Covenants – Part II (If-Then)

Last time, we saw the difference between a contract (which is between two equal parties exchanging things of perceived equal value) and a covenant.  Covenants are made unilaterally by someone in authority (the covenant maker) and are imposed on another party to promise reward or punishment based on the behavior of the covenant receiver.

Before we push this concept further, let’s lay down another foundational truth.

  • God’s love is unconditional.  We cannot do anything to increase it, diminish it, it cannot be cut off, hindered, or earned.  God loves all people regardless of how they behave.  Matthew 5:45 “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Most Christians have no trouble with this concept for they know God loves all mankind and that love cannot be earned.  This next one, however, may be surprising.

  • God’s blessings are conditional.  Does that shock you?  That’s not a popular thing to say these days.  We like to believe that because God’s love is unconditional, so are his blessings.

Returning now to the language of the covenant, we find two key words usually contained within them: If and Then.  The mother told her son, “If you touch the icing on that cake, you’ll be sent to your room!” and a covenant has just been put into place.  The rules are firm, the covenant receiver now has the freedom to decide which outcome they will receive: blessing or punishment.

God’s Word is filled with these If/Then covenants, and God’s people are bound by the conditions, yet always have the freedom to choose the outcome.  Covenants are why God’s everlasting love is unconditional, but His blessings are conditional.  We must unlock the covenant (i.e. the blessing) by meeting the If of his conditions.  Even His salvation (offered to all) is a conditional blessing.

Romans 10:9 “..if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

These two famous verses don’t exactly use the If/Then language overtly, the feel of an If/Then covenant rings out of them.  “If you believe in him, Then you shall not perish but have eternal life.”  That is a conditional blessing.  You have to meet the condition to receive the blessing…simple as that!

2 Chronicles 7:14 is perhaps my favorite example of a God laying out conditions to meet before a blessing can be poured out.

If my people who are called by my name, will…

  1. humble themselves
  2. and pray
  3. and seek my face
  4. and turn from their wicked ways,

Then will I…

  1. hear from heaven
  2. and will forgive their sins
  3. and will heal their land.

Here, there are 4 distinct conditions that God says we must meet before He will pour out 3 distinct blessings in return.  Have you ever wondered why our land is not blessed of God?  The answer is simple, we have not met the conditions God laid out for a nation to receive His blessing.  It’s not because God isn’t loving, for He loves unconditionally.  It’s all about conditional blessings…the If/Then statements.

In John chapters 14-15 Jesus uses if many times to define the conditions that bring blessing.  In all of these examples, the then part  is implied.  See if you can insert it when you read (I added the first one for you).

  • If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.  (Then) My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (14:24)
  • If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love.” (15:10)
  • “You are my friends if you do what I command.” (John 15:14)
  • If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.” (15:5)
  • If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers.” (15:16)
  • If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” (15:7)

The question then is never one of whether God loves you, your neighbor or your nation.  God’s love is unconditional.  The question for you, your neighbor, or your nation is whether you will meet the conditions of His covenants so God can pour out His blessings on your life, your neighbor’s life, or your nation.  God has laid out the conditions to meet.  Now, you decide which outcome you’ll receive.

It might encourage you that God is even on your side, cheering you on to make the right choices.  I’ll leave you with His word from Deuteronomy 30:19-20. “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.”   

Well, go on…choose!

Covenants – Part I

The Bible regularly speaks of covenants. Covenants aren’t very complicated, but we often confuse them with contracts.  A covenant is quite different from a contract.

A contract is a mutual agreement where one party agrees to exchange something of value with another party for something else of value.  I walk into a guitar store, pick up a Fender Stratocaster, and say, “I’ll take it!”  The store clerk agrees to give me the guitar in exchange for something of equal value (in this case, money).  A contract could be far more formal, such as when I sign dozens of official documents to buy a house, but most are very informal.  To recap, a contract goes like this: If you give me X then I will give you Y.

A covenant, however, is unilateral, meaning that only one of the two parties sets the terms.  In covenants, the term-setting party promises reward or punishment based upon the behavior of the second party.  It is not negotiated.  As with a contract, though, both parties are bound by the covenant’s conditions.  So, a covenant usually is an “if/then” statement.  Like this: If you do behavior X, then I’ll reward and/or punish with Y.

Just like informal contracts, we encounter covenants all the time without thinking about them.  Imagine a mother has just finished icing a beautiful cake when her 5-year old son walks into the kitchen.  She knows her boy and says sternly, “If you touch that icing, you’re going to get a spanking!”  That is a covenant.  A teenage girl studying for final exams hears, “If you get As on your exams I’ll take you to see an off-Broadway show.”  That’s a covenant.  The conditions for the reward or punishment are clearly laid out, but the second party has no negotiating ability.  They only get to choose which outcome they will get based on their behavior.  The choice is not imposed upon the second party – only the conditions by which each outcome is unlocked.

The covenant, therefore, is unilateral and put in place by someone in a place of authority over the other.  No wonder God uses them so often in Scripture.  God could never barter with humans as an equal party, as happens with a contract.  As the ultimate Authority, He dictates to us the conditions by which we either receive His blessings, or receive His punishment.  We cannot barter for different terms, but we have the free will to choose which outcome we will receive.

God establishes many covenants in the Bible  Whenever you see the word if in the Bible pay attention because usually it means that God is about to lay out the terms of a covenant, and you are likely (even today) bound by those terms.  

Can you think of any if/then terms (covenants) stated in the Bible that apply to your life?  Do some of them frighten you?  Since God has supreme authority to impose a behavioral covenant, and we can only accept those terms, it is understandable that we get uncomfortable with His covenants.  Do any of them bring you joy?  Many do, because they promise rewards unimaginable for good behavior.

In Covenants – Part II we’ll examine some of the more well-known covenants from God’s Word.  If you come back then you’ll be blessed.  (See what I did there?)

You Must Be

Many years ago, when I was young and new in my faith, I was quite brash. Often, when taught Sunday school class I didn’t lead in the sense of “leading a discussion”.  Instead, I lead by lecturing the ignorant and giving them the blessing of hearing my wisdom.

One of my offended classmates went to the senior pastor and told him that I dominated the class and that I was not very gentle with those who disagreed with my newfound views.  (This is disturbing as I look back on those days because today I disagree with about half of what I was cramming into other people’s heads back then.)

Soon, the senior pastor “called me on the carpet,” to address my attitude.  Now, this pastor was one of a kind.  He had been in charge of this particular church for about 15 years, and Dr. Nicholson was gentle, but spoke with purpose and firm intent.

He opened by celebrating my vigor to grow and learn.  I rather enjoyed that and my ego swelled accordingly.  He then brought to my attention the charges that some in my class felt intimidated whenever I taught because I didn’t allow opposing views to have any voice.

I stumbled and stammered and started into a tirade about how “that’s just my style”.  after all, I grew up in a family that debated competitively.  Mind you, we never shouted or argued, we just debated: much the way a radio talk show host may find a thrill debating with a contentious caller.

I rambled on for about twenty minutes how I am who I am and that the people in the class just don’t get that.  When I was done blathering, Dr. Nicholson said, “I’m just asking you to show a little more love toward your classmates,” I replied with, “Well, I’m just not a loving type of guy.”

Dr. Nicholson never flinched.  He just purposefully and calmly said, “But you must be.”  He said nothing else, but his stare penetrated me.

There was a long silent pause.  After all, what could I say?  I couldn’t argue with the fact that Dr. Nicholson…well, actually Jesus…demands that  “I must be” more loving toward others.  They are not competitors in a debate to be conquered with air-tight arguments.  They are friends, seekers and hungry souls searching (like me) for Truth.

I left his office in shock and very humbled.

Many years hence, Dr. Nicholson’s words echo in my head.  Yes, I’ve made much progress, but the eager debater looking for a fight is still there inside me, but I’m keenly aware that he needs to reigned in .  Whatever your natural “style” may be, if it leaves behind hurt, pain, frustration or anger, strive to be more loving to those around you.  After all, you must be!

Thank you, Dr. Nicholson!