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On the Covenants…

March 30, 2010

The Bible can be separated by divisions that relate to covenants made between God and man.  Theologians may disagree on how many Biblical covenants there are, or what those covenants encompass, but general agreement can be found among the most important covenants.  An important concept for both LDS and Evangelicals is the classification of a covenant as conditional or unconditional. When a bilateral contract is made between two parties with each agreeing to the terms and conditions this is said to be a conditional covenant.  Either party may break the covenant by failing to uphold their end of the bargan.  On the other hand, an unconditional covenant is one made between two parties but only one of the members promises to do something.  In the Bible these can be distinguished by what God says.  When God promises to do something and uses the expression, “If you will…” we can characterize that promise as conditional.  On the other hand, when He says, “I will…” we can understand this to be an unconditional covenant.

Mosaic Covenant

The covenants in the Old Testament include examples of both kinds.  The most prominent covenants of the Old Testament are the Mosaic Covenant and the Abrahamic Covenant.  In the former, God made a conditional covenant with the Israelites.  This covenant is seen in Exodus 19-24.  Failure on the part of the Israelites to keep this covenant made it null and void.  Listen to the specific instruction, “But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries” (Ex. 23:22).  This is the most major conditional covenant of the Old Testament and its effects were far reaching.  The fall of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel were a direct result of their failure to keep the covenant.  They had fallen into gross idolatry, breaking the covenant they had made with God.

Abrahamic Covenant

The other over-arching covenant of the Old Testament was an unconditional one.  The Abrahamic Covenant is detailed in Genesis 12-15.  The key elements of the covenant are given in Genesis 12:1-3.

Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee:

And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:

And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.

The promise of a Redeemer is hinted at in the last verse.  Through Abraham’s descendant Jesus all the nations of the earth are blessed.  God placed no stipulations upon Abram for receiving this promise, and Abram did nothing to receive it.  His response is one of faith, “And he [Abraham] believed in the LORD; and He [God] counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).

New Covenant

The promise of New Testament redemption is found in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah.  This is the ultimate covenant—a promise of a very new kind of relationship between God and man.  God promises, “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts” (Jer. 31:33).  The Old Testament law was written on stone tablets; this new “law” would be graven upon the very image of the human soul.  Jeremiah speaks of the future covenant when God would “forgive their iniquity” and “remember their sin no more” (31:34).  This covenant is the most hopeful, the most assuring of all the covenants.  Yet, it was made to Israel alone.  Note verse 31:

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah.

How is it possible for non-Jews to enter into the New Covenant?  This is the great mystery that Paul speaks of—the Gentiles being “grafted in.”  This mystery was not known in the Old Testament, but Paul assures Gentile believers that they will be “fellow heirs” of the same body of believers (Eph. 3:1-6; Rom. 11:11-27).

LDS View of the Atonement

There is a critical divergence of views between LDS and traditional Christians on the nature of the atonement.  Marion G. Romney describes the Mormon view well.

There is another phase of the Atonement which makes me love the Savior even more and fills my soul with gratitude beyond expression. It is that in addition to atoning for Adam’s transgression, thereby bringing about the Resurrection, the Savior by his suffering paid the debt for the personal sins of every living soul that ever dwelt upon the earth or that ever will dwell in mortality upon the earth. But this he did conditionally. The benefits of this suffering for our individual transgressions will not come to us unconditionally in the same sense that the Resurrection will come regardless of what we do. If we partake of the blessings of the Atonement as far as our individual transgressions are concerned, we must obey the law.

The Mormon missionary handbook Preach My Gospel teaches that our covenant with Jesus Christ is conditional.

Our covenants remind us to repent every day of our lives.  By keeping the commandments and serving others we receive and retain a remission of sins….As we keep our part of the covenant, God promises the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, a remission of our sins, and being born again (2004, p. 63).

What are the conditions to the New Covenant?  Will the Lord only keep his promise to save us if we keep up our part of the agreement?  Mormon scripture affirms this idea.

I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise (D&C 82:10).

This sounds Scriptural, but does this concept apply more to the Mosaic Covenant or the New Covenant?  The author of Hebrews offers consolation to foible-ridden humans.  Speaking of Jesus he says,

He is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises (Heb. 8:6).

Thankfully, the New Covenant is nothing like the Old Covenant.  The Law offered only temporary measures for sin.  The Israelites were relentlessly reminded of their unrighteousness by constant animal sacrifices.  Year after year the Jews would have smelled and seen the acrid odor of burning flesh and dark smoke rising from the temple—a bitter reminder of their fallen state.  But in His one sacrificial act Jesus ended the Old Covenant and established a new covenantal relationship with the Father.  Those that are justified have had their sins blotted out and their iniquities remembered no more. How different this concept is than that of continual sacrifice!  He has promised to forgive and forget.

The author of Hebrews dedicates a long section of his letter on the contrast between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.  It is a significant issue and one that believers should not overlook.  The New Covenant is entirely dissimilar to the Mosaic Law.  The error of superimposing Old Testament conditions onto the New Covenant is carefully addressed by the author of Hebrews.  Listen to his assurance of complete forgiveness and redemption through Christ’s righteous act

And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.  Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin.

Thousands of years ago God reached down to Abraham and promised him the world.  Won’t you, like the patriarch, respond to God’s offer of forgiveness in simple faith?  Won’t you believe God and allow Him to justify you for Christ’s sake only?

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. faithoffathers permalink
    April 1, 2010 9:15 pm

    Stephanie,

    I like the focus on the importance of covenants. But as you might expect, I disagree with your analysis in the following ways:

    There indeed was a change from the Mosaic Law to the New Covenant. The change was a result of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Under the Law of Moses, individuals and Israel as a whole offered sacrifices of animals on a physical alter. Such ordinances and offerings were intended to direct the individual’s thoughts and heart to what would come as the great sacrifice of Christ. The atonement of Christ ended those physical sacrifices of animals, Christ being the “ultimate” sacrifice.

    But because we no longer slaughter animals and offer their blood to God does not mean that personal offerings are done away altogether. The manner of offering changed- BUT PERSONAL SACRIFICE WAS NOT COMPLETELY DONE AWAY WITH.

    Consider Christ’s words to the Nephites: “And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings. And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost.”

    In my opinion, a great many well-intentioned Christians assume that the language of the NT that speaks of the law being done away means that nothing at all is ever required of humans. We are no longer required to offer physical sacrifices of blood, but we instead are expected to offer our hearts and our wills. And that is impossible without also following His commandments.

    The New Covenant is still a conditional covenant. If it were not, than everybody would be saved. There are qualifications to be saved. We may disagree about what those qualifications are, but they indeed exist.

    fof

  2. April 4, 2010 10:19 pm

    FOF,

    Happy Resurrection Day! We had a wonderful service in our church today. The congregational and special music was tremendously uplifting and worshipful. I felt like I had already listened to a sermon when the pastor got up to speak. He reminded us that our praises would be meaningless if there weren’t reallysomething to sing about. But there is! We serve a risen Savior!

    Thanks for your comments on this post. I have been thinking about the Biblical covenants for quite a while and trying to sort through in my mind the different ways that our two faiths view them. I want to say that I really agree with your assessment that personal sacrifice was not done away with in the New Covenant. Jesus said, “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). I often think about this in relation to my walk with Christ. There was a point in the past at which I was saved and came to a full assurance of my eternal security. But during my spiritual growth as a Christian there have been many times when I have surrendered my will more fully. Through prayer and Bible study the Spirit convicts me of sin, enlightens me to see areas where I struggle, encourages me, strengthens me. There is nothing about my walk with Christ that is a “finished product.” In fact, I’ve prayed many times for God to place hard things in my life if they are necessary to bring me closer to Him. I earnestly desire to hear Jesus say to me on that day, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Just out of curiosity, if you were to speculate, why do you think that I have such an earnest desire to grow closer in my walk with Christ? I don’t believe that following certain commandments is what saves me, yet I live a moral and ethical life. Most Christians are like me, we want to grow closer and closer to God and to eliminate the hindrances that impede us.

    You mention that there are requirements to salvation, otherwise everyone would be saved. I agree with you. I believe God is a gentlemen who does not force Himself upon unwilling people. The question is this: how is one saved? Both Romans and Galatians teach justification by faith. Paul uses the example of Abraham’s faith in both books and both times it is Abraham’s belief — not obedience to laws — which justifies him. Are there other requirements other than belief that you know of in the New Covenant? Does the NT teach that justification is a result of following certain qualifications?

    There have been past Biblical examples of unconditional covenants made between God and man. The Noahic Covenant is one of them. In Genesis 9:11-17 God promises Noah that He will never again send a flood to destroy the earth. As a token of His covenant God made a rainbow in the sky. This is a reminder to us, many generations later, that God will never again flood the earth. Just like the New Covenant, the Noahic Covenant does NOT include if / then language. Nothing we can do will change God’s commitment to His promise to not flood the earth. Most of God’s promises to His people were unconditional. Yet, it is easy to conflate the conditional elements of the Old Covenant (the law) with the wonderful promises and assurances of the New Covenant (grace).

    Hope you are having a wonderful day celebrating Easter with your family. 🙂

    Stephanie

  3. April 5, 2010 8:40 pm

    I don’t think it is accurate to say that Abraham didn’t do anything to get the covenant God made to him.

    He alone of the men of his day was seeking for God. And he found Him.

    I’ve never seen God simply drop a covenant on someone where it wasn’t asked for or sought in some way.

  4. faithoffathers permalink
    April 6, 2010 10:10 pm

    Stephanie,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Can I describe what I think is at the core of the disagreement between EVs and LDS on the whole grace vs. works debate?

    I believe that there is much implicit in the word “believe” and in the word “faith.” In the biblical contexts in which these words are used, they imply trust in and adherence to the teachings of Christ. Having faith in Christ means that a person truly trusts that He is the Messiah and that salvation is found ONLY through Him and in no other way. Such a belief and faith necessitates that a person FOLLOW Christ.

    How many times did Christ tell an individual whom He had healed that it was “by your faith you are healed?” He attributed the pivotal determinant of their being healed to them. Of course, He possessed the ultimate healing power and command over the elements. But the light in the soul of the individual otherwise known to us as faith was required for the outcome to be observed.

    The same is true of saving faith. It of necessity results in action- the obeying of commands. Obedience may be a sign of faith or an outgrowth of it, but the absence of works and obedience shows a lack of faith- a person cannot have faith and not obey. AND, the action and work results in increased faith in the individual.

    Where am I going with all this? I guess the simple observation that our differences on this topic all come down to what is implied in two words- belief and faith. I refuse to believe (no pun intended) that they refer to a merely mental/spiritual recognition or knowledge.

    By the way, my interpretation of those two words fits in with every usage of those words in the NT.

    A question about one of your points: Are you saying that the Law of Moses was a conditional covenant and the New Covenant was unconditional? If so, how do you get to that conclusion?

    Thanks,

    fof

  5. April 8, 2010 12:07 am

    Seth,

    Where do read that Abraham alone was seeking God? I think that this is a fundamental difference in our understanding of covenants. I look at Genesis 12, 15, 17 and 22 and in each case it is God who condescends and comes to Abraham. I think that the work of Meredith Kline on ancient near eastern treaties show that the in its historical context the suzerain initiated the covenant, not the vassal.

  6. April 8, 2010 1:39 am

    Probably mixing in themes from the Joseph Smith Translation.

  7. April 8, 2010 9:16 pm

    Thanks Seth.

  8. April 10, 2010 10:16 pm

    Fof,

    I really liked your comment and agreed with much of it. One of the very unfortunate results of discussing these matters is that both sides tend to exaggerate their position in order to show the distinctions. Perhaps in your conversations with Evangelicals you have come to the assumption that we believe someone can “get saved” and then go out and party like its ’99 – with no fruits whatsoever of their supposed conversion. I feel that I speak for the majority of traditional Christians when I say this is not a mainstream view at all. I don’t know of anyone who believes this. I can’t tell you how strongly I agree with your assessment of “faith” or “belief” being different than a mental agreement. I recently heard the story of a man who, after much study, came to the conclusion that Christ did indeed rise from the dead. His mind had embraced the absolute crux of Christianity, yet he refused to convert because he knew it would mean submission to the authority of God and he was unwilling to surrender. Clearly this is a man who is not a Christian.

    You make this statement, “The same is true of saving faith. It of necessity results in action- the obeying of commands.” In my opinion, the key words are “results in.” On this I would not disagree. Saving faith does results in action. But is “action” the same as obeying certain specific commands (eg., not drinking coffee, abstaining from shopping on Sunday, wearing certain undergarments at all times, being sealed in the temple, etc). Why would at least two NT books be dedicated to contrasting the law with grace if there was no change in dispensations between the testaments?

    Are you saying that the Law of Moses was a conditional covenant and the New Covenant was unconditional? If so, how do you get to that conclusion?

    Yes. That is what I am saying. The Law of Moses, we learn in Galatians 3:19:25, was given to the Jews for a specific purpose. Paul said it was a “schoolmaster” to bring us to Christ. The covenant was clearly conditional – failure to obey its instruction is what led to the Israelite’s captivity. Unlike the Abrahamic Covenant where God simply promised Abraham that He would bless him, give him a land, etc the Mosaic Covenant was a bilateral agreement. Exodus 19:7-8 records the agreement made between God and the Israelites.

    And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the LORD commanded him.
    And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the LORD.

    The Law was the antithesis of faith. James 2:10 indicates the difficulty of keeping the commandments, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.”  In contrast to the law, there is tremendous reassurance for those who have placed their faith in Christ alone. Conflation of the law and grace results in thinking that assurance is tentative and salvation not secure. In reality, the contrast could not be more significant. Daily sacrifice was required by the priests for the sins of the people. Peter reminds us, “Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (I Pet. 3:18). Sin in our lives hurts our fellowship with God, but it does not sever the relationship. Christ does not come back to earth to be re-crucified every time we sin.  He died once for our sins and our faith in Him allows that sacrifice to be applied on our behalf (Heb. 9:28).

    Look at the many assurances given to Christians. He will preserve the work He started in us (Php 1:6). No power on earth or in heaven can separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:38-39). We are the legally adopted children of God (Rom 8:16; 1Jo 3:2). Jesus promised no one could snatch believers from His hand (John 10:28) or His Father’s hand (John 10:29). We are seated with Christ Jesus in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). Our names are written in the book of life (Php. 4:3; Rev. 13:8). We are part of His body (Eph. 1:23; Col. 1:18). Do any of these descriptions of believers sound conditional? Paul’s relates his assurance of salvation not to his actions but to his belief.

    For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day. (2 Ti 1:12)

    Paul was unable to keep himself saved. Yet he believed that Christ could. This belief of Paul’s did not result in inertia–Paul was the great missionary of the first century church. His assurance resulted in action.

  9. April 11, 2010 12:45 am

    Stephanie, LDS missionaries run into guys who claim they don’t have to repent or improve their behavior because Jesus “saved” them all the time.

    I just ran into one last year when I was driving the missionaries around.

  10. April 11, 2010 2:27 am

    And I know active Mormon men who flirt outrageously with other women when their wives aren’t around and use language foul enough to make a sailor blush. Does that mean these behaviors can be supported by Mormon doctrine or Mormon Scripture? Absolutely not! I think it is important to engage the texts of Scripture and come to conclusions based on those rather than on scattered second-hand experiences. 🙂

  11. gloria permalink
    April 27, 2010 8:51 pm

    stephanie ~

    I am so sorry I didn’t get back to you about your email you sent me a while back about the donation for my van repair. I changed my email address, and I couldn’t email you back as I didn’ t have your email. I am sorry!!! I also wanted to let you know, Praise God we got our van back up and running! Hallelujah! It isn’t perfect, but it works , has the seat belts in and new windows, etc. So thankful for that!
    Anyways, in case you wondered, I wanted to give you the “scoop”.

  12. gloria permalink
    April 27, 2010 8:52 pm

    Seth — Those Christian men who say such things to the LDS elders are greatly mistaken. Grace does not give us license to sin. That is not the gospel of Christ.

    Kind regards,
    gloria

  13. April 27, 2010 11:09 pm

    Gloria,

    That is great news! Praise the Lord.

    Stephanie

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