Is God's Covenant Conditional?

Series: Question Box

by Rick Phillips June 30, 2002

Tonight’s Question Box asks, “Is God’s covenant conditional?” This is an important theological question with tremendous personal and practical significance.

The question recognizes that God’s covenants contain both unconditional and conditional elements. The Bible begins with the covenant between God and our first father, Adam, in the Garden. This was a conditional covenant, requiring obedience and specifying punishment for disobedience. God told Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:15). This is referred to as the Covenant of Works. Adam broke this covenant, meriting God’s curse of death and alienation on our race.

After man fell into sin, the breech could only be repaired from God’s side, the story of which is the subject matter of the Bible. The Covenant of Works having led to sin and condemnation, God provided the Covenant of Grace, which was first revealed to Abraham and which centers on the saving work of Jesus Christ.

God called Abraham to leave his home and go to the Promised Land. But God also gave Abraham sweeping, unconditional promises. Genesis 12:2-3 lists 7 “I will’s” that God unilaterally guaranteed: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” God later gave conditions to Abraham, particularly the rite of circumcision. But the promises came first. God staked his own reputation on his promises to Abraham coming true, and the conditions came after these promises and rested upon them.

God’s covenant with Abraham is regarded as generally unconditional, but it was followed by another covenant that was strongly conditional. This was the Mosaic or Old Covenant given to Israel in the Exodus. This was an extension of God’s covenant to Abraham; God delivered Israel and gave the Law in order to be faithful to his promises to Abraham.

The conditions of this covenant are well-known. God gave the Ten Commandments, and the people ominously said, “We will do everything the LORD has said” (Ex. 19:8). Deuteronomy 28:1-2, 15 records Moses saying, “If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands… all these blessings will come upon you… However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees… all these curses will come upon you” (Dt. 28:1-2, 15). That is a clear statement of conditions. If Israel did not obey God’s Law they would not remain a people before him. And yet, we must realize that this did not nullify the unconditional promises God had given to Abraham regarding his descendants. Nor should we forget that even the Old Covenant began with unconditional promises that God gave through Moses. God did not send Moses to the mud pits of Egypt to say that he would deliver them if they kept his Law. No, first he gave them promises, then he delivered them, and only then did he give the conditions of the Law. Before the conditions were given at Mt. Sinai, God gave his “I will’s” to Israel as to Abraham before: “I will free you… I will redeem you… I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Ex. 6:6-8). Even if those promises relied on the conditions being met, God unconditionally promised it would happen.

Next comes the New Covenant, first promised through Jeremiah and accomplished by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Again, we start with divine “I will’s”: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah… 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. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:31-34). Those are unconditional statements, and yet the conditions followed surely enough. Jesus himself stipulated the condition of saving faith in him. John 3:16-18 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish... but whoever does not believe stands condemned.”

What we call the Covenant of Grace is that way of salvation that God unfolded first to Abraham, then to Israel, and finally to us in Christ. It rests on unconditional promises but includes conditions. So, yes, God’s covenant is conditional. If anyone says God accepts you unconditionally, therefore, they are wrong. But the condition—our response of faith—rests upon and relies upon God’s prior unconditional promise.

Let’s go back to the beginning, where God unconditionally promised Abraham so many physical and spiritual descendants. That was an unconditional promise on which God staked his own reputation! But for it to come true, Abraham would have to be faithful in keeping circumcision, Israel would have to obey the Law, and we would have to believe on Christ. God allowed his faithfulness to depend on human obedience! God made promises that could only be kept if his conditions were met, knowing that we would fail to keep those conditions.

How can this be, you ask? The answer is that while sinful men and women are not able to keep the conditions, God is able to supply them. God not only mandates the conditions but he himself supplies their fulfillment.

The record of the Bible is one of human failure; we think especially of Israel’s failure to keep the Law. For Abraham to have the offspring God promised, those offspring had to keep the conditions, which they did not. But here is how God himself fulfilled the condition of obedience—by sending his own Son as the true Israel to keep the Law in our place. Jesus fulfilled the covenant condition of obedience for us. He fulfilled the Covenant of Works Adam broke; he fulfilled the Law that Israel transgressed. Now he offers to credit his obedient righteousness to our account, under the Covenant of Grace, if only we will believe on him. Faith, now, is the condition of our salvation. And this also is fulfilled by God as the Spirit gives his people the saving gift of faith (Eph. 2:8-9). To fulfill his unconditional promises, God satisfies his own conditions through the work of Jesus Christ and his effectual grace ministered by the Holy Spirit. In this way, God has a people who truly love and serve him while all the glory belongs to him alone.

The Bible begins with Adam failing the Covenant of Works so that he is cast out from the Garden and the Tree of Life. At the end of the Bible, Jesus speaks of that covenant’s fulfillment and that blessing being regained. Revelation 2:7 says, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life.” And, of course, it is in him that his people do overcome. First, he fulfills the Covenant of Works for us, and then he works faith in us so that we may be saved by the Covenant of Grace. So sure is Jesus of this condition being fulfilled, that he says unconditionally to all who trust in him, “Never will I leave; never will I forsake you,” and we can say in return, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid” (Heb. 13:5-6).

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