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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.


Current Issue: November/December 2018
Volume 68 Issue 6

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