A Covenant of Grace

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on February 3, 2019.

On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD. And the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever” (Exodus 19:1–9a).

According to their lunar calendar, on the third new moon the children of Israel encamped in the wilderness at the base of Mount Sinai. The covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had redeemed them from slavery, led them out of the land of Egypt, into the wilderness of Sinai, but Sinai was not their final destination. The children of Israel were bound for the covenanted-land of their fathers. Yet, as a people who had been in Egypt for 430 years, they knew little of this Promised Land. (To put this in perspective, 430 years ago the pilgrims had not yet landed at Plymouth Rock; it would be still another three decades). For over four centuries, generation after generation knew less and less of the land of the patriarchs, and more and more of the pagan land of the pharaohs.

So also, in 430 years the ethnic descendants of Israel knew little of his God. Remember that the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, are referred to as the books of Moses. For over four centuries in Egypt the children of Israel had only the oral traditions of their ancestors.  But, the God of their fathers is not only the One true God who is, He is also the God who acts, redeeming His people and revealing Himself to them, which was the purpose of their encampment in the wilderness. At the base of Mount Sinai through His chosen mediator Moses, God revealed to the children of Israel His covenant faithfulness and their covenant responsibilities of their covenant relationship.

Covenant Faithfulness

From the theophany upon the mountain, God speaks audibly to Moses, delivering a message of His faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. From the covenant made with Abraham to the fulfillment of the promised son Isaac, to the beloved Jacob, the children of Israel were heirs of the Promised Land, a heritage of the Lord. As the psalmist declares, “He is the LORD our God; his judgments are in all the earth. He remembers his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant that he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac, which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant, saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance” (Ps. 105:7–11).

What Israel had experienced served as testimony to the Lord’s faithfulness to them, as the Lord reminded them: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” So powerful were the plagues upon Egypt, no one in Israel could claim any part in their deliverance. Before their eyes their enemy was defeated. Upon the eagles’ wings of God’s unmerited favor they were delivered. Reminding Israel of His acts of faithfulness, God was also revealing Himself to them.

Consider two aspects of God’s covenant faithfulness that the exodus reveals. First, God’s faithfulness reveals His steadfast love through the generations (Deut. 7:9). For 430 years, Israel lived in Egypt, yet God had not forgotten His love for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his children. If God’s love depended upon the fickle love of His children, there would have been no exodus. God’s steadfast love depends not on the recipients of it but upon God Himself, because “God is love” (1 John 4:8). So also, God’s love for you and me is not a response to what we have done but who He is.

Second, God’s faithfulness reveals His perfect holiness. If God’s faithfulness were dependent upon His chosen ones, then it would have ended with Abraham’s lying, or Jacob’s deceit, or Moses’ murdering. Therefore, it is not; His faithfulness is based on Himself. As the Apostle Paul explains, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful–for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). God’s faithfulness to you and me is not a response to what we have done but who He is. He is holy. While God’s faithfulness is not a response to what we have done, because God is, in His very nature, a covenant-keeping God, He gives His people covenant responsibilities.

Covenant Responsibilities

The Lord said to Israel, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine.” As God would renew His covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, based on the foundation of His covenant faithfulness, He called His people to obey His Word. Deuteronomy 7:9 summarizes, “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9).

As sinners we, like ancient Israel before us, struggle with the distinction of God’s grace and His commands. Our default is to revert back to a covenant of works, seeking to merit the unmeritable, to earn the favor that God has given freely. On the opposite side of the same coin, we consider the free grace of God as a license to sin, cherishing Martin Luther’s ill-advised words to Melanchthon, “love God and sin boldly.” While we may slide precariously between legalism and antinomianism, God’s Word gives us the happy marriage of God’s grace and our obedience, God’s covenant faithfulness and the covenant responsibilities of His people.

What refreshingly clears the clouds of confusion is love. God’s steadfast love for His people is exemplified in His faithfulness. Our love for God is exemplified in our faithfulness to Him. While this does not imply some type of cosmic reciprocity, it does clarify the connection between the faithfulness of God and our responsibilities: God’s love for us establishes our love for God. As such, our obedience is motivated by love for God. As Jesus summarized, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (1 John 14:15).

Jesus did not say, “Keep my commandments, and I will love you.” He did not say, “I love you, so don’t keep my commandments’” He said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (1 John 14:15). We obey because of our love for God, and “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Therefore, we see that God’s redemption of Israel and His commandments-given are both acts of His steadfast love. God’s covenant faithfulness is shown to His covenant people, and His covenant responsibilities given to those whom He loves, revealing a covenant relationship.

Covenant Relationship

God promises that Israel shall be His “treasured possession.” The twenty-fourth psalm begins, “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1), but Israel would be unique, a special treasure among the Lord’s possessions. The children of Israel would no longer be identified as the former slaves of Egypt. They would be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Just as God established Adam and Eve as vice-regents of the kingdom of Eden, ministering before God in reverent obedience, so God would establish Israel as a kingdom-nation serving their God according to His commandments. Yet, just as Adam and Eve were not faithful to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16-17), so also Israel was not faithful to obey God, breaking the Mosaic covenant, but God’s faithfulness is not conditioned upon His people. Adam and Eve broke the Covenant of Works, resulting in broken fellowship with God and eventually physical death, they revealed the reality of all of mankind: eternal life may not be earned by works. But God in His sovereign liberty chose to act.

As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it: “Man, by his fall, having made himself uncapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace” (7.3). What Adam and Eve could not keep, God would, making a sovereignly administered bond of His unmerited favor. Even in the spiritual valley of the Fall, Adam and Eve heard the promise of their covenant-keeping God: “[The offspring of the woman] shall bruise [the serpent’s head], and [the serpent] shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15), a protoevangelium, the good news of the Covenant of Grace. Because this covenant was sovereignly-administered, it is conditioned upon the faithfulness of God, not man.

Noah was saved from the drowning flood by God’s grace. Abraham was called out of pagan idolatry and blessed by God’s grace. Isaac was blessed and Jacob loved by God’s grace. And, the children of Israel were redeemed from Egyptian slavery, and given the Law, and established as a nation by God’s grace. The Covenant of Grace runs consistently through Scripture, from the Garden of Eden to Mount Sinai, pointing us to one moment in time, in which a child of Israel, the offspring of a woman, would fulfill the Covenant.

At the base of Mount Sinai, the children of Israel responded to Moses, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8), but they did not. Only the one, true Israel, Jesus Christ did everything His Father commanded. And, only the Son of God could fulfill that sovereignly-administered bond with His atoning blood upon the cross. Only the Son of God could restore the eternal life lost in Adam through His resurrection from the dead. In Christ we realize the covenant faithfulness of God, living out the covenant responsibilities for Him,  and enjoying our covenant relationship with God through Him.

In Christ, we have inherited the promises of God, and as His treasured Israel, we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9) awaiting the eternal Promised Land. So, we gather in worship of our covenant-keeping God in Christ. And we celebrate this sacrament, this communion of the Covenant of Grace, together as Christians, because of the covenant faithfulness of God, keeping our covenant responsibilities in love, living in covenant relationship with God.

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