New City Catechism Week Forty-four Q&A: What is Baptism? Baptism is the washing with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Question for week forty-five is: Is baptism with water the washing away of sin itself?
Our recent Open Gate Sunday School class seminar entitled, Continuing Reformation, pointed out that Martin Luther’s life-changing epiphany came when he was studying in the book of Romans. The Holy Spirit suddenly made it clear to him that the new covenant established by Jesus was not dependent on his ability to gain his own righteousness through good works and obedience to the law. His salvation…our salvation…is totally a gift from God that we have done nothing to earn. And that kind of covenant has a name. It’s called a “Royal Grant” covenant. The term Royal Grant Covenant isn’t used exclusively in a religious sense. In the secular world, a “royal” might, just out of the kindness of his heart, “grant” someone forgiveness for a crime he’s committed, or grant to someone an undeserved gift. But, let’s face it, that’s a pretty unlikely scenario.
But I think that we need to pause a minute to discuss covenants. Outside of religious circles, the word covenant isn’t used very often. We make “promises,” we sign “contracts,” we shake hands on a “deal,” and we negotiate treaties. But I’m not sure all of us really even know what a covenant is. So I did some digging. Did you know that there are, by definition, three different kinds of covenants? The first kind is called a Parity Agreement. That’s when two equal parties agree to service each other for their mutual benefit. (I’ll mow your lawn and you’ll wash my car.) The second kind is called a Suzerain-Vassal Agreement. This is a reciprocal arrangement between a superior and his chosen subordinates. (I’ll give you my cottage, but you need to keep it up, do no harm to the environment, and welcome me when I visit.) And the third type is a Royal Grant. As the name implies, this agreement is an outright gift, usually from someone with royal status to someone he favors. (I’ll give you my cottage on Lake Michigan, no strings attached.)
But we didn’t go over all that just so you could impress your friends with your knowledge of covenants. Stick with me here; it’ll be worth it. At Mt. Sinai God established his Suzerain-Vassal covenant with the Children of Israel. (I’ll love and protect you, and be your God forever if you keep all of my laws perfectly; the laws I’ve designed to make you righteous and acceptable.) But of course, sinful man couldn’t possibly keep his end of the covenant. So God added an amnesty provision when he established the system of animal sacrifices as reconciliation for laws not kept (sins). If the animal was acceptable and the priest did everything exactly as commanded, that one worshiper would receive forgiveness until he sinned again. Did you hear what I just said? That one worshiper would be forgiven until he sinned again, which could very likely be as soon as he began walking away from the altar. Are you feeling the absolute futility of this situation? Yet the fear of a God who holds life and death, and even more significantly eternal destiny in his hands, made it impossible to get out from under the weight of the covenant. There was no joy in this crushing legalistic relationship.
As a result, the blood of lamb after lamb, sacrifice after sacrifice muddied the earth, and the endless sighs of anguished souls were raised in the futile hope that God would blot out yet one more sin. This went on day after day, year after year in an endless struggle to appease God. The altar fires never went out. The smell of bloody smoke filled the air without ceasing. But then one day John the Baptist pointed his finger at a very special man and said: “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” And everything changed! The law that we couldn’t possibly keep was no longer needed. And the only possible acceptable sacrifice for our sin was standing there in human form. The need to keep the law and to offer endless ephemeral sacrifices was over.
Because of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, the Suzerain-Vassal covenant ended, and God now offers us a Royal Grant. All we need is to simply accept God’s (the most Royal of all Royals) gift (grant) of grace, and the crimes we’ve committed are forever forgiven. And we’re given the gift of eternity in Heaven with our creator. Isn’t that awesome!
So, the next time we celebrate communion and the pastor quotes Jesus by saying ”This cup is the new covenant in my blood…” I pray that we’ll all remember that that new covenant is a Royal Grant in which the gift of love and acceptance is given by the King (Jesus) to someone he favors who has done absolutely nothing to deserve it. We are saved, Sola Gratia.
Written by Jim De Horn