“Marriage is not a contract; it’s a covenant.”
Maybe you’ve heard that. It’s catchy. Someone says it at a big conference, everyone nods. They go back to their churches and repeat it. Everyone nods. And so it goes viral.
But does it actually mean anything? I’ve heard it explained that covenants are unconditional, but contracts can be broken. Hmmm.
This got me thinking about covenants and whether they are actually unconditional, and then I started thinking about falsification theory. I know. My mind flits.
Falsification theory was first mentioned by Karl Popper and popularized by Anthony Flew. Both, to my knowledge, were atheists. But they made interesting observations. The thinking is that for a statement to be meaningful at all, it must be falsifiable. I’ll try to explain. If I say that Felicity is a cat, what I mean is that there is a creature in my yard named Felicity and she belongs to a category of creature called a cat. It means something. If someone came to my back yard and proved to me that Felicity was indeed a raccoon, then my statement would be proven false. It is a falsifiable statement. If the statement was not falsifiable, then it is meaningless.
If, for example, I stated that Felicity is a cat, and what I meant by it was that Felicity is whatever you wish Felicity to be, and even her existence is up for debate, then I actually am not saying anything at all and should just keep quiet. In that case, when I say Felicity is a cat, and you say, “No, that is a raccoon” and I respond with, “mmm yes. That’s what I said. Cats and raccoons and fish are all one. It’s whatever you want it to be,” then you could justly accuse me of speaking nonsense. My statement is non-falsifiable. I should be pelted with rocks and garbage. Or perhaps a raccoon.
“This post is weird”
“I thought he was going to talk about marriage”
I’m getting there. When we say things like “covenants are unconditional”, it seems to me that we are making the same mistakes as those who speak non-falsifiable gibberish. If a covenant means anything, of course it can be broken. Otherwise it isn’t actually saying anything at all.
If, for example, I say to my wife “I promise to love you and honor you” and what I meant by it was “I plan to do whatever I want whenever I want to” then I actually haven’t vowed anything at all. I haven’t made a covenant or a commitment or anything of that nature. I was simply speaking gibberish, and again deserve to be pelted with rocks and garbage, because my wife was counting on my words meaning something.
It is commonly stated that the New Covenant is unconditional. But is this really true? Is it actually true that God will just zap us into heaven and we can do whatever we like to do whenever we want to do it?
The teaching of scripture is not that the New Covenant is unconditional, but that Christ has fulfilled the covenant in our place. He also creates in us clean hearts as was prophesied by the Prophets:
33 But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer 31:33)
We are justified, sanctified and glorified in Christ. Our salvation is assured in Christ. It can never be lost in Christ. But this is far different than saying that the covenant is unconditional.
Even the covenant with Abraham was conditional.
Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised…. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.
(Gen 17:9-10, 14)
We need to be more careful with our speech. How can an unconditional covenant be broken? Did God say to anyone, “Live exactly the way that you want to and do whatever you want when you want to do it. It’s all good.”
It is also true that we can never fulfill the conditions of the covenant. But this is different than saying that the covenant is unconditional. The gospel is that Christ has fulfilled the covenant in our place. He is the mediator of the New Covenant.
To say that a covenant is unconditional is to speak gibberish. How can I enter into covenant with you if the covenant doesn’t mean that I will do something and that you will respond in some way? Are we just speaking gibberish?
Classical Reformed Theology speaks about unconditional election, but this is a different thing. It was an answer to the claims of the Remonstrants that God’s election is dependent upon foreseen faith. The Council of Dort answered that God’s election flows from his good pleasure alone, and does not flow from a condition of any kind that he foresees as being fulfilled by the creature. Someone somewhere simplified the decrees of the council with the acronym TULIP, but to my mind, that is an over-simplification of the Canons of Dort. (For those new to TULIP, the “U” stands for “unconditional election.”)
But this doesn’t say anything about “unconditional covenants”. A covenant is an arrangement between two parties. In the case of God’s covenant with man, it is decreed by a sovereign and is therefore non-negotiable. God says, “I will be a God to you, and you will be my people”. He didn’t say, “I will be a God to you and you can dance around a calf or whatever if that makes you feel groovy.” When Israel whored after other gods, God called them “covenant breakers” and finally issued a bill of divorcement.
Because God never speaks gibberish, a covenant means something. It asserts a relationship based upon conditions and therefore can be broken. Just as a statement that is non-falsifiable is meaningless, so a covenant that cannot be broken is gibberish.
If by “unconditional covenant” you mean that Christ fulfills all of the conditions of the covenant and I stand before him perfect and whole as if I had never committed nor had any sin, then I’m with you. I wish that you would use different language, but you have no argument. If, however, you mean that God is stuck with taking us to heaven no matter what we do in this life as long as we accepted Jesus into our hearts at church camp when we were teenagers because we wanted to get it on with Betsy – then I am going to have to part ways.
The Jews thought like this. John said to them, “Don’t say that you are children of Abraham. God is able of these stones to raise up children of Abraham.” God is never “stuck” with a scoundrel because of some nonsense about an “unconditional covenant”. Repent, and be converted.
Back to our original statement. “Marriage is not a contract; it’s a covenant”. I still think this is meaningless. But I fear that it is used to teach this strange and unbiblical idea that covenants are unbreakable, even though scripture is full of those termed “covenant breakers”.
To apply it to marriage, a man takes a vow. He says, “I promise and covenant before God and these witnesses to love, honor, and cherish you, to keep myself only for you, as long as we both shall live.”
These are solemn vows. If they are unbreakable vows, then they mean nothing. They are like a cat who is also a raccoon. But God would not have us speaking gibberish. If a man fails to love, fails to honor, fails to cherish, and is unfaithful, he has BROKEN THE COVENANT!
If that is not the case, let’s change our wedding ceremonies to whatever we want, marry our livestock, dance naked in jello, and do as we please. Words apparently mean nothing.
Call it a contract or a covenant, we take solemn vows when we marry. Our spouse takes solemn vows. The solemn vows are dependent upon one another. A woman won’t vow those vows to a man who has no intention of vowing those vows. Lives are at stake, which is why we take solemn vows. If one of the parties taking those vows has no intention of keeping those vows, then the covenant is broken.
Let’s look at it from a business standpoint. I sign a contract promising that I will haul a cord of wood to your barn in exchange for 200 dollars. Since words mean things, this is an enforceable vow (or contract, or covenant – whatever you want to call it.) If I fail to haul the wood to your barn, then the covenant is broken, and you are not obligated to pay me 200 dollars.
Covenants can and are broken, because of the hardness of men’s hearts. This is what Jesus meant when he said concerning the decree of divorce, “Because of the hardness of your hearts, Moses wrote that.”
Men and women are covenant breakers. For the sake of order, it is sometimes necessary for the law to recognize that the covenant is broken. God would not have his children in bondage to the gibberish of the devil. Shine some light on it. Speak words that mean what they say. Keep your vows.
This is what a Christian does.