The Covenant as Marriage! Free Reformed View



Minister, Free Reformed Church of Chatham, Ontario

The Covenant of Grace may be defined as that gracious arrangement which God establishes with believers and their children in which God promises them salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and requires of them a life of faith and obedience (A. Hoekema,1983). It was first presented to Adam in the form of "the Mother Promise", then to Abraham in its fuller version and was administered under various forms throughout the Old Testament. Amongst those who believe that this covenant is established with believers and their seed, there has been considerable debate (and not always in that spirit which is the mark of the mind of Christ) as to what this means. Obviously, if we proceed from the position that all the children are included in the covenant, we must conclude that there are both elect and non elect in the covenant. But how are they in the covenant?

How did John Calvin deal with this vexing problem? Commenting on Genesis 17:7, in explaining the words "...and thy seed after thee...", he suggests that there are two kinds of children in the covenant: "Here, then, a twofold class of sons presents itself to us, in the Church; for since the whole body of the people is gathered together into the fold of God, by one and the same voice, all without exception, are, in this respect, accounted children; the .name of the Church is applicable in common to all: but in the innermost sanctuary of God, none others are reckoned the sons of God, than they in whom the promise is ratified by faith."

Calvin's use of the expression "a twofold class of sons" has given rise to all sorts of further distinctions which he probably never wished to be made. The argument has been made that if there are two kinds of sons, they cannot both be in the Covenant in the same way and so, it has been suggested, some are "in" the Covenant and others are "under" the covenant. Some who have felt at ease with this have shifted the "twofold" distinction to the Covenant itself and suggested that it has an internal and an external aspect. Neither of these distinctions can adequately answer the question and both smack of scholasticism - the attempt to provide well fitting and logical answers to every question.

What is not emphasized sufficiently in these positions is that Calvin spoke of the promise being "ratified by faith".

We must be very careful with making these distinctions. There is not enough ground in Scripture to make a distinction of internal/external, in/under the covenant. The notion of "covenant" is much too positive for that. It is one or the other: the bond of the covenant does exist, or we stand outside of it. Covenant is testament - one is heir of the testator or one is not heir. You cannot be half heir. What does the Scripture say about all this? Who are the members of the covenant?

True and full covenant members are all those who have received the sign of the covenant and who live under its administration. Under the Old Dispensation this was Abraham and his natural seed; under the New it is the believers and their natural seed. We believe this is so for Genesis 17:14 speaks of the possibility of breaking the covenant. Had the covenant been made with the elect only, there would be no possibility of breaking it. Various Scripture passages bear this out: John 15:1, 2 "I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away... " This teaches that one can leave (or be removed from) the covenant relationship. This cannot be said of the elect.

Romans 11: 17, 18, 21 "And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree; do not boast not against the branches ...For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either, " The covenant and the people of the covenant are compared to an olive tree. It is said that one can be a branch and share in the fatness of the tree and still be cast off. This proves that both elect and non- elect are in the covenant. Hebrews 10:29 "Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy, who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant, by which he was sanctified a common thing...?"

One can be sanctified by the blood of the covenant and still count it as something common. Surely, these, and other passages teach us that it is possible to be in the covenant and still not to receive all the blessings of the covenant. It is possible even to be sanctified and still to be lost. The content of the covenant, the "goods", which are comprised of the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life, are not received by all who are in the covenant. Yet, we do believe they are all in the covenant. How, then, can one lose these goods?

The word "covenant" is also translated as "testament", especially in the letter to the Hebrews. A testament provides, usually, a gift upon the death of the testator. Theoretically, it is possible to refuse such a gift. In the same sense, it is possible to refuse the gift of the covenant. That gift can be received only in the way of faith and repentance. That is the essence of the "new obedience" required of us.

This is due, when we come to the years of discretion, i.e. when young people can understand the issues at stake. We, then, are called to live in the covenant relationship and that in a special, conscious manner. This involves the knowledge of the three parts laid out by the letters of Paul (Romans, Galatians) and the Heidelberg Catechism - the knowledge of misery, deliverance and gratitude. Each covenant child is placed before the choice; but, it is a covenant choice. It is not a matter of doing as we please but it is a matter of responding to God and His demands. It means nothing other than the putting to death of our old nature and the leading of a godly life. This is not just something that happens, more or less, by itself because we are living in decent homes and attend church and live a "Christian life".

Amongst covenant children, the norm is to comply to the covenant demands and to accept responsibility for your own baptism. This is how it should be and this is, usually, how God works. However, this does not mean that we, from our side, should see it as a matter of course that covenant children grow up to be believers. It is still a great miracle, also for them. It still requires them to come to faith, to plead God's grace and mercy, to experience the fact that, by nature, they are lost and outside the Kingdom of God and they cannot enter it unless they are born again.

It may be true that many of them are born. again in their early youth, but as they come to the age of discretion, this is something which they will and should experience, consciously. And when they do, they will also be made ready and willing publicly to confess their faith and, thus, to take their place in the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ as adult members. This is how it should be. The sad reality is that it is not always so.

Does that still leave us with the question: "But how are we to see membership in the covenant?" Does it still leave fuzzy the matter of in/under, internal/external membership? Is there no satisfactory answer?

Remember that Calvin spoke of two kinds of covenant children and said that faith was needed to ratify the promise. This does fall into line with the thought of Romans 9:8. The only difference then between these sons is the present or absence of faith. At this time we must resist the urge to push this back into the realm of election and say, "But faith is the gift of God; therefore, how we are in the covenant is dependent upon election for God gives faith to .whom He pleases." This may be true as far as it goes, but we must stay with, the reality of the "here and now". Can we do that? Yes, provided we turn again to Scripture.

Scripture: Covenant = Marriage

We all agree, I trust, that the covenant in the Old Testament is, in essence, the same as the New Testament covenant and that, therefore, baptism replaces circumcision. We now limit our self to finding an image in the Old Testament which will adequately answer the question: How are all these children covenant members?

To be sure, not all Israelites were saved, although they were all in the covenant. Romans 9:6 is very clear "...For they are not all Israel, who are of Israel." I Corinthians 10:5 bears this out - "But with most of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness."

Clearly, the situation then was similar to ours today they were all Israel but some were not pleasing to God; we are all church members but some are not pleasing to God. In both cases - they all belonged to the covenant, yet they did not all receive the covenant blessings. What is the difference?

The Old Testament is very graphic in its description of the relationship between the Lord (Yahweh) and His people. It often speaks of it as the union between a man and his wife; words as "betrothal", "marriage", "unfaithful", "harlot" and similar expressions are used to describe various aspects of this relationship in which Israel is personified as a bride who is often unfaithful. (Hosea!) The covenant relationship, then, is to be thought of in terms of a marriage. This is what the Holy Spirit pictures for us in the Scriptures: this is what we may use not only as an illustration representing some hard-to-get-hold-of truth but as the expression of that truth as such. In the Covenant of Grace God is married to His people!

It is true, this idea will not remove all obstacles. It is also true that this idea, or some variation thereof, has been developed in the past. But it is good to be refreshed in our thinking and to have some old ideas put into new focus.

Others have spoken of there being two ways, two senses in which we can speak of the covenant. Some emphasized the sense that the covenant is a legal relationship between two parties with obligations and conditions on both sides. It exists, even when nothing has been done to realize its goal. This, of course, makes the promise the essence of the covenant, as is claimed by Heyns. It is rather striking that Heyns then goes on to describe the unbreakable character of the covenant in terms of the unbreakable character of the marriage bonds; yet, he does not come clear and specifically state that the covenant is a marriage between God and His people. Pity!

The second sense in which the covenant can be and has been viewed is that of a fellowship. H. Hoeksema (the Protestant Reformed theologian) did this and spoke of the covenant as being a fellowship of friendship. According to him, this is the essence of the covenant. Friendship is always a two way street; it is always reciprocal. In Hoeksema's conception of the covenant this fits in quite well. He believed (as did Kuyper and Kersten, two other influential Dutch "covenant" theologians) that the covenant was made only with the elect. This neatly gets around the question: What of covenant people who are not friends of God? Hoeksema would say, "They are not, and never were, covenant people." The fellowship arrangement suits quite well for those who hold the covenant is made with the elect only. But does it also suit us who believe that it is made with believers and their seed?

It is possible to view the covenant as a fellowship and, at the same time, to recognize that there are non elect in the covenant if we keep before us the Scriptural picture of the marriage between God and His people. A fellowship, such as marriage, concerns not only what ought to be but also what really is.

When does a marriage take place? We all recognize that the marriage has been made when the vows are given and the minister says: "I pronounce you man and wife." Now, we can make various distinctions and arbitrary cut-off points and ask, at each one, "Is the marriage now made?"

Let us simply say, as far as the law and the witnesses are concerned, all these elements belong together and when they leave the church they are man and wife. But are they? The law recognizes that the marriage needs to be consummated through the physical union of man and wife and, where that does not take place, the marriage may be annulled. So, we can say, "Yes, they are married when they leave the church, but that is in anticipation of the consummation of that marriage. When that happens they are really, truly married."

But now, this same marriage develops problems. Communication between husband and wife is perverted to shouting matches. We say: "That is no marriage." Rightly so, for the essence of marriage, the loving concern for one another and the completing of each other, is gone. Yet, such a marriage may not be dissolved; reconciliation and rehabilitation must be tried. Although we say, "This is no marriage," it really still is and our calling is to save it. However, there comes a point which, once passed, may be used for the legitimate dissolution of the marriage and that is when one of the partners has, in fact, broken the bonds of the union by entering into an unlawful sexual union with a third party. That is adultery. Now the marriage is broken. The covenant bond of marriage is ruptured.

It should not be so difficult to apply all this to the Covenant of Grace. God comes to us and says, "I will be a God to you." This is not just a "marriage proposal" but this is God actually taking us. (Remember, in His grace God made the covenant one-sided, unilateral, in its origin.) However, that bride must respond to her "husband" in such a way that we can say, "The marriage has really taken place." In terms of the covenant, such: response is always the act of faith and repentance. Where there is a life to the glory of God, there is the evidence that the covenant obligations have been realized. When we consider the covenant of grace as such a marriage fellowship, we avoid the restriction of the "friendship covenant", which can only exist in the case of mutually exercised love. In fact, we avoid all covenantal constructions which, in an honest effort to give real content to the covenant, must limit it to the elect only.

The objection just begs to be raised (and rightly so!), "But is marriage not the bond of mutual love?" Indeed, it is. A marriage without love is, in a certain sense, not a marriage. Yet, it truly is a marriage and the fact that something essential is missing does not negate the fact that there are marital obligations. But, representing the covenant in this way allows for both the ideal to be spelled out and for the reality to be recognized. The ideal is communion with God; the reality on the part of all God's people is that they fall short in the exercise of this communion while the reality on the part of the unregenerate within the covenant (much better to speak of "unregenerate" than of "non elect") is that they are in great peril for not having fulfilled their covenant responsibilities. Whether you wish to say that they have "broken their marriage vows" or that they have "failed to consummate the marriage" (through failing to believe and repent) makes little difference.

Further, this view of the covenant also allows us to get a handle on the notion of "covenant breaking." Can the covenant be broken? Is it breakable? Allow me now to quote from Heyns at some length: "...the question may arise whether the Covenant of Grace must not be regarded as a breakable Covenant? This, however, would be incorrect. We have to judge such matters, not according to what sin had made possible, but according to the ordinance of God. Marriage, too, can be broken. But from this fact it does not follow that marriage is a breakable covenant, since it is the ordinance of God that it never shall be broken, Matt.19:39. To regard it as a breakable institution would mean that it not only can, but that it may be broken, whereas to regard it as an unbreakable institution means that, although it can be broken, it may not be broken, so that breaking it is not a lawful deed but a sin, and no sin has a right to exist. So also the Covenant of Grace. It is an unbreakable Covenant because God has given it for an everlasting Covenant, so that, although it can be broken through sin, it never may be broken."

There is still the question: "How can God sincerely offer His grace to all covenant members, both elect and non elect?" We must make a distinction between the objective promise and the subjective appropriation of the promise. For example, the Prayer of Thanksgiving in the old, classic Form for the Lord's Supper states: "...we render Thee most humble and hearty thanks, that Thou hast of Thine infinite mercy, given us Thine only begotten Son, for a Mediator and a sacrifice for our sins, and to be our meat and drink unto life eternal, and that Thou givest us lively faith, whereby we are made partakers of such great benefits." Again, quoting Heyns, "Here mention is made: a) of the giving of Christ to be our Redeemer, and b) making us participants of His benefits through faith. This implies that the giving does not make us actual possessors, but that together with the giving we need an application of these benefits by the Holy Spirit."

That this dual form of giving was recognized not only by those in the Dutch Reformed tradition (it was and still is taught at the seminary of the CGK at Apeldoorn and it was taught at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids) is clear by noting that a similar distinction was made by Dr. James Bannerman, the Scottish Presbyterian, who wrote in 1869: "Baptism, in the case of all infants baptized, gives them a right of property in the covenant of grace; which may in after life, by means of their personal faith, be supplemented by a right of possession." Elsewhere in his writings, Bannerman makes clear that the work of the Holy Spirit is required to come to that faith.