From Contract to Covenant
The question of sin?
Last time we left here with a cliff-hanger ending. As we have been peeling through layer upon layer of meaning in the cross we left last week with the idea that the cross stands alone as the only thing that opens the way to God. If you were here last time, hopefully you remember the illustration we had set up here with the doorway. And we had various signs that we hung up around that doorway. These were signs that we are often tempted to place there because there is just something inside of us that feels compelled to add something over top of the sign of Jesus’ blood. We had signs like Religious Observance, and Generosity Service, and Morality Godly Living. And we ended last time by pulling those things down because we stated that they get in the way of the one sign that matters the most. But then we left a giant question in its place. So, what do we do with those things?
The apostle Paul asks that exact same question in Romans 6.
Romans 6:1 NIV
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
So today we consider our sin, and how we live as Christians. And we consider how it is we relate those things to the cross. The apostle Paul makes pretty good sense out of this, and the church has long followed the teachings of the Bible as Paul presents it in his writing. But today I think the church needs a correction. Not because Paul is wrong or because the Bible is wrong. And not because we have mis-interpreted the Bible or its teachings. But maybe we have misdiagnosed something along the way. And our misdiagnosis has led us to a place of focusing all our attention on treating the symptoms with little or no effect. While at the same time we have lost sight of where it is the Bible is urging us to place our true focus. The reason we don’t know what to do with things like religious observance, Christian service, or morality is because we are stuck in a misdiagnosis. And in effect what we end up doing as Christians is to take all of those things and place them over top of the cross. Without meaning to we nullify the cross and throw away the grace of God as useless because we have made a mis-diagnosis.
At this point it would be good for me to point out some sources. There is a footnote on the bottom of the notes in the handout. Many of the ideas for this series have come from the work of theologian and author N.T. Wright from his book, The Day the Revolution Began. This message especially borrows from his work because this mis-diagnosis as I am calling it forms the central argument of his book. But i am also borrowing today from the writings of Louis Berkhof and Herman Bavink who have published volumes of systematic theology in the Reformed tradition, as well as some much older writing that comes from documents such as the Heidelberg Catechism. The point is this. What I’m talking about today is not a new idea. It does not diverge from the teaching of the Bible. And it does not turn from what two thousand years of church theology has taught. Rather, this is more of a returning to what the church has believed and taught all along, but we have just found ourselves losing sight of it.
Paul asks in Romans 6 if we are to go on sinning. This all has to do with the question of sin, and what the cross has to do with our sin. And it begins to take its misdirection and misdiagnosis because many of us are living with the wrong idea of sin.
Let’s fill in the blanks on the outline with two different statements about sin. What is sin anyway? What makes us sinners? What does it mean that we are sinful people?
First. I am a sinner because I commit sins.
How do I know what sin is? How do I know that I am a sinner? How do I know that I am sinful? Well duh, I commit sins. In fact, that’s what sin is. The Bible is filled with all these rules about what I am supposed to do, or not do. And whenever I live in a way that does not follow along with what the Bible says, we call that sin.
Second. I commit sins because I am a sinner.
So maybe it sometimes looks like sin just shows up as a list of do’s and don’ts from the Bible. But actually, sin is something much deeper than that. Actually, sin is something I am born with even before I ever have the opportunity to commit any particular act of sin. These actions of committing sins are actually just a symptom of the real problem. Committing individual acts of sin is the manifestation of what is actually something deeper inside. That I have a sinful nature. I am born with it. And my sin shows up in the sinful acts I commit. But essentially, even if I were to live in a way that I did not commit any acts of sin, I would still be a sinner, because I still have an inner sinful nature.
Which is it? Which definition is right? Maybe you think I’m being unfair here. This isn’t a question of one statement being right and the other begin wrong. Maybe there is a hint of truth in both. Or maybe these are just two different perspectives at the same thing. I choose one perspective, and maybe you choose the other perspective. But that’s okay, right? We just have different perspectives. Does that make one right and the other wrong?
Quick church history lesson. In the fourth Century AD there was a monk named Pelagius who taught the first option. Pelagius taught that it is the acts of sin we commit that make us sinners. And do you know how the church responded? Did they say, well Pelagius I suppose that is one possible perspective. No. They called it heresy. The church said to Pelagius, this is not at all what the Bible teaches. And for 1600 years the church has been united in maintaining this. It has a name. It is called the Pelagian Heresy. And the church still holds that it goes against the teaching of scripture.
We are not sinners simply because we commit sins. The church has always held that the Bible says we are born as sinful people with a sinful nature. And the reason we commit sins is because we are sinners.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15
1 Corinthians 15:22 NIV
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
We are all descendants of Adam and Eve. We are all born as sinners whether we like it or not. The Bible says no one is righteous, not even one. Not even a brand new infant just born into this world. That may seem harsh to say. How can a cute tiny baby which seems so innocent be robbed of that innocence? Then your child turns two and you realize the truth. How did my kid even learn to be greedy or throw tantrums? Truth. Because we are sinful people, we commit sins.
Yet even though this is what the church has affirmed and has consistently taught, somehow we find ourselves falling into thinking that sin is nothing more than sinful acts that we commit. Somehow we have created a system of measurement in which some people are huge sinners and other people are just little sinners because we have pinned our definition of sin to only outward actions. And not to an inner sinful nature which we all share equally.
And so, we think about sins, and talk about sins, and define sin. And very quickly sin all gets reduced to outward actions. A list of immoral behaviors. Do’s and don’ts. And it is this mistake—the Pelagian Heresy—that turns into what we carry around as a mis-diagnosis. Because if we define sin as only being outward action; and because we live as people who only address sin as something we commit in the way we live; then we are only treating the symptoms. And we never get deep enough to address the real problem—the problem that you and I carry a sinful nature that we just simply cannot get rid of on our own.
Where does this lead? It leads us to assigning a meaning to the cross that was never intended. Before we can get to talking about the next layer of meaning we see in the cross, we have to first peel away something that maybe we imposed upon the cross, but actually is wrong. We wrongly see in the cross something of a contract. That Jesus fulfils a moral contract which we could not. This is at the very heart of what so many of us carry around as a mis-diagnosis.
I can summarize that mis-diagnosis this way. This is the worldview that many Christians carry. In fact, many Christians would claim that this is a biblical worldview, when nothing could be further from the truth—because it is not biblical at all. It goes like this:
The goal is to get to heaven. The problem is sinful behavior.
Neither of those statements are biblical. If those statements were in fact true, then the cross would be nothing more than an addendum to the contract. The contract goes like this.
No one who commits sins can get to heaven.
Everyone commits sins.
Jesus does not commit sins.
Jesus fulfils the contract in our place. (grace)
Our obligation to the contract is nullified. (forgiveness)
We get to heaven because of Jesus. (salvation)
Follow me now because here’s where the whole thing flies off the rails. Remember the question Paul asks in Romans 6?
Romans 6:1 NIV
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
Do you know what his answer is?
Romans 6:2 NIV
By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
Romans 6:15 NIV
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means!
Wait a minute! So, if this whole worldview is built on the premise that Jesus fulfills the contract in our place and we receive forgiveness and the contract is nullified, then why does is seem as though Paul is telling us the contract is still in place? Keep following me:
I define sin as individual acts of disobedience.
The Bible says repent and stop sinning.
I define repentance as stopping my sinful actions.
Result: I am still a slave to the law — that is, the contract is still in effect!
Paul says we are no longer under the law, but rather we are under grace.
This makes no sense whatsoever!
Exactly! That’s why this is not a biblical worldview. It is a worldview built upon an age-old heresy which does not come from the Bible. Sin is much deeper than a simple list of immoral behaviors. The goal is much deeper than heaven or hell. And so, the cross is not about a contract. Can we get that out of the way? Because the next step—the idea of the cross as a covenant—will never make sense until we clear out these other bad ideas.
Now then, let’s talk about covenant. The cross is about a covenant. here’s what Paul says:
Romans 3:21–26 NIV
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Jesus is presented as a sacrifice of atonement. Atonement for what? Atonement for sin. What is sin? Much deeper than a list of actions we commit. Sin is our nature; we are born with it. How does this atonement set us free? Does this atonement take away our sinful nature? NO. I think that’s obvious enough. Christians who accept the grace of God are obviously still sinners. We still have a sinful nature—and so we still commit acts of sin. Then what does the atonement take away? Answer: guilt. We are still born with a sinful nature. But what the cross takes away is the guilt of our sinful nature before a holy and perfect God.
And without the guilt of our sinful nature to stand in the way between us and God, the covenant can be restored. To put it more precisely, the covenant is reinstated.
What covenant am I talking about? I said before that heaven is not the goal. That is not a biblical worldview. Here is a biblical worldview. The Bible says that God has a plan of redemption which includes a new heaven and a new earth. God’s plan of redemption involves a new resurrection and new glorious bodies. God’s plan of redemption means turning us back into the fully-alive human beings that he created human beings to be. Not spiritually disembodied souls floating through some heavenly clouds somewhere else. Human beings, right here on earth—a restored and recreated earth—just as he created humans to be in the first place.
What covenant am I talking about? I’m talking about a kingdom vocation. Vocation is another word for our created purpose. For the very real earthly human activity that God designed and created us to do in the first place. Human activity that truly reflects the image of our creator—an image that still exists within us.
So, when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, he tells us to pray this, “May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It is a prayer that says this, “God, reinstate my kingdom vocation.” And THIS is exactly what the cross does!
Let’s take the bad (not)-biblical worldview and replace it with the correct biblical worldview.
Heaven is not the goal. Kingdom vocation is the goal. A redeemed and restored humanity that lives for the glory of God exactly as God intended for all eternity—that’s the goal.
Now then, if kingdom vocation is the goal, is sinful behavior still the problem? Why would the Bible tell us to stop sinning if this wasn’t a problem? If you’re tracking with me at all here, then hopefully this makes sense. When you and I forfeit our lives over to continually living in sinful behavior—to committing sins, then we cannot fulfill the kingdom vocation to which we have been reinstated through the cross. Are you seeing it now? Sin does not keep us from getting to heaven (which was never the goal anyway). Sin keeps us from living as the human beings that God has created us to be in the first place. It is a failure to keep our kingdom vocation.
Through the cross, the guilt of our sinfulness no longer stands in the way. Through the cross, you and I have been fully reinstated as the image-bearing human beings that God intends for us to be. Through the cross, God keeps his eternal covenant, and our kingdom vocation has been reinstated. Go ahead, try that worldview on for size. And by the way, it’s biblical. And by the way, it gives the church meaning and purpose in this world for what we do and how we do it. And by the way, it gives meaning to the cross—a meaning that affects who you are right now, right here, today.