Christ came to earth, the old covenant, which applied mostly to Israel, was replaced by a new covenant that applied to everyone. However, this covenant offered the gift of eternal life and an inheritance in the kingdom of God, which is something the old covenant didn't promise. Even so, the new covenant was based on the same premise as the old one, i.e. keeping God's commandments. Jesus taught. "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17). Paul taught the Corinthians, "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts. " (1Corinthians 7:19 NIV). The apostle John wrote, "And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him" (1 John 3:24). "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life" (Revelation 22:14).
Thus we see that the covenant which God makes with us, whether we are talking about the old or the new, is established on the principle of us keeping the commandments, statutes, and ordinances which God has given us. As a result of our obedience to those commandments, God makes certain promises to us.
Because of this, the concept of a covenant has often been explained as being like a contract. That is, one party agrees to offer something of value in exchange for the other party giving something of value in return. In the case of God, He agrees to give us blessings if, in return, we agree to follow certain rules which He has established. Indeed, the Lord told Joseph Smith, "I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise" (D&C 82:10). And historical events in both the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon bears out the truth of this statement.
However, to say that a covenant is merely a contract between two parties is an over simplification and misses the real significance of why we enter into a covenant with God. The Hebrew word for covenant is "bereeth" and is also translated as "league" and "confederate." For example, the King James version of the Bible reads, "And they went to Joshua unto the camp at Gilgal, and said unto him, and to the men of Israel, We be come from a far country: now therefore make ye a league [bereeth] with us. And the men of Israel said unto the Hivites, Peradventure ye dwell among us; and how shall we make a league [bereeth] with you?" (Josuah 9:6,7).
In these verses the word "bereeth" is translated as meaning being "in league," which means that these two parties have formed an alliance or a coalition wherein they pledge their mutual support to one another. In other words, they are working together in concert as a team. They have become confederates or teammates who are bonded together in a brotherhood or a fraternity of shared values or goals. As such they have entered into a covenant, (compact, treaty, pledge, agreement, union, confederacy).
Thus the difference between a contract and a covenant is that a contract is about achieving individual goals, while a covenant is about achieving mutual goals.
For example, there are usually three parties to the sale of a car. The first is the person who wants to purchase a car. The second is the person or dealership that wants to sell the car, and the third is the financial institution who lends money to the buyer who then gives it to the seller. Although each party is working together with the other two, yet each is doing so for their own purpose. The buyer's primary goal is to obtain a car. The seller's main goal is to sell as many cars as possible. The financial institution's foremost goal is to lend money to reliable customers as their means of making a profit. Therefore, even though they are all working together, they do so only for the purpose of achieving their own self interests
On the other hand, a covenant is an agreement where all parties share the same goal, and work together to achieve it. One example of this would be how the first Pilgrims who came to America each signed a pledge to obey the rules by which they would govern themselves in the new land. Since this was signed on the ship they had arrived on, this agreement became known as the Mayflower Compact (i.e., covenant). Each person who signed the Declaration of Independence did so as a pledge to one another to sacrifice their fame, fortune and sacred honor if need be for the purpose of establishing a free society for themselves and their children. After World War II, on April 4, 1949, eleven European nations entered into a confederacy with the United States for the purpose of creating a common defense against military aggression from outside nations. This commitment to each nation by the other is known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or the NATO Alliance. All of these compacts, pledges, treaties, and alliances are covenants, in the sense which the Old Testament word implies.
Therefore, when we enter into a covenant with God, we are not merely making a contract with Him where each party is seeking their own individual goals. Rather, a covenant implies we are agreeing to work with God to achieve a common goal. As such, we are pledging that God's goal will be our goal, that His desires will be our desires, and that our motives and purposes will be the same as His. Thus, when God seeks to make a covenant with us, it is He who wants us to join with Him. A covenant is God's way of extending an invitation for us to become part of His team, to join His fraternity, and be united with His kingdom.
Closely associated with a covenant is the concept of giving an oath. An oath is defined as a formal promise to fulfill a pledge. It is a solemn, verbal commitment to honor an agreement. Even so, people don't always keep their promises. Therefore, there are varying ways people have of expressing the sincerity of their oaths. The most common way is to swear an oath upon something greater than themselves (see Hebrew 6:16). And the greater that something is, the greater the sincerity of the oath. For example, someone might swear by their honor. What that means is, if they fail to live up to their promise, then they will have damaged their own honor and integrity. Another example is that most people wouldn't want to dishonor their mother, especially if she had passed away. Therefore, if someone swears an oath on the grave of their mother, failing to keep their promise would bring disgrace upon a family member that they revere the most.
The greatest sincerity of an oath is when someone swears by God or something associated with Him. In the past, people would swear by the heavens, because it is God's handiwork. Today, in a court of law, before a witness gives their testimony, they place their hand on the Bible and swear an oath by God's holy word that they will "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the true, so help me God." In other words, they swear an oath, or give their promise with God as their witness that they will tell the truth. If they break their oath, they have, in effect, not only mocked God, but put themselves at risk of being punished by God.
But what about God and the promises He makes to us? It would seem ridiculous to say that God needs to swear an oath to confirm His promises, yet the scriptures do tell us, "Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath" (Hebrews 6:17 NIV). And likewise God confirmed His old covenant with Abraham and his posterity by swearing an oath (Genesis 26:3, Deut. 7:8, 29:12, 1 Chronicles 16:16, Luke 1:73). But if that's the case, when God swears an oath, who or what does He swear it by, seeing that there is no one greater than Himself?
The Doctrine and Covenants tells us that whenever we try to use the priesthood "in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man" (D&C 121 37). Obviously, giving one's word and not keeping it constitutes an act of unrighteousness. If God failed to fulfill even one of His promises, "the heavens [would] withdraw themselves... and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man." If our Father in Heaven were to lose the authority of His priesthood He would cease to be God because that is the power by which He is able to govern.
Therefore, when God swears an oath, He does so by the power which enables Him to be God. As such, when God makes a covenant with man, He swears an oath by His priesthood which is something greater than Himself. And in so doing, God gives us the greatest assurance possible that He will not break His word to us. That is what it means when we talk about the "oath and covenant of the priesthood." In the 84th section of the D&C the Lord explains the promise of how we can receive all that the Father has, and then He states, "And this is according to the oath and covenant which belongeth to the priesthood. Therefore, all those who receive the priesthood, receive this oath and covenant of my Father which He cannot break, neither can it be moved" (vs 39,40).
It is interesting to note that, even though God is our Father and we are His children, yet He doesn't expect us to take His word simply by virtue of His position. God, the greatest of all, is willing to swear an oath in order to give us complete assurance that He will do what He has promised.
So there are two reasons why God enters into a covenant with His children. The first is to give us an assurance (pledge, promise, guarantee) of His word. The second is so that we can enter into an alliance, compact, union, and be in league with God. In other words covenants are a way for us to work with God in helping Him establish righteousness, building up His kingdom on earth, and assist in saving all His children, both living and deceased.
Since we are in a covenant with God, He promises to reward us for working with Him. However, no other Christian denomination believes that we need to be in a covenantal relationship with God to be rewarded for our works. And, indeed, the scriptures say that every person will be rewarded according to their works (Matthew 16:27, Revelation 22:12). Paul taught, "He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly, and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully" (2 Corinthians 9:6). Even the Book of Mormon states that whatever we do will be restored to us, good for good, and evil for evil (Alma 41:3,4,13). Then, if everyone will be rewarded for what they do, what is the purpose of us making a covenant with God? Put another way, will we be denied our reward if we don't enter into a covenant with the Lord?
That all depends on what reward we're talking about.
Let me illustrate it this way. There are many large cities throughout the United States that occasionally provide special free events for their citizens. However, since they don't have professional entertainers on their regular payroll, they contract with outside people to provide the desired amusement. For example, on the fourth of July, one city may contract with an amusement company to come set up and operate their equipment for the benefit of the city's inhabitants. Perhaps another city will hold a parade. In that case they may hire professional clowns to walk down the street, possibly passing out balloon animals as a way to make the event more festive. Another city may have a park where they might offer free musical entertainment. In that case they could contract for one or several bands to play at the park throughout the day. On another day, a city may contract with a puppeteer to put on a show at their libraries to help promote a greater interest in reading, or they might hire a professional story teller.
In each of these cases, these independent entertainers are under contract to perform at the request of the city. As such, if they keep their side of the agreement, they will receive wages from the city. However, even though an amusement company can set up their equipment and make money from the attending crowds, clowns can walk down the street and ask for tips from those they give balloons to, and puppeteers and story tellers can entertain children, without a contract from the city none of them will receive any money from the municipal government for their services.
It's true that we will each be rewarded according to our deeds, but we will not recieve the rewards which God offers those who have covenanted to work with Him. Only those who have made and faithfully kept their covenants with the Lord will be compensated for their labor by the government or kingdom of God. Even though those who have not made or kept such covenants will be rewarded for their labors, yet they will not receive the additional rewards promised to those who make covenants.
We can illustrate this principle another way. When someone works for a company they receive a paycheck for their labors. But if that company has a stock option plan that allows employees to purchase stock through payroll deductions, only those who have signed up and regularly participate in the plan will receive additional dividends and benefits which such a plan provides. Even though non-participating employees may work hard at their job, if they aren't in the stock plan, they are not entitled to receive any stock dividends.
The same is true with God. There may be many who believe in Jesus and strive diligently to live a good Christian life, but unless they have covenanted with the Lord to build up His kingdom and help redeem His children, they will not receive the extra dividends and benefits which He offers those who have. The Lord has promised that the faithful will inherit all things (Revelation 21:7) and become kings and queens, priests and priestesses to reign with Christ upon the earth (Revelation 1:6, 5:10). This is what it means to inherit the kingdom of God and receive eternal life. But this isn't something we earn through doing good works. This is an extra dividend, an additional benefit, a free gift that the Lord grants us over and above the rewards we do receive for our works.
But if we don't enter into His covenant, which is to keep all the commandments, statutes and ordinances which He has given us, then we don't receive the promised blessings. Only by entering into an alliance with God, pledging our heart, mind and soul to doing His will, agreeing to do all that He has commanded us, and uniting ourselves to Him, with an eye single to His glory do we have any claim on His promise.