Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Tale of Two Covenants

After a few political interruptions, it's time to continue my post trilogy on the Old Testament and its relation to today, previously started in Why the Old Testament?. This time I'm specifically going to talk about what is meant by the terms "Old Covenant" and "New Covenant", which you've no doubt heard if you've spent time in theological circles. First off, what is meant by "covenant"? The word simply means a formal agreement of some kind--like a treaty or resolution today. Specifically, one between God and people. Covenants could be unilateral (basically a promise made by one party to another, requiring no action on the receiving party's part) or bilateral (some kind of conditional agreement or exchange between the parties).

There are quite a few covenants in the Bible besides the two main ones I'll be dealing with in depth. The agreement between God and Adam in Genesis 2:16-17 is a covenant of a sort; in exchange for obeying God's one command not to eat from a certain tree, Adam got eternal life and a true, personal relationship with God. (Can you believe he broke that covenant? Stupid Adam) God makes a unilateral covenant with Noah after the flood not to destroy the world with water again. (Genesis 9:11) In Genesis 15 promises to make Abram's offspring as numerous as the stars.

But there is one covenant that dominates most of the Old Testament, simply referred to as the Old Covenant or just "the law". It was made between God and the Israelites (descendants of Isaac) during their escape from slavery in Egypt. God promises to deliver them from oppression to a land of their own. (Exodus 3:7-8) On the way from Egypt to the "promised land", God gives the Israelites laws telling them how to live rightly and in relationship with God. If they keep the laws, God promises that they will be his treasure among all the nations (Exodus 19:5-6), that they will receive great material blessings (Leviticus 26:3-13), and that they will live rather than die like their ancestors. (Exodus 18:5) In short, God offered the Israelites salvation by works--if they live rightly and obeyed God's commands, they would gain eternal life. This is the essence of a system of legalism.

When I speak of the failure of the old covenant, then, it's important to realize that this has nothing to do with any deficiency in God (who is perfect) or His holy and perfect law. The deficiency is in us. Even after God spelled out the terms of His covenant with His Israelites, they continued to doubt and disobey Him. Not one of the Israelites, who had been given God's law and His blessings, was able to carry out the human side of the Old Covenant; everyone turned to sin and fell short of His standard of perfection. (Romans 3:23) Under the Old Covenant, no one is counted as righteous or worthy of salvation, we all break God's law and deserve to die. And God would be perfectly just to sentence us all for our disobedience.

If you understand this, then you are completely ready for the New Covenant, also known as "the gospel". "Gospel" means "good news", and in light of the Old Covenant it really is the best news imaginable. John 3:16 has possibly the most compact description of the gospel in the Bible:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Allow me to break this verse down and put it in terms of a covenant (sorry about messing with the order):

For God: The first party of the covenant is, of course, God--the same God who lifted up the Israelites and made the Old Covenant with them.

the world: The other party--namely, us. This covenant isn't just between God and a specific group of people, but it's open to everyone.

that he gave his only son: God's end of the bargain wasn't cheap--He had to give up His beloved son.

 should not perish but have eternal life.: The ultimate benefit of the New Covenant is the same as that of the Old: if we satisfy our end of it, we won't die but have eternal life in God. The best part, however, is what our part of the gospel deal is...

that whoever believes in him: That's it. We don't have to meet any standard of behavior, memorize and obey any set of laws, meet a church attendance quota, walk X little old ladies across the street, reach level 5 of Kohlberg's scale of moral reasoning, or anything like that. All we have to do is believe. It's the complete opposite of the Old Covenant. Under the Old, no one could be saved because everyone sins; under the New, everyone can be saved for free!

so loved: The New Covenant exists solely because of God's love. He would have been just to condemn us all to death and close the book on the human race after we blew it. But instead we can receive eternal life in exchange for nothing but our faith.

This, quite simply, is the best news in human history. My church has a slightly longer, but comprehensive statement of the gospel:
Through faith in Jesus Christ, we have been forgiven of our sins, welcomed as sons and daughters, and empowered by His Spirit to live lives that reflect His goodness and love. 
 There are so many directions I could go exploring the depth and riches of God's grace in light of the gospel, so many different angles by which to look at it, all of them pleasing. This is what most of the letters in the New Testament, particularly Romans and Ephesians, like to do. But for now I'm going to stay focused on the Old Testament. So to close this post I'm going to tackle the question that would have been on the mind of any first-century Jew grasping the gospel for the first time: "How does this fit in with the the law?"

This is a theological point on which some well-meaning and thoughtful Christians disagree. Particularly, the Dispensationalist view (which I still don't claim to really understand) apparently distinguishes itself by its view on the relationship between God's covenants. But in Romans Paul gives us plenty to go on to find an answer. He hits this topic repeatedly in chapters 4-8. The core thing that makes the New Covenant work is our identification with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Somehow, when we believe, we are united with Christ in His death and resurrection. (Romans 6:5). Our symbolic death with Christ sets us free from the law as explained in Romans 7:1-6 and by His life we receive life apart from that provided by the law under the Old Covenant. Romans 8:1-4 is a great summary:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
God's law, though good and holy, cannot save anyone because we all sin and fall short of its requirements. By taking our sins upon Himself and giving us His righteousness in exchange, Jesus allows sinners to be justified before God by the standard of the law, not by works but by faith.

So the answer is that the law of the Old Covenant is still in place, and if it were possible to go through life without sinning then we could be saved by our works. But this is impossible; faith in Jesus is the only way to salvation. By faith Christ's righteousness is attributed to us and the law's demands on us are satisfied. In Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus explains that He has come "not to abolish [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them". At the same time He says that "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of Heaven". God's standard of perfection has not been lowered, it is Christ who lifts us up to meet it.

So that's plenty of theology for now. In the next and final post in the series, I'll explore a practical implication of all of this: what exactly is the relation of the OT law to Christians today, if we aren't saved by obeying it.

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