With the advent of e-mail, social networking, and text messaging, it seems that the art of letter writing is slowly fading away. Gone are the days when we would sit at our desk, pen in hand, and compose a multi-page note expressing our thoughts and reflections to a faraway friend.
Instead, just a few quick keystrokes, and we’ve done the job. It’s quicker, easier, and less expensive. But at the same time, we risk losing the gift of opening ourselves up to our friends and giving them a fuller picture of who we are and what God is doing in our lives.
In the age of the early church, letters were taken much more seriously. Just think of the letters that Peter, Paul, and the other apostles wrote to their churches. Not only were these heartfelt, personal statements; they also offered advice, guidance, and teaching to the people. Because they were personal, they revealed a lot about the people who wrote them, even as they offered direction to the people who received them.
This can help us understand why St. Paul, in talking about the new covenant in Christ, used the image of a letter to describe the way the believers in Corinth had affected him—and the way they could affect the people around them. He called them "a letter of Christ . . . written not in ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are hearts of flesh" (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). Through this image, Paul is talking about not only the way God has written his covenant on their hearts but also about the way their lives give witness to the effects that this covenant has had on them. In one image, Paul focuses on the work of God in their hearts and on their testimony to the world.
In this article, we want to follow Paul’s lead. We want to look at how the new covenant is written on our hearts. And we want to look at how our lives can become a letter from God to the people around us.
Grace Woven in Our Hearts. Paul talked about the Corinthians being a letter in the middle of a reflection on the new covenant Jesus brought us through his death and resurrection. This covenant is not like the old covenant that God made with Moses and the Israelites. Rather than being set forth and maintained through a series of laws and observances, as the first covenant was, this new covenant is meant to be a living set of principles that are part of our very being. This new covenant is "glorious," because it has to do with the Holy Spirit living in our hearts, inspiring and empowering us to live a new life. As Paul said in another letter, we are no longer "under the law but under grace" (Romans 6:14).
According to St. Augustine, the major difference between the new covenant and the old covenant is that God no longer limits himself to issuing a set of commands that we are to follow. Rather, God does with us and in us the very things that he commands of us. "Where the law of works obliges by threatening, the law of faith obtains by believing. . . . With the law of works God says to man: ‘Do what I command you.’ With the law of faith man says to God: ‘Give me what you command’ " (On the Spirit and the Letter, 22).
Certainly, God’s grace and blessings were present in the old covenant. Many of the Psalms speak of God’s graciousness and his mercy (Psalm 33:18; 86:15; 103:8; 116:5). But the Old Testament word for grace, the Hebrew hesed, meant something different than the New Testament, equivalent, the Greek word charis. Hesed was seen as God’s good will and kindness toward his people. It was his desire to stretch out his hand and help his people. Charis, on the other hand, includes everything that hesed means and so much more. Charis was used to describe the grace that flows to us because of the death and resurrection of Christ. It is the grace that released sinners from judgment and made them righteous. It is the grace that writes the new covenant on our hearts.
So the difference is that now, in the new covenant, grace is not just a matter of God reaching down to us and treating us kindly. Grace has also become a matter of God reaching into us and changing us from the inside out. He has written his new covenant on our hearts, as if it were a letter to us telling us that we are a new creation and convincing us that we can live a new life.
Changed by the Grace of the Covenant. Think about the apostles during the Last Supper—just before Jesus initiated the new covenant. Peter was telling Jesus what to do. Judas was plotting Jesus’ arrest. Thomas and Philip were confused. Everyone was fighting over who should get the highest place in heaven. It was so bad that even Jesus seemed a bit frustrated. At one point, he calmed them all down, saying, "Enough!" (Luke 22:38).?What a different picture we see at Pentecost! The Holy Spirit is moving freely. Peter is preaching the gospel. People are accepting Jesus and longing for community. All the other apostles are announcing "the mighty acts of God" (Acts 2:11).
They were all changed because the Holy Spirit had come upon them. They put aside their old quarrels and worked together to build the church.?This interior grace of the Spirit is the very thing that makes the new covenant so new. Without God writing his ways on our hearts, the new covenant would simply be a minor improvement of the previous covenant, not a unique and powerful outpouring. As Augustine said: "What then is God’s law written by God himself in the hearts of men? The very presence of the Holy Spirit, who is ‘the finger of God,’ and by whose presence is poured into our hearts the love that is the fulfillment of the law" (On the Spirit and the Letter, 36).
Grace Leads to Peace. If we look at our lives in one way, we can get anxious. We see our weaknesses, our problems, and our sins. Wounded relationships are painful. Financial needs can overwhelm us. Sickness can wear us down. And this is in addition to the challenges and problems in the world at large: a growing disrespect for human life, wars between nations, brutality in cities, and a growing weakness in family life. All of this can drain of us hope. We can forget that God’s grace has been written in our hearts and can help us live a new life. We can forget that Jesus has covenanted himself with us.
Jesus warned us not to let these worries of life choke off our connection with him and our enjoyment of his new covenant (Matthew 13:22). He reminded us about how God takes care of even the birds in the sky and the lilies of the field (6:20-28). He told us not to be afraid because our Father loves to give us his kingdom (Luke 12:32).
Yes, life has its worries. Yes, there are tragedies in the world around us and sometimes in our lives as well. But if we look at the way Jesus lived, we can see that he was always at peace. Jesus saw the sin in the world. He had firsthand experience of sickness, betrayal, and loss. He had every reason to be anxious. But when the storms of life rose up, he remained calm—he even slept through a storm on the Sea of Galilee!
Celebrate Life! Every day we face a question: "Do I want to focus on the freedom, the joy, and the better promises of the new covenant? Or will I allow myself to get weighed down with worry?"
It is so important that we try our best to hold on to our peace both when life is going our way and even more when we face the challenges of life. It is helpful for our own well being, but it can also make a difference in the witness we give to other people. Remember: You are a letter from Jesus to the world. Your life can tell people about the gospel and its power and grace.
So make it a point to celebrate life. Don’t let a day go by without finding something to rejoice over, whether it be in God’s creation or in the people you love. If you want to go even further, try to see the goodness in someone who doesn’t think the same way you do or even someone you don’t like.
Celebrate the new covenant you have in Christ. Sing and praise God every day. Thank Jesus for rising from the dead. Ask the Spirit to help you see how deeply he is working in your heart and how faithful he is to you. Then, watch as God fills you with peace, with appreciation for others, and with his unending love. Watch how he helps you witness to the unbreakable covenant you have with the Lord. May we never forget how persistently God has pursued us and how deeply committed he is to us!