A Biblical Concept
Eugene L. Garner
Fundamental to a clear perception of God’s progressively unfolding purpose in the universe is the concept of covenant-fellowship offered, by Him, to men of faith in the successive ages of human history. It is only within the sphere of covenant-relationship that covenant-blessings freely flow and that one enters into covenant-fellowship with the true and living God. This relationship, in its spiritual aspect, is inevitably associated with a covenant-community (a special people) designated “the house of God.” Nor may it be understood apart from such closely related concepts as divine election, a people for God’s possession, an instrument (or institution) through which God works out His purpose, and an ultimate kingdom of righteousness.
The covenant idea in the Old Testament is expressed in the Hebrew word berith (Gen. 6:18; 9:9-17; 15:18; Ex. 19:5; Num. 25:10-13; Deut. 29:9; Jer. 31:31-33; etc.). Girdlestone finds in this word the idea of “a legal disposition.” Yet he readily admits that “translators have found much difficulty in giving a uniform rendering… and for this reason . . . while they represent the nature of a covenant between man and man, none of them are adequate for the purpose of setting forth the nature of God’s gracious dealings with man.”
Dr. James McLagan summarized the covenant idea as “a declaration by God… of the grace which He intends to show… and of the allegiance which He expects at their hands.”
In the New Testament, the covenant idea is expressed in the word diatheke (Matt. 26:28; Luke 1:72; Acts 3:25; Rom. 11:27; Eph. 2:12; Heb. 8:6; 12:24; 13:20). According to Greek lexical evidence, it expresses God’s “will, purpose, and disposition” in offering blessings to men. In the covenant God indicates what He purposes to do, and will do, when the acts or conditions stated in the covenant are performed. According to Moulton and Milligan, it is “an arrangement made by one party with plenary power, which the other party may accept or reject, but cannot alter.” Thus, the covenant idea suggests “a declaration of will or purpose” — in this case, an authoritative disposition of God’s will toward men. The covenant idea, throughout the Scriptures, emphasizes God’s absolute supremacy; man is merely the consenting recipient of divine blessings and directions. He rejects or neglects God’s gracious offer to his eternal loss.
FAITH AND THE COVENANTS
God has ever effected His holy purpose through a “remnant people” involving considerably fewer than the “totality of believers.” “Men of Faith” are those in whose lives “faith” is the ruling principle. This faith is more than mere mental assent to the truthfulness of biblical statements, more than “simple trust in Jesus” as a personal Savior (though it must include both of these); nothing one may call “faith” is adequate, or complete, if it stops short of a living, active faithfulness!
True, biblical faith always involves an active life principle that manifests itself in an open walk of obedience to the Word of God. Any attempt to “claim the promises” without meeting the conditions on which they are based is nothing short of presumption and an attempt at grand thievery!
A COVENANT WITH ADAM
In what was clearly an expression of covenant-purpose, God gave to Adam, the creature made in His own image, authority to subdue all things and to rule over the material creation. God’s purpose is to rule the earth in righteousness through man. When (by sin) Adam forfeited that privilege, God (again in covenant language) promised the coming of a Second Adam who would triumph where the first had failed. Though there are race-wide provisions down through the Noahic Covenant (Gen. 9:1-17), it is clear that God is becoming selective in the instruments through which His covenant-purpose will be worked out.
A COVENANT WITH ABRAHAM
With the call of Abraham, His friend, God narrowed the instrumentality (for perfecting His purpose) to a single man — and to His “seed. “But it is evident that “seed” does not include all of Abraham’s physical offspring; rather, it points to one ultimate, perfect God-man (Gal. 3:16; Psa. 40:8). Who will be wholly dedicated to the fulfilling of His Father’s will. Nevertheless, a portion of Abraham’s posterity will prove to be useful instruments in the effecting of God’s sovereign covenant-purpose. God will work through Isaac, the son of promise, rather than through the totality of Abraham’s offspring.
A careful examination of the Abrahamic Covenant will reveal it to be primarily a covenantof inheritance; it is not a covenant of salvation only. To continue in the relationship of covenant-fellowship with God, even Abraham had to meet definite conditions.
1) Faith is basic — not only to fellowship with God, under the Abrahamic Covenant, but in all of God’s covenant dealings with men (Rom. 4). 2) Abraham (and his posterity) was to “forsake all” (Gen. 12:1-4; cf., Heb. 11:8-9; Luke 9:23; 14:33; Phil. 3:7-8) and to “walk before” God in a divinely-appointed path (Gen. 17:1 -4). 3) A “keep-my-covenant” condition referred specifically to the outward “sign” of circumcision (Gen. 17:9-11). 4) Acceptance with God also requires a “circumcised heart” — involving such total loyalty, love, and commitment that one desires and determines to please God above all else. Its supreme test came to Abraham in the command to “offer up Isaac” (Gen. 22:1-2,11-12, 16-18; Heb. 11:17-19).
God has never abrogated His covenant to faithful Abraham. The godly among his offspring have ever been conscious that their spiritual enrichment has come through this illustrious father. Moses recognized that the very life of Israel hinged on God’s faithfulness to Abraham (Ex. 3:15; 32:7-14; Deut. 29:10-13; 34:1-4). Elijah looked to the God of Abraham for power over the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:3), and Nehemiah acknowledged God’s faithfulness to Abraham in the providences permitting the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls following the Babylonian captivity (Neh. 9:5-8, 32). So it was with the psalmist and other Old Testament prophets (Psa. 105; Isa. 51:2; Mic. 7:1-20). Yet, it was clearly understood that the covenant could be broken! Should that happen, the covenant-breakers would be rejected and cut off from the relationship of covenant-fellowship with Jehovah. In contrast to “once saved, always saved,” the Scriptures give no guarantee of “once in the covenant, always in the covenant” (Rom. 11:13-20)!
How marvelously rich and varied were the blessings promised to Abraham! In him “all nations of the earth” would be blessed. His name would be great. God would make of him “a great nation.” His seed would be as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand beside the seashore. Kings and nations would come from him. Jehovah would be “his God”; Abraham and his seed, God’s “peculiar people” — a term applied exclusively to a covenant people throughout the Scriptures (Gen. 17:7-8; Ex. 6:7; 19:5-6; 29:45; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 7:23; 24:7; 31:1, 33; 32:28; Ezek. 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; 37:23, 27; Hos. 1:9-10; 2:23; Zech. 8:8; 2 Cor. 6:16; Rev. 21:3). The covenant-community (Abraham’s spiritual seed) needing a homeland, God promised the land of Palestine as an everlasting inheritance (Gen. 12:7; 13:14-15; 15:18; 17:8; etc.). And finally, his “seed” would ultimately possess the gate of His enemies (Gen. 22:17).
A COVENANT AT SINAI
Following the sojourn of Abraham’s people in Egypt, God established, with the twelve tribes of Israel, a covenant at Mt. Sinai — constituting them a special, peculiar people unto Himself. Through them He would reach out to bless and redeem those who would believe among all the nations of the earth. If they would “obey His voice” and “keep His covenant,” then would Israel be unto Him “a peculiar treasure above all people.” God would make of them “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). The nation’s response to God’s covenant was immediate and hearty: “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8).
With an outstretched hand Jehovah brought the nation into the land given by promise to Abraham. He so established them therein that surrounding nations stood in awe of them. To the end that they might know the necessity of faith in their covenant God, they were given a law of commandments to govern both their national and spiritual lives. It was designed to make them recognize the total bankruptcy of all endeavor to serve God in the energy of the flesh — ultimately leading them to Him Who would enable them to live victoriously by the sustenance of His grace.
FAILURE OF THE COVENANT PEOPLE
As an Instrument in reaching the nations with the message of God’s salvation, Israel was a miserable failure! Stubborn and self-willed, the nation refused to walk in God’s way. In willful disobedience and unbelief they repeatedly rebelled against the commandments of Jehovah, ignored (or abused) the prophets divinely commissioned to call them to repentance, bowed down to idols, and insisted on doing “that which was right in their own eyes.” When God sent His own Son, to call them to repentance, they slew Him!
Since they came to despise, break, and corrupt the covenant given on Mt. Sinai, God ultimately rejected them as His own peculiar treasure, severed them from the relationship of covenant-fellowship with Himself, and has cast them off until they learn not to blaspheme! The people of Israel had so utterly failed (or deliberately refused) to accept their individual responsibilities under the covenant from Mt. Sinai that the covenant had broken down; nor was there any hope of its renewal.
But, what the nation failed to do, God accomplished representatively through His Son. At the proper time “God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin In the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3-4).
Having fulfilled every just demand of a righteous law (in behalf of those entrusting themselves into His care), our Lord nailed that law to the cross. It was, and is, finished!
THE NEW COVENANT RELATIONSHIP
During His earthly ministry Jesus Christ established a new witnessing agency, which He designated “my church,” and declared that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. It consists of a believing, spiritual people who, by submission to John’s baptism, have pledged their endless love and loyalty to Jesus Christ as Lord and King of their lives. It is a spiritual “household” (1 Pet. 2:5; 1 Tim. 3:15),a “holy temple” (Eph. 2:21), the “body of Christ” (Eph. 2:22-23), and the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16;). This witnessing Institution has been “endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) to assure an adequate endowment for the tremendous task committed to it.
With His church our Lord has established at least in its initiatory form, a “New Covenant” (Matt. 26:28-29), which He has sealed with His own precious blood. In reality, this is but a restatement and enlargement of the Abrahamic Covenant. It is only as a saved person now identifies himself with Jesus Christ, as a “member of His body” — which has its only visible manifestation in a local assembly, established and functioning according to the New Testament order — that one may know the full blessedness of New Covenant-relationship.
It is not without deep significance that God, at various times, expressed some specific covenant-purpose to be realized through individuals — e.g., Noah, Abraham, Levi, and David. However, in a general sense, covenant-relationship with God has been offered to men of faith only within two institutions of divine origin: 1) the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and 2) the church established by Jesus Christ, over which He is both Head and High Priest, in the New Testament. To claim the blessings of covenant-relationship without meeting the conditions imposed within the sphere of the covenant is nothing short of arrogant presumption. Thus, we can see the importance of maintaining a right spirit (attitude) and a willing submission to God’s order in all things.
God’s own people break His covenant when they despise His Word, abhor His judgments, and refuse to obey His commandments (Lev. 26:15). The covenant may also be “forsaken” (Deut. 29:25), “trespassed” (Josh. 7:15; 23:16; Judg. 2:20), “forgotten” (Prov. 2:17), and “profaned” (Mal. 2:10). The Lord has clearly set forth the principle that covenant breakers will be cut off (Gen. 17:14). The same principle holds for those who are privileged to walk in the sphere of New Covenant-relationship. New Testament church members who cease to “abide in Christ” by abandoning a walk of faithfulness to His Word are “severed from Christ” (the one to Whom the promise is given) in the sense of being cut off from the fellowship of the body In which He dwells (Gal. 5:4 ASV; Jn. 15:1-11).
The blessings of New Covenant-relationship are assured only to such as, without pride and high-minded-ness (Rom. 11:13-15), continue in the way of God’s goodness. Having been called into the fellowship of God’s dear Son (1 Cor. 1:9), those who have entered into the relationship of covenant-fellowship maintained the same by a faith-walk wherein they look to Christ with a loving heart and endeavor to walk so as to honor Him in all things. The privilege of walking in such an intimacy of relationship with the covenant God ought to motivate each of us to fidelity and joyful obedience to His every desire.
Now I say that Jesus Christ
was a minister of the circumcision for the truth
of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers: