We had an interesting discussion in Sunday School today about covenants. Somebody asked the question, “What is the difference between a contract and a covenant?” The question is understandable since, in the church, we often hear the phrase “A covenant is a two-way promise.” With that simple explanation it does seem to be the same thing as a contract. I felt it would be a good idea to write out my understanding of the two and what I perceive to be the difference.
A contract is a legal instrument used to document what two parties plan to do. Your checkbook is a book of blank contracts. When you fill it out you put what you hope to purchase in the “FOR” section of the check and what you are willing to pay for it in the “Amount” section. When the person cashes the check he or she signs the check, thus agreeing to the terms of the contract. The exchange is completed and the contract is fulfilled.
A covenant can be seen as a contract between God and a person. God sets the terms and makes the offer, we then decide to accept or reject His offer. When we accept the offer we ‘make’ the covenant. This is usually done by some outward ordinance, such as baptism or taking the sacrament. This is our ‘signing the check,’ promising through action to keep our part of the bargain.
Were it left at that point, there would be no real difference between a contract and a covenant except to say that one is between two human beings and one is between a mortal and Deity. But there’s something more to covenants that hasn’t been discussed.
In the book “Covenant Hearts” by Bruce C. Hafen, the author discusses the difference between a contractual marriage and the covenant marriage by using the example given by the savior in the bible in John 10:
11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.
12 But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.
13 The hirelingfleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.
The difference is in the attitude of contract versus the attitude of covenant. In contract both parties are hoping to limit liability or maximize profit or otherwise make things better for the self. The contract is then a way of ensuring that things go just as planned and, if necessary, to force the other party to promised action. This is the shepherd who was hired to watch the sheep. He’ll do it as long as he gets paid and as long as there’s no danger to himself. A covenant relationship is one in which certain terms are set, yes, but the parties make the cause of the other their own cause. In other words, when I make a covenant, the goals and desires of the person with whom I am covenanting become my own. Conversely my goals and needs and desires become the goals and needs and desires of the One with whom I am covenanting. This is the lesson of the good shepherd. Christ makes the life of the sheep as important to him as his own life.
What a blessing it is to be able to make covenants with God. When we fulfil our side of this ‘two-way promise’ He is able to apply his infinite power and wisdom to our tiny problems and trials. Even death is overcome by his power. This is a contract so overwhelmingly in our favor that we would be foolish to reject it. What a joy to have access to not only this knowlege, but to these covenants we have in the Church.