The covenant of grace is the soil out of which the church grows.
For this reason every centennial celebrant must be intentionally and critically awake to the meaning of this fact of grace. For church members to ignore the covenant is to forsake the matrix out of which they were born. It is as abnormal for a child to ignore its mother as it is for a healthy church member to forget the covenant.
The covenant of grace haunts us. We may slothfully forget to reckon with this fact but the fact pursues us with its tender and sovereign claim. We can no more escape from the insistent claim of covenantal love than we can escape from the presence of the Covenant God. The formulary for holy baptism underlines this haunting claim.
“And if we sometimes through weakness fall into sins, we must not therefore despair of God’s mercy, nor continue in sin, since baptism is a seal and indubitable testimony that we have an eternal covenant with God.”
God, through baptism, obliges us to “new obedience, namely that we cleave to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; that we trust in Him and love Him with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength; that we forsake the world, crucify our old nature, and walk in a godly life.” These words echo through our lives.
At the time of public profession of faith the sign and seal of our baptismal water rise to confront us. In unambiguous language Christ’s ambassador asks this question: “Do you openly accept God’s covenant promise, which has been signified and sealed unto you in your baptism, and do you confess that you seek your life not in yourself, but only in Jesus Christ your Savior?”
The Belgic Confession in article 34 demonstrates this same pervasive and persistent claim of holy baptism. “Neither does baptism avail us only at the time when the water is poured upon us and received by us, but also through the whole course of our life.” A church which claims to rejoice in God’s redeeming love must live in alertness to God’s covenant arrangement with believers and their children.
What the Covenant Means
The word “covenant” is without question a highly overworked word in the vocabulary of our church. Constant and superficial usage tends to hollow out its hallowed meaning. It has become for many nothing more than a traditional cliche. It must be rescued from its undeserved oblivion.
It is, however, not easy to describe this fact of saving love in a manner which meets with general approval. Our denominational fathers had differing conceptions of this covenantal administration of saving love. The reader need only recall the vigorous discussions which revolved around the views of the late Professor Heyns. There were differing accents as different leaders stressed various emphases of this precious truth. Within the limits of this brief essay it is neither necessary nor possible to discuss these varying accents. I only wish to point out a few basic facts which are essential for keeping the covenant fact in sharp focus in our daily Christian living.
In the covenant God administers his grace and promise. The fact of sovereign administration is fundamental. It is true that the ideas of agreement and contract are involved, but the contract idea is not the basic fact. The covenant is fundamentally a one-sided grant. God’s love is sovereignly bestowed and a unique relation is unconditionally established.
As God condescends to establish this unique covenant relation he gratuitously gives himself. This involves the granting of full salvation. God binds himself to the sinner, to everyone who lawfulIy receives the holy sign and seal of baptism. This warm center of saving love is expressed in the words, “I will be your God, and ye shall be my people.” From this sunspot of love radiate all the blessings of salvation from the forgiveness of sins to consummated perfection in a new heaven and earth.
At no point may we hollow out the content of this covenant grace. This is sometimes done when it becomes apparent later in life that some covenant children break the covenant and die in their sins. I realize fully the urgency of the question involved in this tragic and sinful fact of covenant breaking. We must not, however, in facing this fact emasculate the content of the covenant. This can be done in various ways.
One way of meeting this problem is to generalize the address of the covenant promise. Some say the promise comes to the seed and not to every covenant child personally. For example, if six children are baptized, some assume that the covenant relation which involves full salvation is promised by God only to the seed in their collectivity, and not to each and every child who lawfully receives the sign and seal of God’s covenant love. To make this assumption, however, is to strike tenor in the hearts of the parents and children. This horrible question will haunt them. “Was my child, was I, really included in this unique administration of saving grace?” This is a horrible question not only because it fills the sensitive heart with haunting uncertainty, but it also renders suspect the avowed declaration of divine love. When God condescendingly says, “I will be your God” he means just that.
Another way of hollowing out the precious content of God’s covenantal declaration is to reduce it to the matters of external privilege. The difference between children outside the covenant is defined in terms of external privilege, opportunity and advantage such as Christian example, Bible reading, prayer, and Christian environment. This view usually operates with a complicated set of theological distinctions Such as an external and internal covenant. One must almost be an amateur theologian before he can rightly understand this fact of covenant grace. Maybe this is one of the reasons why so many people despair of being intelligently covenant conscious.
There is another fact which needs stressing. Some people are afraid of declaring that the covenant promise and grace are geared to the granting of full salvation. They fear this emphasis will lead to a “pedigreed christianity,” that is, a Christian faith which appears to rest on biological pedigree. If one is born in the covenant all is well, if not, then the person better see to it that he accepts Christ as his personal Savior. Such a view of the covenant as one of sovereign administration of grace and promise is thought of as aiding and abetting laxity, apathy, and spiritual inertia.
This is, no doubt, a danger. But this arises from a misuse of the truth. And an abuse of a Biblical truth does not mean avoiding the emphasis of it, but rather rightly using it. The emphasis of sovereign grace and promise must not be muffled in favor of our responsibility. Sovereignty and responsibility in this connection are not two contradictory truths, but rather two mutually involved truths. The more we see the nature of God’s covenant grace the more heightened our sense of responsible choice must become. Therefore the necessity, the urgent necessity, of keeping the covenant is not incompatible with the nature of the covenant as an administration of grace. Professor John Murray hit the nail squarely on its head. “The more enhanced our conception of the sovereign grace bestowed the more we are required to posit reciprocal faithfulness on the part of the recipient. The demands of appreciation and gratitude increase with the length and breath and depth and height of the favor bestowed.” (The Covenant of Grace, p. 18). God’s sovereign grace, in establishing the unique covenant relation makes our responsibility that much greater. Those who would say that we must avoid emphasizing the sovereign character of God’s administrations and stress man’s responsibility betray their ignorance of the real nature of divine grace and love. God’s saving love in Christ Jesus is to our sense of responsible choice what a sandstone is to a knife.
Much more could be written about this highly important subject. In this essay I am only interested in underscoring the full import of the covenantal situation. God gives himself in the covenantal relation to each and every child of belieVing parents, and this is of vital importance to the church of Christ, especially a church which is celebrating its centennial in a critical and reflective manner. In sensitive awareness of the magnitude of God’s grace we are moved to contrite confession and critical consecration.
The Covenant and our Past
At the time of the Secession movement in the Netherlands about 1834 the covenant consciousness of various Christian people played its decisive role. One of the charges made by State Church officials against Rev. Brummelkamp concerned his covenant sensitivity. Because this minister realized that God’s covenant grace heightened, sharpened, and refined our responsible decisions Brummelkamp refused to baptize children of non-confessing members upon mere presentation.
One of the motives for emigrating to America for our fathers involved the education of their children. The increased dechristianization of the schools in tho Netherlands generated grave concern. God’s covenant children needed a God-centered educational program. When our fathers arrived here they worked hard on this matter of a Christian education. Already at the Fall Classis of Holland in 1848 the leaders of the church condemned all slackness on the part of the people in regard to their schools.
During the early years of our church one of the matters which disturbed those who never favored union with the Reformed Church of America involved the sacrament of holy baptism. Frequently this holy sign and seal was administered by Reformed Church officials at the home of the parents or in the council chambers instead of in the congregational worship service. I suppose the cynic could dismiss this objection by crying “mere custom.” The covenantally sensitive person, however, can understand this concern and appreciate it.
Elder Gysbert Haan, a strong proponent for separate ecclesiastical organization, alerted the churches to the importance of systematic catechetical instruction. His timely signals of warning were effective. Since the small beginnings of the Christian Reformed Church a program of catechism classes was erected upon the foundation of the covenant grace.
This concern for the covenantal character of the church’s educational program continued strong in our history. A casual reading of the sources demonstrates a sharp sensitivity at this point. In 1881 this rule was adopted by the churches. “If parents do not send their minor children to attend catechism sufficiently, they shall be admonished; if they persist in their neglect, they shall be disciplined; and if this be of no avail, they shall be excommunicated.”
This interest in a vigorous catechism program continued throughout our first one hundred years. Those interested in the fine body of material relative to this matter can find it in the Acts of Synod 1908; 1912; 1918; 1924; 1926; 1928; 1932; 1934; 1936; 1946; 1947; 1951. Hidden away in these and other documents is a mine of rich material. The Christian Reformed Church has tried to erect an educational program in both catechism and Sunday school consistent with the high privileges and responsibilities of covenant membership.
The preaching in our churches was flavored with the savory spices of a covenantal emphasis. Rev. K. Van Goof, in the memorial volume commemorating our 50th Anniversary, asserted that the Christian Reformed pulpit “leeft uit het verbond.” Among other things he said that out of the womb of the covenant the churches sought to create catechism classes, society life, home life, and school life which bore the high marks of covenant grace and style.
One of the most vigorous, patient, and meaningful struggles during the first 50 years of Our church life involved the meaning of the covenant in the life and practice of God’s people. The question of baptizing children of parents who had not ratified their covenant position in public profession of faith plagued the churches for years. Only after many years of vigorous discussion and patient understanding was the problem officially resolved in 1898. Differences of opinion were not silenced by a weak appeal to sentimentality but were vigorously discussed and patiently resolved.
All this and much more underscores the covenant consciousness of our church fathers. We of the present need not paint a halo Over our past. Much, very much, can and should be critically evaluated and rejected or accepted. But this much is clear: Our church has always been sensitive to the meaning of God’s gracious covenant with believers and their seed. And those today who wish to hear less of the covenant in our pulpits and classes are both ignorant of their own history as members of the Christian Reformed Church and are superficial in their understanding of the Scriptures.
The Covenant and our Centennial
Is this heritage still vital? Is there a covenant consciousness which is active in modifying the pattern of our daily Christian life? These questions are easier to ask than to answer. The answer must bear the mark of measured restraint if full justice is to be done to all the Factors of our complex ecclesiastical life.
The extremely impassioned critic might tell the story of the one classis meeting he attended when a candidate was being examined for admission to the ministry. The student revealed virtual ignorance of the covenant and its meaning for godly living. Such tragic facts are a matter of record and they produce a deep sense of concern. But no one has the right to generalize and say, “Such ignorance and lack of concern are indicative of a trend.” Such extreme and unrestrained criticism distorts the picture.
Obviously we can not proclaim peace, peace, when there is no peace. A sober and critical spirit which expresses itself in terms of love which is the fulfillment of law is what we need as we celebrate our centennial. What is needed is a filtering through of the spirit of our various publications and articles.
The leaders who wrote the book Reformed Evangelism display a genuine eagerness to apply the vitality of covenantal thought to the witnessing activities of the church. Reports in the Synodical Agenda such as the one produced by the committee on Education reveal a covenant consciousness which must filter down to the grass roots level of the average church member and his life. The writings found in our denominational papers and other periodicals shows a sensitivity to the covenant and its implications. What is urgently needed is a display of this same vitality in the pattern of life’s practices. At this point there are matters for concern which ought to inspire to confession and renewed consecration.
The Means of Grace
If our children are “sanctified in Christ and members of his church” we ought to remain different in our attendance at divine worship. The increasing spread of the disease called “oncerism” manifests a loss of Vitality. If God is as magnificent and munificent in the administration of his saving love as we say he is then we can only regret this easy going neglect which is cropping lip here and there. In such lives God’s grace is not sharpening the recipient’s sense of responsible and reciprocal love.
There is also an apathetic reaction to the sacrament of baptism in the lives of some. I am not interested in reviving the old practice of “vroegdoop.” This was the old tradition of presenting the covenant child for baptism the first Sunday after it was born. It has been said, and with some justification, that such a practice carries with it a strong leaven of Roman sacramentarianism.
There are, however, not a few parents who can wait with having their children baptized as long as three months. Without having reasons of health to deter them, these parents just don’t see any need for receiving this holy sign as soon as it is compatible with the health of the mother and child. Such apathy betrays a lack of Biblical covenant consciousness.
Nor must we neglect to mention the way in which the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is abstracted from the sacrament of baptism. One of the reasons why holy communion is so meaningless to some celebrants lies in their failure to relate the sacrament of spiritual nurture with the sacrament of spiritual birth. Those who have received the sacrament of holy baptism ought to long for the day when they may receive the sacrament of spiritual nurture. Both must stand in fruitful interrelation with one another. A failure to sense this often arises from a lack of covenant consciousness.
A church which lives in critical awareness of God’s covenantal method of operation will have vigorous youth organizations. But the honest observer sees much room for improvement here. At this point we have no quarrel with the leaders of the youth movement in the Christian Reformed Church. They have been and are doing the best they can.
What is disturbing at this point is the attitude of the youth themselves. Efforts toward organization activities arc greeted with careless apathy. They just aren’t interested. There is so much to be done. They can’t find the time! The reason they can’t is that they refuse to find the time. The need for communal, joint expression of their covenantal life is conspicuous by its absence. This inertia is alarming because it is symptomatic of a lack of awareness of the responsibilities to God and to their fellow covenant members. The bitter fruits of modern individualism are being harvested in various churches with their pathetic, struggling youth organizations.
At this point I can not enter into an adequate discussion of the problem of our boys clubs and their relation to the Boy Scout movement in America. This problem is not as simple as some would make it. But what is highly disturbing is a typical reaction I have heard from various parents and youth leaders when this matter is being discussed. They think the church “makes mountains out of molehills.” What difference does it make whether our boys belong to the Scout movement or the Cadet movement in our churches? These superficial people betray utter insensitivity to the unique covenantal situation of the church’s youth. The Synod of 1951 encouraged the development of distinctively Christian boys’ clubs and gave as one ground this reason: “By such a movement we can best insure the distinctive covenantal emphasis in the training of our youth.” There are still too many parents who remain utterly insensitive to this urgently needed foundation for all Christian training. When we hear the challenge of the superficial who say, “What’s the difference,” we can be sure that we are wasting our heritage in careless indifference.
I realize, meanwhile, that this fact of the distinctive covenantal situation of God’s covenant children doesn’t answer all the questions involved in this burning problem of appropriate and effective youth work. But any discussion of the problem which doesn’t take this covenant situation in to clear and unambiguous account is betraying part of our precious heritage. And when that happens it is time to repent and discover anew the old paths.
The Christian Family
The pressure of our fast and highly specialized age is rapidly changing the social face of the modern family. Times for the devotions of family Bible reading and prayer are at a high premium. As more and more social organizations take over various functions which formerly belonged to the family, we see the bond between parents and children becoming tenuous. Fathers hardly have the time today to provoke their children to wrath and so the Pauline injunction loses much of its urgency in our age.
Moses told the Israelites to be concerned about their children’s knowledge of God’s law of love. “And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou cast down, and when thou risest up.” Paul talks about nurturing them in the chastening and admonition of the Lord.
When we sit in our homes we are usually watching television and about the only time left to talk is during the commercials. We seldom walk in the way but now drive down the street and that is hardly the time to discuss the water of baptism lest we wind up with blood on the streets. When we lie down to sleep the children are usually in bed if they are young enough, or they are out if they are old enough. And since we all have our alarm clocks set at different times to fit in with our schedule of work we as a family don’t arise together.
Just what must be done is difficult to say. Obviously we can not wishfully try to turn the clock back a span of fifty years. This is as impossible as it is contrary to the Christian view of providence. We must rescue our time, make the most of each moment we have together as a family. Rehabilitation of the family altar is an urgent demand of the moment. No doubt much more could be done on Sunday if we only had a more Scriptural view of the Lord’s Day.
At all costs we must be aware of the problem. As parents we must see the precious lives of our children against the backdrop of God’s covenant mercies and love. In the bright light of his redeeming love we shall receive a new stimulus toward remedying the breakup of the Christian family. And here again the lack of interest in the problem among so many parents augurs ill for the future spiritual strength of our churches and our nation. The more sensitive we remain to the facts of God’s covenant with us and our children the more we will work out a solution which fits the pattern of the age in which we live. To ignore this problem is to speed the dissolution of our spiritual heritage as a Christian Reformed Church.
The Christian Life
Earlier in this essay I said that God’s grace and love sharpens the covenant member’s sense of responsibility. God’s redeeming love demands a pattern of Christian conduct, a pattern peculiarly expressive of the life of Christ’s Spirit in us. This matter will be discussed in detail in another article. But there is one matter which needs saying in this context of the covenant.
The waters of holy baptism mark the covenant child as different. He belongs to Christ. He wears the badge of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Having been received into the bosom of the visible church by baptism, the covenant member is distinguished from the world. This must come to expression in a pattern of godly living.
The imperative at this point is positive godly consecration. The powerful claim of God’s covenantal love rests upon everything from the secret thoughts within to the overt deeds performed on the public stage. Against the background of God’s tenderly persistent and persuasive love this positive commitment must come to expression. At various points we have tended to satisfy ourselves with the matter of negative abstinence rather than positive Christian devotion.
This became especially apparent in the accepted Christian Reformed mores of movie attendance, card playing, and dancing. This famous trio of sins has plagued our ecclesiastical debates for many years. And the curious thing is this. Many discussions still ignore the obvious fact that many non-Christian people who have never seen the inside of a theater see more movies at home than those who take the time to see on occasional decent movie in the theater. The answer to this whole question of amusements and worldlimindedness lies in positive Christian consecration. Fleeing from movies in the theater only to watch the movies at home is obviously no answer to the question. This only cultivates spiritual superficiality and religious formalism. And these twin sins must be avoided like the plague.
The careless reader might conclude that I favor going to movies. Obviously this is not the case. What I am pleading for is a positive approach to the matter of godly living by accentuating the tremendous debt of love we owe to God and our fellowman by reason of God’s covenant love. The precious fact of God’s covenant grace must be so understood that we constantly challenge ourselves and our children to godly living. And it remains almost impossible to make rules and erect standards of church membership which adequately fulfill the spirit and the letter of God’s holy law. The acceptance of a few provincial mores is no guarantee that our faith works itself out in love. Hence the critical and intentional alertness to the meaning of the covenant of grace can serve us well. Covenant keeping in our lives involves a pattern of grateful godly living. And this covers everything.
The Christian Hope
God’s gracious administration of grace and promise in the covenant relates us to the future and our hope. This involves facing up to the fact of death as appointed for all men. In the sober and silent can text of the coffin and the grave it is the Lord’s avowed declaration of saving love which inspires warm comfort and solid courage. Parents whose children die in infancy have much more than a sentimental wish to strengthen them. They can and must rest upon the solid foundation of God’s unchanging Word. When the Lord of love said to the child of a believer, “I am your God” he meant to care for that child also during the silent passage to the other world.
The Canons of Dort, 1, 17, give beautiful expression to this fact of divine love. “Since we are to judge of the will of God from His word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with the parents are comprehended, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2.39; I Cor. 7:14).”
In those painful and tearful moments of death Christian parents possess solid standing room and there receive new hope and courage to carry them through their sorrow. Despairing confusion of heart at the coffin marks a tragic insensitivity to the beauties of God’s everlasting mercy.
It is this same covenant of grace which pushes every genuine believer toward the end of these last days. The covenant is a vital fact. It vibrates with motion. It sweeps us on to the consummation. The inheritance incorruptible is defined in the Bible in terms of the covenant as consummated and made full. When Christ returns to give his own the new earth and new heaven it shall be said, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.” Rev. 21:3. The covenant made full is the eternal marriage supper in glory.
The covenant contains within itself the seeds of its own consummation. And thus every sensitive Christian experiences his daily life conditioned by this movement toward the end. This is not a curious preoccupation with predicting the return of our Savior. It is the joy of knowing that we taste today the powers of the age to come; it is vital concern with our lives as new creatures; it is a tension in life as it stretches from the first coming of the Lord to his return; it is a mood of tense, eager anticipation of seeing the full flower of the seed of covenant love which today lies in the soil of our hearts. To be covenant conscious is to be eschatologically involved everyday.
Our church motto this year remains “God’s Favor our Challenge.” One basic ingredient in this favor is God’s covenant love sealed to us in our baptism. Let us pray that this reality of love may continue to challenge our life as a church of Jesus Christ.