Monday, March 08, 2010

God's Unilateral Agreement

The Bible is divided into two major parts called the Old Testament and the New Testament. "Testament" and "Covenant" are two English words that are used to translate the Hebrew "beriyth" and the Greek "diatheke" as used in the Bible. Both words are used to refer to a solemn or legally binding contract or treaty.

In the time of Abraham, a covenant between men was often solemnized by a ceremony whereby an animal was cut in half and both parties walked between the pieces of flesh, signifying "so let it be done to me if I do not keep this covenant". But when God made a covenant with Abraham (in Genesis 15:7-21) to give to his descendants the "Promised Land" (called "The Land of Israel" until the Romans renamed it "Palestine"), the ceremony was remarkably changed. After "a deep sleep fell upon Abram" (verse 12), "there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces" (verse 17), signifying the presence of God certifying the contract. Since sleeping Abraham (then called Abram) did not also walk between the pieces, this signified that the covenant was unilateral -- God took full responsibility for keeping His promise to Abraham and his descendants.

However, God's covenant through Moses with His chosen people concerning the Law, repeated in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, was a bi-lateral covenant, because the people promised "All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient" (Exodus 24:7 and elsewhere), and because curses were promised if His people broke the covenant, and blessings promised if they kept it.

Central to the Old Testament covenants was the sacrifice of animals, signifying the debt of mankind toward God for his sin, which was only symbolically paid by the animal sacrifices. The most solemn of these sacrifices occurred each year at Passover, which foretold the true sacrifice, the actual payment, to come.

In the New Testament, we read of a day when Jesus celebrated a modified Passover ceremony with His disciples. It was modified because He ended the ceremony before the third cup, and because the ceremony was given new meaning while fulfilling the old meaning. Jesus Himself was the Passover Lamb that the cup signified; and hours later, He was sacrificed on a cross. Jesus gave the first cup (Luke 22:17) to His disciples, saying "Take this and divide it among yourselves", but didn't partake Himself, saying "I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." At the second cup (Luke 22:20), Jesus said "This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you." Since then, Christians repeat an abbreviated form of that Passover ceremony that we now call Communion or The Lord's Supper.

The sacrifice of Christ on the cross fulfilled the old covenants and introduced a new covenant because His actual and effective sacrifice ended the need for symbolic sacrifices. The apostle Paul called it the 'covenant confirmed by God in Christ' (Galatians 3:17), and 'a better covenant' (Hebrews 7:22, 8:6, 9:15, and 12:24). Paul also explains that when the prophesy of Jeremiah (31:31-34) is fulfilled, this covenant will be embraced by a rejuvenated nation of Israel.

The new covenant is also unilateral, because Jesus Christ has paid the price in full, and we bring nothing. God says that "...all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags". (Isa 64:6) There are many Bible passages that make it clear that our righteous obedience of God's laws contributes nothing to the salvation that Christ freely offers to us. A few verses are:

Gal 2:16
...a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.

Rom 4:4-5
4 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.
5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness

Rom 11:6
...if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace...

Eph 2:8-9
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,
9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.

If our righteousness is insufficient, then how can we settle our debt of sin with God, and escape condemnation? We need to "declare bankruptcy", by confessing our sin and accepting the free gift of Christ's sacrifice, His payment for our sin:

1 John 1:9-10
9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

John 3:16-19
16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
18 He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

(The name "Jesus" means "Savior", so believing in His name means that you trust His ability to save you.) There is no other way:

Acts 4:12
Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

John 14:6
Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me."

It doesn't take a lot of faith; a genuine faith is sufficient to begin, and God will cause your faith to grow. A man once told Jesus "Lord, I believe", and then, doubting himself, added "help my unbelief". (Mark 9:24) Ephesians 2:8, quoted above, indicates that even faith is a gift of God.

Rather than righteousness saving us, it is God's saving of us that leads to righteousness, because God's Spirit works in us to change us, and God's love motivates us to please Him:

Titus 3:5
not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit

Eph 2:10
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.

Phil 2:13
for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.

There are also many verses that indicate that 'works' that result from God's work of renewal in us, demonstrate to others that we truly know God, such as:

Titus 1:16
They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him

(All verses quoted from the New King James version)

So, we start by confessing our sins, which implies a desire to stop sinning; but God, while He helps us to stop sinning, does not make our success at not sinning part of His covenant. He knows we are unable to keep such a requirement. Our righteousness, however much it was, was insufficient in the first place, and it makes no sense to add it afterward. Any righteousness we achieve afterward is by availing ourselves of His help, so how can we claim any credit for that?

It is truly comforting to know that our right standing with God rests securely on His unilateral agreement and promise to us, motivated by His unconditional love for us.

When in trouble, we may reach up as a child to grasp His hand; but His hand is too big for us. Instead, He reaches down and holds us -- and that is far more secure.

For more on trusting God, click here.

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