A Covenant in Sans Serif

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 the 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.

For everyone.

Let’s embody that for a change.

So what do you think about these translations, and Wright’s covenant emphasis in general? Agree? Disagree? Throwing office chairs because I dissed the Great Exchange? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is an Author, Preacher, and Content Creator who writes and curates here at The Apocalypse Review. You can also catch him at his author blog, zhoag.com.

  • Bev Murrill

    Love it! Even though I’m a bit old for a tattoo nowadays (bummer, missed my chance when I was young cause it was still TERRIBLY wrong for a girl to do that then) I love that the new version of ‘write these words on your heart’ can be ‘write these words on your arms’ and tell them to your children and anyone else who cares to look.

    One of my sons has Psalm 23 right down the inside of his forearm (yeah, he’s pretty muscular – that’s one big forearm), but he looks like such a tough dude and the people see that he’s written what he believes, not just on his heart but on his arm for all the world to see…

    I know that your blog isn’t about the tattoo per se, but about covenant, but just wanted to drop by and say that the fact that you’ve chosen something God has done as THE thing you want people to know you by, is really cool and really impactive. Letting others see what you stand for will make a difference to the marginilised, the oppressed and the underprivileged… sort of an upbeat version of ‘show and tell’. Kudos.

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    Great post, Zach! Tom Wright is rapidly becoming my favourite theologian. I’m currently working my way through his Simply Jesus – which, while simple in its aims and its language, is profound in its depth and conclusions. (I’ve ended up blogging about it as I read.)

    This is my favourite sentence from your post: ‘I want it to be as if God is saying through my own life, “Come on in. Be reconciled. You are welcome.”’ What a wonderful motto to live by. And so much healthier and more biblical than the usual line of “Agree with me, say this prayer and you’re in”.

  • http://www.natepyle.com/ Nate Pyle

    This is what I love about full Reformed theology that is more holistic and less focused on soteriology. Calvin, Bucer, Barth, and even Kuyper were all about covenant. Reformed theology that has traded covenant language for legal language quickly becomes cold and rigid. You can see that in the woodenness of the Westminister over the Heidelberg.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    that’s very true. wright still considers himself a reformed theologian in the literal sense – working from reformed principles to the contextual conclusions that he’s reached. your stream in the reformed tradition is a great one. now you just need to ditch monergism and jump on board the wesleyanabaptist bandwagon ;).

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    totally man! simply jesus is soooooo good. even better: how God became king. SO GOOD.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    wow, thanks bev. that’s so encouraging.

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    I guess that will probably be the next TW book on my list. I want to read his “big books”, but probably need to work my way up to them…

  • http://www.allthingsbeautifulblog.com/ Alyssa Bacon-Liu

    God, that tattoo is awesome. And the explanation makes it even better!

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    thanks alyssa!!

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    dude, if i can somehow scrounge up the $60, i want to read the new one soooo bad.

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    $60 is a lot for a book, sure, but you’ll probably get more value from that book than ten others…

  • A.J. Swoboda

    I’m stealing this. Brilliant stuff. Nothing like stealing from someone who stole from someone else ;)

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    A lot of good stuff. Funny thing is, Wright’s one of the main guys who turned me on to Reformed theology. His “In the Messiah” category was a colossal shift in the way that I engaged Paul’s soteriology, and then I go and find out that’s just a re-work of classic teaching on “union with Christ.” It’s the link that makes sense out of “great exchange” language as well as connects it to the gift of the Spirit who leads us into the ministry of reconciliation. I think Nate already got at it, but good Reformed theology is not just narrowly individualistic, but fully covenantal. Covenant language is wonderful because it’s relational AND legal, not strictly one or the other, making sense of both aspects of the texts in question. The covenant has always been about relationship, but it’s always involved the law (Sinai, etc.), just as marriage is a relationship based on enforceable promises. Israel’s prophets acted as covenant lawyers, bringing a lawsuit against her for her unfaithfulness/disobedience to the covenant, in the covenant law-court. Wright himself says there is a clearly forensic element to the whole thing. Then, in Jesus we have the true Israel, and in that context, Christ’s righteousness is his covenant faithfulness–his obedience to the letter and spirit of the covenant law, that Israel never offered. We are made righteous, or participants in the covenant family of God, when we are united with him, including his “righteousness”/covenant-faithfulness, which was vindicated in the resurrection (Rom. 4:25). I would say some stuff about his death on the cross there, but, you know, we probably don’t see eye to eye on that.

    One guy who does a great job of merging NPP insights and OPP insights in Michael F. Bird (another huge Wright fan). If you haven’t read him, (although, you probably have), you might appreciate the way he blends the old concerns about guilt, the judge, etc. with the issues of covenant membership and the people of God, and shows the way they don’t have to be pitted against each other. Instead of imputed righteousness, he prefers to speak of “incorporated righteousness” and I think that works quite nicely. You can read a good little summary of his mediation between Wright and the Neo-Reformed here: http://www.academia.edu/4574669/What_is_There_Between_Minneapolis_and_St._Andrews_A_Third_Way_in_the_Pipe-Wright_Debate

    Well, all that said, that was a long ramble. Still, best to you and yours. Also, sweet tattoo.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    steal away man!

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    I think I hear what you mean, and obviously it’s the “individual moral/legal guilt emphasis” that pervades classical Lutheran theology and influences most evangelical ideas of salvation that I – and Wright – am pushing back on here. But I’m not saying there’s NO legal/moral element, and Wright is clear about lawcourt themes in Paul. But the context is covenantal, always. Also, I hear you wanting to say that Wright is in favor of a Great Exchange way of thinking, but he really isn’t – and that’s why he pushes so hard AGAINST imputation doctrine in 2 Cor. 5. It’s not in the text. (His Justification book is great on this.)

    I’ll check out that Bird link when I get a chance :).

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    I can see the push-back element on the legal/moral. Actually, playing with the language a bit, I like to see it as pushing back from the close-angle focus on individuals to a broader view, where you see the way it fits in the covenantal whole. Ordo salutis really only makes sense within the historia salutis. :)

    On the Great Exchange stuff–no, you’re right, Wright doesn’t favor double-imputation explicitly. (I have read Justification–actually, his little ETS article from 2011 is probably his most recent, clearest statement and he gets around to clarifying his views on “according to works” in Rom. 2, etc.) What he has said, though, is that what he is saying with all the “In the Messiah” business does everything the Great Exchange stuff was trying to do, but more. We get a “righteous/covenantally faithful” status in the Messiah, just as the Messiah took our status as “unrighteous/covenant-breaker” on the Cross in Exilic judgment, and all of that within the broader idea of union with the Messiah, that fits into greater picture of reconciliation through Israel and her history. He doesn’t affirm double-imputation, but he see what’s it’s trying to do and says, “Yes, that’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s a bit clumsy here and there, and why don’t you try this instead.” Under Wright’s influence, I’ve never been a fan of the language of double-imputation myself. I usually just stick to Wright’s “What’s true of him, becomes true of me.” Still, with Bird I like talking about incorporated righteousness, because it takes the basic insight and broadens it.

    Still, Bird, in another article I think, cites a D.A. Carson article that’s interesting. Carson talks about the appropriateness of the language of “imputation” as a sort of theological spelling out of things, in the dogmatic context, even if it’s not textually the clearest thing. I read it and it’s pretty helpful in a lot of way. Might be interesting to look up because he’s seeing the critics point and offering a mediating defense.

  • Scott Emery

    Great stuff, brother.

  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    Thanks man!!

  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    Cool, thanks man.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    thanks bro!

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    awesome, thanks.

  • http://somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | the smitten word

    this makes me want to read wright. i remember in school we learned about covenantal nomism–the idea that God’s relationship to his people was about grace from the beginning and not the sort of works-based righteousness christians often read into it (if i’m remembering that correctly…it’s been a while!). the theme of covenant has always resonated with me, too.