When we consider the basis for the identity of the Church, we should begin with our identity as God’s covenant people. Once we understand what it means to be God’s covenant people, then we can understand what God’s covenant people look like as his Church (i.e. Assembly).
Deuteronomy 7:7-9 (CSB) “The Lord had his heart set on you and chose you, not because you were more numerous than all peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 But because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your fathers, he brought you out with a strong hand and redeemed you from the place of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps his gracious covenant loyalty for a thousand generations with those who love him and keep his commands.
The Mosaic covenant established a people as God’s own special possession (Ex. 19:5). You can see the covenant that established Israel as God’s people in Deuteronomy 29:12-13. And it provided
the basis for God’s relationship with his people, what that relationship would look like, and how God would act towards them.
This covenant is quite wholly separate from any human response, and even human unfaithfulness cannot nullify God’s redemptive purposes because his plans are entirely the result of his own good will.
We can see examples of God’s covenants with Noah (Gen. 6:18; 9:1-17), Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:18; 17:1-21; cf. 1 Chr. 16:14-17), and David (2 Sam. 7:11-16; 23:5; Isa. 55:3-5; Jer. 33:20-21). These covenants promise God’s grace solely on the basis of his willing heart entirely apart from any human coercion. This is why we rejoice, because God’s faithful love endures forever!
After God establishes his covenant on the basis of his faithful love, he then delivers his ordinances to illuminate the proper human response. Obedience to God’s ordinances is the faithful response of those to whom the gracious promise of God’s covenant is given. Therefore,
God’s covenant displays the relationship between God and his people, and the ordinances illuminate the appropriate response to that relationship between us and God.
We can see examples of God’s ordinances following the Sinai Covenant. After God delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage and gave them his covenant, he then added that they must obey his voice (Ex. 19:1-6) and provided them with the Torah to illuminate how God’s people should respond to him (Ex. 19:7-8).
Therefore, we should understand that while “the law” and “the covenant” are not the same, they are inextricably related; God’s “covenant” is the basis of our relationship with him and “the law” stipulates the proper human response to that relationship. This dynamic is why Israel was not completely cast off when she failed to live up to the law. Their unfaithfulness did not nullify God’s faithfulness to the good-will of his covenant. God’s grace always preserved a remnant among the people. Therefore, even though human disobedience could cause an individual to be cut out of the covenant, nothing could nullify God’s faithful love because the basis of our relationship with God is his faithful love.
Therefore, we must understand that the foundation of our identity as God’s covenant community is the promise of his faithful love.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 (CSB) 31 “Look, the days are coming”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors on the day I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt—my covenant that they broke even though I am their master”—the Lord’s declaration. 33 “Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days”—the Lord’s declaration. “I will put my teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know me, from the least to the greatest of them”—this is the Lord’s declaration. “For I will forgive their iniquity and never again remember their sin.
The new covenant sets forward the basis for God’s relationship with us as his people, what that relationship looks like, and how God will act towards us. The new covenant will not be like the one that was mediated by Moses (consider 2 Cor. 3:7-18), although the end that we should be God’s covenant people is the same (cf. Lev. 26:12).
The nature of the new covenant relationship is different in two distinct ways: (1) The law would be written within—on the hearts of the people—instead of on tablets of stone, so that they would all know the Lord; (2) The basis of this relationship is the forgiveness of our sins to such an extent that they would be remembered no more. How we relate to God would no longer be informed solely by external means, but would now arise from within by the Holy Spirit, by whom we would all be taught to know God from within. Therefore, God would forgive our sins and remove them to the uttermost!
The most profound difference between God’s old and new covenants are not so much in what God requires – although these differences can be quite striking at first glance – but in the nature of how God’s righteousness would be fulfilled in us (consider Ro. 8:1-17). Indeed, instead of entering into this covenant relationship with God by natural birth, we now willingly enter the new covenant based on personally knowing the Lord through spiritual rebirth!
GOD’S COVENANT PEOPLE
Ephesians 1:3-14 (CSB) 3 Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in love before him. 5 He predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ for himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he lavished on us in the Beloved One. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he richly poured out on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9 He made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he purposed in Christ 10 as a plan for the right time—to bring everything together in Christ, both things in heaven and things on earth in him. 11 In him we have also received an inheritance, because we were predestined according to the plan of the one who works out everything in agreement with the purpose of his will, 12 so that we who had already put our hope in Christ might bring praise to his glory. 13 In him you also were sealed with the promised Holy Spirits when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed. 14 The Holy Spirit is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of the possession, to the praise of his glory.
This is the basis for our identity as God’s covenant people:
- we have been chosen in Christ
- we have been chosen to be holy and blameless before him in love
- we have been adopted as God’s children in Christ
- we have been adopted by the good pleasure of God’s will to the praise of his grace
- we have received this grace with lavish love in Christ
- we have received forgiveness of sins by this love in Christ
God carried out his plan with wisdom at just the right time in Christ so that we might understand his will and be brought together as one covenant people in Christ.
- we have received an eternal inheritance to the praise of God’s glory and grace
- we have received every spiritual blessing
- we have received the forgiveness of sins
- we have received the love of God
- we have received the promised Holy Spirit
- we have received adoption as God’s children
Our response to God’s covenant is now totally defined by the realities that have been brought about by God through his covenant. We are God’s children, therefore we have received the Spirit of Adoption. We are the children of God’s love in Christ, therefore we walk in love. We are God’s children, therefore we have received an eternal and everlasting inheritance in Christ.
Therefore, when we try to understand what the Church is supposed to look like – what we commonly refer to as “ecclessiology” – we should begin by understanding the new covenant that now frames our reality in Christ!
This post is the first post in a series that I intend to use to examine Biblical ecclessiology. As the Lord’s provides me with time, we will continue this study because I believe the study of ecclessiology – as boring as that name sounds – is an important and vital study because it informs us about the expression of our identity as God’s covenant community.
Our church life, purposes, and unique expressions are the subject matter of ecclessiology that communicate more to the world than many people realize. For example, we cannot very well claim to be the covenant people of God’s forgiveness in Christ when we are unforgiving. We cannot very well be the body of Christ when we have structured ourselves in such a way so as to make poor people feel unwelcome in our midst. These are ecclessiological matters.
Once we understand that our Church identity is based on God’s covenant, we will better understand the Biblical expressions of that identity and be prepared to be Christ’s testimony to the whole world!