One of the factors of the current covenant conundrum that is casting an ominous fog over Reformed churches is the difference in defining “covenant.” Very recently, some such as A. Hoekema and H. Hoeksema before him have defined covenant as a redemptive relationship or salvific friendship. In other words, these two men (and others with them) in the 20th century limited their definition of covenant to only include redemption and salvation.
How has the Reformed church defined covenant – generally speaking – throughout the ages? Let’s go back and see.
1) Zacharius Ursinus (d. 1583): “A covenant in general is a mutual contract, or agreement between two parties, in which the one party binds itself to the other to accomplish something upon certain conditions, giving or receiving something, which is accompanied with certain signs and symbols, for the purpose of ratifying in the most solemn manner the contract entered into, and for the sake of confirming it, that the engagement may be kept inviolate.” (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 97).
2) Francis Turretin (d. 1687): “It denotes properly a pact and agreement entered into between God and man, consisting partly in a stipulation of duty…and partly in the promise of a reward…” (Institutes, II. 172; cf. also I.574).
3) Wilhelmus a Brakel (d. 1711): A covenant is “a mutual, binding obligation between two or more individuals, who, contingent upon certain conditions, promise certain things to each other” (A Christian’s Reasonable Service, I.429).
4) M. J. Bosma (d. 1912) “A covenant is an agreement” (Exposition of Reformed Doctrine, 91).
5) Herman Bavinck (d. 1921): “Generally, a covenant is an agreement between persons who voluntarily obligate and bind themselves to each other for the purpose of fending off an evil or obtaining a good” (Reformed Dogmatics, II.568).
See also Herman Witsius, Geerhardus Vos, and Louis Berkhof (and others!) for very similar definitions. Note the concepts that keep coming up: binding, agreement, two parties, obligations, and so forth. All of these are general and not necessarily redemptive terms. It is clear that an overly narrow definition of covenant leads to errors – sometimes very serious errors, such as a denial of the covenant of works.