Thinking and Acting Covenantally, Not Contractually – M. Horton

ordinary-MHorton-2014In connection with a critique of the avarice (greed) and narcissism (self-centeredness) of our present culture, theologian Michael Horton has some powerful things to say about the importance of Christians having a covenantal and not contractual way of thinking and living.

After describing how the contractual view of life works, where everything revolves around contracts and a conditional system of giving goods and services to one another (which can work this way too: “If at some point your partner fails to keep his or her part of the bargain, you can get out of the contract.”), Horton writes next:

A covenantal way of thinking is different. In the biblical covenants, God is the sovereign Creator and Lord. We do not ‘own’ ourselves, but we are God’s image bearers, accountable to him not only for how we relate to him but also for how we relate to others. God speaks, and we hear. Therefore, we never start from a position of autonomy [that is, ruling ourselves], electing to cede some of our sovereignty to God in exchange for certain benefits and securities. He gives us life, provides for us, commands us, and makes promises that he always fulfills according to his faithfulness. As his image bearers, then, we relate to each other covenantally: as husband and wife, as parents and children, and as members of the household of faith. In marriage, I yield my whole self to the other person and vice versa, regardless of poverty, sickness, or shortcomings, ’till death us do part.”

In a covenantal paradigm, I am bound intrinsically to God and to others in ways that transcend any good or service I can calculate (pp129-30).

A little later Horton expands on this, applying it to our life in the church as well as more broadly:

Imagine the difference that a covenantal way of thinking could make in our view of church membership, in our marriage and family life, and in our relationships with others at work and in the neighborhood. When everything turns on my free will, relationships – even with God – are contracts that we make and break. When everything turns on God’s free grace, relationships – even with each other – become gifts and responsibilities that we accept as God’s choice and will for our good and his glory (p.134).

And this, then, is how he concludes this section:

So it is not simply by understanding doctrine that we uproot narcissism and materialism. It is by actually taking our place in a local expression of that concrete economy of grace instituted by God in Christ and sustained by his Word and Spirit. At least in its design, this economy is governed by a covenantal rather than contractual logic. In the covenant of grace, God says to us, ‘I’m with you to the end, come what may.’ Only from this position of security can we say the same to our spouse, children, and fellow believers. And from this deepest contentment we can fulfill our covenants in the world ‘as unto the Lord,’ even when others break their contracts (p.135).

I find this a wonderfully refreshing and encouraging way for us to see our life as Reformed Christians – and much in harmony with the PRC view of the covenant: never a contract or agreement, but a precious relationship of friendship and fellowship with our Friend-Sovereign, the living Triune God of perfect fellowship, built on His sovereign, free grace to us in Jesus Christ. What a way to think and act – in every sphere of life!

These thoughts are taken from chapter 7 of Michael Horton’s Or-di-nary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan, 2014), which I am currently making my way through. The chapter is simply titled “Contentment.”

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