Tag Archives: covenant of grace

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 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.


Seven Essential Distinctions in the Doctrine of the Covenant of Grace

Good distinctions are part of the essence of sound theology.  Over the last while, I have been preaching a series of sermons on the doctrine of the covenant of grace.  This has been helpful for me in giving sharper definition to my understanding of what the Bible teaches about this crucial subject.  From my study so far, I have developed seven essential distinctions pertaining to this doctrine.  In my preaching, I have worked with these distinctions, but I have not always explicitly mentioned each one of them.  Nevertheless, they have been there in some shape or form.  I share them here in a short form with some technical/theological terminology and without any further comment or defense.  I may offer further elaboration in a future post.

  1. We distinguish between the administration of the covenant of grace in this era and administrations of the covenant of grace in previous eras.
  1. We distinguish between parties in the gracious covenant relationship:  on the one side, God; on the other all believers with all their children.  Jesus Christ mediates between these two parties.
  1. We distinguish between greater and lesser parties in the covenant of grace.  God is the infinitely greater; his people the lesser.  Therefore, God alone initiates this gracious relationship and determines its terms.
  1. We distinguish between promises and obligations in the covenant of grace.  God gives promises and imposes obligations (or conditions) in this relationship.
  1. We distinguish between God extending the gospel promises and man receiving what is promised.  God extends his gospel promises to all in the covenant of grace, but not all receive what is promised.
  1. We distinguish between antecedent and consequent conditions in the covenant of grace.  The antecedent condition is a true faith which unites one to Christ and all his saving benefits.  The consequent condition is the fruit of faith and union with Christ in a growing, holy obedience to God’s law.
  1. We distinguish between two ways of relating to God within the covenant relationship:  a strictly legal relation characterized by unbelief, which leads only to curse and death; a vital relation characterized by true faith, which leads to blessing and life.