The Covenant Idea In the Reformed Churches

The Reformed churches constitute one of the large and influential families of the historic Christian  church. Taking their rise in the reformatory movements in German and French speaking Switzerland, they spread first of all to such neighboring countries as Germany, Hungary, France, the Netherlands and Great Britain and from there by means of colonization, migration and mission endeavor to the ends of the earth.

What, we may well ask, distinguishes these churches from the other branches of Christendom?

This question may not be an easy one to answer. For in these churches, too, there have been radical changes during the past four hundred years. The pages of history cite many examples of defection and deformation. However, in many places there are still groups which seek to maintain a vigorous loyalty to the creeds which are the expression of historic Calvinism at its best. Among such groups the Reformed faith still flourishes.

Many have sought to reduce historical Calvinism to one central and controlling principle.



Its Prevalence in Reformed Theology

Anyone reading the Reformed theologians will run across the covenant again and again. Sometimes it is set forth directly and positively; at other times it is referred to more indirectly in its relation to such doctrines as those of God’s eternal counsel, the fall of man, the substitutionary atonement, the nature of and membership in the Christian church, the sacraments, and others.

A. Among the early reformers.

Although references to the covenant were made already by the early church fathers, this doctrine did not come to prominence until the days of the Protestant Reformation.

Already the first father of the Reformed churches, Ulrich Zwingli, mentioned God’s covenant with man. In his long and often bitter controversies with the Anabaptists at Zurich he discussed among other subjects the nature and extent of the Covenant of Grace, defending the idea that the children of believers were members of the church as well as their parents.

John Calvin also emphasized it. He taught dearly the basic unity of the Old and New Testaments on the basis of Leviticus 26:12 and Galatians 3:16. Since Christ was the pledge of divine grace in both dispensations, the blessings of the Old Testament may not be regarded as merely earthly and temporal. Rather, they arc typical of the spiritual inheritance guaranteed by the work of Christ.

After Zwingli’s untimely death his successor, Heinrich Bullinger, wrote a monograph on the subject of the Covenant. He taught that the Covenant of Grace must be regarded as the restoration of the. bond of friendship between the two parties at variance because of sin, God and man. All the conditions were fulfilled by Christ. Thus for both dispensations there is really but one testament, one body of believers and one way of salvation.

B. Among the later Reformed theologians.

Since then a host of Reformed teachers and preachers have discussed and defended the covenant idea. Bucer on the basis of Jeremiah 31:31 spoke of the covenant as made by God with the elect. Musculus traced the covenant idea back to Noah’s day, holding that Genesis 8:1 and 9;9 speak of a covenant made with all the earth. He stressed the promise of the Messiah as the essence of the covenant blessing in the Old Testament.

Ursinus moved in a double direction with the ideas of Musculus. He taught that God had revealed himself in both in Covenant of Nature (foedus naturale) and in Covenant of Grace (foedus gratiae). The former was made with Adam and promised eternal life in the way of obedience. However, during his long and fruitful life he devoted his attention largely to the latter. Olevianus, his co-worker, developed the idea in three successive works. A much more detailed presentation was given by Franciscus Junius. 10 whom we will refer again. In the days of the stormy controversies between Calvinists and Arminians in the Netherlands the doctrine. of the covenant received much attention. Later with the rise and spread of the Federal Theology of Council it was, again the storm-center of debate.

Another school of Reformed thought which stressed the covenant arose in Great Britain among the Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Formerly it was though that the English merely followed the Dutch. Now, however, scholars are agreed that the two groups arose independently, proving a type of covenant theology takes shape wherever the Reformed faith is seriously studied and defended.

C. In the Reformed creeds.

The fruit of much of this theological reflection has come to expression in the creeds. Although the chief elements are found in the earliest symbols, these come to fuller and more systematic expression in the later creedal writings.

Zwingli’s Sixty Seven Articles or Conclusions of 1523, though never officially adopted by the churches, reflect the convictions of the time. Christ is presented as the leader and representative of his people who guarantee their salvation. The Basle Confession of 1534 stressed the organic relation of Adam to his descendants, thus teaching original sin which can be safeguarded only on the basis of the covenant idea. Both the First Helvetic Confession (1536) and the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) make direct and indirect references to it, as do also the official declaration and creeds affirmed by ministers and churches in East Friesland and Hungary.

The later Calvinists creeds make more pronounced references to the covenant. Mention should be make of the Gallican Confession of 1559, the Belgic Confession of 1561, the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, and the Canons of Dort of 1618–19.

Still more prominent for the development of this doctrine are the utterances found in the Westminster Confession and the Catechisms. In the seventh chapter of the former it is affirmed that men could never have “any Fruition of him (that is, of God) as their Blessedness and Reward but by some voluntary Condescension on God’s Part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.” This idea was further developed in connection with such doctrines as the transmission of Adam’s guilt and pollution to all mankind, and suretyship of Christ, the relation of Old and New Testament, and the nature of membership in the church.

From all this it follows that Reformed people have always taken the covenant seriously. In many quarters it has occasioned lively discussion and heated debate, leading even to schisms in the churches. Thus to understand the Reformed faith it is essential to realize the importance of the covenant idea.

Its Practical Value for the Christian Life

The Reformed churches, deeply convinced that the doctrine of the covenant is Scriptural, have also realized its importance for spiritual life. Indeed, they taught it because the Bible is full of this idea. Yet they refused to rest content with a purely theoretical presentation of Biblical truth, but defended with vigor that “every Scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness: that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17). Among the practical benefits we would mention the following:

A. It guarantees a comprehensive and systematic presentation of Biblical truth.

The Reformed churches, more than any others, have escaped a one-sided and erroneous view of God’s plan of salvation. Instead of teaching sacerdotal salvation, that is, salvation through the church, the priesthood and the sacraments, the Reformed  insisted that salvation consists of covenant fellowship with God through the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ as head of the Covenant of Grace.

Likewise, they escaped the narrowness and individualism of the Anabaptists, because they insisted on God’s purpose to restore the created order in the covenant with believers and their seed. Thus for them the gospel proclaimed basic principles for all of life. Yet they refused to exchange the gospel of personal salvation for a purely social and this-worldly message.

B. It maintained the unity of God’s self-revelation in the Old and New Testaments.

Throughout church history, already since the days of Marcion (about 200 A.D.) the question of the relation the two testaments has vexed the churches. Too often one dispensation was stressed at the expense of the other. By insisting on the controlling concept of the covenant, the Reformed escaped the ever-present danger of separating the two dispensations and thus destroying the beautiful unity of God’s Word.

C. It enabled these churches to understand the history of the nations in the light of God’s eternal purpose.

Thus the Reformed churches have been able to work in the direction of an adequate philosophy of history on Biblical principles. The simple beginnings made by Irenaeus centuries ago were distorted by Augustine who stressed the place of the organized church of Rome at the expense of the organic relations of human life. Thus, too often, God’s gracious purposes were forgotten in an effort to secure a dominant place for the church. From this defect the Protestant Reformation liberated men and cleared the ground for a more satisfying and Scriptural interpretation of the relation of God’s people to the world.

D. It presented the believers with a spiritual and comprehensive view of their duty to God and men.

The Bible teaches us that we must not only believe, but also live to the glory of God. Thus the Reformed insisted that God was not satisfied with implicit obedience to the teachings of any church. Such an externalized morality undermines the principles of the Bible and destroys the possibility of living a full-orbed life to God’s glory. On the basis of the covenant idea, the Reformed churches set forth the principles for all of life as it has been redeemed by Jesus Christ and restored to the service of God.

Its Relevance for the Church Today

Many people seem to think that the covenant idea has little practical value for Christian living today. They argue that it has not afforded us a richer insight into the truths of the Bible and yielded the fruit of greater consecration to God’s will. Too often, they claim, the debates have been far removed from the concerns of daily Christian conduct. In opposition to this mistaken notion we would cite one present-day problem which can only be fairly assessed and satisfactorily answered in the light of the teachings of the Bible of the covenant.

During the past few years we are witnessing what is being hailed everywhere as a revival of orthodox, evangelical Christianity. Since World War II the “Youth for Christ” movement has swept this country and invaded Europe. It was occasioned by the apparent helplessness of the churches to inspire the lives of young people with the gospel of Christ. Thus a new approach and new methods, somewhat in imitation of the old revivalism of the past two centuries, was deemed necessary.

In general, the Reformed churches have kept themselves aloof from this movement. This has been criticized by many. But this reserve ought not surprise anyone who knows what these churches teach. Although rejoicing in a seemingly renewed interest in the gospel among many, and without passing judgement on the final results, these churches are convinced that the new movement makes the serious error of regarding the extraordinary and unusual means of bringing the gospel, with a strong appeal to the will and emotions, as the proper method of propagating Christianity. Thus the God-ordained method which embraces the seed of believers in the covenant and requires their spiritual training of mind and heart has been ignored. It has no place for the children in the church before they publicly profess faith. It rejects the duty of the church to train children in the fear of the Lord. It ignores too much the necessity of a thorough knowledge of God’s way of salvation.

Before Reformed Christians will be able in good faith to join hands with those who sponsor this and similar revival movements, it must be proved from Scripture that God’s Covenant of Grace is outmoded for today. Until that can be unequivocally demonstrated, we can rightly expect that our Reformed people will cherish and defend and propagate their conviction that covenant friendship of God with believers and their children is the heart of the Christian gospel of salvation.

Question for Discussion

1. How do doctrines, also the doctrine of the covenant, arise and come to full expression in the life of the church?

2. In what way does unconditional obedience to the teachings of the church undermine true spirituality?

3. Why are doctrines necessary for the life of believers?

4. What is meant by the “individualism” of Anabaptism? Is it prevalent today?

5. What are some covenant duties to God, to fellow-believers, and to the world at large?

6. What is meant by covenant training? How is it practiced in and by the Reformed churches today?

7. Should our young people attend such meeting as “Youth for Christ”, city-wide revivals sponsored by interdenominational co-operation? State your reasons.

8. How must we meet the arguments that our position is narrow-minded, unchristian and self-righteous?

Dr. Peter Y. De Jong is pastor of the Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids. Dr. De Jong is editor of Federation Messenger, organ of the American Federation of Reformed Men’s Societies, and a weekly contributor to The Banner. The Covenant Idea in New England Theology, Taking Heed to the Flock, Christian Life, and a brief manual on the history of the Christian Reformed denomination have appeared from his pen. Dr. De Jong will continue to write on the doctrine of the Covenant for Torch and Trumpet.