Conversations in Reformed biblical theology

covenant theology (3)

Covenant life: promise and demand

What happens if, on the one hand, we tie covenant membership to the visible Church and the objective means of grace, and on the other, we closely associate covenant and salvation? Do we not thereby promote a false sense of security? “I have been baptized, and therefore I am safe.”

All truth is subject to perversion and one-sidedness, and so it is impossible to deny that such can happen - and indeed, often has happened. This, however, is not the fault of the biblical doctrine of the covenant; rather the opposite, it is due to a shrinking of that doctrine. Moreover, it must be observed that either a false sense of security or a situation of anxiety on the part of the believer have marred other approaches, and with good reason.

Two-sided dangers are present everywhere

Let me elaborate, beginning with one sort of Reformed approach as our subject. If we place a heavy emphasis upon the invisible, and dismiss the significance of the objective community, preferring instead to stress that salvific realities are all about (1) the eternal decrees of God; and (2) “regeneration,” in the sense of an inner transfusion of grace into the heart, there is a strong danger that the believer (1) makes light of the means of grace; and/or (2) becomes severely introspective, as he attempts to determine whether he is elect or “regenerated.”

In a related vein, if we detach salvation from covenant and place the accent upon the Reformed ordo salutis (“order of salvation” - this has been articulated with some variation, but it essentially runs something this: election, effectual calling/regeneration, justification, sanctification, and finally, glorification), which is, after all, considered an “unbreakable chain” (see Rom 8.30), what happens? We are confronted with the two problematic issues of complacency and anxiety once again. For on the one hand, there can be a tendency to take one’s stand in a past event, and affirm, “once saved, always saved.” And on the other, the introspection just noted can again raise its ugly head: “Am I really sanctified?” And if the answer given to that (rightly or wrongly) is “no,” then by inexorable logic, the introspector must also conclude then, that neither is he justified.

Looking beyond the Reformed camp, we can also comment on modern evangelical decisionism. Here the stress tends to be upon a “conversion experience,” rather than upon the ordo salutis; moreover, in the current context, the Church and the sacraments are heavily slighted. And what do we see here? Again, complacency: the individual recalls the sensations of his “conversion experience,” and makes himself feel secure in the knowledge that, because he had that one-time “buzz” or “warm feeling,” or responded at the appropriate time to the emotional pleas of the altar call, he need not worry about anything now. He is “eternally secure.” If anyone doubts the reality of this phenomenon, he need only look at the widespread disease of the Western world, particularly the USA. Where an astounding proportion of the population claims, not only to be “Christian,” but “born again” (in the recently-altered meaning of the term, where it invariably refers to a sensible, and even dateable, “conversion experience”) the same strata of the population rarely looks different from the rest of the nation - whether we are speaking of matters of morality, and often, even of church attendance.

And on the other side of the coin are the hyper-Arminians who, if you aren’t experiencing daily bliss, you are probably going to hell (again!) and need to come back down the aisle - perhaps weekly.

Do we see a pattern here?

My point is that no matter what overall “system” you have, you will always face a two-sided reality. The question, therefore, is not whether your system raises a two-sided problematic, because every system does. The question is how your system conceives of that problematic, and whether its built-in response is patterned after the biblical example. And my claim is that the conception of the problem, and response to it, which is most clearly biblical is the one which promotes a robustly covenantal approach.

The shape of two-sided covenantalism

Let us take up the task of articulating this, first, by investigating how full-orbed covenantalism deals with the matter of “easy believism” or complacency. We will deal with the matter of anxiety or self-reliance in its turn.

How then do we approach the critical task of shaping a community which is not complacent?

It must be remembered that the biblical shape of the covenant entails both promise and demand. The objective reality of the promise establishes a situation within which God places requirements upon His people. This is sometimes construed as “gospel and law” (with “gospel” = promise, and “law” = demand), but this is highly misleading (particularly given the usual definitions of “law”), because the defining demand which the promise requires is faith. In biblical terms, faith is not a self-generated work, but the gift of God Himself. But it is a demand nonetheless, as witnessed to by the countless passages which call upon men to believe - including those who are already (to employ our use of the term) “saved.” In other words, faith is a demand, not only at the outset of covenant life, but throughout.

Nowhere is this more strikingly shown than in the case of Abraham in Genesis 15. This passage, which Paul quotes twice to defend his doctrine of justification by faith (Gal 3.6 and throughout Rom 4), records an event which took place long after Abraham’s initial call. The gospel of faith is not a doctrine of a one-time act of believing, but of a continual call to lean upon God. The glory of Abraham’s faith was not merely that he left Ur - which Paul does not so much as mention - but that he leaned upon God’s promise of an heir, year after year after year, in the face of Sarah’s barrenness and his own old age - that faith is what God counted as righteousness (see Rom 4.16-22). (As an aside, this datum from both Genesis and Romans 4 illustrates why the frequent stark contrast between faith and faithfulness is mistaken. It is the same Greek word; but more than that, Scripture does not describe saving faith in the “aorist tense,” that is, as a one-time act that accomplishes everything, so that the individual can forever look back on that one moment of belief as his infallible proof of effectual calling.)

Moreover, genuine faith “works by love”; only such faith “avails” (Gal 5.6). Faith acts (see Heb 11). Had Abram not left Ur, but claimed to believe the promise of Yahweh, what would have happened? Absolutely nothing. If Israel claimed to believe Moses’ words from God, but had sat in their houses and refused to slaughter the Passover lamb (because after all, it was just a ritual), what would have happened? Nothing. Or rather, a great deal: deaths of firstborn males throughout the land of Goshen. The promise of God creates a reality which imposes demand, a demand for working faith.

To the other side of the issue, then: If it is true that the above helps prevent complacency, is it not the case that in the very approach by which it does so, it throws the believer back into anxiety? Does it, after all, take the believer’s eyes off Christ, and turn them to his own faithfulness?

I think the careful reader already knows the answer. Because the demand is fundamentally Christ-centered and faith-shaped. For what is Abraham’s faithful adherence to the promise, but a clinging to the God who speaks? And so too it is with the new covenant believer. Faithfulness is not moralism or achievement. Faithfulness is simply genuine faith in its mode of persevering. And genuine faith always looks to Christ. So how can such a demand take our eyes off Christ? No, to the contrary, the call to covenant faithfulness is always a call to look away from ourselves. Because the covenant, after all, is Christ (Isaiah 42.6).

The biblical pattern: a summary

I suggest that it is very clear that what has been described above is the biblical analysis of and prescription for the two-sided problem which we have been discussing.

In terms of the matter of biblical analysis, in contrast to the predominant pattern which other approaches work with, the covenantal pattern does not start off by questioning the reality of the presence of the promise.

Such questioning, implicitly, is what an overly-decretally-oriented “Reformed” viewpoint does. If the promise is located in the heavens and in an ineffable alteration which cannot be seen, no one is really sure where that promise is at work.

To the contrary, biblical covenantalism says that God really works salvation, not merely in the general vicinity of, but in and through the visible Church, and the objective means of grace. Paul does not ask his hearers or readers to remember a one-time interior experience, nor does he suggest they make “logical deductions” from the ordo salutis. The very passages which he employs from which the Reformed have (rightly) inferred a sort of ordo salutis function radically differently in Paul than in the pastoral and hortatory (sermonic) practice of many Reformed ministers.

He preaches in the second person (“you”); they preach in the third (“the elect” - whoever they may be).

For example: one of the grandest expositions of sola gratia and election is found in Ephesians 1. Does Paul bring up the doctrine as some sort of “objective” piece of information, from which his hearers are required logically to deduce whether they are elect? No. What about the “golden chain” of Romans 8.30 and its glorious context? Is that how this functions? Again, no. This is a doxological passage which indeed offers assurance - but it certainly does not function as a starting point for creating a deductive system. That is simply not how promise functions in Scripture.

Rather the opposite is the case. Paul speaks to churches as those who are elect and sanctified in Christ. And he speaks to those same churches with the demand which the covenantal reality creates, including accompanying warnings - and he even applies such demands and warnings to himself. Who knew the doctrines of grace better than Paul? Who could better deduce “infallible” assurance, from his own experience and the ordo salutis, than Paul? Yet in 1 Corinthians 9.24-27, he speaks of how he runs his spiritual race: with intention, labour, and singlemindedness - lest, he says, after having preached to others, he himself should become “disqualified” (lit. “an unapproved one”), after the manner of the Israelites who fell under judgment in the wilderness (as he goes on to describe in the succeeding verses in ch. 10).

To summarize the biblical analysis of the two-sided problematic: Scripture does not place the issue in the inaccessible heavens or in the unreachable and unknowable human interior. To be sure: Paul speaks of the circumcision of the heart in Romans 2.25-29. But he is not talking about something unknowable; rather the opposite, he is speaking of a matter intrinsically recognizable (which, as I believe, has to do with a contrast between unbelieving Israel’s failure to embrace her Messiah, and the grace given to Christian Gentiles).

Similarly, the often-quoted passages concerning “self-examination” in the Corinthian letters are not calls to absorbed introspection but challenges regarding objective covenant-breaking. When Paul calls upon the Corinthians to “prove themselves” (which is, in any case, a more literal translation than “examine”) in connection with participating in the Supper (1 Cor 11.28), is he commanding introspection? No! He is calling upon them to prove themselves covenantally by not being schismatic in their table behaviour. (See my paedocommunion-related article, “Examination and Remembrance.”) When Paul calls upon the Corinthians to “prove themselves,” to see whether they are “in the faith” (2 Cor 13.5), is he referring to anything remotely approaching navel-gazing? No! What will demonstrate that they are in the faith is, in context, their objectively-verifiable acceptance of the Word of God through Paul’s own apostolic ministry.

My point is that the biblical pattern is not oriented toward making the reality of the gospel promise invisible or unknowable. It is not oriented toward calling the reality of grace into question. Rather the opposite: Paul speaks of the very Israelites who fell in the wilderness as having participated in Christ (1 Cor 10.1-4). His diagnosis of the problem of complacency in Corinth (a church where surely the problem was more marked than anywhere else we have in the New Testament record) was not to have the Corinthians retrace their steps and question if they really really really had believed and been regenerated. If that is his diagnosis, he has a rather ineffective way of expressing it, since he opens his letter with laudatory claims regarding God’s grace in the Corinthian church (see 1 Cor 1.1-9).

But no, what is his diagnosis? It consists in a charge of failure to live up to an objectively present grace, not a questioning of whether that grace is really there. This enables him, on the one hand, to speak confidently that the faithful God will indeed sustain them to the end, even as He has begun a good work in them (1 Cor 1.4-9), and on the other, to warn them that those who destroy God’s temple will be destroyed (1 Cor 3.17), and that they must take heed, lest they fall (1 Cor 10.12). The latter passage reflects again that this is not moralism, since the very taking heed is buttressed by the emphatic reaffirmation of God’s faithfulness (10.13).

Thus the diagnosis is oriented toward affirming the reality of genuine grace objectively and really present, and a corresponding charge that the Corinthians are not living out that reality. And the prescription consists of a re-presentation of the covenantal demand, complete with admonitions - solemn warnings of divine judgment. And those warnings, like the diagnosis itself, do not suggest: “Well, now, this time make sure you really really really have true faith, so that the whole thing ‘takes!’” To the contrary, the admonitions flow wholly out of an acknowledgement of the reality of God’s grace, which is precisely what makes the slide toward apostasy so profoundly culpable.

A careful study of Scripture will show that this is the predominant biblical pattern. At issue here is not merely whether we have constructed a nicely-detailed dogmatic system. The question is whether we speak to the covenant community in the way in which God speaks to the covenant community in Scripture. No matter what we may assume seems to “follow” from even an absolutely correct theological system, if we employ that doctrine in a fashion fundamentally different from the way in which the same truth functions within the context of the inspired Scriptures, we are at odds with the Bible, regardless how demonstrable our claim to “orthodoxy” might be.

Neither in our consideration of alternative approaches, nor in our exposition of the covenantal approach above, have we given attention to the issue of hypocrisy. It is indeed an important question. We cannot do justice to that subject in the context of this introductory essay, other than to affirm that there really is such a thing as hypocrisy (“acting”), although I would suggest that the biblical description does not well match what often passes for theological analysis of hypocrisy. But we must say here that: (1) the human heart has a great capacity for self-deception; and (2) that the visible Church, limited both by its inability to see all things, and further, by its sinful failure to exercise godly discipline, invariably does not expunge all hypocrites from its midst. My plea here, however, is to imitate the way the Bible handles the situation. Let the Word do its job, because no human being can root out hypocrisy. Rather than trying to peer into hearts, the correct antidote to hypocrisy is energetically to promote the promise and demand of the covenant. Paul’s response to the hypocritical Jew in Romans 2 is not an exercise in speculation. It is a challenge to embrace the objective revelation of the gospel of God in Christ.

Putting flesh on the bones

A few words are in order, by way of closing application, regarding the shape of covenant life. For, after all, it is hoped that normally the believer will not be in a situation closely analogous to that of the Corinthians!

The covenantal answer is rather simple. Both promise and demand (as biblically defined, of course) are always to be given strong accent, whether from the pulpit, or in our personal consciousness of how we live our lives. The demand will not always have the direct warnings against apostasy which Paul needed to employ with regard to the Corinthians (see also Galatians and Hebrews); he finds no need for such in Ephesians, and there is only a slight trace of it in Colossians. This is understandable, given the familial understanding of the covenant. Just because it is possible for children to become disinherited, one does not harp on the subject to one’s faithful children.

In the context of the Christian home, the child born into the family should not be treated as a stranger to grace. He is, to borrow the language of the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 27), equally the recipient of God’s promises as are his parents. He is baptized into the communion of the Triune God. And therefore, the correct approach to him is not to seek a “conversion experience.” Rather, it is to affirm the reality of grace that God has already promised is present to him, and correspondingly, to press home, according to his capacity, the demand of the covenant which that reality of grace has imposed.

Once more, this is emphatically not, as some wish to characterize it, a situation of “first complacency, and then, salvation by works.” There is nothing complacent in the affirmation of faith that God’s promises are real and effective - and there is nothing smacking of works-righteousness in the affirmation that the one who has been implanted into the reality of grace must respond with living faith.

That is simply the shape of God’s covenantal dealings with His people: promise and demand.


Disclaimer: inclusion of material in the bibliography implies neither endorsement of all views expressed in the material, nor that the author of the material endorses (or, if deceased, would have endorsed) the views of this web site. The criterion for inclusion of material in this list is genuine helpfulness to the discussion, not uniformity of viewpoint.

J. DeJong: “The Covenant and the Christian Life.” Practical and Christ-centered treatment of covenant life, dealing with matters of faith and assurance.

Robert Rayburn Jr: “The Presbyterian Doctrines of Covenant Children, Covenant Nurture, and Covenant Succession.”

Tedd Tripp:  Shepherding a Child’s Heart. (Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 1995.) A helpful and practical work that attempts to make the gospel the heart of childrearing.

Douglas Wilson:  Standing on the Promises:  A Handbook of Biblical Childrearing. (Moscow, ID: Canon, 1997.)  A practical approach to childrearing, heavily saturated with the content and atmosphere of the biblical promises concerning the children of believers.


For how sweet is it to godly minds to be assured, not only by word, but by sight, that they obtain so much favor with the Heavenly Father that their offspring are within His care? For here we can see how He takes on toward us the role of a most provident Father, who even after our death maintains His care for us, providing for and looking after our children. . . . For when we consider that immediately from birth God takes and acknowledges them as His children, we feel a strong stimulus to instruct them in an earnest fear of God and observance of the law. Accordingly, unless we wish spitefully to obscure God’s goodness, let us offer our infants to Him, for He gives them a place among those of His family and household, that is, the members of the Church.

- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.16.32