A Living and Legally-Binding Relationship
There are many dimensions bound up with what it means to be a Christian. Its roots stretch back into eternity past, its experience is bound up with our existential present and its horizons take us into eternity future. It changes what we are in ourselves as we are united to Christ and, because of that same union; it will ultimately change what we shall be in the world to come, when God’s saving work in us is brought to completion (Php 1.6).
However, our day-to-day experience of life in Christ can often be turbulent. We are never consistent in our efforts to live for God. Our faith is sometimes strong and sometimes weak. We stray, we stumble and we sin. And there are times when we doubt – even to the point struggling over our assurance of faith and salvation.
All this is part and parcel of normal Christian living. It was the experience of the patriarchs, prophets and apostles and it has continued to be the experience of genuine believers through the centuries. But we are not left to face this roller-coaster ride of faith alone.
From the very outset God has made it clear that his promised salvation is not something we experience in isolation. It is not a ‘commodity’ that becomes ours through some independent action. It is always only something that is found in and through relationship. Not merely relationship on the vertical plane between God and us as sinners, but a relationship that is reinforced on the horizontal plane through our being brought into God’s family – fellow-believers there for our mutual support, encouragement and loving admonition, when that is needed.
So, as we explore the mother lode of teaching on salvation that runs all the way through the Bible, we cannot help but be struck by how it is developed and viewed from many different angles.
A key strand in this multifaceted doctrine is that of covenant – the binding relationship between God and man. Just as the fall, resulting in ‘paradise lost’, was in essence the breach of relationship between God and man through Adam’s disobedience, so salvation, ‘paradise regained’, hinges on that relationship’s being restored.
The concept of ‘covenant’ is in itself rich with significance and the Bible employs covenantal language in a range of ways. However, as we try to unpack what this language is intended to convey, it can be easy to emphasise one aspect of it at the expense of the other. So, for example, a great deal of interest in the theme of covenant has focused on the Ancient Near Eastern Suzerainty Treaties of the Hittites and other ancient civilizations. These highlight the forensic elements of these nation-relationships and how they help us understand the forensic dimensions of relationship with God restored in redemption.
However, the authors of Holy Scripture also reach for other expressions of covenant that were equally part of the cultures of their day and which – arguably to an even greater extent – provide a window into the one relationship that towers above all others. That is, the new relationship between God and his redeemed humanity.
So the most common expression of ‘covenant’ that surfaces in the unfolding message of the Bible is not that of ancient suzerains and their vassal-states; but, rather, that of holy wedlock. The marriage covenant surfaces repeatedly as the theological metaphor for the bond between God and his people. Two entire books in the Old Testament are built on the premise of marriage as it depicts how God and his people are bound together. Song of Songs explores it positively; while Hosea does so negatively. And, in the New Testament, the most exquisite portrayal of Christ and the church are expressed in terms of the unique relationship between a groom and his bride (Eph 5.22-33; Rev 19.1-9).
The fact that Scripture makes us think of our saving bond with God in this way is meant to underscore that this gracious covenant is both a ‘living and loving’ as well as a ‘legally-binding’ relationship.
Going back to the roller-coaster ride of the life of faith – at a corporate level in the church as much as for each of us individually as Christians – it is a huge encouragement to see the double-lock built in to the divine guarantee enshrined in the gospel. Just as marriage for any husband and wife will, by degrees, be a roller-coaster ride of faith in each other – but one that they survive because they know they are bound by solemn vows and promises, as much as by the bond of love – how much more in the marriage between Christ and his bride, the church.
Interestingly this same idea surfaces from a different angle, but still from within the perspective of family, in the Prologue to John’s Gospel. There, having announced the coming of Christ into the world and declared that the world did not recognise him and his own people – the Jews – did not receive him (Jn 1.10-11), John goes on to spell out what happens to those who do receive him by faith.
He says, ‘Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God’ (Jn 1.12-13). In many ways the language employed by the apostle takes us beyond what is conveyed by the use of marriage as an image of restored relationship. It takes the idea of ‘living and loving, and legally binding to a whole new level’.
On the one hand John is speaking about the new life found in Christ in terms of adoption: ‘to them he gave the right to become the children of God.’ This is a legal entitlement, underwritten by the Supreme Court of Heaven itself. It is inviolable – even by our most tragic failures as God’s adopted ones. The rights conferred cannot be revoked, because they are sealed in the Son par excellence – Jesus, who as God-man through his resurrection was declared to be God’s ‘Son’ in public affirmation of his work of redemption.
But our legal standing as Christians in this relationship is underpinned by something deeper: the living bond into which we are brought through regeneration. We are born again/from above through the Spirit of God. The death that was ours by nature has been exchanged for the life of God through his Spirit in union with his Son.
Human beings are complex creatures. We are multi-layered and multi-faceted. But God in his grace has taken all those complexities into consideration as he has crafted the great salvation provided through his Son. So, as we ride out the ups and downs of the Christian life, it is profoundly comforting to know we are ‘strapped in’ to our saving union with God through Christ by these two strands of our covenantal bond.