A Proposed Interpretation of Hebrews 9:15-22

“15Therefore He is the mediator of the New Covenant, so that those called for an eternal inheritance might receive the promise, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions committed under the first covenant. 16For where there is a covenant, it is necessary for the one making the covenant to proffer a death. 17For a covenant is secured by deaths, since it is never strong whilst the one making the covenant is alive.

         18Therefore not even the first covenant was established apart from blood. 19For after all the commandments had been spoken in accord with the Law by Moses to all the people, he, taking the blood of young-bulls and goats with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, sprinkled both the book and all the people. 20He did this saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” 21And both the tent and all the vessels used for ministering were likewise sprinkled with blood. 22Now it is almost the case that under the law everything is cleansed with blood, and apart from the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

 

The majority—if not all—of commentators understand a shift in these verses from the ‘covenants’ to the more specific form of a covenant known as a will (both the same word, διαθηκη, diathēkē). The problem, as I see it, is that the meticulous argumentation the author of Hebrews uses falls apart on this translation—the parallels drawn are purely verbal (a death occurs in both cases), not conceptual. Yet, there is another way to translate this verse. I suggest that the author is presupposing what he has established and what the OT and NT teach, that covenants require priestly sacrifices to cover the transgressions of their sinful participants (v. 15, 22): only if the sin problem is dealt with can the covenant be valid.

Why then is a death required to make the covenant secure? Because the sinful transgressions of the one side making the covenant require redemption. It is not that “wherever there is a will, the death of the one making it needs to be demonstrated”: the idea that we receive our inheritance because of a will, contingent upon the death of the one making the will, is not found elsewhere in Hebrews or in the Bible—our inheritance does not rest in the death of the one from whom we receive it but in Jesus Christ’s receiving of the inheritance through perfect obedience and our participation in His inheritance.

A better interpretation is to read διαθηκη (diathēkē) as ‘covenant’ and understand the genitive του διαθεμενου (tou diathemenou, “of the one making it”) not with θανατοv (thanaton, “death”) but αναγκη (anankē, “necessity”): where there is a covenant, “where there is a covenant, it is necessary for the one making the covenant to proffer a death.” That is, the one making a covenant needs to provide a sacrifice. Why? because “a covenant is secured by deaths”: notice the plural, the one making a will cannot die multiple times, but one making a covenant can slaughter many animals (v. 19). Why do we need the deaths of animals, or in this case Christ? Because “[the covenant] is never strong while the one making the covenant is alive”: if it was a covenant between God and God this would not be true, but in the case of finite and sinful men and women, every moment the human partner is alive, the covenant is in jeopardy! Any sin could snap the covenant, so it needs a sacrifice so that no matter the mistakes they make in their life, the covenant is upheld.

The logic then makes sense: why is a death necessary? because finite men and women necessitate it. Why can we, then, receive the promise? Because Jesus has died once for all time securing for us the forgiveness of sins and redeeming transgressions so that the New Covenant would be valid and secure in the place of the old.

Why The Title “Irresistible Grace” is a Misnomer that We Should Abandon

Calvinists today have started using the term Effectual Calling in the place of what older Calvinists called Irresistible Grace, this is probably a smart move for this latter term often conveys a false understanding of what is meant.

This is for various reasons, but I think Jonathan Edwards explained it best. In the first few chapters of his Freedom of the Will he defines the terms he will be using later in the book, one of the terms defined was Irresistible. With the words Necessity and Impossibility Edwards separated the colloquial (or proper/general) use of these words from the philosophical (or “arts”) use of the word. [1]

In common speech “irresistible” means that something will come to pass no matter how much one may resist it. It demands the possibility, even the necessity, of resistance in its very meaning. When a Calvinist says that they believe in Irresistible Grace the natural tendency is for one to assume that the person will come to Christ against their will, it is a grace forced upon someone that batters down all resistance and leads inevitably to salvation. While some Calvinists have taught Irresistible Grace in this manner, this is not a good description of what the Bible teaches, nor of how most Calvinists present the Biblical teaching.

Effectual Calling bi-passes this unfortunate misunderstanding by using language that accurately reflects what Calvinists mean when they speak of Irresistible Grace; it is a calling made by God to His elect that will always be effective, it will never fail to bring about the end of saving faith.

Irresistible Grace is useful as part of the mnemonic acronym TULIP, it is useful as a tool for teaching the basics of what Calvinists call the Doctrines of Grace; but this pro is dramatically outweighed by the con of inaccuracy. The Calvinist understanding of Scripture is already misunderstand by many, some within its own camp, and we should do our best to describe it in a way the best conveys the true essence of the doctrine, even if it is less memorable.

Some may still think; if the Effectual Call brings around a certain effectual result, doesn’t this also in its name imply the very issue that Irresistible Grace does; if our response to God’s call is guaranteed then we are not free in expressing faith but are coerced.

As I have studied the Doctrines of Grace I have come to realize that one of the foundational differences between Arminianism and Calvinism is a disagreement between what it means to be free; they both take a different position on what it means for mankind to make meaningful choices for which a man or woman can be held responsible.[2] See the glossary from my paper on Hell here for further definitions, but in a nut-shell; Calvinists conclude from the testimony of Scripture that the outcomes of a choice can be rendered certain (determined any time in the past) and yet we still are rightly held responsible for our choices and they are meaningful choice (some, like Edwards, call this freedom, others, like Luther, reject the word freedom because of its predominate association with Incompatibilism), this position is called Compatibilism (Determinism—the rendering certain of future choices—is compatible with humans making meaningful choices for which they are responsible); Arminians assume[3] from the start that to be free we must have the freedom to choose from alternatives, we must be able to choose option A or Not-A at all times; this is a position called Incompatibilism, which says that determination is incompatible with meaningful human choices—i.e. if the outcome of a choice is rendered certain then that choice was not free. Whereas the term Irresistible Grace implies coercion, which both positions agree negates free choices, the term Effectual Call refers to the end result being guaranteed; this is something that Calvinists understand to be completely compatible with meaningful human choices for which we can be held responsible.

 

Irresistible Grace is a misnomer not just because of this confusion over terminology, but also because it doesn’t quite capture the essence of the doctrine as well as Effectual Call; what exactly do Calvinist’s mean when they speak of Irresistible Grace or the Effectual Call?

The “I” in TULIP states that God will work a change in the hearts of His elect people so that they will no longer hate Him and reject His reality—which they are suppressing in their unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18-32)—but joyfully and willingly respond to His general call brought through the preaching of the Gospel.[4] The Effectual Call is God’s regenerating work in the hearts of His elect people that overcomes their depraved nature with the creation of a new heart and without fail brings them to saving faith.

In Romans 8:28-30 Paul writes to the Romans about God’s work in His people, he promises that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”[5] The reason Paul confidently writes that we know this is because (οτι, hoti; for, v. 29) everyone whom God foreknew He also predestined for salvation, [6] and this same group—that is everyone whom He first foreknew and then predestined to become conformed to Chris—He will call, and everyone in who is called in this sense will respond (30). This call is cannot be the general call delivered to all mankind through the preaching of the Gospel (cf. Matt. 22:14), for we know that not everyone responds in saving faith; this is  different call which ensures a salvific response, what Calvinist’s call the effectual call.

One of the many verses (cf. John 3 for another example) Calvinists use to defend this doctrine and to suggest that this call is regeneration is John 6:44-46. Here Jesus responds to grumbling of the Jews about what He has been teaching (that He is the bread of life), He responds; “44“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.45“It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me.””[7] In this text Jesus says that it is necessary for God to draw someone if they are to come to Him, he then goes on to explain what exactly this “draw” entails. First He says that all who are drawn will be resurrected on the last day, the context implies not just a general resurrection to either Heaven or Hell but a salvific resurrection; they will be glorified. This indicates that not all are being drawn, especially since Jesus gives this explanation to explain why some Jews do not believe, and that everyone who is drawn will effectually respond in saving faith (which is the only way anyone will be glorified, for we are saved by faith) (v. 44c). Jesus then goes on to explain what this drawing is from an Old Testament text, the verse in question is Isaiah 54:13. This is a promise of the New Covenant, specifically a promise of the new hearts given to those under the New Covenant. Under the Old Covenant Israel had an issue, they were a mixed community; within the Covenant community there was a remnant that was regenerate, that is they obeyed God, but the majority of Israel was made up of covenant breakers, that is; those who did not keep God’s covenant with them. As early as Deuteronomy we see the need for a change, the need for what will later be called the Covenant of Peace or the New Covenant. In Deuteronomy 29:5 we read that the Lord had not yet given the people a heart to believe and follow Him, in 30:6 Moses speaks of a time when God will circumcise the hearts of the Israelites in order that they may obey Him; they needed this circumcision of their hearts because they were unable on their own to be obedient, they were depraved. Throughout the rest of the New Testament we see various promises of a New Covenant in which every member of the Covenant would be enabled to obey God by the gift of a new heart; they all would be taught by God, God’s law would be written on their hearts and minds, they would have new and circumcised hearts (Jeremiah 31:33-34, Ezekiel 36:22-38, and Isaiah 54; cf. Hebrews 8); these prophecies all find their culmination in the regeneration experienced by all New Testament believers. On the cross Jesus ushered in this New Covenant (Luke 22:20). Jesus hear in John 6:45 is saying that the drawing of the Father is this New Covenant promise of regeneration and that everyone who has received this drawing, that is all that have “heard and learned from the Father,” will come to Him. This calling is effectual and it ensures a willing response of faith to the Gospel; in this text (including its greater context starting at v.22) God’s sovereignty in salvation, both Unconditional Election and the Effectual Call, are held up side-by-side with a willing response of faith to the Gospel; they are held up side-by-side but Jesus nor John sees a contradiction.

 

This is what Calvinists mean when they speak of Irresistible Grace, but it is much better represented by the term The Effectual Call. The Effectual Call is God’s regenerating work in the hearts of His elect people that overcomes their depraved nature with the creation of a new heart and without fail brings them to saving faith. And it would be wise for use, with Jonathan Edwards, to abandon the language of Irresistibility and use more accurate language of Effectual.


[1] See Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications, 2012), 12–13. The whole chapter discusses the definitions, but these pages deal explicitly with “irresistible.”

[2] I demonstrate this assertion from various Arminian works in a large paper and/or book that I am currently working on and hope to finish by the end of the year.  In it I attempt to show as part of my larger argument—from books such as Arminian Theology, Classical Arminianism, Against Calvinism, and Chosen But Free—that an a-priori commitment to Incompatibilist Free Will leads inevitably to an Arminian theology and forms a foundational presupposition to their worldview and arguments.

[3] I know some will be offended by this choice of words, but most Arminians I read are unashamed of this presuppositions; see my upcoming paper/book on Prevenient Grace for a defense and explication of my view that this assumption is foundational to Arminian theology and can only be proven from the Bible if you first assume it (even then I would argue, and do in that paper, that you are forced to read the text in unnatural ways to accommodate this assumption).

[4] There are few different positions on what this specific call is, but the position I take is that it is regeneration. For an explanation of this position see; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press ; Zondervan, 1994), 699–706.

[5] NASB

[6] for the progression of our conformity to Christ starting with the legal declaration of our justification, progressing through the Spirit’s work of sanctification making us holy in nature, and concluding in glorification when our sanctification will be completed and we will sin no longer. See v.28-39.

[7] This is from the NASB translation, for my full exegesis of this passage see my upcoming paper/book on prevenient grace.

Free to Serve and Walk in the Spirit: How Paul’s Address of Legalism and License Applies to us Today

From Galatia in the 1st century AD to Vancouver BC in the 21st century, the tendrils of Legalism have lingered in the Church and have never been fully eradicated. In response to cultural pressures, the influence of other religions, or bad teaching, segments of the Church have brought themselves back under the law and bound their members with the slavery of an unattainable standard of moral perfection and cultural isolation. This extreme has led to exclamations such as, “Christianity is just a set of Rules!” and “Christians exist to take all the fun out of life!”

On the other end of the spectrum is the plague of license. Legalism tries to force adherence to a moral standard for righteousness and relationship with God, whereas license says that freedom in Christ means freedom to do whatever we want. Those taking freedom from the law for granted with license decry all rules as legalistic restraint and even reject the need for repentance before God, confusing the true nature of the Christian life and neglecting the need for sanctification. The apostolic church in the first millennium dealt with these extremes as we do today, Paul in particular wrote strongly against both legalism and license and fought for a biblical balance that put the law in its right place while calling for conformity to Christ in thinking and action. In Corinth Paul was forced to address incestuous and unrestrained sexual immorality and arrogance that took advantage of grace at the cost of the conscience of weaker brothers. In the province of Galatia false teachers demanded obedience to the entirety of the Jewish law for all Gentile believers, in doing so returning to the slavery of the law and demanding works in addition to faith for righteousness. In Thessalonica a minority of believers took advantage of the nearness of Christ’s return to languish in sloth and become busybodies preying on the generosity of their brethren.

Paul cried out against these misunderstandings and, like an expert surgeon, cut into their misconceptions with the scalpel of the true Gospel, cutting away the cancerous disease and attempting to restore health to the churches. We, with our propensity to act like the Galatians or the Corinthians, can desperately use the Holy Spirit inspired wisdom of Paul to shatter the slavery of legalism and rein the chaos of license. Towards this end let us delve into the depths of Paul’s apostolic wisdom, seeing how he addresses the legalism of Galatia and licentious behavior in all three early Churches. Then, equipped with this understanding, we can ascertain the application of this wisdom for our contemporary setting.

 

Legalism

For Paul, the legalism in Galatia was a significant issue; it threatened the heart of the Gospel. Paul rebuked Peter for encouraging this behavior at Antioch (2:11-14) and in his letter he called for those who preached this other Gospel to be accursed, to be damned to hell (Gal. 1:6-9). Speaking of Judaizers in Jerusalem, Paul calls them spies who infiltrated the Church for the purpose of bring slavery to Christians (Gal. 2:4). Paul goes as far as associating the legalism at Galatia with a return to the Galatians’ pagan past, for them to turn away from faith alone and accept slavery to the law was for them to turn back “again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Gal. 4:9). [1] It was enough of a danger that it scared Paul into thinking that his labor for the Gospel to the Galatians was in vain (Gal 4:11). For the Galatians to embrace obedience to the law as a requirement for right standing before God was a serious issue for Paul and it should be for us too.

Applying the Cross

Paul, in addressing this issue, seems to have taken two major approaches to confront the Galatians; the first was an application of the truth of the Cross. In Galatians 2:15-21 Paul brings the reality of the Cross to bear on the heart of the issue; how we may be justified before God. In vv. 15-16 Paul explains that even he, born as a Jew, knew that only by faith in Christ may a man be justified. He moves forward with his argument in a way he often does (cf. Rom. 6:1-2); he asks a question and then answers it himself with the emphatic “may it never be!” [2] Through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross the Galatians had died to the Law and were now living for God. To try and rebuild what had been torn down, to pursue righteousness in the law, [3] would not gain them a right standing before God, instead it would make them transgressors (2:18). In their union with Christ they had died to the law when Christ fulfilled the requirements of the law on their behalf (2:19-20). Christ died ending the need for the law; if they went back to it, His death would be purposeless (2:21). Paul’s application of the Cross for the Galatians legalism was to say that Christ died, and they with Him; His death meant an end to the law and to go back was to reject His death and become a transgressor.

In 3:10-14 Paul argues from the Cross in much the same way. Paul first shows from Scripture that it is impossible to attain righteousness through the law, for it requires absolute obedience; anyone who failed to live up to the Law’s impossibly high demands would find themselves cursed (3:10). He argues further that the OT argues that in fact faith is the way that the righteous shall live (3:11); this means that the law does not bring righteousness, for following the law is not living by faith but living by the law (3:12). This is where the Cross comes in; Paul argues that Christ bore their curse—the curse they had for transgressing the Law—on the Cross enabling the Galatians to receive Abraham’s blessings through faith (3:13-14). Paul here shows the foolishness of Legalism, for the law never brought righteousness; only by faith in Christ, the one who bore the curse of the law in our stead, could we attain righteousness. Paul shows that to abandon Christ is to abandon any hope for right relationship with God; to turn to the law is to abandon the Cross, and to abandon the Cross is to subject ourselves to the unbearable demand of the law.

 

Applying the True Nature of the Law

The second major way that Paul addresses the Galatians’ legalism is by showing what the true nature of the law is. For the Galatians to trust the law as a means of gaining right standing before God was to fundamentally misunderstand the whole purpose of the law; Paul argues that the law was not in fact meant to bring life, it was meant to imprison everything under sin until the Jesus came (3:21-22). With the coming of Jesus the law was no longer needed, for it fulfilled its purpose. Paul describes the law as a guardian, a παιδαγῶγος (paidagōgos), which kept us until Christ came, “in order that we might be justified by faith” (3:24). Legalism fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the law, it was never meant to bring life but to point towards the one who would once and for all bring life to all who put their faith in Him. With the coming of Christ the tutor was no longer needed.

Paul further argues that the under a guardian a heir is like a slave, but once the date set by his father comes he becomes a son and no longer needs his guardian. The law kept the Galatians under its guard till Christ came and they were adopted as sons; no longer were they needing the law as a guardian, for they were not slaves but sons (4:1-7). Paul argues this point further, illustrating from Hagar and Sarah how the law was of the Old Covenant and the Galatians are of the New Covenant; the Old Covenant led to slavery under the law, but the New Covenant was of a totally different nature, it was free from the law of the Old Covenant (4:21-31). Paul concludes this argument by powerfully writing; “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1).

Paul sees legalism as a massive affront to the Gospel and breaks apart the fallacious reasoning of the false teachers in Galatia; the law was a guardian that has passed with the coming of Christ and on His cross he bore the curse of the law freeing the Galatians from its obligations and bringing justification on the basis of faith in Him alone.

 

License

When addressing the problem of license, Paul saw it as no less of a threat to the Gospel than legalism. In 1 Corinthians he uses the example of the Israelites struck down in the desert as an example of the seriousness of Idolatry (10:6-11) and he calls for a man to be excommunicated from the church on the ground of living in serious unrepentant sin (5:2-5). [4] Paul addresses the issue of license in a myriad of ways, but it seems as if these different ways can be gathered and examined under four heads; he applies the work of Christ on the cross to get at the heart of the problem, he shows the seriousness of sin from character of God, he charges the church with the task of bringing discipline so as to encourage those in the faith to walk in a way that accords with the Spirit, and then there is a smattering of other ways the issue is addressed in 2 Thessalonians and Corinthians that can be examined together.

 

Applying the Cross

The old city of Corinth was notorious for being a hotbed of immorality and idolatry, from the state of the church that Paul planted it seems like Corinth in the 1st century was not much better. [5] When Paul came and saw many converted, remnants of this old life lingered in the Church. It faced the challenges of a false sense of spirituality, one that placed knowledge above love (1 Cor. 8:1), and continued indulgence in sin, this time on the grounds of Christian freedom. Some of the many ways Paul addressed these issues was to bring the truth of the Cross to bear on the Corinthians thinking. The first way he did this was to call for a new way of living on the basis of the Cross. In 1 Cor. 5:1-8 Paul argues from an analogy of leaven. After calling for the Corinthians to cleanse out the old leaven, the unrepentant immoral man who was corrupting the entire church (5:1-5), he then speaks of Christ crucified; he calls them new unleavened bread because Christ—continuing the analogy by calling him “our Passover lamb” (5:7)—was sacrificed. Because they were new they were no longer the old leavened bread but now unleavened bread, they were to put away the deeds of the old, malice and evil, and take up the deeds of the new, sincerity and truth (5:8).

In chapter 6 he goes on to use the cross to tear down their misconception of Christian freedom. The Corinthians rightly understood that they were no longer under the law, so all things were lawful (6:12), but what they took this to mean was that they could indulge in the desires of the flesh. Paul argues that in fact they were not to take advantage of their freedom in this way; they were instead to glorify God in the body. The truth was that Christ on the Cross had purchased them by His blood, they had been bought with a price (6:20). Being bought by Christ, they were no longer their own; they were God’s and because they were His they were to glorify Him in their bodies (6:20). The specific application for them in this passage was to flee sexual immorality; living in immorality did not honor God.

Later, in 8:1-13, Paul addresses those who were arrogant in knowledge and used their freedom at the expense of their brothers. Paul argues that Christ died for those in His Church (8:11) and if someone caused his brother to stumble, he was actually sinning against Christ who shed His blood for the weaker brother. In the situation at hand, some Corinthians had the knowledge that idols were not real, that they had no existence (8:4-5), but others were not there yet in their faith (8:7). This knowledge caused the ones who had it to be puffed up and to not act in love. The way they expressed this knowledge was to participate in pagan religious practices by eating in the temple of Idol’s, weaker brothers were having their conscience destroyed by the encouragement to participate that they received from the “stronger” brothers (8:9-10). Paul’s concluding application is that love comes before rights, the stronger brother is to lay aside his rights (perceived or real) for the sake of not causing his brother to stumble (8:11-12).

The last application Paul makes of the Cross against license, in this case the potential of it, is found in his letter to Galatia. Near the conclusion of his letter Paul writes that the freedom the Galatians have in Christ is not an excuse for living according to the flesh, instead it was a chance to serve one another through love (Gal. 5:13). Here Paul shows that Christian living is neither legalism nor license; instead our freedom is freedom to serve. He then goes on to establish the new life the Galatians have in the Spirit, how living in the Spirit will mean that they will not use their freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. To walk in the Spirit is antithetical to walking in the flesh, walking in the flesh comes with it all sorts of sinful behaviors but walking in the Spirit brings characteristics of conformity to Christ (5:16-23). In verse 24 Paul brings the Cross to bear on the situation at hand; all who belong to Christ have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24). [6] Believers in their freedom cannot live according the flesh, for in Christ they have died to the flesh and are now living by the Spirit; they are to walk by the Spirit, in accord with the new life they have with Christ.

 

Applying the Character of God and the Seriousness of Idolatry

In applying the cross to licentious behavior, Paul calls for right living on the basis of the work and reality ushered in by the Cross. Elsewhere Paul takes a more negative approach in giving a strong warning against license on the basis of both God’s nature and the seriousness of sin.

In 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, in the midst of Paul’s long argument against idolatry in the Corinthian church, Paul calls to mind the terrifying example of the Israelites in the wilderness, where they were overthrown by God for their sin (10:5). Paul calls to mind 4 circumstances where God punished Israel for their sins. There was the time when, in idolatry, they “sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play” (1 Cor. 10:7, cf. Ex. 32:1-6). At another time 23,000 were struck down in one day for sexual immorality (1 Cor. 10:8, cf. Num. 25:1-9). They put God to the test and were destroyed by serpents (1 Cor. 10:9, cf. Num. 21). Finally, they grumbled and “were destroyed by the Destroyer” (1 Cor. 10:10, cf. Num. 14). All of these incidents with ancient Israel show how seriously God takes sin, and Paul writes that they serve as instruction for the Corinthians (1 Cor. 10:11) who are now in the new eschatological reality ushered in by the Cross (1 Cor. 10:11). God does not take sin in His covenant people lightly, it needs to be dealt with; the nature of God and the relationship that the Corinthians had with Him provided a powerful motivation for pursuing holy living. Idolatry and immorality are not fitting for God’s New Covenant people just as much as it was not fitting for His Old Covenant people.

In the rest of 1Corinthians 10, vv. 14-22, Paul continues arguing against idolatry from the nature of God and nature of the Church. Arguing from communion and the nature of the body Paul establishes that that everyone in the Church makes up the body of Christ, the grounds of our unity in Christ is that we all participate in His body through partaking of one bread (10:16-17). Drawing from the nature of the Lord’s Supper and from Israelite sacrifice (10:16-18), Paul argues that to partake of food offered to idols in the temples is to participate with demons (10:19-21), who are behind the idols (10:20). Paul writes that one cannot participate both with demons and the Lord; it is an either or. The reason is that God is jealous, He will not tolerate others in His place; to participate in the table of demons is to provoke His jealousy (10:22). To do this is to challenge God, and He is stronger (10:22). Paul’s address here concludes his argument against Idolatry that started earlier in the letter. They are not to participate in idolatrous meals in pagan temples for this will arouse the jealousy of God and He takes sin in His covenant people seriously; therefore they must take heed and watch themselves lest they fall (10:12). [7]

 

The Church’s Participation in Combating License

The character of God reveals the profound contradiction between living in the Spirit, as God’s covenant people, and living in the flesh, indulging in its desires. Paul understood the power of temptation and the appeals of the flesh as well as the danger of unrepentant sin for both the local church and for the individual who was committing it. Knowing the power and danger of license, Paul commissioned the Church to practice discipline, so as to cleanse itself (1 Cor. 5:6-7) and to save the souls of the ones involved in it (1 Cor. 5:5).

In 1 Corinthians Paul calls for Church discipline to curb license in a specific circumstance and in a broader application. In 5:1-8 Paul addresses the situation of a man involved in gross immorality, this man in the church was committing adultery with his step-mother (5:1). The Corinthians church was not just tolerating this unrepentant sin; they were actually being arrogant in their acceptance of the man (5:2, 6). [8] The church was to be a light in the darkness, yet they were boasting in sin that even the pagan Roman culture around them rejected (5:1)! Paul corrects there serious misconception of spirituality, he writes that instead of boasting they are to mourn (5:2) and calls for the removal of the incestuous man (5:2, 7). He calls for the Corinthian church, when assembled, to deliver with the power of their Lord Jesus the man to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh” (5:5). The intent behind this act of excommunication is not to damn the man, but to restore him; it is done so that “his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (5:5). When Paul speaks of the “destruction of the flesh” he has something positive in view, the intent of excommunication is to see the fleshly nature destroyed in order that the man may be welcomed back into the church. [9] In this circumstance, Paul’s answer to extreme license was to call for the Church’s intervention in Excommunication.

In the rest of chapter 5, vv. 9-13, Paul moves from a specific call for the excommunication of this man to a call for the purging of all “who [bear] the name of brother” yet are guilty of unrepentant immorality (or any number of other serious unrepentant sin) (5:11). Paul clarifies here that he is not calling for the Corinthians to cut themselves off from all sinners, for they would “need to go out of the world” (5:10). He is referring specifically to those who call themselves brothers, who participate in church, but walk in rebellion against the new life they are supposed to be pursuing (5:9-12). He calls them to renounce all association with these men, they are not even to eat with them (5:11); [10] as a new community in Christ they are to purge this evil from inside them (5:13) so that the entire church is not corrupted (5:6). Though there is no mention of restoration here, it would be consistent with the rest of Paul’s teaching on discipline—especially the excommunication of the incestuous man earlier in the context (5:1-8)—for this to be the end in sight with the disassociation.

As in these circumstances, Paul also calls for the church’s participation in addressing the issue of license in his second letter to the Thessalonians. In this letter one of the two issues he addresses is that of idle busybodies in the church; those who have taken advantage of the generosity of the rest of the Church and become slothful, not just refraining from work but also actively meddling (2 Thess. 3:11). As well as exhorting them directly in the Lord to follow Paul’s example of working not to be a burden, Paul also calls for the all of the Thessalonians to take note of and separate from all who did not obey the instructions Paul gives in the letter. They are to have nothing to do with them so that they “may be ashamed” (5:14). Paul clarifies in v. 15 that in having nothing to do with them they are not to regard them as enemies, but they are to warn them as brothers.

Various other Ways Paul Combats License in the Church

Paul spent time in both the cities of Thessalonica and Corinth, and when he was there the way he lived set an example for the churches. In both cities he did not take advantage of all the rights available to him, instead he lived by the labor of his own hand, rejecting his right to make a living, and surrendered his right to take along a believing wife (1 Cor. 9:3-12, 2 Thess. 3:7-9).

In Corinth Paul surrendered his rights so that no obstacle would be laid in the path of the Gospel (9:10). The Corinthians were abusing what they thought was their right to eat at temples (8:1-13); this was how they thought to use the freedom they now had in Christ. Paul, from his own actions, shows that in God’s kingdom one’s own desires are not the highest end. The motivation he gives for surrendering his rights in this passage, which would set an example for the Corinthians, was his pursuit of eschatological rewards (9:18). He could have taken what he had a right to, but this would have left him with no reward. He was bound by necessity to preach the Gospel, it was his stewardship and therefore this task brought him no reward (9:15-18). But by preaching the Gospel free of charge and by denying his other rights so that the Gospel would spread unobstructed, Paul brings himself a reward in the final day. By following his example in surrendering rights for the sake of the Gospel the Corinthians too could earn eschatological reward.

In Thessalonica, a group of believers were taking advantage of their brothers by not working and preying on the generosity of the church (2 Thess. 3:10-12). To address this issue, Paul recalls his behavior in Thessalonica and the example he set. He gave up his rights to earn a living from his labor so that he might give an example (3:8-10); he toiled and labored that he might support himself and not be a burden to the Thessalonians (3:8). Here, as in 1 Corinthians, Paul sets the example of laying aside his right for the sake of the Gospel and for the sake of his brothers (3:9). The application for the Thessalonian idle was to get their act together and imitate Paul in not being a burden, but working to earn their own living (3:12).

The last way that Paul addresses license in these churches is by establishing the proper end for all Christian actions. In Corinth the members of the church were looking out for themselves first, they were taking advantage of their freedom to fulfill their desires. Paul addresses this issue from various angles, establishing a proper model for approaching Christian living as free from the law, in 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1. Here Paul takes another look at the Corinthian slogan “All things are lawful” (10:23) and addresses the issue of food offered to idols for the last time. Whereas before he has forbidden the Corinthians from partaking of meals offered to idols in the temples, he here explains that a Christian has the right to eat food that may have been offered to idols that he has purchased from the meat markets (10:25). It is not an issue for one’s conscience, for “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (10:26). The Corinthians had thought that eating in the temples was their right, but it was not (10:22); therefore they were not to do it, both because of their God (10:22) and their brothers (8:13). Here, when it is food from the market, they are legitimately in the right to eat meat (10:25), but here a greater principle tempers their eating. They are free to eat, unless it will infringe upon the conscience of someone else (10:29). Paul flips the attitude of the Corinthians on its head; instead of using their freedom to pursue their own desires everyone was not to “seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (10:24). Instead of using their freedom to do what they desired, they were to use their freedom to serve one another; though they were allowed to partake of meat from the market, they were to refrain when it would cause another’s consciences to be wounded (10:28-29). They were right not to feel wounded in conscience when they ate of the meat (10:30), but they were to give up their right for the sake of the good of their neighbor (10:24, 28-29). Concluding this exhortation, Paul points to his own behavior and the overarching principle for Christian living. In all they do, refraining or consuming, the Corinthians were to “do all to the glory of God” (10:31). This meant giving no offense other than that which the Cross carried intrinsically; the Gospel is offensive, but the Corinthians were not to add unnecessary offence to their message and witness. As Paul, imitating Christ (11:1), surrendered his own rights for the sake of the many, that they may be saved (10:33), so should the Corinthians imitate him in giving up their own rights that in all things God may be glorified (10:31) and unbelievers may be saved (10:33).

 

Synthesis and Application

Working through all that Paul has to say about legalism and license in these early churches, it becomes apparent that neither license nor legalism is a simple or light issue. Each extreme is incredibly unhealthy for the Church universal and local, and for the individual souls that make up Christ’s body. They are deadly serious, and sneak in to Christian thinking through a myriad of doors. Because of the multi-faceted nature of these dangerous traps, Paul wisely attacked the problems from various angles. He did not just apply a universal bandage that fixed the problem in the same way every time; knowing the complexity of human sinfulness and the many ways that legalism and license could enter in, Paul attacks the issues from different angles depending on the situations of his various congregations. We would do well to heed his approach and address these issues when they appear in our hearts and in our churches according to the particular form in which they arise. That being said, Paul gives us a grid of theological principles that can be applied in these situations and examples of how they are to be applied.

 

Diagnosing These Diseases and Establishing the Positive Approach

Before looking at specific ways that we can apply Paul’s principles to our contemporary circumstances, it may be helpful to rehash the specific forms of legalism and license that Paul was addressing and to establish the positive attitudes that Paul was presenting for the churches to have.

In the Gospels Jesus addresses a form of legalism that raises human tradition and human rules to the same plane as God’s revelation in Scripture, [11] but this is not the same legalism that Paul is dealing with. In his letter to the Galatians Paul is dealing with a legalism that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the law and neglects the unique place Christians have in redemptive-history. This legalism calls for complete devotion to the stipulations of the Sinaitic law in addition to faith for right standing before God; it brings Christians once again under the painful slavery of the law and neglects the freedom we have in Christ—the freedom we have because of Christ’s life and blood fulfilling the law in our place and erasing the curse we had for our transgressions against the law.

The license that Paul addressed was not that which Judaizers would have identified, it is not Christians living free from the food regulations and not practicing the days of the Law. The license Paul rejected was a selfish disregard for ones neighbors, a flippant dismissal of God’s absolute holiness, and a misunderstanding of the new reality we live in as those united with Christ and those living in relationship with God through His new covenant with us.

The answer to legalism was never a complete disregard for holiness, but a true understanding of the Cross and the renewal of the mind (Rom.12:1-2). Paul in these early letters establishes, by addressing the circumstances of the churches, the positive attitude Christians should take toward the law and towards their freedom. In his letter to the Galatians Paul makes it clear that Christians are no longer in slavery to the law, the tutor is no longer needed. Because of Christ on the Cross we have died to the law, its demands have been satisfied and we are to live on the basis of faith and faith alone. We do not work for right standing before God in any way; our standing comes solely on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the forgiveness we receive because He bore our curse in our place. Even the faith we express is not a work on our part that earns us anything, for—from the testimony of the rest of Scripture—we understand that faith itself is a gift given to us by God and the will to express it is something that the Spirit wrought in our heart.

The answer to license was never the Law; for where the law was, sin abounded all the more (Rom. 5:20, 7:1-13). The answer to license is the new attitude wrought by the Spirit in our hearts; as believers in covenant relationship with God and united together in one body in Christ we are called not to pursue the sinful desires of our old self, but to imitate Christ in pursuing the fullness of life in the Spirit and surrendering our rights for the sake of those for whom Christ died. We are to understand that sin is in utter contrast with who we are in Christ, we have been set apart as a people for God; a God who is profoundly holy and accepts no idols in His place. We are to walk in the Spirit as we have in Christ crucified the old self; its deeds no longer have a place in our lives. And we are to do all things for the glory of God, putting the good of others before our own good so that in all things God may receive the glory and so that our brothers, for whom Christ shed His precious blood, may not be caused to stumble.

 

Applying Paul’s Cures to our Contemporary Illness

For every theological principle that Paul applies to the churches in Galatia, Corinth, and Thessalonica, there are innumerable contemporary applications; to catalogue every one would be an unimaginably large task, but by applying what Paul taught to a couple of contemporary circumstances we can get a feel for how Paul’s practical theological address of legalism and license functions in our church today.

 

The address of legalism in the local church, as Paul did with the Church in Galatia, requires a return to the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone and an examination of our place in redemptive-history; this task in many churches can be a long and bloody battle of reformation. A more subtle form of legalism, of the kind Paul was addressing, is the one that seeps into our souls and leads us to judge our relationship to God on the basis not of Christ’s work but on the basis of our own faithfulness.

It is this kind of thinking that leads us to view ourselves as being in a superior place over our peers on the basis of our external conformity to holiness and finds us boasting in our own righteousness; here we neglect the truth that God’s love for us, and our relationship to Him, has never been on the basis of our actions. It has only ever been because He came to us and has worked to bring us into relationship with Him solely on the grounds of His sovereign mercy.

This is the kind of thinking that also has us fleeing from the presence of God because of our unrighteous actions; this is not the expression of healthy guilt, but the legalistic deception that God will withdraw from us and become unreachable because we have sinned against Him. Here again our works become the basis of our relationship to the Father.

The way to address this personal form of legalistic thinking is the same way that Paul addressed it on the corporate scale in the Galatian Church; a judicial application of the truth of Christ’s work on the Cross. For the Galatians the false teachers had sown the seeds of legalism; they had taught them that even in the New Covenant they were required to obey the minutia of the law, to fail to do so meant separation from God. No longer was it grace through faith alone, but faith and works together earning righteousness and relationship with God. The answer for them and for us today is the Cross of Christ.

On the Cross, Christ bore our curse and freed us from the unattainable standard of the Law (Gal. 3:10-14). By our union with Christ we have died to law and depend on Christ, and Him alone, for righteousness (Gal. 3:15-21). As Paul asked the Galatians, we must ask ourselves; “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh” (Gal. 3:4)? Therefore, we cannot boast in our external righteousness for this is no indicator of our closeness with God; we were brought into relationship with Him solely by His work, His love was shown in its fullness towards us on the Cross when He gave His son in order that we may live and be a people unto His name in relationship with Him. Our boast is found in Christ and Him alone, the minute we boast in our achievement we must preach to ourselves the Gospel once again; we were worthless sinners, but at that time Christ came and died, bearing my curse, and He brought me into a right relationship with God. When we beat ourselves up and run from God because of our sinful actions we must again preach ourselves the Gospel; if God loved me enough while I was drowning in the mire of my own sins to send His sin to die and give me His righteousness with no work performed on my part, how can I think that my sins today will change that situation?

 

License in our hearts and in our churches manifests itself in many ways; we may be able to get a feel for Paul’s practical theology in this area by applying his teaching to the circumstances of a hypothetical believer. Believer A has been attending a local church for almost 4 years now; he has been baptized and confessed Jesus Christ as the Lord and Saviour in His life. He desires to enter into leadership in the church, but under the guise of freedom from the law this man has been engaged in frequent sexual immorality both in the community outside the church and at times with members of the Congregation. This has continued for 4 years and shows no sign of abating. The application of Paul’s teaching will have to be done carefully, but he provides many principles that can be brought to bear here.

The first is the action of the church, in a situation like this it is appropriate—both for the health of Believer A and the congregation—to bring church discipline to bear on the individual. Discipline in this situation may be akin to what Paul called for against the incestuous believer in Corinth. The eldership team, or a specific representative, would approach and inform the man that on the basis of his activity he is no longer free to participate in fellowship with the church until he takes actions toward repentance and seeks change in his life. In doing this the eldership of the church would make it clear that they will aid the man in finding victory over sin in his life if he is willing to take action against it, but until he is willing to change his behavior he is no longer welcome. This excommunication from the church gathered may also involve instruction to the church as individual people to disassociate with the man until he takes steps to change his behavior. These are the actions the church may, and in this situation should, take to work towards this man’s restoration, but what is also needed is teaching on the proper attitude a Christian should take toward their freedom.

From this angle, the approach Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6 and Galatians 5 would be appropriate. First, Believer A must be confronted with the truth of who God is and the nature of his unity with Him; God is a holy and jealous God who has purchased this man by His blood, and this man is united with Christ by his faith. To partake of sexual immorality is to dishonor the God who purchased Him and to bring Christ into illicit sexual union; it is sin against the Holy God Himself. God takes sin seriously, and if the man thinks he is standing before God he must take heed lest he falls (1 Cor. 10:12). The nature of the God with whom that man is in relationship with is enough to encourage abstinence from sexual immorality.

Paul’s teaching on the nature of the Christian life in Galatians 5 also needs to be brought bear on the situation; Paul shows that freedom from the law is not freedom for the flesh, but freedom to live by the Spirit. Living in the Spirit is antithetical to live in the flesh, and in Christ we have crucified the flesh. Believer A cannot claim to be in Christ and yet not manifest the fruit that this life brings. He is to be encouraged to walk in the Spirit, something only the Spirit can bring about, in conformity with the new eschatological reality he is in; New Covenant believers are filled with the Holy Spirit and by His work are being conformed to the image of Christ, they have crucified the flesh and are to work out in the present their future eschatological salvation which they will receive in glory.

From what Paul teaches through his epistle to the Galatians, his first epistle to the Corinthians, and his second epistle to the Thessalonians, we see the deadly seriousness of the License and Legalism in the Christian life. In accord with how he addressed these issues we must bring to bear on our hearts the truth of Christ’s crucifixion, the nature of our Holy God, and the truth of the present eschatological reality within which we find ourselves as believers in union with Christ and having the foretaste of eschatological salvation in our present sanctification. Let us therefore humbly walk in freedom from the law by pursuing conformity to Christ by walking in the Spirit and putting the good of our brothers and sisters before ourselves.


[1] All Scripture references, unless otherwise stated, are from; Crossway Bibles, ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version, ESV text ed (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2008).

[2] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[3] Thomas R. Schreiner, “Galatians,” ed. Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 9 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 169–170.

[4] His excommunication had the end purpose of restoration in mind; it was done so that his spirit might be saved (1 Cor. 5:5).

[5] D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 420.

[6] The act of crucifying the flesh here, seen as an action done by the Galatians, refers to the conversion when believers died with Christ, it may be active “to indicate that believers have chosen to be aligned with Christ at conversion.” Schreiner, “Galatians,” 351.

[7] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 474.

[8] Ibid., 202; Craig L. Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 104–105.

[9] Cf. Blomberg, he argues that in the Pauline corpus a flesh/spirit contrast usually refers to the old vs. new nature of believers. Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, 105–106.

[10] Some commentators suggest that this probation refers to barring participation in the Lord’s Supper only and others think that it refers to private meals as well. In the context there is nothing that would bind it merely to the Lord’s Supper, also the emphasis on “not even” and the fact that they are already to be disassociated from fellowship in the church would seem to contribute to the understanding that this refers to private fellowship over meals as well. Agreeing here with Blomberg, cf. Fee for a brief discussion. Ibid., 107; Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 226.

[11] Eg. Mark 7:8


 

Bibliography

Blomberg, Craig L. 1 Corinthians. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

Carson, D.A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.

Crossway Bibles. ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. ESV text ed. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2008.

Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987.

New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Galatians. edited by Clinton E. Arnold. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 9. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010.

Hebrews 8 – In Christ we have received the better promises of the New Covenant.

A sermon on Hebrews 8 and the superiority of the New Covenant over the old covenant. Because of the differences between the church context where I preached this and the public setting of the internet, some clarification:

The reason the Old Covenant is faulted and obsolete is not because God made a mistake, but because He created it to point to the ultimate fulfillment of His plan for redemption in the Cross of Jesus Christ and the New Covenant ushered in by His blood. (I tried to make this clear in the sermon).

Also, because of contemporary exclusivism/inclusivism debates, I must make the disclaimer that I am not anti-Semitic; I believe that God will call effectively an entire generation of ethnic Israel to salvation before He comes back, but I believe that Scripture teaches that adherence to Old Testament rituals apart from the faith in Jesus Christ will not bring salvation (and they never could, salvation was always through faith Gal. 3, Romans 4). Salvation for Jewish people will now, as with the Gentiles, only come through faith in Jesus Christ.

A written transcript can be found here.

Hebrews 8 – In Christ we have received the better promises of the New Covenant.

This sermon was preached to small congregation in white rock BC, Canada on the 18th of August 2013.

Introduction

Good morning church! In Tom’s absence I have the privilege of bringing you this morning’s sermon, though unfortunately it may be a little bit less lively than Philip’s last week; I won’t be doing any singing…but I guess that is probably something you are grateful for.

Over the summer Tom and I have been preaching through the book of Hebrews; when I preached the first sermon on this series in the middle of July I discussed how the entire book of Hebrews revolves around the biblical idea of a covenant. Over the last weeks we have seen various contrasts between the Old covenant instituted at Sinai and the New Covenant made in Christ’s blood shed on the Cross. Throughout the book of Hebrews the author writes of Christ’s superiority over all created things and institutions, he does this to encourage the Hebrews, to whom he is writing, to stay faithful to the New Covenant revelation they have received, to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to not fall back into the rituals of the Old Covenantal Judaism.

Today we are looking at Chapter 8 of the book of Hebrews. In this chapter the author of Hebrews looks straight at the New Covenant made in Christ and its superiority over the Old. Because we are going to be talking about Biblical covenants today it will be useful to look at exactly what a covenant is.

The idea of a Covenant is found throughout Scripture and is foundational to the way God relates to man, unfortunately this idea is not talked about much so most people don’t have a solid idea of what a covenant is. Often we think of a contract.

A contract is pretty common in North American culture today; anytime we get a loan, rent a house, etc. we enter into contracts. With a contract of these kinds we agree to give something in return for something else, it is a legal agreement usually governing the exchange of goods or services. Because I am in school and don’t make much money I have had to enter into loan contracts with the Government so I can pay for my schooling. When I sign a contract for a loan I say that in return for receiving a said amount of money I will pay it back plus interest to make it worth the other parties while. A contract is based on an expected benefit for both parties: I receive money I need at the moment and in return for meeting this momentary need the party lending the money receives more in return than what they gave. For loans with the government, like student loans, the government does not get much back in the form of interest but receives the social and economic benefits of having an educated population.

Unfortunately, this is sometimes the way our relationship with God has been represented. We get something from God, salvation, in return for giving Him something, our service and love. This is not what the Bible has in mind when it speaks of a covenant. A covenant is not a contract: whereas with a contract the foundation is expected benefit and mutual gain, the foundation of a covenant is relationship. We have nothing to give God that He does not have, there is no benefit He could gain from entering into a contract with us: instead God’s covenant with man is the work of the almighty Creator of the universe reaching out to His undeserving creation in love and mercy expressing the very core of His nature. God first made a covenant with Creation, making mankind in His image to represent Him on earth and rule creation, they were called to obedience and given the command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After the fall God’s covenants with man slowly unveiled His plan for redeeming mankind from the effects of sin and its consequences, namely the righteous wrath of God toward mankind. This plan of redemption climaxed in the coming of Jesus Christ to die for the sins of fallen men and women and institute the New Covenant that God had promised He would make throughout the Old Testament. In Biblical covenants it is not an agreement between two equal parties for mutual benefit, but the extending of a relationship from a stronger party to the weaker solely on the initiative of the greater.

It is with this idea of a covenant, a relationship made between two parties characterized by both faithfulness and love initiated by God, which we will look at Hebrews 8. Turn with me in your Bibles to the book of Hebrews, chapter 8. You can find it after Philemon but before James. In Hebrews 8 we read;

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. 3For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. 4Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law.5They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” 6But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7For if that first covenant had been faultless there would have been no occasion to look for a second. 8For he finds fault with them when he says; “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, When I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel with the house of Judah, 9not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. 10For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be there God and they shall be my people. 11And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, And I will remember their sins no more.” 13In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

(The heart of the Jewish religious community and of God’s relationship with mankind is His covenants. The promises that God gave to Israel where foundational to their religion and identity. In this Passage the author of Hebrews takes aim at these promises, He tells the Jewish Christian to whom he is writing that Jesus has a better ministry because He is the mediator of a better covenant, based on better promises!)
 

Body

A Better Covenant Built on Better Promises:

 

In chapter 7, which Tom preached on a few weeks ago, the author of Hebrews establishes the priesthood of Christ according to the order of Melchizedek. He is a high priest forever in the heavenly places who has sat down at the right hand of the Father. The ministry of Christ, His high priesthood, is the main point that the author has been trying to make in the few previous chapters. As a priest in the order of Melchizedek Jesus both fulfills Old Testament prophecy and is able to be priest in spite of the Old Covenant stipulations of the Levitical priesthood. The eternal priesthood of Christ sets the foundation for the argument the author is going to make from chapter 8 to chapter 10; the superiority of Christ’s ministry and His once for all sacrifice. Before the author discusses the sacrifice Jesus made he discusses the superiority of His ministry on the basis of the covenant which He mediates.

In verse 6 the author writes “But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.” The priestly ministry of the Levitical priesthood and the ministry of Christ are based upon the covenants which they mediate. The role of the priests in the covenant is to offer gifts and sacrifices to God on behalf of those who are part of the covenant they administer, the other part of their ministry is intercession, to stand before God on behalf of the covenant people. Because of the intrinsic relationship between priestly ministry and the covenant for which it is performed, a better covenant would naturally lead to the conclusion of a better ministry. To show that in fact the New Covenant which Christ has ushered in by His blood shed on the Cross is superior to the Old Covenant made at Sinai, the author of Hebrews appeals to Jeremiah’s prophecy about the New Covenant made in Jeremiah 31. Writing at a time when God’s people where unfaithful to the Covenant God had made with them, when they were failing to uphold their side of the covenant to be God’s loyal people, Jeremiah speaks of a time when God would make a new covenant with His people, a covenant that would be different and superior to the covenant that God had already made with Israel. Jeremiah writes;

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, When I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel with the house of Judah, 9not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. 10For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be there God and they shall be my people. 11And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, And I will remember their sins no more.”

The author of Hebrews points out that if the original covenant with Israel had been faultless there would be no reason for God to make a new covenant with Judah and Israel, and—as we can gather from other prophecies about the New Covenant—with the Gentiles. In verse 7 and 8 we read: “7For if that first covenant had been faultless there would have been no occasion to look for a second. 8For he finds fault with them when he says….” The failure both of the people in keeping the covenant and fault in the covenant required a New Covenant to be established. This is argument that the author is making: the whole concept of a “NEW” covenant means that the old was faulted and with the coming of the New Covenant, within which the Hebrews found themselves by the work of Christ and through their faith, the Old Covenant was rendered obsolete; it no longer function, relationship with God, His blessing, and salvation could no longer be attained through even faithful adherence to the Old Covenant stipulations. In describing the New Covenant Jeremiah gives the promises that will characterize this new covenantal relationship between God and His people.

One issue with the old covenant, as the author of Hebrews mentions in v. 8, is that the people were unable to keep the covenant; in the new Covenant God promises that the recipients of this covenant will be enabled to keep the covenant by God Himself.

The first of the New Covenant Promises that God gives through Jeremiah’s prophecy is the giving of a new heart, a heart with God’s law written upon it; “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts” (10). This promise is paralleled by promises in Ezekiel and Isaiah where God says that He will take away the heart of stone from His people and give them a heart of flesh, and that all those in this New Covenant will be taught by Him. Without God’s work in the hearts of men no one would be able to come to Him or be obedient to Him, God here is promising that He will give His people a new heart with His law written upon it so that they will be able to be obedient to Him; obedience would not come from their own ability, for—as was seen with Israel during the Old Covenant—man was unable to keep up their side of God’s covenant; so that we could be in relationship with Him God promised that in the New Covenant He would enable His people to keep His statutes and walk according to His ways. God, while remaining faithful to His covenant promises, promised to enable His people to be faithful and loyal to their covenant obligations, namely obedience.

The next promise God gives, found in verse 11, is that; “they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” God promised through Jeremiah that the whole nature of the community of people under His covenant would change. Every person in this covenant would be in a personal relationship with God; this means that all people under the covenant would be those with true faith in God and all of them would have a relationship where they knew God individually, through their personal experience of Him.

The last promise given is found at the end of verse 11, God speaks through Jeremiah;

“For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, And I will remember their sins no more.” The conjunction “for” at the beginning of this part of the verse indicates that this is the grounds for the previous promises. The reason that all New Covenant members would know God personally and have communion with Him is because He in His mercy eradicate their sins and remember them no more. No longer would sin cause a divide between God and man, but through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross the sins of the all who believe would be utterly wiped away never to be remembered again.

(These three promises quoted by the author of Hebrews are profound truths of God’s relationship with His people since the coming of Jesus Christ, these are promises that came to pass under the New Covenant—of which all believers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are members. If the author of Hebrews was quoting these promises to show the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old and therefore the Superiority of Christ’s ministry; what would this have meant to the Hebrews who originally read this letter?)
 

A New Covenant And A New Community:

 

As we have seen in the last 7 chapters of the Book of Hebrews the author is writing to Jewish Christians to warn them that if they walk away from their faith in Jesus and return to Judaism they will no longer be Christians, having compared various aspects of the New Covenant with the Old Covenant here in Heb. 8 the author looks at the heart of the covenants and the promises associate with each. The Jewish audience would have been well schooled in the Old Testament and would have been familiar with both its original promises and the promises given in the Old Testament about the New Covenant.

These promises that the author of Hebrews quotes present a massive transformation of the community of Covenant members as it was found in Old Covenant. In the Old Covenant membership into the covenant was based on descent from Abraham, because of this the Jews circumcised their male children as a symbol of their entrance into the covenant Israel had with God. It was a covenant between God and all of Israel. Because this original covenant was based on genetic heritage and not a personal expression of faith many who were part of Israel where not in fact of Israel, as Paul puts it in Romans 9. There were many in the nation of Israel who were faithful to God and His covenant with them, but there was also many who were unfaithful and who did not know God. In the New Covenant this would change. Instead of a membership based on physical descent, a mixed community of those who had faith in God and those who did not, all those in the New Covenant would be enabled by God to be faithful to the Covenant and each and every one of them, from the least of them to the greatest of them, would have a relationship with Him. This was profound shift in the nature of the Covenant community.

Another huge difference that allowed this shift to happen was that each and every member of the New Covenant would have their sins removed and these sins would never again be remembered by God. This would mean that members of this New Covenant would not have to regularly give sacrifices for their sins because all their sins would be removed, and no longer would the members of the New Covenant have to go through earthly mediators to have access to God but through Jesus Christ, their high priest, they would forever have access to the very throne room of God and have the personal relationship with God that characterized the lives of the Old testament prophets like Jeremiah.

Because the New Covenant has replaced the Old Covenant the Hebrews would have understood that only through the New Covenant means could one be saved, the Old was now obsolete and no longer functioned as an active means of relationship with God. To go back to the Old Covenant, as they were in danger of doing, would be to give up on all God’s promises; for all of God’s promises would be fulfilled in the New Covenant through Christ and no longer would function through the now obsolete Old Covenant.

(This would have been a very good reason for Hebrews to persevere in their Christian faith, and it would have helped them see how much better the Covenant they were now part of was. Membership into this New Covenant was by faith, the amazing truth of this is that through our faith we now are part of this new covenant relationship with God.)
 

In Christ we have received the better promises of the New Covenant.

(Like the Jews to whom the author of Hebrews was writing, we to have through faith entered into the New Covenant mediated by Christ Jesus our LORD; as members of this New Covenant we have inherited all of its glorious promises)
 

New Covenant Life Built On New Covenant Promises:

 

In Christ we have received the better promises of the New Covenant, and that is tremendous thing for these promises have a profound impact on how we understand our relationship to God. As members of the New Covenant Community, all of us who have come to Jesus Christ in faith have new hearts wrought by the Holy Spirit with His laws written on them enabling us to grow in obedience to Him and be faithful to His covenant, we have access to the very presence of God coming before Him in the name of Jesus Christ with our needs and desires and are able to experience a relationship with Him where we can say that we truly know Him, and because of our faith we have been forgiven of all of our sins and stand in the presence of God without fear of His wrath.

The first promise which is found in the New Covenant is that members of this covenant have God’s law written upon their hearts and minds, and cf. Ezekiel, we understand that this comes about through the giving of a new heart. We can pursue obedience to God in our relationship with Him knowing that while we cannot be faithful by our own strength we have been given new hearts whereby we will desire more and more to be like God and through His strength will be able to become obedient to His commands. As members of the New Covenant with God we are called to be holy as He is holy [1 Pet. 1:14-16] and because of the promise found in this Hebrews 8:8 we can know that God has worked on our hearts so that we can pursue, however imperfectly, this end.

The second promise given by Jeremiah and quoted by the author of Hebrews is that every member of the New Covenant will know God; because of Jesus work as our High Priest, the mediator of this New Covenant, we can approach God with boldness knowing that we are covered by the blood of Christ and we can bring our needs before Him and present the desires of heart to Him. “To know God is to recognize Him, trust Him, and obey Him.” This is something that is made possible by the new heart that He has given us, because we have a new heart with have a personal knowledge of God and are able to be like Him acting out His will as revealed in Scripture in the world.

The last promise given in Hebrews 8 is that our iniquities would be removed and our sins would be remembered no more. Because of Christ’s high priestly work and the sacrifice He gave on the cross we can know that our sins have once and for all been removed; we can have confidence that when we come before God we will receive His love and mercy and not His wrath because Christ has taken away are sins and by His work we have been declared righteous in the sight of God.  Because our sins are remembered no more we come before God even after we have sinned and seek His forgiveness for a restored relationship.

(These promises received through Christ as members of the New Covenant are foundations of what it means to be a Christian, something shared by all those who have faith in Jesus Christ; all Christians have been given new hearts with God’s law written on them, meaning that even though struggles with sin still come upon us we will desire and be enabled to pursue obedience to Him; all Christians know God individually and can come before Him in prayer without the need of an earthly mediator; and lastly all Christians have had their sins forgiven, never to be remembered again by God.)
 

Conclusion:

In Luke 22:20 Luke recounts the Passover supper and the institution of Communion by Jesus. Jesus tells His disciples that “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood”. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was the first part of His duty as our High Priest, His death on the Cross, while foremost bearing the wrath of God and bearing the punishment we deserved for our sins, enacted a New Covenant between God and man. Instead of repeated sacrifices for daily sins and repeated failures on the part of God’s people in upholding their side of His covenant with them, instead of a few out of the entire nation of Israel knowing God; now all those who are members of the New Covenant, all those who have believed in Jesus Christ for their salvation and trust Him as the LORD of their life, have received new hearts where they will desire righteousness and are enabled to pursue faithfulness to God, we all know God and have a relationship of personal experience with Him, and we have all received the forgiveness of our sins, standing boldly before God by the intercession and sacrifice of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ whose blood shed on the cross once and for all purchased the forgiveness of sins and the New Covenant relationship with God. It is to this New Covenant reality which we experience that the Old Testament and the Old Covenant point towards, and it is this New Covenant reality which the author of Hebrews presents as a reason why the Hebrews should persevere in their faith. Every time you partake of the Lord’s Supper remember first and foremost His blood shed on the Cross for the forgiveness of sins, but also His blood shed ushering in a New Covenant whereby all Christians experience a profound relationship with God that only a few under the Old Covenant experienced.

A Communion Service

It seems fitting for us this, at least for Canadians, thanksgiving weekend to partake of communion, the Lord’s Supper, and remember our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and His work on the Cross. This time of year is traditionally one where people gather together and give thanks for all they have in their lives. What is more fitting than for us as the body of Christ, a united family of sons and daughters of God our Father, to gather together in remembrance of that which we have most reason to give thanks?

 

We practice Communion today because we believe that it is something Jesus commanded us to do, and because it is something we read being done throughout the early Church. In our Bibles we find 4 accounts of the Lord’s Supper; 3 are in the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and the last is found in 1 Corinthians. Today I want to take a look at Luke’s account, turn with me in your Bibles to Luke 22:14-23. Here is what Luke recorded about the last supper of Christ with His apostles:

“14 And when the hour came, he reclined at [the] table, and the apostles with him.15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (ESV)

When we partake of communion we drink the bread and the juice, replacing wine, in remembrance of what Christ did almost 2000 years ago; God Himself in the flesh coming into His creation to give His life so that we may be forgiven of our sins and have eternal life with God Himself.

 

As we partake of the bread we remember our Savior Jesus Christ as He, after being beaten and scourged by Roman soldiers, carried the Cross upon which He would be hung from Jerusalem to Golgotha where He would be crucified. We remember Him nailed to a cross, the most vicious and barbaric form of capital punishment known to man, bearing not just the painful weight of His body suspended above the ground by nails in His wrists and ankles, but taking upon Himself the full weight of God’s righteous wrath towards our sins, a punishment we could never bear ourselves; dying in our place bearing the punishment we deserved so that we may know God and follow Him. We remember Him crying out “Into your hands I commit my Spirit” as He breathed His last breath and finished the work He came to earth to do; surrendering His life for us. Let us eat of the bread together and remember our Saviour, no longer on the Cross, but having defeated sin and given Himself for us, now resurrected and alive forever more. You may eat the bread.

 

As we drink of the juice let us remember Jesus’ words; “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood”.  We have been going through the book of Hebrews since the beginning of summer and throughout the various sermons Tom, Joel, and I have drawn attention to a theme that undergirds the entire book; that of God’s covenant with us as those who have faith in Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 8 the writer of the book draws attention to Jeremiah 31 and promises that Jeremiah made about the coming of a New Covenant, one that would replace the one that God made with the Jews at Sinai. When I preached Hebrews 8 at the end of August I mentioned three promises that this New Covenant ushered in: all those who believe in Jesus Christ have been given new hearts with which we desire God and are able to, however imperfectly, follow Him; all those who believe in Jesus Christ know God personally in a way only a few under the Old Testament knew Him, we have the same relationship characterized by the prophets like Jeremiah; and all who believe have received the forgiveness of their sins by the blood of Christ shed on the cross taking away a punishment we deserved. Jesus, as recorded by Luke, told His disciples that the communion cup represents His blood shed instituting a new covenant; this is the New Covenant that Hebrews 8, Jeremiah 31, Isaiah 54, Ezekiel 36, and many other Scriptures speak of, this is the Covenant with God within which we find ourselves by our faith. As we drink the juice let us remember what Christ accomplished on the Cross; in bearing the full brunt of the wrath of God He ushered in a New Covenant whereby we—those who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour—are freed from the guilt and punishment of our sin, we desire God and are being progressively transformed so that we act and think more and more like Jesus, and we experience daily relationship with God whereby we can freely approach Him in prayer and worship, bringing before Him our needs and desires and joyfully lifting up our praise to Him as we express in word and action the grandeur of who He is and all that He has done in and for us.

You may drink the juice.

 

Let us pray…