It is a beautiful thing when someone makes a promise to you and follows through. Whether it is someone promising to give free child-care, or to help out with a project that needs to be completed, promises kept are a kind of human glue that bonds us together as people. When two people get married, they have a ceremony in order to publically make promises to one another – vows to remain faithful and to do everything within their power for the betterment of each other and the relationship, no matter the circumstances.
God is a promise-making and promise-keeping God. When humanity fell, God set in motion a plan to redeem his creation back to himself. A healthy way to look at the whole of Holy Scripture is to understand that God has entered into covenant with his people. That simply means that God has graciously made promises to certain persons – vows that he will fulfill. The fulfillment of God’s promises is found in the person and work of Jesus, through his life, death, resurrection, ascension and glorification. In Christ, we are redeemed and made holy. Our proper response to God is to place our faith in those promises.
However, there are those who view a relationship with God not based on covenant promises, but more like a contract. In a contract, promises are not made, but a deal is brokered. On the practical level it operates something like this: if I do good works, have clean living, and do what is right, God will bless me; and, if I don’t, God will punish me. In a covenant understanding, when we fail or are disobedient, we confess our sins and God is faithful to forgive us and cleanse us. But in a contract, when we fail we lose. Relating to God according to a contract is like believing that life is like a math equation; if I do my part, God must do his. And if God tells me to do something, I’d better do it or else.
Too many Christians live by a contractual understanding of relating to God. I knew a woman who was a very nice sweet person. She grew up in a Christian home, never got into trouble, and did everything expected of her. But when she became ill with a rare disease, her faith began to unravel. She simply could not understand or make sense of the reality that she had been good all of her life and was dying a slow death. Since 2+2=4, she thought that God was not holding up his end of the deal; the equation was not working the way it was supposed to work.
On the outside, two people may be doing all the same things – serving in the church and doing a range of good deeds. But on the inside, the motivation between the two may be very different. One serves out of obligation to a contract; the other serves out of heart response to a covenant God who has made and fulfilled promises of salvation. The litmus test of discerning between the two typically occurs when life does not turn out the way we expect, that is, when suffering and hard circumstances knock us hard on our rear ends.
A legalistic view of the Christian life will always discern our relationship with God as a contract; we must do certain things in order to hold up the bargain. But a grace-filled view of the Christian life has behind it a proper view of God as the One who has given us his very great and precious promises, despite the fact that we have done nothing to deserve them.
Which view do you hold? Can you accept a God who relates to you based on love and grace, and not on your performance, or lack thereof? The Christian life does not work on the idea that if I do my part, and God does his, that everything will be hunky-dory. Instead, the wonder and beauty of Christianity is that there is a God who steps in and saves when we have done nothing to earn or deserve it. The proper life response to this is living obediently out of gratitude for such a grace. May our churches be filled with thankful believers.