Commandments, Contracts, and Covenant

We are in a covenant with God, not a contract.

Covenant Not Contract

Commandments, Contracts, and Covenant

By Beth Demme

It’s tempting to make faith into something legalistic. To make it about rules and obedience. I know this is a temptation because I see how prevalent it is in Christian culture, but also because I see it in myself. Often it’s a marker of a new relationship with God, but I’ve been on my adventure with God for a long time and it still pops up.

When I read thru the 10 Commandments, I’m tempted to read them as pre-requisites to a relationship with God. I couldn’t be more wrong. God gives us these principles to live by because we are already in a relationship. In fact, in Exodus 20, God speaks directly to the Israelites, saying “I am the Lord your God.”

It’s not conditional, “I will be your God only if …”

God has to offer us an unconditional covenant because we don’t really have anything to offer the Creator of all that is, except ourselves. Knowing myself the way I do, this hardly seems like a substantial enough offering. Except it’s all that God wants, to be loved wholeheartedly by you and me.

When I slip into a legalistic mindset, pretending that following rules is a substitute for really giving myself to God heart and soul, I invariably become judgmental of others. I measure myself comparatively and I am reassured that I’m “in” because others are “out.” But none of us perfectly follows the 10 Commandments. This isn’t the purpose of the 10 Commandments anyway!

Our failures aren’t meant to distance us from God. They reveal to us our need for God.

What does God do about the fact that we don’t follow the 10 Commandments well? Here it’s important to understand the difference between a contract and a covenant. I think when people talk about the 10 Commandments as a basis for punishment they miss the fundamental difference between a covenant and a contract.

In law school, the elements of a contract were drilled into my head. It requires mutual assent expressed by a valid offer and acceptance and the parties have to exchange “consideration” (something of value). The parties must have the capacity to enter into a contract (no contracts with children) and the contract can’t be for an illegal act (a contract for murder is not legally enforceable).

Our relationship with God is not contractual.

As Pastor Paul Rock writes, “Contracts are governed by the rules of bargaining. Covenants are governed by the irrational but eternal rules of love.”  I would modify that only slightly to say that our covenant with God is governed by the irrational but eternal rules of divine love.

This is the essential lesson of the Bible: God chooses to be bound to us.

In the Old Testament, there are covenants, both conditional and unconditional. In the New Testament, Jesus invites us to yoke ourselves to him, saying, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30.)

When I slip into legalistic thinking, what I’m really doing is telling God I want to replace God’s Covenant with a contract. I want to substitute God’s unconditional love with something I can earn. But a contract won’t work here. God chose to create me without demanding anything in return. Everything I have and everything I am is a gift from God.

Creation is born from divine love, not mutual assent. Therefore, my response is not contractual, my response is entirely optional.

God gives us the 10 Commandments not as steps we have to follow to be granted admission into the family of God, but because these principles help us live our best life—a life with God at the center.

In this way, then, even my tendency to fall into legalism reveals my need for God and can be a point of reorientation back to what matters.

What about you? Do you sometimes treat your faith as if it’s all about rules and obedience, instead of divine love? Do you agree there is a fundamental difference between covenant and contract? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.

More Like This From Beth:

Praying and Waiting

A Biblical Hero’s Lesson In How NOT To Do It

waiting after praying

Praying and Waiting
A Biblical Hero’s Lesson In How NOT To Do It

By Beth Demme

Are you good at praying … and then waiting? I spend a good amount of time praying, even listening, but I’m terrible at waiting! Abraham, the patriarch of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths was also not good at waiting for God’s promises to come true.

Things start out well. God tells Abraham to leave his country, his kindred, and his father’s house and go to a location that is “to be determined.” (Genesis 12:1) Abraham, and his wife Sarah, left everything, including the safety and security of their clan—the clan Abraham would, by rights, have ruled one day—for an unknown future with God. (Genesis 12:4)

When Abraham and Sarah arrived in a place called Canaan, quite far from their homeland, God told Abraham to raise his eyes and look around, “for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever.” (Genesis 13:14-15) God also told Abraham his offspring would be “like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring can also be counted.” (Genesis 16)

That’s a lot of descendants!

Time goes by, life happens, but Abraham and Sarah have no children. Abraham starts to worry about whether or not this promise from God is really going to come true. He doesn’t see how he will have a lot of descendants if he can’t even have one child. Abraham asks God, “what will you give me, for I continue childless… you have given me no offspring.” (Genesis 15:2-3)

I can relate to Abraham. I know I’m supposed to believe and trust, but … waiting makes it hard.

Waiting creates an opportunity for doubt to creep in. I find myself wondering if perhaps I misunderstood God’s promises.

God reassures Abraham. God invites Abraham to look at the stars in the night sky and says, “count the stars if you are able … so shall your descendants be.” (Genesis 15:5) At this point, the Bible says, Abraham “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)

Abraham had tremendous faith, but like other biblical heroes, he was human.

After God reassured Abraham, he and Sarah, as faithful as they were, took matters into their own hands. Sarah tells Abraham to go make a baby with another woman, Hagar, a slave. (Genesis 16) It works! Abraham gets an heir, whom he names Ishmael (Genesis 16:15).

The Reality of Lent



The Reality of Lent, #ParklandShooting

By Beth Demme

On Ash Wednesday 2018, fourteen teenagers and three coaches were savagely murdered in a shooting spree at Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. We, as a country, have a routine after a massacre like this. It’s a routine I don’t much care for. We break into sides, camps, parties, teams, tribes, or whatever word you would choose. The point is, we divide.

In our idealized version of our American self, we are the “United” States of America. We are joined together by common ideals and goals, a shared history and a shared purpose. When there is an outside threat we do band together and stand as one nation under God. When, however, the threat is from within our collective self, we stand divided, each of us doing what we think is right. (See Judges 21:25.)

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I need to say it, to confess it. Every time there is a tragedy, I seem to find a way to insulate my heart from it.

From Columbine to the Aurora theater shooting, to Sandy Hook Elementary School, to Pulse nightclub, to the Las Vegas shooting, to the Charleston, South Carolina and Southerland, Texas church shootings, and all those in between, I found a way to put it over there somewhere.

But this one, the Parkland, Florida school shooting? I can’t insulate my heart for some reason. Maybe it’s because the school reminds me so much of my son’s high school and the teenagers who died remind me so much of his friends. Perhaps it’s because we know people who lost friends that day. Probably, it’s that the Holy Spirit finally has me where I need to be.

In the wake of the tragedy, the students of Parkland are making their voices heard. Their grief is giving birth to a movement. As this blog posts, they are here in the Florida capital where I live. Today my husband will miss work and my teenagers will miss school as they venture down to the Capitol to join with those students, pleading with lawmakers to notice them, to see their pain, and to not brush it aside—to not put it over there somewhere, as I have so often done.

The rally at the Florida Capitol isn’t just about seeing democracy in action, it’s about trying to find one’s voice in the wilderness.

It’s about feeling too small to fight something powerful and destructive, but deciding to try anyway.

Happy Va-LENT-ine’s Day

February 14th is Doubly Special This Year

Happy Va LENT ine's Day

Happy Va-LENT-ine’s Day

By Beth Demme

Happy February 14th! It’s Valentine’s Day, but this year it also happens to be Ash Wednesday, aka the beginning of Lent. So this year we are celebrating Va-LENT-ine’s Day!

Maybe you’ve been in and around church your whole life and you know all about Lent. Perhaps your Lenten practices are simply another cog in the well-oiled machinery that IS your Spiritual Life. Or, maybe you’re new to the idea and you are curious about why people are burning palms, walking around with dirty foreheads, and talking very piously about sacrificing chocolate. Hopefully you didn’t lavish your Valentine with “The World’s Biggest Chocolate Heart” only to discover that said Valentine is on a chocolate fast from now thru April 1. (Side note: I am not giving up chocolate. Feel free to re-direct all Valentine’s chocolate to me.)

No matter how well-oiled your Spiritual Life is, or isn’t, sometimes it’s a good idea to revisit the basics of something that happens over and over again, like Lent.

God Knows We Can’t Help Ourselves

And Yet, I Still Try


God Knows We Can’t Help Ourselves

By Beth Demme

Maybe it’s my American-ness or maybe it’s just my personality, but I kind of like the expression, God helps those who help themselves. I like it because I believe I know how to help myself, at least a little.

It’s as if I can obligate God to be on my side if I do at least some of the work.

The problem is, when I read the Bible I’m reminded again and again of how wrong I am to think that way.

When I read the Bible, I find that God is on the side of the weak and powerless. One of the themes of the Old Testament is that God’s people are the underdogs, made powerful only because God is with them. The powerful don’t really need God, they take what they want/need, rather than relying on God to lead them and provide for them.

God is often presented as a shepherd – a caretaker of a helpless animal. (Psalm 23) In Isaiah 40, God “gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart.” (Isaiah 40:11, NIV) God “brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.… He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.” (Isaiah 40:23, 29, NRSV) Or as the Psalmist says, “the Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.… The Lord lifts up the downtrodden.” (Psalm 147:3,6)

The lambs, the faint, the powerless, the brokenhearted, and the downtrodden epitomize those who cannot help themselves.

Jesus Is Authority and Mystery

authority and mystery of jesus

Jesus Is Authority and Mystery

By Beth Demme

Jesus is an interesting mix of authority and mystery.

In Mark 1:21-28, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath and people are “’astounded” at his authority. Jesus is there at the synagogue with a small group of disciples who also responded to his authority. Just a few verses earlier they were fishermen. Jesus approached them and said “follow me” and they did! They dropped everything to follow him. (Mark 1:16-20)

While Jesus (and the fishermen-disciples) are in the synagogue, an unclean spirit identifies Jesus as “the Holy One of God.” Jesus dispenses with the spirit, which only makes the people in the synagogue more “amazed.” They ask, “What is this? What’s going on here?” (Mark 1:27, NRSV & MSG) Mark says that from that point on “the news about Jesus spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.” (Mark 1:28, CEB)

Notice, the unclean spirit says who Jesus is, but Jesus doesn’t. He doesn’t offer any explanation of who he is or where his authority comes from.

I love this!

By not declaring his identity/divinity here, Jesus invites us to think about the big question – from where does his authority come?

The mystery is part of Jesus’ message, too.

The Problem With God’s Grace

This Truth Can Be Hard to Swallow


God’s Grace Problem

By Beth Demme

If we were playing a game of word association and I said “Jonah,” chances are good that you would say “whale.” When it comes to Jonah, we tend to get wrapped up in questions about if, how, and why Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish. But really, Jonah is a lesson in the problem with God’s grace.

Jonah learns the terrible, awful truth about God’s grace.

Jonah learns it the hard way. God tells him to go to Nineveh, but instead Jonah runs away from the problem. He hops on to a ship, gets thrown overboard in the middle of a storm, gets swallowed by “a large fish,” and is spit out onto dry land after three days and three nights. (Jonah 1)

The appalling thing that Jonah learns is that God’s grace is for everyone, even the Ninevites.

Jonah did not want the people of Nineveh to receive God’s grace. He didn’t want them to know about God or God’s love or God’s mercy. Jonah knew that if God gave the people of Nineveh a chance at a relationship, they would jump at it. He knew they would repent and God would forgive them. And then something truly dreadful would happen, Jonah would have to accept them as part of God’s people.

Jonah didn’t want to accept the Ninevites, he hated them. They were political enemies—the Assyrians who conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and then scattered the Israelites, resulting in the ten lost tribes of Israel. (Here’s a lesson on that.)

Jonah wanted them to be punished, he wanted to substitute his justice for God’s mercy.

You might say Jonah thinks the Ninevites are from a sh… sh… shady country.

In death, or on the verge of it, Jonah has a revelation. Jonah says, “As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord and my prayer came to you in your holy temple. … I with a voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2) In other words, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord, not to me.” In that moment, Jonah understood that he couldn’t tell God who to choose and who to exclude.

But even with that apparent attitude adjustment, Jonah goes to Nineveh half-heartedly. He goes into Nineveh a little ways and offers them 7 words. That’s all. He makes a single prophetic pronouncement: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4)  After all of the build-up, all of the effort to try to avoid going, the deathbed revelation, and then once he gets there, that’s all he says?

And yet, that was all it took. We’re told that the hope of God’s love and mercy was so magnetic that everyone, including the king of Nineveh himself, believed in God and started living differently. (Jonah 3:4-9) As Jonah predicted —and feared— God welcomed the Ninevites with open arms. “This was very displeasing to Jonah and he became angry.” (Jonah 4:1) Jonah says, basically, “uuuuuuuuuugh. This is exactly why I did not want to come here!”

In death (or on the verge of it), Jonah had cried out to God for help and forgiveness. God “brought [his] life up from the Pit” and Jonah promised to honor God “with the voice of thanksgiving.” (Jonah 3:6-9)

But, then, despite receiving God’s mercy himself, Jonah accuses God of being too merciful towards the people of Nineveh.

Jonah says he would rather die than see the people of Nineveh receive God’s grace.

That’s the terrible, awful thing about God’s grace. It’s for everyone. Anytime we draw a line between us and them, God is standing over there with them.

I struggle with this. I want God to be on my side, to like who I like and dislike who I dislike. Like Jonah, I struggle to be obedient to God and I’m overwhelmed with humility and gratitude when I remember God’s loving forgiveness. And, though it’s hard to admit, I’m like Jonah in that I take what God offers and try to keep it for myself and for those who think like me.

The “Ninevites” in my life can range on any given day from the person who cut me off in traffic to the person on Twitter or Facebook who posts a message that contradicts my own view on an issue like women in the pulpit, immigration, marriage equality, the value of life (before and after birth), and so on. It’s hard to admit, but God loves them too.

That, I think, is the real message of Jonah—the terrible, awful truth about God’s grace is that it is for everyone.

Who are your Ninevites? How do you feel about sharing the love and grace of God with them? Can you relate at all to Jonah’s reluctance to share God? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.

More Like This From Beth:

Why Renewal Is My Word for 2018

And the Wesley Covenant Prayer


My Word for 2018: Renewal

By Beth Demme

My word for 2018 is renewal. Re-new-all. Make everything new again, or at least as much as I can. Some people complain that the world today is the worst and that things back then were better somehow. I get it. At times it’s easy to see the bad and hard to see the good.

Maybe I’m naïvely optimistic, but I’m looking for renewal in 2018.

I don’t expect to find renewal on my own. I’m counting on God to show it to me. God breathed life into dry bones (Ezekiel 37) and God breathed life into humankind (Genesis 2:7). Today I’m asking God to breathe renewed life into me and to let me see signs of renewal throughout 2018.

One of the most impactful prayers I’ve ever prayed is called the Wesley Covenant Prayer. It’s often offered as part of a Covenant Renewal Service. My church did this service recently and it felt … special.

The Covenant Prayer is an all-in kind of prayer. God is all-in. We learned that with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Covenant Prayer is one way to affirm that I, too, am all-in. (Click here for a business card size copy of the prayer you can print.)


Whose am I? In this prayer I say, “I am no longer my own, but thine.” I say, “Yes God, I belong to you and I live for you, not for myself.”

The Problem With Knowledge

Are you looking for Jesus in the manger or in the palace?


The Problem With Knowledge

By Beth Demme

The last sigh of the Christmas season has evaporated. Have you put away all of your Christmas decorations? Is the tree un-decorated and hauled to the street (or put in storage)? Have the Christmas lights been removed and the Christmas blow-ups deflated? What about your Nativity? Have you wrapped each piece carefully and stowed it away?

Mine is all safely re-packaged and returned to the attic, already awaiting its next limited run.

Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season. In the church, this is when we celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men. You know, the three fellas in the Nativity who are wearing funny hats and holding little boxes?

The story of the Wise Men comes from the Gospel of Matthew. Here’s a quick run-down of what happens:

The Wise Men are astrologers from somewhere East of Israel. They see a special star rise in the sky and when they consult their charts they realize that it means the king of the Jews, the Messiah, has been born. They set out to find that king of the Jews to pay him homage. They go to the place that makes sense, Jerusalem—the capital city and the location of the Temple. They fail at first.

They meet with Herod, Rome’s puppet ruler over the region, but they know he’s not the one they’re looking for (and so does he). Herod calls together “all the chief priests and scribes of the people” to ask them where the Messiah is supposed to be born. The religious leaders say (more or less), “oh, yeah, we know all about that. Supposedly he’s going to be born in Bethlehem.”

The crazy thing is, the religious leaders don’t run around jumping for joy, they don’t take off for Bethlehem, they don’t do … anything.

It’s hard to admit, but I have a lot in common with the religious leaders Herod consulted.

Two Keys to Seeing God At Work

How to Expect the Unexpected


The Two Keys to Seeing God At Work

By Beth Demme

As we’ve moved from Advent to Christmas and now towards Epiphany, I’ve been repeatedly surprised at how unexpected it all is. I’m more aware than ever that I need to be open to seeing God at work in unexpected ways.

The Messiah was conceived by the Holy Spirit but then was born in the normal human way to an unmarried couple from the wrong part of Israel and laid in a manger instead of a fancy crib in the palace or temple. And then, a month or so later, when it was time for his mother to go to the temple, his parents didn’t walk in and declare, “Hello Chief Priest, we’ve brought you the Messiah!” Instead, they humbly offered the sacrifice of the poor (two birds) and devoted themselves and their baby to God (Luke 2:22-24; Leviticus 12:6-8).

At the temple, it was Simeon and Anna who declared that Jesus was the Messiah, not Mary and Joseph and not the Chief Priest or any temple official (Luke 2:21-38). How did they know?

Mary and Joseph knew Jesus wasn’t just a regular baby. They had both been visited by angels (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:26-36), Elizabeth confirmed it (Luke 1:41-43), and the shepherds showed up at the manger declaring that Jesus was the Messiah (Luke 2:15-18). If Mary and Joseph and Jesus were happening today, they might put a bumper sticker on their car (or donkey or whatever) that says, “MY SON IS AN HONOR STUDENT IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. HE WILL BE SEATED AT THE RIGHT HAND OF THE FATHER.”

But Mary and Joseph didn’t declare it. They were just in the temple trying to do the right thing according to Jewish law. It turns out, they didn’t have to declare it. There were people who were waiting expectantly for the unexpected.