O LORD, God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O judge of the earth; repay to the proud what they deserve! O LORD, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult? They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast. They crush your people, O LORD, and afflict your heritage. They kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless; and they say, “The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.”
Understand, O dullest of the people! Fools, when will you be wise? He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see? He who disciplines the nations, does he not rebuke? He who teaches man knowledge– the LORD–knows the thoughts of man, that they are but a breath.
Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O LORD, and whom you teach out of your law, to give him rest from days of trouble, until a pit is dug for the wicked. For the LORD will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage; for justice will return to the righteous, and all the upright in heart will follow it. Who rises up for me against the wicked? Who stands up for me against evildoers?
If the LORD had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence. When I thought, “My foot slips,” your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up. When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul. Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who frame injustice by statute? They band together against the life of the righteous and condemn the innocent to death. But the LORD has become my stronghold, and my God the rock of my refuge. He will bring back on them their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness; the LORD our God will wipe them out.
Is there a difference between a covenant and a contract? Many Christians think there is.
In modern parlance there is difference: the word ‘covenant’ suggests an emotional relationship, whereas the word ‘contract’ connotes a non-emotional relationship which is entered into solely for material or financial benefits. For us, contracts are legal documents that are drawn up in precise language to carefully specify the expected duties and responsibilities of the respective parties, to safeguard the rights of the parties, and to spell out penalties or consequences if one party reneges..
So we think we know what contracts and covenants are. And we believe there is a big difference between them.
But in the Bible, that big difference does not exist. The Bible does not use the word “contract”. And when it uses the word ‘covenant’, its meaning embraces quite a lot of what we mean by the word “contract” — terms, expectations, rights, duties, recourse and consequences if one party reneges.
Dear reader, please humor me as I clumsily imitate the oratory of our Lord:
You have heard it said “Marriage is a covenant; not a contract.” But I say to you, this is incorrect. This notion has come about by taking modern distinctions of terminology and laying them onto the Bible with little respect or understanding for how the Old Testament and New Testament writers used the term “covenant”.
Those who say “Marriage is a covenant; not a contract” are confused, or ignorant. Or worse: they may be wittingly falsely contrasting covenants and contracts in order to keep victims of destructive marriages entrapped in destructive marriages.
The confusion about convenant and contract takes a bit of unpacking to explain, so let me take you step by step though it. Are you ready to work out quadratic equations with your fingers and toes? I hope so, because it’s almost that complicated.
1. The modern English-speaking world ascribes different meanings to the words “covenant” and “contract”; but the Bible did not do so.
2. The Bible used only one word, “covenant”, but it uses the word “covenant” in two different ways.
3. The two different uses of the Biblical word “covenant” are NOT congruent with the two different meanings of “covenant” and “contract” in modern English.
No wonder people have got confused!
4. The confounding of the two Biblical usages of “covenant” has caused a lot of confusion in the church at large, and it has piled spiritual abuse on victims of marital abuse.
The Bible does not make a distinction between “covenant” and “contract” in the same way that we do. In the Bible, the word “covenant” covers a lot of the semantic range that our word “contract” covers.
We see this exemplified in the many instances in the Old Testament where a ruler of a dominant nation such as Assyria or Babylon made a covenant with a vassal state. The ruler of the dominant nation said, “You guys have to pay me tribute and obey the administrators I appoint for your area, and if you do this, I and my administration will not make war on you, we will allow you to live under our rule. But if you don’t obey or pay tribute, well we will make war with you and kill you or take you into captivity so you can no longer live in your land.” That is a rather like a contract in our modern day sense, is it not? In modern contracts, the penalty for breaking the contract is not usually death or captivity but there is still a basic agreement: I do this for you; you do this for me, and the arrangement give each of us benefits. The Bible and the cultures in the Ancient Near East called this a covenant, and the ‘cutting’ of the covenant was equivalent to the signing of a modern day contract.
Here is what David Instone-Brewer says about this:
As originally written [in the Bible], there was no distinction between “covenant” and “contract”. There is only one word [in Biblical Hebrew] for both and there is no reason to believe that this word represented more than one type of agreement. This applies not only to the OT use of the term “covenant” but also to its use in the NT and beyond into the Church Fathers. Throughout this period, the term “covenant” meant a contract that could be broken if either side reneged on their half of the agreement. [emphasis added]
In the New Testament and beyond, there was also a second, entirely separate meaning of “covenant” as the “New Covenant” (i.e., New Testament). This [second meaning] developed alongside the traditional meaning of covenant as contract.
The theological [the second] meaning of “covenant” is an agreement that a faithful person would not break even if the partner to whom that person is in covenant breaks the stipulations of the covenant. This new meaning of “covenant” is based on the covenantal relationship between God and his people in the later prophets and the New Testament. In the later prophets, God promised that he would keep his side of the agreement whether or not his people kept theirs. God would be faithful even if his people were faithless. This irrevocable covenant was portrayed in Ezekeil 36-37 and Jeremiah 31 as a “new covenant”. This is different to every other type of covenant found in the ancient Near East or in the Old Testament. It is this difference that made the “new covenant” so special.
, David Instone-Brewer, p. 17. [affiliate link*]
So, there are two kinds of covenant in the Bible: unconditional, and conditional.
An unconditional covenant is a unilateral covenant.
A conditional covenant is a bilateral covenant
In Not Under Bondage [affiliate link*] pp. 69-71, I talk about how the New Covenant is an unconditional covenant. As believers who have been given the gift of saving faith, we have been made positionally righteous before God but we still battle with the flesh and we still sin —and it grieves us. We are never going to be perfectly holy while awaiting our redemption in the new heavens and new earth that God has promised. But God will be faithful even when we are faithless. This is what makes the New Covenant so unique. God chooses to bestow His grace upon us — favor that we have not merited — simply because He chooses to. You can’t “go figure”: it is not about fairness or logic or desert, it’s just — amazing.
The New Covenant is particularly unique and extraordinary because in a sense there is one condition: our repentance; but that condition is met by God (!) who gives us conviction of sin and reveals Christ to us, giving us the new birth and bringing us into the New Covenant, the Kingdom of God, with all its blessings of adoption, justification and redemption. He does this out of his sheer grace and loving kindness towards us which he lavished upon us in Christ Jesus.
All other covenants — all interpersonal covenants between human beings, or between nation states or groups of people — are not unconditional. They are conditional covenants. They are bilateral; which means if one party to the covenant reneges on the terms, the other party is at liberty to walk away and declare the covenant void because of the other party has reneged.
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I originally published a version of this article as a comment in another thread on this blog, but since it is such a major confusion, I think it deserves a post on its own as well. You can see my original version here, with an extensive comment thread after it. Thank you to Valerie, because it was her comment in that thread which provoked me to write this. And thank you to the people who commented in that other thread, as your comments have helped me hammer and polish this post.
*Amazon affiliate link — ACFJ gets a small percentage if you purchase via this link.
Another gem from the GEMS page…
“To those who abuse: the sin is yours, the crime is yours, and the shame is yours. To those who protect the perpetrators: blaming the victims only masks the evil within, making you as guilty as those who abuse. Stand up for the innocent or go down with the rest.”
[Flora Jessop, Church of Lies]
Matthew 16:5-7, 12 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread….
v. 12 Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Here we have the disciples in personal contact with the Lord Jesus, and He speaks to them. “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They analyzed His words. They discussed what he said among themselves. They came to a conclusion from their exposition: He is admonishing us for bringing no bread. They were, of course, quite wrong.
In seminary and in our churches we are taught to minutely examine the Scriptures. The Christian is to be a careful student of the Word of God. Pastors are taught Greek and Hebrew and theology. We memorize the books of the Bible, catechisms, and portions of Scripture.
And quite often, we go wrong.
It is of course the very thing the Pharisees did. They ended up turning a blessing of God — the Sabbath — into a horrid burden so that people couldn’t even enjoy what God meant to be body and soul-refreshing rest. Jesus rebuked them for it all — the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way round. We have often said on this blog that so it is with marriage. Marriage was made for man, not man for marriage. Marriage is not to become some kind of master to which human beings are enslaved. And yet, as we all know, that is the very thing that so many pastors and churches and theologians and books are teaching today. Marriage is the thing. People are subservient to marriage. It is vital that the marriage survive, even if the people don’t.
Let me suggest to you a principle that we very much need to add to our hermeneutics toolshop (hermeneutics is what we call the discipline of Bible study and interpretation). Here it is — though I am sure it is in no way original with me:
When our conclusions we arrive at through our study of Scripture lead us to ridiculous, unjust interpretations and applications that are not consistent with the character of God, it is time to go back to our study and see where we went wrong.
It’s like a mathematics test. The professor says “show your work on your paper so that if you get a wrong answer I can see where you went wrong and you can go back and correct yourself at that point.”
Now really, who can deny in all honesty that the “company line” of no divorce for abuse is a ridiculous, foolish, and dangerous biblical interpretation that is inconsistent with the character of God? It’s time for a lot of people who are teaching this stuff to be called out on it and sent back to their homework to correct their work.
Someone is saying “but the no divorce for abuse is NOT ridiculous!” Really? Let me paint a picture [Trigger warning, descriptions of abuse] :
Sally has been married to John for 24 years. Sally’s life in this marriage has been a living hell. John professes to not only be a Christian, but to be an exemplary student of God’s Word and one of the finest pillars in his church. But John terrorizes Sally and the children behind the scenes. Tomorrow, John is going to step up the intensity of his abuse because Sally told him she wants a divorce. John is going to carry out one of the following scenarios (you choose any of them):
a) John is going to corner Sally in the bedroom, smash her up against the wall when she doesn’t see it coming, put his hands tightly around her neck while he keeps her pinned there, look right into her eyes and in a demonically cold and evil tone, he is going to tell her that if she leaves him he will kill the children and then her. He will find her wherever she is. She and the children are his property and no one is going to take them away from him.
b) John knows that Sally is going to divorce him and try to take the children with her. He is not going to allow it. She is a wicked, ungodly woman who will not submit to him and therefore is in rebellion against the Lord. John has tried and tried, but she will not listen to him. Well, if he can’t have the kids, then no one can. John takes his 9mm handgun out of the closet and when Sally comes home with the children from the grocery store, he is going to be waiting for them in the living room. He is going to kill them all. John carries these murders out, then gets in the car and speeds down the road thinking about killing himself. Before he can do so however, he is taken into custody by the police. What John would soon learn is that the bullet that struck Sally did not kill her. Sally survived, now having to endure this hell on earth without her children.
John Piper, Jim Ellif, Voddie Baucham and others of the “no-divorce-for-any-reason” school would most certainly tell Sally that God does not permit her to divorce this murderer. But the hermeneutical craziness doesn’t end with Piper, Ellif and Baucham. Oh no. It goes on. All the pastors and churches and professing Christians who insist that only adultery and a very specific kind of desertion (the literal leaving of an unbelieving spouse married to a believer) are biblical grounds for divorce will tell Sally the very same thing. “Nope. Uh-uh. Can’t divorce him. If you do you will be a covenant breaker and sinning before God.” Now of course, if John had been an adulterer, no problem, these guys would say. Divorce is ok for that, but not for murder of the children. Others continue teaching this insanity by saying that the desertion rule doesn’t apply in this case because that is only specifically for the scenario where an unbeliever refuses to live with a believer. “And after all,” these people will tell Sally, “Your husband John professed to be a Christian. Oh sure, he murdered the children and shot you, but hey, King David did a lot of bad stuff too and God stuck with him.”
IT IS TIME TO STOP THE MADNESS!
All of you out there in Christianity Land, listen! This is cruel insanity. This is totally inconsistent with the very character of God as He reveals Himself in Scripture and in the Living Word, His Son. As you all argue over the minute details of Scripture, checking out verb tenses, participles and prepositions, you have come to conclusions that Christ never taught. And instead of saying, “hmmm….you know, maybe the propeller goes on the front of this plane and not down below on the axle,” you absolutely insist that you are going to fly that plane with the wheel where the prop is supposed to be, and you are demanding that all the rest of us get in that plane with you.
Well, we aren’t going to. We are finished doing that. You aren’t a qualified pilot. And more and more and more you are going to hear loud voices saying so.
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