On Unconditional Covenants

Are marriages covenants and therefore unbreakable?

Call if a contract or a covenant, we take solemn vows when we marry. Our spouse takes solemn vows. The solemn vows are dependent upon one another. A girl won’t vow those vows to a man who has no intention of vowing those vows. Lives are at stake, which is why we take solemn vows. If one of the parties taking those vows has no intention of keeping those vows, then the covenant is broken.

 

“Marriage is not a contract; it’s a covenant.”

Maybe you’ve heard that. It’s catchy. Someone says it at a big conference, everyone nods. They go back to their churches and repeat it. Everyone nods. And so it goes viral.

But does it actually mean anything? I’ve heard it explained that covenants are unconditional, but contracts can be broken. Hmmm.

This got me thinking about covenants and whether they are actually unconditional, and then I started thinking about falsification theory. I know. My mind flits.

Falsification theory was first mentioned by Karl Popper and popularized by Anthony Flew. Both, to my knowledge, were atheists. But they made interesting observations. The thinking is that for a statement to be meaningful at all, it must be falsifiable. I’ll try to explain. If I say that Felicity is a cat, what I mean is that there is a creature in my yard named Felicity and she belongs to a category of creature called a cat. It means something. If someone came to my back yard and proved to me that Felicity was indeed a raccoon, then my statement would be proven false. It is a falsifiable statement. If the statement was not falsifiable, then it is meaningless.

If, for example, I stated that Felicity is a cat, and what I meant by it was that Felicity is whatever you wish Felicity to be, and even her existence is up for debate, then I actually am not saying anything at all and should just keep quiet. In that case, when I say Felicity is a cat, and you say, “No, that is a raccoon” and I respond with, “mmm yes. That’s what I said. Cats and raccoons and fish are all one. It’s whatever you want it to be,” then you could justly accuse me of speaking nonsense. My statement is non-falsifiable. I should be pelted with rocks and garbage. Or perhaps a raccoon.

“This post is weird”

“I thought he was going to talk about marriage”

I’m getting there. When we say things like “covenants are unconditional”, it seems to me that we are making the same mistakes as those who speak non-falsifiable gibberish. If a covenant means anything, of course it can be broken. Otherwise it isn’t actually saying anything at all.

If, for example, I say to my wife “I promise to love you and honor you” and what I meant by it was “I plan to do whatever I want whenever I want to” then I actually haven’t vowed anything at all. I haven’t made a covenant or a commitment or anything of that nature. I was simply speaking gibberish, and again deserve to be pelted with rocks and garbage, because my wife was counting on my words meaning something.

It is commonly stated that the New Covenant is unconditional. But is this really true? Is it actually true that God will just zap us into heaven and we can do whatever we like to do whenever we want to do it?

The teaching of scripture is not that the New Covenant is unconditional, but that Christ has fulfilled the covenant in our place. He also creates in us clean hearts as was prophesied by the Prophets:

33 But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer 31:33)

We are justified, sanctified and glorified in Christ. Our salvation is assured in Christ. It can never be lost in Christ. But this is far different than saying that the covenant is unconditional.

Even the covenant with Abraham was conditional.

Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised…. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.
(Gen 17:9-10, 14)

We need to be more careful with our speech. How can an unconditional covenant be broken? Did God say to anyone, “Live exactly the way that you want to and do whatever you want when you want to do it. It’s all good.”

Never!

It is also true that we can never fulfill the conditions of the covenant. But this is different than saying that the covenant is unconditional. The gospel is that Christ has fulfilled the covenant in our place. He is the mediator of the New Covenant.

To say that a covenant is unconditional is to speak gibberish. How can I enter into covenant with you if the covenant doesn’t mean that I will do something and that you will respond in some way? Are we just speaking gibberish?

Classical Reformed Theology speaks about unconditional election, but this is a different thing. It was an answer to the claims of the Remonstrants that God’s election is dependent upon foreseen faith. The Council of Dort answered that God’s election flows from his good pleasure alone, and does not flow from a condition of any kind that he foresees as being fulfilled by the creature. Someone somewhere simplified the decrees of the council with the acronym TULIP, but to my mind, that is an over-simplification of the Canons of Dort. (For those new to TULIP, the “U” stands for “unconditional election.”)

But this doesn’t say anything about “unconditional covenants.”

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