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The covenants and righteousness by faith

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Archives / 2007 / May



The covenants and righteousness by faith

George E. Rice
George E. Rice, Ph.D., is the pastor of the Triadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church, Clarksville, Maryland, United States.


Scripture places the experienceof righteousness by faith within a covenant context. Paul says, “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:4, 5).1 While this is clear about the relationship between faith and righteousness within a covenant context, it introduces an intriguing question: Is there any place at all for obedience within the stipulations laid down by God in the various covenant relationships He has established with His creatures? In Romans 4:4, 5, two approaches to God are presented. The confusion concerning these two approaches is the source of the problem Paul deals with in both Galatians and Romans, that is, applying the terms required in one covenant relationship with God to another covenant based on entirely different terms.

As far as sinners are concerned, the only relationship that God accepts is one of faith in Christ alone. Having said that, we also recognize that this faith relationship will be accompanied by obedience. As Paul says, “For not the hearers of the law are just in the sightof God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13). Obediencewithin the context of a faith relationship with Jesus should not be considered negatively as “works.” However, there are those who look upon any attempt to be obedient, that is, to adhere to the Ten Commandments, as works that reject God’s grace. But a profession of faith in Jesus (the foundation of His teachings) while living in defiance of His law is a contradiction.

The reason for the requirement of faith in God’s grace in a covenant relationship with Him is because we, by nature, are sinful and corrupt. Outside of Jesus, all of our attempts (“works”) to gain salvation are vain. Speaking of the natural condition of the human race, Paul points to the lifestyle of the pagans of his day and told the Gentile Christians in Ephesus, “Among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our fl esh, fulfi lling the desires of the fl esh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (Eph. 2:3). A sinner, remaining in his natural condition, cannot experience righteousness by faith in Christ alone—the term of salvation laid down in the new covenant.

Three covenant relationships with God are presented in the Bible: the universal covenant, the new covenant, and what Paul calls the first covenant. A review of these covenants andtheir requirements helps us get a handle on obedience, grace, and God’s plan of salvation. At the conclusion of this article, a failed covenant relationship will also be looked at, that is, the “old covenant.”

Universal covenant

The universal covenant, the oldest of the three chronologically and present in Scripture, is not identified by name. This covenant is universal because God has placed each intelligent, created being (angels andthe inhabitants throughout His vast creation) in a covenant relationship with Himself. That God’s created, intelligent beings are placed in a covenant relationship with Him is clear because clearly defined conditions are required of them. When Adam and Eve were created, they too were put into the universal covenant relationship: “Then the LORD God took the man andput him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good andevil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’ ” (Gen. 2:15–17). The terms of the universal covenant are simple: obedience. Ellen White says, “Likethe angels, the dwellers in Eden had been placed upon probation; their happy estate could be retained only on condition of fi delity to the Creator’s law. They could obey and live, or disobey and perish.”2

The universal covenant requires perfect obedience. Because Adam and Eve, like the rest of the inhabitants of the universe, were without sin, they could meet the terms of this covenant. Ellen White made clear what God required of Adam and Eve under the universal covenant: “God made man upright; He gave him noble traits of character, with no bias toward evil. . . . Obedience, perfect and perpetual, was the condition of eternal happiness. On this condition he was to have access to the tree of life.”3

Perfect and perpetual obedience as required by God would lead to the formation of a righteous character. “It was possible for Adam, before the fall, to form a righteous character by obedience to God’s law.”4 The expectation of the universal covenant is obedience; a righteous character results from adhering to these terms. Adam andEve, like the rest of the inhabitants of the universe, were capable of accomplishing this because they were without sin, undefiled, without a fallen nature.

But Adam and Eve opted out of the universal covenant, and we live under the results of that decision: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Because of Adam’s decision to opt out of the universal covenant, we, as Adam’s descendants, can no longer meet the requirements of perfect and perpetual obedience. “But he [Adam] failed to do this [obey God], and because of his sin our natures are fallen and we cannot make ourselves righteous. Since we are sinful, unholy, we cannot perfectly obey the holy law.”5 Humans must clearly understand that for this reason “works” apart from grace as a method of salvation and a basis for a relationship with God result in total failure.

Because of our fallen nature, we cannot live by the requirements of the universal covenant—perfect obedience. Paul makes this absolutely clear: “We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Gal. 2:15, 16).

Concerning the universal covenant, it becomes clear that the problem lies not with the covenant itself or with the law, but with our fallen condition and carnal natures. We just cannot make ourselves righteous and acceptable to God.

New covenant

When Adam opted out of the universal covenant by disobedience, God confronted him in the Garden and introduced a second covenant, known as the covenant of grace, or new covenant.6 This covenant is stated in the words addressed to Satan: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Gen. 3:15). This new covenant of grace makes four provisions: (1) God will break the alliance between Satan and humans by putting enmity toward evil within the human heart; (2) this enmity will work itself out in confrontation between the seed of Satan and the Seed of the woman; (3) in this confrontation God brings about the termination of Satan; and (4) in this confrontation the heel of the woman’s Seed will be bruised which, in turn, brings about the salvation of any sinner that accepts the terms of the new covenant. The new covenant rests solely upon the actions of God and the sinner’s willingness to accept these actions.

Why is this secondcovenant new? First, it had never been offered to anyone in the universe before Adam’s disobedience. Second, this covenant is designed for sinners only, those who no longer are able to meet the conditions of the universal covenant. Third, it is new because it was ratified by the death of Jesus, which, chronologically, was after the ratification of the first covenant under Moses by the blood of an animal.

Founded on righteousness by faith in Christ only, faith in this new covenant and this faith experience results in obedience to Him, which grows out of love for Him. The new covenant not only provides a means of salvation for sinners but brings sinners back to obedience: “When man fell by transgression, the law was not changed, but a remedial system was established to bring him back to obedience.”7

Understanding the requirements of the universal covenant (perfect obedience on the part of sinless beings, the requirements of the new covenant, and faith in God’s grace alone on the part of sinners), we now ask an interesting question: Which covenant did Jesus, as a Man, live under?

Jesus’ covenant experience

Jesus Christ, Second Person in the Godhead, fully divine, yet incarnate, a member of the human family, was “forever to retain His human nature.”8When Jesus became a human being, He totally submitted Himself to the will of the First Person of the Godhead (John 5:19, 30; 6:38; 10:29; 14:10; 15:10, etc.). When the great controversy ends, Jesus will return to Him the authority and power He has received (Matt. 28:18) to fi ght the great controversy, that the First Person may be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:24–28). As a human, Jesus related to the First Person from His position of submission. He called the First Person of the Godhead “My Father” and “My God” (John 20:17). In this position of submission, which covenant relationship with His God did Jesus live under, the universal covenant or the new covenant?

Remember, the universal covenant is a relationship with God based on perfect obedience on the part of a sinless being able to render this kind of obedience because He is not evil by nature nor corrupted by sin. The new covenant relationship was put in place just for sinners and built upon faith in the grace of God. It was designed for beings who are corrupted by sin, evil by nature, and who would have entered into an alliance with Satan against God if God had not intervened and put enmity toward evil in their hearts. Everything indicates that Jesus lived in the universal covenant relationship with His Father.

Consider the evidence. First, Jesus lived in perfect obedience to His Father’s will and law: “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobediencemany were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obediencemany will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18, 19). Notice, “Christ in His humanity wrought out a perfect character [universal covenant], and this character He offers to impart to us [new covenant]. ‘All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.’ ”9

Second, it becomes clear that although Jesus took a human body, He was not corrupted by sin. Consider the following: “For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens” (Heb. 7:26). Jesus is “holy” while we are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). Jesus is “undefiled” while we are unrighteous (Rom. 3:10–18). Jesus is “separate from sinners” because He is the incarnate God.

Third, all of the above indicates that although Jesus assumed a human body, He did not assume our fallen, sinful spiritual nature. Examine Romans 1:3, 4: “Concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” Paul talks here about the two natures of Jesus—the physical and the spiritual. Note that the phrase “according to” is used twice and a translation of the Greek preposition kata. This preposition used with the adverbial accusative case indicates a standard of measurement.10Paul tells us that if we measure Jesus “according to” the flesh, He is the Son of David, that is, a human being. However, if we measure Jesus “according to” the spirit of holiness, He is the Son of God. The Greek text does not say Holy Spirit but “spirit of holiness.” Rienecker makes the following observation about this phrase, holiness. “Here it indicates a spirit or disposition of holiness which characterized Christ spiritually.”11

Paul speaks of our two natures, the inward and the outward—the inward being our spiritual nature and the outward our physical: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward nature is perishing, yet the inward nature is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). He speaks of the Holy Spirit strengthening the “inner man” (Eph. 3:16). We are cautioned of the conflict between our physical andspiritual natures: “The Word of God plainly warns us that unless we abstain from fleshly lusts, the physical nature will be brought in conflict with the spiritual nature.”12 Also, we are told that Jesus’ “spiritual nature was free from every taint of sin.”13

Jesus’ sinlessnessenabled Him to live by the terms of the universal covenant—perfect obedience. This perfect obedienceresults in a righteous character given to sinners under the new covenant of grace. Paul says, “For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:10). Reconciled by His death, we become “saved by His life” of perfect obedience. Ellen White explains how this works out in one of the clearest statements on the new covenant and righteousness by faith: “If you give yourself to Him, andaccept Him as your Saviour, then, sinful as your life may have been, for His sakeyou are accounted righteous. Christ’s character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned.”14

Hebrews 2:14–18 is often quoted to defendthe idea that Jesus had a sinful, fallen nature just as we do because “in all things He had to be made like His brethren” (Heb. 2:17). However, the context deals with His physical nature: “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). This context deals only with the physical—shared in flesh and blood and physical death. Jesus shared our flesh andblood, thus being made like His brethren, so He might die physically andbecome our vicarious sacrifice. Hebrews 2:14–18 does not deal with Jesus’ spiritual nature. Remember, Paul describes, in Hebrews 7:26, our High Priest as holy, undefiled, and separate from sinners.

So we can know that through Jesus’ perfect obedience under the terms of the universal covenant, we, as sinners, fi nd righteousness by faith in Christ alone under the terms of the new covenant.

The first covenant

How does the first covenant’s identification work into all of this? Hebrews ties this covenant to the earthly sanctuary andanimal sacrifices (Heb. 9:1). It also gives this covenant the title “first”: “But now He has obtaineda more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been soughtfor a second” (Heb. 8:6, 7). Verses 8 and9 point out that the problem, again, was not with the covenant but with the people. God found fault with them because they did not continue in His covenant.

Frequently called “the old covenant,” this covenant “had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary” (Heb. 9:1). When the term old covenantis used, the thoughtbehind it suggests righteousness by works apart from faith and grace.

The term old covenant (palaias diath ke) appears only once in the Greek New Testament, and it refers to a body of literature, that is, the Old Testament: “But their minds were blinded” (KJV), Paul says of Israel. “For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament [palaias diath ke], because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart” (2 Cor. 3:14, 15). Paul’s use of the term old covenant does not apply to a covenant relationship between God and human; it applies to a body of literature and particularly the writings of Moses. In this body of literature, including the books written by Moses, can be found the universal covenant, the new covenant, and the first covenant.

In Hebrews we findthe following comment about the first covenant: “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete” (Heb. 8:13). The apostle here alerts his fellow Hebrew Christians to the fact that the “ordinanceof divine service and the earthly sanctuary,” which he calls the first covenant andwhich had directed the faith of the worshiper to the sacrificial death of Jesus, had become obsolete, passé, old.

The sacrificialsystem was a visible, tangible representation of what God would accomplish under the new covenant. It helped Israel to understand grace and faith. Amid the giving of all of the instructions for the sanctuary services, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and how these commandments were to be applied in everyday life, God told Moses, “ ‘Speak also to the children of Israel, saying, “Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you” ’ ” (Exod. 31:13). Sanctification through the Lord alone is the new covenant. The sanctuary andits services were designedto teach Israel this covenant. God did not substitute the first covenant for the new covenant for, as Paul presents it, the first covenant was a teaching device.

Old covenant

Although the term old covenantin the New Testament is used only for a body of literature, Ellen White used the term in two ways. First, to distinguish the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai from the new covenant. The covenant made at Sinai is “old” because its ratification by an animal sacrifice preceded the ratification of the new covenant by the blood of Jesus. So the two covenants are identified chronologically on the basis as to when they were ratified.15

Second, God used the covenant of Sinai to teach Israel that in their relationship with Him they could not go it alone. In rescuing them from the Egyptians by dividing the Red Sea, God had taught Israel that they were totally dependent upon Him as their Deliverer. Now they must be taught that they were totally dependent upon Him for righteousness and salvation. Ellen White explains why Israel needed this help: “Living in the midst of idolatry and corruption, they had no true conception of the holiness of God, of the exceeding sinfulness of their own hearts, their utter inability, in themselves, to render obedience to God’s law, and their need of a Saviour. All this they must be taught.”16

Having revealed His glory at Sinai and having given His law in both oral and written form, God told Israel, “ ‘If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me. . . . And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ ” (Exod. 19:5, 6). With misguided confidence the people replied, “ ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do’ ” (Exod. 19:8). The fault that God foundin His people was that they tried to fulfi ll the terms of the Sinai covenant by adhering to the terms that are required by the universal covenant, perfect obedience, which can only be given by a holy, sinless being.

Just a few weeks later, Israel was worshiping the golden calf and behaving like pagans. Their action demonstrated (1) “they had no true conception of the holiness of God,” (2) they did not understand “the exceeding sinfulness of their own hearts” nor (3) their utter inability “to render obedience to God’s law,” and (4) their lack of understanding how desperately they needed a Savior and His grace. The terms laid down in the universal covenant for sinless beings cannot be substituted for the terms of a covenant that God has designed for sinners.

Whereas the covenant at Sinai was based upon strict obedience to God’s commands and instruction, the new covenant has, as its base, better promises—God’s grace.17 The golden-calf experience taught Israel that God was not only their Deliverer from Egyptian bondage but also their Deliverer from the bondage of sin. “Now they were prepared to appreciate the blessings of the new covenant.”18

Unfortunately, Israel repeatedly slipped back into an attempt to fulfi ll God’s promises by relying upon their own efforts to attain righteousness, that is, “works.” Paul laments this experience in Israel’s history: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:1–4).

What Paul calls the first covenant and Ellen White calls the old covenant are one and the same, but each gives their own emphasis to this covenant. The emphasis in Hebrews shows the function of the earthly sanctuary andthe sacrificial offerings in pointing the minds of the worshipers to God’s Great Sacrifice and the role of Jesus as our High Priest. Once the type met Antitype, the first covenant was obsolete. Ellen White emphasized the fruitless attempt to obey God’s commands by human effort apart from His gift of grace and strength. The golden-calf experience taught them how sinful they were and how desperately they needed a Savior.


Today, we are left with only one covenant, the new covenant that was designed in heaven for sinners. This covenant stands on the following: (1) Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection; (2) Jesus’ perfect character worked out by following the terms of the universal covenant; (3) His perfect character being substituted for our corrupt characters; (4) our faith in that He extends to us His grace and His righteousness; and (5) a willingness on our part to obey Him because we love Him and appreciate what He has done for us. The new covenant is righteousness by faith in Christ alone.

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1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures texts are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible.
2 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1913), 53.
3 Ibid., p. 49.
4 ———, Steps to Christ (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1908), 62.
5 Ibid.
6 White, Patriarchs and Prophets, 370.
7 Ibid., 363.
8 ———, The Desire of Ages (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 25.
9 ———, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 311.
10 James A. Brooks and Carlton L. Winbery, Syntax of New Testament Greek (Washington, DC: University Press of America, Inc., 1979), 46, 47, 61.
11 Fritz Rienecker, A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, ed. Cleon L. Rogers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980), 347.
12 White, Counsels on Health (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1957), 576
13 ——— in The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 5 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1957), 1104.
14 ———, Steps to Christ (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1908), 62.
15 ———, Patriarchs and Prophets, 371.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid., 372
18 Ibid.



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