A covenant is "an agreement or mutual obligation, contracted deliberately and with solemnity"
1. Covenant People
But there is a problem with that definition, when it comes to God’s making a covenant with man. In that case the terms of the covenant are not mutually decided on. God does not negotiate with anyone as to the degree of their allegiance to him. He comes to us and offers a covenant relationship with the terms already decided.
Psalm 111:9 says,
"He has commanded his covenant for ever. Holy and terrible is his name."
Judges 2:20 says,
"This nation has transgressed my covenant which I commanded their fathers."
So there is mutual obligation, but not mutual determination of what those obligations are. God comes to the covenant knowing what is best for us and we come trusting and obeying or not at all. In a covenant between God and man, God sets the obligations, not man. But the glory of God’s covenants with man is that God also puts himself under obligation with solemn promises. For example,
God says to Noah,
"I establish my covenant with you . . . and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth" (Genesis 9:11).
And to Abraham God says,
"I will make my covenant between me and you and I will multiply you exceedingly . . . you shall be the father of a multitude of nations" (Genesis 17:2, 4).
And to Moses God says,
"Behold, I make a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels such as have not been wrought in all the earth" (Exodus 34:10).
And to David God said,
"I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, I will establish your descendants for ever, I will build your throne for all generations" (Psalm 89:3–4).
Hebrews 8, contrasts two covenants. Both of them are initiated by God. The reason they are relevant for thinking about a church covenant among believers is that both of them are designed to bring a people into special relationship with God and with each other: the first was the covenant with Israel that God made when he took them out of Egypt; and the other covenant—the new covenant—is the one God made with the church when Jesus died for the church and rose from the dead.
The first covenant created the nation of Israel and the new covenant created the church, the true spiritual Israel, and will eventually gather in the converted nation of Israel as well (Romans 11:26–27).
The Main Difference Between the Two
The main difference between the "old covenant" (2 Corinthians 3:14) with Israel and the new covenant is that in the new covenant God not only sets the obligations of faith and obedience, he also pledges to create the faith and obedience.
Hebrews 8:6b speaks of better promises:
"He [Christ] is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises."
One thing that makes the promises better is that they are promises that God will cause the elect to fulfil the conditions of the covenant.
You can see this in verses 8–9,
"Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, when I will effect a new covenant with the house of Israel, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant."
So the first covenant was inferior mainly because it did not contain a divine guarantee that it wouldn’t be broken. They did break it. But the new covenant does have a divine guarantee of obedience. Verse 10:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put my laws into their minds, and I will write them upon their hearts and I will be their God and they shall be my people . . . (verse 12:) For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.
What’s Really New About the New Covenant
What is really new about the new covenant is that Christ seals it with his blood and purchases not only eternal life for the covenant people but also the faith and obedience that we must have in order to inherit eternal life.
"I will put my laws into their minds, and I will write them upon their hearts"—that is, I will not leave it up to human initiative whether the terms of the new covenant are fulfilled. I will cause them to be fulfilled (Ezekiel 11:19–20; 36:27).
At the Last Supper Jesus took the cup and said, "This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." The "many" is the church, the new Israel, the elect. So what happened when Jesus died was God’s final, decisive, sovereign, invincible act to create a people for himself—not only by purchasing their forgiveness, but also by purchasing their faith and their obedience in fulfilment of the new covenant promises:
"I will put my laws into their minds, and I will write them in their hearts."
2. What Constitutes a "Church"?
Bishops – Elders – Congregational government. Everyone sets out what it means to belong.
GBC exists because of covenant commitments. First, we exist because of God’s "new covenant" commitment to forgive our sins and to write his law on our hearts and make us his people and be our God; and second, GBC exists because of our own "church covenant" commitment to trust Christ and worship God and love each other in ways commanded in the New Testament.
1 Thessalonians 4:1 is a model of exhortation and accountability that we could well follow in our covenant life together as a church. What I mean by model of exhortation and accountability is mainly that it shows us the way to use the church covenant in stirring each other up to excel in faith and hope and love.
The Church Covenant should not be something we read periodically and forget about in between. It is a summary of "the way we ought to walk and to please God." It is a balance between the opposite errors of legalism and lawlessness. There is a way to walk that pleases God. We have made a covenant to walk in that way. Let us exhort each other and hold each other accountable. And let us pray that in it all God himself will be our teacher and write the covenant on our hearts and make us excel more and more.
3. Renewing the Covenant for the Sake of God’s Name
Nehemiah 9:38 describes very briefly a covenant reaffirmation among the people of God in Jerusalem after decades of exile in Babylon. Ezra comes to the end of his prayer and says,
Now because of all this, we are making an agreement [a covenant] in writing; and on this sealed document are the names of our leaders, our Levites and our priests.
This brings Ezra to his petition—to ask for God’s help and deliverance now in Jerusalem where they are in distress because of the peoples around them.
Verse 32 begins with NOW—now that we have seen what kind of God you are, help us again. What kind of God are you? "Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who dost keep covenant and loving-kindness"—that’s the kind of God you are. GREAT, MIGHTY, AWESOME, COVENANT-KEEPING, LOVINGLY KIND.
Which brings us to the climax in verse 38: "Now because of all this [all what?—all the centuries-long, great, mighty, awesome, covenant-keeping, loving work of God—because of all that] we are making an agreement—a covenant—in writing."
That is how we came to our covenant reaffirmation this morning. We do not come in our own strength. We do not come sufficient in ourselves. We do not come mainly because of the beauty of covenant community. We come mainly—like Ezra—because God is a great, mighty, awesome, covenant-keeping, loving God, who will help us, and who will show his love for us through the covenant.
What we are doing this morning is declaring that we want to be a church for each other, for the wider cause of Christ, for the world, and for the glory of God. We are not claiming to be the only church, nor a perfect church, nor an unchangeable church. But a church as best we understand church to be.