Covenant Faithfulness

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

“You shall not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14).

Marriage is one of the most intimate of human relationships. It is also the oldest. Before there was a Cain, or an Abel, or a Seth, long before Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, there was Adam, the man created by God. To perfectly complement Adam, God created Eve from Adam’s rib (or side). They were created uniquely, differently, and perfectly. The man and woman created in the image of God were brought together by God into a covenant of marriage, and by virtue of that marriage the two were joined together emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically as one flesh. As we look back to the first marriage, we witness an intimacy of relationship that is unmatched within creation, a match made in Eden.

But Eden didn’t last forever and neither did the perfect marriage. In the Fall of our ancient parents into sin, and the rest of humanity with them, life changed significantly and marriage with it. Adam and Eve’s relationship with God, creation, and each other was altered. Yet, just as the gifts of work and rest remained so did marriage. In other words, the creation ordinance of marriage did not change with the Fall, but the husband and wife did. They went from sinless subjects to sinful slaves, evidenced immediately in their relationship, but the covenant of marriage continued.

Covenant Marriage

The biblical term covenant may be understood as a bond sovereignly-administered, a relationship established by and before God. This is certainly the testimony of that first marriage in Eden, when God brought together the man and the woman in holy matrimony. In the Garden, God sovereignly administered the marriage of Adam and Eve, establishing a covenant between one man and one woman before God for life. And the covenant was consummated in the joining together of the man and woman in one flesh union.

This was according to God’s perfect design, or as Jesus explained, “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:6-9). The problem in marriage of course is not God’s design but the two sinners joined together.

Sin is the constant problem in all human relationships and marriage is no exception. But there is one sin that is particularly sinister as it concerns marriage, a sin that strikes at the one flesh union of marriage: adultery. Therefore, according to the Seventh Commandment, simply stated, “You shall not commit adultery.”

The commandment, like the others, is given by God to protect our relationship with him and others. As the psalmist celebrates, “the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Ps. 84:11). God’s Moral Law is a blessing, and in it we are blessed. Just as God blesses our relationship with him as we have no other gods before him, or do not worship idols, or do not take his name in vain, so he blesses a marriage free of adultery. And the covenant of marriage is safeguarded in obedience to God’s Moral Law. Therefore, we may think of the Seventh Commandment as an encouragement for covenant faithfulness.

Covenant Faithfulness

Adultery is a breaking of the covenant of marriage, a sin against the spouse and God. Because the one flesh union of a man and women in the covenant of marriage is emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical, the sin violates trust at every level (not merely sexual). For this reason, adultery is only one of two reasons the covenant of marriage is broken and divorce permitted.

In addition to the pain and suffering that adultery often leaves in its relational wake, there is a heavenly perspective that is often not considered. Of the many sins for which God punished Israel, the Prophet Malachi confronted this one: “the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant” (Mal. 2:14). Marriage matters to God who serves as the covenant “witness” of marriage. And it matters, not because of his love for us and the gift of marriage, but because from creation onward it depicts the Covenant of Grace.

The Apostle Paul explains the deeper meaning of marriage this way: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:22–32). Despite the Fall the covenant of marriage continued as a picture of Christ and his bride, the Church, a profound mystery revealed to us. What a profoundly perfect depiction of the gospel! But, have you ever seen a perfect marriage? I haven’t either! Yet in the mystery of God’s revelation the union of one man and one woman in covenant before God is a gospel testimony. Adultery distorts this beautiful testimony.

It is not coincidence that adultery is one of the most often used metaphors in the Old Testament describing the unfaithfulness of Israel, sometimes in graphic, lurid detail. In fact, the entire prophetic book of Hosea is the account of Hosea’s marriage to his consistently unfaithful wife, a prostitute, and the parallel with unfaithful Israel. As faithful as Hosea was, his wife was all the more unfaithful, just like Israel who broke their covenant with the Lord. Therefore, the Seventh Commandment serves as a practical safeguard for the sanctity of marriage and its testimony. But while the Law can protect and guide, it cannot give new life or covenant renewal.

Covenant Renewal

To unfaithful Israel, God spoke these words through the Prophet Jeremiah: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not 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, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:31–34). The gospel according to Jeremiah is the New Covenant revealed in the sinless life, sacrificial death, and saving resurrection of Jesus Christ. The covenant that Israel broke is renewed by God in Christ, the faithful child of Israel. So it is for all who are children of God by his grace through faith in Christ.

Although you and I may never have committed adultery, we are all guilty of spiritual adultery. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. …for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:10-12, 23). We have all broken covenant with God by thought, word, or deed. Left in our sin we are like Hosea’s wife, a worthless prostitute on the slave market of sin. But through the precious blood of our groom, we have been redeemed and our covenant of marriage renewed, and we see this beautifully depicted in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

Question 174 of the Westminster Larger Catechism asks, “What is required of them that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the time of the administration of it?” To which is answered, “It is required of them that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, that, during the time of the administration of it, with all holy reverence and attention they wait upon God in that ordinance, diligently observe the sacramental elements and actions, heedfully discern the Lord’s body, and affectionately meditate on his death and sufferings, and thereby stir up themselves to a vigorous exercise of their graces; in judging themselves, and sorrowing for sin; in earnest hungering and thirsting after Christ, feeding on him by faith, receiving of his fullness, trusting in his merits, rejoicing in his love, giving thanks for his grace; in renewing of their covenant with God, and love to all the saints.” In receiving the Lord’s Supper, we are not passive spectators but actively engage in this sacred meal. But it is to the last clause of that answer and a particular phrase that I want to draw your attention: “in renewing of their covenant with God.” In other words, the Lord’s Supper is a covenant renewal ceremony for covenant breakers like you and me.

The Lord’s Supper is a fitting time for spiritual adulterers to repent of their adultery, receive forgiveness, and renew their covenant with their always faithful Lord. Even the most faithful among us has been unfaithful to our Covenant-keeping God in thought, word, or deed (and likely all three). And yet, in his grace and mercy we see the gospel preached in the sacrament, leading us as spiritual adulterers by the grace of his Holy Spirit to renew our covenant with him.

            Amidst us our Beloved stands,
            and bids us view his pierced hands;
            points to the wounded feet and side,
            blest emblems of the Crucified.

In renewing our covenant we are reminded that “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13).

            What food luxurious loads the board,
            when at his table sits the Lord!
            The wine how rich, the bread how sweet,
            when Jesus deigns the guests to meet!

For this reason, we receive the Lord’s Supper with a sense of expectation. There is a marriage feast to come where sin will be no more, and the bride of Christ will shine in the radiance of her righteous groom.

            If now, with eyes defiled and dim,
            we see the signs, but see not him;
            O may his love the scales displace,
            and bid us see him face to face!

Until then, “You shall not commit adultery,” in thought or deed. And let us rejoice in the covenant faithfulness of God revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ.

            O glorious Bridegroom of our hearts,

            your present smile a heav’n imparts!

            O lift the veil, if veil there be,

            let every saint your glory see!

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