Recapturing a Vision of Covenant for Our Time

Posted by Amy Orr-Ewing, on March 1, 1999
Topic: Faith

Topic: Just Thinking MagazineTopic: MeaningTopic: Old Testament Studies

Today I attended the funeral of a friend from my Oxford University days. His life was cut short by a tragic accident abroad. He was in the prime of life, having achieved excellent results at Oxford, and after working for two years for a top firm in London, he was about to embark on a Ph.D. in biology at Harvard University. As this young man’s body was lowered into his grave I thought back to our times at university together. He had come from a wonderful Christian home but in his late teens began to doubt the truth of Christianity. When his dream of studying biology under Dr. Richard Dawkins was fulfilled and he came up to Oxford, his doubts became beliefs and the faith of his childhood was pushed away. Although he had experienced Christianity he did not come across a way of working through his doubts and reconciling the life of the mind with the faith of his parents.

A few years on however, in the months leading up to his death, he began a search for meaning in the universe. It was at the beginning stages of this search that his life was abruptly taken from him at the age of 24. As I thought about his life and his struggles I was struck again by the simplicity of God’s covenant of grace which is open to all. The urgency of communicating these truths to a dying world is brought home powerfully when death comes so close.

In recent times I have been meditating upon God’s covenant with his people. In our culture of broken promises and failed contracts it is easy to see that the concept of an unconditional, unshakeable covenant between Christ and the believer might be jettisoned by the Church. We do this at our peril—God’s dealings with us throughout the story of creation and redemption, indeed throughout history, act as evidence of his unconditional faithfulness and are the bedrock of our assurance.

A subtle case of misidentification is at the heart of the misunderstanding of covenant. Namely, when the Bible speaks of it, do we understand covenant or contract? Whereas a covenant is a promise in which two people or parties bind themselves to love each other unconditionally, a contract is a legal relationship in which two parties bind themselves together on certain conditions to bring about some future result.

At the heart of the Reformation rediscovery was this incredible realization that God’s dealings with us are those of covenant and not contract. Founded solely in his love for us, God made a covenant for us in Christ. It is a covenant of grace bringing with it promises and obligations, but these obligations are not conditions of grace.

To unpack this a little further let us look at our response: A bilateral covenant is like a marriage where a man cannot make a covenant for his beloved. He must wait until she says “yes” to him before they can mutually enter into a two-way covenant. Yet this is not the nature of Christ’s covenant with us. A unilateral covenant is different— God makes a covenant for us in Christ (“the new covenant in my blood,” 1 Cor. 11:25)—but a response is still needed. In 1 Kings 12, Rehoboam made a unilateral covenant for all of Israel which demanded a response from the people, and this split the nation in two. In the same way the new covenant made for us by God in Christ demands a response from us: joyful, grateful acceptance; in essence, true worship.

To avoid falling back into a contractual understanding of God’s dealing with us we must remember two things about his wonderful grace. Firstly, it is unconditioned by any consideration of worthiness in us; it is freely given. And secondly, it is unconditional. The claims made upon us are the obligations of love but emphatically not the conditions of love. In fact, the indicatives of grace are always prior to the imperatives of law and human obligation in scripture: “As the Father has loved me so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands you will remain in my love” (John 15:9-10).

If it is true that we are beginning to lose the understanding of an unconditional covenant between Christ and his Church, how are we able to present an unwavering and certain hope to those who are lost? If we see our God as a contractual Lord, how are we to comfort and teach those who are struggling with doubt and a lack of assurance? I am convinced that if we are to reach people like my university friend, we must first recapture a vision of a covenant-keeping God just as the Reformers did in their time.