Covenant theology is an approach to biblical interpretation that appreciates the importance of the covenants for understanding the divine-human relationship and the unfolding of redemptive history in Scripture. Blending insights from systematic and biblical theology, covenant theology explains the economic Trinity, communion with God, the person and work of Christ, the sacraments, justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the role of obedience in the Christian life, the believer’s assurance of salvation, the unity and progress of redemptive history, and more, in light of the Bible’s teaching on the divine covenants.
Covenant theology is a framework for biblical interpretation, informed by exegetical, biblical, and systematic theology, that recognizes that the redemptive history revealed in Scripture is explicitly articulated through a succession of covenants (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and New), thus providing an organizing principle for biblical theology. Covenant theology also posits theological covenants (the Covenants of Redemption, Works, and Grace) and appreciates how the scriptural teaching about covenants entails and relates to a number of vitally important biblical themes and issues, including the purpose of God in history, the nature of the people of God, the federal headships of Adam and Christ, the person and work of Christ, the continuities and discontinuities in the progress of redemptive history, the relation of the Old and New Testaments, law and gospel, the assurance of salvation, the nature and significance of the sacraments (or ordinances), and what it means to walk with God in this life.
The formulation of covenant theology is the work of the 16th and 17th century Calvinistic Reformation. By the middle of the 1500s Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin and others had articulated fundamental aspects of covenant theology in response both to medieval Roman Catholic and contemporary Anabaptist interpretative errors, especially pertaining to the relation of the Old and New Testaments, deliberately citing the church fathers as informing their views and confirming the importance of the covenants in their exposition of redemptive history. Covenant theology became influential in all the various branches of Reformed evangelical Protestantism (Presbyterian, Continental Reformed, Anglican, Congregationalist, Independent, and Baptist).
The Bible is a covenant book, and to be read well it needs to be read covenantally. Have you ever noticed that “covenant” is written on the title pages of the two parts of your Bible? They read: “Old Testament” and “New Testament.” Testamentum is a Latin word for covenant. How did that title get there? The earliest Christians saw a big chunk of the history of God’s people as divided up between the old covenant (that God made with Moses before Israel entered the promised land) and the new covenant (which was accomplished by Christ). The apostle Paul and the book of Hebrews both talk about this (Gal 3–4; Heb 8–9), and their own understanding goes back at least 600 years earlier to the time and writings of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah who foresaw a coming new covenant not like the old, broken one (Jer 31:31–34).
But Paul and Hebrews also explicitly assert that there was a covenant older than the old covenant that is even more basic to our understanding of God’s purposes of grace for his people: the covenant God made with Abraham (Heb 6:13–20; Gal 3, esp. 3:17; Gen 12; 15; 17). Along with this, Hebrews teaches that Jesus is the covenant mediator (Greek, mesites) of the New Covenant, who—through his atoning death—actually provided the basis of forgiveness of sins represented in the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant (Heb 9:11–10:10). Paul, too, teaches that Jesus accomplished the prophecy of the New Covenant in his death (1Cor 11:25–26), and therefore Paul saw himself as a minister of the New Covenant (2Cor 3:6).
Additionally, Paul taught that Jesus’s obedience and death—which he understands in the covenantal terms of Passover lamb and sacrifice (1Cor 5:7), propitiation (Rom 3:25), curse (e.g., Gal 3:13–14)—remedied Adam’s disobedience and death which had resulted in sin and death in all mankind (Rom 5:12–21; 1Cor 15:21–22). How do you relate that to Jesus fulfilling the Abrahamic, Mosaic and New Covenants? Furthermore, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus’s baptism is identifying him as the one to whom the Davidic covenant promise of 2 Samuel 7:11–16 was made, which Peter also prominently asserts in Acts 2:22–36 (while also connecting Jesus to the Abrahamic covenant, Acts 2:37–39). In fact, the very first sentence of the New Testament (Matt 1:1) identifies Jesus with the Davidic covenant.
The word “covenant” occurs over 30 times in the New Testament (almost 300 in the Old), and covenant terminology and related categories and themes are found in every part of it. The New Testament writers variously describe Jesus as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant promises, the New Covenant prophecy of Jeremiah, the covenant inauguration ceremony of the Mosaic covenant in Exodus 24:8, and the Passover lamb. For the New Testament, then, you cannot understand the person and work of Christ apart from his fulfillment of all the covenants of the Old Testament. And especially when it comes to understanding the meaning and significance of the death of Christ, Jesus himself expounds his death in covenantal terms and fulfillments. His blood inaugurated the New Covenant, and without that bloodshed there would have been no New Covenant. His death is the ground of forgiveness of sins in the New Covenant, and his covenantal mediation assures everlasting communion with God. So how do you assemble all this (and much more) into a coherent account of the biblical covenants (and their implications) in the Old and New Testaments? That’s what covenant theology does.
Covenant theology “puts the Bible together” by appreciating the importance of the divine covenants. That is, covenant theology is an approach to understanding the meaning of the Scriptures (what theologians call a “hermeneutic”), that recognizes the central significance of the scriptural covenants in structuring redemptive history. To say it another way, covenant theology explains the relationship between God and humanity in terms of divinely initiated covenants that also structure the history of redemption revealed in Scripture because divine covenants in the Bible provide an exegetical, thematic, and theological framework for seeing the overarching unity as well as progress in God’s plan of salvation. Hence, drawing upon and deploying the Bible’s teaching about, and use of, the covenants, Covenant theology seeks to give an account of the unity and continuity, as well as the discontinuity and progress, in the promise and fulfillment of the unfolding history of redemption.
Covenant theology is informed by exegetical, biblical and systematic theology: recognizing that the redemptive history revealed in Scripture is explicitly articulated through a succession of covenants (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and New), thus providing a fundamental architectonic or organizing principle for biblical theology (the study of Scripture from the standpoint of redemptive history). Covenant theology posits theological covenants (the Covenants of Redemption, Works, and Grace) and appreciates how the scriptural teaching about covenants entails and relates to a number of vitally important biblical themes and issues, including the purpose of God in history, the nature of the people of God, the federal headships of Adam and Christ, the person and work of Christ, the continuities and discontinuities in the progress of redemptive history, the relation of the Old and New Testaments, law and gospel, the assurance of salvation, the nature and significance of the sacraments (or ordinances), and what it means to walk with God in this life.
The Scripture’s teaching on the covenants is central, not peripheral, to biblical doctrine and history. When Jesus wanted to explain the significance of his death to his disciples, he expounded the doctrine of the covenants (Matt 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; 1Cor 11). When God wanted to assure Abraham of the certainty of his word of promise, he made a covenant (Gen 12; 15; 17). When God wanted to set apart his people, ingrain his work in their minds, tangibly reveal himself in love and mercy, and confirm their future inheritance, he gave them covenant signs (Gen 17; Exod 12; 17; 31; Matt 28; Acts 2; Luke 22). When Luke wanted to show early Christians that Jesus’s life and ministry were the fulfillment of God’s ancient purposes for his chosen people, he appealed to the ancient Abrahamic covenant of grace and quoted Zacharias’s prophecy which shows that believers in the very earliest days of fledgling Christian church understood Jesus and his messianic work as a fulfillment (not a ‘Plan B’) of God’s covenant with Abraham (Luke 1:72–73). When both the Psalmist and the author of Hebrews wanted to show how God’s redemptive plan is ordered and on what basis it unfolds in history, they appeal to the covenants (Psa 78; 89; Heb 6–10).
The formulation of covenant theology is the work of the 16th and 17th century Calvinistic Reformation, and its artifacts are evident in the confessions of that era, especially the Westminster Confession of Faith. By the middle of the 1500s Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin and others had already articulated fundamental aspects of covenant theology in response both to medieval Roman Catholic and contemporary Anabaptist interpretative errors, especially pertaining to the relation of the Old and New Testaments, deliberately citing the church fathers as informing and confirming the importance of the covenants in their exposition of redemptive history.
Hence, covenant theology is not a response to dispensationalism. It pre-existed the formulation of dispensationalism by several centuries. Covenant theology (sometimes called Federal theology, because of the Latin word foedus which means covenant) is not sectarian, but an ecumenical Reformed approach to understanding the Bible, developed in the wake of the magisterial Reformation, but with roots stretching back to the earliest days of catholic Christianity and historically appreciated in all the various branches of Protestantism under the influence of Reformed theology (Baptist, Congregationalist, Independent, Presbyterian, Reformed, and Anglican). “The doctrine of the covenant lies at the root of all true theology,” said the great English Baptist preacher, C. H. Spurgeon, which evidences the influence of covenant theology in the broader evangelical tradition.
What Is a Covenant?
A divine covenant (Hebrew, berith; Greek, diatheke) (as distinguished from those made between human parties in the Scriptures) is a God-initiated, binding, living, relationship with blessings and obligations. These words are best translated into English as “covenant” (not testament) because it is a relationship between two living parties, not a legal enactment effected by the death of one party whereby a living party receives a bequest, an important difference.
The essential distinction between the two meanings [covenant and testament] is that in a testament the testator expresses his will as to what shall be done after his death, esp. in respect to his property; the covenant is an agreement between living persons as to what shall be done by them while living. (E. D. Burton, Commentary on Galatians, 497)
To reiterate: a testament is a way or means of conveying an inheritance (usually because of a pre-existing relationship) after the testator’s death (e.g., the reading of a will at a legal bequest). A covenant is a way or means to securing a mutual relationship of blessing and obligations (which entails an inheritance), inaugurated by the covenant-initiator(s), and enjoyed in life (e.g., marriage).
A divine covenant is a God-initiated, binding, living, relationship with blessings and obligations.
To elaborate, a covenant secures or confirms mutual commitments that constitute and characterize a special kind of divine-human relationship (e.g., legal marriage license/contract, and ceremony), and is also the term or name denominating that relationship (e.g., the marriage relationship itself). In the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants, the covenant rituals (and the elaborations or rehearsals of the stipulations of the covenant) are subsequent to the divine election and promises that inaugurate the relationship. So, we may say, gracious divine covenants in the Bible are not contracts that lead to mutual relationships, they are contracts that formalize and secure pre-existing relationships that are divinely initiated, promissory, and that inherently entail both blessings and obligations. Thus, this means of securing those relationships (covenant), becomes so central to and expressive of the assurance of the relationship’s promises and the realization of the relationships blessings, and essential for the relationship’s definition (the mutual commitments and obligations), that the relationship itself is called a covenant.
Important Aspects of Divine Covenants in the Bible
God initiates divine covenants. They are all divinely initiated. God creates Adam and brings him into a covenant relationship. God reveals himself, speaks to, calls into discipleship, and makes commitments to Adam (not the animals), Noah (not his contemporaries), Abraham (not his father, family, or fellow countrymen), Moses/Israel (not Pharaoh or Egypt), and David (not Saul).
God’s divine covenants are binding relationships. They are far from informal or casual. They are meant to remind us that we belong to God. They call for total commitment. They pertain to matters of life and death. Once entered, only the shedding of blood can alleviate violated covenantal obligations. Hence, without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness of sin (Heb 9:22).
God’s covenants are living relationships. They order the totality of life here and now. They are living agreements that confirm and order a person’s life with God and others in this world. Life with God is not simply about what comes after death but also about living with and for him now.
God’s covenants are unique relationships. Here’s the staggering thing: he binds himself to us, and he binds us to himself only. He takes us for his most precious possession and gives us himself as our most precious possession. This is why we say that “I will be your God and you will be my people” is at the heart of the covenants. All the glories of the best of believing marriages are but a faint shadow of this relationship.
God’s covenants come with blessings and obligations. God’s covenants entail benefits and responsibilities, privileges and duties, and in God’s sovereign, good, and wise design these things are meant to be inseparably intermingled, so that we delight in duty and duty is a delight. “It is my food to do the will of him who sent me,” Jesus said, and so his disciples do too. It is the design of all God’s commands to bless us. They are all for his glory and our good. And often he states blessings in the form of commands. We glorify him in enjoying him, and we enjoy him in glorifying him. Our obedience to God in his gracious covenants of promise is not the ground of our entrance into or our maintenance of our covenant status, rather our obedience, obligation, responsibility, or works are produced by the Spirit’s work in us. The Spirit’s work within us is the consequence and goal of God’s covenant grace, the means or sphere in which the covenant blessings are enjoyed, the proof and demonstration of the reality of our covenant relation to God, and the earthly picture of what heavenly communion with him will look like. Saved to sin no more.
Violated divine covenants result in death. Always. This death may entail either the death of the covenant-breaker or the death of a substitute. This points to the most essential distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. In the covenant of works, there was no provision for blessing despite disobedience. In the covenant of grace, there is. The shed blood of Jesus Christ. Christ obeys the covenant obligations of God perfectly, bears the penalty of a violated covenant fully, and does so vicariously, as our covenantal representative (“federal head”), our covenantal mediator, and our only redeemer.
Five Ways the Bible Uses the Word “Covenant”
- Covenant denotes: the way or means by which a unique relationship is secured. Covenant indicates an agreement (often instituted at a ceremony) that secures a promissory relationship that entails blessing and obligation.
- Passages: Genesis 15:8–18; Exodus 24:3–8; Hebrews 9:15–20; Joshua 9:6,11,14–15; Jeremiah 34:8–22, esp. 8–10, 18–20.
- Illustration: Wedding ceremony (called a “marriage”), in which vows are exchanged
- Biblical Examples: The Abrahamic ritual (Gen 15), the Mosaic ritual (Exod 24, Heb 9), the Gibeonite ritual (Josh 9), the broken covenant ritual in Jeremiah (Jer 34), and the real and actual securement of the cross (Matt 26:28 [Mark 14:24]; Luke 22:20; 1Cor 11:25)
- Covenant denotes: the relationship itself, which is secured by means of covenant-making. Covenant indicates the unique relationship secured by means of an oathbound agreement (specifically: a divinely-initiated, binding, living, relationship with blessings and obligations).
- Passages: Genesis 1–2; 6–9; 12; 15; 17; Exodus 19; 24; 2 Samuel 7; Luke 22; Acts 2; Galatians 3; Hebrews 6–13
- Illustration: Marital relationship (called a “marriage”)
- Biblical Examples: Adam (Gen 1–2), Noah (Gen 6–9), Abraham (Gen 12; 15; 17), Moses/Israel (Exod 19; 24), David/Kingdom (2Sam 7), and Jesus/New Covenant (Luke 22; Acts 2, Gal 3; Heb 6–10).
- Covenant denotes: the signs and seals of the agreement/relationship (representative and confirmatory emblems) indicating that the relationship has been secured, and of the secured relationship, particularly highlighting the divine promise. Covenant indicates the confirming sign (“sacrament” or “ordinance”) attached to a particular agreement.
- Passages: Genesis 9:12–13, 17; 17:11 (cf. Acts 7:8); Exodus 12:11–13; 31:12-17; Matthew 28:19 (cf. Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4–5, 8; 2:1–4, 16-17; 2:33, 38–39; 3:25; Col 2:11–12; Gal 3:13–14); Romans 4:11; Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25
- Illustration: Wedding rings (which represent/symbolize the mutual commitments of husband/wife)
- Biblical Examples: Rainbow for Noah (Gen 9), Circumcision for Abraham (Gen 17), Passover (Exod 12) and Sabbath (Exod 31) for Moses, Baptism (Matt. 28; Acts 2]) and the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26; Luke 22; 1Cor 11) for Jesus and the New Covenant
- Covenant denotes: the written revelation related to a particular covenant. Words that are spoken and written are identified as the covenant’s words, including the ten commandments, a section of Exodus (21–23), and the Torah (Pentateuch). Covenant indicates words that come from God (verbal revelation), written by God or his designee (written revelation), regarding the content of the particular covenant relationship.
- Passages: Exodus 24:7; 34:28; Deuteronomy 29:1, 9, 19, 21; 2 Kings 23:2–3, 21; 2 Chronicles 24:30–31; Isaiah 59:21; Jeremiah 11:2–3, 6, 8; 2 Corinthians 3:14
- Illustration: The marriage contract; a legal document signed my minister/bride/groom (marriage covenant)
- Biblical Examples: Book of the covenant (Exod 24), written curses of the covenant in book of the Law (Deut 29), book of the covenant found in the house of the Lord (2Kgs 23), words of the covenant/10 commands (Exod 34), covenant/Spirit/words in your mouth/descendants (Isa 59), reading of the old covenant (2Cor 3)
- Covenant denotes: specific, particular administrations of God’s relationship with his people, characterized by the content (and time/era) of a particular covenant, thus becomes indicative of emphases and eras or periods (and even progress) in God’s overarching plan. Covenant indicates not a merely generic idea of God’s relation to his people, but specific relationships with specific people over the course of redemptive history, with progressive revelation of aspects of his plan in and by those specific relationships, and even predictions of subsequent ones by earlier ones (e.g. Jeremiah–New), and evaluation of previous covenants by later ones (Jeremiah—“Old”; Hebrews—Old).
- Passages: Hosea 6:7 (cf. Gen 1–3; 6:18; 9:9; 11); Genesis 15:18, 17:2, 4, 7, 9; Exodus 2:24; Leviticus 26:42; Psalm 105:9–10; 2 Chronicles 13:5; 21:7; Isaiah 55:3; Jeremiah 31:31–34; 33:21; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8; 9; 12
- Illustration: Specific marriage relationships (Mel & Lynda, David & Sheena); stages in a particular marital relationship—betrothal/engagement prior to marriage relationship proper
- Biblical Examples: Adam (Hos 6, Gen 2–3), Noah (Gen 6, 9), Abraham (Gen 15; 17; Acts 3), Isaac, Jacob (Exod 2; Lev 26), Israel (1Chron 16; Psa 105), David (2Sam 7; Psa 89; 2Chron 13; Isa 55; Jer 33), New Covenant (Jer 31; Luke 22; 1Cor 11; 2Cor 3; Heb 8; 9; 12)
Now many are very comfortable talking about Scriptural covenants (like the covenant with Abraham or David) but they get nervous about admitting the legitimacy of theological covenants, like the Covenants of Redemption, Works and Grace. How do covenant theologians justify these terms and ideas since those terms do not occur in Scripture? Why not just stick to explicit categories? Part of the answer, of course, is that to do justice to Scripture, theologians have often chosen extra-biblical terms as shorthand for important biblical ideas: like the Trinity, or the Son and the Father being homoousias (of the same essence), or even “sanctification” which systematic theologians employ in a broader way than that vocabulary gets used in the New Testament. So, what are the biblical justifications given for these theological covenants? Here are some good, quick, fairly succinct resources from covenant theologians answering those questions exegetically, with insights from biblical and systematic theology:
- Where do covenant theologians get the ideas of a (pre-temporal, intra-Trinitarian) Covenant of Redemption or pactum salutis from? Kevin DeYoung and I. Packer (see esp. section IV in Packer’s introduction) have given excellent brief expositions and defenses of the Covenant of Works. The idea is simple: the Son was granted by the Father, by an eternal arrangement, a people to save and to redeem, to whom the Holy Spirit applies all the benefits of the Son’s covenantal work. The covenant of grace manifests this purpose and plan in human history, hence covenant theologians view the plan itself as a covenant of redemption. As Kevin DeYoung says: “The covenant of grace in time is made possible by the covenant of redemption from all eternity.”
- The idea of the Covenant of Works is built upon a number of important exegetical and theological concerns. Very recently, both Justin Taylor (very brief article) and Luke Jenner (longer, more elaborate discussion) have made excellent arguments for the biblical legitimacy of the Covenant of Works. Briefly, covenant theologians point out that though the word covenant is not found in Genesis 1–2, the idea is clearly there. You have a divinely-initiated, binding, living relationship with blessings and obligations between God and Adam, which Adam violates with drastic consequences (Gen 3), and which Hosea 6:7 explicitly comments upon: “like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me” (ESV). Rightly understood, the concept of the Covenant of Works helps explain and protect the grace of the Covenant of Grace.
- Some people are wary of the idea of a singular Covenant of Grace that stretches from Genesis 3 to the New Testament. How do covenant theologians argue for such? Robert Reymond has composed a thorough exegetical defense of the idea of the Covenant of Grace, arguing that “the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12; 15; 17) is identical with the covenant of grace,” and that “the ‘new covenant’ itself is simply the administrative ‘extension and unfolding of the Abrahamic covenant.’” (Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Thomas Nelson, 512–37).
For these reasons and more, covenant theologians find ample exegetical, biblical theological and systematic theological grounds for asserting “theological covenants”—the Covenants of Redemption, Works and Grace.
If you want to study more of covenant theology, here are some resources, generally ordered from shorter and simpler to more demanding.
- J. I. Packer, “Covenant,” in Concise Theology (Tyndale). It’s only a few pages, but its “Packer-packed” and therefore very much worth it.
- Westminster Confession of Faith 7: Of God’s Covenant with Man.
- Larger Catechism Questions 20–22, 30–36; Shorter Catechism Questions 12, 16, 20. This is probably a good place and time to recommend that you read the classic British confessional formulation of covenant theology, in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.
- J. I. Packer, Introduction to Herman Witsius’s The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man (P&R). Packer gives you historical background and makes a biblical and theological case for covenant theology in his introduction to this classic text (which is itself very much worth your time).
- Donald Macleod, “Covenant Theology” in Dictionary of Scottish Church History & Theology, 214–18 (IVP). This is a great, short introduction to the historical and theological background of covenant theology. Macleod is one of the key theological proponents of modern covenant theology.
- Donald Macleod, “Covenant: 2” in Banner of Truth Magazine 141:22–28.
- Donald Macleod, Federal Theology—An Oppressive Legalism? in Banner of Truth Magazine 125:21–28. Macleod presents and defends the basics of covenant theology against one its strident Barthian critics.
- Palmer Robertson, Covenants: God’s Way with His People (Great Commission Publications). This is a simple, Sunday school version of Robertson’s classic “Christ of the Covenants.”
- Louis Berkhof, “Man in the Covenant of Works,” and “Man in the Covenant of Grace,” in Systematic Theology (Eerdmans). Berkhof is not bedtime reading, and you will not understand everything the first time that you read it, but he gives you a good standard overview of Reformed covenant theology with tons of references to follow-up on, if you wish.
- Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (P&R). This is the book that helped reignite the latest, now-fifty-year-old, ongoing, popular “rediscovery” of covenant theology. Robertson uses Kline’s terms for Covenant of Works and Grace (Covenant of Creation and Redemption) rather than the classic terminology, and he doesn’t believe in the pactum salutis (the pre-temporal intra-Trinitarian Covenant of Redemption).
- Ligon Duncan, Covenant Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary (iBook and Video/Audio Course). This is a free, online course from Reformed Theological Seminary. It is not too advanced for someone new to the subject to benefit from.
- Richard P. Belcher, Jr. The Fulfillment of the Promises of God: An Explanation of Covenant Theology (Christian Focus Publications). This book is now the introduction to covenant theology. It will join the syllabus of my Covenant Theology course and will be the first book that I recommend to seminarians not only for introducing the subject but providing assessment of the main alternatives to classic Reformed covenant theology. This is now the starting point for those looking for a confessional Reformed presentation.
- Guy Waters, Nick Reid and John Muether, Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives (Crossway). This almost 700-page volume is the product of the faculty of Reformed Theological Seminary and interacts with current alternatives to covenant theology as well. It is a little more advanced, but still accessible. My foreword is basically an introduction to covenant theology.
- Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Banner of Truth) [especially 3–182 and 185–342]. Vos is best digested slowly, and he definitely reads like English is his second language, but every paragraph is worth your reflection. He is the father of modern evangelical biblical theology, effectively rescuing the discipline from theological liberalism.
- Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics (Wipf & Stock) [especially 281–319 and 371–409]. This is a sourcebook of quotations from major Reformed theologians of the various loci of covenant theology. It gets you into the terminology and debates and differing emphases and opinions of the reformed tradition on the subject.
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