Is there anything we have to do in order to be a Christian? Some will tell you the answer is “no” — that salvation is a free gift and once you accept it you’re a Christian and there’s nothing else you need to do. Others will say “yes” — that you’re not a Christian unless you keep God’s commandments and follow Jesus Christ.
The truth is that God offers salvation freely, but you have to accept the gift on God’s terms. Those terms are called covenants — agreements that involve two parties binding themselves together with oaths. On the spiritual level, God initiates covenants, establishes the terms and promises, and binds Himself to the covenant oaths. These covenants are unfailing and sure, regardless of human action. We can choose whether or not to walk in covenant with God, but the covenant, and associated consequences for sin, stand whichever you decide.
“I make this covenant and this oath, not with you alone, but with him who stands here with us today before the Lord our God, as well as with him who is not here with us today,” Moses recorded in Deuteronomy 29:14-15. Not entering into covenant with God does not mean you’re getting out of consequences for sin — it means you’re choosing a path of death (Deut. 29:18-28).
I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days; and that you may dwell in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.” (Deut. 30:19-20)
God longs for us to covenant with Him from the heart. He’s been pleading for it throughout history, even though His people have been more often unfaithful than faithful (Deut. 30:6-14). Israel bound themselves to the covenant (Ex. 19:7-8; 24:7), but did not keep their agreement with God. Rather than responding by letting us die for our breach of covenant, Jesus gave His life to cleanse us of sin, take the curse of covenant-breaking on Himself, and establish the promised new covenant (or “renewed covenant,” as they say in my Messianic church).
not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Jer. 31:32-33, quoted in Heb. 8:7-12)
This adds yet another level of understanding to Christ’s covenanting work on the cross. In addition to Jesus making it possible for all people to walk in covenant with God, He established a new marriage covenant with His church. Romans 7 tells us that Israel was released from the Law — the Old Testament marriage agreement — so “that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God” (Rom. 7:1-4).
In one of the Servant Songs, it says of the Messiah, “I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness, and will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles” (Is. 42:6). The covenants exist in Christ and are transferred to us in his blood. On His last Passover, Jesus handed His disciples wine and said,
Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” (Matt. 26:27-29)
When we drink the Passover wine, we’re partaking of a covenant established in and transferred to us by the blood of Jesus Christ. Fittingly, traditional Hebraic wedding covenants included the bride and groom drinking from a marriage cup. This ties the covenanting symbolism in the New Testament with marriage, an analogy drawn within scripture by Paul. He writes to the church in Corinth, “I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2). It’s not too much of a stretch, then, to assume when Christ talked about drinking again with His people in the kingdom, He was talking about “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:7-9).
To be a true Christian, we must covenant with God. Such a covenant commitment cannot be taken lightly, and we’re not allowed to re-write the terms of the agreement. The covenants are already established and laid-out for us in scripture, and we have the choice whether or not to live within the covenants.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about us “earning salvation” by keeping the law. Under the New Covenant, the law is written within the hearts of those who choose to follow God. That’s what “not under the law” means — that the law becomes internal, transforming our hearts so we have no desire to break it, instead of functioning as an external system we try to align with. Salvation is a gift, and once we receive it we begin a process of change.
Through this process, we’re transformed into God’s children who bear good fruits in our lives because we’re developing His character. The sobering flip side to this is that someone who willfully rejects salvation and continues in sin without repenting will not be accepted as part of God’s family (1 Co. 6:8-11; Gal. 5:19-21; Heb. 10:26-31). They may not even have been believers in the first place, because true belief will result in transformation at a heart-level (Rom. 12:1-2).
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matt. 7:13-14)
Christianity results in action. Even after Paul converted and became an apostle, he didn’t think he’d already earned eternal life. He gave up everything that didn’t line up with this new faith and kept pressing forward in “the righteousness which is from God by faith” while conforming himself to Christ’s example in hope of attaining “to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:7-14). Works of the law won’t save you, but “faith without works is dead” (James 2:8-26). Perhaps rather than saying, “You have to do such and such things to be a Christian,” it would be more accurate to say, “If you are a Christian you will do these things.” Faith and works have to go together, and they will in those who are striving to live their lives after the example of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.