The Covenant and the Christian life - By Dr. J. De Jong

From the Clarion Volume 47, No. 17/18 Aug. 21 - Sept. 4, 1998

The following article was first presented as a speech at the opening of the study year in Ancaster on September 25, 1996. Some changes and additions to the text have been made as a result of the discussion.

We wish to devote some time to a topic which has received an increasing degree of attention in church discussions today: the covenant and its role in the Christian life. With this title I wish to retain a more practical focus. I will not give an elaborate treatment of the doctrine of the covenant, but shift the attention to the question as to which way the covenant functions in the life of faith and the daily life of the believer.

This has been a problem for an increasing number of people in the Reformed world in recent years. The real question is whether or not the covenant is becoming a well-known cliche which really does not say too much for us today. It functions as little more than as a hallmark of orthodoxy. Is this the impression we wish to give? Is this the picture that the Canadian Reformed give to the outside world? If so, where does the misunderstanding arise? Are we projecting a skewed image of the faith?

In order to look more closely at these questions I have isolated three areas for consideration.

1. The covenant and faith, specifically concerning the personal dimension of the Christian life;

2. The covenant and assurance, and

3. the covenant and election.

Looking at all three areas, we hope to see the importance of the role of the covenant and its promises and obligations in our daily Christian life.

Covenant and faith
(the personal aspect)

One of the more critical questions that arises in many of our discussions today concerns the issue whether we have forgotten the personal dimension of faith in our view of the covenant. Does not the doctrine of the covenant at times form a hindrance to the very integral aspects of personal faith and experience that are so important in the Christian life?

The real issue is then not whether we can speak of personal experience

but what kind of personal experience we must speak about.


Now I am among those who believe that the question of personal involvement and personal experience of faith is a legitimate one. The church has never promoted a faith that comes across as a cold, lifeless set of rules and dogma and that one must blindly and arbitrarily accept. On the contrary, the life of faith reflects a certain warmth and should also reflect a spirit of happiness and joy! After all, we share a rich gift! Christ gave his life on the cross for us, and the fruit of that cross is being worked in us through his Spirit. What greater reason for joy and thanksgiving could one find?

The real issue then is not whether we can speak of personal experience, but what kind of personal experience must we speak about? In our approach to doctrine, we often distinguish between redemption accomplished and applied. When we speak of the latter term, application, we are definitely moving in the personal realm. The other term used for this area of God's work is appropriation, a term focusing more on the human side of this work. Christ applies His salvation to his chosen people one by one. And from our side, appropriation is a personal activity. But what kind of personal experience are we referring to? How must this personal appropriation in the covenant be qualified?

Personal appropriation

Appropriation is dealt with in a number of places in our confessions. One can notice in our confessions a remarkable connection between application and appropriation.[1] In Article 22 Belgic Confession it is clear that the Holy Spirit applies and appropriates salvation. For there we read: "the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith which embraces Jesus Christ with all his merits, makes Him our own and does not seek anything beside Him." However, later the article says: 'Meanwhile, strictly speaking, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ our righteousness," Here we confess appropriation as something we do! So in the one article we have the same act confessed as from God's side and from our side.

This same theme is carried on in Lord's Day 23, Heidelberg Catechism, After confessing the righteousness which Christ obtained for us by his death, question and answer 60 adds: 'I... if only I accept this gift with a believing heart." And in question and answer 61 the same point is made: "I can receive this righteousness and make it my own by faith only," Notice the element of personal appropriation, We must do it, or even better: I must do it. The call is personally directed. Appropriation is a human work, and it is a personal work. At the same time, it is a divine work. Lord's Day 25 asks: ", , . where does this faith come from?" And the answer is clear: (65): "From the Holy Spirit who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel. . . ."

So we have this structure in the confession: personal appropriation is both the work of the Holy Spirit, and our work. We can say that the work of the Spirit is prior, while our work is a fruit, a result (see Phil 1:29). We can never act without the indwelling Holy Spirit (Eph 2:8). But our role is by no means insignificant or secondary! It is postulated as a living element of our faith, and it even receives extra attention. This does not mean that we contribute to our own salvation. Rather, it means that through the working of the Holy Spirit we are co-workers with God in being made partakers of Christ's merits. Essentially the Spirit's work and our work go hand in hand, and you should not emphasize the one without the other.

The liturgical forms

The same line is found in our liturgical forms for the sacraments. In the Form for the Baptism of Infants we confess that the Holy Spirit promises us that "He will dwell in us, making us partakers of that which we have in Christ." We also pray that God in his infinite mercy will "incorporate by his Holy Spirit this child into his Son Jesus Christ." Here we confess that the Holy Spirit makes us partakers of Christ. He appropriates salvation for us. But at the same time, we must do it. For the same Form says: "we are called and obliged by the Lord to a new obedience.... We must not love the world but put off our old nature and lead a Godfearing life."

In the Form for the Celebration of the Lord's Supper we confess that by the grace of the Holy Spirit "we are heartily sorry for our shortcomings and desire to fight against our unbelief and live according to all the commandments of God." And in the so-called epiclesis or prayer for the Spirit at the table, we plead: "Work in our hearts through the Holy Spirit so that we may entrust ourselves more and more to thy Son Jesus Christ." The Holy Spirit appropriates! Yet we too must appropriate salvation! For the same form says: "For the sake of Christ, who so exceedingly loved us first, we shall now love one another, and shall show this to one another, not only in words, but also in deeds."

Now despite the differences in wording, and despite the two sides of appropriation that we confess in our creeds and forms, they have one thing in common. The appropriation is never directed to oneself, but always directed outside of oneself. We are to cling to nothing else besides Jesus Christ. [2] This is the line of Art. 22, Belgic Confession: "This faith embraces Jesus Christ with all his merits, makes Him our own, and does not seek anything beside Him." And Lord's Day 23 says: "by faith we are righteous in Christ, and heirs to eternal life" [emphasis added]." The Form for the Baptism of Infants says that we must seek our "cleansing and salvation outside of ourselves [emphasis added]." The Form for the Celebration of the Lord Supper says: "On the contrary, we seek our lives outside of ourselves, and in doing so we acknowledge that we are dead in ourselves [emphasis added]."

The appropriation is never directed to oneself,

but always directed outside of oneself.

Look to Christ!

Here then is the hallmark of personal appropriation in the Reformed sense. We are personally involved! But the direction or focus is always on Christ, and not ourselves. To be sure, as Calvin says, to know God we must turn into ourselves.[3] But one can never turn into oneself without first looking at the cross. On the cross redemption is accomplished for us. From the cross we turn to ourselves. Then we are accused of sin! But in the act of the appropriation of Christ's righteousness we are also acquitted of guilt!

If in the consideration of the personal aspect we begin to focus on ourselves we will end up in dangerous waters. In the history of Reformed Protestantism one meets with the danger of perfectionism on the one hand and defeatism on the other.[4] Perfectionism sets in when we focus inordinately on ourselves and tend to be positive with what we see. Perfectionism does not build on the promises of God or the merits of Christ, but builds on certain experiences through which we have gone, whether it be a second blessing, a special experience of God's presence, the sense of new life, and so on. The danger here is that we believe we can come to some form of freedom from sin above and beyond what God has promised, and over and beyond what He gives in Jesus Christ. [5]

The other danger is defeatism. We look to ourselves and see how weak we are, and how small our faith is, and end up disqualifying ourselves, becoming totally discouraged, and laying down our armour. Carelessness with the things of God and an easy attitude are also the hallmarks of defeatism. For people who say to themselves "what is the sense of trying?" end up showing that they are giving up the struggle. The elements of precision and urgency are cast aside and we take the real situation for granted. We all too easily feel that we are not good enough, we stand under the judgment of God, and we are in danger of eternal condemnation. We are then looking to ourselves, not to the cross!

From personal to communal

Do we then need to think about a personal element, and a personal dimension in the life of faith? Indeed, we do! - but in the right spirit and in the right attitude. The focus must be Christ-centred, not man-centred. As soon as that focus is adopted one will invariably come to the communal aspect as well. For we all share the same riches and the same gift! How can one be focused on Christ, and not on His body? How can one look to Him, and not on those for whom He died?

We should not speak of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ

with a neglect of the communal aspect in that relationship.

So we have every reason to highlight a personal element in order to guard ourselves against a dead orthodoxy. But as we do so, we realize we cannot isolate the personal aspect from its communal framework. We should not speak of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ with a neglect of the communal aspect, as if that personal aspect has the primary or allencompassing significance in one's life. The relationship with Christ has a personal aspect, but in that personal aspect you invariably come to the communal aspect. indeed, conscious personal appropriation leads at the same time to growth in the communal bonds, and in the realization of communal obligations in the service of the Lord. You then see the communal aspect as the key element! That is the heart of the relationship we share and five for! Is not this what church life is all about: the fellowship, the communion we have in Christ, and in the riches and treasures found in Him?

In Scripture one will find distinct personal admonitions and exhortations. Paul warns that each one should examine himself to see whether he is holding to the faith (2 Cor 13:5). He warns each not to boast in himself, but in the Lord. Each must make it his aim to please God 'so that each may receive commendation for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil" (2 Cor 5:10). But these personal directives

find their place within the room of God's specific admonitions and encouragement to the entire congregation. Within the context of the address to the church as a whole, more specific admonitions are directed to each one of the members. Therefore, for those in the church the road of personal appropriation normally takes place in the room of communal fellowship, and in the end you are drawn through personal appropriation to communal sharing and mutual giving in Christ!  

Covenant and assurance

In this second article we turn to the question how through the aspect of personal appropriation we come to the assurance of faith. This is an element in the personal realm, just as faith itself is. After all, assurance is particular and personal. You look not for certainty regarding another person's salvation but for certainty regarding your own salvation.

Here, too, many questions have come forward in recent discussions. On the one hand, some suggest that we are much too self-assured about our salvation and that we even come across that way. On the other hand, there are those who struggle with assurance. They say: I know I am in the covenant and so on, but does that really give you certainty? What about the role of faith? What if faith is weak, and struggling? Can you be sure of the love of God? Can you be sure you are a child of God? Is there not a danger that we are taking our role as adopted children for granted?

Lift your hearts!

The way to true certainty and assurance follows the line charted in the first article: we must look not to ourselves but to Christ! Everything hinges on the fellowship with Christ. We may begin with looking into ourselves, but we must end up turning to Christ! Faith means: seeking your salvation outside of yourself in Jesus Christ. And even though this faith may be so buffeted as to be near buried by the weight of sin and temptation, it remains the first step in finding reconciliation and hope in God.[6]

This is not an automatic process, as some assert or suggest. One must certainly confront the fact that God is angry with our sins, and that his wrath goes out against sins every day (Ps 7:11). One who looks to himself cannot but condemn himself before God's throne. But assurance comes to our consciences when we hold to the conviction that God's mercy triumphs over his wrath in the life of the believer who genuinely condemns himself and looks to Christ. [7] The believer must rise in his heart to the wonderful exchange which God has effected on his behalf. [8]

Assurance comes to our consciences when we hold to the conviction that God's mercy triumphs

over his wrath in the life of the believer who genuinely condemns himself and looks to Christ.


This does not mean that we must first tremble before an angry God before we can have a hint of the mercy and grace of God. In fact, as Calvin notes, true reverence before God is born out of the recognition of God's mercy. [9] Repentance is not born out of a confrontation with the law, but out of faith in Jesus Christ. And the goal of repentance is the renewal of life. This renewal of life incorporates within it the principle of keeping a clear conscience (I Tim 1:19). Therefore it is impossible for those who are grafted into Christ by a true faith not to bring forth fruits of true thankfulness (Lord's Day 32). And while those fruits themselves contribute to greater assurance in faith, the ultimate ground of assurance 'is not to be found in us or in our works, but outside of ourselves in Jesus Christ. in Calvin's approach, "the free mercy of God is the irreducible foundation of the assurance of faith."[10]

The faith which is founded on the free mercy of Christ is at the same time directed solely to union with Christ. The highest goal in our life is not our salvation or our fruits, but our union with Christ through which God is glorified. Christ is here the beginning and end of our salvation, the Author and Finisher of our faith (Heb 12:2). Ultimately our assurance rests in our free adoption in Christ sealed in holy baptism. Also for assurance we consistently look outside of ourselves and only to Christ.

A covenantal gift

Once we recognize this, we can see at the same time that this is a covenantal gift first of all. For all Christ's blessings are given in the context of the covenant community. Not only faith but assurance too is imparted to the entire church through the means of grace. So we read in the Form for the Baptism of Infants: "And if we sometimes through weakness fall into sins, we must not despair of God's mercy, nor continue in sin, for baptism is a seal and trustworthy testimony that we have an eternal covenant with God." And the Form for the Celebration of the Lord's Supper says: "Therefore we may be heartily assured that no sin or weakness which still remains in us against our will can prevent us from being received by God in grace and from being made worthy partakers of this heavenly food and drink."

This does not mean that we treat everyone the same and let the matter rest. The congregation is the covenant community, and legally all have equal status in the covenant. But the confession also recognizes the various differences that can and do exist among individual members. And because appropriation is personal, these differences can and should be brought out in the preaching as well.  

What do the creeds say?

Let us give a few examples. In the Canons of Dort I/12 we read: "The elect in due time, though in various stages and in different measure, are made certain of their eternal and unchangeable election to salvation." And in I/16 it says: "Some do not yet clearly discern in themselves a living faith in Christ, an assured confidence of heart, peace of conscience, a zeal for childlike obedience, and a glorying in God through Christ.... Others seriously desire to be converted to God, to please Him only, and to be delivered from the body of death. Yet they cannot reach that point on the way of godliness of faith which they would like." And in Chapter V/11 the Canons of Dort state that "believers in this life have to struggle with various doubts of the flesh, and placed under severe temptation, do not always feel this full assurance of faith and certainty of perseverance." All these references point to difference stages in the lives of saints in the church, and different levels of assurance.

Spiritual growth

The confessions also recognize that we are involved in a process of spiritual growth. So it is normal to expect that we will be at different stages in spiritual growth. Again, precisely because appropriation is personal, the preaching may bring this out. One progresses from one stage to the next, not by leaps and bounds, or even by climbing steps, but by a steady and growing spiritual maturity and a deeper rooting in faith and conduct. It stands to reason that we are not all at the same place, even though we are all involved in the same process. Lord's Day 31 speaks of the way of receiving the Word, the way of appropriation, as a process: ". . . the kingdom of heaven is opened when it is proclaimed and publicly testified to each and every believer that God has really forgiven all their sins for the sake of Christ's merits, as often as they by a true faith accept the promise of the gospel [emphasis added]." Lord's Day 33 asks what the dying of the old nature is: it is to "grieve with heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin, and more and more to hate it and flee from it, [emphasis added]." And in Lord's Day 44 the life to a new obedience is prefixed with the same phrase: "to be renewed more and more after God's image." Article 29 Belgic Confession says that although great weaknesses remain in the saints "they fight against them all the days of their life. [11]

One progresses from one stage to the next,

not by leaps and bounds, or even by climbing steps,

but by a steady and growing spiritual maturity

and a deeper rooting in faith and conduct.

The chief element of assurance, the assurance of one's election,

also comes only by looking outside of oneself to Christ.


The same truth is reflected in our liturgical forms for the use of the sacraments. In the Form for the Baptism of Infants we pray that the child "following Him day by day" may joyfully bear his cross. And we pray that the Lord may so be with the child that he will "grow and increase in the Lord Jesus Christ." So also in the prayer for the Lord's Supper we ask that the Lord work in us though His Holy Spirit so that we might "more and more entrust ourselves to Jesus Christ [emphasis added]." And in the thanksgiving prayer we read: "Cause us to show in our whole life our heartfelt love toward Thee and toward each other" [emphasis added].

You will find this same line in Romans 5:3ff and in 2 Peter 1 :5-7. Both of these passages highlight the patterns of spiritual growth in the Christian life, and how we not only move in stages, but may find ourselves at various stages in the Christian fife. There is every reason to be aware of this and to highlight it in the preaching. In that sense the preaching is truly barren if it does not include personal admonitions and exhortations. just as they are found in the apostolic letters, so they must be found in the communication of the apostolic message to the church today.

The communal aspect

At the same time, as we discovered above, the personal aspect cannot be divorced from its communal setting. In fact, the hallmark of the passages is that assurance also is communal. Here, too, the same rule applies. Appropriation is personal, but the personal aspect is not the aspect with the most priority. From the personal aspect you come to the communal, and so discover the personal aspect's framework. That applies to faith, but the same applies to assurance. I do not mean to say that we suddenly become sure about each other, but we do believe that the assurance of faith is also experienced in a communal way. Is that not beautifully expressed in the prayer before communion as found in our Form for the Celebration of the Lord's Supper?: "Let us so truly be partakers of the new and everlasting testament, the covenant of grace, that we do not doubt that Thou wiIt forever be our gracious Father, nevermore imputing to us our sins. . ." [emphasis added].

Perhaps two elements can be brought out here. First, there is a personal dimension in assurance in this sense that in giving assurance the Lord ensures that you are not leaning on another but are finding your assurance solely in Christ. Second, He also ensures that when you receive and find personal assurance, you at the same time find this in consort with fellow believers. In personal struggle and temptation you find the fellowship! And the fellowship is central! That is what it is all about! it will then be no surprise to you that the Canons of Dort, even in the section on perseverance, retain the plural form: the believers are assure in their faith as the elect people, as a body, a covenant community, and not as a loose collection of individuals (see Canons V/9-13).

The dangers

One of the more pronounced dangers of modern pietism and evangelicalism is that the focus falls on the personal aspect of faith at the expense of its communal elements. The result is a manifestation of false certainty over and above the promises of God coupled with a corresponding and perhaps more prevalent uncertainty regarding our actual state. For example, false certainty arises whenever one rather easily divides people into the categories of "saved" and "unsaved." But with this false certainty comes a looming uncertainty as well, for who can be sure he will remain in the category in which he has placed himself? For whenever one tries to reach for more than what is given, he or she ends up shortchanged, having less than what can be received in true faith. One must stay in the room of the covenant, and find his assurance through the use of the means provided there.

Covenant and election

In conclusion, a few remarks about the relationship between covenant and election. Like faith and assurance, election is personal and particular. Paul calls each believer to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil 2:12,13). And Peter calls the believer to confirm his call and election 'for if you do this you will never fail" (2 Pet 1:10). Each believer must do this, and as he does so, God takes his own specific journey with each person in His covenant. The knowledge of one's election is the primary mark of assurance. So one moves from faith to assurance to the confirmation of election, all in the measure and time that God grants.

The chief element of assurance, the assurance of one's election, also comes only by looking outside of oneself to Jesus Christ. Here the one who willingly condemns himself because of his sins can only look to Jesus Christ, in whom he sees as in a mirror the image of the mercy of the Father. And in the very image of the mercy of the Father one finds the image or mirror of his election. All this comes in the way of faith consistently holding to the Word. This knowledge comes not by human ingenuity but divine call. The knowledge of one's election is really the seal of the Holy Spirit upon the call of the gospel which the Spirit himself works quite personally and individually in the heart of each believer. Yet, to hold to Calvin's line, the real seal of election is not to be found in our life of holiness or our good conscience. "The call remains the fundamental testimony that assures our conscience of our election. [12]

From Christ to fellowship!

Here, too, the personal application only leads you back to the communal aspect with which you began your journey of faith. We all begin in the context of the covenant and its promises. But as we apply Scripture's injunctions to ourselves, we begin to walk a personal journey among God's people. However, we walk this road in the context of fellowship, and as we proceed we consistently find others walking the same road with us. We may all be at different stations on the road, but we are on the same path!

This makes clear that the covenant and election can neither be identified nor severed. To identify them is fatal; to sever them is equally so. We say the covenant is the means through which God realizes His election. He gathers the people of His choice through the means He has appointed. We must leave to God what belongs to Him, and work with what He has revealed.

It is true that the fulfilment of the blessings of the covenant apply essentially only to the elect. The reprobate are hardened according to the just punishment of God. But the final number of the elect is known only to God. We each must take our place around the means of grace He has instituted word and sacrament - and exploit these means each in our office to their fullest potential. Then, in the way of the covenant, we are made sure of our election.

The covenant is communal, election is personal. But in the school of faith and in the avenue of faith that which is personal becomes consciously communal, and the covenant becomes a living reality in the faith-life of the church. For in both covenant and election God's rule applies: appropriation is personal, but the gift appropriated is communal, and when you share that, you share in fellowship with the whole church. Prof. Van Genderen says it this way:

In the discussion of the covenant and election, as well as the address, contents, and realization of the covenant promise, one generally thinks in terms of the individual person. Yet the personal and individual element is not the only factor. One could even say on biblical grounds that it is not the primary consideration. [13]

Prof. Van Genderen then goes on to treat a number of biblical passages in which the plural dominates in the address of God's people. This does not rule out the singular references, but puts them in a specific framework.

Here the same truth applies. The communal aspect: that is the goal of faith! That remains the framework in which personal faith works itself out! That is what we live and die for! This does not cancel out personal faith. However, in the aspect of communion and fellowship our personal faith comes to its highest expression. In the end, we are never alone. We believe as members of Christ's body, and therefore take our place among the members in order to work for the smooth functioning of the whole. In this way, when every part is working properly, the whole body is built up in love. This is the rich gift that carries over through the grace of God from our world to the world to come.


[1] This was pointed out by C. Trimp, Klank en weerklank, (Barneveld: De Vuurbaak, 2nd. ed., 1989), 129-130

[2] On this see A.N. Hendriks, 'Hoe zijn wij zeker van onze verkiezing?" De Reformatie Vol 69, # 2 and 3 (9 and 16 October 1993) 17-19; 41- 44

[3] Institutes, I.v.3. Calvin uses the phrase "to descend into oneself" when he deals with the road to know the true God, and the requirement for self-examination. In dealing with conversion he always speaks of a turning outside of oneself to God, cf. Institutes lll.iii.7.

[4] For more detail on this see J. Kamphuis in "Gelegen - Ongelegen" De Reformatie, Vol 68, #14 (January 2, 1993) and following issues.

[5] This was the error of the Anabaptists, to whom Calvin reacts in Institutes III. iii. 14

[6] Calvin says: "But no one can be fully persuaded that he belongs to God unless he first recognizes God's grace." cf. Institutes lll.iii.2. From faith flows repentance and conversion.

[7] 'This is the approach of Calvin. See R.C. Zachman, The Assurance of Faith. Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 182ff.

[8] On the 'wonderful exchange (mirifica cornmutatio) see Calvin, Institutes, IV.1 7.2. This thought comes from Luther, and has old roots, see Luther Works, 31 (Philadelphia.. Muhlenberg, 1957) 351.

[9] Zachman, 193

[10] So Zachman, 211

[11] See on this W. Kremer, Priesterlijke Prediking, (Amsterdam: Bolland, 1976), 26

[12] So Calvin, cf. Zachman, 219

[13]  J. Van Genderen, Covenant and Election (Eng. trans. Neerlandia: Inheritance Publications, 1995) 76.