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Failure in Paradise: The Covenant of Works - 3

One thing that everyone knows for sure is that something is terribly wrong with the world; things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. The world is a messy place. There are wars, crime, shattered families, sickness, suffering, and death. Why is everything broken? And why do we naturally hope for something better? A human being cannot live without hope. Where does that sense of hope come from?

The answers to these questions are found in the biblical doctrine of the covenant of works. The covenant of works is the original state in which God created the first man, Adam. We can define the covenant of works as God’s commitment to give Adam and all those whom he represented glorified life for his obedience or the curse of suffering and death for his disobedience. The sad story is that Adam rebelled against God in this covenant, falling short of obtaining glorified life. And the whole human race fell with him. In Adam, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We were meant to live for far more than a brief life in a broken world. We were meant to live in glorified life with God, enjoying communion and fellowship with him forever. The hope of that glory was never realized. Instead, we live under the curse of death with frustrated and misguided hopes. We live with the expectancy of God’s judgment, unless someone rescues us. These are the results of Adam’s failure in paradise, the consequences of a broken covenant of works.

Yet, it is precisely because of the doctrine of the covenant of works that we can appreciate all of God’s promises in the covenant of grace. The covenant of works announces what God requires of us, namely, perfect obedience to his law. The covenant of grace, by contrast, proclaims how God fulfilled that requirement through the finished work of his Son, Jesus Christ. The covenant of works tells us that unless we are righteous by God’s standard, we will be punished for our sins. The covenant of grace tells us that God provides the righteousness of Christ through faith alone. Without hearing and understanding the bad news, we won’t appreciate the good news.

Although the concept of a covenant of works can be found in theologians as early as Augustine (354–430), it was developed more fully in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Reformed writers as they sought to teach and defend the biblical doctrines of original sin and justification by faith alone. They called the covenant of works by various names. Some called it the covenant of life, emphasizing the covenant’s goal of glorified, eternal life contingent upon Adam’s obedience. Others labeled it the covenant of creation because God made it with Adam when he created him. Still others have referred to it as the covenant of nature because of its connection to natural law, which fallen man suppresses in unrighteousness. The name “covenant of works,” however, highlights the means whereby Adam could merit eternal life. These varying names reflect different aspects of the same covenant. The point of all of them is the same, namely, to show how the law and the gospel stand upon a covenantal foundation.

For example, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583), the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, described the law of God as an expression of the covenant God made with Adam in the garden. In Question 10 of his Larger Catechism, he asks, “What does the divine law teach?” The answer is,

It teaches the kind of covenant that God established with mankind in creation, how he managed in keeping it, and what God requires of him after establishing a new covenant of grace with him—that is, what kind of person God created, for what purpose, into what state he has fallen, and how he ought to conduct his life after being reconciled to God.

Apart from the mediation of Jesus Christ, the law condemns sinners under the condition of a pre-fall covenant of works, a “covenant that God established with mankind in creation.” Mankind was subsumed under Adam’s federal headship in this covenant and subsequently fell with Adam into guilt and condemnation. Ursinus sharply contrasted the covenants of works and grace, equating the former (which he called the natural covenant) with the law, and the latter with the gospel:

Q. 36. What is the difference between the law and the gospel?

A. The law contains the natural covenant, established by God with humanity in creation, that is, it is known by humanity by nature, it requires our perfect obedience to God, and it promises eternal life to those who keep it and threatens eternal punishment to those who do not. The gospel, however, contains the covenant of grace, that is, although it exists, it is not known at all by nature; it shows us the fulfillment in Christ of the righteousness that the law requires and the restoration in us of that righteousness by Christ’s Spirit; and it promises eternal life freely because of Christ to those who believe in him.

The covenant of works (the law) requires perfect obedience to God and promises eternal life to those who keep it. The covenant of grace (the gospel) proclaims Christ’s fulfillment of the law and promises eternal life to all who receive Christ by faith alone.

By the 1640s, the doctrine of the covenant of works was codified in the confessional standards produced by the Westminster Assembly. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, for example, defines this covenant as follows: “When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon pain of death” (Q&A 12). Likewise, the Westminster Confession of Faith asserts, “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (7.2).

What Does the Bible Teach?

Let’s consider briefly a few passages. (For a fuller treatment of biblical texts that teach the covenant of works, see Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.)

Genesis 2–3. That the word covenant does not appear in the first three chapters of Genesis should not cause us any concern. The absence of the word does not mean that the covenant itself is absent. Have you ever considered the fact that the word sin does not appear in the first three chapters of Genesis? Yet, surely we would all agree that sin is very much present in the story of Adam’s fall. The Bible often describes objects or topics without using explicit terms or names. The matter is clear from the context of the story.

As the scene unfolds, Adam, the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge are front and center in the narrative. God gives Adam work to do. He is put in the garden of Eden to work it and guard it (Gen. 2:15). He is to be faithful in these responsibilities. Next, the Lord tells Adam: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (2:16–17). The Hebrew word for knowledge can also mean “choosing.” We could translate it as the “tree of choosing good and evil.”1 Clearly, this prohibition is a test. It raises the questions: Will Adam obey or disobey? Will he choose good or evil?

The prominence of the tree of knowledge sheds light on the tree of life. If the tree of knowledge is a tree of testing, carrying with it the penalty of death, the tree of life symbolizes God’s reward to Adam for his obedience. One tree leads to death, the other to life. The latter pointed to a quality of life greater than what Adam originally possessed in the garden. Although God created Adam good, in true righteousness and holiness, he intended something even greater for his people: glorified life in which sin and death was no longer a possibility. In order to reach that goal, however, Adam would need to be confirmed in his obedience to God’s covenant. Until he was confirmed, the possibility of failure and death hung over Adam’s head.

The plot thickens as the serpent enters the scene. He knows that if Adam is confirmed in his obedience to the covenant in which God placed him, he and all mankind will enter in to glorified life, thus reflecting God’s glory more fully. The serpent sought to derail God’s plan to bring his image bearers to glory by getting Adam to break the conditions of the covenant (obedience) and causing God to enact the sanctions of the covenant (death). Of course, the serpent didn’t know that long before creation God had already planned to send a second Adam, one who would obey God perfectly, pass the test that Adam failed, and earn for his people the reward of glorified life.

Hosea 6:7. The prophet Hosea refers to God’s original covenant of works with Adam as he laments Israel’s disobedience to the Lord: “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” Like Adam, Israel failed to obey God’s law. Israel’s constant faithlessness to keep the Mosaic covenant was similar to Adam’s transgression against God in the covenant of works. And like Adam, Israel suffered the curses of the covenant they broke. Just as Adam was expelled from the holy garden, so Israel was expelled from the holy land. Hosea’s interpretation of Genesis 2–3 reveals that Adam was in a covenant of works with God. 2

Romans 5:12–19 and 1 Corinthians 15:21–22. In both of these passages, the apostle Paul compares Adam and Christ as two federal heads or representatives: the first Adam represented the whole human race, while Christ represented the elect. In both cases, the performance of the federal head would have consequences for those whom they represented. Paul says that the disobedience of the first Adam resulted in condemnation and death for the whole human race, but the obedience of Christ resulted in justification and life for all those who put their trust in Christ. In other words, the means whereby the curse and the hope of eternal life came into the world are the same: the works of the federal head determined the outcome. This parallel between Adam and Christ is so important for Paul that he even calls Christ “the last Adam” in 1 Corinthians 15:45. In one sense, the Bible’s whole message is about these two Adams: the sin, guilt, and condemnation we inherited from the first Adam, and the forgiveness, righteousness, and eternal life we receive from the last Adam. Paul’s exegesis of Genesis 2–3 in Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21–22 reveals the biblical doctrine of the covenant of works.

Why Is This Doctrine Important for the Christian Life?

First, as mentioned above, the doctrine of the covenant of works helps us understand why the world is filled with suffering, violence, and death. The fallen condition of human beings, which we call “original sin,” is the direct (and catastrophic) consequence of Adam’s disobedience in the covenant of works. Because he refused to obey God in this covenant, the sanctions of guilt, corruption, and death were imputed to the human race. We live in a broken world because there is a broken covenant of works. This is important to remember, for we are prone to look for superficial solutions to the deep problem of sin.

Second, the covenant of works reveals that heaven must be earned, highlighting the active obedience of Christ and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The price of glorified life, according to the justice of God, is perfect obedience to his law. After the fall, this did not change. One must be righteous in order to be accepted by God and merit eternal life. The demands of God’s justice must be satisfied. This, of course, is precisely what Jesus did. As we saw in our treatment of the covenant of redemption earlier in this series, Christ is the one who earned heaven for us through his active and passive obedience. When he said, “It is finished” upon the cross, he was speaking of the work his Father gave him to do. He completed that work, earning justification and eternal life for us through his obedience. The covenant of works, therefore, draws our attention to the finished work of Christ, which brings us into a completely different covenant, a covenant of grace.

Ursinus put it this way in his Larger Catechism:

Q.135. Why is it necessary that the satisfaction and righteousness of Christ be imputed to us in order for us to be righteous before God?

A. Because God, who is immutably righteous and true, wants to receive us into the covenant of grace in such a way that he does not go against the covenant established in creation, that is, that he neither treat us as righteous nor give us eternal life unless his law has been perfectly satisfied, either by ourselves or, since that cannot happen, by someone in our place.

What God demands, Christ provides. Although we receive this through faith alone as a gift, it cost Christ everything. In this way, the covenant of works undergirds and supports the gospel message and the doctrine of justification. Conversely, to deny or redefine the covenant of works with Adam inevitably denies or redefines the active obedience of Christ imputed to the believer.

Finally, the doctrine of the covenant of works helps us to see the goal for which God made us and why we are creatures who hope. We were made for glorified life with God, symbolized in the tree of life. Have you ever wondered why the tree of life reappears at the end of the Bible, in Revelation 22? There John describes his vision of the new earth, resurrected in glory. He describes it as a place of communion with God, a place free from all evil and suffering, and a place of consummate joy. We will finally be free from all sin, sadness, and suffering. Worry, fear, and frustration will forever be things of the past. We will enjoy God’s good creation perfectly, and we will be constantly filled with wonder and contentment in him. Christ himself will be there. We “will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4), and we “will see his face” (Rev. 22:4). We will worship him, love him, and always be near him. This is the goal for which we were made, and where our gaze should be fixed throughout our earthly pilgrimage. It is our true home, and we belong there, for Christ has prevailed where Adam failed.

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1. See Geerhardus Vos’s discussion of this in his Biblical Theology (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 30–32.

2. For an excellent treatment of Hosea 6:7, see See Byron G. Curtis, “Hosea 6:7 and Covenant-Breaking like/at Adam,” in The Law Is Not of Faith, ed. Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko, and David VanDrunen (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), 170–209.

 

Rev. Michael G. Brown
is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA. He is the editor and contributing author of Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons. and co-author of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.

Grace Before Time: The Covenant of Redemption - 2

We begin our survey of covenant theology with a consideration of that covenant from which all other biblical covenants flow: the covenant of redemption. The covenant of redemption is essentially God’s blueprint for our salvation. Just as a house begins with a plan of meticulous engineering and technical design, so also did our redemption originate on the drafting table of God. Before the creation of the world, a plan was already in place to send the Son as the second Adam to remedy the disastrous results of the first Adam’s failure to fulfill the covenant of works in the garden of Eden and bring humankind to glory. The covenant of redemption was not a plan B to fix the mess Adam made, but the original blueprint for the work of Christ and the plan of redemption.

The covenant of redemption is the first of three overarching covenants in redemptive history, namely, the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. There are, of course, more covenants in Scripture, such as the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and so on. As we will learn in the subsequent articles in this series, however, these are subsets of the three overarching covenants. The first overarching covenant is the covenant of redemption. Sometimes referred to by its Latin title, pactum salutis, the covenant of redemption is the origin and firm foundation of the covenant of grace. Without it, there would be no election, no incarnation of the Son, no cross, no resurrection, and no promise of heaven. In short, there would be no salvation of sinners.

The covenant of redemption is unique for at least two other reasons. First, it was made between the persons of the Trinity, and not, as in most biblical covenants, between God and humans. The covenant of redemption is a pact between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit with the purpose of redeeming God’s elect. The Father gave to the Son those whom he chose to save and required him to accomplish their salvation though his obedient life and atoning death as the second Adam. He also promised the Son a reward on the completion of his work. The Son accepted the Father’s gift, agreed to the conditions of this covenant, and submitted himself to the Father’s will. The Holy Spirit promised to apply the benefits earned by the Son to the elect and unite them with the Son forever. Thus, we say the covenant of redemption is an intratrinitarian covenant between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Second, the covenant of redemption is unique because it was established before time. All other biblical covenants were made in time and history. The covenant of redemption, however, was made in eternity, before the foundation of the world and all things temporal. Thus, we say that it is a pretemporal covenant.

Therefore, behind all of God’s covenanting with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, and his elect stands the covenant of redemption. Planned from eternity by the members of the Godhead, the covenant of redemption is the basis and driving purpose of all redemptive history. We can define the covenant of redemption as the covenant established in eternity between the Father, who gives the Son to be the Redeemer of the elect and requires of him the conditions for their redemption; and the Son, who voluntarily agrees to fulfill these conditions; and the Spirit, who voluntarily applies the work of the Son to the elect.1

What Does the Bible Teach?

We should not be alarmed that the Bible never mentions the phrase “covenant of redemption.” The Bible teaches many key doctrines without ever using the same terminology that theologians have coined for those doctrines. For example, Scripture teaches the doctrine of the roman Trinity, yet never uses the word Trinity. Nevertheless, we can still use the word Trinity to refer more easily to the teaching of Scripture that God is one in essence yet three in person. The doctrine of the covenant of redemption is no different. Although the exact phrase does not appear in the Bible, the doctrine itself does. This becomes evident as the drama of redemptive history unfolds. God’s promise to send a Savior, first verbalized in Genesis 3:15, is progressively revealed in the Old Testament until it comes to fulfillment in the person and work of Christ. In the bright light of the New Testament, we see clearly that the relationship between the Father and the Son is covenantal in nature, involving a promised reward to the Son for his obedience to prescribed conditions.

We now turn to a few of the many passages in Scripture that teach this doctrine.

Psalm 40:6–8. This psalm reveals a covenantal relationship of obedience and reward between the Father and the Son, especially as it is interpreted by the book of Hebrews. David begins by describing how God rescued him from a slimy pit (40:1–2). He gives praise to God for his salvation and declares that the one who trusts in the Lord is blessed (40:3–5). Then, in verses 6–8, he makes an intriguing statement about the proper relationship between the Lord and the person who trusts in the Lord. “In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted . . . Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.’” It is not the sacrifices of animals in which God delights, but obedience to his commands.

Although David wrote this psalm, the writer to the Hebrews explicitly identifies the speaker in verses 6–8 as Christ. In Hebrews 10:5–10, after explaining how the sacrifices of the Mosaic covenant were inadequate to provide salvation, the writer says that Christ came into the world to do the Father’s will. Psalm 40:6–8 is essentially Christ’s loyal words to the Father as he submitted himself to the conditions of the covenant of redemption. The writer then makes the point that “by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10). Because Christ fulfilled the will of the Father through his active obedience, he has saved us and reconciled us to the Father. He satisfied the conditions of the covenant of redemption and, consequently, earned the promised reward.

Psalm 110. In this psalm, which is frequently quoted in the New Testament, the psalmist foretells of Christ’s exaltation and kingship. He describes the Messiah as receiving the reward for his active obedience; he sits at the right hand of the Father (110:1) and rules in the midst of his enemies (110:2). Yet the psalmist also describes the Father’s oath to the Son, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek’” (v. 4). As I noted in the first article of this series, the taking of oaths is an important aspect of covenant making throughout Scripture. The Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, for example, were both sealed with oaths. The same is true of the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son. Psalm 110:4 highlights the oath-bound character of this covenant. The Father seals the covenant with his oath and designates the Son as the mediating priest for the elect.

Again the book of Hebrews teaches this more clearly. In Hebrews 7, the writer compares Christ with Melchizedek in order to persuade his Hebrew-Christian audience of Christ’s rightful claim to the office of high priest, even though he descended from the tribe of Judah and not from the priestly tribe of Levi. Knowing that his readers were tempted to abandon the faith and return to Judaism, he makes the argument that if perfection could come through the Levitical priesthood, there would be no reason for a greater high priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, as foretold in Psalm 110. Applying Psalm 110:4 to Christ, he says, “For it is witnessed of him, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek’” (Heb. 7:17). He then highlights the fact that this appointment to the office of priest was with an oath: “And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, 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”’” (Heb. 7:20–21).

But when did this event occur? Scripture reveals no particular point in Christ’s earthly ministry in which the Father made this oath to the Son. Nor is there anywhere in the Old Testament where such an oath was made. We might note that in Hebrews 7:28 the writer makes reference to the fact that Psalm 110:4 was written long after the Mosaic law was given at Sinai and that this “word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.” Yet the word of the oath was revealed in the days of David the psalm writer, not the oath itself. The Father made this oath to the Son when he gave him his priestly assignment in the covenant of redemption.

Isaiah 53. This well-known prophecy about the suffering Servant also teaches us about the covenant of redemption by telling us that the relationship between the Father and the Son concerning the redemption of sinners is covenantal in nature; it has a relationship of obedience and reward. This is revealed even in his title, “my servant” (Isa. 52:13; 53:11), which is classic covenant terminology. (For example, in Isaiah 42:1–9, the Servant is explicitly called “a covenant for the people.” See also Isaiah 49:1–8.) Isaiah 53 not only foretells of the humiliation and anguish Christ experienced in his life and death but also of how his obedience to the will of the Father is the cause and basis of our redemption. After describing how Christ would be “crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5) under the weight of God’s wrath as our sin was imputed to him (Isa. 53:6), Isaiah says in verse 10, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him,” and “the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” In other words, the suffering of Christ was according to the Father’s will and, through Christ’s obedience to the Father’s will, his will was accomplished. This was not a haphazard or random idea; rather, this was a predetermined plan between the Father and the Son which resulted in the salvation of the elect. As Isaiah says in verse 11, it was through Christ’s obedience that he made “many to be accounted righteous.” His active obedience to the Father achieved the justification of his people.

The New Testament makes clear that this was a mutual agreement between the Father and the Son. Paul tells us in Philippians 2 that Christ “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:6–8). The Son was not forced into this plan of redemption. He did not go unwillingly to the cross. Rather, the Father gave him work to do, and he, in turn, submitted himself to the Father’s will and obeyed it perfectly.

That this was a reward for Christ’s obedience is explicit in Isaiah 53:12: “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong.” Because Christ accomplished the work the Father gave him to do, he earned the reward of a conqueror and the right to the spoils of war. The use of the word therefore indicates that Christ’s obedience (previously described in Isa. 53:1–11) has the consequence of a reward. Paul reflects this also in Philippians 2, where he goes on to say, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:9–11). Christ’s reward for his obedience was the justification of his people and the exaltation of his name, all of which is to the glory of the Father.

Thus, Isaiah 53, in the light of the New Testament, teaches us that our redemption is the result of Christ fulfilling the conditions and receiving the reward prescribed in a pact between him and the Father.

Romans  5:12–19. In this passage, Paul teaches us explicit analogy between Adam and Christ, showing that both of these individuals were federal representatives of other people. Whereas Adam’s disobedience in the covenant of works resulted in the condemnation of those whom he represented (that is, the whole human race), Christ’s obedience in the covenant of redemption resulted in the justification of those whom he represented (that is, the elect). Again, we are confronted with scriptural teaching of the obedience-reward relationship between the Father and Son. The Son obeyed the Father so that “the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19; cf. 1 Cor. 15:21–22).

Why Is This Doctrine Important for the Christian Life?

At first glance, we might be tempted to think of this doctrine as rather abstract and impractical, as if it has value only in the seminary classroom or the speculative conversations of professional theologians. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth.

First, the covenant of redemption teaches us about the love of God. The doctrine of the covenant of redemption reveals to us that there exists between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit perfect love and harmony. Their promises and commitments to each other demonstrate their love for each other. The Father’s love for the Son is expressed in his reward of a people whom the Son will rule as King. The Son’s love for the Father is expressed in his submission to the Father’s will, even at the highest personal cost. The Spirit’s love for the Father and the Son is expressed in his work to bring this plan to completion. And the Father and Son’s love for the Spirit is expressed in pouring him out on the church as their special gift from heaven. No member of the Trinity acts apart from the other two members.

Yet the doctrine of the covenant of redemption also teaches us that God is eternally moved to communicate to others this love that he experiences within himself. As Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949) put it, “Just as the blessedness of God exists in the free relationship of the three persons of the adorable Being, so man shall also find his blessedness in the covenantal relationship with his God.”2 God has decided to share his love with his elect. In his sovereign will, he chose to make us the objects of the eternal, mutual love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We did nothing to move him to this love, for he loved us while we were still sinners and his enemies (Rom. 5:8–10). Rather, he acted first by setting his love on us before the foundation of the world in this great covenant involving each person of the Godhead. In the covenant of redemption, we see that our salvation is trinitarian from beginning to end, carefully planned in eternity past and executed in human history. What amazing love is demonstrated by the fact that Christ came on a specific mission to fulfill his covenant obligations and obtain redemption for us!

Second, the covenant of redemption provides us with comfort and assurance. Knowing that our salvation was planned out by the triune God before the foundation of the world gives us unspeakable comfort. If you are a Christian, it is because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit covenanted together in eternity to save you. You are not a Christian because you are better, smarter, or possess a softer heart than other people. You are a Christian because the Father chose you in the Son, the Son fulfilled the conditions for your salvation, and the Spirit applied to you the redemptive benefits of the Son’s work. When you are tempted to doubt your salvation, remember that Christ said, “It is finished,” and that the Father is satisfied with the work of his Son. Your salvation remains secure, not because of anything you do, but because Christ finished the work the Father gave him to accomplish and satisfied God’s justice. Consequently, the Father has highly exalted him. The obedience-reward pattern in the covenant of redemption causes us to look to Christ rather than ourselves for assurance of our salvation. It highlights the obedience of our legal representative and the merit he earned for us in our place. What comfort this brings us as those who are often find ourselves troubled in conscience by the weakness of our faith and our failures in the Christian life!

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1. Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored (Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, 2012), 25. The material in this article is found in expanded form in that resource.

2. Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 245.

 

Rev. Michael G. Brown
is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA. He is the editor and contributing author of Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons. and co-author of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.

The Duty of Discipleship: Edifying the Church Intergenerationally

Christian discipleship is deceptively simple. When spiritually mature people convey their piety to others, discipleship is taking place. The good news is that discipleship doesn’t require scientific studies, tactical gurus, or expensive materials. But here is the bad news: if either ingredient is lacking—spiritual maturity or the communication of spiritual disciplines—discipleship cannot take place. In either case, God’s plan for the extension of his kingdom is neglected and the church suffers.

Assessing the Situation

The evidence suggests that increasingly adults are unable to fulfill the first criterion for discipleship. They are getting older but they are not maturing. A recent study by the Barna group indicates “that personal spiritual development is a secondary consideration for millions of [American Christians].” George Barna comments that “Americans focus on what they consider to be most important; faith maturity is not one of them.”1 The fact is, you cannot give what you do not have.

In addition, those who are maturing are not always discipling the young. According to another study, while ninety percent of Americans believe it is their duty to teach religious values to their children, “a majority of parents do not spend any time during a typical week discussing religious matters with them.”2 “The research discovered that tens of millions of parents are satisfied by simply enrolling their children in church programs”3

The combination of immature adults and disconnected youth results in a “perfect storm” that wreaks havoc in the church in several ways. First, a breakdown in discipleship perpetuates the increasing generation gap in the church, which flies in the face of God’s plan to build up his church intergenerationally. Second, failure in discipleship wastes valuable Christian energy. The church is made up of millions of energetic, bright young people who, instead of being useful in God’s kingdom will, without discipleship, struggle to learn on their own what should have been passed on to them. Attempting to learn by trial and error, they will endure needless pain of failure. It should go without saying that mature adults should not sit back and watch their children make the same mistakes they did. Finally, a disintegration of cross-generational discipleship affirms the anti-Christian message that the old are useless. According to the Bible nothing could be further from the truth.

Discipleship through Modeling

One of the best places to see God’s vision for true discipleship in the church is Titus 2, where God sets forth three important components. Mature saints are to be a pattern or example of good works. Paul wrote to Titus: “In all things, [show] yourself to be a pattern of good works” (2:7). The Greek word that Paul uses for pattern is the basis for our English word type. If you have seen the type hammer of a typewriter slam against the ribbon and paper, you understand Paul’s concept. Each hammer holds an individual type that is able to make copies of itself. Paul is saying to mature Christians, “You are the type of good works; make a good impression on those around you.” Since we are always making copies of ourselves, the question is, “How can we do this to the glory of God?

Be Transparent in Modeling

We will never fool our children into thinking that we are sinless. How then are we to be a good example? The answer is the gospel. We need to model to our young people our need for Jesus. Too often I give my children the impression that they are the sinners, not I. Sadly, such hypocrisy communicates to our children that they simply need to get more sophisticated in their sin and not get found out. If you are in Christ, then you know you need Jesus just as much as your children do. Be transparent in this.

Be Explicit in Modeling

Mature believers should also avoid being overly discreet in their exercise of godliness. Sometimes it is necessary to humbly provide those you are mentoring with commentary on your good works. Think about those do-it-yourself shows where the host models the skills of a carpenter or landscaper. He doesn’t just show what to do. He tells what he’s doing. In discipleship a good rule of thumb is show and tell. A father who is conscious of the duty of discipleship might explain to his son, “Daddy spoke in anger to Mommy tonight. I had to ask her to forgive me, and she did.”

Being explicit in our modeling also means explaining why we do what we do. The television carpenter does not just expect that his audience will pick up the rationale behind what he is doing. Likewise, the apostle Paul did not merely model bodily discipline before the Corinthians. He was explicit about his modeling: “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). Teaching by example requires interpretation.

Discipleship through Teaching

Mature Christians are also to be teachers (Titus 2:3). Teachers have two essential attributes: the possession of personal experience and the ability to communicate experience. There is a huge difference between a teller and a teacher. To teach is to inform, that is, to “form in” another person real experience that is known in the deepest sense of the word.

This formational character of teaching is demonstrated in Titus 2 when Paul writes that the older women are to teach the younger. Older women are able to enter into the lives of younger women in a way that a pastor could not possibly (or appropriately) do. From this we glean three important insights.

Teaching Is an Intimate Process

You cannot enter into and make an impact on the experience of a young person by staying at arm’s length or interacting with him superficially. This is why it is so important to keep the communication lines open and to press them continually deeper.

Teaching Is a Varied Process

The wise mother knows she cannot teach a girl to be a woman simply by lecturing. She knows the importance of affecting her life in as many ways as possible. So she engages in dialogue, relates stories of similar experiences, and explores possibilities. She asks questions, listens carefully, and offers advice. She lovingly embraces, sheds a sympathetic tear, and tenderly administers discipline.

Teaching Is Connected to Life

When we think about teaching we may think classroom. While classrooms may play a role in teaching, they tend to be artificial settings. By contrast, the Bible would have us teach our mentees when life is happening (Deut. 6). This is why formal education can at best only be part of the discipleship process. Since doctrine is life, religious teaching must be practical. We should cringe when we hear adults telling children, “You may not appreciate this now, but you will some day.” If they can not appreciate it now then it is probably not being taught well, and perhaps the teacher doesn’t even believe it is important. Jesus, the great teacher, entered into the lives of his students (in ways that we never will). In him wisdom took on flesh and blood and became practical. He was able to communicate real experience because he taught his disciples as life happened.

Discipleship through Training

The spiritually mature also need to train those with less experience (Titus 2:4 NIV). There are two prerequisites every true trainer possesses: personal ability and the wherewithal to equip others for a task. Mentors not only communicate experience but they also cultivate capacities. They not only inform; they also help the young to perform.

This implies working alongside of the one you are training. An on-the-job-training trainer doesn’t merely follow his trainees around, telling them what to do. He works alongside of them. And, as in biblical discipleship, the trainer avoids two extremes. One is over-involvement—simply doing the work for the trainee. The other is under-involvement—just giving orders.

Mentors must give skill-appropriate responsibilities, allowing the mentees to do the things the mentors could do better. Mentors must be certain that their “help” is actually helpful (neither enabling nor abandoning). Mentors must be quick to encourage, and gentle in rebuke.

Our Lord Jesus was the best mentor this world has ever known. His goal, accomplished through his atoning sacrifice, was to make his disciples something like himself. As we thoughtfully direct our less-experienced friends to Christ, we have every reason to expect good things. The call to discipleship is simple (though not easy). It is also serious. Remember this: Every young person you know is looking for a role model. What’s more, he or she will find one.

 

1. From “Americans Not Concerned about Their Spiritual Condition,” accessed on June 27, 2012, http://bit.ly/QjEQXS

2. From “Parents Accept Responsibility for Their Child’s Spiritual Development but Struggle with Effectiveness,” accessed on June 27, 2012, http://bit.ly/LCgpXo.

3. From “Spiritual Progress Hard to Find
in 2003,” accessed on June 27, 2012,
http://bit.ly/LCmjb1

 

Rev. William Boekestein
was the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA (URCNA) when he wote this article for The Outlook, July August 2012. He is the author of Life Lessons from a Calloused Christian: A Practical Study of Jonah

Rev. Boekestein is currently the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

The Log of Hyper-Calvinism

Introduction

One of my favorite promises in Scripture is “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” What a remarkable invitation! What my heart needs, and what all our churches need, is more of God’s grace. Daily grace. Sanctifying grace. Renewing grace.

And that grace is ours for the taking, like a wrapped gift under the Christmas tree with our name on it, if we would humble ourselves. It couldn’t get any easier, right?

But not so fast.

Why? Because it’s so hard to be humble.

I know I need grace, and God promises to give me grace if I would humble myself, yet I claw and fight against the very grace I want and need because I’m so proud and self-sufficient that I don’t think I really need it. “Wretched man that I am!” (Rom. 7:24).

We all, to one degree or another, have a problem with pride. Jesus called it a log issue. While we major in other people’s specks, we’re blind to the log protruding from our own eye.

This is what happens when we are so busy pointing out everybody else’s failures: our need for grace evaporates, God’s love no longer amazes, and we find identity in what we’re not instead of whose we are. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11) subtly becomes our rally cry and the posture of our heart.

But if we are too get the grace that we so desperately need, the grace that fuels and sustains and empowers us to a life of Christ-exalting worship, service, and witness, then it’s paramount that we take a good and hard look into the mirror of our own self-righteousness.

To that end, this series has been my attempt to identify some of our corporate logs; that is, the chief sins, weaknesses, and shortcomings of conservative Reformed churches that we are either ignorant about or unwilling to admit.

So far I have diagnosed the following six: legalism, familiarism, conservatism, elitism, tribalism, and retreatism. We come, lastly, to the seventh –ism, known as hyper-Calvinism.

Hyper-Calvinism: Its Diagnosis

Before I attempt to define what hyper-Calvinism is, it may be helpful to know what it’s not.

Hyper-Calvinism is not what we call people who are really passionate about being Reformed. Those are what we called “cage phase” people in seminary: new to the Reformed faith from a wilderness of theological and ecclesiastical confusion, often fundamentalism or Arminianism. The kind of folks whose newfound purpose was not only to show why they’re right, but also why everyone else is wrong.

Yet that is not what we mean by hyper-Calvinism.

While not all hyper-Calvinists agree on every matter, there is a thread that connects these adherents as a theological movement, and it is this common thread that I want to focus my attention on in the remainder of this article.

Much more could be written and has been written about the beliefs of hyper-Calvinism, but for the sake of this article and for this series, my concern is with its tragic tendency to sever the urgency for gospel preaching and evangelism all in the name of Divine sovereignty.

To quote Josh Buice, “When understood properly, hyper-Calvinism is a technical term for an extreme and unbiblical view that rejects any need for Christians to engage in missions and evangelism. Simply put, Hyper-Calvinists forbid the preaching of the gospel and the offer of salvation to the non-elect. Such people believe that God has chosen people in Christ in eternity past and will bring about His results without the help of His people.”

To illustrate using a historical example, an exchange took place in the nineteenth century between a young missionary by the name of William Carey, and that of an older minister and hyper-Calvinist, Mr. Ryland. When Carey stood up to discuss “the duty of Christians to attempt to spread the gospel among the heathen nations,” Mr. Ryland responded by loudly exclaiming, “Sit down, young man! When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine.”

In the mind of the hyper-Calvinist, Divine sovereignty swallows human responsibility. In other words, evangelism becomes pointless because God will save his elect no matter what.

But there is more, and it’s deeper than perhaps we realize. This isn’t just an issue that affects the church’s commission, but it gets to the heart of who God is. In this view, we may not, in fact we cannot, preach the gospel as an invitation to the sinner to come to Christ.

In other words, we cannot tell a person, “God loves you, and he demonstrated his love for you by sending his Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for your sins. If you trust in him today, your sins will be forgiven and you will be justified.” Why? Because God loves only the elect, and here’s the logic: if the person to whom you are speaking is not elect, then God doesn’t really love him. To suggest that God does love him is possibly to make God a liar.

But as Michael Horton shows in “Reformed Theology vs. Hyper-Calvinism,” “Here once again we are faced with mystery—and the two guardrails that keep us from careening off the cliff of speculation. God loves the world and calls everyone in the world to Christ outwardly through the Gospel, and yet God loves the elect with a saving purpose and calls them by His Spirit inwardly through the same Gospel (John 6:63–64; 10:3–5, 11, 14–18, 25–30; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:28–30; 2 Tim. 1:9).”

In other words, historic and confessional Reformed theology protects us from the error of hyper-Calvinism by affirming both God’s sovereignty and particular redemption on the one hand and the free offer of the gospel to everyone on the other.

Hyper-Calvinism: Its Symptoms

What are some of the symptoms of hyper-Calvinism? How, where, and when does it show up in our churches?

The first and most prominent is when our churches fail to preach the gospel as an urgent call to everybody who believes. This happens when we assume the gospel, or when we assume that nobody in our churches needs the gospel since they’re already elect (which points to another problem: thinking that only unbelievers need the gospel, but that’s for another article).

A related symptom is when our gospel preaching is constantly footnoted with an explanation of election. This happens, for example, when the preacher calls for belief in Christ yet then feels compelled to begin a five-minute diatribe on how nobody can come to God unless the Spirit draws them.

To be sure, that is true. Wonderfully and beautifully and graciously true! “You did not choose me, but I chose you” said Jesus (John 15:16). Yet Christ also said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Period. No qualifications, no doctrine of election footnote. A true, sincere, earnest invitation to come find rest in him.

Can we say that to people? Jesus did! When is the last time our sermons included a personal, passionate plea to come to Christ, without any excursus on election? Just straight up, come to Jesus now while it’s the day of salvation?

As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:20–21, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might bemuse the righteousness of God.”

Another symptom of hyper-Calvinism is the absence of evangelism and outreach. Could it be that one of the reasons we as Reformed churches struggle to evangelize our neighbors and communities is because deep down inside we’ve bought the narrative that says God will save his people without us, so why even try? In fact, why get in the way?

Yet, as Geoff Thomas writes, “When Calvinism ceases to be evangelistic it is a cerebral, chilling, and unattractive religious system.”

Historically, the Reformed faith has produced some of the most ardent and zealous missionaries the world has ever known. As J. I. Packer taught in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, it is precisely because God is sovereign that we have the confidence to be the ambassadors we’re called to be. Conversions don’t depend on us, our charisma, or how well we package the presentation. We preach Christ; God opens blind eyes. But we do preach Christ.

Hyper-Calvinism: Its Treatment

It shouldn’t be any surprise to you that I’m going to conclude this series as I have all the others, by argument that the best treatment for the disease of hyper-Calvinism is the gospel itself. Nothing more and nothing less than the pure, sweet, biblical announcement of the perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ for sinners.

God is sovereign. He chooses his people. We believe in unconditional election, irresistible grace, and particular redemption. But we also must affirm that we are called to preach this gospel to anyone and everyone, indiscriminately.

We don’t know who the elect are, so we are commanded to tell them all. And we can really say, sincerely and truly, “Christ died for your sins; believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved!”

The well-being of our churches depends on it. Our testimony depends on it. What this world needs is not a system of doctrine that cuts the heart out of the gospel we preach, but a message that offers the whole Christ to the whole person.

Praise God that he is “not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

May our conservative Reformed churches show the world that to be Reformed is to preach the good news of Christ for sinners. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:16–17).

Rev. Michael J. Schout
is the pastor of Grace URC in Alto, MI.
He welcomes your feedback at mikeschout@gmail.com.

Blessed Is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord by Mr Gerry Wisz

 “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord . . . the Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us. Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar! You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you.” ­

—Psalm 118:19, 25–28

These are the words the people sang in Jerusalem as Jesus, to much fanfare, arrived just before Passover. The people took off their robes and spread them with cut palm branches before his path as he made his way toward the temple, riding on a donkey. Did they know what they were saying?

Many did receive him as the one “who comes in the name of the Lord,” recognizing at the least that he was a prophet (Matt. 21:11). The fact that he came riding not on a war horse but on a foal of a donkey (Zech. 9:9) indicated to the disconcerted Scribes and Pharisees looking on that he was coming to Jerusalem as a king, bringing peace.

But he was—and is—a priest as well. The priests in the temple were a shadowy configuration of him. How he would fulfill his priestly role was still to come. He himself would be the festal sacrifice bound with cords and brought up to the horns of the altar, after which the curtain separating the inner sanctuary from all the people would be rent in two. The cry for offering a sacrifice at Passover would be fulfilled, but not in the way the people expected.

The people cried out to him as the son of David, “Hosanna,” that is, “Save”; “bring success.” Israel was long under the heels of foreign oppressors of one kind or another; Rome was no different to them. They were counted, taxed, and bullied. They longed for freedom and a restoration of their kingdom, the one David had won and Solomon had established. This, they thought, would comprise their salvation.

But Jesus came to establish a different kingdom. The focus was no longer to be Israel’s national temple; he was the Temple into which all the nations would come (Isa. 2:2). The temple of bricks and mortar would eventually be destroyed and evacuated, but as the Temple, Christ—the one whom the rebuilt temple represented—though destroyed, would be reconstituted and stand forever. Thus he fulfills and grants the request of “Hosanna”: the redemption and establishment of a kingdom, this time one that will never end.

While in the temple, Jesus overturns the money-changers’ tables, again fulfilling prophecy (Isa. 56:7; Jer. 7:11), showing that in matters pertaining to God and his worship, there is no place for profit taking. He has choice words for the chief priests and Pharisees, whom he tells that they have matters exactly backwards: their rule devising, burdening the people with them, and repeatedly failed attempts at keeping them themselves are not the way to God.

The way to God, but also the truth and the life, is standing before them. Jesus instructs as well as rebukes them, on paying taxes, on the resurrection and marriage, and on the identity of the Son of Man. Before leaving the city with his disciples, he grieves over Jerusalem, remarking that they will not see him again until they—like the people at his arrival—say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matt. 23:39; Ps. 118:26).

In the meantime, his prophetic Word and Spirit would soon begin to change the face of the world, and his high priestly office—established within days of his arrival in Jerusalem—will achieve what all the chief priests through all of Israel’s generations merely pointed to. May we also then sing verses 22–23 of Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing: it is marvelous in our eyes.”

Mr. Gerry Wisz
and his wife, Betty, live in Garfield, NJ, and are parents to eight children and grandparents to six. His family (children still at home) are members of Preakness Valley URC in Wayne, NJ. Gerry has been a long-time contributor to Christian publications, including Christian Renewal and World Magazine, and is featured on Redeemer Broadcasting’s show “Holding All Things Together.” He has also served as an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He can be reached at gmwisz@optonline.net.

 

Welcoming Your Minister by Rev. William Boekestein

When Jesus sent out his twelve disciples to minister the gospel he told them how they should conduct themselves as kingdom servants (Matt. 10:5–15). But he also spoke of the responsibility of the people to receive these ministers as his official representatives. Jesus insists that the way people receive his ministers reflects their relationship with God (Matt. 10:40). He invites God’s people to welcome “a prophet in the name of a prophet” and “to receive a righteous man’s reward” (v. 41).

There is no better time to respond to this invitation than when your church receives a new minister. In the denomination in which I serve, the form for ministerial ordination asks the congregation, “Do you, in the name of the Lord, welcome this brother as your pastor?” That’s an important question. But it is just as important to ask, “How will you welcome this brother as your pastor?” in order to prepare the way for a fruitful ministry.

Begin Well with Your Minister

The importance of the first several days, weeks, and months in a new ministry cannot be overstated. A well-worn maxim suggests that it takes years for a congregation to bond with their pastor. Doubtless, this can be true. But does it have to be? Is it not just as likely that a church has a brief window of opportunity to establish the crucial habits that form a beautiful pastoral relationship?

Though most of Paul’s seasons of ministry were brief, the believers befriended him quickly (e.g., Acts 13:42–44; 16:11–15, 33–34). After Paul’s longest ministry—just three years—the church and its minister had so connected that, when he left, “they all wept freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, sorrowing” (Acts 20:37–38). This kind of bond is formed, in part, by the way congregations welcome their ministers actively and early.

Especially if you did not vote in favor of calling your new minister, make every effort to begin your relationship positively. Your reservations will be better handled (down the road) if you establish a healthy rapport with him.

Befriend Your Minister’s Family

The ministry can be terribly lonely. Perhaps because congregants suspect that ministry families’ calendars overflow with social commitments the minister’s family can receive less care than others. A new minister and his family are outsiders trying to enter a closely-knit network. As counterintuitive as it sounds, unless your new minister grew up in your congregation, he is a stranger within your midst. He likely has no local connections and no local extended family members. Remember that “the stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:34).

Pray with and for Your Minister

In one of the shortest verses in the Bible, Paul pleads with the church on behalf of himself and all Christian pastors: “Brethren, pray for us” (1 Thess. 5:25). My ordination form admonished my church to “pray that he may, in the power of the Spirit, equip [them] in the work of advancing God’s Kingdom for the honor of Christ our Lord.” Let your minister know that you are praying for him. This habit, one practiced by Paul (Phil. 1:3, 9; Col. 1:9), assures those for whom you are praying that they are remembered before the throne of grace.

Communicate with Your Minister

Ironically, ministers can be among the last to know about pastoral needs. When this happens, their ability to fulfill their God-given duties is severely hampered. Paul pleads with his fellow church members to communicate openly and honestly with their shepherds. “We have spoken openly to you . . . you also be open” (2 Cor. 6:11, 13).

Positive communication with your minister means being willing to gently confront him (Gal. 6:1). Of course, you must overlook his sins when possible (Prov. 17:9). When you cannot, you must seek the opportunity to forgive your minister in a timely manner before hurts calcify into grudges. God’s plan for restoration from sin applies also to pastors: “Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone . . . If he will not hear, take with you one or two more . . . and if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:15–17).

One of the worst ways you can damage your congregation is to gossip about your minister. Gossip is always toxic. It poisons a person’s reputation, sometimes irreparably. But secret criticism against the minister can shake the congregation’s confidence in the minister and jeopardize the entire ministry. “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Prov. 18:21). Use your tongue to talk with your minister, not to gossip about him.

Affirm Your Minister’s Preaching

Pastors don’t necessarily need congregants begging for their preaching (but see Acts 13:42). Still, most ministers are helped by knowing that their people desire the preached word (1 Pet. 2:2).

A welcoming congregation will affirm the preaching during the sermon. Maintaining eye contact and communicating through engaging facial and body expressions can be a huge gift to the preacher. Conversely, those who seem (only God knows the heart) disinterested can deflate any minister. A minister can better preach his heart out when he perceives that people are feasting on the Word.

God’s people should also affirm the sermon after it is preached; not to feed your minister’s ego but to respond to his human need for encouragement. Thank your pastor for his preaching. Ask that nagging question about the sermon. Debrief with family and friends. Of course, the greatest affirmation of the preached word is prayerful, active application.

Follow Your Minister

Even as they pray for leadership wisdom, take to heart the feelings of the congregation, and submit to the oversight of the elders, ministers have a responsibility to lead. They have been trained to lead. The church has approved their qualification to lead (1 Tim. 3:1–7). They have been ordained to lead (1 Pet. 5:1–4). Ordinarily, they spend more time thinking about the future path of the church than anyone else in the congregation.

Church members need to recognize these realities. If you have concerns about the leadership of your minister, talk to him. If you feel that he is leading the church in a wrong direction, write a letter of concern to the consistory. Otherwise, the leadership of the minister should be received with respect and submission, unless it is proved to be in conflict with God’s Word (1 Tim. 5:17).

Be Thankful for Your Minister

The ordination form used at the start of my ministry stresses the need for thankfulness. “We receive this servant of our Lord from the hand and heart of the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. We are grateful that our Savior has committed preaching, teaching, and pastoral care to the office of the ministry.” The form charges “beloved Christians” to “receive your minister in the Lord, with all joy . . . let the feet of those who preach the Gospel of peace, and bring the Good News, be beautiful and pleasant to you.” We should pray with gratitude when we think of our minister: “Merciful Father, we thank Thee that it pleases Thee by the ministry of men to gather Thy church out of the lost human race to life eternal. We acknowledge the gift of this thy servant, sent to this people as a messenger of Thy peace.”

Your minister might not always appear to be a gift. Even then we can trust that God is working his perfect will through him, sometimes in spite of him (Phil. 1:15–18).

Receive Christ Through Your Minister

Christ has given himself as the spotless Lamb through whom we can approach God in peace. God’s ministers declare this message both publicly and privately, in their words and in their deeds. Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever receives you receives me.”

That old ordination form puts it well: God uses ministers to “gather His church out of the corrupt race of men to life eternal, and to give to His church such teaching and care that she may grow in faith and love and service.” God uses his pastors and teachers to equip, build up, unify, sanctify, fortify, mature, and grow his people (Eph. 4:11–16). It is they who plead with us to be reconciled to God in every sphere of our lives (2 Cor. 5:20).

Those who receive Christ through the minister have this promise: “The God of peace shall enter your homes. You who receive this man in the name of a prophet, shall receive a prophet’s reward, and through faith in Jesus Christ, the inheritance of eternal life.”

This article first appeared on The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ website; www.alliancenet.org under the heading The Christward Collective, December 22, 2016.

Rev. William Boekestein
happily serves Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI (in which he and his family have been warmly welcomed!). He has written several books, including Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation(with Joel Beeke).

A Matter of the Heart

In Leviticus 11, God sets forth various regulations governing clean and unclean foods. Certain animals, for example, could be eaten as food and others were forbidden to be eaten. God’s rule for determining whether an animal is clean or unclean is stated in Leviticus 11:2: “You may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and that chews the cud.” Then some examples of clean and unclean animals are listed so that the people will clearly understand God’s law.

It must be understood that the unclean animals were themselves not less good for food than the clean ones. It appears, rather, that God wanted his people to prepare themselves properly in worshiping and serving him. The case of Nadab and Abihu seems to make this clear. These two sons of Aaron came to worship “with unauthorized fire before the Lord “contrary to his command” (Lev. 10:1). The Lord responded to their impropriety by sending forth fire which “consumed them and they died before the Lord” (Lev. 10:2). Proper preparation, therefore, to worship the Lord requires observance of his laws. Thus, the ceremonial laws were intended to help God’s people honor him as holy and properly worship him. Now we can see that the heart of the matter is a matter of the heart. One’s heart must be clean in order for our worship to be acceptable to God. That’s why the ceremonial laws could pass away when Jesus came “in the fullness of time.” He made it clear that cleanness and uncleanness come from within the heart of a person. Jesus declared to the people of his day that “nothing outside a man can make him ’unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’” (Mark 7:15). By so teaching, “Jesus declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:18). So the heart is what must be cleansed in order to satisfy the real meaning of the Old Testament ceremonial law regarding cleanness.

The apostle Peter also learned this truth when men were coming from Cornelius the centurion to ask him to return with them to the house of Cornelius. One will recall that Cornelius had been directed by an angel to send for Peter (Acts 10:5). As the men approached Joppa, where Peter was staying at the time, “he fell into a trance.” While in the trance, Peter saw “a large sheet let down to earth” in which were many ceremonially unclean animals. At that moment “a voice told him, ‘Get up Peter, kill and eat’” (Acts 10:13). Peter, always being careful to observe God’s law, rejected the command and responded: “Surely not, Lord! . . . I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (Acts 10:14). Thereafter, “the voice spoke a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”’ Apparently, God meant to reinforce this instruction in Peter’s mind, for Scripture states “this happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven” (Acts 10:16). Peter was still pondering the meaning of the vision when the men from Cornelius arrived and asked for him. It was then that Peter was given specific direction by God’s Spirit to “get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them” (Acts 10:20). Peter’s action was so contrary to what a good Jew would ordinarily do that it aroused controversy among the Jewish believers. Consequently Peter had to defend his conduct before them in Jerusalem (Acts 11:2–3). There Peter explained to them all that had happened to him and what happened later in the house of Cornelius, namely, “While [he] was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” (Acts10:44). This settled the matter among them, for we read: “When they [Jewish believers] heard this, they had no further objection and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted even to the Gentiles repentance unto life’” (Acts 11:18). This now makes crystal clear that anyone who repents of sin and believes in his heart that the Lord Jesus has forgiven his sin can be saved; even Gentiles who once were considered unclean in terms of the ceremonial law. Thank God that his grace reaches even to sinners like you and me!

It seems then, that the ceremonial law about clean and unclean was intended to remind God’s people to have proper regard to his holiness and to worship him with proper regard to his majestic sovereignty. Thus, all that would hinder proper respect for God’s holy name must be set aside. That would include even associating with other peoples who did not acknowledge him. That helps explain also the “wall of partition” between Jews and Gentiles. All of that, however, has changed with Jesus’ coming into the world to die for sinners. Now the “middle wall of partition” has been destroyed and the ceremonial law with its commandments and regulations has been abolished (Eph. 2:14–15). We are back once again to the heart of the matter, which is to have our hearts attuned to God himself through Jesus Christ. He alone is “the way and the truth and the life” though whom we “come to the Father” (John 14:6).

It becomes evident, therefore, that we are called to examine our hearts. What is in the heart tells us the type of person we are. Surely, as believers in Christ, we should want to serve God with our whole heart and manifest the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (Gal. 5:22–23). Let us seek to respond positively to the words of Proverbs 22:26:

My son, give me your heart

And let your eyes keep to my ways.

Or, in the words of an old hymn:

“Give Me thy heart,” says the Father above,

“No gift so precious to Him as our love;

“Softly He whispers, wherever thou art,

“Gratefully trust Me, and give Me thy heart.”

—Eliza E. Hewitt, 1898

 

Dr. Harry G. Arnold
is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church and lives in Portage, MI.
He is a member of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

 

“I Am the Resurrection and the Life”: A Meditation on John 11:25–26

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” –John 11:25–26

Sometimes it is the case that when a loved one passes away, the family calls together the entire family. It is common, if he is not already there, to call the pastor. What I do when I get there, whether the loved one is dying or is already dead, is to open up the Bible and read. I might read a number of different passages, but two I always read. One is Psalm 23, which reminds us of Jesus’ statement, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Psalm 23 speaks of the shepherd’s care for his sheep throughout their lives. Another passage I turn to is John 11. After I read this passage, if there are young grandchildren around, I explain to them what it means that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

We are up to our fifth of seven meditations on the “I am” statements of Christ. This time we look to that great I AM who said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

What It Means

This passage begins with some of the most comforting words spoken by our Savior. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’” However, these words are comforting because of the context in which they are spoken. Jesus had three very close friends who were siblings. Lazarus was the brother and Mary and Martha were the sisters. They were a wealthy family who lived in Bethany, near Jerusalem. Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick. In verse 3 the statement is, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” Jesus had a deep love for this family.

When Jesus received news of this serious illness, Jesus knew what was to take place. The glory of God will be revealed in the events of that week. Jesus decides to go to Bethany, even though the disciples warned him not to go, because the Jews tried to kill Jesus near there. Jesus was resolved to go because he was going to wake up Lazarus, who had fallen asleep. This phrase is used many times hereafter in the New Testament to refer to believers who die. The reason to use this phrase is because of what Jesus is going to reveal in this text.

When Jesus neared Bethany, he found out that Lazarus had been in the tomb dead for four days. When he got near, Martha went out to meet him (for context, read John 11:20–26). In response, Martha confessed her faith in Christ. Then Jesus sent for Mary, and when she arrived, she was weeping along with the other mourners. She fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then something happened. In verse 33 it says Jesus was moved in spirit and troubled. The result is that he wept. We have a Savior who can sympathize with us in our weaknesses. It is a very emotional scene. Jesus comes to the tomb, and at first Martha objected because it would stink . . . the body would have already begun to decompose. Nevertheless, the stone is removed; Jesus prays to God and then tells Lazarus to come out. The one who would in a short time go the cross and the grave and also would be resurrected, performs here the greatest of miracles in his ministry up until this point. He raises Lazarus from the dead. In this context he says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Essentially there are two I am statements in our text: I am the resurrection, and I am the life. Christ proclaims this and then explains what they mean (read the rest of verse 25). When the subject of the resurrection first was brought up by Jesus, Martha thought that Jesus was speaking of the resurrection at the last day. Though this is true, he is speaking primarily about the spiritual resurrection today. What Lazarus is about to become is the ultimate visual aid of the great teacher. We might die in order to live.

Humans are, by nature, dead. This is what Scripture clearly teaches. Remember Genesis 8. Before and after the flood, man’s heart was only evil continually. In speaking of the new life in Christ, Ephesians 2 says that while we were dead in trespasses and sins, Christ made us alive. By nature we are dead. The first resurrection, the resurrection of which Jesus speaks, takes place when we believe. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” Jesus here is changing Martha’s outlook on the situation.

In response to the question of why is Christ the resurrection, John Calvin says, “Because by His Spirit he regenerates the children of Adam, who had been alienated from God by sin, so that they begin to live a new life.” In order to be resurrected, you must be dead, and contrary to what most Arminian churches teach, we are not born sick, we are born dead. For Christ to say, “I am the resurrection” was in light of Lazarus’s death, not Lazarus’s sickness.

Our Savior continues and explains what it means that he is the life. “And whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” When a Christian is spiritually brought to life, he will never die again. Oh, to be sure, his body might die, but it also will be raised again. His soul will live forevermore in fellowship with God. This second phrase confirms the first. What is the best evidence you have been resurrected? You are alive.

When we die now in this life, our body goes to the ground and our soul goes to heaven. It is conscious, fully sanctified, and in the presence of God. This time is called the intermediate state. We are awaiting the final state, where body will be resurrected and united to soul and will be transformed like Christ’s glorious body to inhabit the new earth. This is what Martha first had in mind in verse 24. But Jesus isn’t talking about the final resurrection. He is saying that he himself is the resurrection and the life. To partake of what Christ is doing happens by faith. “Do you believe this?”

As we think about this, we might wonder why Jesus took so long to go to Bethany. After all, Mary and Martha, women he loved, and the other mourners had four days of utter grief and sorrow. Why did he delay so long? This is what Jesus was getting at in verse 4 and verse 15.

There would be no doubting that Lazarus was dead. Jesus was going to do something no one else could do. Why would he do it? To glorify God by testifying to the fact that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Great I AM. This now is the third time Jesus spoke an I am statement in the presence of a miracle. He was the bread of life after he fed the five thousand. He was the light of the world after he healed the man born blind. Now he is the resurrection and the life as he raises Lazarus from the dead. The implications of the others was if you believe, you won’t be hungry, you won’t be in the dark, but now, you will not die.

Why It Is True

For us to read John 11 two thousand years after the cross, we can understand it more fully. Jesus speaks with authority given by the Father, for what he has accomplished and what he will accomplish. He speaks as one who has died, he raises Lazarus as one who was raised, and speaks of one who has eternal life while yet living on earth. This is how sure the redemption secured in Jesus was. With that said, we still must ask how it is that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

For Jesus to be the resurrection, he must defeat death. This is precisely what he did. When Jesus breathed his last upon the cross, in the eyes of Satan, it must have been the great victory. But it wasn’t a victory for Satan, because three days later something happened: the resurrection on Easter morning. This is why we worship on Sunday . . . it is resurrection day. When Christ was raised, he was raised victoriously over Satan. “Sin’s bonds severed, we’re delivered; Christ has bruised the serpent’s head; death no longer is the stronger; Hell itself is captive led. Christ has risen from death’s prison; O’er the tomb He light has shed” (Psalter Hymnal #361, verse 3).  empty grave is guarantee of our resurrection, both in this life and in the life to come. Our catechism says that we are already now resurrected to a new life. This is because Christ defeated that ancient enemy: death!

Romans 5 says that we are raised up with Christ. First Peter 1:23 says that “we have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable.” Christ is the firstfruits of our glorious resurrection. What this means is that since Christ was raised, through union with him, we are guaranteed to be raised.

This is what Colossians 3:1–4 is getting at. Colossians 3:3 says, “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Focus your mind for a moment on the idea of our life being hidden with Christ. It is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. I explained to my catechism students this week that we are dying. The outward body is slowly dying away, but the inward man is being renewed. We are like a cut flower. A cut flower flourishes for a week or two and then it is thrown into the garbage. This is kind of depressing and sad, if it was not for the fact that Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Our natural life is being eclipsed by the spiritual life.

Why It Matters

The glorious truth and comforting fact that Jesus is the great I Am, who makes a claim to divinity when he says, “I am,” is also the resurrection and the life. If we don’t see how this connects to our lives, there is a danger to leave it out there as just a nice teaching. It isn’t just a nice teaching. It is a life-changing teaching. Let me give you four reasons why.

First, this matters because you will die. Today it might seem that you are full of life. Maybe you have your whole life ahead of you. Or maybe you are at midlife. But maybe you are not. Maybe your life is at its end and you don’t realize it yet. Death can be scary, and it is no respecter of persons. If the Lord delays his return, we will die. What will happen to you when you die? This all depends how you answer Jesus’ question to Martha. Do you believe this? Not just do you believe that this is true, but do you believe this is true for you? Is your life now hidden with Christ; is he your life?

Second, our loved ones will die. The older we get, the more this is the case. My great-grandma told me one time when she was in her mid-nineties that just about everyone she knew when she was a little girl is now dead. Those close to us, whom we love, will also die, and it will hurt. Certainly, there are many reading this who are hurting and grieving, sometimes in silence. It is okay to grieve, but remember, we can grieve as those who have hope, because Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” That cemetery you may visit from time to time is not a final resting place. It is merely a waiting room, waiting for the Lord’s return. The soul, the mind, the essence of our loved ones, if they died as believers, are with the Lord. They are asleep in Jesus. Death has been defeated. That sting of death has been removed. Calvin says, “What is still more, death itself is a sort of emancipation from the bondage of death.”

As Mary and Martha weep, we see Jesus also weep. Martha wanted Lazarus to be alive. Jesus speaks about a better life, a spiritual life, one in which, if you live it, you will never die. And yet, the pain of death is still real. This is what happens when we love people. The only consolation as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death is that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Weeping is for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

To an unbeliever, this is nonsense. Death is the grim reaper. It is final. The idea of robbing death of its power is preposterous. It is by faith alone that these truths can be grasped. This is why Jesus asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” Because faith makes all the difference.

Third, this is important because of Christ’s statement and the comfort it affords when death looks us in the face. We do not have to fear death or life. We can be those who live assured. Don’t mix this up with cocksureness, arrogance, or fatalism (whatever will be will be). It has simply been called Calvinism in the past, but we can merely refer to this form of life as a trust in God in light of his providence. When you sing a song like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” you can do so almost with a clenched fist. “And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed, his truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness, we tremble not for him, his rage we can endure, for lo his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.” To overemphasize the triumphant life is not helpful. You have to fight in this life, because your enemies never stop attacking us. Live with fortitude, strength, courage in the Lord.

And last, the fact that Jesus called himself the resurrection and the life points us both to this life and the life to come. Let us not seek to escape this life and run off and hide in a corner with our Bibles until Jesus returns. Let us also remember there is something more than this. We are called here. After we die, we will be called out of this life, but we are not dead yet. As we live, serve the Lord. When you come before God in prayer at night, let it be found that you have been busy in the work of the Lord. Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, awaiting the appearing of the Lord in glory. We will be resurrected when Christ returns, but also, already now, we are raised up to a new life.

In the midst of death, sorrow, and weeping, Jesus said, ”I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Let us confess, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

 

Rev. Steve Swets
is the pastor of Rehoboth United Reformed Church in Hamilton, ON. 

3 Reminders as You Enter the New Year

Don’t Worry About the Year 2017

Don’t worry about what you will eat, drink, and wear this year. Your Father in heaven knows your needs. Instead of worrying, “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” and all your needs will be given to you according to his will (Matt. 6:33, New King James Version).

After all, why worry about the unknown future of 2017 when you can pray? “O what peace we often forfeit / O what needless pain we bear / All because we do not carry / Everything to God in prayer.” Yes, what will take place this year is not known to us, but for us believers in Christ, we know that God is causing all things to work together for his glory and for our good (Rom. 8:28–29). And the word good in this passage ultimately refers to our conformity to the image of Christ. The bitter events of 2017 will only make us better believers. Let us therefore welcome the New Year without fear.

Don’t Boast About the Year 2017

Don’t brag about what you will do in 2017; you don’t know what will happen this year (Prov. 27:1). “You do not know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14, New International Version).

Don’t act as if you can control the future. You are not in control of everything. Don’t think that you can do and get whatever you want this year. You are not all-powerful. Don’t be overconfident about your future plans. You are not all-knowing. You don’t even know if you are still alive tomorrow. Thus learn to qualify your plans by saying, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15, New International Version). Nevertheless, no matter what happens, God’s will is always best for us because he is all-wise and all-good.

Don’t Waste the Year 2017

You waste this year when you use it only for your own pleasure. Remember the rich fool who said to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will things be which you have provided?” (Luke 12:19–20, New King James Version).

What a wasted life this rich fool had! He used his time, energy, and resources only for himself. With God’s help, let’s spend all the days of 2017 for God’s praise. Let’s also seize all God-given opportunities this year to “do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:10, New American Standard Bible). Remember, “Only one life, so soon it will pass / Only what’s done for Christ will last.” A life spent in the service of Christ is the most meaningful life that anyone can live in this world.

Have a blessed New Year!

 

Rev. Brian G. Najapfour
is the pastor of Dutton United Reformed Church, Caledonia, MI, and author of The Very Heart
of Prayer: Reclaiming John Bunyan’s Spirituality
(2012) and Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of and Devotion to Prayer (2013).
He and his wife, Sarah, have three children, Anna, James, and Abigail. He blogs at biblicalspiritualitypress.org.

 

What Is Covenant Theology, and Why Should I Care?

Covenant. As anyone who has read the Bible knows, that word seems to be one of God’s favorites. Yet it is more than just a word that appears frequently (more than three hundred times); it is one of the most important themes of sacred Scripture. The book of Genesis is primarily about God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The book of Exodus is in large part about God’s covenant at Mount Sinai with the nation Israel. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament—in its historical, poetical, and prophetical books—we find continual references to these two covenants: the Abrahamic and the Mosaic. We then come to the New Testament and read of Jesus instituting a new covenant, the same covenant of which the prophet Jeremiah foretold (Jer. 31:31–34). The apostle Paul and the writer to the Hebrews elaborate on the vital differences between the old (Mosaic) and new covenants (Gal. 3–4; 2 Cor. 3; Heb. 7–10). On top of this, the Bible also reveals how God made important covenants with Noah and David. What do all of these covenants mean? Does it really make any difference how well we understand them?

Answering those questions is the task of covenant theology. Covenant theology is a way of reading and interpreting the Bible through the lens of God’s covenants. It is not an interpretive grid that we impose upon Scripture, nor is it a system invented by Calvinists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rather, it is the Bible’s own method of interpreting itself. This is why covenant theology has enjoyed such a prominent place in the Reformed tradition. With its emphasis upon the authority of Scripture, the Protestant Reformation saw covenant theology as God’s prescribed method for interpreting his revelation, for covenant is the way in which God has chosen to relate to human beings. It is impossible, therefore, to interpret Scripture faithfully without understanding the meaning of these covenants. As J. I. Packer put it, “The Word of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame.”1

This article is the first in a series that will concisely explore covenant theology. In each forthcoming issue of The Outlook, we will briefly examine one of the covenants revealed in Scripture, working our way chronologically from the covenant of redemption to the new covenant. If you find these short essays to whet your appetite for further study, consider reading Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored, a book I wrote with co-author Zach Keele and published by Reformed Fellowship. That resource expands on the material found in these articles.

What Is a Covenant?

Before we begin our survey of the covenants, we must answer the question: What is a covenant? Covenant is not a word we use in everyday conversation. Yet, in Reformed circles we tend to toss it around quite a bit. We thank God for his covenant mercies. We talk about our children as heirs of the covenant. We even use it to give our local congregations names like Covenant Reformed Church. But what does the word covenant mean? We can define it like this: a covenant is an oath-bound relationship that implies sanctions. Some covenants are mutual agreements, while others are imposed unilaterally from one party to another. Some have equal parties, some unequal. The nature of the relationship between the parties can vary, depending on the covenant. Some covenants create an intimate relationship, while others an impersonal one. All covenants, in some fashion, involve oaths and promises and imply (if not explicitly state) consequences if the oath taker fails to keep his promise. In this sense, the relationship in the covenant has a certain legality.

If this sounds rather technical and complex, it may be helpful to reflect on the kind of covenants with which we are familiar in daily life. For example, consider the marriage relationship. Marriage is a covenant. A man and a woman formally commit themselves to each other by taking vows, pledging their love and undying loyalty to the other partner in the covenant. A marriage ceremony is essentially a covenant-making ceremony. The guests are there not merely to share in the joy of the couple but also to hear the vows and witness the making of a covenant. The oaths and promises that the bride and groom make result in the creation of a new relationship: the officiant pronounces them husband and wife. However, in order for the relationship to work, fidelity is required from those who took vows. If either party in the covenant is unfaithful to the oath he or she made to the other, there will be negative consequences: anything from a strained relationship to a messy divorce with costly lawsuits. This is what it means for a covenant relationship to have legality; sanctions are involved where there is unfaithfulness in the covenant.

We must be careful not to put legality in opposition to intimate relationships. For example, some might consider the relationship between parents and their children to have nothing to do with legality and to be only about love and nurture. But this is not the case. The love and intimacy of the parent-child relationship does not make it void of legality. In fact, it may increase its legal character. As Hebrews says, the father who does not discipline his children does not love them (12:7–8). Children are obligated to their parents at birth and vice versa. If children refuse to obey their parents, there are consequences. Likewise, there are consequences if parents neglect their children. Although the vast majority of these consequences are not dealt with in a court of law, they are nevertheless real and usually very painful: loss of privileges, loss of trust, anger, bitterness, and so on. There is no tension between the fact that a relationship can be both intimate and legal, that is, involving consequences. This is important to remember when we consider the biblical covenants.

Some covenant relationships, however, are less intimate. Think about the relationship between a bank and a borrower in a mortgage. Obviously this relationship is less personal and intimate than the covenant of marriage, yet it is still a covenant of sorts. This is a formalized agreement between two parties that states duties and consequences. The bank agrees to loan the borrower a great sum of money in order to buy a home. The borrower makes a promissory commitment to repay all the money plus interest over a long period. By signing his name to the mortgage documents, the borrower is giving his word that he will fulfill the conditions of the covenant. If he fails to keep his word, sanctions will follow. The house will go into foreclosure. His signature amounts to a self-maledictory oath whereby in essence the borrower says, “If I fail to keep my word, may the curses of this covenant come upon me!”

In one sense, the basic elements of covenant are present every time someone promises to do something for someone else. There are implied positive and negative consequences. If I promise my neighbor that I will collect his mail and put his trashcans on the curb while he is away on vacation, I have given him my word as an oath. If I keep my word, the positive consequence is that I will have gained more of my neighbor’s trust and appreciation. But if I forget, the negative consequence will be my embarrassment and shame. My promise, even in something small, implies sanctions. Our words can bind us to duties and to other people. Grasping this basic fact helps us to understand the nature of the biblical covenants, for a covenant in its fuller sense is a solemn formalization of commitments and promises.

Covenants in the Ancient World

In the ancient Near East, the use of covenants was essentially the same as in our modern world. They were commitments that created relationships with sanctions. Of course, the ceremonies and rituals associated with covenants in the ancient world were much different (and more gruesome) than ours. Instead of taking a self-maledictory oath by signing a contract, an ancient was typically required to participate in a ceremony that involved blood. Because the sanction for not keeping one’s covenant oath was the curse of death, the people making a covenant would kill animals as a symbol of their own death, serving as a warning to the oath taker. This imagery comes across vividly in the Hebrew idiom for making a covenant, which is literally “to cut a covenant.” The cutting referred to the ceremony of killing animals and cutting them in half. The person promising to fulfill the conditions of the covenant would then swear by a god that he would keep his word. Often, this included a dramatic ritual, such as passing between the severed animal or having its blood sprinkled before him. Added to this was a shared meal between the parties who made the covenant. They would eat the animals cut in the covenant ceremony. The meal was reflective of their committed relationship and a reminder of the oath made in the treaty. These rituals varied, however, according to the kind of covenant they accompanied.

The secular use of covenants in the ancient Near East provides us with important cultural background that is helpful for us to understand the religious covenants of the Bible. When God made covenants with his people in redemptive history, he did so in ways they could understand. As he brought Adam, Noah, Abraham, the Israelites, and David into particular covenants, he accommodated his language to fit their historical and cultural context. If God made a covenant with us today, we could expect him to use forms of treaties and legal agreements that are common to our society today. This does not mean that the biblical covenants are exhausted in their secular counterparts, but it does mean that our understanding of God’s covenants is greatly aided by our knowledge of the common ancient covenants.

Furthermore, the Lord’s accommodation to use covenant forms from the ancient world does not mean these are the original pattern for his covenants with his people. Reformed theologians have rightly observed that the original design for God’s covenants is the perfect communion found in the Trinity. As Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) pointed out, “The covenant idea developed in history before God made any formal use of the concept in the revelation of redemption.”

Covenants among men had been made long before God established his covenant with Noah and with Abraham, and this prepared men to understand the significance of a covenant in a world divided by sin, and helped them to understand the divine revelation when it presented man’s relation to God as a covenant relation. This does not mean, however, that the covenant idea originated with man and was then borrowed by God as an appropriate form for the description of the mutual relationship between God and man. Quite the opposite is true; the archetype of all covenant life is found in the trinitarian being of God, and what is seen among men is but a faint copy of this. God so ordered the life of man that the covenant idea should develop there as one of the pillars of social life, and after it had so developed, he formally introduced it as an expression of the existing relation between himself and man.2

We should not be surprised that God adopted covenant treaties for his own purposes, for covenant making among humans reflects the triune God in whose image they are made. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in unceasing devotion and commitment to each other. As creatures made in the image of the triune God, we then reflect this life by keeping our promises and committing ourselves to others in ordinary covenant relationships. God used this function of his creatures for his own redemptive purposes to communicate his promises to us. We should be eager, therefore, to grasp the significance of ancient covenants in order to appreciate God’s covenant relationship with us.

The Joy of Studying God’s Covenants

Studying God’s covenants should never be a dry academic exercise. Nor should it be for the purpose of debating and arguing with our brothers in Christ. Studying God’s covenants has one primary goal: to know God and understand our relationship with him more fully. In this way, covenant theology has immense pastoral and practical value for Christians. It revolutionizes our approach to Scripture, providing us with helpful categories to understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. It shows us that the Bible is one book with one story, told on the stage of real human history. It highlights the plot line and central point of Scripture, setting every story in the context of the larger story about Christ.

More importantly, covenant theology provides us with the deepest comfort as we learn that God accepts us not on the basis of our covenant faithfulness but on the basis of Christ’s. It sweetens our fellowship with the Father as we come to know of his oath and promises to us, promises that are yes and amen through the Mediator of the new covenant. It changes our view of the local church as we discover that we are part of God’s covenant community and worship him in a covenant-renewal ceremony every Lord’s Day. It transforms the way we see our children, namely, as the baptized members of God’s covenant of grace. It helps us understand that covenant is not a means to an end but it is the end itself—the communion between God and his people.

In the next issue, we will turn our attention to the covenant of redemption. Until then, my prayer is that you will find the study of God’s covenants to enrich your communion with the triune God and strengthen your assurance in his unfailing promises to us in Christ!

--------------

1. J. I. Packer, “Introduction: On Covenant Theology,” in Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (Kingsburg, CA: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1990), 5–8.

2. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938; repr. 1996), 263. 

 

Rev. Michael G. Brown
is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA. He is the editor and contributing author of Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons. and co-author of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.

 


Listen to a 42-minute audio lecture by Dr. Carl Trueman
Click on link below to stream online or left click and choose "save linked file" to download to listen on your player

This lecture was given at the annual meeting of Reformed Fellowship held November 7, 2008, at Trinity United Reformed Church, 7350 Kalamazoo Ave SE, Caledonia MI.

Current Issue: March April 2017
Volume 67 Issue 2

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