For Moses writes that the law’s way of making a person right with God requires obedience to all of its commands. But faith’s way of getting right with God says, “Don’t say in your heart, ‘Who will go up to heaven?’ (to bring Christ down to earth). And don’t say, ‘Who will go down to the place of the dead?’ (to bring Christ back to life again).” In fact, it says, “The message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart.” And that message is the very message about faith that we preach.
The New Testament is focused on our ‘new covenant’ that we have in Jesus. But in order for there to be a new covenant, there must be an old covenant. Indeed, the Old Testament lines out a covenant that God began with Adam & Eve in the garden – a covenant of works that ultimately gives way to the covenant of the law. Essentially, these two old covenants have the same path to eternal life – obedience. If we obey – if Adam & Eve resist temptation or if we follow the law completely, then we are granted the right to walk with God in the garden. It is a covenant that requires complete and exacting obedience. To sum it all up in a short phrase, this covenant says, “Do this, and live.” But as much as we may try, we can never live completely under this contract. None of us has the ability to follow God’s commands completely at all times and in all situations. We all fail. Even if we had the strength to resist the urge of sin, we still fail in the positive aspects of the law. Who can completely love their neighbor? Who can do good at all times? Reliance on ourselves alone to fulfill the requirements of the law will leave us far from the mark of perfection which God demands.
But God gives us a New Covenant in Christ that is far superior to the weakness of our sinful natures! Where the old promise was ‘do this and live’ this new covenant says, ‘believe and live.’ This new covenant does not require us to do the impossible. God does not demand of us complete obedience. What God offers to us is grace. We are freed from the demands of the old covenant not by our actions, but by the sacrifice of Jesus. When we give ourselves to faith we are accounted as righteous. Faith stands in place of perfect obedience. It is a righteousness unearned and undeserved – freely given to us through faith. (And even more – God gives us the ability to have faith! Without God, not even faith is possible!)
The covenant of works was given to Adam & Eve – free from sin and living holy, happy lives. Within that context, perfect obedience was possible. But we do not live with sinless natures. The new covenant assumes that our lives are sinful and we cannot recover ourselves to perfect obedience. We are in need of a Savior to redeem us. And that is the gift God offers to us through Jesus Christ. This new promise is God’s plan to recover us and restore us to the perfection of Eden. We can never live up to the perfect obedience that the law requires. Our connection to God was severed through sin. But God, through Jesus, has granted us a way to recover our sinless nature and connect with God again.
We may think – I need to overcome my sin to be worthy of God’s love. I need to build my moral virtue. I need to go to church, say more prayers, read more scripture, or hear more sermons. I need to do more good to balance the sin in my life. I must discover my sin and properly repent of all my sins. But all of these are vestiges of a covenant that we can never fulfill. It will not be our strength over temptation that will save us. Our moral virtue is empty. God does not account for our faithfulness to the trappings of religion. We can never overcome our sinful deeds. This old covenant of ‘do this and live’ will never be fulfilled. We cannot earn God’s acceptance. Instead, God offers us grace. We have a new covenant, one that says, ‘believe and live.’
Our salvation is not build on our actions, but on faith alone. God does not require of us anything but faith. What we do – our moral actions, our religious practice, our repentance – will not save us. Our only path to righteousness is by faith. We are made right no other way.
This is the 6th in a series of posts based on the Standard Sermons of John Wesley. These 53 sermons are required reading for every Methodist preacher and form the basis of Methodist theology.