Are all commitments unconditional? Are all promises kept regardless of what the other person does? Or are we grossly oversimplifying the truth? Here’s my problem with “Covenant vs. Contract”.
In the 80s and 90s, people of faith were swept by the phrase, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship”. The term religion had been broadly used to describe the Christian worldview, from its customs to its outworking in daily life. If you regularly went to church or the tabernacle, you upheld certain traditions and lived your life a certain way, you were said to be religious. One day, somebody woke up and found two words starting with R, and in a memorable fashion, summarised a particular view of the Christian faith, highlighting the relationship aspect of its belief over its religious connotations to that point.
I’m not sure when it was, but another instance of this occurred with two words beginning with C – covenant vs. contract. If you’re reading this, you may have heard this before, and if not, the idea was that many institutions, relationships and faith statements are incorrectly made conditionally, like a legal contract. If any one of these items is breached, the contract is null and void, such as the terms of your employment or a prenuptial arrangement. The idea instead is that God, church, and people of faith operated under the notion of covenant. Rather than having a legalistic, “I do this if you will too and I’ll run away as soon as you don’t” approach, the idea was put forward that the Scriptures point to a worldview that is wholly towards unconditional behaviour. That people are always loved, always forgiven, always blessed, and always committed to, even if they refuse to commit themselves.
It’s a pretty nice idea. I mean, we live in a world where Britney Spears was married 55 hours. We can break our commitments on a whim. We can leave our employers with no notice and take 4 weeks of “stress leave” and leave them in a complete bind. We can say we’re a person of faith but fail to live it out, and only turn up at congregational events when the planets align. In such a world of whimsy and shallow commitment, such a bold view of covenant is refreshing and safe. Instead of running away as soon as another person doesn’t do something, or as soon as a certain prayer isn’t answered to precise standards, it’s comforting to keep in mind that someone has made such a strong commitment to us that they won’t leave, and that we should live our lives doing the same.
And in truth, Scripture is marked by covenant relationships. It’s not just a legal document, although those accompanied covenants. It’s not just a slight assurance that I’ll fulfil my end of the bargain regardless of what you do. Scripture is full of promises and examples of dedicated, committed, and unswerving gumption aimed towards a person or a group of people. Over and above, and even in spite of what another person may or may not be doing.
And yet, I feel like we have oversimplified this idea to the point where we miss something eternally true of covenants, and it’s this:
Even covenants feature conditions. And not everything is unconditional.
Let’s have a look at this.
I think the notion of the unconditional commitment of covenant comes from a few places. The first place I can think of is the promise that God would never leave or forsake us. That’s the one that gets repeated a lot. Another passage I can think of is where Paul takes part of Psalm 18 and references half of it – “To the faithful He shows himself faithful”, and then adds his own spin on it – “and even to the faithless, for he cannot deny himself”. There is also the push on married couples to commit wholeheartedly to their spouses, with a definite tone against breaching those vows, as well as people upholding their vows to all people, even to their hurt. In other words, if you said it, you should probably do it, whether that’s with your wife, your friends, your family, or your boss. On top of that, we see repeated several times that God’s love endures forever, and the gifts of God are beyond reproach.
So, there are some things that are definitely without condition being mentioned here – God’s love towards people, and also that God will give gifts often in spite of what people do. Those are guaranteed in spite of my behaviour. I know that whatever I do, I am loved, and whatever I do, there will be an attempt made by God to give me gifts.
Those are the unconditional realities. However, even in the list above, the covenants made are constantly provided at the mercy of one word.
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray…
If you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth…
If you obey the commands I have given you today…
If you choose life instead of death…
If you love me…
“If” is actually the leading word in these things we would call covenant. And we develop a real problem with understanding how God could exile the Jews or talk about divorcing people or destroying the rebellion of Korah or striking down Annanias and Sapphira simply because we have bought into something that the summary “Covenant vs. Contract” has taught us, rather than the reality of what that meant in practice.
Even the famous promises of Psalm 91 are presupposed on the fact that you are dwelling in the shadow of the Almighty. Or that big one about being never left or forsaken – who was that directed to? It was directed to people who stayed in faith.
And even salvation in the new covenant is not forced on all of mankind. It is only attained by a choice to put God first, and to maintain that direction and decision for the rest of your life. Not just mere words, but true repentance – a true change in direction, not just temporary affection. Yes his forgiveness is amazing and his grace is immense, but I must do my part in receiving and living the life that reflects what those things mean.
Are you seeing my point here? Our understanding is incomplete and somewhat naive if we swing this around as a key statement of our theology. That there are promises that exist that I can just expect even though I’m doing everything in breach of the relationship or covenant.
And this has implications beyond faith into the way we relate to each other. It’s the same reason why “grace filled” churches belittle those who have been cheated on or beaten or abused or abandoned repeatedly and blame them for considering the big D word, even though this is precisely the scenario that the Old and New Testament make an allowance for. It’s the same reason why we assume that the church leader who repeatedly gets wasted or fornicates or whatever is still held by people in esteem, even if they’re leading countless people astray. It’s the same reason why we think we can just continue to do whatever we want and assume people have to forgive us later. Because covenant not contract, right? I’ll receive regardless of what I do, or that we should continue to persist in doing our bit regardless of what other people do.
The minor prophets are the perfect picture of the escalating warnings of God as people continued to breach their part of the covenant, to the point where God actually divorces Israel in the book of Jeremiah. To the point where the people are sent into exile repeatedly. To the point where people have their promised land taken away from them. You couldn’t say he didn’t show kindness. You couldn’t say he went above and beyond to do his part. You couldn’t say he wasn’t present. You couldn’t then say it was unfair that he ended up having to do those things for his own sake. You couldn’t say they had more than enough chances. It wasn’t a legalistic contract approach at all, but one of absolutely desperate attempts to get them to do their part before God needed to withdraw his.
Jesus also spoke of a man who unfaithfully treated one talent he was given, and it was taken away from him. Of a rich man who wouldn’t change his mind. Of Pharisees who maintained an attitude of destruction who would not be accepted into his new kingdom. This highlights a consistent reality that our actions matter immensely, even in a covenant relationship.
Restoring the balance
“Wait a minute Matt, are you saying we should just go back to treating everything like a contract?”
No, I didn’t say that. Vows are to be taken very seriously. However, we need to acknowledge that a covenant is made between two or more parties. We don’t see God just jumping ship at the first mistake someone makes. If he did, I’d be in a lot of trouble. It is the sustained unfulfilment of the other side of the promise that eventually made God decide he would have to enact the clauses in the covenant whereby he would undo the good things he said would happen.
And people, we have the same freedom also. If someone is continually in breach of a covenant between the two of you, or the three of you, or your whole congregation, or your staff, or whoever, if you eventually feel the need to withdraw your positive involvement because if you bend over any furthermore you will break in two, you are entitled to do so. And in fact, certain verses would recommend exactly that. Check out a related post I wrote on that – Are You Actually a Christian?
I hope you can see what I’m trying to paint here. I’m not saying that Britney was right to get divorced after 55 hours, or to ditch your friend who hurt you the instant they hurt you, or to fail to observe what you promised to do for someone. What I am saying is that let’s remember and observe the common sense that exists throughout Scripture that covenant also eventually will break if someone continues to break their end of the covenant.
And I hope this encourages us to actually take our commitments very seriously. Instead of presuming on the kindness of God or other people that I can do whatever I want and still expect grace and all these special things that they said they’d do for me, I need to very soberly consider what I said I would do for them. If I am in continual breach of the covenant I made, I should not be surprised or disheartened when I see the absolutely necessary decision of the other party/parties to withdraw from me.
I hope you see the freedom this can bring in an abusive situation. “My church tells me I need to stick at it”. And yes, we should stick at it with people. But there comes a point where we may need to consider this person, these people, this employee, that volunteer, this toxic relationship – it either needs to go, or be withdrawn from, and even God himself would do the same. Let’s not let an unrealistic view that God is completely against divorce stop us from seeing that it is a necessity and the godly decision at times. Let’s not put on people an immense load of guilt because they’ve needed to see a destructive person less. Let’s not crush ourselves because we have needed to stop fulfilling our promise because someone is actually putting themselves in a situation where they are beyond receiving them.
I hope you also see that such an understanding is actually very plain throughout Scripture and explains a lot of the desperate frustrations people have when they see the Israelites die in the desert instead of entering the Promised Land, or they see people lose out to plague or have their opportunities taken away from them. Very plainly, a covenant is not completely unconditional, even though there are some unconditional elements to their formation. If I do this, then this will happen. If I don’t do this, something else will happen. Don’t freak out when you read such a passage – it is actually completely consistent if we’ll let ourselves accept the realities of covenant.
All of this very plainly surmised by this eternal truth: What you sow is what you reap.
So there you go, my problem with the view “Covenant vs. contract”. We can’t just assume our actions have no affect, and we shouldn’t be distraught or feel trapped when we feel like the actions of others are driving us away from the original promise. But let’s not just be pulling out a spirit of entitlement and ditching people, that’s not the spirit of what I’m writing about. Let’s just have a realistic awareness of when it’s time to stick it out and try our best for the covenant, whether it be in faith, in love, in work or in friendships. And let’s also have a real view of when it is actually the right time to walk away.
Over to you. Potentially controversial stuff right here. What are your thoughts on “covenant vs. contract”?