Monday, 29 June 2015

Between the Covenants: Grace and Works

With The SCOTUS recently approving same-sex marriage, the topic of relationships and divine law has become a very common topic of discussion. My experience on social media has encountered 4 key discussions. The majority, as they display with their ‘celebrate-pride rainbow filter’ on their profile picture, are celebrating. A minority are expressing their disgust and prophesying doom over the USA. And from Christians, many are pointing out that not only are we a secular nation, but there is no mandate to creation one in the great commission. And others, like myself, are displaying the rainbow with some reference to Gen 9:13: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. (Indeed, the rainbow is a sign of grace and mercy, and not a symbol of pride). And so I thought I would explore the nature of the covenants, and the relationship between grace and works

What is a Covenant? 

Covenant is a word used often in the church and theological discussion, but sometimes with only a vague understanding of its meaning. Wayne Grudem defines covenant, in the biblical sense, as: “an unchangeable, divinely imposed legal agreement between God and man that stipulates the conditions of their relationship” (515). Being an unchangeable agreement means that humanity can never negotiate the terms, it basically comes down to ‘do you accept them or not.’ So a covenant is different to a contract, as evident by how the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint, or LXX) and the New Testament authors chose the less common term diatheke (testament, will, stipulations laid down by one party), rather than the more common syntheke (negotiated contract). Matt Chandler uses marriage to explain the difference:
“They don't turn and face one another and go, ‘I'm in this as long as you mow the lawn.’ ’Well I'm in this as long as you clean the dishes after we have dinner.’ ‘Well I'll do the dishes if you make enough money for us to go out to eat every once in a while so I don't have to slave in the kitchen all the time.’… In a covenant, we don't barter around services… We're entering into a relationship in such a way that we give ourselves to one another”

So a contract is a conditional relationship, but a covenant is a sacrificial relationship based on promises. And therefore when God enters a covenant with people, it is by grace.

How the Covenants Relate

There are a number of covenants mentioned in the Bible. The key ones are:
Adamic: made with Adam and Eve in the Garden (Gen 1:28-30, 2:16-17) as God’s ideal pattern of relationship with humanity,
Abrahamic: promise of land, children, and blessing through faith in the promises of God (Gen 12:1-3, 15:13-21, 17:1-14),
Mosaic: redemption of descendant of Abraham as His special people through faith in the blood of the Passover lamb (Ex-Deut), and
Messianic: redemption of humanity as His special people through faith in the blood of Jesus, the Messiah (Lk 22:20, Jn 3:16-21, Rom 1-11)

There are a variety of views of the relationship between the various covenants, which can be summed up into two major categories: Dispensationalism, and Covenant Theology. These are more about hermeneutics than theology per-se (gotquestions), but a hermeneutic based on theology nonetheless.
Dispensationalism focuses on the differences between 7 “distinguishable Dispensations or administrations of God’s purposes, will, and relationships with people in general and particularly his people” (Ware). And therefore, although some overlap may be recognised, there is a strong distinction between the Old and New covenants as well as the church and Israel.

Covenant Theology, on the other hand, focuses more on the continuity of the covenants and categorises them as being either a covenant of works, or a covenant of grace. The Covenant of Works is said to have been set in the Garden between Adam and Eve: “God sets Adam in the Garden and promises eternal life to him and his posterity as long as he is obedient to God’s commands. Life is the reward for obedience, and death is the punishment for disobedience.” However, because Adam failed to uphold the covenant of works, a Covenant of Grace was needed whereby “God freely offers to sinners (those who fail to live up to the CW) eternal life and salvation through faith” (gotquestions). This kind of approach sees the relationship between the two covenants as: ‘the old is the new concealed, and the new is the old revealed.’ Moreover, Israel and the church are seen as the same. These are just generalised, summary definitions and I am aware that there is a greater complexity to them. I am also aware that some may define them slightly differently, and that there are those who don’t sit exclusively in one camp or another. But for the purposes of this blog, these explanations should suffice.

My reading of the bible suggests to me that there is a significant continuity between the covenants, and this continuity is found in: God’s intention for humanity, God’s character, and our response to God’s character.

Beginning in the Garden, it was intended by God that humanity walked in shalom with Him; loving Him, trusting Him, and faithfully reflecting His Holy image. Yet, because of sin, God needed to redeem humanity from the fall and promised in Genesis 3:15 that a descendant would fulfil this purpose. And all the covenants God made with people pointed to this saviour being fulfilled in the person and work of Christ who established the New Covenant. Although Covenant Theology distinguishes them, I have found that all covenants have both a works and grace component. There was an aspect of grace in the Garden as God chose to establish a relationship with them, before they had even done anything. It’s just that because of sin that in the latter covenants, grace has a greater emphasis as well as a different basis and form. And when it comes to the Messianic covenant, although we are saved and forgiven by grace through faith (Rom 3:21-24), our response to that grace is worship and obedience (Rom 12:1-2, Eph 2:10). Both Paul and James use Abraham as an example of this since, although God established his covenant with Abram because of faith (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:1-12), Abram's faith was proved through his obedience. As James explains: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God” (Js 2:21-23).

Grace and Works

This passage opens much debate between faith, works, and salvation as people try to keep both Paul and James in tension. This is particularly true when it comes to witnessing a Gospel of Grace to groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons who hold to a conditional/works based Gospel (God will only save you if you obey), who use James to argue this. They fail to understand that works are the ‘fruit’ not ‘root’ of our salvation. And because we are so enamoured with God’s grace, our opposition to a works-based salvation, and protestant heritage, we tend to irk at the mention of works and Law, seeing them as enemies of the Gospel. Indeed, it is often seen as a thing of slavery and burden, as reflected in the opening verse of the hymn, ‘Free from the Law’:

Free from the law—oh, happy condition!
Jesus hath bled, and there is remission;
Cursed by the law and bruised by the fall,
Christ hath redeemed us once for all.

The Law given through Moses is often understood as a Works Covenant, however, as Exodus and Deuteronomy tell us, one finds that obedience was a response to God’s work of redemption, not a condition. At the beginning of the Ten Commandments, God declared: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:1), and then proceeded to give the Law. An implicit conjunction between verse 1 and 2 is ‘therefore’. Thus, God is saying: ‘Since you are my people, this is how I would like you to act.’ And that God chose these people by grace is evident by the declaration:
“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deut 7:6-8).

This is not much different to the New Covenant. As Paul explains in Romans: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), (and) “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6-8).

Difference and Continuity

So what exactly then, is the difference between the Old and New Covenant? One popular view is that we are now under the Law of Christ and that the Law of Moses has been done away with. Indeed, this appeals to many Protestant Christians today for the reasons mentioned above.  Proponents of this view will often refer to Colossians 2:14, in particular from the King James Version, “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.” Another is from Hebrews 8:13, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” Prior to this verse is a quotation of Jeremiah 31:31-34, which contains both points of difference and continuity.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
The points of difference are found in the supremacy of the New Covenant, which is fitting considering that its context in Hebrews is the author describing how the New Covenant is superior to the Old on the basis of its promises and sacrifice (Heb 8:1-7). First, we have the Lord explaining that the New Covenant won’t be like the Mosaic covenant because “of the lack of faithfulness to the covenant on the part of its recipients” (Guthrie, 971). And second, the remedy to this problem with the Old Covenant is in how instead of the people having to rely on external commands written on stone, they will be written on their hearts and minds. The combination of these two points results in a deeper intimacy and knowledge of God, made possible by a once-for-all forgiveness.

But, note two points of continuation. Firstly, the New Covenant is not made with the nations (Strongs #1472: goyim, Gentiles) but with Israel, consisting of the two Kingdoms (1Kg 12): the House of Judah and the House of Israel. And just like under the Old Covenant, the Gentiles are grafted by faith in Jesus, into Israel: the people of God. Like Ruth we say to ‘Naomi’: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Paul talks about this two places. One in Romans 11:17-18, 23-24:
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree… And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.
The other in Ephesians 2:12-13
…remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
And so, the first point of continuation is that God is making a covenant with Israel, and invites the nations to be His people (2Cor 6:16). This becomes evident in Peters declaration that we as followers of Christ, “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellences of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”(1 Pet 2:9-10). These words aren’t unique to the New Covenant people of God, but also used to describe the Old Covenant members too: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6). Although dispensationalists may disagree, suggesting that the church has replaced Israel, there is some truth to this. God’s people in the Old Covenant were a geopolitical entity, but we are now a people of faith. But there is continuity here too, as Paul explains to the Galatians: “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal 3:7-9). Therefore, belonging to the people of God has always been by faith. And in the future, in the New Heavens and Earth, God’s people will reign on Earth under their King.

The second is continuity of God’s Law. As mentioned above, God declared in Jeremiah 31 that He would write His Law on the New Covenant member’s heart and mind. One might suggest that this is the same Law as the one given through Moses, especially since the reason He writes it on our heart, is that the Old Testament people couldn’t keep it. As Jesus said, the Two Great Commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself” (Lk 10:27), which is referred to as the Law of Christ (Gal 6:2) (gotquestions), is not only the foundation of the Law and the Prophets (Matt 22:40), but also quotations from the Mosaic Law (Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18). What the Law looks like in the New Covenant is debated and complex, and will begin to be explored in the next blog, but as this point it should suffice to conclude that there is some continuity of the Law given through Moses under the New Covenant.

Partnership of Grace and Works

So grace and works are not the two opposing concepts they are made out to be, when partnered together in the right way, create a beautiful covenant of Life and blessing. It was true of Abraham, Noah, Moses, and David, and it is true for us today. But this side of the fall, as Titus 3:5-7 tells us, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” This side of the fall, works cannot justify us. Our works cannot make us righteous. To try and establish a righteousness by works is not only a self-righteousness that is offensive to God, but also, as Paul warned the Galatians, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” But rather, if we obey God with our works, empowered by grace, out of our relationship with God, then we will be living out a faith befitting the righteousness given us. But even when we fail, we have a creator with a Love for His creation that never gives up. And this is what the covenants are all about, an all-powerful, ever present God who loves His people, and desires to be with them in a relationship based on love and grace, and lived out in works from both sides.

I thought I would be fitting to close with the lyrics of John Mark McMillan’s song, Future/Past:

You hold the reins on the sun and the moon
Like horses driven by kings
You cover the mountains, the valleys below
With the breadth of your mighty wings

The constellations are swimming inside
The breadth of your desire
Where could I run, where could I hide
from your heart’s jealous fire

All treasures of wisdom and things to be known
Are hidden inside your hand
And in this fortunate turn of events
You ask me to be your friend
You ask me to be your friend

And you,
You are my first
You are my last
You are my future and my past
You are the beginning and the end


Bliss, Philip Paul (1838-1876). “Free from the Law—Oh, Happy Condition”

Chandler, Matt. “The Dearest Place On Earth Pt2-What Is A Covenant?” 16 Jun 2013.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. IVP: Grand Rapids (2000).

Guthrie, George. “Hebrews,” Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Eds. G Beale, and D. Carson. Baker: Grand Rapids (2007), 919-996.

McMillan, John Mark. “Future / Past”

Ware, Bruce.  “Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism”

“What is Covenant Theology?”,

“What is the Law of Christ?”,

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