The world in which we live differs markedly from that known to our grandparents.
Today we lake for granted the many conveniences which were undreamed of half a century ago. Electricity, radio, television, automobiles and planes have become standard equipment in our modern civilization. And not satisfied with enjoying these inventions ourselves, we have through our commercial ventures introduced them to all the peoples of the earth.
The Days of Our Years
This process has radically changed the cultural and spiritual climate in which we and our families are living. The ties to the old order of things in which our parents and grandparents lived have been progressively loosened. To use the phrase of Walter Lippmann, “the acids of modernity” have eaten away at the fabric of human society. Everywhere we witness, if only our eyes are open, the gradual dissolution of the family, state, education, religion, and culture as our Western world once understood them. Life no longer manifests the basic integrity and unity which was once characteristic of it. Not only are we wrestling with the problem of growing diversity. This has changed into strident contradiction in which the various philosophies strive to dethrone each other in the heart of the multitudes. Waves of materialism, secularism, and godlessness is engulfing our Western civilization which once upon a time was Christian at least in name.
Nowhere has this radical change in cultural climate become more apparent than on the mission fields which have received a large share of the attention and prayers of God’s people. In his illuminating pamphlet, Het Oosten op Drift (The Orient Adrift), Dr. J.C. Rullman, an outstanding missionary in Indonesia, sketches for us the deteriorating results of Western civilization on the large masses in the Orient.
This is, however, not first of all a problem for the Christians in traditionally heathen lands. They have simply received from us not onIy the Christian gospel but also a modern, secularized and therefore anti-Christian approach to life which has woven its subtle spell first of all over the traditionally Christian lands. Our basic problem is that we all too often fail to understand the very world at our doors. Too little do we realize that we have a stupendous battle on our hands. Living as most of us do within the narrow confines of our local churches and communities, we fail to come to grips with the present world. It is more than time that we begin to understand that the only way of lasting hope is to be found in taking the offensive consciously, continually, and consistently against those who are the enemies of Christ and his gospel.
All this demands that we again take stock of ourselves and assess our spiritual resources.
Once and again we will have to be able to give a reasonable account of the hope that is in us. We must understand who we are, the children of God by sovereign grace. We will have to grasp the implications of the rule by which we live, the blessed gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We are to commit ourselves unreservedly to propagate our faith, not as an abstract theory, but as a vital and practical message in the light of which alone the major issues of life are resolved.
This requires on our pan a true covenant-consciousness. Our point of departure will necessarily be the Word of God which plainly teaches that his children are a peculiar people in this world. And this personal relationship to Cod must influence life around us. Besides controlling our individual lives, the gospel of sovereign grace speaks eloquently of the covenant relation which our families sustain to the God of heaven and earth.
In this and a succeeding article we would concern ourselves with some of the implications of this scriptural teaching that our families belong to the Lord.
Christianity – A Covenantal Religion
Quite in contrast with all other religions in the world, Christianity is at heart a covenantal religion. The definition of this as the spiritual bond which unites us to Cod and comes to expression in blessed fellowship with him as our Creator and Redeemer has been delineated in a previous article ill this series.
Among the non-Christian religions we find one of two tendencies. Among some of them there is a strong drift towards individualism and an atomistic view of the individual’s relation to God or the gods. This is especially noticeable in those religions which are palpable deformations of the Christian faith, such as Christian Science, Theosophy, Spiritualism, and others. On the other hand the major traditional faiths of the world, though not entirely ignoring personal needs and hopes, have to a large extent succeeded in submerging the individual in the group. Thus in Confucianism the chief religious rite is the veneration of the ancestors, by which the family or clan unites itself with previous generations. Likewise Hinduism with its rigid caste system has in its consistent (arms no gospel for the individual. Islam today, especially in the Near East, Pakistan, and Java, is more a nationalistic political movement than a dynamic personal religion. All the primitive religions take their rise in the sense of awe occasioned by the mysterious powers evident in this world, and this awe reflects itself in certain rites and taboos practiced by the whole tribe.
Only the gospel of Jesus Christ docs full justice to both the personal and social aspects or man’s life. God himself is a covenant God manifested in the eternal unbroken fellowship which the three persons of the Blessed Trinity sustain to each other.
Man as image-bearer reflects this perfect relationship when in his social life he is conscious of the spiritual tie which binds him first of all to God as he has revealed himself in his Word. This tie has implications for the whole of his life which has been created by and is under the reign of God. His duty is to yield himself to the will of God in all things, living in dependence and obedience and loyalty to his covenant God. Only this gives abiding value to his life and assures him of the meaningfulness of every experience which has been woven into the fabric of his existence. Thus his communion with God as Creator and Savior manifests itself not only in personal godliness but also in social contacts. God is the God of the social order as well as of the individual man. And in this social order, of which the family is the basic unit, the will of God is our law and the glory of God our goal.
The Bible – A Covenantal Book
That God has embraced in his gracious covenant this aspect of the social order which we call the family is abundantly evident from Holy Writ. No one can rightly understand the Bible, unless he realizes that this book has been written for and given to God’s people.
First of all, in the Old Testament, in the light of which alone the teachings of the New Testament become plain, God dealt very specifically with families. The announcement of the mother-promise (protevlangelium) in Genesis 3:15 speaks not merely of the individual but of the race which has succumbed to the ravages of sin. Thus it makes liberal use of the word “seed.” In the first unmistakable use of covenant language (Gen. 7:18f) God addressed himself not only to Noah but in Noah also to his family. The gracious and miraculous deliverance of this hero of faith was accompanied with God’s loving care for his wife, his sons and his son’s wives. In the formal establishment of the covenant after the deluge, God included in that new relationship to himself not only Noah but also his seed after him.
With the establishment of the covenant with Abraham the social aspect of the covenant becomes increasingly clear. The promise of grace is extended to the seed of Abraham throughout their generations. Thus the children of Israel, as descendants of Abraham, were formally recognized as the family of God at the time of the covenant revelation at Mount Sinai. Repeatedly Moses and the prophets allude to this act of God and make it the ground for appealing to the Israelites to train their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.
The same truth is abundantly clear from the New Testament.
God’s Gracious Promise to the Family
The argument is often advanced that while the Old Testament dealt with families and nations, the New Testament is concerned directly and chiefly with individuals. However, a careful study of the relevant passages demonstrates that its secondary authors do not recognize as mutually exclusive and contradictory God’s concern for the individuals and his dealings with the group. To present the problem of individual-group in this form is a meaningless abstraction, since nowhere does man appear as pure individual in distinction from society.1
Concretely this implies that no one can live the Christian life in accordance with God’s will apart from social relationships. The glory of the Christian gospel is that it announces the extension of God’s sovereign mercies to those who live in these relationships. Thus the family receives its true significance when it is a Christian family, that is, when it is the object of divine grace and demonstrates its power in the lives of the individuals who comprise the group.
Thus the New Testament speaks in the same vein as the Old, when it declares the extension of divine grace to the families of believers.
God’s concern for little children is taught us repeatedly, Some o( the outstanding passages are found in the gospel according to Matthew. There we read that Christ replied to the dlicI priests and scribes, “Yea: did ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praiser” (21:16) Again he said, “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for to such belongeth the kingdom of heaven” (19:14). Thereupon he laid his hands on them and blessed them. Speaking of the little children he said, “But whoso shall cause one of these little ones that believe on me to stumble, it is profitable for him that great millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that be should be sunk in the depth of the sea” (18:6).
Still clearer from other passages of the New Testament is the connection of these children to their parents as both embraced in God’s covenant mercies. Peter plainly announces in his Pentecost message, “For to you is the promise, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call unto him” (Acts 2:39). We read repeatedly of whole families who together embraced the Christian religion. Thus the families of Cornelius, Lydia, the jailer at Philippi, and Stephanas, to speak of no more, were baptized by the apostles.
The gracious promises of the Lord are extended to the children of the families in which only one of the parents is a believer. Thus Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified in the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in the brother: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy” (I Cor. 7:14).
Covenant Life in the Home
The implications of this covenantal relationship for Christian living in the home are referred to repeatedly by the writers of the New Testament. The duty of the Christian husband to love his wife for Christ’s sake is often emphasized (I Cor. 7:11; Eph. 5:25; 1 Pet. 3:7). Likewise, wives are exhorted to subject themselves to the·if husbands as to the Lord (Eph. 5:22; 1 Pet. 3:1) . They are to be grave and exemplary and faithful in all things, in order that through their conduct the cause of Christ may not fall into disrepute (I Tim. 3:11 ; Titus 2:4; I Pet. 3:1). Parental duties arc by no means ignored. Fathers are commanded nOt to provoke their children to wrath but to nurture them in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:21) . Especially those who bear rule in the congregations of the Lord ought to set worthy examples to all by being able to rule their own house and children well (I Tim. 3:4, 12). The example of Lois and Eunice who trained Timothy in the knowledge of the Scripture is lauded by Paul (ll Tim. 1:5; 3:15). And those who fail to provide for their families are regarded as worse than unbelievers (1 Tim. 5:8).
From this summary it becomes clear why the Christian Church has administered the sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace to children of believers as well as to adults who were able to profess their faith in the Lord Jesus. The former as well as the latter were regarded as belonging to the Lord and enjoying his favor. Promises are given to the children of believers as well as to their parents. Thus God’s grace is received and enjoyed by Christian families in the generations. The obligations to serve him in all things must be urged upon the children by their believing parents. And although we must guard against the danger of inferring that divine grace is passed on by the natural process of birth and training, we may never obscure the fact that the Christian home according to God’s testimony is the seed·bed in which he is pleased to bring true faith to fruition.
Children of Believers and the Church
That God’s gracious covenant is extended from parents to children has not always been clearly recognized in the history of the Christian Church.
In the apostolic and post-apostolic era this emphasis was relatively prominent. This need not surprise us at all. Large numbers of the first disciples were Jewish converts to whom the covenant with Abraham was a precious and vital reality. In the light of the covenantal emphasis alone can we correctly assess man y passages of apostolic teaching. Nor may we forget the close association of church and home in those years. Not only did the early believers often meet in the homes of prominent members, but upon several occasions we read of whole families who received baptism. In many cases religion was apparently a family affair. Mention of such biblical instances as Mary the mother of John Mark, Timothy, and Philemon serve to remind us of this important truth.
Basically the same emphasis can be found in the apostolic fathers who in large measure merely reproduced the teachings of the New Testament. In several letters they reminded the believers of serving the Lord as families. In Polycarp’s epistle we read, “And let us teach, first of all, ourselves to walk in the commandments of the Lord. Next, teach your wives to walk in the faith given to them, and in love and purity tenderly loving their own husbands in all truth, and loving all others equally in all chastity; and to train their children in the knowledge and fear of the Lord” (Ep. IV) .
After two or three centuries the spiritual climate within the Christian Church began to change radically. Several reasons may be adduced for this. In spite of severe persecution, large numbers of heathen were baptized, in consequence of which the spiritual tenor of the congregations was lowered. Gradually the distinction between believers and unbelievers was obliterated, especially after Christianity was recognized as the state religion. In reaction to the increasing worldliness which came to prevail, many became ascetics. The ascetic ideal with its depreciation of marriage and all natural relationships spread widely throughout the Church.
Another significant change must be found in the new emphasis on the sacraments as the chief means of grace. Instead of being regarded as signs and seals of divine favor, they were presented as channels by which grace was actually conferred. As a result the relation of the believer to God was construed in mechanical terms. The call to personal repentance and faith was obscured, since anyone who did not willfully place the obstacle of stubborn unbelief in the way of grace was supposed to receive the actual gift.
The chief goal of the preaching of the gospel came to be the establishment of the kingdom of Christ among men in visible form. This was to be achieved by unconditional obedience to the Church to which were entrusted the sacraments. The development of doctrine and piety throughout the next thousand years obliterated to a large extent the place and calling of the individual. Indeed, there were protesting voices. The sectarians were very active in many sections o( the western world, chiefly in southern France where several religious crusades inaugurated by the bishops and popes almost annihilated them. Thus the development of the hierarchy and the growing tendency to glorify celibacy did much to throttle the original Christian conception of the family as the seed-bed of true faith.
During the Reformation many broke completely with the papal church. Of all the groups which advocated a return to the New Testament, none was more radical than the Anabaptists. Among them the emphasis fell almost exclusively on the individual’s relation to God, conceived of in a subjective and activistic way. Without the personal appropriation of divine grace by an act of faith, man was regarded as under the curse of sin and death. Baptism was not regarded as the sign and seal of divine grace but as the public confirmation and attestation to personal faith. Thus in the church there was room only for experiental believers. In such a framework justice could not be done to the scriptural demands for covenantal family life. In fact, among some of the Anabaptists there was a tendency to regard celibacy as belonging to a higher and more spiritual order than marriage. All this rooted in their lack of appreciation of the proper relation of nature and grace.
Among the Reformed there was developed a new position in which an attempt was made to do justice to the teaching of God’s gracious covenant with his people. Of this covenant the sacraments were regarded as divine signs and seals. By virtue of this emphasis the Reformed churches more than any others were able to preach more clearly the demands of living out the gospel truths in all of life.
Christ: Transformer of Culture
This brings up the whole question of the relation in which the Christ of the gospels stands to the life of man in the world. It is recognized as one of the most pertinent problems which faces the Christian Church today. Throughout the history of the Church believers have engaged themselves in seeking a solution to this vexing issue. In a very recent book of his, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr gives a penetrating analysis of the divergent attempts at a solution. These he classifies under five heads. To the fifth class, which insists that Christ by his saving grace transforms our culture, belong also the Reformed or Calvinistic churches. Holding this view of the proper relation of nature and grace, the Reformed churches have developed the biblical doctrine of the Covenant of Grace in which the supposed tension between individual and social gospel is satisfactorily resolved. Only in this way can justice be done to the biblical insistence on a full-orbed family religion which the Lord blesses in such a way that his Church is maintained in the world, his kingdom is established in the hearts of men, and his people are prepared for everlasting glory.
Precisely what this construction of the biblical doctrine of God’s gracious covenant with our families means for daily life will be discussed in the next article of this series.
Questions for Discussion
1. Is there any evidence that believers were more spiritual in the days of our grandparents than today?
2. In what ways may it have been easier to give children covenantal nurture two generations ago than today? In what ways may it have been more difficult?
3. How has modern secularism affected our nation? Our churches? Our families?
4. How would you define covenant-consciousness?
5. In what respects is a purely individualistic gospel unscriptural and insufficient? Do you think Fundamentalists are guilty of this? (cf. Carl F. H. Henry: The Uneasy Conscience of Fundamentalism, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1947). Have we as American Calvinists been guilty of the same error?
6. In what sense is God’s covenant with Abraham in force in the New Testament church? Prove from the New Testament.
7. Is baptism a sign and signal of God’s grace or of man’s faith? Prove from Scripture. Of what significance is your answer for the practice of infant baptism?
8. On what Scriptural grounds would you oppose the Baptist view of the Sacrament; their rejection of infant baptism; their denial of the validity of one covenant for the New Testament church?
9. How has the ascetic ideal in both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches undermined the Christian view of marriage?Footnote
1. The problems of “individual-society” is approached from the aspect of marriage in a recent symposium of Dutch Calvinists presented under the title Wijsbegeerte en Levenspractijk (Philosophy and Life):
“Underneath the formulation of Dooyeweerd (that is, on marital problems) there lies a totally different perspective (than in the construction of other philosophers). Here we find the recognition that the individual is an “abstraction” which cannot be found in reality, while we also cannot speak meaningfully about “the” community in a general way.
There are always specific individuals placed by God in a variety of social relationships.
And each actual entrance into a new relationship is an enrichment. Each new growing into such another relationship signifies therefore enrichment because the personality is always receiving a new calling to serve the Lord in this relationship and to taste the blessedness of being permitted to live according to His law.
In this (construction) is presented clearly the structure of the Christian concept of personality” (p.65).