Covenant, “a mutual compact to do our not do something; a contract” came to English (through Old French) from the Latin for “come together.” The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament means the same thing, but its root sense is “cutting” because covenants often involved blood sacrifice.
The theology of biblical covenants is complicated, with reference to covenant between God and Noah, Abraham, David, and the entire Israelite people. In terms of what is known as the “Old Covenant,” we are most familiar with the Mosaic Covenant–a conditional covenant between God and the Israelite tribes. In return for obedience to his commandments–not only the ten issued on Mount Sinai, but all 613 prescribed in the five books of the Torah–God promised the people of Israel the protection and prosperity of the Promised Land as his Chosen People. According to one source, “The Old Testament [Covenant] is a record of the nation of Israel struggling—and failing—to keep its covenant with God.”
The New Covenant replaced animal sacrifice with human sacrifice–that is, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. To continue the exposition quoted above, “The New Testament shows Jesus Christ keeping the covenant for his people, doing what they cannot do.” The contrast between the two covenants thus becomes obedience to the law–works–versus acceptance of the unearned favor of God–grace.
I am particularly interested in this distinction because I have a long history of what I call “making deals with God.” I suspect most of us have that tendency to promise God amendment of our behavior in exchange for some specific benefit we request. After the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion wrote an entire book called The Year of Magical Thinking in which she recounts her frequent practice talismanic actions intended to achieve a specific result.
Srtikingly, the New Covenant is based on precisely the opposite of deal-making or magical thinking. Not only are we not required to do anything to earn God’s favor; in fact, we cannot earn it. We must rely on the gift of grace, freely given. However, we also learn from James 2:26, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” That is, if we truly accept the atonement for our sins offered by Jesus on the cross, we will behave according to his commandments–“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. . . . [And] love your neighbor as yourself.”
In attempting to make sense of this make conundrum, I am willing to acknowledge that nothing I can do can make me worthy to receive the blessings I already have, still less to earn additional favor. However, I am also willing to believe that it pleases God when I seek to ease suffering and increase joy, whenever and wherever I can. So on the cusp of this Christmas season, I have determined to take specific actions of humility, penitence, generosity, kindness, and gratitude to express those two kinds of love on which hang all the law and the prophets.
May we all do likewise. And may God’s infinite grace assist us in our efforts.