An Impossible Covenant

And How It Becomes a Permanent Joy

The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference | Indianapolis

In the last two weeks, there have been several unusual providences in my life that cause me to think this text and this message have a special urgency for this audience — for you. Two weeks ago today I spoke to the London Men’s Convention. The text was assigned to me, as it was here. There it was 1 Kings 18:16–46, the story of Elijah on Mount Carmel defeating the prophets of Baal.

And the main point was: If your heart turns to God as your supreme Treasure, God has turned your heart. First Kings 18:37, “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” That’s what Elijah wanted them, and the men of London, to know: If human hearts turn back to God, God has turned them back. This is what it means for God to be God. And therefore he aims to be known and loved and treasured as God — the one who turns the human heart. That was the message to the men of London.

No Coincidence

Today I have been assigned Deuteronomy 29 and 30 — not for the men of London, but the women of The Gospel Coalition. And again at the heart of the passage is the same point: If you don’t see God as your supreme Treasure, one decisive reason is that God has not given you that sight. Deuteronomy 29:4, “To this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” But if you love the Lord your God with all your heart, God has given you that love. Deuteronomy 30:6, “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart.”

Those coincidences, or as my wife calls them, Godincidences, don’t increase the authority of the messages. The messages stand or fall with Scripture. But for me personally: two messages, in two weeks, with biblical texts I didn’t choose, and meanings I didn’t create, one for men and one for women, and both riveting our attention on the sovereign rule of God over the fallen human heart is striking. And my sense of urgency about this message for you is therefore intensified.

Cut the Peculiar Covenant

Deuteronomy 29:1: “These are the words of the covenant that the Lord commanded Moses to make [literally: “to cut”] with the people of Israel in the land of Moab [that’s where they are right now just before entering the promised land after forty years of wandering in the wilderness], besides the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb [or Mount Sinai].”

“Fallen people are capable of great sacrifices, but not out of love for God.”

In other words, God is making another covenant, “besides the covenant” of the law at Mount Sinai. And indeed this covenant is going to sound very strange, with aspects that were not prominent in the Mosaic covenant.

Recall that a covenant is a relationship in which God makes promises toward man, and requires responses from man. And the nature of the promises and the nature of the responses determine the kind of covenant it is. And we should stay open for now, because there are several very peculiar things about the covenant God is about to cut with his people. And “cut” is the literal translation of the Hebrew for making this covenant (verse 1).

Seeing They Did Not See

Deuteronomy 29:2–4, “And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: ‘You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand [to know] or eyes to see or ears to hear.’”

But they have seen! Verse 2: “You have seen.” Verse 3: “Your eyes saw.” But they did not see. “Seeing they do not see” (Matthew 13:13). What did they not see? They saw the Red Sea split. These are the children of those who died in the wilderness for forty years. They were under eighteen when the Red Sea split, because two years later, God said everyone twenty or older would die in the wilderness (Numbers 14:29). Many of them saw that massive miracle. They saw the manna from heaven. They saw water from a rock. And they would have said: God did that. So what did they not see? They did not see God as supremely precious in all of that. Supremely valuable. Supremely desirable, above all else. They did not see him as compellingly beautiful. They didn’t seem him as their greatest Treasure.

And of all the things that Moses could have said about why they didn’t, he said this in Deuteronomy 29:4: “The Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” He hasn’t given you the kind of heart that moves from amazement at the wonders of God to love for the wonder-working God himself. You’ve seen him as powerful. But you haven’t seen him as precious. You love other things more.

So the banner flying over this covenant from the beginning is: You can’t keep it. The covenant starts with this knowledge: You can’t see reality for what it is. You can’t hear reality for what it is. And you can’t sense reality in your heart for what it is. Your eyes, and your ears, and your heart are spiritually dead to what matters most in reality. That’s the starting point of this other covenant besides the one at Mount Horeb in Sinai (Deuteronomy 29:1).

Blind Under the Veil

This wasn’t peculiar to that generation. It was still true of Israel in the New Testament. Paul said, “Their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away” (2 Corinthians 3:14). In fact, to this very day, June 16, 2018, Israel, as a whole, does not have eyes to see Jesus as the treasured Messiah that he is. Romans 11:25, “A partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” Thousands of Jewish people have embraced Jesus as the Messiah, but for most, the veil remains unlifted.

And what’s even more relevant for us, this condition of heart and eye and ear is not unique to Israel. It is a human condition. In Ephesians 4:17–18, Paul describes the Gentiles — the nations of the world (us!) — as “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”

Dark understanding. Guilty ignorance. Hardness of heart. That’s us. That’s Israel. That’s the human race, unless Deuteronomy 29:4 is somehow reversed. For Moses, that is the starting point of this covenant in Deuteronomy 29 and 30. This is one of the most fundamental facts about the world God has revealed. Human beings are spiritually blind, deaf, and hardened in our hearts.

Dead to God’s Beauty

This condition of hardness is first and foremost toward God. For example, it doesn’t mean that an unbelieving mother can’t feel tender affections for her infant. It means she cherishes her infant more than she cherishes God — which is treason. She treasures and delights in her children more than she treasures and delights in God. Fallen people are capable of great sacrifices, but not out of love for God.

The apostle Paul describes our condition apart from the work of Christ and the presence of his Spirit: “The mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7–8). That’s the condition of Israel in Deuteronomy 29:4, and it is the condition of all of us until God takes away the hardness of our heart, and gives us eyes to see. “To this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.”

Until that massive, foundational, all-pervading truth about ourselves sinks in to the core of our being, we will not begin to fathom or enjoy or spread what it means to be saved. Because we will have no idea of the real condition we were saved from. Do you have any idea how deaf, how blind, how deadened in heart you were — how impossible it was for you to hear, and see, and sense in your heart the worth of God? That’s the beginning of this covenant.

Possible with God

Moses proceeds with the covenant. And when he says in Deuteronomy 29:9, “Therefore keep the words of this covenant and do them, that you may prosper in all that you do,” Deuteronomy 29:4 is included in “the words of this covenant.” Believing and embracing and being broken by the devastating and merciful words of helplessness is part of what you do when you keep this covenant.

Then in Deuteronomy 29:13, Moses makes plain that the aim of this covenant relationship is that the people grasp with their hearts and eyes and ears that God is their God, they are his people, and that nothing is more to be desired in all the world than this relationship of love. Deuteronomy 29:13, “that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God.”

So, evidently, what is impossible with man is possible with God. God is pursuing a covenant relationship, where they will be his people and he will be their God, even though their heart is hard, and their eyes are blind, and their ears are deaf, and they cannot keep the terms of the covenant.

No Safety in Numbers

What could that mean? Strikingly, in Deuteronomy 29:16–21, God makes clear what it does not mean. It does not mean that God’s sovereign ability to create a people for himself where there is only deadness of heart implies you can boast in the stubbornness of your heart and think you are safe, just because you are an Israelite — or a church member.

Look with me at Deuteronomy 29:18–19: “Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’”

Your Group Won’t Save You

One is that God deals with individuals, not just corporate Israel. Some scholars say that we Gospel-Coalition types make too much of the individual and his salvation, when the Bible deals more in corporate categories. Well, Deuteronomy 29:18–21 is pretty clear that God is radically focused on the individual here, who boasts in his false security in the corporate group.

Look at Deuteronomy 29:21: “The Lord will single him out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity.” In fact, this person’s horrific mistake is to think that he is safe in his stubbornness because he belongs to corporate Israel. Oh, how many people perish because they think they belong to a family or tribe or a church or a nation that has God’s favor, when, in fact, nobody is saved by belonging to a group — any group — when their individual heart is hard toward God.

God Requires Holiness

The other thing to notice from verse 18 is that this verse is quoted in the New Testament in Hebrews 12:15, and the issue is exactly the same: an individual in the community of believers who thinks he is safe when he has not passion to pursue holiness. To which the writer says, “Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

That’s a warning to the whole church: Don’t play fast and loose with grace, as though covenant-keeping does not matter. It does matter. You won’t see the Lord without it. So the rest of is a warning that it does matter, and that judgment is indeed coming to Israel. Why? “Because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 29:25).

Secret Things Belong to God

Now, at this point, the people must have been very perplexed. First, you tell us, God, that we are standing here to enter a covenant with you (Deuteronomy 29:1). Then you tell us that you haven’t given us the heart to keep this covenant. And we can’t do it unless you do (Deuteronomy 29:4). And then you tell us that you are indeed going to be gracious and pursue this covenant with us, and somehow make us your people (Deuteronomy 29:13). But then you warn us that no one should presume upon this grace as though we could walk in disobedience and still be safe (Deuteronomy 29:18). And then you say that judgment is really going to come on us (Deuteronomy 29:24–28). Lord, may we be excused if we don’t know what’s going on?

“Nobody is saved by belonging to a group when their individual heart is hard toward God.”

Then comes Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” In other words, there will always be things that you might like to know, but that you cannot know. Some things God chooses not to reveal. “The secret things belong to the Lord.” But what he reveals in his word is what you need to keep his covenant and live. “The things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do [them].” I tell you what you need to know to live the way I want you to.

God Will Change the Heart

But the Lord is not done revealing things. Amazing things that will answer some of their questions. Yes, judgment and exile are coming, for you are a stiff-necked people. But now look at Deuteronomy 30:1–3: When you “return [literally, “when you turn,” that is, repent] to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you.”

To which, they would surely say, if he paused, “So you make our restoration and your mercy depend on our repentance. But you have told us we can’t repent unless you give it to us. Our hearts are encased in deadening, callous flesh. We can’t see you or hear you or feel you for the treasure that you are. How are we going to turn and repent — much less, do it — as you say, ‘with all your heart and with all your soul’?”

No Greater Human Experience

But before they have a chance to ask that, God answers with the most precious, most hope-filled verse in the entire book, Deuteronomy 30:6:

“The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”

Now, there is a certain awkwardness for a man to stand in front of 8,000 women and talk about circumcision. But I’ve gotten over that. Now I want you to get over it because what Moses is talking about here in this metaphor, which applies to men and women, is the most glorious, most joyful experience in the world. There are greater realities, like God himself! But no greater human experiences than what this verse predicts.

You Will Keep the Covenant

This is God’s stunning, all-gracious answer to how people with hearts encased in deadening, callous, God-spurning flesh can repent and escape the divine curse of this covenant. How? God unilaterally, sovereignly cuts this God-spurning deadness away! And thus “cuts” a new covenant (Deuteronomy 29:1).

This means that God gives you a new kind of heart. What kind of heart? A heart with this effect — this new, natural reflex (Deuteronomy 30:6): “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” You will keep the covenant.

I believe that promise is made here to corporate Israel, and that it is going to come literally true someday in the future. That one day there will be headlines in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: “Flash: Millions turn to Jesus as Messiah” (Romans 11:1–2, 11–12, 15, 24, 26). Which implies, by the way, that the current state of Israel is a covenant-breaking state — they reject their King and Messiah, Jesus. In that covenant-breaking condition, neither God nor the Unites States of America nor any other state is obliged to treat them differently than they treat all the nations. We owe them justice, and whatever mercies see fitting, as with other states.

God Will Secure the Purpose of Creation

But back to the main point: God has already made it plain, this miracle (of Deuteronomy 30:6) happens one heart at a time. This miracle is not some corporate esprit de corps. This is a human heart with the deadness and blindness and deafness cut away. And in its place a heart that loves God — loves him! This is the creation of love — for God! This is you, I pray: loving God “with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”

This is God sovereignly securing — guaranteeing, bringing about — the purpose of creation, the reason he made the world. Look at Deuteronomy 30:9–10, which describes what happens when he gives his people a new heart that loves him. Verse 9: “The Lord will again take delight in prospering you.” Surely that does not mean that he delights in doing good to you while finding you yourself to be morally ugly and displeasing. The doctrine of the justification of the ungodly is not in the foreground here. It is in the background. What’s in the foreground here is the doctrine of the beautification of the people of God through the transformation of their hearts into hearts that love God more than anything (Deuteronomy 30:6).

So when will the Lord take delight in you? Deuteronomy 30:10 says in the very last clause, “when you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” In other words, when verse 6 comes true. When he gives you a heart to love him “with all your heart and with all your soul.”

Find Satisfaction in God

Linger here for a moment. And let this sink in. I have said: This miracle (Deuteronomy 30:6) is God securing — guaranteeing, bringing about — the purpose of creation. To see the wonder of this, ponder the meaning of loving God with all your heart. So many of us have been taught that loving God equals obeying God — doing things for God. It doesn’t. That’s a fruit of loving God. Loving God is treasuring God more than anything or anyone else. Loving God is finding him supremely precious. Loving God is being satisfied in God more than spouse, more than children, more than health, more than life. Loving God is experiencing God as our supreme delight.

When Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15), he did not equate love and commandment-keeping! He made commandment keeping the effect of loving him. If this, then that. This and that are not equal. The kind of love Jesus requires for himself and his Father is seen in Matthew 10:37: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” This love is not equal to obedience: that is not the way parents love sons and daughters. Nor does this love equal “take care of or meet needs.” We do not take care of Jesus! This love equals: cherishing, treasuring, feeling strong binding affections for. That is the kind of thing we feel when we love Jesus and God with all our hearts!

“Loving God is treasuring God more than anything or anyone else.”

This kind of heartfelt love is the beauty God works in us (Deuteronomy 30:6) so that he might delight in us. Here it is again from verses 9–10 collapsed to their essence: “The Lord will take delight in you . . . when you turn to the Lord, that is, love the Lord, that is, delight in the Lord with all your heart.” This is the goal of all creation — this is why God has done all that he does in creation and redemption: God has communicated so much of his glory — so much of himself — that, by the miracle of his grace (verse 6), we see him and love him as supremely beautiful and satisfying, so that God now looks on us with great delight, because nothing reflects his own glory like our delight in him. That is the goal of all creation and all redemption — God enjoying our enjoyment of him forever.

And it is all of grace — free, sovereign grace — raising the spiritually dead, giving sight to blind eyes, giving hearing to deaf ears. “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever” (Romans 11:36).

Christ Bought the Miracle

Which leads to this climactic, stunning statement of Moses in Deuteronomy 30:11–14. Yes, Moses would say, “I did say back in Deuteronomy 29:4 that you do not have hearts or eyes or ears that can see and love God for who he really is. Yes I said that.” But now do you see the implication of Deuteronomy 30:6? Here it is in Deuteronomy 30:11–14:

“This commandment that I command you today [to keep this peculiar covenant] is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

With man it is impossible (Deuteronomy 29:4), because we are spiritually dead and blind and dead to the most important reality. But when God puts his word not on tablets of stone, or pages of parchment, but in your mouth and in your heart, you not only can love God; you will. And if you need any help or any encouragement to see that Jesus Christ came into the world to purchase this miracle (and this covenant) at the cost of his life, listen to Paul’s paraphrase of these very verses in Deuteronomy 30:11–14. This is Romans 10:6–8:

“Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim).

In other words, this covenant is not too hard, because God sent Christ to secure it absolutely for his people. Both the divine promises of this covenant and the human responses of this covenant are blood-bought, Spirit-wrought, and sure (see also Luke 22:20).

Glory Guaranteed in Jesus’s Blood

The ultimate aim of creation and redemption is guaranteed by the blood of Christ — the “blood of the covenant” as Jesus called it in Mark 14:24. At the cost of his life, Christ bought the beautification of his bride. And her beauty is her delight in him. Here it is in Ephesians 5:25–27:

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her [beautify her] . . . so that he might present the church to himself in splendor [and thus enjoy her, delight in her, forever].

On behalf of his Father, Christ came to create a beautiful bride out of hard-hearted rebels. This blood-bought, beautified bride will be God’s delight forever. And her splendor will be her delight in him. And so it will be forever.

Therefore, I close the way Deuteronomy 30:19–20 closes: “Choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life.”

This is not too hard for you. It is a gift. It is only as hard as it is to enjoy supremely the one who is supremely enjoyable. Look to him as your greatest Treasure. He will do it.

Great Is Thy Faithfulness

For the closing hymn, John Piper penned the following alternate verses to “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”:

I could not love Thee, so blind and unfeeling;
   Covenant promises fell not to me.
Then without warning, desire, or deserving,
   I found my Treasure, my pleasure, in Thee.

Great is Thy faithfulness
Great is Thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me

I have no merit to woo or delight Thee,
   I have no wisdom or pow’rs to employ;
Yet in thy mercy, how pleasing thou find’st me,
   This is Thy pleasure: that Thou art my joy.

Great is Thy faithfulness
Great is Thy faithfulness
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me