WHAT IS A COVENANT?
All of us know that the Bible is the Word of God. God’s Word reveals that grace involves three things: promises, facts, and covenants. In God’s Word, there are also commandments, teachings, laws, and declarations. But as far as His Word is concerned, grace involves three things: promises, facts, and covenants. We can consider the following chart:
If we want to know the meaning of a covenant, we have to know the meaning of a promise and a fact. We also have to know the difference between a promise and a fact, and what a covenant, a promise, and a fact have in common. After we know the meaning of a covenant, we will then go on one more step to see what the new covenant is.
There are two aspects to God’s Word. One is what He gives to man and the other is what man is responsible for.
WHAT IS GRACE?
Grace is God giving us something, not our asking God for something. When God requires something from us, it involves a teaching, commandment, law, etc. These all speak of what God requires of man. They are not grace. Grace means God giving us something, God wanting to give us something, and God accomplishing something for us. There are three aspects to grace in God’s Word: (1) the promises that God gives to us; (2) the facts that God has accomplished for us; and (3) the covenants that God establishes with us, which are the things that He will definitely do.
A. God’s Promises
A promise is very different from a fact. There are also differences among a promise, a fact, and a covenant. A promise concerns the future, while a fact concerns the past. A promise is something that one will do, while a fact is something that one has done. A promise is what God will do for man, while a fact is what God has accomplished for man. A promise is: "If you do such and such, I will do such and such." A fact is what God accomplished for us in His mercy when He realized that we were powerless and unable to go on. After God accomplished the facts, He told us the facts through the Bible.
We can give a few illustrations to show the difference between a promise and a fact. Suppose that you are very poor, and your family is not well-off. A friend sees your suffering and tells you that in three days he will send a servant to give you a thousand dollars. What is this? It is a promise. What then is a fact? When your friend sees your poverty and deposits a thousand dollars in a bank account under your name, that is a fact. Anytime you need the money, you can have it. You can use your seal or your signature to draw money from the account. This is a fact. What your friend has given you has become a definite fact. A promise is something that will be done in the future, while a fact is something that has already been done, something that you do not need to do anymore. In the Bible we can find many examples of these two kinds of words. In the Bible there are thousands of promises. At the same time, God has accomplished numerous facts for us. If God says that He will do something and He does, then that is a promise. If God says that He has done something and He has, then that is a fact. God’s promises have conditions. When we fulfill the conditions, we receive what has been promised. But if something is God’s fact, it is already there. There is no need to fulfill any condition; all we have to do is to believe in the fact. Now let us first consider some promises.
"`Honor your father and mother,’ which is the first commandment with a promise, `that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth’" (Eph. 6:2-3). Here we see one thing: God promises that we can be well and live long on the earth. But does this mean that everyone can be well and live long on the earth? No. Everyone cannot be well and live long. Only those who honor their parents can be well and live long. Therefore, this is conditional. Most promises are conditional. God loves to see men being well and living long. But not everyone can be well and live long because not everyone fulfills the condition. If you do not fulfill this condition, you will not receive this promise. In the Bible there are some promises with conditions and other promises without conditions. Any promise that has a condition has the possibility of not being fulfilled. I do not mean that God will be unfaithful. Rather, if a man does not fulfill the condition, he will not receive the fulfillment of the promise.
"Blessed be the Lord, that hath given rest unto his people Israel, according to all that he promised: there hath not failed one word of all his good promise, which he promised by the hand of Moses his servant" (1 Kings 8:56).
"Now, O Lord God, let thy promise unto David my father be established" (2 Chron. 1:9).
"After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities, even forty years, and ye shall know my breach of promise" (Num. 14:34, KJV). According to the original language, the expression my breach of promise can be rendered, "I have left my promise."
"For it was not through the law that the promise was made to Abraham or to his seed that he would be the heir of the world, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those of the law are heirs, faith has been made void and the promise has been annulled" (Rom. 4:13-14). This verse says that if a man keeps the law, there is the possibility that the promise may be annulled.
"And these all, having obtained a good testimony through their faith, did not obtain the promise" (Heb. 11:39).
From these verses, we can see many principles concerning promises. (1) A promise requires one to beseech God for its fulfillment. A promise requires prayer and requires one to ask for the promise to be fulfilled in him. Not only do we see this in the Bible, we see this in the experience of many Christians. Many times, a man will not receive God’s promise if he does not pray. (2) A promise not only requires one to ask God for its fulfillment, but the conditions also have to be fulfilled before one can receive the promise. If he does not fulfill the conditions, the promise will be annulled. Why were two million Israelites kept from entering Canaan? [Of the Israelites that left Egypt] why did only two living and two dead Israelites eventually enter Canaan? God let them wander in the wilderness for forty years because the Israelites disobeyed God in Kadesh-Barnea. This shows that God annulled His promise. Therefore, we see that a promise requires prayer. If we are not faithful to the promise and do not fulfill the conditions that should be fulfilled, the promise may be annulled. A promise must be fulfilled according to God’s conditions; otherwise, it will be annulled. (3) More than just sin will annul God’s promise. Romans 4 says that when we do anything or implement anything with our fleshly energy apart from God, the promise will also be annulled. (4) There is another group of people, who have prayed, have not sinned, and have not done anything by their fleshly energy apart from God; they have not done anything such as trying to do good or keeping the law. Yet they still have not received the promise. The reason for this is that the time is not yet ready. They have to wait for a certain time before they can receive what is promised.
How can God’s promise be accomplished in us? Every time we see a promise in God’s Word, we have to spend some time before God to pray until His Spirit rises within us, and we have the deep realization that this promise is personally for us. If a promise is without any conditions, we can receive it immediately by exercising our faith to consider this promise as ours and by believing that God will work according to His promise. Since He has promised, He will surely fulfill it. He will fulfill what He has promised in us. We can then praise and thank God, based on this faith. If a promise has a condition, we have to fulfill, obey, and deal with the matter according to the required conditions. After this, we should go to God in prayer and ask Him to accomplish His promise in us according to His faithfulness and righteousness. We should pray in this way until faith rises up within us. When this happens, we do not need to pray anymore because we know that God has heard our prayer. We can begin praising and thanking God. Soon, we will see God’s promises truly fulfilled in us.
(Collected Works of Watchman Nee, The (Set 1) Vol. 09: The Present Testimony (2), Chapter 11, by Watchman Nee)