Last week, I wrote quite a bit about the differences between God’s covenant with Israel and God’s covenant with those who follow Jesus. (You can catch up here: https://benbergren.com/articles-the-covenants-of-god/) Not only are they different covenants but they are different types of covenants. These agreements established by God are vastly different in substance and nature.
Some of you may have read the article (listed above) and thought, “That is interesting, within the New Covenant there is no requirement for moral living.” And I would reply, “You are absolutely right.” What Jesus offers is a promise of forgiveness without any strings attached.
Does that mean Christians can do what they want? Ummm no. It does mean that the covenant Jesus established for His followers is not conditional upon our behavior like the covenant that God offered the people of Israel.
There is a place for ethics and proper behavior but it is not tied to the covenant of Jesus. Our salvation is not performance based.
This is dealt with extensively at the very first church council meeting in Jerusalem. (See Acts 15).
A meeting was called because there were two competing ideas about becoming a Christian if you were not born Jewish and it was causing conflict.
- One thought was you converted to Judaism and followed the Law of Moses (the Old Covenant) before you could be a part of the New Covenant. Essentially you followed both covenants.
- You just joined the church and believed that Jesus is the Son of God and died to forgive your sins.
One of these two choices had a lot of work involved with it. Including following 613 laws found in the Law of Moses. The other was accepting the gift of faith given by God and that was that.
This caused a fight in the early church and so a church council was called to settle the issue.
After hearing both sides, the head of the church on earth was Jesus’ half-brother James. He issued a ruling and it was this: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” Acts 15:19-20
Aha! Commands for moral living! Not quite. Think about this for a second. If James wanted to impose a portion of the Old Covenant on Gentile Christians, why this list and not the 10 Commandments?
If James thought there should be some sort of Jewish law or behavior contained within the Christian community why not just include the 10 Commandments too?
There is a reason for this. This was more about concession than commandment. James gave these specific set of instructions to aid in church unity and not a program of behavior modification for every Gentile Christian. James offered these up as a way for Gentile Christians to ingratiate themselves with the Jewish Christians by following these (outward) instructions.
To put it differently, these instructions were given to bring Gentile and Jewish believers together and not because “God wants all Christians to do these things if they call themselves followers of Jesus.” This was more of a practical concern than it was about personal holiness.
What I want to make sure we understand is that we do not tie our behavior to the covenant that Jesus established for us.
Is there a place for ethical living within Christianity? Absolutely! But it is always in response to God’s gift of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. God’s relationship with us and love for us is not conditional based upon our behavior. Thank God for that.