American and western Christians in general have a difficult problem: Their lives look eerily similar to those who do not attach themselves with Christianity at all. The behavior is exactly the same of the culture around them. (Plenty of research has been done to back up these claims.) What Christians spend their money on and how they spend their time looks nearly identical to those who are not Christians. You must wonder why then, if so many profess the faith, is there not a larger difference in the way the two bodies live? I believe it is due to a “contractual” view of the Bible rather than a covenant view. To really understand what I mean by this, we have to start from the beginning.
A contract is a legally binding set of terms that enforces behavior among two parties. A contract can orient people against one another as each party protects their self-interests. By contrast, a covenant is a pledge of trust between people themselves. This pledge requires that each person faithfully put their trust in each other and not the legally binding arrangement of the contract. A covenant pledge in Old Testament time was so powerful that often times animals would be sacrificed as a way to say, “may this be our blood if the covenant is broken”. People enter into covenants because they trust one another, people enter into contracts precisely because they don’t.
In the Old Testament, God is always working through his people through covenants (Gen. 9:1-17, Gen 15, Gen 17, Exod. 20-31, Sam 7:4-16). Some of them explicit and others implied. All of these covenants of course are carried out through faith and trusting one another. In the New Testament, the New Covenant in which God gives to all willing to accept Jesus as their Lord and savior. With this new covenant, it is extremely important that we recognize that the New Testament expresses it in terms of a marriage. Christ is described as a bridegroom who has come to Earth to find a bride (Matt. 9:15). And all who belong to the church are the bride of Christ. What makes this even more awesome is if we look at the old Jewish tradition of marriage and how it relates to Christ. In ancient times a man and a woman would be legally married a year or two before they ever had a ceremony. During this time the groom would typically go away and either secure an income, build a house, or otherwise build security for his future family. This was known as the “betrothal” period. During the start of the betrothal period, it was customary for the husband to give his wife a gift before they would leave and prepare a place for them. This gift symbolized a promising pledge that the husband would return once the preparations were in place for both the bride and the husband. It is clear that we are also in the “betrothal” period with Christ, as he has “gone to prepare a place for you” (John 14:3). And the gift Christ has given us is the gift of the Holy Spirit as he goes to prepare a place for us. Christ’s proposal to us was when he was nailed to the cross, and in this betrothal period we are learning to be the faithful, radiant bride Jesus came to redeem. We are to use this time to break from “the pattern of this world”. Like a marriage, your surrender to Christ is something that is supposed to be faithfully lived out. If you view the Gospels as a covenant, this makes a lot of sense; if you have a contractual view, this is probably radically different than what you have been taught.
The New Testament talks about salvation in three phases, “were saved” (Romans 8:24), “being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18, 2 Cor. 2:15), and “shall be saved” (Romans 5:10). These three phases don’t make a whole lot of sense if you view salvation as a contract, but make perfect sense if you think that salvation is our marriage to Christ. Indeed in the Christian circle, “When were you saved?” is a common question. But this question implies a static and contractual relationship with God that contributes to “cultural Christianity” as my friend Garrett Engel would say. So long as you were once saved, and you pray a “sinners prayer” you have not broken the contract. But this mindset allows Christians to look for loopholes which others see and point out as hypocritical. Do you think what Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 6:18 that he meant, “see how close you can get before you cross the line”? If you were in a marriage, would you ask your husband or wife how much could you get away with before he/she divorced you? When we have this mindset, we are more focused on not breaking the contract in order to “stay out of jail”, rather than developing a real relationship with Christ. God isn’t interested in making a deal with you, but rather he wants to enter a marriage-like covenantal relationship with you.