Resources On A Covenantal Approach To The Christian Life

Chris writes to the HB to ask about moving from the conversionist paradigm for the Christian life to the covenantal vision for the Christian life, how does a “covenantal” approach to the Christian life appear? This is an important question. Since the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, the older Protestant emphasis on the divinely ordained means of grace (more below) have mostly been abandoned by most of Americas 60 million evangelicals in favor of what I have called the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE). The QIRE can take many forms but it may be characterized as an addiction to religious euphoria. It is the desire for an immediate encounter with Christ. In conversionism the emphasis in a dramatic conversion. In a covenantal understanding of the Christian life dramatic conversions do happen but the stress is on the way God has ordained in Scripture. “Road to Damascus” events are, in their nature, extraordinary. For every such event there are countless stories of the children of believers quietly coming to faith by attending church with their parents, being catechized at home, praying with Mom and Dad, and spending time in family devotions. The conversionist model is all about feelings. The older, confessional, Protestant piety wasn’t dependent upon testimony to feelings and upon intense religious experience.

In the covenantal understanding of the Christian life, we start with God’s promise to Abraham to be a God to us and to our children (Gen 17). Attending to those things that we call “the ordinary means of grace” is an act of faith. E.g., in baptism we recognize that our children are members of the visible covenant people. In the Lord’s Supper, those who have made profession of faith before the elders, come to the Lord’s table where the Spirit nourishes their faith by feeding believers on the true body and blood of Christ. We distinguish between the external administration and the internal realities. All the members, adult believers and their children, participate as appropriate, in the outward administration of the Word and sacraments but the realities they signify (justification, sanctification, salvation) are received by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). In faith, we make use of the means God has instituted. We pray. We trust his promises. We catechize our children. We attend worship. We read Scripture. We seek to grow in love for God and neighbor.

Perhaps the other big difference between the ordinary means approach to the faith and the conversionist approach is eschatology. The Reformed understand that this is a fallen world. We are not perfectionists (see the articles below). We understand that we live in between the ascension and Christ’s return. Most of us do not expect a glorious age on this earth. We are looking, as the Heidelberg Catechism says, “with uplifted face” for Christ’s glorious return. We look forward to the new heavens and the new earth. We have what is sometimes characterized as a “semi-realized” or “inaugurated” eschatology. Christ has come. He has initiated his kingdom. He has brought salvation. There are great spiritual realities in this world but this is not the end. Most of us are not looking for a glorious, earthly, millennial kingdom. Most of us understand the Revelation to be describing the pattern of life between Christ’s ascension and his return. Sometimes things are going well, sometimes we are under persecution. That’s a metaphor for the Christian life. Romans 5 is a wonderful gospel. Romans 6 is a stirring call for sanctification in light of the gospel. Romans 7 is a sobering reminder of our ongoing struggle with sin but Romans 8 takes us back to the gospel: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1; ESV).

Caveat: there are couple of culs-de-sac to be avoided by those traveling from conversionism to a covenantal approach to the Christian life. The first is the self-described “federal vision.” They purport to be offering a “covenantal” view of the Christian life but it is not a Protestant nor is it a truly evangelical covenant theology. They are offering a sacerdotal vision of Reformed theology, which turns the sacraments into magic. They deny the gospel and they confuse baptism and the Supper among their several errors that have been widely rejected by the Reformed churches. Another toll booth to be avoided is the Christian Reconstruction movement. Many of the Federal Visionists are theonomists or reconstructionists. This is an approach to the Christian life that usually rests on an over-realized eschatology. They are looking for a future earthly glory age through the spread of Christianity and (in theonomy) the civil enforcement of the 1st table of the moral law and OT civil laws.


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  1. It worth noting that amongst the older Protestabnt Reformed post-millennialism was the pre-dominant position, not amillenialism whose dominance is a very modern development.

    • Alexander,

      That maybe true but it may not be.

      1. The category “amillennial” is a recent category or term but the idea behind it is much older.

      2. Prior to the 1920s there were only two formal categories: postmillennial and premillennial or chiliast. Anyone who took the millennium figuratively was classified as post millennial, even though they may have been what we need today recognize as amillennial.

      3. There were plenty of chiliasts among the reformed theologians in the 17th century. Today that is a minority view.

      4. The view today that is called postmillennial is not identical to what is sometimes called postmillennial with reference to the earlier periods.

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