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Covenantal Nomism

by Mark Horne

copyright © 2003

“Covenantal Nomism” sounds like a description of tiny contract-loving creatures who live underground. But it is actually a recent term used to describe the pattern of religious belief and practice in first-century Palestinian Judaism. The idea is that God graciously establishes a structured relationship based on promises, a “covenant,” with undeserving sinful creatures. In response, those people are to gratefully follow God because they trust him. The law (in Greek: “nomos”) was given to Israel to mark them out as God’s covenant people and to give them a tangible way to show their trust in God’s promises. In the words of the famous hymn, Covenantal Nomism means “Trust and Obey.” To put it another way, Covenantal Nomism means “We love [God] because he first love us” (First John 4.19).

In Covenantal Nomism, it is understood that people continue to sin. The covenant includes the means for being forgiven of sins. These means are not ways to compensate for sins or win back God’s love. Rather, they are ways that God has given us, because he already loves us, to put us back on track. For Israel in the Old Testament, these means of dealing with ongoing sin often involved sacrifice. In the New Testament Jesus was revealed to be the true sacrifice who propitiated God’s wrath against sin so that now the means of forgiveness are simpler: “if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. … If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (First John 1.7, 9).

Covenantal Nomism can be contrasted with “Legalism” the idea that one must earn God’s favor by doing enough good works. Whether this means that one’s alleged good deeds must outweigh his bad, or that certain number of good must be done, or anything else, it is simply contrary to the Bible. According to the Bible we are sinners whose best works are deserving of condemnation due to the perversity of our hearts. The good news is that God freely bestows his love on us and brings us into covenant relationship to himself. He makes us part of his family, his covenant, by giving us faith–belief in the Gospel and trust in His promises. Only by faith are we righteous in God’s sight.

An example of Covenantal Nomism can be found in the parents of John the Baptist: “they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” ( Luke 1.6). There is no question that John’s parents were sinners like the rest of us. But they were counted as righteous and were blameless in their walk.

There is evidence that Covenantal Nomism was perverted at that time of Jesus. It was perverted because the actual content of God’s law had been twisted beyond recognition. For example, Jesus accused the teachers of the Law of setting aside God’s word in favor of their own commandments (c.f. Mark 7.8). Related to that, some were teaching that if one kept properly (as defined by rather rigid, man-made standards) certain ritual aspects of God’s covenant, one was safe from the wrath of God even though one was flouting the moral laws that God had given his people. Thus, John that Baptist preached, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Luke 3.7, 8). Interestingly, Luke calls John’s harangue, with it’s specific moral instruction, “the gospel” (3.18).

Once the Church was established after Pentecost, a new issue arose. Did baptized believing Gentiles need to become circumcised Jews in order to be full members of the Covenant people? At the Jerusalem Council, the answer was firmly “No!” God’s covenant people now included both Jew and Gentile without distinction.

Traditionally, some have tried to interpret the issue in Acts 15 as a debate over “legalism.” The problem with this is that the Jerusalem Council wrote to the Gentile Christians to do certain things rather than becoming circumcised. “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well” (Acts 15.28, 29).

If the point of being circumcised was to earn God’s favor, then that would mean the Jerusalem Council simply came up with a different easier legalism. God forbid! The point was that one is no longer identified as belonging to God’s people by circumcision. Rather, one is identified by the gift of faith–responding to the Gospel by repentance and submission to baptism. That gift that is incompatible with idolatry or the commonplace rituals associated with paganism such as Temple prostitution or imbibing blood. (Notice that the prohibition on blood is not unique to Israel but was given to Noah [Genesis 9.4]).

The boundaries of the covenant people of God have changed, but the expectation of a life of continual repentance from sin has not. As the Apostle Paul wrote: “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God” (First Corinthians 7.19).

copyright © 2003


  1. Though there are good points – “one is identified by the gift of faith–responding to the Gospel by repentance and submission to baptism” and “that gift that is incompatible with idolatry… temple prostitution or imbibing blood” – the answer is not complete. Since:

    1. that “faith-responding to the Gospel” intrinsically leads not to a theoretical and fruitless “faith in the Messiah”, as the supreme incarnated prove of God’s redeeming love to the sinners, but it further leads to following all of the moral commandments and spiritual exhortations both from the old and new testament writings, and further more, it leads to moral creativity (which is far more than moral conformism which is mechanically submitting to moral lists in order to achieve moral standards) which is in perfect harmony to God’s moral and spiritual standards as revealed in the whole bible. It is about an inner moral and spiritual spring which proves a real relation and an indwelling of the resurrected Christ (John 7:38-39).

    2. the core of the faith-in-Christ based life is the “new being” (2 Chorintians 5:17, Galathians 6:15) “which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (2 Chorintians 4:16, Colossians 6:15). That “new man” is the result of the cooperation of the believer with the Holly Spirit of the Lord, to whom he submit consciousely and purposely (Galatians 5:16-25).

    3. even though through Christ’s atonement the final consequences of the sin are temporary suspended for the believer, the outcome of his walking or not walking with God is not avoidable: “7.Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. 8.For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.” (Galatians 6).

    May the LORD help us live accordingly so we may “inherit the kingdom of God”! (Galatians 5:21) – so “16 Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. …15.For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4)

    Silvian Guranda, Romania, silvianguranda@gmail.com

    Comment by Silvian Guranda — August 27, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

  2. Dear friends,
    I try to read and understand this article (it was automatic translated in Dutch so its diffucult to exactly understood wath is written) Silvian ..I met him once for some years ago in Romania and that time whe where brothers…..This time i am reading the book off Boston (The quadruplicated state off human) and books off Thomas Halyburton and Samuel Rutherford and Thomas Hooker all off them are very onest and very bright in to discripe the way to the Lord…….I hope you will reed them to……God bless you all and give us that whe may be His children
    with love

    Comment by frans van der pol — June 1, 2010 @ 3:42 am

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