Learning More About Covenant Grace

There’s a fascinating relationship between God’s grace and the covenants He makes with people. Until the 5th century (when theologians brought Neo-Platonic philosophy into their interpretation of scriptures), Greek and Roman literature and early Judeo-Christian writings saw charis (grace) as something both relational and reciprocal (Schmidt, p. 201-202). The idea of “grace” as a free gift that God is obligated to give without having any expectations of the recipients was not originally part of the Greek language or of Christianity. Rather, there was a fuller, richer meaning to charis that Jesus, Paul, and other Bible writers used.

I’ve been reading a book on this topic by Brent J. Schmidt, who holds a PhD in classics, called Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis (2015). His scholarship on the original meaning of charis is fascinating, but even without that background we can still see that grace comes with expectations. For example, Jesus said the one who “endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22, WEB) and that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20, WEB). We’re saved by God’s grace, and then He expects us to act in a certain way (with His power supporting us, of course).

The Bible talks about Christian conversion as a process and tells us that relationships with God require continued faithfulness. Yet the popular definition of grace in many modern churches still says grace is unmerited favor that God gives without expectation of anything in return. Trying to make these two ideas fit together is confusing, and it’s a problem first-century Christians didn’t have to deal with because they had a different definition for grace.

Ancient Understandings of Charis

Several centuries before Christ’s first coming and until at least the 4th century after, charis was understood as something that involved obligation and reciprocity (Schmidt, ch. 2 and 3). This meaning infused Greek, Roman, Jewish, and later Christian society to the point that everyone knew “receiving charis implied entering into reciprocal covenantal relationships” (p. 63).

Jews knew about covenantal relationships from the Bible. Every commandment was a covenant with God. Several stories, including Joseph, Moses, and David, associate the concepts of grace and mercy with covenants. Greek-speaking Jews lived in a culture that depended heavily on reciprocal relationships and understood what charis meant. When Paul taught them using the words charis, they would have understood that by accepting God’s grace they were making covenantal obligations.

Brent Schmidt, Relational Grace, p. 64

When Jesus Christ came to earth, one of the things that He did was establish a New Covenant on better promises and with a different sort of sacrifice. The Old Covenant was “completely unable … to perfect those who come to worship” (Heb 10:1, NET). In contrast, Jesus took away sin completely, giving us an incredible gift for us that we could never deserve nor repay. When we accept this “charis,” we enter a covenant with Him and His Father.

For by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are made holy. And the Holy Spirit also witnesses to us, for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will establish with them after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws on their hearts and I will inscribe them on their minds,” then he says, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no longer.” Now where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

Hebrews 10:14-16, NET (OT quotes bolded in this translation)

Grace is so closely connected with covenants that treating “the blood of the covenant ” as “an unholy thing” means someone has “insulted the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29). Covenants and laws don’t vanish after Christ’s sacrifice–they move to a heart and spirit level. We can see this in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, where He talks about the deeper, spiritual, enduring applications of God’s law. Paul also talks about this shift from flesh-level to spirit-level in detail when he’s talking about law and covenants.

Grace in Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Shifting our definition of grace to align with the one Paul and his audience would have used gives us a better idea of how to properly interpret Paul’s letters. One of the best places to see that is in Romans 6. Here, Paul talks about how we are “not under law but under grace” (v. 14, NET). This verse and others like it are often read out of context, but if you read the surrounding text the reciprocal and obligatory aspects of charis are easy to see. This is a very long quote, but I think it’s important to look at the whole thing to get enough context to understand Paul’s words.

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires, and do not present your members to sin as instruments to be used for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who are alive from the dead and your members to God as instruments to be used for righteousness. For sin will have no mastery over you, because you are not under law but under grace.

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. (I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.) For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free with regard to righteousness.

So what benefit did you then reap from those things that you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death. But now, freed from sin and enslaved to God, you have your benefit leading to sanctification, and the end is eternal life. For the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:12-23, NET

Many translations use the word “servant” instead of “slave,” but doulos is best translated either as “bondservant” or “slave.” Being bound to serve the Lord in this way was seen as an “honor and a privilege” in the Jewish mindset (NET footnote on Rom. 1:1). It’s a very different sort of thing than slavery in the modern sense. In fact, at the time Paul was writing, the “asymmetrical social relationships between patron and client and between master and salve were founded on the reciprocal notion of charis” (Schmidt, p. 95). When Paul talks of slavery, he’s talking about us being obligated to God for His gifts and bound in a covenant with Him that has expectations.

Living by God’s Spirit

When Jesus healed a man in Bethesda who’d been sick for 38 years, He told the man, “Behold you are made well. Sin no more, so that nothing worse happens to you” (John 5:1-14, WEB). It’s similar to what He told the woman caught in adultery (a story that’s not in the earliest manuscripts but is traditionally included with John’s gospel): “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way. From now on, sin no more” (John 8:11, WEB). In one case, Jesus provided physical healing and in the other He freed her from being condemned to death. After giving these gifts, He told both people that they should respond by doing something specific: stop living a life of sin.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:1-4, NET

The Father and Son have given us incredible gifts. They’ve saved us from sin, adopted us into their family “with full rights of inheritance” (NET footnote on 8:15), and offer continued forgiveness so long as we do our best to follow Them and repent when we miss the mark. In response, “we are under obligation” to live a life lead by God’s spirit (Rom 8:12-14, NET). Being in a reciprocal covenant of grace is not about earning salvation or trying to pay back an impossible debt. It’s about having the right response of thankfulness to the incredible things God has done for us by welcoming us into His family. The more we can learn about that, the deeper relationship we can have with Him.

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Sword Of The Spirit

Thus far, the armor of God we’ve been studying has all been defensive. The girdle, breastplate, footwear, shield, and helmet all protect us. They’re essential in battle, but they’re not something we can use to attack and (with the exception of the shield) they’re not actively defensive either. This next piece of armor, though, is a weapon.

receive … the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph. 6:17, LEB)

Paul tells us exactly what we’re given as the only weapon included in this Armor of God. It’s called the Sword of the Spirit and it is the Word of God. Now it’s up to us to learn how to use the word as a sword.

Sword Of The Spirit | marissabaker.wordpress.com
Photo credit: Paul Kitchener via Flickr

Avoiding Word Confusion

There are two words in Greek for “word,” and we have to start by defining them if we want to avoid confusion. Just looking at the English, we would connect Eph. 6:17 with Heb. 4:12, which says, “the word of God is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit” (WEB). But these versus aren’t talking about the same thing.

In Hebrews, it’s talking about the logos (G3056). This word refers to a spoken word of intelligence, and it’s what’s used as a name for Jesus in John 1:1, 14. Reading on in Hebrews makes it clear that He’s being talked about in this passage as well (Heb. 4:13-16).

In Ephesians, on the other hand, the word is rhema (G4487). It refers to the spoken or written sayings of God, but isn’t used as a title for the speaker. So in Hebrews, the Word as a sword refers to Jesus cutting into people’s spirits and knowing them deeply. Ephesians is talking about wielding the word, or scriptures, of God as a weapon. Read more

Should You Do What You Think Is Right?

“Always let your conscience be your guide.”

“Follow your heart.”

“Trust yourself.”

Those are the kinds of self-affirming advice we often hear. The basic argument is that most of us are pretty good people and if we listen really closely to our inner guiding light, then we’ll make good decisions.

But as Christians, we’re not supposed to do what’s right in our own minds. We’re supposed to do what God thinks is right. To some, this might just seem like a subtle shift in semantics. Of course what I think is right and God thinks is right are the same thing. Aren’t they?’

Not necessarily. While the holy spirit is transforming us to “have the mind of Christ,” we’re not all the way there yet. That’s one reason why it’s so important to spend time studying scripture — to make sure we know how God thinks and line-up with Him.Should You Do What You Think Is Right? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

What God Has To Say About Your Heart

When God made the choice to destroy everyone but Noah and his family in a flood, He did so after seeing “that every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart was continually only evil” (Gen. 6:5, WEB). Even though we are made in God’s image, every single person has sinned and we’re corrupted by the fallen world we live in. And yet even in this state, human’s tend to trust that they know what’s right. But we’re often very wrong.

Yahweh says: Cursed is the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm, and whose heart departs from Yahweh. … The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it? I, Yahweh, search the mind, I try the heart, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings. (Jer. 17:5, 9-10, WEB)

Human being can’t trust their hearts. You might get some things right, but you can’t even really know yourself unless you ask God to share His perspective on you. But that verse in Jeremiah is addressed to the person who’s heart departs from the Lord. What about once you are in relationship with God and making Him the one your trust? What does that do to your heart? Read more

What Sort Of Relationship Does God Want Us To Have With His Bible?

When we’re trying to become more like God there are typically four scriptural tools people talk about using: prayer, study, meditation, and fasting. Today, let’s take a closer look at studying. Even though I do study my Bible (as these blog posts will attest), I don’t think I’ve ever studied the topic of studying.

So I ran a search for the word “study” in the New Testament and it didn’t show up in the WEB translation at all. The two uses in the KJV are both translated from different Greek words and neither means what we associate with the English word “study.” But just becasue that English word isn’t used much doesn’t mean the concept behind saying we should study God’s word isn’t correct. Miriam-Webster’s dictionary for students defines “study” as “the act of making an effort to learn by reading, practicing, or memorizing.”  So I guess our question for today become whether or not that’s the sort of relationship God wants us to have with His word.

What Sort Of Relationship Does God Want Us To Have With His Bible? | marissabaker.wordpress.com
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Scripture Tied To Salvation

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul tells him what knowing God’s holy writings can do in a person’s life. That seems a good place to start our study:

From infancy, you have known the holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith, which is in Christ Jesus. Every Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:15-17, WEB)

We could pretty much end this blog post right here. If you want to become “wise for salvation through faith” and be “complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” then you need to get to know God’s word. Paul makes it very clear that a person who is committed to following God needs to make themselves familiar with the Scriptures that we now call the Bible.

This passage also establishes that scriptures comes straight from God, not human beings (see also 2 Pet. 1:19-21). As such, it’s profitable for us. These writings teach, reprove, correct, and instruct us in righteousness. And we need righteousness, becasue “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 cor. 6:9, WEB). Clearly, effort put toward learning, practicing, and memorizing God’s word is going to pay-off. And this isn’t the only scripture that says so. Read more

God’s Message Through the Aaronic Blessing

At a conference this past December, I attended an excellent seminar by a gentleman named Hal exploring the depth of the Hebrew words used in the Aaronic blessing (I want to credit him, but not sure if he’d want his full name used here, so we’ll just stick with first names). This blessing goes like this in the New King James Version: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26).

God's Message Through the Aaronic Blessing | marissabaker.wordpress.com

These words are lovely in English, but I was awed by how much more incredible they are when you start digging deep into the Hebrew meanings. In this article, we’re going to take a deep-dive into the words originally used to record this blessing. These words illuminate an encouraging, hopeful message that God continues to share with us today.

Read more

5 Tips for Academic Excellence

5 Tips for Academic Excellence | marissabaker.wordpress.com
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It’s finals week (or close to it) for many of the universities, so it seems a fitting time to talk about academics. Unless you’re just in school for the parties, most students want to succeed academically, and we can always use more tips for doing just that.

Different study and learning techniques will work for different people with different personalities and learning styles, but there are a few ideas that work across the board. These are my top five tips for achieving academic excellence, which I used all the time when I was studying at The Ohio State University. Share what works (or worked) for you in the comments!

1) Study Concepts

I think some of the best advice I received was to study with the goal of understanding the ideas behind a subject instead of just memorizing specifics. Knowing facts and formulas can get you through a test, but if you understand why the fact is true then you’re more likely to get high scores.

“B students” can answer questions; “A students” know why the answer is right (that’s not the only difference, but it’s an important one). With this method, you’re not cramming your head full of facts right before a test hoping you’ll pass — you’re studying the subject consistently, trying to really understand and learn it.

2) Take notes by hand.

There’s something about the act of writing things down that helps it stick in your mind. When I was in school, I’d take notes in lectures, while reading textbooks, and as a study aid when preparing for tests – especially for the subjects I struggled with.

This is partly because my primary learning style is “Read/Write,” but psychology studies indicate that it’s true for most, if not all, students. Students who take longhand notes do better on exams and have more accurate long-term recall of facts and concepts than students who take notes on their laptops.

3) Take breaks.

If you’re studying something you love, this isn’t so much of an issue, but for something you’re not passionate about your mind will start to wander. I had to discipline myself to sit down and study for a certain amount of time, then take a walk or work on something else for a few minutes before going back.

4) Sleep

You might think it makes sense to stay up late cramming for an exam or get a few extra hours of study in, but it may actually do more harm than good.

Sleep plays a critical role in thinking and learning. Lack of sleep hurts these cognitive processes in many ways. First, it impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. This makes it more difficult to learn efficiently.

Second, during the night, various sleep cycles play a role in “consolidating” memories in the mind. If you don’t get enough sleep, you won’t be able to remember what you learned and experienced during the day (WebMD).

On WebMD’s list of 10 effects from lack of sleep, it lists forgetfulness, impaired judgement, and lower cognitive abilities — none of which is good for academic excellence. Know how many hours of sleep you need on a regular basis, and make sure you get it.

5) Talk With Teachers.

When I was in college, it helped me to get to know the professor a little. Some are happiest if you answer questions in a precise way, others will encourage more creativity in assignments. Knowing what they expect of you, and planning your responses accordingly, helps ensure higher grades. And it’s not just about improving grades — some of my most valued connections during my time at university were with faculty members.

Making time to talk with your teachers and ask a question or two lets them know you’re interested in their classes. They’ve spent many years studying the subjects they teach, and love it when students actually take their classes seriously. Be genuine — if you love the class, then it’ll be easy to talk about, but even if you don’t like a class, you can still ask honest questions like “Do you have any study tips? I really want to do well in your class.”