Summary: Today, very few Christian faiths speak about covenants but they are a vital part of the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The scriptures speak about the covenants that God md to ‘the fathers,” and the apostle Paul speaks about a new covenant that God has made with us. But what are covenants, what are the covenants God made with the Fathers, why did he make them, and more importantly, what do they mean for us today? This article sheds light on the answers to all of these questions.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians living in Rome saying, “my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises” (Romans 9:3,4).
Here Paul is addressing his remarks to “my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Since Paul was born as a Jew, he is writing to those who were likewise born as a Jew. He goes on to say that the Jews are also Israelites, and it was them who God adopted and gave his glory to as his special and chosen people. Paul then goes on to say it was to the children of Israel who God made covenants with and to whom he gave his law, which not only included the service to God (i.e., serving in the temple by performing sacred ordinances), but to whom God made certain promises. In this verse, Paul also seems to connect covenants with God’s law that he has given to man
Today, very few Christian faiths speak about covenants but they were a vital part of Jewish worship and they are also a vital part of the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Bible we use today is divided into two sections known as the Old Testament and the New Testament, however, they used to be known as the Old Covenant and the New Covenant which is the way Paul refers to them (Hebrews 8:7,8).
These refer to covenants that God made with “the fathers.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who established their children as being God’s chosen people. Paul explains that under the new covenant that the Gentiles can now be made partakers of the same promises God made to “the fathers” and their descendants, the children of Israel. If that is so then it’s important that we understand what covenants are, what covenants God made to Abraham, why he made them, and what they mean for us today.
A covenant is an agreement we enter into with God whereby he makes certain promises to us if we make and keep certain promises to him. There are many such covenants but they all have the same goal in mind. One of the promises God made to Abraham was, “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis12:3). But what does that mean?
The Lord explained, “Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins—from whose loins ye are, namely, my servant Joseph—which were to continue so long as they were in the world; and as touching Abraham and his seed, out of the world they should continue; both in the world and out of the world should they continue as innumerable as the stars; or, if ye were to count the sand upon the seashore ye could not number them. This promise is yours also, because ye are of Abraham, and the promise was made unto Abraham; and by this law is the continuation of the works of my Father, wherein he glorifieth himself. Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham; enter ye into my law and ye shall be saved. But if ye enter not into my law ye cannot receive the promise of my Father, which he made unto Abraham” (D&C 132:30-33).
God promised Abraham that both he and the seed of his posterity would “continue as innumerable as the stars,” not just in this life, meaning while they were “in the world,” but also when they were “out of the world.” In other words, the promise God made to Abraham also applied to all of his descendants, which is that they would have seed continually even after they had left this life. And the only way that can happen is if they became heirs of God. Thus, the promise God made to Abraham was that he and his posterity would inherit eternal life.
But, associated with this promise, was the promise that his descendants would be a blessing to all the families of the earth. The question is, how would this come about?
Paul explained that because of the new covenant, all who accept Christ, become heirs of the promise made to the fathers. That is, whoever enters into this new covenant can also become children of the promise and receive eternal life themselves. Jesus was a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the gospel he taught was based on God’s law which he gave to the children of Israel. It’s because of the Jews that all the world has come to know God’s law and it’s in this way that all the nations of the earth have been blessed through Abraham’s posterity.
But if that’s the promise God made to Abraham and his seed, what is the promise we make to God? In the revelation God gave to Joseph Smith, as cited above, it is to “do the works of Abraham, enter ye into my law, and ye shall be saved.” However, the Lord goes on to explain, “But if ye enter not into my law ye cannot receive the promise of my Father, which he made unto Abraham.” Thus, the promise we make to God is to enter into his law and keep his commandments as Abram did (see 1 Chronicles 16:15-17).
But what is God’s law?
A law is something we are required to follow and those who don’t follow it are subject to some form of discipline or punishment. To the children of Israel, the law of God was contained in the law of Moses, and to Christians, the law of God is contained in the New Testament. Yet the law of Moses and the New Testament contain the written words that God has given to man. Therefore, whatever God commands or tells us to do are not simply suggestions or wise rules for living but are his law.
To understand this principle, Christians believe that when Jesus returns to the earth in power and glory that he will rule and reign over the entire earth for a thousand years as the undisputed king over the entire world. Whenever a king issues an order, edict, command, rule, or statement it becomes the law of the land. What makes someone a Christian is that they accept Christ, not just as their personal Savior, but as their Lord and Master, which means they agree to obey whatever he tells them to do. In the musical, the King and I, the King of Siam often makes the statement, “So let it be written, so let it be done.” And the same is true of God. What he causes to be written is his law and must be done.
For example, when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, although he didn’t know why God would ask him to do such a hard thing, he nonetheless obeyed, simply because God asked him to do it. As he was about to plunge the dagger into Isaac’s chest, an angel stopped him and the Lord said, “Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Genesis 22:12). And it’s because Abraham patiently endured to the end in keeping the commandments God had given him that he obtained the promise (Hebrews 6:15). When we do what Abraham did in keeping the commandments God has given us, then we too become “heirs of the promise.”
But to obtain the promise there are a series of covenants we need to make. For example, at the time of our baptism, we enter into a covenant with God to take upon ourselves his name and promise to keep his commandment, and where he promises to wash away all of our past sins and make us wholly clean. We enter into a covenant when we receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, in which we promise to strive to be holy and perfect as God is, (aka, be righteous) and God promises to sanctify us through the power of the Holy Ghost. When we participate in the ordinance of the sacrament, we promise to remember what Christ suffered and endured for our sake, renew our promise to take upon us his name, to keep his commandments and repent of our sins. In return, God promises to always have his Spirit to be with us. When we keep the covenants we make in the temple, God promises to endow us with his power. All of these covenants are necessary in order to obtain eternal life.
A covenant is a sacred promise God makes with us and which we, in turn, make with him, and all such covenants are made through authorized priesthood ordinances. In other words, there is no covenant we make with God that doesn’t involve participating in an ordinance performed by someone holding God’s priesthood. However, we don’t make covenants with God but rather it is God who makes covenants with us. It is he who invites us to enter into a covenant with him, not the other way around. But why?
The prophet Lehi taught his children “that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility. Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes” (2 Nephi 2:11,12)
God did not create this earth to be “a thing of naught” with “no purpose in the end of its creation.” God has an eternal purpose for creating this earth and that purpose is to help us learn how to become like him. We can think of this earth as a training center or a university to prepare us for godhood. But the courses of instruction we need to take to learn how to do that can only be found in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Therefore, to enroll in this course of instruction we have to become a member of his church.
When someone wants to attend a particular college, they send their application to the college of their choice and that college reviews the application before deciding whether to accept or reject the applicant. But with God, it’s just the opposite. He sends out an invitation for all mankind to come join his university and he is willing to accept all who want to come unto him. That invitation is made through covenants, and it is we who have to decide whether to accept his offer or reject it. When we are baptized, we are choosing to enroll in God’s training program. That is why it is God who always makes covenants with us, and never the other way around.
Therefore, covenants are an expression or a manifestation of God’s love towards his children. When we strive to live up to the promises we make to God, our Father, it’s an expression of our love, respect, and adoration for him.
But although God loves all of his children, even the ones who choose to reject him, he has greater appreciation towards those who show love back to him. As Nephi explained, “Behold, the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God” (1 Nephi 17:35). This is no different than the way earthly fathers treat their children. No matter how rebellious a child might be, they are still loved by their father, but they don’t receive the same treatment that is given to an obedient child.
In the same way, God is aware of and cares about our sufferings and the difficult times we go through, and he seeks to help all of his children during their struggles, but he showers greater blessing upon those who are striving to live his commandments as they go through the challenges of life.
Nephi taught that Christ “doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. Wherefore, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation” (2 Nephi 26:24). We are all children of our Father in heaven, and he loves each of us and sent his only begotten Son to lay down his life so “that he may draw all men unto him.” As such, he doesn’t show favoritism, therefore he invites all to come unto him and denies no one, As the apostle Paul put it, “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
For this reason, the ordinances and the covenants associated with them are the same for everyone. There isn’t one set of covenants for men and a different one for women, or a set of covenants for one race or group of people that is different for another. But it is up to each of us to accept them individually and not as a group. Each one of us has to make the choice whether or not to enter into each and every covenant that God offers us, and whether or not we want to keep the promises we make that are associated with each covenant.
But there’s another aspect to making covenants.
If someone wants to become an engineer, or a teacher, doctor, scientist, or pursue any other professional career, they go to college and take “courses” that teach them everything they need to know to qualify for their chosen profession. These are called “courses” because they are the course, or path necessary to follow in order to reach the desired goal.
Becoming like God is no different. There is a path or course we must follow that will take us to that destination, and that path includes making certain covenants. Thus, covenants are a reminder of where we’re going and the path that leads to that destination
As we go through life, we face many challenges that put our faith to the test where we may at times lose faith in ourselves or in God, but God never loses faith in us because he knows, with absolute surety, that we can complete the course, otherwise he wouldn’t have sent us to earth if he wasn’t confident that we could succeed.
Often times we stumble and fall in our journey back to God and can become discouraged thinking that perhaps we’re not living up to our promises and feel that all is lost, however, God is faithful and doesn’t easily break his promises to us, no matter how many times we fail. The reason why is because he isn’t bothered by our failures. He knows that no matter how hard we try that we will fail at times, but as long as we’re striving to move forward, he’ll always be there to help us get up and keep moving forward. Therefore, covenants give us assurance and hope that God will always be there for us as long as we don’t give up and continually strive to honor them. This is the promise God gives when we repent of our mistakes.
Sometimes, as we get caught up in the everyday labors of life, or get confused by the philosophies of the world, that we can lose our focus of why we’re here on earth and can lose sight of where we’re headed and why. In the vision that father Lehi had, of the tree of life, he called this the mists of darkness, and when that happens, we can lose our way and end up leaving the path that leads to godhood.
Covenants bind us to God and him to us. We can think of them as being a rope or tether, where one end is tied around God’s waist and the other end is tied around our waist. As we get off the path, our covenants pull at us to keep us from straying too far. But when we fail to keep the covenants and altogether abandon them, then it’s as though we’ve severed the cord that binds us to God.
When we make covenants with God, he promises us certain blessings, and as long as we are striving to be faithful in keeping the covenants we’ve made with him, we have absolute assurance and confidence that God will give us every blessing he has promised. The Lord has declared, “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise” (Section 82:10).
God makes covenants with us as his way of inviting us to come join with him in learning how to become like him. When we choose not to accept his invitation, we are choosing not to do what he says and by rejecting his invitation we are rejecting the blessings he wants to give us. The reason why covenants are so essential to our spiritual progression is that without them we are unable to learn all we need to do in order to return and live with God and gain eternal life. If that happens then our time on earth will be a thing of naught, because the only reason we chose to come live in mortality in the first place was so we could learn how to become like our Father in heaven.
When the scriptures say that we become “sons and daughters” of God, that’s not a reference to us being spirit children of his. Paul taught that we truly become children of God through having faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians:26). To become a true son or daughter of God means having the right to inherit all that the Father has. Paul taught this doctrine when he said, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:16,17).
It is through making and keeping sacred covenants that enable us to truly belong to the family of God whereby we become true sons and daughters of his, who are then entitled to be made equal in power with God (D&C 76:95) and receive “all thrones and dominions, principalities, and powers” (D&C 121:29). This is the real purpose of covenants.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Covenants