Can it be that simple?
26 July 2011 by Neil
The catechism sifts and collates. So far, it has relied upon varied yet consistent scriptures to systematically build up and define concepts like God, man, sin, and providence. The catechism helps us clarify and organize our understanding of God's written revelation. And now it tells that there are primarily two covenants that God has made with mankind, one called Works (which we cannot keep) and one called Grace (which we cannot earn). Only two? Can it be that simple?
Well, God most assuredly made more than two covenants in the Bible. Consider his covenants with:
Eve (Genesis 3:14-16),
Cain (Genesis 4:13-15),
Noah (Genesis 6:18-19),
Noah again (Genesis 9:8-17),
Abram (Genesis 12:1-3),
Abram again (Genesis 13:14-17),
Abram threepeat (Genesis 15),
Hagar (Genesis 16:9-10),
new-name Abraham (Genesis 17:1-22),
Sarah (Genesis 18:9-15),
Abraham again (Genesis 18:22-33),
Lot and his wife (Genesis 19:15-22),
Hagar reassured (Genesis 21:15-19),
Abraham repeat threepeat (Genesis 22:15-18),
Isaac (Genesis 26:1-5),
Isaac again (Genesis 26:23-24),
Jacob (Genesis 28:10-15),
Israel the man (Genesis 35:9-12),
Moses (Exodus 4:10-12),
Joshua, weary from fighting treachorous Amalekites (Exodus 17:14),
Israel at Mount Sinai, including the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:3-8), aka THE LAW,
Israel at the Plains of Moab, including the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:1-33),
Caleb and Joshua (Numbers 14:28-30),
Joshua with big shoes to fill (Deuteronomy 31:7),
Israel the nation at Ebal and Gerizim (Deuteronomy 27, Deuteronomy 28, Joshua 8:32-34)
King David (2 Samuel 7:8-16, 2 Samuel 23:1-7),
King Solomon (1 Kings 1:1-4, 1 Kings 2:11-14),
Future King Jeroboam (1 Kings 11:29-38),
King Jehu (2 Kings 10:30),
King Hezekiah (Isaiah 37:21-33),
King Josiah (2 Chronicles 34:22-28),
and one of my favourites, Zerubbabel (Haggai 2:1-9, Haggai 2:20-23),
to name a few.
Through the prophets, God also made a multitude of additional covenants with Israel, and with the tribe of Judah. Finally, we have what's known as the New Covenant. Jesus distills it into what we might carelessly call a soundbite in Luke 22:20, but the New Covenant is deeper than we know, infusing the entire Bible, and emerging in ever finer detail every time the book is opened and read.
Back to our question. Did the catechism get it right about there being two overarching covenants? The answer is... a systematically sifted and collated, booming "Yes", consistent with what we are told in Galatians 3:16-18 or Romans 4:15-16. Search our long list above, and sure enough you'll only find two kinds of covenants (i.e. promises). The first kind are two-way, conditional covenants... if the person or people do this or that right thing, then God will do something pleasant. On the other hand, if the person or people do wrong things or fail to do right things, then God will do something unpleasant. These are covenants of works and they depend upon mankind to be good enough to uphold a contract with God. At our peak, confident humans piously promised we would keep them and said “Hey, bring on the consequences if we fail, but no worries, because we won't! :o)” Alas, man was hoist by his own petard (Galatians 3:10). Our failure to live up to our sides of the bargains resulted in sin and misery.
The other kind of covenant is one-way and unconditional. God will do something very good for the person or people, no matter what. The people can't mess it up, no matter what. God keeps his promise, no matter what. These are covenants of grace. Grace can't be earned, it can't be bought, it can't be finagled; it can only be freely given. Grace replaces misery with hope and joy. Grace is what enables the composer of Psalm 119 to see the heart of God, and to love and appreciate the requirements of the Mosaic covenant of works, even though he is not able to come close to satisfying them. Grace frees us from the futility and slavery of sin.
God's grace is the reason we can obtain salvation.
Secret note to homeschool moms: here's a good test question for your kids. Of all the covenants listed in the third paragraph, which ones are works and which ones are grace? Supplemental: of all the works covenants listed, how many did the humans successfully fulfil?
Super-secret note to self: this Grace thing flies in the face of the holiness of God and the need for justice. This God seems to be inconsistent...?
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