Monthly Archives: December 2017

On Unconditional Covenants

“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.”

Never!

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.

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Filed under Divorce, Marriage

A Greater King

I’ve been thinking lately about a challenging passage in the Bible. I think that too often, we read the stories of the Old Testament as quaint fables of old, or stories of another people and another time and we wonder what it has to do with us today.

But those stories are written records of God’s redemptive history. The written accounts of the Old Testament are given to us by God to teach us how God has prepared the world for his Redeemer, who would save his people from their sins.

The disturbing account that I have been meditating on is found in 2 Samuel 24, and the parallel account is in 1 Chronicles 21.

If you haven’t read these accounts lately, or if you have never read these accounts, please do so before you read my comments. I’m just a guy trying to point you to Christ. The Word of God gives life to the dead. So read it. I’ll wait….

OK. The first thing that you see is that 2 Samuel says that the Lord was angry with David and stirred him up to number his army. Then you see that 1 Chronicles says that Satan incited David. This brings us to a deep subject that cannot really be exhausted in one blog, but the fact is this. Satan does nothing apart from God’s decree. It is God who is sovereign over every event that comes to pass, even the temptations of the devil.

Now, that being said, it seems very odd to us that God would be angry with David and allow Satan to tempt him to sin, especially since God knows that this chain of events will end with the death of 70,000 men in Israel. This doesn’t seem to fit our notions of God.

But very briefly, in this short blog, I want you to see something about God.

God is holy and cannot dwell with sinful man. David was a sinner. He was proud, lustful, bloodthirsty, fearful. He was a real sinner with real sins. In fact, not only was David a sinner, but every person alive in Israel was a sinner and deserving of the eternal wrath of God. Not one of those who died in the plague was treated unjustly by God.

Which brings us to the next point. Because Israel was sinful, God gave them a king and a priest. David was the king, and Zadok was the priest. David protected them from their enemies and ruled over them as the representative of God. In fact, the earthly kingdom of David on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem was so closely related to the Kingdom of God that the term “Zion” was used interchangeable for the Church in the Psalms. God ruled and met with his people on Mt. Zion, through the priesthood, and through the line of David. David also was given a promise: that his seed would reign forever and ever, and of his kingdom there would be no end.

But David was a sinner – as we established. He caved to the temptation of the devil and turned his trust onto his troops and his prosperity, rather than to the Lord God of Israel. And God is holy, and cannot abide with sin.

God said very clearly, “The soul that sins shall die.” And God cannot lie. What happens when those who are mediating between God and man are themselves sinners? What happens is that everyone dies. Not only the mediator, but also those who are represented by the mediator. How can a mediator save anyone if he himself is a sinner?

This is what we learn about God in this difficult passage. It is difficult because it shows us a God that doesn’t fit with our notions of what God should be like.

But the story doesn’t end there. If the story ended there, none of us would be alive.

Jerusalem was the newly conquered capital of David. David took it from the hands of the Jebusites and established his kingdom there. Now the angel of death is passing through Jerusalem with the sword of God’s wrath unsheathed and destroying. But then God commands the angel to stop. In the air above the threshing floor of a Jebusite named Ornan, the angel waits the command of God with his sword raised, prepared to destroy.

And God commands David to offer a sacrifice right there. When the sacrifice is offered, the angel puts up the sword. Get this point: God accepted a substitute for the death penalty decreed upon man.

Of course, this substitute could only be temporary, for the blood of bulls and goats could never atone for sin in the eyes of God. But that blood pointed to something far greater…

David understood the message from God and purchased the land from Ornan. David had been preparing to build a permanent temple for the worship of the Lord. But the law had clearly stated that the location for that temple would be revealed by God himself. No one could just decide for himself on a good location. It is only God who sets the terms for sinful man.

And David got the message. That plot of land became the site of the Temple of Solomon, where God met with his people, where the sacrifices were offered and accepted. But the priests were still sinful. The king was still sinful.

People kept dying. God’s wrath kept being unleashed because of the sin and idolatry of the people and the mediators. Eventually the line of David was offering human sacrifice outside the gates of Jerusalem and worshiping the gods of the Canaanites right in the very Temple of Solomon! God is just and holy, and Jerusalem would eventually be destroyed, God’s presence would depart, and the king would be imprisoned in Babylon.

What happens when the mediator is sinful? We are still in our sins and the sword of the angel is still raised.

And this all points to something even greater. The time would come when the angels would appear again, this time to shepherds outside of Jerusalem. But this time their swords would be sheathed, and they would be singing, “Peace on earth.” God provided the terms of peace.

This baby born wouldn’t be a sinful mediator. He would be the spotless lamb of God. This baby wouldn’t cave to the temptation of the devil, but would hold faithfully to God’s word without failure.

And the day would come when the perfect and sinless lamb of God would take the sword of God’s wrath upon himself.

When the mediator isn’t a sinner, the world is saved. When the mediator isn’t a sinner, the kingdom of God thrives and prospers. When the mediator isn’t a sinner, he can be offered to God as the perfect substitute for sin and the sword of God can be sheathed forever.

The Heidelberg Catechism puts it like this:

What kind of mediator and redeemer then must we seek?

One who is true and righteous man, but also more powerful than all creatures, that is, one who is also true God.

There is only one who fits THAT bill. There are a lot of men and a lot of women. But there was only ONE who could be called righteous before the judgment throne of God. Only one who never caved to Satan. Only one who was born without the corruption of Adam. And we are celebrating that birth this week.

And this same one is also true God. Everything you can say about God you can say about the baby in the manger. He is omnipotent, simple, everywhere present, eternal, infinite in power and majesty, upholding the universe by his decree. How one person can be omniscient and sovereign and have to learn how to walk and read is a mystery that we cannot explain. But we confess it and sing it and remember that his name is Wonderful.

Why then would we exchange the only mediator between God and man with a sinful creature? Why do we look to husbands or wives or kings or presidents or pastors or popes to act as the bridge between God and man? There is only ONE mediator.

David was anointed by Samuel, appointed by God, given a kingdom. God placed his name and his blessing on David’s kingdom. God blessed Israel for David’s sake. God blessed his people and loved his people and prospered his people for David’s sake.

And David sinned and thousands and thousands died from the sword of the Lord. We need a far greater mediator than that!

When your mediator is a sinner, you are a dead man walking.

As we celebrate the birth of this Mediator, as you read and hear about his birth, when you think about angels and shepherds and wise men, remember this inconvenient truth. The sword of the Lord has been sheathed for a while as the gospel is proclaimed. But that sword will fall. The wrath of God is still coming. How can anyone believe in a good and holy God and not believe in the coming judgment? Of course God is coming in judgment! That sword must fall because God is good and men and women are idolaters, murderers, fornicators, thieves. And the sword will indeed fall.

But before it falls, God has provided a perfect substitute, a perfect king, a perfect priest. He wasn’t sinful and weak. Born in a manger, and yet without sin. Worshiped by shepherds and wise men, wrapped in strips of cloths for a diaper. The creator and sustainer of the universe crying at night for the breast and a burp. And eventually nailed to a cross to take the sword of the wrath of God completely.

When we believe on his name and trust in him alone, the life that he provides is given to us. He who believes on him shall never die. The sword is put away forever in Christ, and there is now no condemnation. His resurrection is a sure pledge of OUR resurrection, because his sacrifice was accepted. And his sacrifice was accepted because in him, God was well-pleased. He was sinless, so that we could live.

Put away trust in men, put away faith in other mediators. Put away your blind faith in pastors, husbands, and kings. When your mediator is a sinner, you are a dead man walking. Rest in him alone. There is only one mediator: Our Lord Jesus Christ.

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Filed under Christology, Eternal Subordination, Gospel