December 6, 2016

Covenant, grace, and works

“I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth . . . . I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” (Genesis 9:13,15)

A covenant is a solemn agreement between God and man. The covenant made after the flood is unconditional and unilateral. God unconditionally obligated Himself to bring to pass definite blessings and conditions for His people. This covenant is characterized by the formula: I will which declares God’s determination to do as He promises. There may be conditions in the covenant by which God requests the covenanted one to fulfill out of gratitude, but they are not themselves the basis of God’s fulfilling His promises. He does it by grace, and the people involved believe Him by faith.

God also made a covenant with Abraham. This happened long before God’s Law was given to Moses.

“Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” (Galatians 3:15–18)

This is the difference between salvation by grace and so-called salvation by works. Believing in the promise of God results in salvation; keeping the law does not. The law was given because of sin and defines sin, but no one can keep it 100%.

"Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise." (Galatians 3:23–29)

This description was given to those early Christians in Galatia who mistakenly thought that once they were saved by faith they had to keep the law or they would lose their salvation. This error is believed by people today and is written in the doctrinal or faith statements of several denominations. It confuses those who attend their churches and confuses those who are interested in Christianity.

The Bible says we are not saved by doing works of righteousness, yet says we are supposed to do this and that as we live as Christians. Is keeping those commands equivalent to doing good works to be saved? Not at all. Instead, they are the result of being saved, or at least they should be.

I find it difficult to discern if someone is doing good things out of a heart filled with love for God, or out of a fearful heart that assumes they will lose any ground gained if they don’t measure up. The only way that I can figure this out is by examining my own motives for what I do, and by carefully listening to those who talk more about their good works than they do about the saving power of Jesus Christ.

The New Testament also needs to be read carefully and with the understanding that genuine Christians do good things because the Holy Spirit lives in them and Christ is directing their lives. Without Jesus, I cannot do anything without it being selfishly motivated. With Jesus, my increasing desire is to glorify God.

The book of Galatians is a strong warning to avoid slipping into the mindset that “I must do . . .  or I cannot please God.” Grace does not work like that. Grace puts me in good stead with God because of what Jesus Christ has done. As humbling as that is, grace is all I have. Everything I do apart from the Lord Jesus motivating and empowering me is useless. Any mere human goodness falls short of the glory of God. 

As Chambers says, “When I have really transacted business with God on His covenant and have let go entirely, there is no sense of merit, no human ingredient in it at all, but a complete overwhelming sense of being brought into union with God, and the whole thing is transfigured with peace and joy.”

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