Covenant: How God makes our relationship official.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 May

Despite what you may have heard, it’s not just an extra-special contract.

Covenant /'kəv.ən.ənt/ n. Committed, intentional relationship. The parties who enter such relationships spell out the duties of one to the other, made with firm, binding promises.
2. v. To enter such a relationship.
[Covenantal /kəv.ən'ənt.əl/ adj.]

Our culture, including popular Christian culture, seldom understands the significant difference between “covenant” and “contract.” Usually because of marriage.

Seriously. Y’see, back when there was no such thing as separation of church and state, the government formally recognized various religious covenants: Baptisms, christenings, marriages, religious vows, and so forth. After the United States decided it was in our best interest (particularly the church’s best interest) for government to remain neutral, our governments nevertheless still kept marriage on the books. Because it comes in handy to know who is married to whom—for the purposes of inheritance, next of kin and spousal consent, parental rights and responsibility and custody, and so forth. (Plus there are tax breaks.) But the problem is our laws don’t legally define any covenant between the two… because a covenant’s about the nature of their relationship. All government does is recognize the legal contract between them. One which, as you know, our governments can easily dissolve. Or redefine, to the outrage of many.

So when your average Christian tries to define covenant, such as one of the many covenants between God and his people in the scripture, they tend to think of marriage. And tend to forget the concept of “marriage” they have in their brains… ain’t necessarily a covenant. Sometimes it is, because they remember it’s a formal relationship. And sometimes it’s not, because they forget the relationship part, and instead emphasize the idea it’s binding.

Of course it’s binding. The people who covenant together don’t merely intend to work together. They intend to be bound together, for life. Like a proper marriage, not a government-defined marriage.

God is relational. He wants a close personal connection between himself and his creation. But God is love, so he doesn’t wish any of his relationships to be a casual, go-as-you-please, Facebook-style friendship. No relationships of convenience: Those are impatient and self-serving, and neither of those things are love. God wants commitment. He wants to bind himself together with us. Hence he makes covenants.

This is why throughout the bible, heavily emphasized, we’ll find covenants. God makes ’em with everyone. He made one with Noah, Ge 6.18 Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Ge 17 Jacob, Ex 2.24 the entire nation of Israel, Dt 5.2-3 and anyone who joins Israel and willingly adopts the terms of God’s covenant. Is 56.6-7 Really, he’s made covenants with all of humanity, Ge 9.15 which is why he has every right to rule and judge us.

And of course we Christians recognize Jesus’s new covenant, in which God’s relationship with his followers involves giving us his Holy Spirit, and that we follow him instead of the stipulations spelled out in the Law. (Although since the Holy Spirit inspired the Law, 2Ti 3.16 we don’t disregard the Law! We simply recognize he supersedes it.)

God continually initiates these relationships because he wants his creations to become his children. He wants to interact with us, and be our loving God. Lv 26.12 He’s always wanted this. It’s why he created us humans in the first place. Our sin messed things up, and ever since, God’s been trying to put things back together.

Bungling the covenant.

Historians like to compare God’s covenant with the Hebrews, to the treaties drafted between ancient warlords and the nations they conquered. The historians’ term is a suzerain/vassal treaty—a suzerain being the medieval term for warlord. (Sounds nicer, too.)

A warlord, like Genghis Khan of Mongolia, would conquer all his neighbors. But rather than just slaughter them and take their land, he’d be far more practical and turn ’em into willing subjects of his empire. He’d set up a covenant with them. Here were his obligations towards them; here were their obligations towards him. If they paid tribute and obeyed his laws, he promised to build up their infrastructure and defend them from their enemies. If they didn’t, he’d be their enemy, and enslave or slaughter them. But follow the covenant, and you’ll find him a benevolent and very beneficial friend. He’ll be their king, and they his people.

There are a lot of similarities between these ancient treaties and the Law handed down from the LORD to Moses. And y’know, that may be why the LORD adopted such an idea: It’s what people were familiar with, so why reinvent the wheel?

But there’s one vast difference between a warlord and the LORD. The basis for the warlord’s treaty was he conquered his people. And the basis for the Law was the LORD rescued his people.

Exodus 20.2-3 KWL
2 I’m your god, the LORD,
who took you out of Egypt’s land, out of the slaves’ house.
3 You have no other gods but me.”

The foundation of God’s Law is grace. Not fear, not death threats, not the menace of hellfire, not captivity nor slavery. Adoption. Love. Relationship. ’Cause that’s who God is.

Warlord treaties would go on and on and on about what a badass the warlord was, and how you ought never, ever cross him. In comparison, God has this:

Exodus 34.6-7 KWL
6 The LORD passed by Moses’s face and said, “The LORD.
The LORD, the compassionate, gracious God.
Slow to anger. Abundant in love and truth.
7 Always loving to the masses who follow me.
Forgiving depravity, carelessness, and sin.
But I never declare rebels innocent.
I hold children responsible for their parents’ depravity—
and the children, and the great-grandchildren.”

Those who fixate on the “I hold children responsible…” part miss the point: The covenant doesn’t mean the Hebrews were free to violate its terms whenever they liked, and God would simply ignore their misbehavior. Actions have consequences, and consequences can affect generations to come. But for those who do follow him, God forgives everything. Warlords, in comparison, wouldn’t forgive. Break their covenants, and they’d break you mercilessly.

As you might remember from your bible, the Hebrews—later the nation of Israel—broke God’s covenant plenty of times. Hence the cycle.

Every time they ignored the Law (“Apostasy”), history repeated itself.

But unlike the warlords, who’d simply wipe out the rebellious nation, the LORD’s goal was always to restore their relationship: Get ’em back to repentance, revival, deliverance, and prosperity. Be their God, and they’d be his people. Live together in love and fruitfulness. You know, like we Christians on our better days.

Covenants are totally breakable.

There’s this one preacher I used to listen to, who described covenants the way popular Christian culture does: “An unbreakable contract.” It’s particularly ironic. Y’see, he’s a divorcé. He used to have a marriage covenant with his first wife. Now he doesn’t. He has another covenant, a new one, with his current wife.

I’m not judging his divorce. I have no idea who initiated it, or why, or any of the details. There, but for God’s grace, go us all. I’m just saying it proves covenants aren’t unbreakable. ’Cause Christ Jesus himself stated that when a married couple cheats on one another, it’s valid grounds for a divorce. Mt 19.9 Marriage covenants can be canceled. Don’t blame the government for making it so easy: Blame the many, many adulterers in humanity. Blame our sin. Blame our hardness of heart, as Jesus did. Mt 19.8

God’s covenant with the Hebrews was hardly unbreakable. Lv 26.15 His regular complaint to Israel was they broke it over and over again. Jr 11.10 And he kept forgiving over and over again.

Heck, we break it over and over again. Every time a Christian sins, we’ve broken our covenant with God. We break our covenants with one another all the time; we’ll end relationships over really stupid things, like politics or favorite football teams. We suck. But God isn’t so fickle. When he makes a covenant, he commits. Jg 2.1 He intends it to be permanent. Ek 16.60 When he offers us eternal life, he’s not kidding about the “eternal” part. He knows our future, and knows precisely how bad we’re gonna bollix things between us and him. I’m not saying he doesn’t care; of course he does. Still he forgives, every single time, and maintains a relationship with us even though we make hash of it. That’s his amazing grace for you.

The fact God doesn’t cancel his covenants, despite our sin, has nothing to do with the nature of covenants. It entirely has to do with God’s grace. He’s wholly within his rights to abandon us. But he never will, He 13.5 because he loves us so.

Contracts are actually less breakable than covenants. That’s how people take advantage of them: Violate the spirit of the contract like crazy, but never the letter, and it’s still valid. The reason Christians so often try to reduce our relationship with God, our covenant, to a mere contract—the popular cheap-grace substitute of “Say the sinner’s prayer and God will save you from hell, permanently, no strings attached”—is because that kind of contract is way easier than any actual relationship. A contract means after we said the sinner’s prayer, we fulfilled our end of the bargain. Jesus is Lord—but in name only, ’cause from here on out, we intend to sin ourselves sticky. We can, and do, violate God’s will every which way. But by the terms of the contract, God’s obligated himself to fulfill his end… because he’s just that kind of lovesick sucker.

You see the problem. Thanks to this exploitative mindset, this rotten attitude about God’s grace, a lot of Christians have no real relationship with God their Savior. They’re counting on God to come through on his end: They have afterlife insurance. Full coverage against hellfire. Once saved always saved. For a covenant, they insist, is a contract which can never be broken.

Just as bad: When legalists figure the terms of the Law have to be followed, contract-style, in order to get forgiveness and salvation from God. Or when doctrinaires insist all the proper things have to be believed, lest one little mistake means God has to throw us out of New Jerusalem as a rebellious heretic. Y’see, contracts have a lot of room for loopholes, but no room for grace. Whereas relationships have a lot of room for grace—so there’s no point in trying to make or find loopholes.

When we follow the Spirit, we’re pretty much following the same Law. (He inspired the Law, remember?) But the difference is the Spirit’s always here to remind us of his forgiveness, mercy, and love. That’s the kind of relationship God offers us now. That’s his new covenant.