“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.
20 responses to “On Unconditional Covenants”
Well said, Sam. Something I often ponder, love is not unconditional. That’s kind of a pop culture idea designed to let us know genuine love should not be reciprocal, but rather sacrificial. Like, “I will not abandon you if you disappoint me.” Even God though, whose love is Holy, pure, perfect, has a condition attached, we must receive Him, we must participate, consent to the relationship. Total, unconditional love, as is often defined by pop culture, is actually immoral for us to give to anyone but small infants. God will not ask us to sin,to love in an immoral way, so by that reasoning to force someone to stay in a marital covenant that has been broken would be immoral. I need to say this very delicately and gently, but when we endure someone else’s abuse for too long, we are not being kind to their soul, either.
Perhaps going along with your raccoon theme, I wrote a post a while back about covenants,contracts, and marriage that might give you a chuckle.
I agree partly…unconditional pop culture love, as you defined it, is contrary to God’s holiness. On the other hand, I would not say that we fulfill any conditions to merit God’s love, either by receiving it or by reciprocating. God’s love flows from his good pleasure alone.
It’s the dilemma of scripture – how can a holy God, who cannot deny himself, love a sinner who hates him and has declared war on Him? The answer is the gospel. God’s love for us is in Christ. We are united to Christ by faith, and therefore we are loved with the same love that the Father has for his well-beloved Son. But this love also changes us, as John declared: We love him because he first loved us.
The dilemma is solved in Christ.
Your conclusion, though, concerning loving in an immoral way, is spot-on
I love the truth you speak Pastor Sam,
the work of believing and abiding is ours.
A thought-provoking post. It has made me consider perhaps revising some of what I said in chapter 7 of my book, for the second edition which I VOW I will work on in 2018.
While English has the two words ‘covenant’ and ‘contract’ with fairly different meanings, the original languages of the Bible use ‘covenant’ for both concepts. That is the view of David Instone-Brewer. He suggests in his book “Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible” (pp.16-19) that because of the current distinction between ‘covenant’ and ‘contract’ it is preferable to use the term ‘marriage contract’ when discussing marriages in the ancient Near East. If you have a copy of my book you can see I state this on page 69 and endnote 136 (p.160).
Sam, if you have time I’d love you to look at chapter 7 of my book (it’s only 3 pages long) and see if I should tweak anything for the second edition. Thanks!
I will do so, Barbara. Thank you for your comments.
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Excellent article, though I have one quibble. You failed to quote a certain Spaniard in the revenge business, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Oh well.
Hahaha! I’ll try to get it right next time
Excellent. It would have been interesting had you interacted with Herman Hoeksema’s novel idea of “covenant”. But that would have been a whole new can of worms.
To say a marriage is unbreakable, is to make it more of a sacrament, like baptism. Once baptized, you can’t be unbaptized. Once married, you can’t be unmarried. As Protestants, I don’t think it consistent to say a marriage (covenant) can’t be broken.
Sam, Great article and I agree with what you are saying. (The editor in me wants to point out a typo: “Call IF a contract or a covenant, we take solemn vows when we marry.” –The error is capitalized. You mean IT. This is both in the lead statement of the article and repeated in the body of the text. This is to only make a good article even better).
Thanks. Fixed it
Dance naked in jello… pelted with rocks, garbage, and raccoons…. I laugh, l laugh!
Really liked this post. Loved it, in fact. Spot on.
However, the feminist woman in me says please consider changing the 4th to the last paragraph which reads, “A girl won’t vow those vows to a man who has no intention of vowing those vows.” in swapping out the “girl” for “woman”. Generally speaking, it’s sexist to refer to women as girls. It is likely unintended but still, women are women.
What a sensible, logical, solid argument.
Thank you. You are correct. Old habits die hard. I’ve changed it. No disrespect was intended.
Thank you. I love Pastor Sam’s blog posts, and I especially appreciated this post….very timely. However I detest being referred to as a girl. Interestingly, I didn’t notice it when I read the post.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for this article. I have been trying for so long to help my husband understand that the covenant of marriage was broken right after he said, “I do,” and then abandoned me at our wedding dance and chastised me for getting upset. Here we are 25 years later and he uses the marriage covenant idea to convince me that I cannot divorce him and still be a Christian. However, he believes that he can continue to lie to me and hurt me in other ways, but I have to remain married to him because of the “covenant”. I asked God to make it clear to me if I am to divorce him. He just made it clear. The covenant was broken 25 years ago. The divorce is just making it official.
I am so sorry. Covenants go both ways. Otherwise they aren’t covenants at all.
He took vows hiding secrets, lied about them and other things for years. Through marriage and through counseling, he has been defensive and self-justifying, and, being a very likeable guy, he is supported by the pastors/ counselors (e.g. he said he was sorry, now I have to forgive him and that’s that). Nothing seems to have changed in his attitude towards me (entitled) and no one (pastors or counselors) has talked about him rebuilding trust. We’re treated like our issues are mutual (or, according to the previous pastors, with me).
We are on our seventh marriage counselor over many years, starting in our first year of marriage. The current one is unaffiliated with a church and he is respectful toward me, so I am safe (disciplined by the last one). But there hasn’t been much progress. Now, husband and I are mostly friendly with each other, have settled into a comfortable balance of home responsibilities since he retired, enjoy hosting kids and grandkids. But we don’t have a biblical marriage.
Blogs and facebook pages such as yours have been very helpful in bringing clarity and comfort. Thank you for being gracious and a faithful preacher of God’s word.
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