Covenant

By D.A. Bass

Do you have any won in your wallet? Could you pick up a loaf of bread with them? What is a won? It is the currency in the economy of North Korea. Their economy is in shambles; they face starvation on an annual basis due to one of the purest communist states left on earth. There is no private economy (except on the black market) and no incentive to produce so much as a nail apart from its being required. You would need a basket full of won to buy the dollars needed for a tank of gas or daily groceries here in the USA. An American merchant would merely laugh at the “play money” tendered in exchange for anything produced in our thriving, capitalist economy. If you are going to live in this land, you must deal in the currency (dollars) and economy (capitalist) which constitute the society of that land.

Likewise, if you are going to live in the Kingdom of God, you must deal in the economy which constitutes the society of that land. What kind of economy has God created? The Bible is clear: God deals in mercy and wrath, justice and grace, damnation and salvation, in a covenant economy. This principle is of such importance to the salvation and well-being of God’s people that it bears repeating: God has chosen to relate to us by means of covenant. He does not work in dispensations; not by “another testament”; not by the sharia of the Koran; not in the cosmic cycles of Buddhism, but by means of biblical covenant!

We know this unequivocally because Christ, in his last Passover, which sacrament he used to institute the Lord’s Supper, committed that supper with the following words: “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” Luke 22:20 These words are deliberately spoken, intended to evoke the words of institution of the Old Covenant by Moses: “Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’” Exodus 24:8 Christ clearly signaled the fulfillment of the old economy in the new, a change recognized by the author of Hebrews when he sees Jeremiah’s prediction of a new covenant to supercede the old (Jeremiah 31:31; Hebrews 8 & 10). The very means of redemption are sealed in blood, the token of the life of the sacrifice, the Old Testament animal blood prefiguring the life of the final sacrifice, Christ. What dispensation is sealed in such solemn tokens? What “other testament”, or sharia or cosmic cycle? The answer is, “None!”

In the ancient world, men related to each other by means of different kinds of covenants, too, in imitation of God’s covenant with man in Adam. The first and most important kind of covenant was the Suzerain/Vassal Covenant, in which an inferior (a subject or minor king) bound himself in obedience to a superior (a ruler or king of kings). In exchange for military protection and inclusion within the kingdom economy, the vassal swore complete obedience, service, and tithe to the suzerain. Abraham was faithful in this toward Melchizedek; Zedekiah was unfaithful to the suzerain/vassal covenant he had sworn to uphold with Nebuchadnezzar (2 Chronicles 36:11-14). Likewise, Adam was unfaithful to the covenant he had made with God (Hosea 6:7; Romans 5:19) while Christ was utterly obedient to the covenant he had made with God (Hebrews 10:7-18; Romans 5:19).

Covenants had a definate structure, the main features of which are exemplified perfectly in the 10 Commandments:

A. Preamble (Exodus 20:2a) – the titles and attributes of the Great King which serves to introduce the document.

B. Historical Prologue (Exodus 20:2b) – summarizes the relationship between the two kings and their ancestors. Specific historical events are cited, especially magnanimous deeds on the part of the King.

C. Stipulations (Exodus 20:3-17) – includes the specific provisions and terms of the treaty.

D. Blessings (Exodus 20:6,11,12) and Curses (Exodus 20:5,7) – blessings promised for obedience, curses for disobedience.

E. Signs and Seals (circumcision Lev 12:3 and blood sacrifice Exodus 24) – acts and marks which dramatically signify and seal the covenant to the parties. Often accompanied by oaths and bonds.

Is this all merely an academic exercise on our part, which you may take or leave at your discretion? Is the covenant economy merely one option among many in the biblical scheme? Only if you despise the redemption offered to you in the gospel. God does not relate to you willy-nilly, randomly, individualistically, when you want to talk with him, and with whatever “currency” you have to offer. He demands righteousness from you; he expects to be “paid” with perfect and complete obedience to his covenant. “I am basically a good person; all I want is what I deserve from God if there is a judgment day.” Many Christians think like this, too! “I made a personal decision for Christ. I am a saved individual.” You are an individual, but God also sees you in a corporate, covenant status. All of us have died a covenant death to God in Adam, our covenant father and head (Romans 5:12,15; 1 Corinthians 15:21,22). We – with Adam – became covenant breakers. Ever since then, each one of us have given shameful testimony to that death in our first father by our corrupt, depraved lives. Just as you had that first and crowning sin of Adam credited to your account (imputed), so you now need a last and crowning righteousness credited to your account (imputed) if you are ever to be restored to a whole covenant status.

Whence this covenant righteousness? This is what God was about in Christ: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ…God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Cor 5:19,21 Make no mistake about this: in the last day, you will either be paid in the wages of the covenant of works with Adam as your federal head – death; or, you will be given the gift of life in the covenant of grace with Christ as your federal head – life (Romans 6:23).

When we lose sight of the exact nature of God’s economy, several things happen:

1. We can distort and twist the way God works with us, in directions and economies which are more to our own liking. Dispensationalism is such a system (see next article); “Another Testament,” or the Book of Mormon, adds to the covenants God has already established (see sidebar); other distortions occur when the law is extrapolated apart from its essential place in the covenant economy, as do the 7th Day Adventists when they abstract the Sabbath from the context of the New Covenant. All of these, however, share in common with much of today’s contemporary church the error of antinomianism. This word is derived from 2 Greek words, anti (in place of) and nomos (the law). It means, simply, in place of, or against, the law. This seriously underestimates the role of the law in God’s economy. While conformity and obedience to the law can never form the basis of our righteous standing before God (our justification), it remains as an essential part of the covenant as stipulations. As such, the law forms a reliable guide for our behavior as Christians in our growth in grace, as we move forward in our walk of sanctification, empowered to do so by the salvation given by grace through faith.

2. We tend to distort the way God works to the opposite extreme, as well, when obedience to the Law becomes the means by which we are seen as just before God. We become legalists, imposing upon ourselves and others an obedience which cannot save. Is it possible for us to fulfill the covenant stipulations expected of us? No! St. Paul reminds us “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all the things written in the book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal 3:10) Nothing less than perfection is required: “You therefore must be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Mt 5:48) There is only One who is capable of this kind of obedience on our behalf: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” (Gal 3:13) All of our righteousness required to re-establish our covenant status has been provided as a gracious gift in Christ. We are bound in a covenant of grace and cannot operate as if we are still mini-Adams, trying to earn our status before God with an ability to keep covenant with him on our own merits (Gal 3:10-14).

In what kind of economy do you participate with God? Dispensationalism? “Another testament?” The Sharia of the Koran? Or endless, cyclical ages? Does God adapt to whatever means we decide, or has He established an economy by which he dispenses mercy and wrath, justice and grace, damnation and salvation? Many men have spiritual won in economies of their own imaginations, in which they hope God will traffic. However, as we have seen, God deals with us in his own infinately wise and perfect economy: a covenant economy!

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