Covenantal Sanctification

I had an epiphany this summer.  It was at a family reunion (on my wife’s side).  To meet family is always nice, especially for my kids who love to get together with their cousins.  However, I found myself a bit apprehensive about it.  The reason why is I didn’t know many of these people.  For example, one person who attended I had met only once before…and that was at his wedding!  If you have ever been to a family reunion, I’m sure you can appreciate how unusual these gatherings can be.  The reality is I know my neighbors better than I know most of these people.  But, we are family.  We are not supposed to be strangers, yet that is exactly who we were to each other.  They didn’t know me and I didn’t know them. 

As the week progressed, we all began to open up and share about things going on in our lives, our dreams and aspirations, life goals, and prayer requests.  It was a great time.  By the end of the week, everyone was very blessed and we had a sense of love for each other that had been dormant only six days earlier.  What happened?  We lived externally with who we are internally.  We began to really open up with each other because we are family and as family, we are not strangers.  Everyone knew that, and so we all began to behave according to who we all knew we were.  In fact, it dawned on me that the word “family” cannot be turned into a verb because “family” is not something that we do.  It is who we are.  We are family, we do not do family!

As I thought about this reunion, I was reminded that our growth in sanctification is very similar. Remember in Ex. 20:1-2, we are given two bits of significant covenantal data.  One is the identity of the Lord, “I am Yahweh” (I wrote about this in a n.b. essay last year).  The second is the great work of the Lord in the redemption of Israel, “who brought you out of the house of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”  Most scholars recognize this opening as the standard way to begin any ancient near eastern treaty, that is, by identifying the great king and listing some of his major accomplishments, followed by the requirements that the king demands of his people (i.e. commandments).  By using this order, God was properly persuading the people to obey these royal stipulations: in light of who the king is and what he has done, they are called to follow his demands.  Many of the biblical covenants (e.g. Ex. 20, the Ten Commandments) also follow that similar literary model.  For that reason, you may often hear many Christian pastors preach a message that is almost identical with those found in the ancient world.  “Because Jesus has given His life for you, how can you do anything less for Him.”  In my early pastoral work, I think I may have preached such sermons.

By sharing such a message, however, we miss a vital piece of truth.  As fallen and depraved sinners, we cannot do anything for Him!  If that is all that pastors have to say, then we have reduced the preached word to nothing more than a cheerleading session where we try to whip God’s people into an emotional frenzy to do what they cannot do on their own.  If we keep in mind the covenantal background to a call to holy living, then we can see that there is a truly amazing word of hope for us, something that no ancient covenant could claim.  Jesus’ work of redemption (His cross and resurrection) made us a redeemed people.  An ancient king can only claim lordship and require obedience, but he cannot make his people an obedient people. In the words of Deuteronomy, he cannot “circumcise your heart” (Deut. 30:6). However, the Lord of biblical covenants is different.  Because of His work of redemption, He has freed us from sin.  By faith in Christ, this is our new identity; this is who we are.  We are a free and redeemed people, liberated from the penalty and power of sin, so that we can now do what we could not do before, live a life in faithful obedience in love and gratitude to our Savior.  In other words, we are not called to obey in order to be redeemed.  We were redeemed in order to obey.  In Christ, we are redeemed, we are saved, we are free!  This is who we are.  Now we can live a life of holiness and contentment in Christ.  For ancient Israel, they were freed to live a redeemed life because the Lord was the one “who brought you out of the house of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2).  For the church, we were once “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (Eph. 2:12).  This is who we used to be.  But now, in Christ, we are “no longer strangers and aliens, but [we] are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).  Now, we “all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). 

Peter Lee, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.

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