Living the Covenant Life in Our Families

QUlTE generally men throughout the ages have conceded the fundamental importance of the home for human life.

Although perhaps more widespread and conscious in Christian lands, this emphasis has by no means been limited to those countries which have traditionalIy been exposed the gospel of God’s grace in Christ’s Jesus. Even those who do not proceed from Christian assumptions in their study of human society insist on the unique contributions which [he home makes. Thus one sociologist has written, “There is no group which can play the pan of the primary group which the family plays. The face to face, intimate contacts and the effect upon the parents by their intimate life with their children and upon the children by their intimate life with parents, is apparently a necessary and vital part of human social development, and it is as necessary for the perpetuation of human achievement as is the family for biological perpetuation. The significance of the work done by parents in the training of their children cannot be overestimated . . .The parent plays a double part: first, his own part as a functioning member of the group; second, helping to establish and perpetuate ideas and practices in the children of his household. The first is important. The second affects and helps determine the future usefulness and happiness of the individual and the group.” (1)

Surely if those who give no conscious recognition to Biblical principles insist on the importance of the home in human society, how much more should we as Christians deepen our appreciation of the Biblical doctrine of the Covenant of Grace which stresses the importance of the Christian home for the perpetuation of the line of saving grace through the generations.

In our last article we summarized the Biblical teaching of the relation of the believing individual to the family group. Now we should consider what the Biblical doctrine of God’s gracious covenant with our families means for daily living.



The Four Pillars of the Home

To understand properly what the Bible has to say about the relation which God sustains to the families of His people, we would call attention to four foundational truths. These are the pillars upon which our Christian families must be built today.

(1) Christianity, according to Scripture, may never be regarded as a purely individual religion but embraces the believers together with their families.

The supposed tension between the individual and the social group is in large measure a purely academic and theoretical problem which finds little basis in actual fact. The tensions and strife between the two are not inherent in the creation ordinances of God but root in the stubborn reality of sin which distorts and ruins the revealed plan of God for human life. Dooyeweerd has correctly pointed out that those who find in these tensions a major problem of our day usually argue their point from an incorrect analysis of the nature and structure of human personality. Ideally there can be no fundamental conflict, since the individual is to find his self-fulfillment only in his relation to the group, and the group has no significance except in so far as it is composed of individuals placed in specific group relations by the providence of God.

For us as believers this means that the individual cannot live out his faith without influencing the group to which he is most intimately attached, namely the family. His personal relationship to God must and will come to expression within his life as a member of that group. He refuses to insulate himself as believer from those around him. Nor can he develop the gift of grace in its fulness except by assuming his responsibilities as a member of the family.

The Bible plainly teaches this truth. it speaks of the Covenant God dealing with the generations, in this world He calls His people to salvation by His Word and Spirit. And those who believe constitute His “family,” “nation” and “people.” Nowhere are the old family relationships disregarded or rejected. Even such texts which speak of loving Christ more than father or mother, husband or wife, parents or children, cannot be understood to mean a rejection of responsibility for the life of the group. Rather, the covenantal grace shown by God to His people transforms social relationships, so that we can speak correctly of “Christian” families in distinction from “non-Christian” families. Such a construction alone fully validates Paul’s insistence that even when but one parent is a believer, the whole family is considered holy to the Lord.

(2) The gospel of grace is so presented in the Scriptures that by its influence the whole of family life is renewed and transformed.

Especially the Old Testament, which covers a far longer span of time than the New, records many interesting details of the family life of God’s people. T he ruinous effects of sin on family relationships is depicted in clear colors in the stories of Noah, Lot, Jacob, Eli, David and many others. Time and again the godly example and prayers of believing parents are recorded in their wholesome influence on the lives of the children. The opening chapters of Genesis take sharp issue with the “contractual” theory of marriage and insist that the home has been established by God from the beginning. In the Psalms we read that God deals graciously with His people by placing the solitary in families and making the barren woman to keep house and be the joyful mother of children. Sons and daughters are a gracious heritage of the Lord, and the fruit of the womb is His reward. To be childless was considered a grave calamity, not only because of its social consequences but preeminently because God’s covenant promise culminating in the advent of Messiah was to be fulfilled in the generations of the Israelites. In the New Testament mixed marriages of believers with unbelievers are severely censured. Christians are to marry only “in the Lord” in order that their marriages may be blessed and reflect the mystery of Christ’s relation to His church.

Too often those who preach the gospel have forgotten its social implications which always begin with the family. In fact, the quarrel between a personal and a social gospel, which created a furor in Christian circles during the opening years of this century, is based on a misapprehension. Its social implications are nothing more than the application of the principles of God’s Word by the believers to the groups in which they live.

Sin has sought to ruin marriage, the home and the family as part of the creation of God. Its tragic consequences are eloquently evident not only in heathen lands but also in all the countries which have heard the gospel. Only the grace of God by restoring the true dignity of man is able to reform and renew the family and insure genuine happiness for all its members.

(3) Furthermore the Bible is complete with exhortations for all members of the family group to live by the law of God.

In His Word the whole of human life is regulated. The basic principle is enunciated in the fifth commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee.” (Exodus 20:12) Repeatedly parents are exhorted to train their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Severe penalties are inflicted upon families in their generations, where these divine injunctions are ignored. Eli suffered from the wickedness of his sons as a result of parental neglect. Many of David’s afflictions may be attributed to the lack of conformity to the divine pattern evident in his family. The writings of Paul abound in practical exhortations for parents and children. Wives must obey their husbands in the Lord; husbands are to love their wives as their own flesh; children must obey their parents for the Lord’s sake; fathers are urged not to provoke their children to wrath. Elsewhere we are told that parents must provide for their own households, since parents live for their children rather than children for their parents. Yet according to Christ, those children who refuse to help their parents in need under the guise of presenting greater gifts of God are directly violating the commandment of the Lord. And brothers who live in enmity must first be reconciled to each other before they offer their sacrifices to the Lord.

Thus in countless ways the Bible regulates the details of family life, in order that the home may be well-pleasing to God. Marriage is raised to a dignity far excelling all other human relationships, in that it is to be regarded as a filling type of Christ’s love for His church. According to this pattern the spiritual life of the believers can nourish and bear fruit in the family.

(4) And finally, the Bible never wearies of emphasizing the gracious promises which God has given to Christian families.

He is pleased to make use of the home as one of the chief agencies for the promotion of His kingdom among men. This view was long obscured in the churches of America, until Horace Bushnell reacted vigorously against the revivalism and individualism of decadent New England Congregationalism. Although many strictures must be made on his theory chiefly set forth in Christian Nurture, in that it failed to do justice to the necessity of divine grace as it is bestowed sovereignly by God and exchanged the gracious covenantal basis for a naturalistic process, it nonetheless served to awaken many to the excesses of revivalism and again stressed the privileges and responsibilities of believing parents.

In the Reformed churches at least in theory much has been made of the covenant promises of God. This could hardly be otherwise, since the ground for infant baptism as divinely commissioned was found in the covenant. God extends His promise of salvation to the children of Christians as well as to the parents. Nowhere is this more clearly and concisely stated than in the Form for the Baptism of Infants:

“And although our children do not understand these things, we may not therefore exclude them from baptism, since they are without their knowledge partakers of the condemnation in Adam, and so again are received unto grace in Christ. Therefore God formerly commanded to circumcise them, which was a seal of the covenant and of the righteousness of faith, as also Christ embraced them, laid His hands upon them, and blessed them. Since, then, baptism has come in the place of circumcision, the children should be baptized as heirs of the kingdom of God and of His covenant; and as they grow up, the parents shall be bound to give them further instruction in these things.”

This requires faith-obedience on the part of Christian parents. They are exhorted to lay hold on the promise that their children in contrast with the children of unbelievers belong to the Lord as heirs of the kingdom of heaven. In obedience to His will they must train their children in His fear, never failing to plead daily on His irrevocable promises that He will sanctify and fructify their weak and imperfect efforts with the gracious work of His Holy Spirit.

Dangers Threatening the Covenant Home

It cannot be denied that the spiritual climate of America today is far from conducive to the development of Christian homes and the proper nurture of children of the covenant. Some of these dangers ought to be signalized, in order that believers may guard the sanctity of the home and humbly seek the fulfillment of the Lord’s promises in the lives of their children.

Today we are witnessing the dissolution of the home. Although to a large extent this is a world-wide phenomenon, occasioned by the anti-christian and secular spirit which has captured the hearts of men, we will confine ourselves to a few of the dangers which attack us here.

Mention must be made first of all of the alarming increase of mixed marriages also in our Reformed churches. Parents should be on their guard against the first inclination of their children to efface the distinction between the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men.” The Bible warns repeatedly against this practice and condemns those who engage in it. On account of its prevalence the first world was ripened for the wrath of God manifest in the deluge. Balak employed this as a stratagem by which to undermine the strength of the Israelites. Esau betrayed himself as a profane person by marrying Hittite women who were a grief of heart to his mother Rebecca. His affiliations with Philistine women occasioned the downfall of Samson. Solomon in his old age sought after other gods as a result of the insidious influence upon him of the foreign women whom he married.

The solution to this problem, which is by no means negligible in our churches, lies not in the direction or making more rules and regulations. Rather, from earliest childhood our children must be covenantally-conditioned by their home and church and school training, so that the sin of marrying those who are not Christian will not tempt them.

Another danger lies in the superficial standards employed by many young people when choosing their partners for life. Too many lack any basic understanding of the nature and purpose of Christian marriage. The standards by which the world chooses—good looks, social prestige, wealth, education, etc.—may never be used by God’s children. Parents have a grave responsibility for training their children in such a way that they will understand the divine purpose of marriage and thus will choose only those as husbands or wives who are spiritual akin to them. If this were clearly understood by our parents, the present mania for sex-education in the schools would soon become obsolete. Fundamentally this training must be given in the home over a period of years in accordance with the level of maturity which the children have reached.

In our homes there are also tendencies which undermine the Christian view of marriage and the family. The tragic neglect of parental discipline deserves priority whenever we discuss the dissolution of the home. The story is told of a high-ranking Englishman who, upon leaving our shores after an extended visit, was asked to relate his impressions. With characteristic British wit he replied, “I have never seen so many obedient parents as in America.” This reversal of the divine pattern will yield a blighting harvest, as already the increase of juvenile delinquencies and forced marriages attest. Too many parents forget their divine mandate to train and chastise their children in an effort to act as “pals” and win the confidence of those for whose souls they are responsible.

Among others there is a tendency to lay down rules for the children without being apparently bound by them themselves. Such parents do not seem to realize that they as well as their children are subject to the law of God as the rule for thankful living. If we desire our children to be nurtured in the fear and admonition of the Lord, they must be able to see the power of the gospel in our lives. It helps little to insist that children must spend most of their evenings home and study the Word at stated times, if parents are so busy with social obligations and sports that they fail to put first things first.

Although the foundations of the home are still fairly stable among us, we may not overlook the ominous fact that even among orthodox Christians divorce is becoming more prevalent. In tolerating this evil we may still be thirty years behind the world but are fast catching up. Even among us questions arc raised whether adultery is the only legitimate ground for divorce. Too many seem complacently to shut their eyes to the serious consequences of broken homes and ruined lives.

Because of the impinging of many social obligations on the time of the family, devotions no longer occupy the prominent place which they did in Christian homes some years ago. There is sad neglect of seeking the Lord in many families. Parents complain that they cannot have Bible reading, family prayers and discussions of the Word even once a day in their homes. Are we painting too dark a picture when we say that in many Christian families there is a form of godliness without much of the power thereof?

This list of glaring imperfections can of course be considerably lengthened without much effort. Do we still regard our children as the heritage of the Lord and heirs of His promise? Have some of us perhaps fallen into the sin of willfully curtailing the number of our children, because we fear that if our family is too large we can’t provide all the desirable luxuries? Are there still among us Jobs who pray fervently and regularly for the needs of their sons and daughters? Do we teach them both by precept and practice to seek first of all the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness in the assurance that then all other things shall be added to our lives? Are we becoming increasingly guilty of social climbing, preferring a name on the social register above a name in the Book of Life?

The waves of secularism, materialism and self-seeking are breaking against the walls of our homes, threatening to inundate them and wash away the vestiges of true godliness.

As never before God’s people are called to watch unto prayer. They must labor diligently in season and out of season to preserve the piety of themselves and their children, thus keeping themselves in the love of God. Once again it is more than time to look to the foundations which are God’s covenant dealings with us and our seed.

Keeping God’s Covenant as Families

If it is true that God deals so richly and largely with the Christian home in bestowing His grace and if this home is under constant attack by the forces of sin, what can we as believers do? This is the repetition of the age-old question of the psalmist, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

In all covenants, so we are instructed by the Word, there are two parts. When God revealed His covenant mercies to Abraham the father of the faithful, He plainly spoke of duties to be performed. “And as for thee, thou shalt keep my covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations.” (Genesis 17:9) Above all things it is essential that we shall realize that the basic cure lies in but one direction—the cultivation of a wholesome piety which man be properly called covenant-consciousness. This should be cultivated in several directions and by several means.

(1) Let us first of all rededicate ourselves personally and individually to the service of the Lord whose we are and whom we must serve. For this there is ample Scriptural warrant. This was the challenge with which Joshua confronted the children of Israel at the time of the covenant renewal at Shechem. (Joshua 24:15)

Without personal commitment to the service of Jehovah on the part of fathers and mothers, there is no possibility of a dedicated home. Today our problem is not first of all with delinquent juveniles but rather with delinquent adults. They set the pattern which is aped by the youth of the land. Thus the chief duty of God’s people is to surrender their lives completely to the service of God. As the stream rises no higher than its source, so we have no right to expect that the spirituality of the children will exceed that of the parents who have trained them. The words or Cowper well express the influence of the home on the lives of children:

“This fond attachment to the well-known place

When first we started into life’s long race,

Maintains its hold with such unfailing sway,

We feel it e’en in age, and at our latest day.”

(2) We must likewise cultivate for ourselves the proper Scriptural conception of marriage and the home and pass this on to our children.

Of course, this is no ideal to be achieved over night. In certain recent addresses Herbert Hoover has been deploring the moral and spiritual bankruptcy evident in our highest political circles. Correctly he calls our attention to the fact that this signalizes the collapse of our nation. But instead of only pointing the accusing finger at those in authority who have violated the precepts of the Lord, let us examine our lives in the home. Too long have we been fed the Hollywood diet of false romance, illicit love and homes with no more than two children. Our standards have radically altered during the past century. And unless there is a return on the part of the whole Christian church to the standards of the Word, the doom of our nation is sealed.

In such a situation the church is the “remnant” saved by God for these days to call men everywhere to repentance and faith. By godly example and ceaseless propaganda for the cause of Christ the King we must become a wholesome leaven in the nation. But if the members of the church follow the road of giddy pleasure and sinful unconcern, modeling their homes after those of the unbelievers, we can expect nothing else than the covenant wrath of God.

All of us are to take stock of our views of marriage and the home in the light of the abiding principles of the Bible. And in so far as we have departed from these in theory and practice we must repent and return unto the Lord our God. Only in the keeping of His law is there a great reward.

(3) We must thus develop a proper covenantal conception of the place of children in our families.

It seems passing strange that the richest country in the world, with its superior standard of living and its unusually complete system of care for children, really has little appreciation for the child and his place in society. To many people children are still a nuisance. To others they are grim duty without any corresponding joy. Millions in our land are growing up without any vital knowledge of the God of the Scriptures. More than half are not even enrolled in the Sunday Schools, and of the other half perhaps the majority are fed an unpalatable and unhealthful spiritual diet.

Here our Reformed people can make a tremendous contribution to the life of the nation. At least in theory we have the richest insight into the Biblical teachings concerning children and the home. In consequence we enjoy one or the most elaborate systems of Christian child nurture found anywhere. But it may well be asked whether all this is yielding the hoped-for fruit in the lives of our people. As a fellow-minister recently remarked, “Before we ‘can do something to influence others, we must be something ourselves.” Never can we hope to influence the nation in any adequate way, unless we understand and practice the principles of covenantal training to which our churches are committed.

This means that we shall insist that children are a blessing from the Lord. Their number is not to be curtailed for the sake of an easier and materially more prosperous life. Once again we will have to remind ourselves of the significance of Holy Baptism with its rich promises and great responsibilities.

(4) Moreover, our families must manifest themselves as religious units, wholeheartedly committed to the service of the Covenant God.

Although the covenant bond is established with individuals, these live in family groups ordained by God. Here alone the Christian personality can develop most properly and completely.

Let us then restore our family altars which in many quarters have fallen into decay. Although the custom of having family devotions still prevails, in many cases its influence is minimal and unsatisfactory. Family discussions about religious questions and principles are the exception rather than the rule. So often parents labor under the misapprehension that the religious training of their children is the duty of the ministers and school teachers. We must again insist on the Biblical doctrine that parents are responsible for their children.

In many ways our family worship can be improved. There should be ample time each day for this important aspect of the training of our sons and daughters. Nothing should be allowed to interfere with it, since nothing binds the children closer to parents and to the God of the parents than these religious exercises. Although the burden or responsibility rests on the father as the head of the home (a Biblical conception too lightly regarded today), the mother and the children should be given opportunity to offer prayer and speak about the Word. Both our schools and churches are guilty of claiming too much of the time of both parents and children, thus making it well-nigh impossible to give the proper place to family worship. There was a time when many Christian homes resounded with the praises of parents and children joining in song. This practice, too, should be restored.

(5) But of the highest importance is the creation and maintenance of a spiritual, covenantal atmosphere in our homes.

This is difficult to define precisely; still more difficult to prescribe the way in which it can be achieved. Yet a few remarks are in place. This presupposes an active life of faith and love to God on the part of the parents. If they are conscious of their covenantal relation to Him, we can expect that all situations and circumstances of life will be viewed by them in the light of His Word of promise. In their lives they will experience a peace and security and hope which the world cannot know. In days of adversity they will manifest the grace of patience; in times of prosperity that of gratitude. Life and death, joy and sorrow wi ll be interpreted by them according to the teachings of Scripture. In the things which they speak and do they will reveal their religious relationship to the God of the covenant who is their hope and source of strength. As they live out this life of child-like faith in the presence of each other and their children, they wi ll unconsciously create the proper spiritual atmosphere which is the matrix in which the seed of the covenant grows to maturity and yields the God-given fruit of consecrated lives.

Our lamentable weakness in this respect is occasioned by a sinful isolation of our personal relation to God from the activities and ambitions of daily living. Only in the measure that this sinful tendency is overcome will the proper spiritual climate become evident.

The need of the hour for both church and nation is truly God-centered and God-consecrated and God-controlled homes. For the blessed privilege and responsibility of establishing such homes the Christian finds the sound basis, the needed inspiration and the glorious pattern in God’s revelation of His covenantal purposes with His people. When we learn to live by day and by night in godly fear, we will experience His blessing in such a measure that it will overflow the narrow confines of our hearts and lives and fill the broader channels of our homes to influence the community and the country for good as a witness to the transforming power of His sovereign grace.


1. Carefully analyze the respective influence of the family, church and state in our lives. Which institution is the most influential and how?

2. In what sense is the gospel personal? In what sense social? Are these two identical or are they contradictory?

3. Discuss the specific weaknesses in the family of Noah, of Lot, of Jacob. Who was to blame for these weaknesses? Should all the blame be made to rest on the fathers in these cases?

4. Do children “grow up” to be Christians in the Covenant of Grace? Do they need regeneration? Are we to believe that all children of the covenant are “saved”?

5. What are mixed marriages? May our people marry Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists? Explain your answer. How can this tendency among us be curbed? Who is to blame for its prevalence?

6. What superficial standards of life are found in our churches today? How do these affect covenant-consciousness among us?

7. What is the New Testament teaching on divorce?

8. May a Christian limit the number of children in his family, or must he have as many as possible?

9. What must each of us do to cultivate a covenantal atmosphere in our homes?


1. M.C. Elmer: Family Adjustment and Social Change, p. 6, 7.