By Mark VanOuse

A friend of mine raised a very good question: Does blessing really precede obedience?

The question came up in the context of my saying that one of the greatest things I’ve learned in my Christian life is the vast difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. How that, as Christians, we are not under the Old Covenant of Law, blessings or curses given based on our performance, but under the New Covenant of grace, granting us blessings from God based on Christ’s performance. “In other words”, I said, “under the New Covenant, the blessing precedes our obedience. We obey because we are blessed in Christ (Eph 1:3), not the other way around.”

That statement threw him off. He emailed me and said, “Why is this ‘God blesses us, and then we respond in obedience’ idea not more clear in Scripture? You would think God would want it to be clear. I would like to hear your answer to that.”

Here, then, is my response:

The question is a very good one that deserves a vigorous answer:

Actually, it is abundantly clear! In fact, it is one of the greatest themes of the entire Bible. No other theme is mentioned more in the Bible:

It’s called the New Covenant. This is the very covenant that Jesus instituted with His blood (Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, 1 Corinthians 11:25, Hebrews 9:18, 9:20, 12:24, 13:20).

Sadly, most Christians believe that Jesus shed His blood merely to “forgive their sins”. Actually, Jesus shed His precious blood “for the remission of sins” (Mat 26:28) and to institute a New Covenant.

The entire book of Hebrews is taken up with the vast difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, law and grace, the inferior priesthood of the Old Covenant versus the superior, the perfect, eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ, the inferior mediation in the Old Covenant, and the superior mediation of Jesus Christ in the New Covenant.

We know that a covenant, particularly a blood covenant, is the most binding promise of performance or contract that exists.

Sadly, most Christians know little about what exactly the New Covenant is (I used to be one them!) They also don’t know about what the Old Covenant is. How can this be? Jesus died a gruesome death to fulfill and do away with the Old Covenant and institute the New Covenant! The New Covenant the birthright of every child of God!

I actually heard a pastor (of a large church, yet) say, “Well, the Old Covenant is simply the Old Testament in the Bible and the New Covenant is the New Testament!” Wrong. There are many places in the Old Testament where we find the New Covenant and there are many places in the New Testament where we find the Old Covenant. In short, the Old Covenant is the Covenant of Law. It is a contract between God and man, based on man’s performance. In essence the Old Covenant says:

  • IF you obey, perfectly, all of the law, THEN you will be blessed (Deuteronomy 28:1­-14).
  • If you fail to perfectly obey, you are cursed. (Deuteronomy 27:26, 28:15-­68). Jesus made it even clearer when He said that perfect obedience must come from the heart (Matt 5:21-30).

I urge you to stop right now, open up your Bible and read all of Deuteronomy 28. Read it all. Read it carefully.

Well, did you read the whole chapter? Pretty painful, isn’t it? Fourteen verses are dedicated to the blessings and fifty-five verses to the curses. I wish more Christians would do what you just did. That would wake them up to the harsh and hard reality of living under the law.

The problem is, most Christians want to have only a part of the law. God does not see things like that. The law, the Old Covenant is a total contract. You can’t pick and choose what parts are relevant to you and what parts are not. That would be like signing a mortgage contract on a house and then telling the mortgage company later, “Well, I didn’t pay that part you wanted me to pay, because it’s the part I don’t want to keep!” Wrong! That signature on the contract binds you to keep the whole contract.  It is precisely the same with the Old Covenant of law (Gal 5:3).  You either are obligated to perfectly obey and adhere to the whole thing or nothing at all.

In short, the Old Covenant is a conditional covenant, based on the performance of man, based on man’s obedience. It says “Perfectly, totally obey and then you will be blessed. Disobey, even at one point, and then you will be cursed” (James 2:10, Deuteronomy 27:26).

Then Jesus came along and put the law on steroids. He declared in Matthew 5:20:

For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.

The reason was simple: God demands perfect obedience, from the heart. He is not interested in fake, artificial or counterfeit (external) righteousness.

Thus the Old Covenant is a covenant of failure, condemnation, curses and death. Romans 1:18-­3:19 provides ample evidence of the total, abject failure of all men in sin. Romans 3:19 says:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.

That is why Romans 3:20 declares:

Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

The whole point of the Old Covenant – a covenant that promises blessings, IF you totally, perfectly and always obey, wholeheartedly (and curses if you fail) – is this:

To exalt the righteousness of God and condemn the “righteousness of man”.

The reason is simple: all righteousness apart from God is idolatry, it is sheer blasphemy. If we could derive righteousness and obedience from ourselves, then God would have to worship us. God will have nothing to do with that.

The Bible plainly declares in myriad places that man is not good. That God alone is good.

“No one is good but One, that is, God.” (Mark 10:18b)

Romans 3:10­-12:

[10] As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one;

[11] There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.

[12] They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.”

So, the idea that we “get blessings from God because of our obedience” is crushed repeatedly in all 66 books of the Bible! The Bible is abundantly clear in at least 1,000 verses that man is an abysmal failure and that God alone is righteous.

So what does the Bible teach that man deserves? Guilt, wrath, condemnation, curses and death. Hell.

Thank God He doesn’t stop there! Thank God our God is a redeeming God!

You see, then, that the entire plan of salvation rests on a cornerstone, foundational concept in the Bible that says:

“Unless God blesses us, we have no hope”!

Praise God, because God is GOOD, He goes out of His way to bless us. Not because of our obedience (because we are such failures), but based upon the perfect obedience, perfect righteousness and perfect goodness of God Himself, The Lord Jesus Christ.

Romans 5:8­-11:

[8] But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.[9] Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.[10] For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.[11] And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus

That is precisely why God instituted The NEW COVENANT, in the precious blood of Jesus!

How sad, indeed tragic, that 95% of Christians have no idea what the New Covenant is. If asked, they couldn’t even find it in their Bibles!

The book on the New Covenant is the Book of Hebrews. The New Covenant, prophesied centuries earlier by Jeremiah (Jer 31:31i­34) is cited twice in Hebrews, once in chapter 8 and again in chapter 10. Here is the reference in chapter 8:31­-34

[31] “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—[32] “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.[33] “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.[34] “No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

The first thing to observe about the New Covenant is that it is not about our “I wills”. It is not about us or what we “do for God”. It is about what God does, what He initiates, what He wills, what He performs. Look at the same passage with some helpful highlights:

[31] “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—

[32] “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. [33] “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. [34] “No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

So what does God do in the New Covenant?

He puts His law in our minds and writes it on our hearts. In other words, His action, His blessing enables us to wholeheartedly obey.

Because of His action, we are blessed with a personal relationship with Him. “I will be their God and they will be my people”. We are His people as the result of His action, His choice, His will. Not ours.

Because of His action, His will, He forgives our iniquity and remembers our sin no more.

Let me ask: are not these things blessings from God? How do we get them? Through our obedience? No! But through the perfect righteousness and obedience of our High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ!

What is the result of that blessing?

  • Wholehearted obedience (because He blessed us by putting His law in our minds and writing them on our hearts!)
  • We become His people (because He blessed us by saying, “I will be their God and they shall be my people”!)
  • We are completely cleansed and God doesn’t even recall our sins against (because He blesses us by declaring, “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”)

The New Covenant also appears in other places in the Bible. One dramatic reference is found in Ezekiel 36:25-­27:

[25] “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.[26] “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.[27] “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.

Let me ask: isn’t this the case of God blessing us, not because of our obedience, not predicated or conditioned on our obedience?

In this recitation of the New Covenant God promises and blesses us with:

  • Cleansing, real cleansing from our filthiness and idolatry (verse 25). Is this not a blessing? Is it conditioned on our obedience or God’s goodness and grace?
  • God gives us a new heart and a new spirit. He takes out that dead heart of stone, that’s lifeless and unresponsive to Him, and gives us a new heart and a new spirit – one that’s alive and responsive to Him! Is this not a blessing? Is it conditioned on our obedience or God’s goodness and grace?
  • God puts His Spirit – that means Himself (“Christ in you the hope of glory”, Col 1:27) – inside of us. What is the result of Jesus Christ, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, living in us? God Himself, internally causes us to “walk in My statutes” and “keep my judgments and do them”. Is this not a blessing? Is it conditioned on our obedience or God’s goodness and grace?

Here’s the New Covenant in Jeremiah 32:40-­41a:

(40) ‘And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good [that’s blessing!]; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me. (41) ‘Yes, I will rejoice over them to do them good [that’s blessing!]

Isn’t it ironic, though, how we – in our unrenewed, fleshly minds – think that there is some sort of an “I will” on our part that can somehow merit the favor (blessing) of God? Where does such thinking come from?

Here are the words of Lucifer, when he was cast out of heaven, Isaiah 14:12-­14 (ESV)

[12] “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star [KJV: “Lucifer”], son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!

[13] You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high;

I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north;

[14] I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’

Do you see it? “I will…, I will…, I will…, I will…, I will…” Lucifer, when he was a bright archangel said in his heart of corruption, of idolatry “I WILL”.

And the real killer is “I will make myself like the Most High”. Isn’t that what most Christians think? “I will make myself like Jesus”, “I will imitate Jesus”. That is idolatry, plain and simple! There is only One Who can fashion Himself into the lives of man and that is almighty God Himself!

I contend that the “I will” Christianity, “I will obey…”, “I will do this for God…”, etc, ad nauseum, is said from an unrenewed, fleshly, sinful, idolatrous mind. Oh, I know it “sounds good”, but it is rotten from hell to the core! That’s because it is from hell!

This is precisely the way the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes thought: “I will make myself like the Most High”. And when the Most High showed up in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, they hated Him, they murdered Him.

What made Jesus furious wasn’t necessarily the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes themselves. What made Jesus furious was: SELF RIGHTEOUSNESS.

Jesus, prefaced the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector “sinner”, by saying:

“Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (Luke 18:9)

What we don’t realize is that all the while we denounce the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes, we are ourselves are guilty of worshiping at the shrine of our own self-righteousness!

Jesus said, John 15:4-­5:

[4] “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.[5] “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.

Is not this “abiding in the vine” speaking of receiving from the Lord, receiving His blessing? Jesus said that apart from Him we can NOTHING.

No obedience.

No righteous response.

No true victory over sin.

How about Ephesians 1:3­-14? Look at what it says in verse 3:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,

The “blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” refers to our giving God glory, adulation, honor as God. How does that happen? Precisely because He HAS BLESSED US (past tense, accomplished, done) with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ!

And what are those spiritual blessings?

[4] just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love,

He chose us – not that we chose Him (John 15:16), that was done before the foundation of the world. The result of that is a life of holiness and blamelessness.

[5] having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will,

HE predestined us to be adopted as His sons by [Greek “dia”, “by means of”] Jesus Christ – not by means of our obedience or our “I will”. It was done according to the good pleasure of His will.

[6] to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted [Greek, “charitoo”, literally “graced, highly favored”] in the Beloved.

This is the reason why God blesses us first. Why HE is the first cause. Why the input of His blessing us by grace results in the output of our obedience and glorifying Him.

The reason is “to the praise of the glory of His grace”.

That grace has made us (we didn’t make it or obey our way into it) “accepted [graced, highly favored] in the Beloved”!

[7] In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace [8] which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence,[9] having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself,

[10] that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.

[11] In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will,

Is an inheritance something we earn or deserve? Is it not a blessing that we receive simply because of the goodness of the One granting it?

You can see here that God HIMSELF “works all things according to the counsel of His will”.

[12] that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.[13] In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise,[14] who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.

On what basis is the guarantee of our inheritance (our blessing)? Our obedience and performance? No! It is the guarantee of the Holy Spirit of promise.

Not our promises, but the Holy Spirit of promise.

This is not the only place in scripture speaking of a “guarantor”. In Hebrews, the book I call the Magna Carta of the New Covenant, we read in Hebrews 7:18­-22 (ESV):

[18] On the one hand, a former commandment [speaking of the Old Covenant] is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness [19] (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.

[20] And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, [21] but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘ You are a priest forever.’ ”

[22] This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant.

I trust you are starting to see that the New Covenant, the covenant of grace:

  • Is not based on our performance our or our obedience,
  • Is based on the infinitely righteous, holy and perfect performance of JESUS
  • Is a covenant that provides blessings to us, based on the perfect obedience and righteousness of Jesus Christ, contrary to what we deserve (wrath)

I would forcibly argue that the very cross, crucifixion, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is no small matter in the Bible. And that Calvary is founded upon grace – what GOD does for us, how He accepts us, how He blesses us — not on law (what we do for God), in spite of enormous deserved wrath and condemnation on our part.

I can understand why these things may not be clear. It was not clear to me until about 6 years ago. The problem with the modern church is that we are given over to moralism, which is about what “I’m supposed to do and not supposed to do”.

That, plain and simple, is a false Gospel. It is idolatry. It is an outrage to the exclusive holiness of the Most High. It is echoing the words of Satan himself when he was cast out of heaven – “I will make myself like the most high” (Isaiah 14:12).

Paul called those who hold to such a false “gospel” anathema (that is the Greek word for the strongest condemnation and damnation to hell!).

It is at the epicenter of the problem of the Galatian church. It is what evoked a stinging response from Paul, Galatians 3:1-­6:

[3:1] O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?[2] This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?[3] Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? [4] Have you suffered so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?[5] Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?—[6] just as Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”

We also see from Galatians 3:10-­14:

[10] For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.”[11] But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.”[12] Yet the law is not of faith, but “the man who does them shall live by them.”[13] Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”),[14] that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

Are the blessings of God conditional on our obedience? Absolutely not. Hundreds – perhaps thousands – of scriptures attest otherwise. Why? Because man is man and he is not God. Man is not intrinsically good, like God. Therefore it is a sheer impossibility for man to produce perfect, faultless righteous obedience.

But the blessings of God ARE conditioned upon obedience!

They are conditioned upon the perfect, total obedience of Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 10:5-­10 declares:

[5] Therefore, when He came into the world, He said:

“Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, But a body You have prepared for Me.

[6] In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You had no pleasure.

[7] Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come— In the volume of the book it is written of Me— To do Your will, O God.’”

[8] Previously saying, “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the law), [9] then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first [the Old Covenant, the Covenant of Law, man’s works, failure and deserved curse] that He may establish the second (the New Covenant, the Covenant of Grace, based on Christ’s perfect works, obedience, success and blessing). [10] By that will [Whose will? Our will? No! Jesus’ will!] we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Believe it or not, I’m just getting started. I’ve been studying this for years. Some of the greatest Christians of all time have discovered this central Biblical truth. I’ve been leading a Bible study and this message has been revolutionizing their life. They would be glad to attest to that.

The bottom line: this is the Gospel! It is the Gospel of grace. It speaks not only to our prior condition of saving us from the wrath of God, from being “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1) and being born again. The Gospel also speaks to our present condition in preserving us from this corrupt generation (Heb 10:39, Romans chapters 5, 6, 7 ,8:1-­16). It speaks to our future condition, being glorified with Christ (Romans 8:18­-39, 1 Cor 15:35­-58, Col 3:1­4).

I said that great Christians of the past have seen this. I cite as “Exhibit A” the Reformers themselves – Luther, Calvin, Knox, etc., who tenaciously maintained that the Gospel is:

Salvation, in its totality, is through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone.

Grace, by definition in the Bible, is God blessing us, accepting us, and favoring us, all because of JESUS CHRIST. NOT because of our obedience, righteousness or goodness.

Biblical salvation has a past, present and future element. So, biblically, it is accurate to say “I was saved, I’m being saved, I will be saved”. Past salvation is regeneration and justification, present salvation is walking by the Spirit and future salvation is glorification.

The question which was raised – and it is a very good question – was: “Why is this ‘God blesses us, and then we respond in obedience’ idea not more clear in Scripture? You would think God would want it to be clear.” As you can plainly see, God has made it abundantly clear (Hebrews 6:13-­19). The problem is neither with the clarity nor the massive volume of scripture on this. The problem is that we are so “dull of hearing” (2 Cor 3:14, Isa 6:10). The writer of Hebrews laments:

of whom we have much to say, and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. (Heb 5:11).

A significant reason is that the American church has by and large ignored huge swaths of scripture on this, and “preaches” a man-­centered – not Christ-­centered – “Christianity”. We are teaching “moralism” at the expense of the Gospel of grace. We are teaching LAW – blessings based on our obedience and performance, rather than GRACE, blessings based on CHRIST’S obedience and performance. It is a “performance-­based” (law­-based) “Christianity” that is man­centered and man-­glorifying. True biblical Christianity is grace­-based, Christ­-centered and God glorifying.