In part, the Free Reformed Churches owe their existence to controversy surrounding covenant theology. When a synod imposed the distinctive covenant theology of Abraham Kuyper on the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, that sparked the Liberation of 1944. Immigrants from the Liberated churches came to Australia beginning in the 1950s and, in reference to the Liberation, called their new church federation Free Reformed. In our day, covenant theology is not discussed nearly as much – but because it’s biblical, it remains important to understand. There are huge implications for such things as parenting, early infant loss, worship, and education.
Three Biblical Covenants
Historically, Reformed theology has distinguished between three covenants. The covenant of redemption is an arrangement in eternity between the persons of the Trinity for the salvation of sinners. This covenant of redemption came into action in time here on this earth. God mercifully condescended to enter into a covenant with Adam in the Garden of Eden before the fall into sin. This covenant promised life, fellowship, and happiness under the condition of perfect obedience. Some have called this the covenant of works, others the covenant of life. Finally, there is the covenant of grace. First found after the fall into sin in Genesis 3, this covenant was manifested in several administrations in the Old Testament, leading up to the final administration after the coming of Christ in the New Testament. Since Christians are in this covenant of grace, we’ll focus our attention there.
Essence, Origins, and Parties of the Covenant of Grace
The essence of the covenant of grace is a relationship. Scripture often compares it to a marriage. The origins of the covenant are divine. God always takes the initiative to go after his people and call them to himself. This was true in biblical times (think of Abram in Genesis) and it’s equally true today. Since it’s essentially a relationship, there have to be parties or persons in the relationship. On the one side is the holy God, and on the other, not only believers but also their children (Gen. 17:7, Acts 2:39). Between these two parties stands as a Mediator who “greases the wheels” of the relationship and makes it work as it should: Jesus Christ (Heb. 8:6).
Promises and Obligations in the Covenant of Grace
“Every covenant contains two parts, a promise and an obligation” – those words from the Form for Infant Baptism will be familiar. The promise of the covenant is simply everything the gospel proclaims. It can be summarized by saying that God will be our God through Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 6:16-18). The obligation of the covenant is first and foremost that we believe God’s gospel promise to us. Doing that, then also obedience is supposed to follow as a fruit. So the obligation can be summarized by saying that we will be God’s people, we will trust him, and we will then gladly and thankfully obey him.
Two Ways of Relating to God in the Covenant of Grace
I said above that the essence of the covenant of grace is a relationship between God and his people. There are healthy and unhealthy relationships. We can relate to God in a healthy way: through faith. We can believe his Word and then we’ll receive the blessings promised in the covenant. But there’s also an unhealthy way to relate to God in the covenant and that’s the way of unbelief. If we refuse to believe God’s promises for ourselves personally, we not only don’t receive what is promised, we also receive an additional measure of God’s wrath. Christ even says that being an unbelieving covenant child is more abominable than being a Sodomite (Matt. 11:23-24). How much better it is to hear God’s promises and accept them in faith and receive all the blessings of the covenant !
Sacraments of the Covenant
The sacraments support us in the covenant relationship.
Baptism is the sacrament of initiation – through baptism, God publically declares that we are indeed his possession. He publically puts his name on us and signs and seals his covenant promises to us. He then obligates us to believe him so we can receive what has been promised.
The Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of nutrition – through the Lord’s Supper, God assures us that Christ’s body and blood were really offered for the forgiveness of all our sins.
One of the greatest challenges when it comes to covenant theology in our churches is the tendency to think covenant membership is an automatic ticket to heaven. As if the covenant gives you election, justification and every other saving gift, and these things are just yours to lose if you choose the way of unbelief. Let me be clear: every baptized person in the church is fully in the covenant of grace. Every baptized person is given God’s promises. However, there’s a vital difference between being given a promise and receiving what has been promised. The promise comes with a call. If anyone is going to receive salvation through Jesus Christ, they must personally turn from their sins and trust in Jesus Christ. You’ll only receive what is promised in the covenant through the way of faith. There’s no automatic salvation for covenant members.