God’s Covenanted Faithfulness
The covenanted consistency of God’s character is a wonderful encouragement to every Christian. His pledged love for us in Christ is an “everlasting love.” He can no more stop loving us than he can stop loving his Son, for he loves us “in him.” God’s consistency of character towards us, however, is double-edged. Let me explain.
It is undeniably, indeed gloriously, true, that our covenant Lord is faithful to all his promises. What we can so easily forget, however, is that God’s promises embrace the blessings and the cursings of his covenant. In brief, the Lord not only promises to bless our faithfulness (our response to his grace and love in Christ), but also to curse our unfaithfulness. He will never stand idly by while his people sin, congregationally, familially or individually.
Yes, he does not treat us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103:10), but it is no less true that “the Lord disciplines those he loves and … punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Hebrews 12:6). This is the background to those much misunderstood words in 2 Tim.2:13, “if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” Paul is not here giving Timothy and us sweet words of encouragement, but solemn words of warning. What follows makes this abundantly clear (read 2 Tim.2:14). If we are faithless, God will not turn a blind eye, or pretend all is well. On the contrary, he will remain faithful to his covenant promise to discipline those he loves. His commitment to pursue righteousness in his people is backed up by the sheer consistency and trustworthiness of his character – “he cannot disown himself.”
God’s righteous consistency is something the writer to the Hebrews solemnly impresses on his readers. He is warning them not to treat God lightly, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:26-27). Israel’s great sin in the old covenant was resting complacently in covenant privilege. “We are God’s people.” “This is the temple of the Lord” (Jer.7:4). “He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us” (Hosea 6:1). “We have Abraham as our father” (Matthew 3:8). The letter to the Hebrews seeks to remove such shallow-hearted complacency from God’s people. The writer wants them to know that “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). God is righteous and will by no means clear the guilty, whether he finds them outside the church or inside the church. This is why it is such a solemn thing for baptized children to live lightly to their God given covenant privileges. His faithfulness to himself and to his covenant means that he will never stand passively by while we mock his kindnesses.
We see this somewhat startlingly illustrated in 1 Corinthians 11:29-32. Some in the Corinthian church were weak and ill, and some had died. Why? Because God was judging/disciplining them for the disgraceful way they were behaving towards others in the fellowship. They were showing by their disdainful attitude to their fellow Christians how little they discerned, understood the Lord’s body (his saving work on the cross and his body the church). Is that not something to ponder? Our righteous, covenant-keeping Lord cannot and will not deny himself.
We hear much in the church today about God’s “unconditional love.” We need to be absolutely clear what we mean if we use this language. God’s love is unconditional in the sense that we can do nothing to deserve it; he gifts it freely in his grace to sinners. It would be quite wrong, however, to give the impression that God’s “unconditional love” means that we can live any way we please and he will benignly be on hand to jolly us along, or pick up the pieces if we make a mess of things. “Our God is a consuming fire.” We may not find that a comfortable truth (we are not intended to), but it is a solemn truth, a truth we lose sight of to our great loss.
May the Lord help us to live before his face and enjoy the sweetness and hopefulness of his covenanted faithfulness.
Ian Hamilton is Pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church.
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