The Covenant of Works and Being Afraid of God

Jun 10, 2023 | Articles, Marrow Ministries Free Content

In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis tells the story of how he came to know God. It was not a pleasant experience at first. As he became aware that he was being pursued, he described feeling like a mouse fleeing from a cat and said he was “perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.”[1] But at that point, Lewis had only come to believe in a Supreme Being, a Creator. He had not yet learned Christ and the free love of God in Christ. He saw God as the Great King but not yet as the Good King. He contrasts this first experience with the glorious delight he later found in Christ and the depths of God’s mercies by saying, “The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men and His compulsion is our liberation.”

Contrary to what his sinful and fallen heart had told him, the One who pursued Lewis was not a tyrant or his enemy, but one who would gladly receive and welcome all who come to Him for mercy, no matter how feebly. As Jesus said, whoever comes to him, he will never cast out” (John 6:37). The King James renders it more forcefully, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me, and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” In other words, there are no conditions we have failed to meet that would make Him not receive us if we come to Him by faith for forgiveness and mercy. The prophet Isaiah said of God, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he not quench” (Isaiah 42:3), and encourages, “Come everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). Here is a God and a Christ our whole souls can run to and cast ourselves upon. There is no depth of sin, weakness, or need that surprises or deters Him. Indeed He Himself has given us the awareness of our sin and need in order to draw us to Him out of unbelieving fear.

Legal Fear

Each of us, by nature, has the same distrustful heart that Lewis describes when approaching God. Our souls, being rightly condemned because of our sin, can find no hope of love and forgiveness when lying under the naked Law; that is, the Law separated from the eternal heart and nature of the Triune God. By nature, we are all given over to living as if God will have no dealings with us except by His perfect law. As the Apostle Paul explains, we are born in Adam and have inherited his spiritual deadness and condemnation, but we have also inherited his hardness of heart that produced his spiritual deadness (Romans 5:12-14).

We are born in Adam and under the covenant of works God established with him (Genesis 2:16-17), and because of our natural union with Adam, we are born with the same conditional heart he and Eve fell into as a result of believing the lies of the Serpent (Genesis 3:1-5). Just as Satan implied to Eve that God’s gracious care and goodwill toward them was conditional, restrictive, and narrow, so he has contaminated all our thinking and feeling toward God in the same way. Our souls have been so utterly corrupted by the fall and the bondage of the covenant of works that our hearts and minds cannot conceive of any other way of relating to God apart from a work of the Spirit in our souls and an increasing knowledge of Christ by faith.

Believers easily fall back into a disposition toward God as a conditional taskmaster who wants to rule us but has not loved us. Click To Tweet

Overcoming this remaining legal or conditional heart toward God is the essence of the Christian life as we seek to grow in faith and learn more of the unconditional love of God in Christ. The remaining resistance in our hearts to God as our God and King is due to our remaining ignorance of the eternal covenant love of God as Trinity. Believers easily fall back into a disposition toward God as a conditional taskmaster who wants to rule us but has not loved us. The Apostle John writes, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19). It is not our perfect love but His eternal triune love within Himself and for us individually and for the Church corporately that comforts and empowers the whole of our lives out of fear and sin.

Eternal Triune Love

When did His love for you begin? It didn’t. It always was. The Apostle Paul explains that the eternal heart of the Father has always loved you if you belong to Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:1-10). Jesus also reveals that the eternal Father has eternally loved His Son and eternally loved you and me (John 17:22-23). Ours is not a God of mere pity who reluctantly feels sorry for those less fortunate than Himself. His salvation and free grace overflow out of the infinite fountain of His eternal being as the Uncreated Eternal Lover. He has eternally loved His Son, and the Son has eternally received and returned love to His Father in the eternal sharing of the Spirit’s love. And that love has also eternally been placed on you, believer. There was never a millisecond in an eternity of eternities that God did not know every corrupt desire or thought or deed you and I would commit. And there was also never a millisecond in an eternity of eternities that He did not love us and covenant with us in His Son for our redemption. Let the weight of such eternal free love lay upon your soul, beloved. Herein lies the remedy for all our anxious fears and remaining sin. As Paul writes, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:56). The law as a moral guide and revelation of God’s goodness? No, but rather our tendency to see the law as means of earning God’s love instead of a revelation that He is love. This is the source of our fear and sin.

Everlasting Righteousness

But what are we afraid of? If we are Christians and forgiven, why do we still fear? Why do I still struggle to give my whole heart to God? Paul sheds some light on this in Romans 7. In verses 1-6, the apostle explains that the believer was once married to the law in Adam but is now freed to marry Christ because we have died with Christ to the law of works and its claim over us. Christ has married us, but by faith, we must believe and marry Him and submit to His law as our Gracious King, every day. Later in chapter 7, Paul shares the source of his own remaining struggle to trust and submit to God: covetousness. In Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5, we are told that covetousness is idolatry. Why do I covet and fear? Because I desire to put myself in the place of God. Like our first parents, we too often believe the lie that our God needs a condition, merit, or cause from us in order to love us. But I cannot naturally trust an all-powerful being to take hold of all of my life if He can’t be trusted to always do me good. But this is why our great Savior has come! The King has come to put away sin, atone for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness for us (Daniel 9:24); to not only cleanse and purchase us but to cover us in His own eternal perfections so we no longer attempt to earn His love nor seek to keep His love by our merits. Christians are glad to live a life bowed down in the shelter of His Loving Reign.

It is appropriate that Lewis subtitles that chapter in his autobiography with a quote from George MacDonald: “The one principle of hell is—‘I am my own.’” The source of all our misery lies in our distrust of the infinite goodness of God and, thus, seeking to be our own source of goodness and rule for life. Our greatest longing is to be fully known and yet to still be fully and freely loved. Only God’s eternal unchanging covenant love for us in Christ can fulfill this longing and free us to no longer live for ourselves (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).

Are you experiencing such love to turn you out of yourself? To not merely know about His infinite goodness but to taste it and be taken in by Him so that you give Him out to others? Here is a Majestic Master who does not seek to enslave us but to cover and complete us. He has given us all of Himself so that we would give our whole selves in return to be known and loved by Him for His glory and the good of others. If He has eternally loved us and been for us, what or who could be against us?


[1]C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Boston: Harcourt Brace, 1955), 228-229.

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