by Mike Phay
If you are a Christian with even a modicum of exposure to those outside of the faith, you have probably experienced being labeled as a hypocrite. The bite of this accusation, though stemming from a perceived inconsistency between our words and our lives, is rooted in the repeated failure of believers to actually look differently than the world. Jesus was clear about how the world would notice the difference: through our “love for one another” [John 13:35]. It is important for us, then, to consider the kind of love to which Jesus is referring. Scripturally, this kind of love is referred to in terms of a covenant.
What is a Covenant?
In his classic work, The Christ of the Covenants, O. Palmer Robertson defined a covenant as “a bond in blood sovereignly administered”* — a mutually binding, relational commitment between two parties, carrying with it life-and-death significance. Covenants are never casual or informal. Scripture talks about “cutting” covenants [Genesis 15; Jeremiah 34], which points to the blood that would often accompany a covenantal ceremony between two persons, as well as the severe penalty to be imposed upon covenant-breakers. A covenant, then, is the deepest kind of relationship that can be entered into between two persons.
Sovereign administration means that covenants are God-ordained, God-created and God-directed. They are agreements that come with conditions and promises. In Scripture, they are often accompanied by signs (or seals), such as a rainbow, the Sabbath, circumcision, or a meal.
Covenants in Scripture
In Scripture, God always deals with and relates to His people through covenants. From Adam to Noah, from the patriarchs to the nation of Israel, from David through the Prophets, and finally culminating in Jesus, God is found frequently entering into covenants with His people. These divine covenants are exemplified in the statement: ‘I will be your God, you will be my people’ [Genesis 17:7; Exodus 6:6-7; 19:4-5; Leviticus 11:45].
Covenants between God and His people are grace-based, in that God freely chooses to enter into relationships when He is not constrained to do so. He freely takes the constraints, the ties and the burdens of relationship onto Himself. God devotes Himself to a life-and-death covenant relationship with His people, giving Himself completely for them: taking on Himself the curses and penalties that we have earned and deserve. The redemption that Christ gives is a redemption from the consequences of covenant-breaking: in Christ, we become covenant-keepers. He is our Great covenant-keeping Savior, who graciously brings us into this redemptive covenant relationship with God. Being in Christ is to be in covenant with Jesus and with His people.
In Scripture, people also relate to one another in the context of covenants. The most basic human covenant is familial: that of marriage. Other biblical examples include those found in Joshua 24:14-28; 1 Samuel 18:1-5; and 2 Samuel 5:1-5.
Covenant in the 21st Century
For those who lead churches, it is worth our time to consider how the upholding of core covenantal realities amongst our people is of significance for discipleship. Two practical applications are immediately discernible: Church Membership and Christian Marriage.
Covenant and Community
Although it seems quite old-fashioned in our cultural context, 21st century Christians should consider covenant as being foundational to the relational and communal reality we find ourselves in: the Church. It is right for believers to see the relationships within the church as covenantal, for the basic reason that this is the pattern of relationship that God clearly establishes for us in the Scriptures: most poignantly in the New Covenant of redemption that has been secured for us through the work of Christ [Luke 22:20; Hebrews 8]. The church, then, is a fundamentally covenantal community.
Therefore, churches should affirm that it is right to live in accordance with the deep-seated covenant relationships that have been established in the church through the death and resurrection of Christ. We are called to “walk in a manner worthy” of our calling – a manner worthy of the Gospel – and this is exemplified as we live in covenantal relationships that reflect and point to the Gospel realities that have saved us and continue to give us life on a daily basis [Ephesians 4:1-6; Philippians 1:27].
Church Membership, when practiced in a covenantal context, brings these theological realities to bear on our day in and day out relationships with fellow believers. When we enter into Covenant relationship with our church, we are volitionally communicating to our brothers and sisters: “I Choose Us,” rather than “I Choose Me.” This comes with both the benefits and the death-to-self responsibilities that accompany covenantal relationships.
Covenant over Contract
The God-created reality of marriage as a covenant relationship between one man and one woman has been eroded in a myriad of ways over the last several decades. Our culture mainly sees marriage as contractual, or transactional – a ‘loose agreement’ that can be entered and exited with convenience or caprice, with little or no depth of commitment or sacrifice. In contrast, biblical marriage is a picture of Christ’s own relationship with His bride, the Church – a fundamentally covenantal reality [Ephesians 5:25-33].
Christian leaders have an opportunity, in the midst of the modern marriage war, to uphold the significance of covenant as we disciple our married couples, newlyweds, and young people who are preparing for marriage. We have the opportunity to point them to Christ, our great covenant-keeping Savior, through whom our own covenant-keeping is made possible. We also have the opportunity to show them what covenant-in-community looks like as we lead our churches into the sacrificial ways of biblical, authentic, Gospel-centered community. As we do this, in a society that lightens even the burdens and responsibilities of its contracts, we uphold the primacy of covenant as the picture of love.
Perhaps as we do this, the world will notice the difference.
* O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980), p. 4.