This article is a continuation of part 4, which can be read here.
This is the last page of this series and completes the article. You can start reading the first part here.
As an aside, I need to explain at this point that when I speak about pledges, I am not talking about the use of ‘pledges’ in the making of fixed term financial commitments to the Lord or a church or ministry. That is not part of this discussion, because it is not the same thing. Where there is a fundraising campaign, and we commit or ‘pledge’ to give so much a week or month for so long, that is different – that is an exercise in resolve, a decision made to give in a spirit of sacrifice, and these are always non-binding and flexible, in any case. Certainly we should not set these up as a vow, and even though they are often called ‘pledges,’ in reality it is simply a considered decision to make a financial commitment. Commitments to regular giving are usually holy, and on that subject we are on completely different ground. We usually see believers and churches come into victories because of financial decisions, which, as Jesus made clear, deal with the heart.
Vows and covenants, however, are usually entered into with a different purpose in view – that of increasing righteousness, or spiritual performance. But these things can never be achieved except by grace and the work of the Spirit. Where law is used it will work against the end being sought, and eventually bring in failure and condemnation.
The nature of a vow is that it can never give you power to keep it, but when you fail it produces condemnation, and when you break it, it produces a curse. God never intended this. If you try this, you are trying to improve your Christianity with a bit of law, whereas the Lord wants you to learn to walk with Christ in the freedom of the Holy Spirit, being led by the Spirit day by day. The New Testament teaches the principle that the only way to not break the law is to have no law. You will find that idea in the book of Romans. Victory by grace through freedom is the place to which the Spirit of God wants to bring us –a place to which rules can never bring us. But the covenant made in 1742 refers again and again to living by Christian rules. In the matter of their families, for example, “we will keep the Christian rules.”
I was told a story in recent years that is so typical of what happens when Christians make covenants designed to protect relationships. A church in the United States had a group of younger women, some single and some married, that was great at creative ministries – dance, drama, and the like. Not only was what they did in ministry beautiful and effective, but their relationships were so rich. They worked together, loved each other, and co-operated as a team really committed to each other. It was apparently a wonderful thing, and a really sweet thing in the heart of that church. They got to thinking about how great it was to have these rich relationships, and thought they should do something to make sure they keep it all going, so as to not lose what they had. They agreed to make a covenant with each other. Taking an oath, each member promised to walk faithfully in covenant relationship with the others, to continue to love each other in a certain way, and to always do this and never do that, etc, and be committed to the ministry they shared, and be committed to one another – and they all signed it. And, of course, it wasn’t long until it all started to come apart. The group didn’t last. Dear reader, this will happen every time. It is just so contrary to grace, and so contrary to the New Testament. Oil and water do not mix, and neither do law and grace. We only ever build better and more permanently with grace. Grace is what this group must have had before they reverted to law. The Great Awakening was in grace before they made a covenant.
What, Then, Are We to Believe about Covenants?
I discovered by experience, as I shall explain soon, that even though ‘covenant’ is a Biblical word, there is danger in its misapplication. After receiving light on this from the Lord, we stopped using the term ‘covenant’ in our church except in relation to the Covenant that God has made with us all in the blood of His Son.
God has indeed made a covenant with us. That means I have an existing covenant relationship with God, in which He Himself has set the terms – and because I am in covenant relationship with God, I am not to turn around and make my own covenant with God. He has already made the covenant, and the nature of God is that He is a covenant-making, covenant-keeping God. My task is to understand what this covenant is, and to submit to it, and to believe and receive the grace that is in it. It is not for me to make promises to God about how I am going to live – it is for me to understand His commands, and by the power of the Spirit and His grace, obey them.
I also have an existing covenant relationship with other people. God has made a covenant with others, and brought others into covenant with Himself, just as He did me. Therefore, it so happens that this covenant God has made with us each has put us in a relationship with one another, which relationship God has already defined in the one and only covenant.
We are not to turn around and draw up some other covenant. We are not to enter into a so-called covenant relationship on the basis that we need to make some promises to each other. When people do this, misunderstanding the New Covenant they already have, they spoil everything.
We are, therefore, in covenant relationship with others, but never because we have taken vows or made oaths. We simply belong, because of what has been done for us in the blood of the Son of Man, and because God has chosen us for it. If we properly understand this covenant that God has made with us, we belong to each other already. We are then to find the grace that already exists in that covenant, and embrace the kind of heart we should have for each other.
These obsolete things such as vows and oaths have no power to bless, but plenty of power to curse. We are not to use them and then call them by this Biblical and spiritual word ‘covenant.’ It is a Biblical word, but putting a holy, Biblical word onto something illegitimate does not make it holy, or useful. How would it be if a husband came back from the honeymoon and drew up a list of rules with respect to how the marriage covenant is going to work with him and his wife? Then he posts it in the house, and draws her attention to it. This is how she is now going to live to keep them both happy, she is told. They are not both going to be happy for very long if he does that. It just doesn’t work like this. Neither is this the way God does things with us.
If in ministry I was to have a formal covenant relationship with my apostolic leader and spiritual father, and we “signed off” on it and took a vow about being committed, and promised what we would do for each other, all we will have done is to curse the relationship. It won’t work very well, it brings in a sense of drudgery, and it won’t last as a great relationship. But there are people who get excited about this kind of thing because they think it makes them more spiritual than they were, or more spiritual than others. False joy will carry them on for a while, until it starts turning sour, and eventually goes belly up.
I knew of a fellow in Australia, a young man with a strong ministry gift, but he had fallen on difficult times and wasn’t doing that well. A mature minister helped him, and they started walking in a really meaningful relationship. So this young man took an oath, and entering into a vow, pledged himself to remain faithful to this older man as his spiritual father, to walk with him and serve him until he died. It didn’t last but a few years, and with the relationship hindered and cursed by law and expectations, it was the one who made the vow who broke it off and walked away frustrated and disappointed. I had told him this kind of thing is a curse and ought to be rescinded before it was too late. Had he set aside the vow, and gone back to relationship of the heart, that may well have saved the situation.
A great error is made when we make vows or covenants, because when we do, we have decided to live by our own words, instead of by God’s Word. It’s as if we think there are not enough words in the Bible to live by, so we need to make up a few more sentences and paragraphs, and then live by those instead. We fall under the condemnation of the law where there was no law, and we are living by grace no longer. This is pretty serious stuff.
God has given us success in building the lives of people together, to the point where our people love each other and hearts are knit together. Let me say, there is not a vow or an oath amongst anything we do. We are committed to one another, and walk together devotedly, with a great sense of just belonging to each other, but there is no such thing as a promise in the house. Except, of course, for the promises that God has Himself given to us.
Banning the ‘Personal’ Use of the Word, ‘Covenant’
Now you can see the dangers with the use of the word ‘covenant.’ There is of course an appropriate and Biblical use of it, but I decided that for myself and our church we would simply not use this word except when referring to the covenant God made with us in the blood of His Son. This decision came after five years in which I and the other pastors endeavoured constantly to teach covenant relationship, faithfulness, devotion to one another, and love of the brethren. We taught this repeatedly, with a free use made of the word ‘covenant’ to describe the relationships we desired our people to find, but without results as I explained earlier in this book.
I came to the place where I could see clearly that the way we were making use of the word itself was a big part of the problem. We had a number of problems with the use of the word ‘covenant.’ We had a cultural problem, a linguistic problem, and a theological problem, at least. We wanted the relationship, but there had to be another way of describing it in our culture, because this word in Australian culture only made matters worse. We had a linguistic problem simply because people did not understand the word. It is not a word in common usage in the language of today. And aside from the Biblical doctrine of its misuse which we have already covered, there were other reasons also which led to placing a useful and appropriate “ban” on the use of the word in our church. We simply choose to not use the word at all, except, as I said, in its prime use, to speak of the covenant that God has made with us in the blood of His Son.
And the result? We have found success and freedom in relationships to a degree that many only dream of, which developed soon after getting rid of the sloppy, culturally legalistic, demanding, and unbiblical, use of the word. The wrong use of the word is very threatening, especially to men in Australian culture, yet at the same time, using a different vocabulary, the relationships we seek to develop are a deeply ingrained value in Australian culture, especially for men. The difference? Our old-fashioned obsolete church use of the word ‘covenant’ portrayed the legal obligations of a binding religiosity that was foreign and threatening – but Australian cultural and everyday terms were more inkeeping with love and heart relationships, that did not threaten but warmed hearts. And as well, we were without the curse of the law.
A Call to First Love
The New Testament does not call us to keep rules, or to make vows and pledges. But there is one thing the Bible does call us back to – our first love. This we shall take a brief look at next, including the way it brings our hearts to the obedience to Christ and the Holy Spirit which has replaced the law – the love that has made distracting and harmful vows and covenants completely obsolete.