“Can a believer fail to keep the new covenant?”
At the end of his life, Joshua challenged the people of Israel to remain faithful to God and the covenant agreement they had made with him. He could see the danger that loomed over the Israelites. They had occupied the Promised Land, but there were still pockets of pagans who would tempt the people to abandon God. Joshua knew that God was a promise keeper and failure to follow him would bring certain destruction. He warned them of the danger with his last breath.
“But just as every good promise of the LORD your God has come true, so the LORD will bring on you all the evil he has threatened, until he has destroyed you from this good land he has given you. If you violate the covenant of the LORD your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, the LORD’s anger will burn against you, and you will quickly perish from the good land he has given you.” Joshua 23:15-16
The Hebrews failed to keep their covenant agreement with God. History reveals that their enemies drove them into exile, and only after paying the full measure of their punishment did God restore them to the land. The bad news is that their agreement with God was conditional: they had to keep the terms of the agreement, faithfulness to God, in order to avoid the punishment for breaking the agreement. The good news is that God made a covenant with them, not a contract, and instead of walking away when they failed him he continued to work with them, eventually restoring them.
Christians relate to God through a new covenant established in Jesus Christ. It is a covenant based on grace rather than works. Is it conditional? That is the question, but before we come up with an answer let’s consider another type of covenant, one that isn’t conditional. It’s called a royal grant, because in ancient times kings would sometimes make this type of covenant with their subjects. The king would give something valuable to a person or a group whom he wished to bless. It might be land or a monetary reward. There were no strings attached. It was a perpetual gift that would not be taken back. God made this kind of grant to Abraham when he told him that his descendants would be like the stars in the sky and that his people would occupy the Promised Land. Now, which kind of covenant do you think the covenant of grace is? A conditional one or a royal grant? Or something else altogether?
God described the new covenant by the prophecy of Jeremiah hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth. Notice he said it would not be like the old covenant.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Jeremiah 31: 31-33
The emphasis was on God, who said, “I will make,” and “I will put” and “I will be.” When Jesus arrived, his words stressed God’s sovereignty in the process of salvation.
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” John 6:44
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” John 10:27-29
Luke made a similar point in the book of Acts. He didn’t say that those who believed were given eternal life, but instead:
“as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” Acts 13:48
Salvation and the new covenant are therefore entirely unconditional, right? I don’t think it’s that simple. Jesus, who spoke so strongly about God’s sovereignty, also stressed man’s responsibility. In the story of the sheep and goats he made it clear that a day was coming when the people of the world would be divided into two groups meant for punishment and reward, and the thing which would determine their outcome was, quoting Keith Green, “what they did, or didn’t, do.” I like Justin Taylor’s writing on this subject. He points out ways that grace is both conditional and unconditional.
Faith and new, holy living are both indispensable parts of the Christian life. They are “conditions” in this sense. But God undertakes through Christ to work in us; Christ’s own power is the guarantee that we will continue: “. . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13). … Salvation involved a “condition,” that is, Christ’s suffering and obedience. These had to take place if we were to be saved. At the same time, God through his prophetic word unconditionally guaranteed that Christ would meet the conditions! … God on his part made commitments to Christ in his OT promises. Christ, in his earthly life, committed himself to following the Father’s way. This covenant between God and Christ was both “conditional”—involving the necessity of Christ’s obedience—and “unconditional”—guaranteed by God. So the words “conditional” and “unconditional” must be used with care. We have to ask ourselves not only which covenantal relation we are discussing, but what aspect of that relation. – Justin Taylor, contributor on The Gospel Coalition
I also like what Contra_Mundum has written about the consequent conditions that must accompany our unconditional election:
The Covenant of Grace is not conditioned in any antecedent manner on any prior fulfillments, otherwise we could not have any such doctrine as “unconditional election.” Election is not based on anything foreseen or preexisting in the creature; but it is the very thing that vouchsafes a personal and everlasting salvation to an elect person. It is an absolute and unconditional gratuity. This is the “chosen in Christ” aspect of an individual’s redemption, and in that eternal (but not historical) perspective, men are in the Covenant of Grace apart from conditions of any kind.
The Covenant of Grace may be said to have “conditions,” in the qualified sense of consequent conditions, conditions that are the necessary consequences or results of specific divine activity on behalf of his elect. If such things as true faith, repentance, love for God and Christ, etc. are not present in the least degree (not even saying they must be visible or detectable traits); it is not possible to speak of such a person with respect to eternity. We might be speaking of a reprobate, or we might be speaking of a person who is elect but not converted. Nothing of his present (or future!) “condition” has impacted the divine decree concerning him. But in the nature of the case for an elect person, the divine determination for his everlasting felicity must eventually produce blessed conditions in keeping with election. Contra_Mundum on the Puritan Board
As is so often the case in God’s design, things are not either this or that, but both this and that. There are ways in which the new covenant is unconditional, and ways in which it is conditional. Therefore, in its unconditional aspects I can never fail to keep the covenant. God has chosen me and saved me and will finish the good work he has begun in me. In its conditional aspects, I, like the Hebrews of Joshua’s day, am in great danger if I fail to keep them. I must work out my salvation with fear and trembling.
Image by Hc_07 on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0