Admittedly, parental influence played a significant role in developing my sustained interest in the doctrine of the covenant. During the formative years of childhood and youth God in His providence channeled rich blessings into my life through the molding influence of a godly father and mother. Mine was the blessing and privilege of learning to appreciate God’s covenant with men both by demonstration and experience. Along with a great multitude of believers, I have overwhelming practical reasons for being enthusiastic about the glorious truth of God’s covenant of grace.
There is a more compelling motivation for a wholehearted commitment to this truth and for an ecstatic confession of it. The covenant belongs to the very essence of God’s Word; to the very heart of His gospel. Too often that gospel is robbed of meaning or is beclouded by a narrowly soteriological, even man-centered emphasis. Only when one sees it in its unity and totality can he appreciate the glory of the gospel and be led to exclaim with the apostle Paul “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man, the things which Cod hath prepared for them that love him.” I Corinthians 2:9.
If it is true that faith given by the Holy Spirit is the key to the proper understanding of the Spirit-inspired Word, it is also true that the doctrine of the covenant is the key to the Reformed interpretation of that Word. Our approach to Scripture and our method of interpretation must be determined by the nature and content of Scripture itself. And the Bible is thoroughly covenantal in its character, content, and emphasis. Each text must therefore be seen and understood in its context; each truth understood. in its relationship to the main message. To be truly contemporaneous, our presentation of the gospel must first of all be correct!
Scripture leaves no doubt as to the importance of the covenant. It is written in large letters on every page. If it is elementary, in our time it is necessary to state that the term “covenant” itself occurs more than two-hundred-fifty times in the Bible. Surely this is not by chance. The name “Jehovah”, the covenant name underscoring the unique relationship between God and His people, appears with a regularity and prominence which leaves an unmistakable impression. The Bible as God’s self-revelation reveals most clearly that God delights in referring to Himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” and as “the God of your fathers.” It is most significant that the Bible is divided into two testaments or covenants. The book of the law is equated with “the book of the covenant.” The great and all pervading truth in Scripture is found in the statement or promise “I am thy God.” This is the diapason of that redemptive revelation which finds its climax in the Word become flesh, Immanuel, Son of God and Son of man, the Mediator of the covenant.
Is this doctrine of the covenant an Old Testament concept? It certain1y is. The whole Old Testament was written from the perspective of God’s relationship to his chosen people and points forward to the time when God shall reveal his great salvation to all the nations of the earth. In the meantime it was the function of Israel, the chosen and covenant people of God, to be a clear and glorious demonstration of God’s redeeming power and grace. The Old Testament is in no sense a survey of ancient history; it is the record and revelation of God’s dealings with his people, wonderfully significant for the people then and prophetic of things to come on a much wider scale in the New Testament era ahead.
Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny, has written an excellent book on Judaism. Significantly he entitled it: This is My God. According to God’s promise and his people’s confession the message of God is one of self-revelation in which he makes known the unbelievable grace of his self-impartation.
God gives himself three times over.
He gives himself in creation, with emphasis on the fact that he is Lord of all and Father of man, his image bearer and son. Man has observed this revelation by sin, but it is still sufficiently clear to leave the human race without excuse. It is still present, but the sinner rejects it. The question may well be asked: Is the covenant involved? And the answer is, as we shall see, that all men are covenant-breakers.
The whole Old Testament points to God’s revelation in his Son and finds its climax in the incarnation. God not only reveals himself in the Son, fun of truth; but gives him self in his Son, full of grace. And the entire revelation in law, history, prophecy, and poetry, all of which is really prophetic, underscores the need and nature of the atonement. None of this can be appreciated properly without an understanding of the covenant, established by God and broken by men. And always the Savior, promised and provided by God, is the “seed of the woman,” the “seed of Abraham,” the “Son of David,” the Mediator between God and His people; the Mediator of the covenant.
In sanctification God gives himself in the Holy Spirit. If this is particularly a New Testament emphasis, it is nevertheless amazing how much the Old Testament has to say about the presence and influence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of men. When the Spirit departs, men are hardened; when the Spirit inspires and empowers, men are brought into deeper fellowship with God and qualified for greater service of God. “The friendship of Jehovah is with them that fear Him; He will show them His covenant” Psalm 25:14.
The New Testament is not a detour. It in no way represents a deviation from the main stream of Old Testament thought. It is a fuller revelation of that thought. It is not a contrast as much as a climax. This basic unity is rooted in the fact that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit so that in the most unique sense it is God’s self-revelation; it expresses itself in the covenantal style and content of that revelation from beginning to end. As we shall see a little later, the Old Testament covenant and the New Testament kingdom are really one.
But is it true that the New Testament does not discard or devaluate the covenant idea? Does it continue and even underscore this thought? Are we imposing a covenantal scheme on Scripture; or is it really true that in this doctrine one feels the heart-beat of the gospel?
A look at the book of Romans ought to convince those who are open to conviction, and certainly Galatians 3 leaves no doubt. That is one of the most glorious chapters in the Bible. If I Corinthians 15 makes our blood tingle with the triumphant shout “O death where is thy sting, O grave where is thy victory” (I Corinthians 15:55), that is paralleled by the exclamation at the close of Galatians 3 concerning New Testament church and believers: “And if we are Christ’s then are we Abraham’s seed; heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:21). Remember this was not said by Paul in a moment of sudden emotion but after prolonged and closely-knit argument concerning the position of Christians and the Old Testament law, tradition and promise.
A careful perusal of the book of Hebrews will only serve to confirm what has already been said. New Testament believers are one with and a continuation of the Old Testament people of God. Peter the man with deep-seated Jewish prejudices (Acts 10; Gal. 2: 1l1I.) reaches the stage of spiritual maturity where he is perfectly willing to ascribe to the New Testament church many Old Testament terms which emphasized the glory of Israel. “But ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession…” I Peter 2:9
And the eternal character of God’s covenant with his people is clearly and magnificently demonstrated in the fact that the bliss of heaven is described in terms of the promise made to Abraham, which means that here the covenant comes to perfect and final realization and expression. (Revelation 21:1–4) Surprising as this may seem it really was to be expected. What God said to Abraham, he continued to say to his people through all history, “I will make an everlasting covenant with thee…and I will be thy God.” And suddenly we realize that what had been promised was climaxed in Christ. What was to come was revealed in Christ Who is pictured in this same covenantal style in those simple yet profound words: “And the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth…John 1:1,14 He is the Mediator standing between God and his people, He is the way and the truth and the life in whom God and his people meet so that they are truly and forever one.
In the light of all this it is regrettable that the doctrine of the covenant has not received greater emphasis in the Reformed creeds. It is there by reference and implication; but a detailed statement or even a summary is lacking.
The fact is that there are two regrettable features about the church’s handling of this particular truth. It is a gem whose luster is beclouded by finger marks. It has suffered at the hands of its proponents as well as by the attacks of its critics.
On the one hand this doctrine has been and remains controversial. One need only read the volume of E. Smilde Een Eeuw van Strijd over Verbond and Doop to be convinced. This is to be accounted for by Satan’s opposition to God’s truth and by men’s inbuilt resistance to the doctrine of sovereign grace. But why should Christians act or react with an emotion which borders on violence so that the discussion of this truth among Christians of various stamps should degenerate into acrimony and lovelessness? Surely we can contend for the faith without being contentious.
It may be that we have now reached a stage fully as deplorable. We are in danger of losing this doctrine by default. When insistence of ecumenism goes hand in hand with doctrinal indifference or compromise, it is time for the church to take heed. In fact, it is already a bit late. The results could be disastrous. And the covenant is being neglected.
Perhaps we see this danger in others but fall to see it in ourselves. Let us make a legitimate distinction between dogmatic and exegetical theology, without disparaging the latter. Never should we send up theological “trial balloons,” thereby leading others down a road the end of which we ourselves have not thoroughly examined. Let us encourage theological study; but beware of theological drifting.
It is necessary to come closer to home. Is it possible that in Reformed churches the sacrament of baptism, a sign and seal of the covenant, has become routine? And if the Lord’s Supper is receiving renewed attention because of a revival of liturgical interest, is there in the church little or much anticipation and experience of the covenantal fellowship which it is meant to feed and inspire? Multitudes meet at the Lord’s table, but is there a living sense of penitence which goes hand in hand with a joy of salvation so that we glory in the cross of Christ and in the Christ of the cross?
Now more questions arise. Are we characterized by a deep God-consciousness? Are we more concerned at times about peripheral matters than principles? Do we view our children as objects of covenantal training, or as objects of evangelistic effort? Are we deeply interested in the Word of God and in the study and exposition of its central and consistent theme, or are we satisfied with a fragmentary approach? You say, these questions do not trouble the church. They ought to trouble every soul.
We need to take a new look at the glorious doctrine of the covenant. This covenant offers a powerful antidote to the errors of liberalism and the weaknesses of fundamentalism. It by no means exhausts all of God’s revelation, but surely is essential to it. An appreciation of this truth will enable one to see the glorious unity of the Word and the glorious grace of the gospel. We shall return to our reflection on this truth again. Would to God that I had the tongue of an angel and the pen of a ready scribe!