Tag Archives: covenant of grace

Four Essential Pictures

I’m currently reading Tim Challies’ book Visual Theology.  This book presents many theological basics not only with text, but also with infographics.  This kind of approach aims to help those who learn best with visual helps.  I’m appreciating the book in many respects and will probably write a review in the near future.

As good books do, this one got me to thinking, particularly about the place of pictures in Reformed theology.  While we don’t believe it’s lawful to make images of God, this doesn’t rule out diagrams or other visual helps.  In fact, embedded in our theology are several essential pictures.  Even apart from an actual picture, these doctrines come across to us via some particular image we’re to hold in our minds.  Let’s look at four important doctrines and the associated pictures.

Covenant

In Scripture, the covenant of grace is portrayed in terms of a relationship.  When you think “covenant of grace,” you should immediately picture a relationship.  In Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 1 (and elsewhere), God speaks in terms of a marriage relationship with his people.  In the New Testament, this is taken over into the relationship of Christ (the groom) and his church (the bride).  While there may be contractual elements in the covenant of grace, the essence of it is a relationship.

Regeneration

The Bible gives several pictures of regeneration and one of those is a heart transplant.   When you think “regeneration,” you can picture someone receiving a new heart.  The Holy Spirit uses this picture in Ezekiel 11:19, “…I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh…”  This one picture does not exhaust everything the Bible says about regeneration, but it is one helpful conceptual peg on which to hang the doctrine in your mind’s eye.

Justification

Whenever you think about justification, you need to think “courtroom.”  The courtroom image is essential to this doctrine.  One of the key ways that people often get justification wrong is by saying that it is God making us right with himself.  However, justification is, in its very nature, a judicial matter.  It involves a judge making a declaration, issuing a verdict.  This is why Romans 1-3 describes man’s condition before God as a judge.  For example, Romans 2:2, “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.”  Starting at the end of Romans 3, the Spirit explains how a negative judgment can be averted through Jesus Christ.  After all that, we get Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Condemnation is what we would receive from the Judge if we did not have Christ.  In its essence, therefore, justification involves the picture of a courtroom.

Adoption

Adoption is a beautiful word that pictures family.  Having been purchased by Christ, having been justified by him, we are now included in God’s family as his dearly loved children.  God is no longer our Judge, but our Father and we relate to him as such.  Nowhere is this stated more explicitly than Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'”  We’ve gone from the courtroom (justification) to the family room (adoption), and that’s a wonderful place to be!

To summarize:

Covenant —> Relationship

Regeneration —> Heart transplant

Justification —> Courtroom

Adoption —> Family

Reformed theology has more pictures, but those four are crucial to understand.  When you get those, you grasp several basics of the Christian faith.


Personal Responsibility

klaasschilder

Does calling for personal responsibility make one into an Arminian?  Some Reformed people have real trouble with holding people accountable for the spiritual choices they make.  Some get uncomfortable when Reformed preachers make a distinct call to faith and repentance.  They feel that this somehow undermines God’s sovereignty.  After all, if God wants to save someone, he will do so in his own time and in his own way.  Calling for people to respond with repentance and faith seems to say that human beings may be trying to do something contrary to God’s purposes.  In fact, once I was even told by a Reformed church member that the Heidelberg Catechism is Arminian when it says that justification is mine, “if only I accept this gift with a believing heart” (QA 60).  Apparently, the Catechism is also Arminian when it says that forgiveness belongs to believers, “as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel” (QA 84).  Some folks really stumble over that word “accept.”  How can that be Reformed?

Leaving aside any popular misunderstandings of what constitutes Arminianism, can we speak about the need for all of us to personally accept God’s gospel promises?  Does an acknowledgement of human responsibility add up to a denial of divine sovereignty?  Or, to put it another way, does divine sovereignty mean that we are mere puppets on a string or perhaps pre-programmed robots who can only follow the Programmer’s wishes?  These are important questions and they’ve been wrestled with many times throughout church history.

One path we might take in exploring these questions could take us back to Klaas Schilder (see here for a short bio).  Personal responsibility in the covenant of grace was one of Schilder’s emphases.  Against the background of others who placed everything under the umbrella of divine sovereignty, Schilder sought to drive home the reality of the covenant as a relationship between God and his people, a relationship where human beings are treated as completely responsible for how they respond to divine overtures.

A good summary of Schilder’s approach can be found in the essay of S.A. Strauss in the book Always Obedient: Essays on the Teachings of Dr. Klaas Schilder (yes, as noted before, an infelicitous title).  Strauss noted that Schilder was contending with the covenant views of two theologians in particular:  Abraham Kuyper and Karl Barth.  Writes Strauss:

Schilder observed the same weakness in both schools of thought, even though this weakness arose from different motives.  With regard to the doctrine of the covenant, both reasoned so strongly from the perspective of the eternal decrees of God that man’s responsibility in the covenant was underemphasized.  In contrast, this responsibility was a basic motive in Schilder’s theology: in the covenant God treats man as a responsible being and confronts him with the choice of “all or nothing,” for God or against him!  Schilder therefore did everything in his power always to define the covenant in such a way that justice was done to man’s responsibility. (Always Obedient, 21)

Schilder’s point of departure in this approach was not God’s inscrutable eternal decrees, but his dealings with humanity in history.  God’s decrees are certainly behind all he does, but what is accessible to us and what we experience are his dealings here and now.

There are consequences that follow from this and one of the most marked is going to be found in preaching.  Reformed preaching which acknowledges this reality is not going to allow for or encourage passivity amongst God’s people.  Covenant preaching of this sort will not countenance fatalism.  Strauss elaborates:

…it is Schilder’s view that true “covenant preaching presents the strongest appeal to human responsibility.  This is why such preaching is also so tremendously serious, and revealing…comforting, but destroying all excuses for idleness [maar het stuksnijding van alle duivels-oorkussens].”  Such covenant preaching is a prohibition against imagining going to hell while being on the way to heaven, and it is a prevention against imagining going to heaven while being on the way to hell. (Always Obedient, 25)

Taking Schilder’s approach means that a Reformed preacher is not going to be soft on human responsibility.  In fact, you should expect a preacher who has learned covenant theology from Schilder to emphasize this rather strongly.

What about baptism?  Where does that fit in here?  Strauss explains that Schilder taught that all who are baptized receive a concrete address from God, “a message that God proclaims to everyone who is baptized, personally:  if you believe, you will be saved.” (28-29).  However, if a baptized covenant member rejects God’s overtures in unbelief, such a person will come under God’s covenant wrath and curses.  Greater blessings and promises imply greater responsibility and accountability.  Strauss concludes about what Schilder wanted to emphasize most strongly:

…that the covenant should never be allowed to lead to a false sense of security.  People of the covenant may never think that salvation is already theirs because they have received the promise.  The promises of the covenant are not predictions; they imply demands…

This is, then, the great and lasting signifance of what Schilder taught us about the covenant.  When God establishes his covenant with human persons, he treats them as responsible beings.  As Schilder characteristically put it, the covenant stands or falls by its rule “all or nothing.”  (Always Obedient, 30-31)

The fact of the matter is that no one, least of all covenant members, can use God’s sovereignty to evade their personal responsibility to repent and believe the gospel.  In fact, to do so would be to give in to a Satanic way of thinking.  Satan wants people to stand idly by and be passive before God — because passivity before God always means plenty of activity that pleases the evil one.

So is it Arminian to insist on human responsibility?  If it is, then not only am I guilty, but so is Klaas Schilder.  Of course, the Protestant Reformed allege exactly that.  Followers of Herman Hoeksema, most notably David Engelsma, have insisted that we are essentially Arminians because we hold to the view that there are conditions in the covenant of grace.  This is not the time to enter into a full rebuttal of that view.  Only let me say that their position is the result of viewing everything, and especially the covenant, through the lens of election.  Everything has to fit in a neat system that we humans can comprehend.  Against that, I acknowledge God’s full and complete sovereignty in our salvation in line with everything in the Canons of Dort, but at the same time I stress the human responsibility to repent and believe found in the Heidelberg Catechism and elsewhere.  That is a responsibility far more weighty for those who have been included by God in the covenant of grace.  In the covenant, God treats us as responsible creatures and, as such, calls each one of us to repent from sins and accept the gospel promises in true faith.


The Covenant of Grace and the Style of Reformed Worship

When a Reformed church takes the covenant of grace seriously, what impact does that have on our public worship?  That question gets addressed at length in a forthcoming book, “I Will Be Your God”: An Easy Introduction to the Covenant of Grace.  If all goes well, this book should appear in early-mid 2015.  In the meantime, here is an excerpt that deals with the style of Reformed worship and how the covenant of grace speaks to that.

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Seeing God as having the prime place in the covenant of grace is also going to dramatically impact and distinguish the style of Reformed worship. By “style,” I mean things like our attitude towards worship, our dress and deportment, our church architecture, the way our music is played and sung, and so on. These are not trivial or indifferent matters. How we come into God’s presence and how we conduct ourselves in God’s presence matters tremendously.

We can learn that from Malachi 1, especially these words from verses 6-8:

“A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts.

In many of the prophets, we find God pressing a covenant lawsuit against his people. He has this relationship with them and they have violated the relationship. They have not believed the LORD and followed him and so he goes after them with his prophets and confronts them with their covenant breaking. In Malachi 1, he speaks about their worship. On a superficial level, it looked like the people were worshipping God faithfully, as he commanded. However, God saw what was really happening.

What was really happening was that the people were bringing sacrifices that were second-rate and thinking that God would not notice. After all, other people did not notice. So, for example, verse 8 says that the people were bringing blind animals for sacrifices. It would not be obvious to anyone else that the animal was blind. Yet God’s law had expressly commanded that only the best sacrifices be brought to him (e.g. Lev. 22:22). God wanted only the best and healthiest animals. Yet here the Israelites were trying to cut corners, offering God the weak and sick animals, thinking he would not notice. He noticed. Then he says in verse 8, “Try and do that with a human ruler. Bring your human ruler your weak and sick animals as a gift; try bringing him your second or third best. See if he would accept that!”

That teaches us an important principle about worship. Since God is exalted, because he has the number one place in the covenant relationship, because he is our God, we want to bring him only our absolute best. He is worthy of that. That applies to external things like how we dress when we come to church. Do we really believe that we are meeting in a special way with the most exalted King in the universe? Then that should be reflected in the way we dress. We do not want to draw up a dress code for the church, and we should not be looking at others. Each of us should ourselves be conscientious about this. Should we not offer our level best as we meet with the King of kings? That applies to everything. It applies also to our singing, to the playing of musical accompaniment, to the preparation of sermons, to the way we treat our church building, our attention to the sermon – in everything we want to offer our covenant God the absolute best when we worship. He deserves it. He is worthy of it.

Yet let us be clear: it is not just about the external things. The external things are not even the most important thing. The most important thing is what is going on in your heart, your attitude as you approach the Holy One of Israel. The first and foremost thing he desires is your heart, a heart that loves him and wants to glorify him. When our hearts have been made alive by the grace of God, when we see how much we have been loved by this exalted God, when we see what a treasure the covenant relationship is, that is going to inevitably have an impact on how we come to meet with this covenant God. That will shape our attitude: do we come into God’s presence because we have to, or because we really want to?

To say it as clearly as possible: the style of our worship is going to reflect our understanding of whom this God is who has covenanted with us. Is he high and exalted, a majestic and transcendent God? Or do we think of him as a distant observer and not really present in our services? Or worse, do we think of him as a low-brow god who will always just take what he can get from us, even if it is second or third-best? Basically, do we accept and believe what God’s Word says about himself and let that impact the manner and style of our meeting with him?


Raising Covenant Children

Family_in_church

What difference does it make if the children of believers belong to the covenant of grace?  Chapter four of my forthcoming book “I will be your God”:  An Easy Introduction to the Covenant of Grace addresses this question.  What follows here is an excerpt:

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These spiritual truths must have an impact on how we concretely raise our children. Let us look at some of the ways. At home, as we talk to our children, we must teach them that they have been given rich gospel promises by our God. We must explain those promises, how beautiful they are, how rich, and how much good news. As soon as they can understand, we begin telling them about their baptism and what it means. From their youngest days, we tell them that baptism means that they have been claimed by God to be his child. We teach them to understand that claim, accept it, believe it, and then live accordingly. In other words, we disciple our children, we shepherd them. We raise them in the ways of the Lord; we raise them to be Christians.

In many churches, they have special youth pastors. So do confessionally Reformed churches like ours. We actually have a whole army of youth pastors in our churches. They are called parents. Parents are the front-line youth pastors in a Reformed church. Parents, your calling is to do what you promised to do at the baptism of your children: “instruct your child in this doctrine, as soon as he or she is able to understand and have him or her instructed therein to the utmost of your power.” Dear reader, if you are a parent, I want to urge you to take that calling seriously. It is your calling first and foremost, not the church through catechism classes or the teachers at the Christian school.  It is your calling to disciple and shepherd the children God has entrusted to you.

Yet, having made that point, no one should think that Christian education is optional for Reformed believers. We find this emphasized in article 58 of our Church Order:

The consistory shall ensure that the parents, to the best of their ability, have their children attend a school where the instruction given is in harmony with the Word of God as the church has summarized it in her confessions.

Here our churches have agreed that consistories shall pay attention to what is happening with the education of our covenant children. The elders have a responsibility to ensure that, as much as possible, the covenant children of each congregation are being taught in a way that not only does not conflict with what the church teaches, but which actually harmonizes with what the church teaches. This article in our Church Order follows article 57 about baptism. There is a good and biblical reason for that. Christian education follows from the covenant status of our children. Let me be clear: that does not begin with the consistory breathing down your neck about it. That begins with you being convinced in your heart as a Christian parent that your child has a special covenant status from which necessarily follows a Christian education. At our Christian schools, your child is educated in a way that fits with their position in the covenant of grace. That is just not going to happen in a public school. While there might be individual Christians teaching within the public system, it is a system dominated by a worldly and anti-Christian philosophy of education from the earliest levels to the highest. We want our children to honour God and acknowledge him in all their ways from their youngest years. Therefore, faithful parents of covenant children will always place enormous value on Christian education and even make great sacrifices to make it happen.

There is another important impact of our children’s place in the covenant and that has to do with the church. As participants in the covenant of grace, we believe that all our children are members of the church of Christ. They are not potential members or “members-in-training.” All our children, even the very youngest, they are all members of our churches. Sometimes there is this mistaken notion that our children become members when they do public profession of faith. This is simply not true. Our children become members when they come into the covenant of grace, which is to say, from the moment they are conceived in their mother’s womb. What happens at public profession of faith is not membership in the church, but a shift from being a non-communicant member to being a communicant member. At public profession of faith, our children take responsibility for their church membership. Yet they have always been members of the church. That is an important point of difference with so many around us. So many Christians today do not look at their children as being members of the church. This is not a theoretical question — it has a practical bearing.

One crucial place the practical bearing comes into play is public worship. If the kids are not members, then they do not really belong in public worship. They do not understand anything anyway; they are not going to get anything out of it. Therefore, instead of meeting with God along with the adults, the kids can and should go to some program designed especially for them. This is what inevitably follows from restricting the covenant and church membership to believers only.

We take a different approach and we always have. Children belong to the church, therefore they belong in public worship as soon as possible. They belong in that covenant meeting between God and his people, because they are part of God’s people. To leave them out would be to say that the call to worship for God’s people does not apply to them. If we are consistent with following through on our covenant theology, that would be unthinkable.

There was that occasion in Mark 10 where the disciples tried to keep those covenant children away from Jesus. The disciples thought that Jesus was way too important for these little kids. Scripture says in Mark 10:14 that when Jesus saw this he became indignant. It infuriated him that his disciples would restrict these little covenant people from having access to him. Then he took these little people in his arms, he hugged them and blessed them. Our Lord Jesus is not here today on earth to hug the little brothers and sisters, but he is still here to bless them too whenever we worship. It would make Jesus indignant for anyone to keep them away. Our covenant children belong in the church and they belong in our worship services. Indeed, still today we can say, “Let the little children come to Jesus, do not hinder them!”

As soon as they are able, we want to see our covenant children meeting with their God. “As soon as they are able” means that there is going to be some variation and we cannot set a hard and fast rule about it. Some children are squirmier than others. I get that — I have kids too. Some kids come into this world naturally more docile and they can sit in church when they are two. Other kids are going to take a little while longer and that is perfectly okay. Yet they all belong there eventually. There are going to be some challenges that come along with that. Sometimes kids learning to come to church are going to make some noise and be a bit restless. The rest of us in the covenant community have to cut parents and kids some slack, be patient, and just rejoice that these kids are there. Let the little children come! They belong with us in God’s presence, all of them. God is present to bless them as well as us.

As parents, there are some things we need to do to make that happen. From as soon as they able to understand, we start teaching them about what church is and what we are doing when we gather for worship. This is part of discipleship. We teach them to be respectful and reverent in church. When they are able to read, we make sure they have a Bible and a Book of Praise. We make sure they start following along and that they are singing with the rest of the congregation. We teach them to do these things from when they are young. We do not tell them it is optional, that you can sing if you feel like it. No, we are all part of God’s covenant people and so we all sing together, young and old, good singers and not-so-good singers. When the collection comes, we have to make sure that our kids are actively participating in that element of our worship too. They can put money in the collection. That is part of worship too, something they can easily do to worship the LORD. Moreover, what about the sermon? Many times, the minister will work the kids into the sermon. Parents of covenant children should follow up on that and make sure their kids understand. God’s Word is for them too. You can often be surprised what kids pick up and we should encourage them to be listening to God’s Word as it is preached. It is for them too, as part of God’s covenant people they are also being addressed.


Some Recommended Resources on the Doctrine of the Covenant of Grace

As mentioned here previously, I’ve been preaching a series of catechetical sermons on the doctrine of the covenant of grace.  Someone asked me to provide a list of recommended resources.  First, some caveats.  The list is not comprehensive, not by far.  These resources are in no particular order.  My mentioning them does not mean that I agree with every single detail, term, or formulation in them — indeed, some of them do contradict each other at certain points.  In sharing them, all I mean to say is that I have learned something valuable from them and perhaps you can too.

The Covenant of Grace, John Murray (Philippsburg: P&R, 1953, 1988).

This was the very first thing I ever read about covenant theology.  It’s a dense little booklet of 32 pages.  It’s not included in Murray’s 4 volume Collected Writings.

The Main Points of the Covenant of Grace — Klaas Schilder.

This was a speech delivered by Schilder in 1944.  It’s a fairly good summary of his covenant theology.  He emphasizes the dynamic and relational nature of the covenant of grace.

Covenant and Election, J. Van Genderen (Neerlandia: Inheritance Publications, 1995). 

A good overview of the history of this topic.  The author also proposes helpful ways of outlining the similarities and differences between covenant and election.  This was one of our textbooks in seminary.

Teaching and Preaching the Word: Studies in Dogmatics and Homiletics, Nicolaas H. Gootjes (Winnipeg: Premier, 2010).

Here I’m thinking especially of chapters 4 (Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience), chapter 8 (Sign and Seal), chapter 9 (The Promises of Baptism) and chapter 17 (Can Parents Be Sure?  Background and Meaning of Canons of Dort, I, 17).  Dr. Gootjes was my dogmatics professor in seminary and probably the biggest single influence on the way I think about the covenant of grace.  I hope that his material on covenant theology in the Reformed confessions will someday yet be published.

Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).

Bavinck tackles the covenant of grace in volume 3 and he’s worthy of careful study.  In volume 2, he also has a notable discussion of the covenant of works.

An Everlasting Covenant, J. Kamphuis (Launceston: Publication Organisation of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, 1985).

This is a more technical work which traces some of the finer details in the debates over covenant theology leading up to the Liberation of 1944.

Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, ed. R. Scott Clark (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2007).

This is a collection of essays by the faculty of Westminster Seminary California.  There are some important cautionary notes sounded in this volume directed against the false teachings of Federal Vision theology.  In a series of articles in The Outlook, I addressed the question of whether some of the authors mentioned above should be condemned with the Federal Visionists.  You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.  It’s also available in Korean here.