The Covenants of Promise

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In the Bible it is written, “At that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world.” (Ep 2:12) The nation of Israel has been the focus of two special covenants (testaments or contracts) with God: there was an initial covenant, the Old Covenant, and there is the promise of a New Covenant that God will make with Israel. (He 8:8-12) Paul affirms here that being estranged from these covenants is to be without God, and therefore without hope. It is important then that we understand both of these covenants, that we not be strangers to either of them any longer, and that we learn how to participate in them along with Israel.

Paul helps us identify what these covenants are in an analogy drawn from a conflict between two of Abraham’s wives and their children: “For these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” (Ga 4:24-26)

The first covenant (in the analogy this is Hagar, the slave wife of Sarah who bore Ishmael in a man-centered attempt to continue the messianic line) was made between God and Israel at Mount Sinai in the giving of Torah, the Mosaic Law, which is especially embodied in the Decalogue: the Ten Commandments. (He 9:4) This covenant was that if Israel would keep God’s Law as a people that God would bless Israel with health, wealth and prosperity. (De 28:1-2, 29:1) However, if they despised, disobeyed and rebelled against God’s commandments as a nation, then God promised (covenanted) that He would punish them severely and send them into exile among the nations. (De 28:15) This was a conditional covenant that was agreed to by both parties: both God and Israel affirmed it. (Ex 19:8)

Even though this first covenant was intended to be a blessing to Israel, it ended up being a curse to them because they failed to keep their end of the agreement. The reason Paul says that this covenant “gendereth” or leads to or produces bondage is that Israel (as a type and representative of all of us) was not inclined to do their part so they ended up as slaves. (De 28:68) The Law itself (Torah) is not the problem; it does not bring us into bondage. The problem is that any conditional covenant between men and God is faulty because one of the parties (unregenerate Man) is inherently unfaithful. “For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, He saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” (He 8:7-8)

As the text states, this faultiness in Man naturally leads to the idea of a second or new covenant in which God provides Israel (Man) the nature required to be in healthy relationship with Himself. This is evidently not just for Israel’s sake; God is choosing to reveal Himself to all of us through Israel so that all may come to know and fellowship with Him.

In considering this first covenant with Israel it is important to note three key things. Firstly, it did not demand sinless perfection in order to participate in it and receive its promises. The Law contains within itself the prescription for being reconciled to God when one sins in the context of this covenant; it takes into account the fact that we are sinful by nature and cannot keep the law perfectly. God does not destroy a person (or a people) merely because they happen to violate His law: He destroys people who, after they have sinned, refuse to be reconciled to God in the manner He prescribes … which is an altogether different matter. Further, violation of the most important laws in this covenant carried no physical, earthly penalty. Loving God with the whole heart and our neighbor as ourselves is the high calling of Torah, but if Israel is unable to actually do this truly from the heart (and we might rightly ask, Who can do this truly, from the heart, perfectly?), so long as Israel purposes to act as the Law requires to the best of their ability, conforming at least in matters of physical obedience, physical earthly blessing is evidently promised and received.

Secondly, commands incurring the death penalty are physical in nature and imply that the violator has despised the Law as a whole and has broken some part of it intentionally and willfully. So long as one does not despise Torah and is willing to try to submit to it, at least on the surface, then one is keeping this conditional covenant in a manner that is acceptable to God. But in cases of flagrant and intentionally willful violation there was no means provided for reconciliation and forgiveness, and so the violator is cut off and removed from Israel. (He 10:28) This is evidently not merely for the punishment of the individual sinner, but for the protection of the nation as a whole by removing evil influences that would tend to corrupt its willingness and ability to obey Torah as a people and thereby lead to its destruction.

Thirdly, Torah was not provided as a means of being justified, or being declared perfectly righteous before God and obtaining eternal life. It was a covenant to bless a nation in temporal matters if they submitted themselves as a people to God’s revealed ways. It does, however, reveal both the holy nature of God and that Man’s sinful nature separates him from having fellowship and intimate relationship with God. As noted above, there are laws that demand perfect righteousness but which incur no penalty for violation under the covenant. For example, the 10th commandment of the Decalogue forbids covetousness, but Torah never imposes any specific penalty for violating this commandment. The Golden Rule is another example: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Le 19:18) If a person could keep all of these laws flawlessly, then they would, by definition, be counted perfectly righteous before God and live eternally through this obedience. (Le 18:5, Ro 10:5) However, there was no law one could obey that would produce this effect on the soul, transforming the heart from a godlessly selfish one to a godly and loving one. “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.” (Ga 3:21) Torah is just the standard of holiness: it does not give one the nature needed to keep it. Rather, these laws in themselves were intended to point every sinner to their need of a new heart, their need of spiritual life, of the need to be reconciled to God in a relational sense so that they would be aligned with God and His nature internally, in spirit.

This is where the second, new covenant with Israel comes into the picture. In the midst of making this first conditional covenant with Israel, God also promised (made a covenant with) Israel that is unconditional: He promised that after they had disobeyed Him, and after He had punished them severely and scattered them among the nations, that He would circumcise their heart (De 30:6), put His laws into their mind and write them on their hearts, and be their God, and accept them as His people. God promised that one day all of Israel will know Him, and that He will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and iniquities He will remember no more. (Je 31:31-4, He 8:10-12) This second covenant is rich with revelation about both God and ourselves if we think about it carefully.

As anyone may note by observing the people of Israel today, this second covenant has not yet been fulfilled in a historical sense. Israel as a people is still (for the most part) ignoring Torah and very few Jewish people have a relationship with God where they understand that their sins (their failure to follow Torah) are no longer counted against them. But even though the final fulfillment of this new covenant is still in the future, it introduces the idea that a radical, supernatural change is required in the heart of Man in order for Man to be in fellowship with God and to be counted sinless (perfectly righteous). It also clearly reveals that such a work of God in the heart of Man is both theoretically possible, and that it actually can be a reality in each one of us.

It is in these straightforward implications that this promise of a second covenant with Israel is so extremely precious: it makes us all aware of both [1] the universal human need of a new heart or nature in order to be in healthy relationship with God and [2] of God’s ability and willingness to provide this new nature to those who recognize their need and seek it from Him. This is, essentially, exposing the fact that we are all dead in our trespasses and sins, guilty, alienated and separated from God in our natural state, and that God is able to give us a new life, a spiritual birth, causing us to have a new, spiritual nature and to be fully reconciled to and accepted by Him. This is amazing and wonderful indeed!

It is this implied revelation, embedded in the promise of a new, unfulfilled promise to Israel, that Jesus affirms in private conversation with a Jewish Pharisee (whose life-purpose was to study and follow Torah and teach it to others) when He says, “Ye must be born again” in order to recognize and participate in the kingdom of God. (Jn 3:3-7) Though a master of Torah and intimately familiar with God’s dealings with Israel, this earnest Pharisee did not understand. However, it was evident to Jesus that he should have been able to see it. (vs 10)

Now, if a man born and raised in ancient Israel, who has given his whole life to know and follow God by studying and obeying Torah the best he knows how, can miss such a basic and important concept, how easy is it for us, steeped in (Christianity) a deeply paganized version of The Way, to miss this precious truth as well? How does one enter into an intimate, secure relationship with God via the promises implied in this second covenant with Israel? How does participating in this new covenant relate to the first covenant with Israel, or does it? These questions are exceedingly important: we cannot fail to understand their answers and their implications for us today.

Evidently, obtaining this kind of relationship with God has been possible all along, all throughout history, prior to the crucifixion, even prior to the Old Covenant made at Sinai. Somehow, evidently, an exceptionally sinful woman obtained it, the one who wept on Christ’s feet and anointed them with ointment in the house of Simon the Pharisee: she was forgiven of all things, even though the well-trained religious leaders of her day were ignorant of how to find this type of complete forgiveness. (Lu 7:47-49) King David also found it, a state in which God would not reject him on account of any or all of his sins, exclaiming, “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.” (Ps 32:2, Ro 4:6-8) Even the patriarch Abraham found it, long prior to Sinai, being accounted as perfectly righteous before God as a free gift, obtained in some way merely by Abraham’s faith or a belief, in spite of his many sins: this was not at all a reward for his obedience. (Ge 15:6 , Ro 4:1-5) In each case, this wonderful standing is apprehended and appropriated and realized by faith, a supernatural shift or change in our confidence.

From God’s description of this new covenant with Israel and the associated new birth that it implies, a key part of entering into this kind of relationship with God is that our perspective and inclination toward God’s Law changes fundamentally. Prior to this transformation God’s righteous standard is seen in variously unhealthy ways. Some see it as ritual that helps to perpetuate Jewish culture, others as a means to elevate themselves in religious settings, or as a way to earn favor with God. Some think that parts of it have become obsolete and so can be safely ignored. Regardless of the particular flavor, the underlying disposition is one of enmity; there is not an intrinsic love for God and for His holiness as it is revealed in Torah. There is not an inclination to submit to and align with Torah as a manner of life. In this unregenerate condition, God’s Law is not being written on the heart and in the mind. From God’s description of this second covenant, this shift in affections and tendencies is the fundamental thing that begins to change at the instant spiritual life springs forth in the soul: a love for God, for His Law and for His ways begins to permeate the entire life.

It is so easy for us to miss the mark here, on the one side or on the other. We are dreadfully sinful beings who are woefully ignorant of our own sinfulness, continually latching on to lies and counterfeits about both God and ourselves with hope and delight. We fancy empty religious ritual and are prone to believing that rote mechanics are somehow pleasing to God, regardless where our hearts are. Many have come to believe that recited prayers and attendance at empty religious services constitute “service” for God. Many think that if they make a decision to “receive” and “follow Christ” that they are partakers in this second covenant, while their disposition towards Torah never changes and no supernatural transformation is evident in the life. But the nature of this second covenant and its implications for us should be quite clear by now: let no one presume to be in any type of covenant with God who continues to despise any aspect of His Law.

For example, Paul often struggled with those who wanted to be justified through their ceremonial obedience to Torah while also claiming belief in Christ. He affirms their unregenerate state; “For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” (Ga 5:3-4) Paul makes it clear that any dependence on our obedience to the Law in the context of obtaining eternal life implies that we have no part in either Christ or eternal life. Such dependence is actually contrary to the purpose and spirit of Torah itself, an extreme abuse of it, a denial of everything that a sincere consideration of Torah would expose about our evil hearts.

On the other hand, Christ warns that He will ultimately reject the earnest appeals of many who call Him “Lord” and have, in their own view, repented of their sins, accepted Him “by faith,” and followed Him in faithful service, seemingly being used mightily of God in the lives of others. Jesus will cast them away as evil, pointing out that these supposed believers “work iniquity:” (Mt 7:21-23) these poor, deceived souls have evidently not obeyed God’s Law, even though they have publicly claimed and followed (their twisted, imagined concept of) Christ.

So … Paul says that anyone who depends in any fashion upon their own obedience to God for right standing with God is alienated from both God and His promises, and Christ makes it abundantly clear that those who do not obey God’s Law are none of His. How can both of these things be?

The answer is, in fact, surprisingly simple. The Bible does not teach salvation by works in any form or by any degree: salvation does not depend upon works at all. However, neither does the Scripture teach salvation in the absence of good works: all those who are disobedient to God as a manner of life, who disdain any or all of His Law, have no reason to presume that they will be eternally received by Him.

What the Bible teaches is a salvation that produces works: being “born again” is a supernatural work of God in the hearts of desperately wicked people that produces good works and holiness in them as a manner of life. (Ep 2:8-10)

Justification involves a transformation in the heart of one who, while claiming no righteousness of their own and acknowledging an utter helplessness in meeting God’s standard in their own strength, comes to know and understand that God has provided a substitutionary atonement for them in the person of His beloved Son, the holy Lamb of God, as continually alluded to and foreshadowed in the many sacrifices and offerings commanded in Torah.

In this transformation God imputes perfect righteousness, the absolute holiness of Jesus Christ, to the believer and attributes all of the believer’s sins (past present and future) to Christ. A complete substitution of Christ for the sinner is acknowledged in the court of God: Christ’s death is counted as the believer’s death, and Christ’s perfect obedience to all of the Law is counted as the believer’s obedience. Christ Himself, by means of His crucifixion and resurrection, is understood to be a propitiation for the believer (1Jn 2:2), reconciling him to God; Christ is received as having suffered the full eternal penalty due for all of the believer’s sins and offenses. Sin is never again imputed to the believer, regardless how much he sins. Through the finished work of Christ, God counts the believer perfectly and eternally righteous: justified.

Further, in the midst of this supernatural transaction of justification, God Himself permeates the spirit of the believer and becomes part of them, sanctifying, energizing and inclining the believer with new passions, beliefs and desires. From within the believer God begins to align the heart with His Law and holiness, writing His ways into the fabric of the mind and will. The core of the believer is so changed and transformed during this process that the believer actually begins to want to keep Torah in spirit and in truth rather than to sin, and to actually have the ability to do this; even though believers do still sin, we do not pursue it as a manner of life by perpetually aligning ourselves against God in our sin — there is real progress in our journey to holiness.

The true believer loves God Himself and His ways, and is being moved toward obedience to God from within as a manner of life, loving God and others from the heart, obeying Him out of both fear and obligation and also joy and gratitude. Believers understand that they are not justified by their obedience in any way and that they are free from the curse of the law that would be imposed on them for their disobedience. Believers are also — in the midst of this freedom — pursuing obedience and service to God as a manner of life because God rightly commands and requires obedience and holiness and is working in believers “both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” (Php 2:13) He works out this righteousness in and through believers in reality, such that they are continually being transformed more and more into His holy likeness. (Php 1:6)

The calling of God to each one of us, both Jew and Gentile, in light of His promised new covenant with Israel, is this: “Work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Php 2:12) This is not, as we have noted and as many now read it, merely an exhortation to more earnest external obedience to God’s Law. No, this is a plea for a fearful diligence as we each individually search our hearts and lives to ensure that we are indeed partakers of this promised second covenant with Israel. We are to carefully and earnestly search out and prove that we are each, personally and truly, in such a relationship with God that He will never impute sin to us again, that He is writing His laws into our minds and hearts, that He belongs to us and we to Him, that He has forgotten our transgressions and cast them away, that we are being counted perfectly righteous before Him, as righteous as Jesus Christ Himself, by being in Christ and fully represented to God by Christ.

The primary evidences of this blessed state are that we are being continually aligned with God’s Law, Torah, in our inmost being: we are growing in our acknowledgement of both our dreadful wickedness and uncleanness, and also of God’s amazing provision for our pardon and full reconciliation to Him through Christ our atoning sacrifice. While we are becoming more aware of God’s holiness and our own sinfulness, we are also growing in obedience and holiness, growing in our love toward both God and our neighbor, confident in the reality of the work of Christ in our lives as He continually moves us to more faith, more love, more repentance, and more complete obedience as we trust explicitly and only in His finished work on the Cross for our redemption and justification.

Paul sums it up nicely as he exhorts us all to soberly and carefully consider God’s dealings with His people Israel: “Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into His rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it. For we which have believed do enter into rest … For he that is entered into His rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from His. Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.” (He 4:1-3a, 10-11)

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