Before we can understand Christian baptism we must understand God’s covenant, that into which Christians are baptized. And before we ask whether God’s promises can be trusted we need to understand exactly what God’s promises are.
The traditional understanding is that God’s promises are true and will not — cannot — fail. And yet most people have given up hope that God can or will keep His promises because they do not correctly understand them. Once you understand God’s promises correctly, you will see that they will necessarily be fulfilled. It cannot be otherwise.
The problem is not with God, with His Word, or with His promises, but with us and our understanding of them. Not only are we sinful and inadequate to the task of understanding God, but there has been a highly successful, widely practiced campaign of disinformation that has operated during every historical age. This is not a function of a conspiracy, but of sin. When people fail to understand God’s promises correctly, they expect something that makes no biblical sense, and flies in the face of common sense. Nonetheless, understanding these concerns is not only possible, but such understanding will one day soon sweep the field.
We must also realize that the problem of the loss of the gospel of Jesus Christ and of common sense is not new. It has dogged history in every era. But in particular we want to note that the problem has been extensively treated by the various prophets and writers of the Bible. Almost every book of the Bible provides a testimony to the tenacity of this problem, from the Old Testament to the New — and to its resolution.
A covenant is a kind of promise, and a promise is an agreement or an intention to do something. It is a statement of determination or will. A person’s will or last testament is also a kind of promise or covenant, a kind of lawfully acknowledged agreement. In this case, it is a promise or agreement about how one’s remaining assets are to be distributed. The law serves as a kind of guarantee that the promise will be executed as stated. A covenant is different than a promise because a covenant is a written, legal and binding agreement, whereas a promise is more a personal statement of intention.
However, when God says He will do a thing, when God makes a promise, He will do it. God does not lie, and He is all-powerful. To make this point clearer, God committed His promises to writing and established them as legally binding covenants according to both human and divine law. The Bible is a record of God’s promises, God’s covenants, and their fulfillment.
Contemporary Christians understand that people must have a personal relationship with God. Yet God always relates to people covenantally. God’s covenantal relationship does not prevent a personal relationship, but is the basis or foundation of our personal relationship with God. In fact, all covenantal relationships are personal in one way or another because they are relationships between persons. This means that all relationships with God or God’s mediator, Jesus Christ, are always both personal and covenantal. There are both personal and covenantal elements to our relationship with God, and everyone has a relationship with God — whether or not they want it, whether or not they like it, whether or not they acknowledge it. Such relationships are like the air we breathe, in that human life as we know it would not be possible without God, without God’s covenant or without a personal relationship with God.
This covenant that everyone has with God was instigated in the Old Covenant (or Testament) with and through Adam in the Garden of Eden. God created all people and all people belong to God. Since then God has renewed and advanced His covenant with humanity many times in history. Each time the renewed covenant was made through a human representative — Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, Jeremiah, others and finally Jesus Christ. The final, last or New Covenant — the one still in operation today — was made through the mediator, Jesus Christ. Not everyone is in this New Covenant yet.
Each of these covenants differ slightly, but in essence they are quite similar. God always saves people the same way — by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to Scripture alone. The emphasis on “alone” does not mean that nothing else is involved or helpful — other books, other people, various means, etc. Rather, it tells us that the first cause and the final arbitrator regarding salvation is always grace through faith in Christ according to Scripture.
The very first covenant that God made, and the one that set the pattern for the others, is found in Genesis 2:16-17, “And Jehovah God commanded the man, saying, You may freely eat of every tree in the garden, but you shall not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. For in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” It is both a demand for simple obedience and a statement of fact. The New Covenant through Christ provides the only way back to the status accorded through the first covenant with Adam. Adam broke God’s covenant, Christ has repaired it. The Bible is the story of God’s covenant — given, broken and repaired.
Rather than looking all of God’s covenants as being separate and different, we will look at them as all being “of a piece,” parts of a larger covenant that has unfolded over history. This overall covenant or promise is two-fold: 1) God promises certain consequences for Adam’s covenant breach, and 2) God has promised different consequences regarding Christ’s repair of the breach.
The Old Covenant applied to all humanity because it was given to all humanity through Adam, humanity’s first representative. And unless you are in the New Covenant, you are still in the Old. Some people have identified this Old Covenant as a “covenant of works,” where “works” is understood as the effort of obedience. Others understand it as a warning against disobedience. At it’s root the Old Covenant is more of a statement of fact about the nature of the world in which we live — like gravity. What do I mean?
Drop an apple from a tree, and it will fall. This is a statement of fact. Is it a “work” to drop an apple? I suppose so in that it requires some intention and effort. Is it a warning about the consequences of dropping apples? I suppose so because it will fall as a necessary consequence of the law of gravity. But mostly it is just a statement of fact — dropped apples fall.
Do you know that God is responsible for the “facts” of this world? He created it and all facts are God’s facts. There are no facts that are not God’s facts. Why? Because God has established what is true and what is not. It is God’s world. He determined how it works. The measure of ultimate truth is always God’s measure, not ours. Embedded in all facts is the reality that facts are true by definition. If something is not true, it is not a fact. If something is true, it is true because it is a fact of God. God’s most fundamental promise is that His facts are true, that the world makes sense according to His facts. A corollary to this truth is that apart from God’s facts, the world does not make sense.
An Orderly World
This is the foundation for science and technology. The world is orderly and understandable, but only when viewed and understood from a proper (historic, orthodox and trinitarian) biblical perspective. Christianity is responsible for this idea, and it draws from its roots in the Old Testament. Christianity did not begin with the New Testament, it began before God created the world and put Adam in the Garden of Eden. Consequently, the Old Testament provides the context for the New, which cannot be properly understood apart from that older context.
When we carefully study that context we find that even back then God saved people in the same way — by grace through faith. Old Testament people were saved by grace through faith in a Messiah that was yet to come. The promise of salvation through God’s Messiah was so strong, so certain, that faith in His coming was sufficient for salvation. And, of course, now people are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the long-awaited Messiah who came in the flesh, as you probably know.
Though people have always been saved in the same way, the stipulations of God’s covenants have differed somewhat in order to accommodate for the immaturity and development of human beings and human civilizations. God is not only aware of the development of human civilization, but He is in control of it. It doesn’t always seem like God is in control, but that is only because we cannot clearly see the “big picture.” To help with this problem God has given us the Bible, which shows God’s people enough of the “big picture” to see God’s love and care throughout the ages, and God’s means of salvation and sanctification (growth in grace) — Jesus Christ
This brings us to the proper understanding of God’s covenant, and how it operates in the “big picture.” Most people have problems understanding that God’s promises are in operation today because they look around and see so much sin, graft, corruption, hatred, etc., and conclude that either all of these things are products of God’s will or God is impotent against them — neither of which are true.
Blessing or Cursing
The most basic Old Testament covenant is found in Deuteronomy 28, which says two things: 1) God will bless our obedience to His commandments, and 2) God will curse our disobedience of the same. This covenant was made with all people, both God’s “special” people — Israel and the heirs of Israel’s covenant, the Christian church, and those who faithlessly reject God and His covenant. Those who reject God’s covenantal grace will receive God’s curses for disobedience.
Thus, you can be sure that God’s covenant has been made with you, personally. God will bless you (plural — those who are saved) as you conform your life to His will, or God will curse you (plural — those who reject God) as you do not. The “you” that is blessed or cursed is plural or as they say in the South, “y’all,” or in Pennsylvania, “yu’ins.” It is a plural pronoun because, God operates at both the personal or individual level and at the social or societal level. No one lives in a vacuum. We are all interdependent, not just in the Twenty-First Century. It’s always been true.
God is dividing humanity into two groups: the saved and the lost — variously known as sheep and goats, faithful and faithless, covenant keepers and covenant breakers. And God will deal with each group differently. The fact that God treats people in these two groups differently is the source of much biblical confusion. While all people are judged according to the same criteria (God’s covenant), covenant keepers are treated and judged differently than covenant breakers. This fact that God treats those who abide by the law differently than those who break the law is perfectly fair and just, and is reflected in human society. Human law functions in exactly the same way. It’s quite ordinary.
Where the Old Testament established the social elements of God’s covenant, Jesus made it personal in the New Testament. Jesus recapitulated the Old Testament covenant many times. For instance, Matthew 11:20 says that Jesus “began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent.” Jesus did a lot of blessing (Matthew 5, etc.) and a lot of cursing (Matthew 24, etc.), essentially repeating the gist of Deuteronomy 28.
Grace, Not Works
This, however, does not mean that people are saved by conforming their lives to the dictates of God’s law. Works-righteousness is not possible. It cannot be done by us flawed and sinful human beings — and that was the problem that Christ solved. What God’s grace does mean is that after the coming of the Messiah all salvation would be mediated by Jesus Christ. In other words, conformity to God’s will is simply not possible apart from Jesus Christ. From our human perspective salvation begins with faith in Jesus Christ or it doesn’t begin at all. Yet, it needs to be noted that human faith is always a response to God’s grace. We respond (or don’t) to God’s grace given through Jesus Christ. Salvation ultimately begins with God, who loved us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). We love because Christ first loved us (1 John 4:19).
Furthermore, because biblical religion is about love, it is both personal and social. The idea of love necessarily makes Christianity social. I mention this because the blessing or cursing that accrues to faithfulness or the lack thereof is also both personal and social. God does not mean that if you obey His commandments you will get rich or get whatever you want or live a long and happy life. What He means is that if you obey His commandments you will fare better than if you don’t — regardless of what you believe, and that the more people that obey His commandments in any society the better that society will fair in this world.
This does not mean that there is no special role for those who believe in Jesus Christ. In fact, only those who believe in Christ can fullfill God’s requirements because only those who believe in the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice and salvation on the cross can trust in Christ’s effacicy for themselves. And apart from that trust, salvation doesn’t work. Nonetheless, even unbelievers will benefit inasmuch as they live according to biblical principles of goodness, truth, personal integrity and beauty.
Here’s the rub: no one can be obedient apart from Jesus Christ, who sent His Holy Spirit to inhabit believers. It cannot be done apart from Christ. If it could, we wouldn’t need Him but we do.
This idea of a sustainable human culture culminates in the heavenly vision of John of Patmos who wrote the book of Revelation. John suggests that when everyone heeds God’s commands, which is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ, there will develop a truly sustainable society on earth as it is in heaven. Social sustainability or longevity increases with the number of individuals in a society who are conformed to Jesus Christ. The idea of a genuinely sustainable society, a culture patterned after God’s heaven, contrasts with the bloody and violent history of humanity, which documents the rise and fall of various civilizations. History will culminate in the realization that apart from God’s restoration of His covenant through Jesus Christ all will be lost and cannot be sustained.
Thus, we can now see that because God’s promises pertain to those who agree to live in obedience to God’s will and to those who do not, it pertains to everyone alive. And because everyone will necessarily fall into one or the other of these categories (saved or lost, covenant keepers or covenant breakers), God’s will must of necessity come to pass — one way or another, blessings or curses. In the long term, people will come to understand that God is right and everyone will willingly — gladly — conform to His will, not because they must but because God has so called them to do so, because God has given us everything we need in order to do so, and because doing so provides the greatest freedom and security for all people that is possible.
What about you? Where do you fit in?