The Joy of Covenant
DONALD VAN DYKEN
Minister, Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches, Sunnyside, Washington
Covenant is the term God uses to describe a relationship, the relationship of things that He made to be together. God made fish for the sea and man for Himself. When these are together there is life. When they separate life stops. The fish dies out of water; man dies away from God. In a certain sense then, all creation has a covenant relationship to God, for it is all dependent upon His creative and sustaining Word. In Him we, and all things, live and move and have our being.
Related to Each Other
God created man in His image, in a wonderful relationship of love and fellowship. God also created man in covenant with others, his wife and children. God made man in covenant with creation, as head over it - man belonged to the earth and the earth belonged to man.
You'll notice we've begun quite simply and at the beginning, at Genesis and with God, who is the beginning. We see that God began covenant and maintained it through His Word. God established parameters for covenant - for man and for the rest of creation. In creation we call them natural laws - when fish stay in water they live, outside they die. When man stays within the embrace of God's law he lives, outside he dies. That's simple and clearly evident in Scripture.
We have described God's initial covenant relationship with man which we call the Covenant of Works (it's been called other names). Building on what we said earlier, vice see that God told Adam what to do and what not to do. God warned of the penalty of death for disobedience and, through the tree of life, implied the promise of eternal life for obedience. Adam fell, he disobeyed. His fall affected both his moral condition and his legal status. His fall had further consequences.
The Covenant Effect
God created man a covenant being, that is, in a relationship to others. Adam's relationship was both organic (the father of the entire human race) and federal (representative of the entire human race). When Adam fell all men fell. Because of Adam's covenant headship, both his pollution and guilt came upon all men. Adam's fall did not extract him from the Covenant of Works. For though we call him a covenant breaker, we don't mean that Adam demolished the covenant, but that he failed to meet its requirement, forfeited the promise, and incurred the penalty.
Another important consequence we note here is the bondage of creation. God created man in covenant with creation - as its head. Inevitably then the fall of creation's head was the fall of creation. It too, by thorns, thistles, death, and disease, rebels against the headship of man.
You see then the dilemma of Adam and all his descendants. The route to life now leads through two stages. First, man must fulfill the penalty he must undergo death. When the penalty is paid, he must fulfill the requirement of obedience. Of course, he can't do that because he's dead.
All men find themselves in this pit. All men are subject to the requirement and the penalty because all men are created by God and thus bound in covenant with Him. All men are morally corrupt and legally guilty because all men are in covenant with Adam.
Is this acceptable? Nobody finds it so. It's not fair to be born corrupt and condemned. God's not fair, says man, "The woman you gave me." But you'd just as well scream because the sky's blue instead of green. You're fighting reality.
Let's say that before you came along your father married, moved to Cuba, and in the next three years became a citizen and begot you, Olaf, his first son. When you reached sixteen you might rail at your condition - blond haired and undernourished; you may rage at your status - a Cuban citizen with Fidel as your leader. Nevertheless, all your anger and frustration would not change reality, would it?
God Holds the Key
It is into this hopeless situation that God comes in grace. As man put himself in this fix, God is under no obligation, except to Himself, to extricate man. That's why God calls it grace - unmerited, even unwanted, favor.
Let's stop a minute to remind ourselves that all men everywhere are in the Covenant of Works. God's requirement, penalty, and promise are still in place. This is the common ground all men share. Even when we examine the Covenant of Grace we will see that one of the reasons God assigns such prominence to His law is so His own people realize that they are locked in the Covenant of Works by nature.
What then is the Covenant of Grace? Our first glimpse is in Genesis 3. God initiates this covenant too by His Word. He calls to man, exposes his sin, and promises restoration of perfect fellowship through the victory of the Seed. God sacramentally confirms this Covenant of Grace for Adam by clothing him with skins death legally accomplished, covering of shameful condition provided, obedience signified. In this Covenant God's purpose is to bring man back into an eternal union of love, harmony, and fellowship with Him. In this sacramental confirmation God Himself pledges to fulfill the Covenant of Works.
Let's see how He worked it out. To Abraham He said; "I will be your God." This is a promise of union, a oneness so close that God promised that all He is belonged to Abraham. This promise God expanded throughout His redemptive dealings with Israel and constantly held before them in the sacrificial system with its blood and death, typifying payment for sin, and in its flawless sweetness typifying the presentation of righteousness.
What we see here then, is God Himself undertaking to fulfill what man had neither the ability nor inclination to do. God will pay the penalty and God will perform the obedience required in the Covenant of Works. All this, as we know, God performed in His beloved Son - God-withus, God in the flesh, our own flesh and blood. Through the Covenant of Grace then, man becomes a covenant keeper in the Covenant of Works.
What to Do?
Now let's examine some other aspects of this Covenant of Grace. What is the requirement? God required Adam, Abraham, and the Israel of yesterday, and also requires the Israel of today to believe. Faith is the requirement. Faith in what? Faith in God's covenant promise. Faith in the sacramental pledges that our legal status is changed from guilty to innocent and righteous, and that the renewal of our condition is secured in this covenant.
But don't we have to obey too? Is that not a requirement of the Covenant of Grace? No. In Christ we possess God. Would you suggest anyone can cap God's work in Christ? The mere thought is blasphemous. But didn't God require obedience? Did God tell Abraham that if he obeyed God would give the blessing? No. Did God promise that Israel would be His people and He their God if they obeyed Him? No. Did He promise deliverance from Egypt if they obeyed? No. Did Philip promise Candace's treasurer salvation if he obeyed? No!
Where then are repentance and obedience? They are the fruits of faith. They are the products of a living relationship in covenant with God. They are the evidence of faith. Why didn't Israel go into the promised land when the twelve spies returned? They were scared. They refused. They disobeyed God. Why? They didn't believe His promise, nor did they believe in the reality of His deliverance from Egypt. Hebrews applies this scenario to us. Disobedience is the whorish child of unbelief. God requires faith, and faith alone.
Let's look at another question. Whom does God embrace in the Covenant of Grace? The Covenant of Works embraced Adam and all his posterity. In the Covenant of Grace God embraces a man and all that he has. A man is the covenant head of his family. Noah and his family were embraced. Abraham and his entire household were included in the Covenant. When God ordered Pharaoh, "Let My people go," God, against Pharaoh's protests, specifically included wives, children, and possessions. All are embraced in covenant.
Does this mean that if you are born in the Covenant of Grace you're always in? Indeed not. Cain, Canaan, Ishmael, Esau, many Israelites in the wilderness, rejected God's promises. They
rejected the Covenant. They spurned God's grace. They did not continue in faith. God excluded them. God ejected them from the Covenant of Grace, and so without hope, without God in the world, they faced the Covenant of Works demands of full penalty payment, and full obedience.
Is it the same today? God requires faith. "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ." He demands obedience as a fruit of faith. "Faith without works is dead."
Our Covenant Christ
Let's look at Christ, the head of the Covenant of Grace. Christ literally embodies the Covenant, for He is God and He is man, fully each and yet one Christ. You'll remember that a covenant is a togetherness, and that God created man to live in covenant, in perfect union with Him. Man failed, Christ availed. Christ is truly God and truly man, distinctly each, uniquely one. (The confessions of the great ecumenical councils describing Christ are essentially covenantal.) As this perfect union, Christ paid for sin, performed all righteousness, and conquered death. God raised Him to the throne of triumph and authority over all creation.
In the Covenant of Grace the union of Christ, His payment, His righteousness, His victory over Satan, His gain of the blessing of eternal life, His throne, His reign, and His glory are all ours. That's covenant. That should be easy to understand for God has woven that feature of covenant into the very fabric of life.
Let's imagine you attend John Knox Christian High. At the state track meet your man wins the mile. What do you say? You shout and yell, "We won! We won!" even if you're sitting on the sidelines in a wheelchair. That's covenant, isn't it? Your man's win is your win because you belong to the covenant body called High School, and he represents you.
We could go on. Time fails but perhaps more of the glorious aspects of covenant can be explored as we look at some malformations of covenant. There are always hazards involved in assessing other views. One can so easily misread or misunderstand, and then misrepresent another's position. God keep me careful and teachable.
Falling Off Balance
Throughout the history of covenant theology, it seems to me that most problems arise because men upset the balance between the objective and subjective aspects of covenant. Subsequent attempts to restore balance often bring distortion.
Covenant originates objectively with God's plan, His Word, His work. When we speak of God's plan we recognize that within that plan is His election. The doctrine of election is grand and glorious. However, if we equate election and covenant we run into several problems. First, we then tend to view covenant as static, that our relationship with God is forever cemented in one place in time. We cannot reach into eternity and bring it down here, all we can do is glimpse it and anchor our wavering faith to its security.
Covenant is not static but dynamic. God's embrace of Israel in covenant did not keep them from disbelieving or God from cutting them off. Covenant is fellowship with God, God speaking and acting, and His people responding in faith and obedience or its opposite. When, at any point in the covenant life continuum, a covenant people or any of its members responds in unbelief and sin, God responds with covenant threats. God sprinkles Hebrews with covenant conditions, "If you continue."
The uncertainty factor in covenant is man; the certainty factor is God. Hebrews 6 reveals this with remarkable clarity. Can I figure it all out? Of course not. I don't have to. God has, and asks me to trust Him. I do. God reveals the truth of election within covenant to nurture our trust in His absolute and unchangeable purposes in Christ Jesus to redeem a people to Himself. His people are comforted by knowing that His promises are founded in the serene security of eternity, unaffected by the vicissitudes of life here below. We are to believe His covenant word - we are His people, He is our God. He has redeemed us, He will surely lead us to glory.
When is Certainty?
Am I really saved? Did God elect me? Am I regenerated? Where do I start looking? Where do I find the answer? How do I know the answer I find is right?
We may not begin by looking inside for certainty. All certainty is found outside - that is what faith is - attachment to God. Faith never reaches inside. Faith never finds security inside. God designed all the conditional promises of covenant to uproot our confidence in self and whatever we may find exploring the dark, convoluted bowels of our souls.
What did God say to Israel, and to us in the church, the New Testament Israel? He said, "I am your God and you are My people." He baptized 0. T. Israel into the covenant custodianship of Moses and us into the covenant custodianship of Christ. He delivered Israel from Egypt through the great plagues, He delivered us through His great Sacrifice; He led Israel by Moses, He leads us by Christ. He promised the rest of Canaan to Israel of old, He promises us the rest of a new heavens and earth when Christ returns. What else do we need? All that He is and does He promises us. That is the objective reality of covenant. The only question that remains is, "Do you believe?"
We make covenant so complex. Suppose you were living in a cave and eating turnips. Then suppose I gave you a grant of $1,476,328.14, deposited it in your name in the Toronto-Dominion Bank, sent a letter informing you, gave you a check book, and told you to build your family a home. What's the first thing you should do? Believe me, of course. How .would I know if you believed me? I would check the. bank to see if you were drawing out funds, and I would check to see if you were building a house instead of mucking around in that cave. Faith demonstrated by work.
Is God's grant (grace) so different? He has written to us in the Bible, sealed it with the blood of His Son, and delivered it into our hands. He says, "Believe Me. Write checks on My grace and build." Trust and obey. Why doubt?
But, you say, isn't regeneration an inside thing? Don't I need to look inside then? Look to God. He promised circumcision of the heart, a clean heart, a heart of flesh, a new heart. Regeneration too, is a covenant word. The Holy Spirit calls baptism "the washing of regeneration." Why? Among other reasons, certainly is this: baptism is the sacrament of initiation into the Covenant of Grace, into a new generation. We are taken out of the death-row generation of Adam and into the abundantlife generation of Jesus Christ. Re-generation from the outside. Again, what do we do? Believe - the evidence of regeneration on the inside.
Is Doubt Commendable?
Is there a tendency among some to make doubt a virtue? It is a virtue to doubt yourself, mistrust yourself, be uncertain of yourself. Keep on doubting yourself until the cows come home and they die of old age. God recommends and commands it - "Let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall."
But don't, I beg you, ever doubt God. Trust Him, trust His promises; they are all yes and amen in Jesus Christ. His Word is ever faithful, ever sure, even if the earth crumbles and blows away. Don't prize doubt. Doubt is unbelief dressed in fancy feathers but beneath is still the whorish mother of sin and death.
Faith is the blessed certainty that this God is my God because He says so. In life, in death, He is mine and I am His and within the arms of eternal covenant love I am and ever shall be held.
Take the Keyl
Covenant - the divine embrace that holds the key to understanding all dimensions of our life before the face of God - the relation of Old and New Testaments, the church, worship, preaching, sacraments, discipline, justification, sanctification, evangelism, marriage, family, business, education, environment, culture, state, and the nature of God Himself, the forever blessed Three-in-One.
This article tries to reflect the perspective of Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches. However, since I'm not an official spokesman, and since we don't have an official statement on covenant outside our Confessions, you'll understand these are my views. I do hope however, they represent what's taught and believed among us.
Donald Van Dyken