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


One finds essential features of God’s redemptive work even in its preparatory stages. The initiative is God’s, but he takes a human being as his helper; he enters into a relationship of friendship with this person, sealing it with a covenant; the human collaborator acts as an intercessor with God for other human persons. However, redemption by God does not mean he either pays or is paid; God is the redeemer, and he freely gives us his victory. In the Old Testament God’s redemptive work is an ever-growing communication of his love, pointing toward his sharing of his own Spirit.

Covenant existed as a human institution before God used it for revelatory purposes. It had one essential component: the stipulation of some definite responsibilities to shape a social relationship. This is found in God’s covenant with his chosen people. The commandments are the covenant’s stipulations, requiring the Israelites’ exclusive loyalty to God and regulating relationships among them for the sake of their unity and common allegiance to God. It is important to notice that God redeems first and then offers a covenant. Fulfillment of its stipulations is not a condition for entering into the relationship but a requirement arising from the relationship. God’s commands are not backed by imposed sanctions; rather, failure to keep God’s law of itself invites disaster.

The old covenant relationship deepens and transforms morality. All human life is drawn into its context, and the primacy of the human good of religion is made clear. The relationship causes God’s people to share in his qualities, including those which are more than human. Moral insights are deepened, and the richness of human goods is unfolded. A fresh perspective is provided for criticizing all conventional morality.

The new covenant replaces the old by perfecting rather than abolishing it. To make it possible for fallen humankind to cooperate in God’s redemptive work, he began by allying himself with human persons as they were. Given human sinfulness, this initial alliance necessarily was imperfect. Moreover, the Incarnation of the Word is the key to redemption. A covenant shaping a human community in preparation for this perfect divine communication necessarily was imperfect by comparison with it.

Necessarily imperfect, the old covenant could not by itself justify fallen humankind. While those subject to its law could be saved by God’s grace and by faith, the covenant did not empower them to live good and holy lives. By contrast, the new covenant communicates a share in divine life. In Jesus the Spirit is given, and fallen human persons are transformed into God’s children.

Because of the limitations of the old covenant, the hope of God’s people under it was limited by their this-worldly goals and alienation from other communities. Not all the elements of integral human fulfillment seemed to them as important as their particular goals. Thus, Israel often was unfaithful and tempted to legalism. Some groups mistakenly conceived evil as if it were a positive reality. Insofar as this mistaken idea was adopted, there appeared to be a need to choose between friendship with God and some elements of human good.

Jesus, being both God and man, makes it clear that there is no need to make such a choice. His new covenant remedies all the defects of the old covenant. The kingdom Jesus proclaims is not of this world, and it holds out hope sufficient to motivate his followers. He excludes moral compromises, rejects legalism, assumes a true concept of evil in confronting it, and universalizes the communion of the new covenant to include all humankind. All this is effective for fallen humankind only because the grace of the Holy Spirit, given through Jesus, supplies the power to overcome sin and live a genuinely holy life.

The new covenant’s perfection of the old has moral implications. Those who live in Jesus can be good persons in this world and hope for the fulfillment of their goodness through God’s re-creative act, begun in Jesus’ resurrection. Chapters twenty-three through twenty-eight will show in detail how Jesus makes it possible for us to live good human lives in this fallen world.

The divine and human natures are united in the person of Jesus without commingling (mixing with each other), separation, or change. Finite natures exclude one another, but evidently this is not the case with the divine nature. Nor, as the case of Jesus shows, are divine goodness and love alternatives to human goodness and love. Jesus did not have to choose between loving God and loving human goods.

Plainly, some things Jesus does cannot be attributed to him only as God or only as man, but as one person in both natures. Indeed, his whole life was both human and divine. This complexity can be clarified as follows: As God, Jesus reveals the Father in the medium of his human life; as man, the Word responds to the Father in the manner appropriate to a man in perfect communion with God. There is no separation here. God is revealed in every aspect of Jesus’ life; but nothing appears in Jesus which is not part of his human life.