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!
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.
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