The New Covenant in a Chinese Context (Part 2): New Hearts and No Sin

The New Covenant in a Chinese Context (Part 2): New Hearts and No Sin February 12, 2013

This is part 2 of a series trying to interpret the new covenant from a Chinese perspective. In the last post, I sought to highlight a subtle point missed in many discussions about the new covenant–––a new collective identity.

Typically, Western theology lays stress on the individual’s salvation, specifically his or her being forgiven of sin. This is a wonderful blessing but it has been emphasized to the near exclusion of other aspects of the new covenant. For example, see Jer 31:33, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (v. 33), [我要将我的律法放在他们里面, 写在他们心上].

This phrase reiterates Ezekiel 36(:26–27). Unless God changes our hearts, no one can be saved. Salvation does not depend on “free will.” Rather, salvation depends on God. We cannot change our own hearts. Only God can give us new hearts.

Western theology seems to run straight to v. 34, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more,” [我要赦免他们的罪孽, 不再记念他们的罪恶. 这是耶和华说的]. On this point, I won’t say much since most people are familiar with this aspect of the new covenant. Why is it that so many people know God forgives sin but they don’t know that God changes hearts?

Western culture has long emphasized the ideas of “law” and “guilt.” Naturally, this has meant that people notice v. 34 but run past v. 33. After all, v. 33 puts people in a bit of a philosophical quandary. If salvation ultimately depends on God writing his law on human hearts, then saving faith does not come from ourselves but from God. In a culture that stresses self-autonomy, the idea is unsettling that God decides whether or not to change our hearts.

From an Eastern perspective, individuals understand that they are not sovereign. There is always someone with more power than them. The one in charge has the power to do what I cannot do. When it comes to changing our hearts,  a Chinese perspective offers a bit more humility in that it recognizes an individual’s limitations. Ultimately, salvation means submitting to the power of another––it is his law that is in our hearts. We are not the captains of our own ship. God is not my “co-pilot.”

Why highlight the point that salvation (via the new covenant) is an expression of God’s sovereignty rather than an exercise in individual prerogatives? By changing our hearts, God ensures that he will keep his promises. One should notice that the New Covenant is unconditional in terms of what people must do to make sure it happens. There is nothing in the new covenant that says, “If you do this, then God will do that.” God provides what he promises. Some people may not realize that new covenant language goes back at least to Deuteronomy 30. Since the time of Moses, God had foreseen that his people would go into exile, but that he would restore them (Deut 30:3–5).

How would he ensure this? 

Deuteronomy 30:6 says, “the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring so that they will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”

The only way we would ever love God and so fulfill the great commandment is if God himself takes the initiative to do what we cannot do––change our hearts. Left to ourselves, we would all have “uncircumcised hearts” and no one could be saved. Back in Gen 12:3, God had promised to bless all nations. In Gal 3:8, Paul calls this promise the “gospel” such that Gentiles could be justified. Therefore, this new covenant promise in v. 33 ensures that God will keep his promise to circumcise hearts resulting in the salvation of people from every nation. There would be no forgiveness without new hearts. Without new hearts, God would not keep his promises. God would be unrighteous. God preserves his own honor.

In addition, having new hearts, we can now live in ways that give honor to God. We are no longer enslaved to do what makes us ashamed (cf. Rom 6:21). Our problem is not fundamentally a legal problem; we have a heart and therefore relational problem. If I were to be pardoned but then persist in rebellion and betrayal, this could hardly be called salvation. Nor could I really be able to say I am reconciled to God relationally. Therefore, the new covenant brings about full restoration of the whole person, not simply erasing a bad record.

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