The running theme in my personal devotions as of late has been one illuminating the existence and nature of the two paths offering guidance in living as Christians. I wrote about what Jesus had to say about the wide and narrow gates here. But I’ve felt compelled to search for a more robust understanding of the predicament I see many of my fellow Christian siblings falling into (and indeed, have fell into myself). Then, I rediscovered the concept of the Two Covenants while reading the book of Hebrews. It made a whole heck of a lot of sense to me. Let me explain…
Although I’ve held membership in many various Christian denominations over the years, I’ve yet to find any one denomination that truly ‘gets it’.
I don’t think that is a coincidence.
On the Christian right, we have the self-professed people of God enacting rules that, although pulled from Scripture, lend to the striving for personal piety (self-righteousness) rather than actively encourage the individual’s personal knowing of God.
I congratulate them on their zeal for Scripture. It is because of growing up in such churches that I have read and studied so much of that text in my life as a Christian, and continue to revere Scripture today. However, their underlying theology appears to me to be one where God cannot exist apart from the letter. Well, that limits Divinity to (often faulty) human interpretation of a many times translated ancient text, does it not? To insist upon being “Biblical”, rather than relational, has dire consequences in my experience. It drives a wedge between our own personhood and the personhood of God. I exist outside of this blog, do I not? If I, a human being created in the image of God, exist as a person apart from the written words I leave behind, doesn’t it stand to reason that God exists in His tripartite personhood outside of the written words He has inspired?
Can you truly know me, as in, you run into me on the street as a stranger and can say with confidence that “hey, I know you! You blog on WordPress!”? However, if you know me apart from this blog, and then find my writing, (ideally) reading my posts here will deepen your understanding of who I am. And, if it only brings up questions about what you have experienced of me in relationship, are you going to assume that your understanding of my words trumps what you have seen yourself? I hope not! My expectation is that you will come to me and ask me what my intention is that guides my words.
I believe it is the same with God. Which is why we need the Holy Spirit to illuminate our personal reading of Scripture (John 16:13).
If we are content with forcing our own human interpretations of Scripture into a portrait of God, we can rest assured the image we end up with will be distorted. After all, we are left with only an image. And, unless I’m mistaken, God abhors man-made images of His Divinity (Exodus 20:4-5).
Now, for the Christian Left…
This is the kind of denomination I just came out of last year. It is where I attended Seminary, albeit, for a much shorter time than I intended. It is where I discovered, hiding under the veneer of the Left’s zeal for social justice , the true weakness of our human will.
Oh, the danger inherent in seeking to marry bipartisan politics with following Christ! When Scripture cannot align with our own political fervor, it is then necessary to eye Scripture as being unenlightened, archaic, and even inhumane. Consequently, how does a would-be follower of Christ respond?
By neglecting to revere Scripture. Duh.
This can’t be that bad, can it? Can one truly come to a personal relationship with God apart from Scripture? Absolutely! The fact that there is a Holy Bible translated into our own language in nearly every American home, and Motel nightstand, is a novelty. Before the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, only the very wealthy could afford such a luxury.
But now that we are afforded such luxuries, doesn’t it stand to reason that we as Christians make full use of our privilege? Sadly, the number of my fellow Seminarians lacking a fundamental knowledge of Scripture was frightening. I mean, shouldn’t we at least be familiar with the Church canon well before we decide we are called to preach from it?
What happens when we file into Seminary as mere children in the Christian Faith? Ignorant of what the Gospel says and what it means for us? Well we forfeit our right, as heirs in Christ, to be taught directly by God (Hebrews 8:11). Children rarely question the authority of human teachers and leaders. They are left to take another ‘well-educated’ human’s interpretation as akin to God’s Truth. This is fine for children. They need such guidance as they grow in their own faith and knowledge. But for those intending to don vestments and mediate the Sacraments?
How can one aptly represent Christ when one knows so little about His Gospel, still needing to be spoon-fed human doctrine? How can the Holy Spirit compel us to question what is being fed to us, when we are wholly dependent upon being fed by other human beings? No one in their right-mind bites the hand that feeds… I cast no blame here.
In such cases, all it takes to undermine the power of the Gospel throughout an entire denomination, is for the spirit of political avarice to infiltrate the faith of Seminary Professors. The trickle down effect here is poised to destroy any attempt to witness to authentically Christian concepts whenever such concepts oppose the nature of covert political strivings. A Christian cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24).
(And… That’s what I actually learned at Seminary. But, I digress…)
So, now that I’ve exposed the weaknesses I myself have seen on both sides of the religious spectrum, what is a Christian to do? When most of our Christian leaders appear to be steeped in human error, where does one go to be fed? Or to be led?
There is hope.
A brilliant, magnificent hope in the New Covenant between God and humankind, mediated by Christ.
You see, the Old Covenant insisted upon mere human mediators abiding by the letter of the written law. It required the institution of a religious heirarchy that, according to the Old Testament prophets, often failed to speak God’s word to His people, feeding their human inclinations rather than feeding His sheep.
Because of this, God instituted the New Covenant, mediated by Christ the Son of God. In God’s vision for His people, He intends to lead and teach us Himself.
The letter of the law? No need for the letter to rule us any longer! Christ alone can fulfill the letter, God desires to write the Spirit of His law directly upon our hearts.
Don’t I need to go to Church? God admonishes to not forsake the assembling of believers (Hebrews 10:25). But, a better question to ask yourself is, which covenant am I actually under? If you are under the Old, most any church denomination can serve you in this regard. The institutional church that survives today is largely modeled off of the church instituted by the Old Covenant. It is not to say that the Old is bad, it’s just becoming increasingly obsolete, as God intended:
“In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.”
Hebrews 8:13 (NRSV)
Is it any wonder that the membership in American Christian institutional churches is on a long-term downward trend? Is it really the fault of these churches? Or, is this trend the direct result of God’s will for His New Covenant people? It certainly gives one reason to consider if fighting against the death of the institutional church is a battle waged against God’s will. (No, I’d rather not be entrenched in that kind of warfare, thank you very much!)
What about the whole sin and forgiveness and repentence stuff? Maybe you hear that preached in some fashion from your church pulpit weekly, and are curious as to how it fits in with this New Covenant.
I fear the institutional Church has largely gone overboard in this regard, mistaking the forgiveness of sin as the main point of Christ’s coming. The forgiveness of sin makes our reconciliation to God possible. It is important only in so far as it enables us to enter into unfettered relationship with God. (Which, frankly, has been His desire for humanity from the very beginning. But, we keep screwing things up.)
The New Covenant has God Himself teaching and guiding us, writing His law onto our very hearts, and changing the focus of His followers from one of distinguishing between the works of good and evil to one of cultivating a deeper relationship with Him. (you know, the forbidden fruit of the Tree in Eden, that led us into sin? Yeah… Eating from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, leads humans further into evil. Away from God. Who’d have thought?)
If this all sounds like nonsense to you, take heart. You can read the Scripture for yourselves, and have the Holy Spirit speak God’s Truth to you directly:
“Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one; for Moses, when he was about to erect the tent, was warned, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.’ But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one.
God finds fault with them when he says:
‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah;
not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors,
on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt;
for they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I had no concern for them, says the Lord.
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach one another
or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.'”
Hebrews 8:1-12 (NRSV)
***If you are interested in reading more on the Old and New Covenants, I recommend reading Andrew Murray’s The Two Covenants. It is currently available online, in text and audio versions, at Christian Classics Ethereal Library.***
We live in exciting times! I’m eager to see God’s will continue to play out in the lives of His New Covenant people, and am truly blessed in answering the call to join Him in the endeavor. I pray that you too will find your way to receiving the blessings of the New, as they are the birthright of all the baptized! Amen.