Some Practical Consequences Of Reformed Covenant Theology

It is exciting to discover what are sometimes called “the doctrines of grace,” i.e., the teaching that even though by nature we are dead in sins and trespasses, we came to faith because God loved us in Christ from all eternity and the Holy Spirit powerfully brought us to new life and to true faith. It is exciting to know that God the Son loved us and laid down his life intentionally for me and for all his elect, that we are saved by God’s free favor (grace) alone, through faith alone and that faith, in salvation, is nothing but resting, receiving, and trusting Christ and it is a free gift of grace. It is thrilling to learn that through faith the Holy Spirit has united us to the risen Christ, that we are adopted as sons, and that our Savior shall never lose any of those for whom he laid down his life. It is wonderful to learn that our sanctification, i.e., our gradual and gracious conformity to Christ, our dying to sin and living to Christ, is the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. These are glorious biblical and Reformation truths. We rightly celebrate God’s abounding grace. AGR is devoted to making known these wonderful truths as far as the Lord carries the good news across the globe.

The Christ-Confessing Covenant Community

As marvelous as these truths are, however, they are only the beginning of the Christian life. Our new life in Christ must be lived somewhere and Christ has graciously provided even that. He calls that place where we live out and enjoy all these benefits “the church.” In Matthew 16:18 he promised to build “his church” and that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church. He gave the “keys of the kingdom” (16:19) to Peter as a Christ-confessor an anticipation of his office as apostle. In Matthew 18 our Lord instituted a process for dealing with sin in the church. In v. 17 he commanded “tell it to the church.” When he used this noun church he assumed that we all knew what he meant. He assumed a certain knowledge of the Old Testament, where the idea behind the church was first revealed and developed. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX), which influenced the language and thought of the New Testament, the word church (ἐκκλησία) is used. The noun is the very same one that is translated “church” in Matthew 16 and 18. In Deuteronomy 9:10 Scripture says that the Lord gave two stone tablets, on which were inscribed by the finger of God, and on which were written all the world which the Lord spoke to us on the mountain “on the day of the assembly” (ἐκκλησία).1 “The assembly” is the formal, official covenant assembly gathered at the foot of the mountain, at the foot of the Lord, as it were. This expression or a parallel occurs many times in the LXX (see Deut 4:9–10; 18:16; 32:1; Josh 8:35).

In other words, the idea of a formal, public assembly of the Lord’s people before the face of the Lord was well known and well established long before the New Testament. The Apostles continued this way of thinking and speaking. Much of Acts concerns the establishment and practice of the visible, institutional church established by Christ. There was even a synod in Jerusalem (Acts 15) to discuss and sort out some thorny theological and practical problems. The same Jesus who was crucified and raised for our justification poured out his Spirit upon his Apostles and thereby empowered them to serve in his name, in his place, as his ambassadors. Paul described his pre-Christian mission as a persecutor of “the church,” i.e., the Christ-confessing covenant community (Phil 3:6). In Acts 5:11 Luke records that the entire church was afraid after the Holy Spirit put to death Ananias and Sapphira. Many places in the New Testament the noun church refers to the visible assembly, governed by offices, gathered in assembly (e.g., Acts 20:17). The Apostles established the offices of pastor, elder, and deacon to serve the Word, to govern the people, and to serve their basic material needs during difficult times. There is a survey linked below to fill-in the story.

No Homeless Christians

We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone to be a part of this visible covenant community. This is where we learn about God’s holy law, from which we learn the greatness of our sin and misery and our need for the Savior and from which we learn how, in the covenant of grace, we ought to order our lives. We call these the 1st and 3rd uses of God’s law. When the law demands of us perfect righteousness for our salvation (the 1st use) our theologians and some of our confessions have called this “the commandment of life” (Belgic, Art. 7) or the covenant of works (Westminster Confession, ch. 7). Those who have been received by God in favor, for Christ’s sake alone, through faith alone, are in what we call a covenant of grace In that covenant of grace we seek to obey God’s law not in order to be saved but because we have been saved by grace alone. Our theologians regularly equate the covenant of grace with the gospel, the good news. Christ has been raised. We have been given new life. We are righteous before God for the sake of Christ’s righteousness credited (imputed) to us alone. God is no longer our judge. He is our gracious heavenly Father. Wrath has been replaced by love and grace.

God applies his grace to us through the use of these covenants, works and grace. By the covenant of works we are driven to Christ. In the covenant of grace we are received freely by God for Christ’s sake. He administers his covenant of grace particularly, officially in the visible church. There the gospel is preached, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered, and church discipline is administered to correct us and to point us back to the way of Christ.

So, the covenant of grace and the church, the Christ-confessing covenant community, are bound up together. We cannot ordinarily have Christ without his covenant and his visible church. This is one reason why the pastor to the Hebrews urged them not to forsake the visible covenant assembly (Heb 10:25) as some were in the habit of doing. This is one way that covenant theology makes a difference to our faith. For many well-meaning Christians, the ideas of covenant and church are largely unknown. Some are even hostile to the idea of a covenant theology, even though the New Testament speaks of the “New Covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20) and the Apostle Paul (2 Col 3) described himself as a minister of the New Covenant. The writer to the Hebrews lays out a covenant theology throughout his epistle but especially in chapters 7–10. He contrasts the blessings of the New Covenant over against the Old (Mosaic) Covenant.

A covenant theology is a churchly theology. Covenant theology draws the Christian into the church as the Christ-confessing covenant community, where burdens are shared, prayers are offered together, where the Word is preached, and the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are administered. The church is important but she is not the Lord. She is not the Savior. She is a servant of the Lord and a servant of his Word. The Roman communion has forgotten this and elevated herself above the Word and, arguably, even about the Lord—when she contradicts his Word, renounces his gospel, and seeks to bind men’s consciences to man-made traditions. The Eastern communions have similar problems from our point of view.

The Reformed churches begin with the Word (sola scriptura) but we honor the church established by Christ and normed by his Word because Christ has established his church by his Word and is present there and is working powerfully and mysterious there for the glory of his name and edification of his church.

The Abrahamic Promise

So far we have looked at one  aspect of Reformed covenant theology (as distinct from other kinds of covenant theology), which distinguishes it from those varieties of popular evangelical theology, piety, and practice. Many are excited about the “doctrines of grace” but they do not connect those doctrines to covenant theology or to the church. The Reformed do. Last time we also looked very briefly at what the Scriptures say about the visible church as the Christ-confessing covenant community.

Another way in which Reformed covenant theology affects our piety and practice is the way it influences the way we regard and raise our children. For the vast majority of those who identify as “evangelical” (the meaning of which becomes more elusive with each passing year) it assumed that though God included the children of believers in his visible people under Abraham, Moses, and David, he does so no longer under the New Covenant until they make profession of faith. This is a big assumption for which there is no positiveScriptural evidence but which we need not debate here. For the purposes of this discussion it is only important that we recognize that these two different ways of regarding the children of believers exist.

Under the Reformed understanding of Scripture, the promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 17:7 is still in effect. It has never been revoked. There God promised to Abraham (and to us): “I will be a God to you and to your children.” This is the way that the New Covenant is understood and presented in the Old Testament Scriptures, e.g., Jeremiah 31:17:

There is hope for your future,
declares Yahweh,
and your children shall come back to their own country.

This is a foreshadowing of the promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31–34 (where the New Covenant is contrasted with the Old (Mosaic) covenant) but in Jeremiah 32:38–40 we see the promise of Genesis 17:7 and the promise of the New Covenant synthesized:

And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me (ESV).

The Lord’s language here comes right out of Genesis 17:7 but it looking forward to the New Covenant. According to Jeremiah 32, the New Covenant is a renewal of the Abrahamic promise. So, the Reformed are not surprised when we see that promise re-stated by Peter in Acts 2:39. There we see the him, after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, preaching the law and the gospel to the gathered men of Israel. They respond by asking, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replies:

…“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38–39; ESV)

Certainly he calls those adults who heard the sermon to repent, believe, and be baptized but he says more more. In v. 39 he explicitly re-states the promise of Genesis 17:7 and invokes Jeremiah 32:38–40. Why should they repent? Why should they be baptized? Because of the promise. Which promise? The promise. Peter did knew that all those Jews present for the feast knew exactly to which promise he was referring. It was so obvious, so clear, so well known to them, so basic, that it would have been insulting to spell it out: “You know, the promise that you have been claiming for the last 2,000 years, the promise that you invoked over the circumcision of your children, the promise that was said over you at your circumcision.”

For two millennia the promise of the Lord to Abraham had been the defining promise. It is so important to the Old Testament and to the self-consciousness of Jews that it was the source of a major argument between Jesus and the Jews (John 8). They claimed to be Abraham’s children on the basis of their lineage. Jesus agreed that Abraham has children but he disagreed with them in the sharpest possible terms about what makes one a child of Abraham. “Abraham saw my day and rejoiced” (John 8:56) he argued. Were they really Abraham’s children they would do as Abraham did.

The Abrahamic Pattern

In modern evangelical theology, however, the biblical understanding of Abraham, the promise of God made to Abraham, and how that works out in the New Covenant, has largely been lost. There is not a single word in the New Testament revoking that promise and there is a strong affirmation of it at the outset of the ministry of the Apostles. Peter continued to invoke Abraham in his preaching (e.g., Acts 3:13). He invoked the Abrahamic promises explicitly:

You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness” (Acts 3:25–26; ESV)

Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises of Genesis 12 and 15. We are still under the Abrahamic covenant and promises. They were never about merely earthly possessions. The promises were always spiritual. In his last sermon, after which he was martyred, Stephen invoked the Abrahamic promises (Acts 7:2,8,16–17,32).

Paul spend most of Romans 4 explaining that the Abrahamic promises and covenant are still in force in the New Covenant. E.g.,

[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised (Romans 4:11–12; ESV).

Abraham is the pattern for the New Covenant. The Lord preached the gospel to Abraham. By God’s grace alone, he repented and believed. He received the sign of entrance into the visible covenant community (circumcision). That was Abraham’s version of Acts 2:38. Genesis 17:7 is his Acts 2:39. It is the same pattern: The promises are given to believers and to their children.

To Believers And Their Children

The Abrahamic promise always included children in its expression and in its outward administration. They were always included in the visible people of God, the covenant community, the church. This does not mean that every child of every believer will come to faith. Ishmael was the first child of Abraham to receive the sign but he did not receive the promise. Paul says explicitly that Jacob was elect and Esau was reprobated (Rom 9;13; quoting Mal 1:2,3) but Ishmael and Esau both received the sign of the covenant and both were included in the visible people, the Christ-confessing covenant community. The promise is not magic but it is a promise. God will save all his elect and he wants us to include our children, the children of believers, in the visible covenant community.

This idea, that of including children in the visible covenant community, of following the Abrahamic pattern of applying to them the sign of the covenant, of raising them in the covenant community, of saying to them: “God has included you in his promise and people. You belong to the Lord. You have been separated from the world. You have received the sign of the covenant. You need to trust the Lord and love him with all your heart” is founded on the biblical promises in Genesis 17:7, Jeremiah 32:38–40; and Acts 2:39. The Abrahamic promise is not magic but it makes a difference in the way we regard our children, the way we speak to them, and the way we raise them.

What God Said Versus What I Guess

So far we have considered briefly the importance of the church as the Christ-confessing covenant community and the importance of Abraham in the Bible’s own account of the covenant of grace. In this installment we are to consider some of the ways that the Reformed account of the covenant of grace (including the continuity between the New Covenant and the Abrahamic promises) are distinct from the ways that most modern evangelicals, including some of the so-called “New Calvinists” talk about the covenant of grace, the church, and the children of believers.

The question that the Reformed ask when we think about the children of believers is: What has God said? This is the question we are commanded to ask in Deuteronomy 29:29, which says:

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deut 29:29; ESV).

We mere mortals do not and cannot know, apart from special revelation, what God has decided from all eternity. There is no verse that tells me that I, Scott Clark, am elect but we do not ask, “Am I elect?” We always ask, “Do I believe?” These are very different questions with different outcomes. To ask the question, “Am I elect?” is to send the believer on the hunt for answers he cannot find. This is why Calvin urged us not to put the question that way. We cannot climb up into heaven, as it were, to enquire of God. We always ask the question, “Do I believe?” because we understand that only the elect are ever given new life and true faith. If one believes it is an evidence that one is elect. We know God’s grace and our election after the fact.

It is not that we do not pay attention to what we see but it is that we do not begin with what we see. We begin where Scripture wants us to begin, with the Word and with God’s promises to believers and to their children. It is significant that the phrase, “and to your children” occurs in this context. This is an echo of the Abrahamic promise: “I will be a God to you and to your children.”

It is in the nature of faith to trust what God has said over against what I can or cannot see with my eyes (Heb 11:1). Abraham was called to go to a land he had not seen (Heb 11:8). The Old Testament believers looked for a Messiah whom they could not see with their eyes (Heb 11:38). We, who have not seen Jesus and yet believe, are blessed (John 20:29). Faith always begins with God’s Word.

Promises Not Presumption

The promises of the covenant of grace are for believers and their children. There have been modern Reformed writers (but no churches or confessions) that have held the doctrine of “presumptive regeneration.” Abraham Kuyper (1827–1920) and some of his followers taught the doctrine of presumptive regeneration, i.e., that we baptize our children on the basis of their presumed regeneration. This was a controversial doctrine and the Dutch Reformed Synod Utrecht in 1905 declared:

that according to the Confession of our churches the seed o the covenant, by virtue of the promise of God, must be held to be regenerated and sanctified in Christ, until upon growing up they should manifest the contrary in their way of life or doctrine;

that it is, however, less correct to say that baptism is administered to the children of believers on the ground of their presumed regeneration, since the ground of baptism is found in the command and promise of God;

The distinction that Synod articulated is this: there is a difference between regarding or treating our children as regenerated and presuming that they are regenerate. There is a difference between baptizing the children of believers on the basis of the promise and baptizing them on the basis of a presumption.

To be sure, there were some Reformed writers in the 16th and 17th centuries who, following Luther, theorized about “infant faith” as the basis for infant baptism. Those fathers may be excused since they were scrambling to defend a belief and practice that had not been challenged for 1500 years. The churches, however, never confessed any such doctrine of infant faith and most of the theologians abandoned those theories. Instead, the churches confess that we baptize our children and recognize their external membership in the covenant of grace and the covenant community on the basis of the divine promise: “I will be a God to you and to your children” and the divine command to administer the sign of admission to believers and their children. That promise and that command is still in force.

What We Dare Not Say

It has been the pattern of (mostly Baptist-influenced) Modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice to exclude children from the promises until they make profession of faith. That this is the right approach is an unquestioned dogma among many evangelicals. The corollary to this assumption is another assumption: that our children are probably not yet regenerate. E.g., a leading Baptist figure “ in the “New Calvinist” movement wrote:

It seems that people were surprised to learn, in an article I wrote last week, that I presume my children to be unsaved. The article, What’s Dead Looks Dead, expressed my belief that my children (ages 6, 3, and 3 months) are, at this time, likely unsaved and are thus spiritually dead.

This approach is the obverse side of the coin of presumptive regeneration. This is the doctrine of presumptive non-regeneration. He not only concluded that his children were unregenerate, i.e., that the Spirit had not awakened them from death to life, but also that they were “unsaved.” That implies that one can know for whom Jesus died and that Jesus had not died for his children. We may fairly doubt that he was speculating that way but it is certainly an unhappy way to speak. The more remarkable thing is that he believes that he knew what our Lord said cannot be known, namely when and where the mysterious Holy Spirit has granted new life. Jesus says:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8; ESV).

“You do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Our dialogue partner, for the purposes of this discussion, cannot know what he claims to know, that the Spirit has not operated in the hearts and minds of his children. According to our Lord Jesus, in John 3, we cannot know when or where the Spirit has operated.

The Reformed approach is not to try to guess whether our children are elect or whether they are regenerated by the mysterious work of the Spirit. We treat our children the way Abraham treated his children: as heirs of the promise. We regard our children the way God told the Israelites to regard their children (e.g., Deut 29:29). We regard our children the way the Apostle Peter regarded them, “the promise is to you and to your children” (Acts 2:39). According to our “New Calvinist” friend, the promise is apparently not for believers and their children.

In the Reformed Churches we practice Abrahamic baptism and nurture of the children of believers. We treat them as heirs of the promises and members of the visible church. We put the sign upon them of inclusion into the visible church and we include them in our worship services. We pray with and for them. We instruct them and as important as anything else we never, ever announce to the entire English-speaking world that we think that they are unregenerate, especially before they have been baptized, nurtured, instructed, and given opportunity to make a credible profession of faith.

Should the child of a believer refuse to make profession of faith or should he, in some other way, give clear evidence of unbelief, only then do we begin to regard him as alienated from Christ and proceed accordingly.

There are exceptions to this presumption of non-regeneration. There is a blessed inconsistency among some Baptistic evangelicals who hold baby dedications in their services. These are dry baptisms of a sort. They reflect the lingering consciousness of Genesis 17 (even if they are not aware of it) and the impulse to present our children to the Lord and to include them visibly into the covenant community. The Reformed rightly wish that these were wet baptisms and perhaps they will be but at least these families and congregations are not excluding their children from the visible people of God.

Much In Every Way

To exclude one’s children thus is akin to a farmer refusing to water one’s crops and then expecting a harvest. This is not the process that the Lord has ordained. According to Reformed covenant theology, the Lord has willed to use the humble means of baptism, of prayer, of inclusion of children in the worship service, of nurture and instruction to bring his elect, who are in the midst of the Christ-confessing covenant community, to new life and to true faith. Our sovereign Lord, who elects unconditionally, uses means. This is Paul’s point in Romans 3:1 when he asks the rhetorical question, “What advantage has the Jew?” and the answer: “Much in every way!” That “much” is the external administration of the covenant of grace. That is a great advantage because it is what God uses to accomplish his purposes.

Synod Utrecht was right. We do not presume one way or the other. In Reformed covenant theology we operate on the basis of God’s promises and commands. Baptism is not magic—it is not as if the application of baptismal waters necessarily produces new life. That is sacerdotalism, which confuses the thing promised (new life) with the sign (baptism). Yet, distinguishing sign and thing promised does not make signs worthless. At every baptism we point our children forward (because they are in the service to see the baptism) and we say, “You also received that sign. You have been included into the people of God. The promises are yours. Receive them by faith.”

Parents, include your children into the visible covenant community, pray for them that they will receive by true faith all that is offered to them in baptism but do not exclude them from the means he uses. Expect God to answer your prayer according to his purposes. Trust him. Believer, treat your children as the heirs of the covenant promises they are.

These are some great practical consequences of Reformed covenant theology.


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