Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Covenantal Logic and Meaning of Paul’s Argument in Romans 4:15–17a

In Rom 4:13–17a, Paul gives a succinct explanation as to why the promise of the blessing of life must ultimately come through faith rather than through the Mosaic faith of obedience to torah. This further strengthens his argument in Rom 4:1–12 that the example of Abraham proves that the blessing of justification comes through faith rather than through the works of the law of Moses. The fact that Abraham was right with God even before he was circumcised proves that justification is not limited solely to bona fide members of the Mosaic covenant, contrary to what Paul’s non-Christian Jewish opponents and the Christian Judaizers were advocating; but this needed further explication.

Therefore, in Rom 4:13, Paul considers the issue of how the promise that God made with Abraham (for him and all of his spiritual descendants to inherit the world) would be realized. The promise was not “through the law … but through the righteousness of faith” (Rom 4:13). It is very important to realize that the word law in Rom 4:13 refers specifically to the law of Moses. The word law in Rom 4:13 is not law in general, but specifically the law over which Paul and his Jewish opponents were arguing, i.e., the law of Moses. We need to recognize at this point that the divine promise of blessing given to Abraham in Gen 12:2–3 is grammatically, and therefore logically, dependent on the command of Gen 12:1 (see “The Inheritance of Eternal Life through Faith instead of Law in Romans 4:13” for a more detailed explanation of this). But the law of command given to Abraham in Gen 12:1 is not law in the sense of being Mosaic law. As Paul points out in Gal 3:17, the law of Moses did not arrive on the scene until 430 years afterwards. In other words, the promise of the blessing of life that God graciously made with Abraham was not subject to the Mosaic covenant when it was first made. Even though this promise would effectively come under the regulation of the Mosaic covenant after Sinai, the promise was larger than the law of Moses. The Abrahamic covenant was not a subset of the Mosaic covenant; rather, the Mosaic covenant was a subset of the Abrahamic.

The significance of the promise being realized through the righteousness of faith for Abraham in the beginning is that, if the giving of the law some 430 years later were to change that original condition, then God would have shown himself to be inconsistent and unfaithful to his word. If the giving of the Mosaic law changed the original condition regarding the realization of the promise, then this would be to render faith useless, and the covenant of promise itself would end up being annulled (Rom 4:14). Implied in Paul’s argument in Rom 4:14 is that God would not do such a thing as this. Having entered into an agreement with Abraham concerning how Abraham and his descendants would be blessed, God could not rightly change this commitment midstream.

This then prompted the question (particularly to Paul’s Jewish opponents) concerning why the Mosaic covenant was given in the first place. If the Mosaic covenant is not the ultimate regulator of the realization of the promise, then why was the Mosaic covenant made in the first place? Why save Israel out of Egypt to place the nation under the law? Paul answers this question very succinctly in Rom 4:15: “For the law produces wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there transgression.” What Paul is really saying here is that the primary function of the law in old covenant Israel was to bring about God’s wrath against the people. This is not to say that obedience to the law was not the way of life for the small minority of Israelites who had the law written in their hearts during the old covenant age. Paul is speaking in Rom 4:15 in terms of the broad sweep of salvation history during the old covenant age. Romans 4:15 is not an abstract theological statement, but a statement explaining the function of covenant failure in salvation history. The law of Moses, far from being the solution (as Paul’s Jewish opponents were advocating), was part of the problem. The main purpose in God giving Israel the law was so that God’s anger would be revealed against sinful Israel, i.e., that Israel would be rendered guilty before God, without excuse (Rom 3:19–20).

In Rom 4:16 Paul explains the deeper purpose behind the primarily negative purpose in God giving the law. He identifies two main reasons. Firstly, the law was given to Israel so that God’s dealing with humanity might be “according to grace.” If Israel had kept covenant with God, and received blessing as a result, that would still be the work of God; but Israel initially failing, only to be restored later on, makes for a better story in the sense that the gracious side of God’s character has an opportunity to be revealed. It is almost as if God, wanting to prove his greatness and humanity’s total dependence on him, has deliberately set things up for humanity in Adam, and Israel in Moses, to fail, “in order that every mouth might be stopped, and the whole world come under the judgment of God” (Rom 3:19–20), in order that his gracious response might be seen and appreciated. Simply put, the fact that the promise of eternal life ultimately comes through faith in Jesus rather than through submission to the Mosaic covenant serves to highlight God’s grace. Secondly, justification by faith also means that salvation is not just limited to Israel, but every believer (regardless of ethnic origin) can participate in the promise. Didn’t God say in Gen 17:5 that Abraham would be “the father of many nations” (Rom 4:17)? In fact, that is the meaning of the name Abraham! “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:5).

Paul’s Jewish opponents found it hard to accept, but Paul argues strongly in Rom 4 for the primacy of the new covenant in Christ over against the old covenant in Moses. That, in the salvation historical purposes of God, the Mosaic covenant would be superseded by a new covenant in Christ Jesus serves to highlight God’s grace and to open up salvation to the Gentiles in fulfillment of God’s promise of Gen 12:3.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Meaning of Justification by Faith versus Justification by the Works of the Law in the Historical Context of the Early Church

One of the problems in dealing with the Apostle Paul’s teaching on justification by faith versus justification by works is the common assumption that Paul was talking about works and law in general. But this is to ignore the historical particularity in which the epistles to the Galatians and the Romans were written.

The wider historical and theological context in which Paul functioned was dominated by Jewish views about justification and the Jewish response to Jesus. There is clear evidence from the New Testament that the main theological issue that the early church had to grapple with was the place of the law of Moses in God’s purposes of salvation. There is also clear evidence from the New Testament that the orthodox Jewish view about salvation at the time was that people were saved by keeping the Mosaic covenant. This is the covenant that God had entered into with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, which was renewed and expanded on the plains of Moab before Israel entered the promised land. Following the teaching of Moses in Deut 6:25, the orthodox Jews of the first century understood that obedience to the law of Moses constituted their individual and national righteousness before God. In other words, a right covenant response led to the enjoyment of a status of covenant righteousness. The key to understanding Paul’s teaching in Galatians and Romans lies in understanding that this orthodox Jewish belief about righteousness was known in Jewish circles as justification by the works of the law.

Justification proper denotes a judicial pronouncement that the defendant before the court is innocent of wrongdoing, that he or she is in the right as far as the law of the court is concerned. From this emerges a related sense of the term justification which focuses on the resultant legal status of the person in question. Being justified by the judge, the defendant enjoys the legal status of righteousness. Justification can also denote, therefore, the state of being justified; and this is the primary sense of the term in the way that it was used in the early church. The issue of the day was: how can people be right with God; how do we need to respond to God today in order to be right with God (i.e., to hear his public verdict of justification) on the day of judgment? The debate in the early church about justification was ultimately, therefore, a debate about how people can be in a right relationship with God.

Given the orthodox Jewish view of justification, it is not surprising that a significant number of early Christians (primarily of Jewish origin) also believed that justification came through keeping the law of Moses. In believing this, they were being consistent with the orthodox Jewish tradition with which they were familiar; and this was the primary motivation behind the push on the part of the Christian Judaizers, that Gentile converts needed to become Jews and to follow the law of Moses to be saved. The summary of the content of the teaching of Paul’s Judaizing opponents in Acts 15:1, 5 is clear evidence for this. But as the decision of the Jerusalem Council clearly delineated, the apostolic belief of the early church was that, following the coming of Jesus and the commencement of the new covenant, the means of justification in the new covenant age is faith in Jesus rather than obedience to the law of Moses. This orthodox Christian belief came to be known as justification by faith by way of contrast to the traditional Jewish view of justification by the works of the law. Failing to understand the meaning of these terms in their historical context will distort our interpretation of Paul.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Critique of Douglas Moo on Justification

On 11 August 2011 Douglas Moo delivered a lecture entitled Justification in the Crosshairs (see “Douglas Moo on Justification”). I found Moo’s lecture to be very stimulating. He expressed himself clearly, and was easy to follow.

In terms of a critique of the content of his views on justification, the major weakness with his presentation was that it presupposed a particular concept of faith and works from the beginning. The terms faith and works were not defined. I assume that Moo’s definition of these terms would be similar to Martin Luther’s anthropological definition. The question needs to be asked, however: what is the biblical concept of faith? In particular, what is the Old Testament concept of emunah (אמונה), and is Paul’s use of faith language consistent with the Old Testament use of emunah? The issue at this point is: is faith (following Luther) a positive response of the human spirit solely to divine promise, or (following the Old Testament) the proper covenant response to the totality of divine revelation? A lot of Protestant discussions of justification assume a Lutheran faith versus works distinction from the outset, and fail to critique these inherited presuppositions in the light of Scripture.

I agree with Moo’s opinion of what justification in the realm of salvation is. Justification in the realm of salvation is the divine declaration by God in his function as Judge that a particular individual is legally in the right, assessed from God’s standard of righteousness. In other words, justification is the divine declaration that a particular person has lived up to (for whatever reason) God’s standard of righteousness. I also agree, as Moo stated contra Tom Wright, that belonging to God’s people is not justification, but a necessary consequence thereof.

In terms of how justification occurs, Moo’s discussion focused on absolute justification, and failed to acknowledge that the Bible also speaks about justification on the level of covenant responsibilities. Absolute justification is concerned with absolute moral perfection. On this level, Moo correctly pointed out that double imputation occurs in the substitutionary function of Christ as the perfect sacrifice that brings forgiveness to his people. Imputation itself (in terms of how systematic theology uses the term) is not justification per se, but justification in Christ on the level of absolute righteousness does presuppose double imputation. It is hard to avoid using the language of imputation at this point, given its usage as a technical term in Christian theology; but at the same time, it is important to notice that imputation in Scripture (i.e, the usage of חשב and λογίζω) has to do with the judicial reckoning of someone as righteous or wicked. Imputation in its scriptural usage is an integral part of the act of judicial justification; but in its systematic theological usage imputation has to do with how the righteous status of Christ is transferred to the believer, thereby enabling the divine judicial pronouncement (which is justification proper) to be made. Even though there are problems with the overlap of similar terms between biblical theology and systematics at this point, I nevertheless believe that the doctrine of double imputation can be derived from Scripture from the way in which atonement took place in the tabernacle. On the Day of Atonement, the priest placed his hand on the head of the goat, symbolizing the transfer of the sins of the people onto the scapegoat (Lev 16:20–22). The death of the other goat, which had to be a perfect specimen (like all sacrificial animals), also meant that the blood of the perfect sacrificial victim could cleanse the sins of the people represented (Lev 16:17–19). This requirement of “perfection” on the part of the animal sacrificial victims was a foreshadowing of Christ, who also had to be perfect or “without blemish” (see Heb 9:13–14). Hence, Christ’s active obedience to the will of God was necessary for his absolute righteousness to be established in order that he might be able to perfect the people of God absolutely through his offering of himself as a sacrifice of atonement.

I also agree with Moo that the phrase the works of the law is more than what James Dunn and Tom Wright have allowed for. Paul’s problem with the works of the law extended to the totality of the law, not just the boundary markers of circumcision, the food laws, and the Sabbath. Moo is correct, therefore, to state that the works of the law denotes obedience to Mosaic torah. The phrase the works of the law is Jewish code for doing the law, i.e., being faithful to the torah of Moses. I believe, however, that Moo is incorrect to assert that the works of the law were viewed by Paul as being a subset of works (i.e., obedience) in general. The logical convenience of this a fortiori argument by Moo is that the common Lutheran anthropological distinction between faith and works can stand. Moo’s a fortiori argument is valid, as long as it is applied to the domain of absolute righteousness. I suspect, however, that Moo does not limit the application of his a fortiori argument in this way. The lack of a concept of covenant righteousness in Moo’s system means that he fails to ask the question of whether or not the issue of justification that was being debated in the early church functioned primarily on the level of covenantal justification rather than on the level of absolute righteousness. The role of Christ in providing perfect atonement was not a point of debate between between Paul and the Christian Judaizers. The point of debate was how people benefit from Christ and everything that he has done: by following the law of Moses (the works of the law), or by following the gospel of Christ (faith)? If Moo’s larger set of works includes Christian obedience such that good works or evangelical obedience have no role in relation to justification on the level of covenant responsibilities, then Moo has effectively excised those parts of the New Testament which link good works or obedience in with justification and salvation (e.g., Matt 7:21; 25:14–46; John 14:21, 23–24; 15:2, 6, 10; Rom 2:6–11, 13; Gal 6:7–9)? I know that Moo acknowledges that works have some part to play in relation to the future aspect of justification, but his lack of a concept of covenant righteousness muddies the water at this point. Adopting the classic Calvinist concept of double justification could bring clarity to his argument.

In regard to the phrase the faith of Christ and variants of this, I agree with Moo that the issue of the day was how people benefit from the salvation that Christ has come to bring. In the light of this broader context, it would make sense that the default meaning of the phrase the faith of Christ would be the faith that a believer has in Christ. Obviously more specific contextual issues are involved in particular instances of this phrase; but where there is no immediate contextual argument to the contrary, then the phrase the faith of Christ and its equivalents should be taken in the default sense.

In discussing the time at which justification takes place, Moo correctly states that initial justification occurs at the point of conversion. If justification is “in Christ,” then justification is one of the benefits of being a member of Christ’s body. Moo did not mention that conversion in the early church ordinarily also involved a formal confession of faith in the context of baptism, but to link initial justification in with conversion is nevertheless correct. Moo also did not speak of a state of justification that the believer abides in (thanks to his or her union with Christ), yet I think that it would have been worthwhile to mention this in passing. Moo emphasized that there is also a future aspect to justification; and he is to be commended for doing so, despite the controversial nature of this to some Protestants. He noted that works have some role to play in this future aspect of justification, but he said that he was unsure of how this could be fully reconciled with the idea of justification by faith alone. He said that there is a biblical tension here that we have to acknowledge. This is where a concept of covenantal justification could have been cited to great effect. On the last day believers will also be judged according to their works. That is to say, there will be a judgment for believers in accordance with how they have lived up to their responsibilities before God on the level of the covenant. On that day believers will hear Christ the Judge say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” or words to that effect. The expression well done, good and faithful servant is by definition a justification. It is a legal pronouncement acknowledging that one has fulfilled one’s covenant responsibilities before God (in the context of the absolute righteousness of Christ). This justification operates on the level of covenant responsibilities. It is, therefore, wrong to effectively confuse this justification with the absolute justification that comes through Christ. There is definitely a linkage between the two, but they operate on separate conceptual levels. From a biblical point of view, the only people who benefit from the atoning power of the covenant sacrifice(s) are the covenantally righteous as opposed to the wicked. By not distinguishing the absolute and covenantal types of justification from each other from the outset, Moo has effectively had to take cover behind the idea of “biblical tension” at this point in a manner which is unnecessary and a little vague.

In speaking of how the biblical view of justification leads to assurance without presumption on the part of the believer, I find myself in thorough agreement with Moo. Yet Moo views a believer’s striving for holiness as being separate from faith. Could it be that faith on the level of the covenant includes a believer’s striving for holiness? This possibility was not entertained, neither was the question of what happens to justification if a believer commits apostasy and is cut off from Christ, nor the question of how it is that a believer can know that they have been justified in the first place. In regard to the knowledge of one’s individual justification, Moo’s presentation of the doctrine of justification could benefit from a consideration of chapter 18 of the Westminster Confession where the assurance (i.e., the knowledge) of grace and salvation (including the truth of individual justification) is something about which only those “as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love Him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before Him” can be assured (WCF 18.1). In other words, a knowledge of one’s justification is deduced from the experiential reality of a believer’s union with Christ, and it is contingent on being (and remaining) in Christ. In the words of the Westminster Confession, the assurance of being “in the state of grace” is “founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, [and] the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God … without extraordinary revelation” (WCF 18.1–3).

I would, therefore, have preferred for Moo to speak about initial justification on the level of the covenant, which assumes (subject to a believer’s perseverance) the application of absolute justification in Christ, and also about a state of justification in which one abides in Christ, along with justification on the final day on both the covenantal and absolute levels.

Overall, I think that Moo has tried to be balanced and to grapple honestly with the biblical teaching on justification; but so much of the New Testament teaching on justification presupposes Old Testament covenantal categories. To the extent that Moo did not allow the Old Testament conceptual background on justification to impact his interpretation of Paul, the snapshot of justification presented in the lecture was deficient. But it was good to stimulated by a humble, thoughtful Christian scholar on this important issue; and I pray God’s blessing upon him and his work in the future.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Douglas Moo on Justification

On 11 August 2011 Douglas Moo, an influential New Testament scholar, delivered the Eliza Ferrie Public Lecture at the Audrey Keown Theatre at the Presbyterian Ladies College in Croydon, New South Wales, Australia. The lecture was entitled Justification in the Crosshairs.

Introduction

Douglas Moo
Moo began by identifying himself as a child of the Reformation committed to the principles of semper reformanda and sola scriptura. He then noted that the doctrine of justification has moved firmly into the center of theological discussion in recent years, due to the influence of the New Perspective on Paul, the desire for ecumenical unity, a general cultural distaste for doctrine, and an emphasis on practical Christianity.

The major part of the lecture focused on what Moo regards as the key issues of justification: (1) what is justification; (2) how does justification happen; and (3) when does justification occur?

What is Justification?

Moo identified three main opinions regarding justification. He contrasted justification as total transformation (i.e., a right legal status before God plus moral renewal) with the purely forensic view of justification advocated by the Reformers, where justification is simply the declaration of the status of being legally in the right before God. The third influential view identified by Moo was the idea of Tom Wright that justification is God’s declaration that we belong to his people, i.e., that Gentiles are incorporated into the people of God with the same status before God as the Jews.

Moo sided with the second view, stating that the relevant Greek words focus on legal standing. He dismissed the objection against this view that it makes justification into a legal fiction. Justification is a legal decision that has important and real consequences. Justification concerns the individual’s personal relationship before God. This vertical dimension is primary. Contra Tom Wright, belonging to God’s people is not justification, but a necessary result of justification.

How Does Justification Occur?

Moo followed John Calvin’s idea that justification and sanctification are two of the important benefits experienced by those united to Christ by faith. While noting that a belief in imputation was not ascribed to universally among the Reformers, Moo argued that double imputation (i.e., the idea that through union with Christ our sin is imputed to him, and his righteousness is imputed to us) is “a reasonable and appropriate deduction” from Scripture. Moo agrees with Luther’s idea of Christ’s righteousness as being an alien righteousness, and he spoke of Christ’s active and passive righteousness as being involved in the righteousness imputed to believers.

Regarding the meaning of the phrase the works of the law, Moo distinguished between torah faithfulness and doing torah. He cited James Dunn as a representative of the first view, where the phrase the works of the law is taken as denoting faithfulness to the Mosaic law torah with a view to maintaining Israel’s special status before God, distinct from Gentiles. This narrow definition of the works of the law allows the advocates of this position to distinguish the works of the law from works in general. Disagreeing with the idea that the phrase the works of the law denotes an exclusively Jewish torah faithfulness, Moo nevertheless expressed his opinion that this phrase specifically denotes obedience to Mosaic torah. At the same time, however, Moo stated that the works of the law should be considered to be a subset of works generally. Using a kind of a fortiori argument, his application of the Pauline teaching about faith and works is: if doing the torah of Moses was unable to save Israel, then doing any “lesser” kinds of works must be even more deficient.

On the issue of the meaning of the phrase the faith of Christ in Pauline usage, Moo is of the opinion that the wider context of Galatians supports the idea that the faith of Christ denotes the believer’s faith in Christ rather than the faithfulness of Christ himself.

When Does Justification Occur?

Moo began this section of his lecture by stating that certain forms of Protestant theology have an unbalanced view of certain aspects of justification. Citing Rom 5:1, 9, Moo stated that justification is talked about in the New Testament as being a definitive event in the present. In other words, justification is settled at the point of conversion. Justification leads to a holy life which in turn leads to salvation on the final day.

But this is not all there is to justification. Moo also stressed that there exists a future aspect to justification, an idea to which mainstream Protestant theology has given little attention. He upheld the NIV’s translation of Gal 5:5 as an example of justification in the future. The issue in Galatians is not initial justification, but justification understood as vindication in the future on the last day. Moo stressed that it is incorrect to speak of two justifications, but being faithful to Scripture does lead us to speak of two aspects of justification. There is “a biblical tension at this point” that should be acknowledged. While expressing that he was not totally sure how these two aspects of justification could be reconciled, Moo suggested that the future aspect of justification is probably to be understood in terms of being a public confirmation on the last day of the initial justification that has already taken place in the life of a believer.

Moo linked this second aspect of justification in with the biblical doctrine of judgment according to works. Disagreeing with the common Protestant view that views works as merely evidential, Moo argued that works contribute to final salvation “in some way,” yet it must be understood that these works are those that God enables the believer to perform. Moo contrasted the zero sum model that views divine agency and human agency as operating in competition with each other with the biblical tension model that views divine agency and human agency working together, the divine agency being primary, and human agency secondary.

The Practical Implications of Justification

Moo stated that justification, understood within the biblical tension of the present and future aspects of the concept, leads to assurance without presumption. We are justified fully by faith, yet at the same time we need to earnestly strive for holiness.

Summary

Moo concluded his lecture by stating that the ultimate cause of justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, whereas the instrumental cause is faith alone, yet this is a faith that goes together with works (Jas 2:14–25; Gal 5:6).

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Prayer of Covenant Renewal

If our covenant relationship with God is like a marriage, then perhaps it’s time to renew our marriage vows. Here is a suggested prayer of covenant renewal based on the traditional Christian vows of marriage:
“Lord Jesus, I take you anew this day, to be my Savior and Lord, to have and to hold from this day forth, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and obey, till death does depart, and I am raised up to live with you in glory forever more. Amen.”

Monday, August 1, 2011

Covenant Commitment

One of the key ideas for understanding the biblical concept of covenant is the idea of commitment. The Jewish understanding of the need for commitment to the Mosaic covenant can be illustrated via the example of Mattathias, the father of Judas Maccabeus. In 168 B.C. the Greek king Antiochus IV instituted a large-scale persecution of the Jewish people who were under his control. He forbade the Jews from following the law of Moses, and ordered anyone who had a copy of any books of the Hebrew Bible to be put to death. He replaced the temple sacrifices with pagan sacrifices, and allowed prostitutes to operate in the temple.

On one occasion when the officers who had been sent out into the cities and towns to force the Jews to participate in pagan sacrifices came to the town of Modein, about 27 km north-west of Jerusalem, the king’s officers said to the elderly Mattathias, “You are a ruler and an honorable and great man in this city … Now therefore you come first and fulfill the king’s commandment … and you and your children will be honored with silver and gold and many rewards” (1 Macc 2:17–18); but Mattathias answered them, “Though all the nations that are under the king’s dominion obey him and every one fall away from the religion of their fathers … yet will I and my sons and my brothers walk in the covenant of our fathers. God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words to leave our religion” (1 Macc 2:19–22). When Mattathias had finished saying this, a Jew stepped out “in the sight of all” to offer a sacrifice on the altar “according to the king’s commandment” (1 Macc 2:23). When Mattathias saw this, “he was inflamed with zeal” and ran and slaughtered the apostate Jew and the king’s commissioner, and pulled down the altar (1 Macc 2:24–25). Then he went throughout the city, crying out, “Whosoever is zealous for the law and keeps the covenant, let him follow me!” (1 Macc 2:27). Thus Mattathias and his sons fled into the mountains, and conducted guerrilla warfare against the Greeks until they retook Jerusalem and re-established the proper worship of God at the temple.

Killing two people, destroying an altar, and instigating a rebellion may seem a little extreme; but we cannot fault Mattathias’s commitment. But what was he committed to? According to 1 Macc 2:27, Mattathias was committed to the law and the covenant. The covenant was important for Mattathias, because it is one of the key concepts in the Bible.

The word covenant occurs some 300 times in the NIV translation, which is a relatively high figure. This means that anyone who has read through large sections of the Bible will have had to encounter the concept of covenant. It is a cause for worry, therefore, that many Christians are unaware of the existence and importance of this concept. This is all the more ironic considering that every time people speak of the Old Testament and the New Testament, the concept of covenant is effectively being invoked. The term testament in English is simply derived from the Latin term testamentum, which was used to translate the Hebrew and Greek words that usually mean covenant.

The concept of covenant is also important for understanding the significance of the Lord’s Supper. If we do not understand the concept of covenant, then we will not really be clear about what Jesus meant when he took the cup of wine during the supper and said, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).

What then is a covenant? A covenant is basically an arrangement between two parties wherein one or both of the parties solemnly bind themselves to act in a positive way within a relationship. In the ancient world these covenants were generally speaking legally-binding, written agreements that spelled out the privileges and obligations of each party in the relationship. Usually, as part of such an agreement, the parties committed themselves to faithfully keep their obligations to each other by placing themselves under the threat of a penalty, in the form of an oath or curse.

This is exactly the kind of relationship that Israel had with God. God and Israel entered into an agreement concerning the nature of their relationship at Mount Sinai, after God had rescued Israel out of slavery in Egypt (Exod 24). This covenant was renewed on the plains of Moab before Israel entered the promised land after the period of forty years wandering in the wilderness.

This covenant, which the New Testament calls the old covenant, was a legally-binding written agreement between God and Israel in which God promised to bless Israel on condition of her obedience and to punish her on condition of disobedience. This can be seen very clearly in the conclusion to Moses’ final sermon (the fourth sermon recorded in the book of Deuteronomy):
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of Yahweh your God that I am commanding you today, by loving Yahweh your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and Yahweh your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving Yahweh your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that Yahweh swore to give to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut 30:15–20).
According to Moses, obedience would lead to life and blessing, but disobedience would lead to the fulfillment of the curses of exile and death. If Israel kept God’s commandments, then they would experience the blessing of being God’s people living in the Holy Land. But what is meant by obedience at this point?

It is a popular view in Christian circles to say that the obedience that God required of Israel under the old covenant was absolute, nothing short of perfection. But this is to overlook the covenantal context in which this call was made. The fact of the matter is that the Old Testament speaks of the Mosaic covenant as something that Israel was potentially able to keep. In other words, the obedience that God required of Israel under that covenant was theoretically attainable. The writer of Ps 119, for example, claimed to be someone who kept God’s law: “This blessing has fallen to me, that I have kept your precepts” (Ps 119:56). The writer of Ps 119 clearly claimed to be someone who had kept God’s law. He was able to say this, not because he had obeyed God’s law perfectly, but because built within the Mosaic law itself was the provision of all the temple sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins, which means that God did not require Israel to be perfect in order for the blessings of the covenant to come. God in his grace had already made provision for their sin in giving them the temple sacrifices (the burnt offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering, all of which had atonement or reconciliation as a significant part of their function); but in order to benefit from the sacrifice for sin, it was necessary for Israel to obey God in the sense of being committed to the relationship with God as defined by the covenant.

So when God called Israel to obedience, we are not meant to understand by that absolute perfection but rather covenant commitment. God wanted Israel to be committed to him, to be faithful to him, like a husband and wife within their marriage.

Indeed, the best illustration that we have today of a covenant relationship is marriage. Marriage is a covenant, a relationship between two parties based on the promise of ongoing commitment and faithfulness. When a man and a woman get married, they promise to live in an exclusive relationship as husband and wife. This is expressed in the marriage vows: “I, X, take you, Y, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forth, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” In the vows, the husband and the wife promise to commit themselves to each other, and to be faithful to each other, for the rest of their lives.

Marriage is a covenant, and this is one of the reasons that the Bible often uses marriage as an illustration of God’s relationship with Israel. God is often pictured in the Old Testament as the husband and Israel the wife. But where and when did they get married? At Mount Sinai! This is where God entered formally into a new stage in his special relationship with the people of Israel. As part of this relationship, God spelled out for his people very clearly how they needed to be committed to him.

God spoke of this commitment (through Moses) in terms of obedience:
“Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules, that Yahweh your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over to possess, that you may fear Yahweh your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut 6:1–3).
The law of Moses spelled out what commitment to God looks like. And as the people of Israel lived out their commitment to God, great blessing would result.

God also spoke of commitment to him in terms of love: “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one. So you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:4–5).

And what was the source of such love? “And these words that I am commanding you today shall be on your heart” (Deut 6:6).

Loving God requires God’s law (i.e., God’s word) being in your heart; and for God’s law to be in the heart, there needs to be teaching and learning:
”You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:7–9).
The important thing for Christians in all of this is that the old covenant concepts of covenant privilege, covenant instruction, and covenant commitment also apply to Christians, because Christians are also in a covenant relationship with God. Christians are in a special relationship with God, just like the people of Israel. The formal beginning and sign of being in this special relationship with God is baptism. If at least one of your ancestors were Christians, then perhaps you baptized as a child. Or perhaps you were baptized as an adult upon the profession of faith in Christ. Whatever the case, being baptized means that you are formally a part of the church, which is the bride of Christ. It is like baptism is the marriage ceremony between yourself and Christ. And if it is true that all who are baptized are married to Christ, then we learn how to love and be faithful to Jesus by listening to God’s word.

Why is it that we read and study the Bible when we come to church? Historically Christians do this not just because that is our tradition. No, in church (and hopefully outside of church too) Christians study God’s word in order to understand more and more what it means to be in a covenant relationship with God. We study God’s word in order to know what being committed to Jesus looks like, so that each day our commitment to him might be stronger and stronger, that our love for God might be greater and greater, so that we might prove to be faithful followers of the Lord Jesus.

It is appropriate for every Christian to ask himself or herself every day: “Have I been concerned to keep my covenant vows with God that I entered into with him at the time of my baptism? Have I been concerned to be a faithful disciple or student of the Lord Jesus?”

Commitment means being prepared to give up one’s life for the cause of Christ. As Jesus said: “greater love has no one than this, that a person lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Real commitment means allowing Jesus’ teaching to transform the way that we live our lives. It means always being ready to give of ourselves for God and for others. True disciples are always keen to take the Master’s teaching to heart so as to know what he would have us do. As Jesus also said: “if you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Jesus was not speaking of perfection here, otherwise no one could love him, for no one can obey him absolutely perfectly! Not perfection per se, but covenant commitment! That is what Jesus is calling us to. If you love Jesus, then you will be committed to doing his will rather than your own, no matter what the cost.