Is Following God a Covenant or a Contract?

Is Following God a Covenant or a Contract?

We live in a world today of contracts. It’s difficult to even buy a new phone without navigating pages and pages of contractual agreements first. Or think of how many pages of contractual terms you get every time you sign up for anything (and of course we read every paragraph). Contracts fuel our business interactions with those around us. Here’s what you agree to, here’s what I agree to, and here’s what happens when one of us breaks it. Contracts are designed to help us navigate situations where no trust exists. This is extremely helpful in these contexts. If I don’t know you, I’m less likely to vulnerably trust you with something important. The danger is when we start applying contracts into areas that cannot function this way. Consider marriage. It’s a contract, right? One person vows to the other what they agree to commit to do for the rest of their life. They both promise their side of the relationship. But what  happens when one person falls short of their vows? That’s where contractual thinking poisons a relationship. Sadly, for many couples this is an accurate description of their marriage. Yet this isn’t the intent of marriage. We might wonder why a marriage doesn’t work this way. That’s because marriage is designed to be a covenant, not a contract. There’s a big difference between the two. With a covenant, two parties both agree to terms like a contract. But the intent is completely different. There is a different approach in a covenant than a contract. But these are more than just differences. Covenants and contracts are actually the opposite of each other. We might say that we enter into a contract because we fear it won’t work out. Conversely, we enter into a covenant because we intend to put in the effort to make it work out. This distinction alone can make all the difference in the world in a relationship. There is a trust or there is not. Then we respond accordingly (which is why it’s a bad idea to marry a person you can’t trust on your wedding day). What happens in a contractual marriage when one person falls short? Break the contract and divorce. But what happens in a covenantal marriage when one person falls short? There’s no easy answer here, and that’s the point. Both parties work to figure out how to restore and redeem the relationship, usually at the expense of great sacrifice. They continue to repair and build on the now-broken trust that they originally built the marriage with. All the while they work back to a position of trust. Most people attempt to follow God like a contract. This is understandable, as that’s the essence of what the Old Testament law (including the Ten Commandments) was all about. If you do this, then God will bless you. If you don’t, then here are the consequences to expect. This is oversimplified, as God always approaches people through a covenantal lens even if we think in terms of contract. Simply read the biblical book of Hosea to see how true this is. But all this contractual talk in the Old Testament leads up to the full representation we see of God in Jesus, especially Jesus on the cross. Jesus invites us into a brand-new covenant of following Him. In fact, you can classify the two parts of the Bible in this way. The Old Testament is the old covenant and the New Testament is the new covenant. Not surprisingly, this new covenant is built on trust. Trust that Jesus is good and that He knows what He’s talking about. Any critical thinker will always have unresolved issues in following God. What else should we expect from a finite person following an infinite Being? But we don’t follow Jesus after we have an answer to every nuanced question we could ask. We follow Jesus when we come to the place where we can trust Him. Only then do we have the proper framework to approach some of the tougher questions. Or as the apostle Paul described it, now we only see through a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12). You look for loopholes in a contract, but you invest yourself for a greater good in a covenant. The difference is trust. The results are radically different. Which one describes the way in which you approach God? —Adapted from Redeeming Pleasure, pages 210-212.

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Jeremy Jernigan

Speaker | Author | Founder of Communion Wine Co.