If it were up to us…
If the Lord had relied upon men to fulfill their duties before fulfilling His oaths there would be no reason at all to make covenants in the first place. He was on the safest ground possible, and could have promised the universe without having to concern Himself about fulfilling anything. We all fail. Christians know that unless God is faithful to stand behind His promise in the Gospel, we are all done for. Salvation under the New Covenant blood of Christ cannot depend upon us. Inner spiritual perfection is even more impossible for us to achieve than the outward obedience of the Law (1 Jn. 1:8, 10). If God’s promise of salvation and eternal life depended for an instant on our works, heaven would have one human inhabitant – Jesus!
It is for this reason that God only made one bi-lateral covenant with men: the Mosaic covenant. Exodus 24 records the solemn oath which the children of Israel took:
And Moses took half the blood and put it in basins, and half the blood he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. and they said, “All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient.” And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.” – Exod. 24:6-8
The writer of Hebrews refers to this episode in Hebrews 9:18-20. The Book was the covenant terms which Moses read aloud. It contained the Ten Commandments of chapter 20, and the judgments of chapters 21-23 (cf. 24:3). There is nothing in these chapters which is unclear or vague. By reading the terms in the ears of the people Moses was calling upon the people to affirm by oath those words (See John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch As Narrative, 296).
The reason for this being bi-lateral was because it was impermanent. This “old covenant” was to be replaced by another permanent one. What guaranteed the failure of the Mosaic covenant was the sinfulness of one of the parties: the people of Israel. By the same token what guarantees the permanence of the New covenant is the fact that it is unilaterally promised by the sinless Christ. Divine covenants, with the lone exception of the “old covenant”, are inviolable. Paul states this in connection with the New covenant in Romans 11:29.
Problems with “Unilateral” and “Unconditional”
It has often been true that the terms “unilateral” and “unconditional” have been held by some to be unsatisfactory adjectives when applied to the biblical covenants. Noah did have to build an ark. Abraham did have to leave Ur and he did have to circumcise his sons. Christians do have to believe on Jesus to be saved. So then, it is argued, because we find these conditions attached to covenantal promises it is inaccurate to describe any covenant with the words “unilateral” and “unconditional.”
As an example of this sort of complaint we read,
the Old Testament covenants consist of unconditional (unilateral) and conditional (bilateral) elements blended together. In fact, it is precisely due to this blend that there is a deliberate tension within the covenants – a tension which is heightened as the story line of Scripture and the biblical covenants progress toward their fulfilment [sic] in Christ. – Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 609
But a grave mistake is being made here (there are other mistakes too, but I shall ignore them for now). In deciding whether a covenant is or is not unilateral (or both/and) the attention must be upon the oath taken: that is, upon the words of the covenant. And there is nothing in the oaths affixed to the Noahic or Abrahamic or Priestly or Davidic or New covenants which place conditions upon the human parties. What conditions are present in the context are connected either prior to or after the taking of the oath, but if there are no conditions in God’s oath, there are no conditions in the covenant. The time of eventual fulfillment may be impacted by conditional elements, but these in no way get God ‘off the hook’ as it were. If God is the only Subject making the oath, and if the words of the covenant do not iterate a condition, then the covenant really is unilateral and unconditional. As we have noted before, this fact seems to be recognized by D. N. Freedman.
The conditional Mosaic covenant, by contrast, had both conditions as part of the oath and, as we saw, bound the human parties to those conditions. One older writer puts it well:
The legal covenant that God made with Israel when He brought them up out of Egypt consisted of the law, the judgments and the ordinances… Differing from the unconditional covenant that God made with Abraham, the covenant that He made and repeatedly renewed with Israel under the law was coupled with express conditions, on the breach of which fearful judgments were denounced, and both blessings and curses attached to the covenant, according as they obeyed or disobeyed… – Ford C. Ottman, God’s Oath: A Study of an Unfulfilled Promise of God, 191
There were no blessings and curses appended to the other covenants God made for the very good reason that they were superfluous! They were unconditionally guaranteed by God Himself. Thus, when entering into covenant with Abraham we read,
…because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself – Heb. 6:13
For what purpose did God do this? The writer of Hebrews tells us:
Thus God, determining to show the more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath – Heb. 6:17
God had previously “determined” what He was going to do through the Abrahamic covenant. It was to be something which could not change. Therefore, by swearing by Himself He showed the immutability of the covenant. Yet on page 608 of Kingdom through Covenant Wellum says,
the physical genealogical link from the Abrahamic covenant is transformed…in the dawning of a regenerate people from every nation who become the “one new man” in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph. 2:11-21).
He goes on to call this people “the true Israel” (Ibid). But in view of what we have just seen, this is not an option. God cannot “transform” the meaning of words in a covenant. But He doesn’t need to because the Abrahamic covenant houses promises both to the nations of Israel and to all the peoples of the earth (see Gen. 12:1-3, 7).