In the confusion among some Christians who fear that obedience to the law will transform them into legalists and so, miss grace, the question arises: If our obedience is required, how can it be called a covenant of grace? The presumed answer is that since it is by grace that we are saved through faith, then our obedience is not essential to the Christian life. Yet, Jesus says plainly. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (Jn. 15:10 ESV) This clearly tells us that our obedience is not tangential, but central to our walk with Christ.
We will explore here, how, in fact, our obedience within the covenant of grace affirms, rather than denies, the grace of God by answering this very question: If our obedience is required, how can it be called a covenant of grace?
- We are included within the covenant of grace not because of our obedience but because of the mercy of God and the obedience of Christ. “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” (Rom. 9:16 ESV) It is rightly called a covenant of grace because our first inclusion in the covenant did not depend on our obedience.
- We remain within the covenant of grace, not based on our perfect obedience, but rather on the grace of God in Christ. It is Christ who upholds the terms of the covenant of grace such that when we fail, we can be forgiven and renewed within the covenant. We are only able to repent and be restored within the covenant of grace, precisely because it is a covenant of grace. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn. 1:8-9 ESV) Nor does our confession of sin merit our forgiveness, rather our forgiveness is merited by grace, the work of Christ made available to all within the covenant of grace.
- Our obedience within the covenant of grace is accepted by grace alone. Our obedience is never so nearly perfect that, were it judged by the strict requirements of the law, it could ever be accepted on its own merit. Our good works, even our very best, are only acceptable to God because he receives them as he receives us, by grace, through the finished work of Christ. “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 2:5 ESV) As the Westminster Confession concludes:
The persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections. (WCF 16.6)
- Similarly, our good works—that is our works of obedience—are rewarded within the covenant of grace, only by grace, since they cannot merit reward, strictly speaking. “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Lk. 17:10 ESV) Yet because the covenant is a gracious one, our always imperfect obedience is rewarded as if it did merit the reward we receive, such that the reward is graciously called our reward. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matt. 5:12 ESV)
- Our obedience is the result of grace at work in us. Through our union with Christ, the work of the Spirit, and through faith, we are empowered such that we are able to ever obey his commands, and do the good works he has already prepared for us to do. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:8-10 ESV) We must never lose sight of this simple reality, it is God’s grace that enables us moment by moment to ever obey his commands. “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” (2 Cor. 9:8 ESV)
- Discipline for our failure to obey God is his grace to us. God does not bother to discipline those outside the covenant with his Fatherly rod, but those he has chosen by grace—as part of his love, grace and care to them—he disciplines in love. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” (Heb. 12:6 ESV) Were it not for his grace to us, he could simply leave us to wallow in the destructiveness of our sin, but the covenant of grace leads him to rescue us from our own disobedience and to lead us by his discipline to obedience. “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Heb. 12:11 ESV)
- The call to obey the commandments of God is a grace itself. God’s law sets out a path of life for us. Not, of course, that we can achieve life by perfect obedience. But the law serves to guide the grace-empowered Christian in the way he should walk in relationship with God and with his neighbor. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119:105 ESV) Were we left to blindly find our own way in life without the light of the Word of God, we would far more often stumble and fall. But God’s law is extended by his grace to his people to guide them toward his heart and deeper fellowship with him.
Therefore, we see that our obedience within the covenant of grace does in no way reduce the gracious nature of this covenant, but far rather, demonstrates and affirms the grace of God to his covenant children. “Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith.” (Rom. 1:4-5 ESV) Grace and our grace-enabled, grace-accepted, grace-rewarded, obedience of faith are actually fully compatible, indeed, grace and obedience are inseparable for us.
The covenant of grace, sealed by the death of Christ, and our obedience, produced by the life of Christ, are intrinsically bound together. Truly we see, while our obedience is essential to it, the covenant is rightly called the covenant of grace. Jesus told us this, not to produce legalists, not at all, but rather that our joy may be full: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (Jn. 15:10-11 ESV)
Author: Dr. Tom Hawkes