So I have this tattoo. Sometimes, when my sleeve isn’t rolled up quite high enough, it says COVEN.
Pretty sure that’s the reason it caught the attention of some folks at an event last week. They came over to inquire. I revealed the full word and told them the meaning. They took a picture.
Fact is, the tattoo was inspired by the work of my favorite theologian, N.T. Wright (who coincidentally also inspired my second child’s middle name). Tom Wright has done some amazing work tracing the theme of covenant in the New Testament, especially in Paul. And he’s made some brave translations on this point, my personal favorites occurring in Romans 10 and 2 Corinthians 5. Here’s a quick taste of the first from his Kingdom New Testament translation:
Moses writes, you see, about the covenant membership defined by the law, that “the person who performs the law’s commands shall live in them.” But the faith-based covenant membership puts it like this: “Don’t say in your heart, Who shall go up to heaven?” (in other words, to bring the Messiah down), “or, Who shall go down into the depths?” (in other words, to bring the Messiah up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we proclaim); because if you profess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Why? Because the way to covenant membership is by believing with the heart, and the way to salvation is by professing with the mouth.
Most translations have “righteousness,” but Wright sees “covenant membership” instead. Why is that important, you ask? Well, it’s important because salvation is so often cast in purely moral or legal terms, with a heavy emphasis on the moral and legal guilt of every individual in contrast to God’s moral and legal “righteousness” as Judge. The cross then becomes all about dealing with our individual moral and legal guilt.
But if salvation is really wrapped up in the story of covenant, then we realize that the issue is not our individual moral and legal guilt before an angry Judge, but rather how an unfaithful people can become the people of God. In other words, Paul’s primary concern is how we become covenant members of the new people of God. The old way was based on cultural codes and laws, but the new way is entirely faith-based.
The beauty of salvation in the Messiah (another one of Wright’s significant translations) is that it is God’s faithfulness to his own covenant to rescue his people – which faithfulness was enacted through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – that allows for all us unfaithful ones to be rightly called the covenant people of God. And this door to covenant membership is no longer exclusive to one culture group (Israel) but to all, as Paul goes on to say, without distinction. Faith equalizes what the old law codes made unequal.
Think about the implications for all the culture groups that the church so often excludes today. Think about all the religious inequality at work. If salvation is about God’s faithfulness to open the door of covenant membership to all kinds of people, then that is truly good news for the marginalized, underprivileged, and oppressed people in our world. It is especially good news for the nonreligious outsiders, the dehumanized second-class citizens whom the Jesus of the New Testament (along with Paul, the apostle to the outsiders) seemed to pursue so relentlessly.
Here’s the other favorite covenant passage from Wright:
It all comes from God. He reconciled us to himself through the Messiah, and he gave us the ministry of reconciliation. This is how it came about: God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah, not counting their transgressions against them, and entrusting us with the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors, speaking on behalf of the Messiah, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore people on the Messiah’s behalf to be reconciled to God. The Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant.
Here, Wright singlehandedly dismantles the prized passage of the neo-reformed preacher, who wants to see a Great Exchange – our sin for Christ’s moral and legal “righteousness” – in this little grouping of verses. Unfortunately, it’s just not there (and makes no sense in the context). Indeed, what Paul is preaching here is not a neo-reformed gospel for morally and legally guilty individuals, but a missional gospel for people estranged from the covenant community. Paul is preaching a kind of hospitality, a kind of welcome, a kind of surprising openness to the world of outsiders previously cut off from the Old Covenant God and his people.
My tattoo is really about this. I want my life to be all about embodying God’s faithfulness to the covenant. Which means, I want to be about the missional work of opening up the covenant to those on the outside, as the embodiment of God’s own faithfulness to his own covenant to rescue the whole world through the Messiah. I want it to be as if God is saying through my own life, “Come on in. Be reconciled. You are welcome.”
To make Christian salvation all about covenant is simply to say that through the Messiah the relational God is made known.
Not the angry law-obsessed Judge.
But the patient, welcoming Father who has at last made good on his promise to make a way.
Let’s embody that for a change.
Also published on Medium.