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Chapter 21: God’s Redemptive Work: Covenant and Incarnation

Question A: What are the constant characteristics of God’s redeeming work?

1. God’s redeeming work is prompt and ceaseless. No sooner had Man sinned than God held out the promise of redemption (see Gn 3.15; DV 3). “From that time on he ceaselessly kept the human race in his care, in order to give eternal life to those who perseveringly do good in search of salvation (cf. Rom 2.6–7). Then, at the time he had appointed, he called Abraham” (DV 3). The preliminary stages of God’s redemptive work include essential features found also in redemption’s culmination, accomplished in Jesus. But in Jesus certain limitations of the early stages are transcended.

2. In the typical case of Abraham, God makes a human being his helper in the work of redeeming. Abraham hears God’s call and listens, receives God’s commands and follows them (see Gn 12). Thus the relationship of friendship with God, shattered by Man’s sin, is reestablished. Abraham’s response to God is credited to him as saving faith (see Rom 4.1–9). The relationship is sealed by a covenant, a treaty in which permanent friendship is pledged and promises are made concerning the fulfillment of mutual responsibilities (see Gn 15; 17.1–14). Abraham is now God’s ally, in a position to cooperate in redeeming others. Thus, when God is about to wipe out sin-filled Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham intercedes, bargaining like a merchant of the Middle East with a fellow trader (see Gn 18.16–32). The wicked do not escape, but Abraham’s intercession at least saves his kinsman Lot (see Gn 19.29).

3. The divine initiative, the genuineness of the relationship, the forming of a covenant community, and the element of intercession—these are constants in God’s redeeming work. Since Man is in sin, God must take the initiative; since those called must share in redemption, the relationship must be real; since humankind lives in community and is called to heavenly communion, there must be a community in friendship with God involving permanent responsibilities; and since those in friendship with God participate in his redeeming work (and, if they are to deal rightly with their sinful fellows, must help to save them), they engage in intercession.

4. Redemption by God does not mean that anyone is paid (see S.t., 3, q. 48, a. 4; q. 49, aa. 1–3). True, the general notion of redemption is that of reclaiming something, as one reclaims a pawned article or buys the liberty of a slave. If one sold oneself into slavery and someone else purchased one’s freedom, one would be redeemed and would have a redeemer. Man sold himself into slavery by sin; God redeems by freeing people from sin so that they no longer are slaves. However, in the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt, we see an important difference in the concept of redemption as it applies to what God does. God’s work is not a commercial transaction; God neither pays nor is he paid.

5. This holds true throughout the history of redemption. God is not paid by another who redeems; God is the redeemer (see Jn 3.16–17; Rom 8.32). Nor are others who participated in redemptive work rewarded with any payment or ransom (see Is 45.13). Above all this is true in Christian redemption: “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15.57). God gives us the victory, he does so through Jesus, and it is truly ours.

6. These constant features characterize God’s redemptive work throughout history. But salvation history also is marked by development. In the Old Testament, God’s redemptive work is an ever-growing communication of his love. The promise of this communication points toward fulfillment in the New Testament: God’s sharing of his own Spirit, by which human beings are made adopted members of the divine family (see Jn 1.16–17; Gal 4.3–7).

The Old Testament is a progressive revelation. Abraham is called to be God’s friend (see Is 41.8). The Israelites are chosen not because of their greatness, but “because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers” (Dt 7.8). Therefore, Israel is called to love “God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6.5). Only God’s personal circumcision of the hearts of his people makes it possible for them to fulfill this vocation (see Dt 30.6). God’s love and kindness are so great that they endure forever (see Ps 118.1–4, 28–29).

God loves his people like a faithful husband who continues to love his unfaithful wife. God promises to repair human infidelity by his own action, overcoming sin by a gift of his Spirit (see Ez 36.25–28). The Messiah who is to come will be anointed with this Spirit (see Is 61.1; Lk 4.16–21), poured out like refreshing water, healing everything (see Is 32.15–20; 44.3). The effect of the gift of God’s Spirit is that his people will have new hearts, capable of loving him faithfully (see Jer 31.33–34; Ez 36.26–27).