CONTOURS OF GOD'S COVENANT An Unofficial Exposition of the United Reformed Churches in North America - A Unity Committee Report

Reproduced with permission from the Clarion Volume 48, No. 16, Aug. 6, 1999

In seeking to be faithful to God's Word, the Reformed churches have steadfastly confessed the unity of the Scriptures. That unity comprises the Old and the New Testaments as the one revelation of God's mighty deeds in history. The Bible reveals two themes that run throughout its pages, God's kingdom and His covenant, both closely related to each other.

This article sets forth the views concerning God's covenant as generally held in the United Reformed Churches. It is not the intent to be definitive nor polemic, but general and informative. We follow a simple division of the material, focusing on the nature of the covenant, the relationship between the church and the covenant, and finally the place of the sacraments in the covenant.

The Nature of the Covenant

The very heart of religion is covenant, for the service of man the creature rendered to God the Creator is only possible if there is a divinely designed and implemented relationship. With this observation it is clear that God's covenant is not and cannot be made with unreasoning creatures or with things. Thus we hold that when Scripture reveals on occasion that God uses the terminology of covenant and applies it to animals, birds, the earth and the sky, it is symbolic and analogical. Hosea 2 is an illustration of such a usage.

Much has been written about the covenant in the Bible, especially as to its nature and provisions, and perhaps its origins, in terms of the treaties between sovereign rulers and their vassals. We understand God's covenant to be much more profound in its nature and design. Certainly, the holy Being of God is incomprehensible. Yet the Bible reveals the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as the three divine Persons, "the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity," the Church confesses in the Athanasian Creed. We believe that God's covenant relationship with His people reflects in some way the holy and mysterious relationship between the divine Persons.

Thus in creating Adam in His own image, God placed the covenant relationship in the very creation itself. It is abstract and unscriptural to consider the covenant as an ingredient God introduced after man's fall and when sin entered the world. As surely as the kingdom of God involves the very creation, so surely also is the covenant of God part of creation and re-creation. Thus as the all-wise Creator fashioned and structured His world after His own design, as revealed in Genesis 1, the very next chapter is about how He relates to that creation, especially to man. The contours of the covenant may be seen in this revelation. Profound are the words, "the LORD God ... breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul" (Gen 2:7). Equally profound is God's revelation to the church in Corinth by adding to those words, "...the last Adam is a life-giving Spirit" (1 Cor 15:45).

We read that God " out everything according to the purpose of His will" (Eph 1:11). The nature and function of God's covenant is within His eternal will and decree. To call God's counsel of peace the covenant of redemption, and introduce the concept and word covenant into the sovereign God's "internal" works, is not helpful nor clarifying. To apply God's sovereign election of sinners integrally to His covenant introduces difficulties in understanding the nature of that covenant, we believe. Although the covenant is an eternal covenant, Scripture tells us in various places, that God reveals His covenant with sinners to be essentially temporal, and with His people on this earth.

By its very nature the covenant requires two parties. Sometimes it is said that the essence of God's covenant is an agreement between two parties. We hold that such wording is inadequate and misleading. The sovereign Creator designed the nature and the requirements of the relationship which He desired in His own wisdom, and implemented them when and with whom He wished. The Old Testament Hebrew uses berith to designate God's covenant, while the New Testament Greek employs diatheke, both of which intimate a one sided origin which includes a second party.

Frequently the Reformed churches have used the wording "the covenant of works" as applying before man's fall into sin, and "the covenant of grace" referring to God's gracious and just deeds and promises after and in response to the fall. This bi-focused view of God's relationship with His creature man is questionable. The use of the former in particular has limitations as to its usefulness, since the Bible does not suggest nor employ the wording. We believe that the simple designation "God's covenant" is preferable.

The Scriptures teach that in His covenant the Creator establishes a relationship of friendship with His creature man, requiring and demanding obedience and love in response. The Garden of Eden was a setting designed by the LORD God (notice the consistent use of the covenant Name in Genesis 2) to demonstrate the Creator's love for His world and to test man's response to that love and friendship. The ingredients of the covenant are sharply delineated by God, as the trees, the task, the commandment, and the punishment are poignant commentaries of the LORD's love and justice.

Adam and Eve broke the covenant and forfeited His friendship, while bringing on themselves and their descendants God's wrath. In Adam God's covenant included their entire race of children. The LORD did not abandon His covenant, nor annihilate the world. Instead He implemented His announced death sentence, cursed the ground, punished Adam and Eve, and revealed the Seed of the woman Who would one day make atonement. Genesis 3 is a clear revelation and commentary of the nature and components of God's covenant. The future of the covenant and the Church already at that time was secure since God had promised as Mediator of that covenant His own Son, Who would come as Messiah, and Who would also be Head of His Church.

The Church and the Covenant

It has been said that God established separate and distinct covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, as well as the New Covenant. While the LORD did indeed confirm with an oath His covenant at these times, we believe that a unifying, comprehensive understanding of the Old and the New Testament history of redemption is to be preferred. At significant times in history God revealed and administered His covenant to suit the time and circumstance. As the Son of God was gathering, protecting, and preserving for Himself a Church chosen for eternal life, through all the centuries, He did so as the Mediator of the covenant and the Head of the Church. God's Word ties the Church and the covenant together.

Some Reformed churches maintain that God's covenant is only and exclusively made with those whom God has chosen in Christ from eternity. These churches tend to make some delineation or distinction within the covenant. These distinctions are some of the difficulties noted above. Some have used the distinction of "internal" and "external" realities of the covenant, the former comprising the elect, the others are those on whom God's wrath abides but generally are within the Church. Regeneration and conversion are key factors for this covenant concept in determining who is in covenant with God. An unconditional covenant is stressed in this view.

We hold that God establishes His covenant without conditions. An Arminian understanding of the Bible would insist that man needs to work out his own salvation by obeying God's commands and by believing in Christ, and thus earn his salvation in the setting of the covenant where the gospel is offered to him, viewing God's covenant as conditional. We reject such an interpretation. The Bible teaches an unconditional covenant, we believe, and is made with those whom He calls.

God called Abraham and established His covenant with him. Central in the covenant is this Word, "I will establish My covenant as an everlasting covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you" (Gen 17:7). This central promise of the covenant is applied to the Pentecost Church, "The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off - for all whom the LORD our God will call" (Acts 2:39).

The LORD establishes His covenant with believers and their children as they comprise the Church. Concerning the one catholic or universal Church the Confession states, "...which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit" (Belgic Confession, Art. 27). There may be "hypocrites who are mixed in the Church with the good, though externally in it" (Belgic Confession, Art.28). Faithful members of the true Church "may be known by the marks of Christians, namely by faith, and when having received Jesus Christ the only Saviour, they avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbour..." (Belgic Confession, Art.29).

The Church of Christ with whom God's covenant is established is called "...God's household, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). We confess that "the marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein..." (Belgic Confession, Art.29). The Head of the Church gathers and rules His Church by His Word and Spirit, and the office-bearers are enjoined to bring the claims of the covenant to God's people. "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Tim 4:2).

To be in covenant with the holy God is an immense privilege, but also a great responsibility. His people are to be holy as He is holy. The entire setting of the journey through the wilderness by Israel demonstrates how the Holy One punishes the breakers of His covenant, as His holy and righteous anger was aroused by His people's rebellion. One who took His Name in vain had to die, and another who gathered wood on the Sabbath must be stoned to death. The covenant God insisted on the same stringent observance of His laws within the promised land of Canaan. Time after time the prophets brought the Word of warning. The people were sent into exile as punishment for covenant-breaking disobedience.

When finally the promised Messiah came, He said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them" (Matt 5:17). In the Old Testament the covenant God dwelled with His people in the Holy of Holies. In the New Testament "we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, His body" (Heb 10:20). The command to believe and repent comes to all who are placed within God's covenant, "so that we may serve the living God. For this reason Christ is the Mediator of a new covenant that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, now that He has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant" (Heb 9:14,15).

In calling its members to faith and repentance, the Church is mindful of the covenant's two-fold claim: promise and command. In the Church of Christ the sacraments always point to what the Form for Baptism states, "Whereas in all covenants there are contained two parts, therefore are we by God, through baptism, admonished of and obliged unto new obedience, namely that we cleave to this one God..."

The Sacraments and the Covenant

One of the marks of the true Church is that " maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ" (Belgic Confession, Art.29). The Mediator of the covenant, standing on the border of the Old and the New administration of it said, "Drink from it, all of you. This is My blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt 26:27).

The two sacraments, we maintain, are woven into the fabric of the covenant, and the Church has received the mandate to administer them in the name of the Head of the Church. It is hardly surprising that the Reformed churches have zealously maintained and protected these holy ordinances of the Lord. Those who profess their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and live an obedient life are urged and invited to come as members of God's covenant. In the Form for the Lord's Supper the Church instructs, "And that we might firmly believe that we belong to this covenant of grace, 'the Lord Jesus Christ...took bread and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and gave to the disciples and said, Take, eat, this is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.'"

The seriousness of celebrating the Holy Supper and guarding the Table of the Lord from unbelievers is highlighted by the Apostle Paul, "Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Cor 11:27). Also at Holy Communion the curse is to be taken seriously, as the grace of God in Christ is celebrated.

In the history of the Reformed churches the sacrament of baptism in particular has played a significant role in the outworking of the nature of the covenant of God. It has been suggested that infants of church members are baptized on the basis of a presumed regeneration. Such children in the church are considered saved in Christ unless they were to show the contrary later in their lives. This is another problem referred to above when the covenant is integrally connected to election in eternity. Election is then envisioned to ensure justification in eternity as well. Reference in this view is frequently made to the words, "Otherwise your children would be unholy, but as it is they are holy" (1 Cor. 7:14).

Those who teach baptism on the basis of presumed regeneration also point to the confession, "Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but in virtue of the covenant of grace in which they together with the parents are comprehended, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy" (Canons of Dort, I,17).

We do not believe that baptism on the basis of presumed regeneration is Scripturally justified. Instead, baptism is properly based on God's covenant promise that He will be our God and the God of our children. We confess, "Infants as well as adults are in God's covenant and are His people. They no less than adults are promised the forgiveness of sin through Christ's blood and the Holy Spirit Who produces faith" (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 27, Q&A 74). The Church explains the matter in the Form for Baptism, "...God the Father witnesses and seals unto us that He makes an eternal covenant with us and adopts us as His children and heirs...."

Though not inherent in being a true Church and confessing the doctrine of God's covenant, yet complacency and a sinful lifestyle are constant dangers. When church members consider that they are saved merely because they are in the covenant, antinomian and libertarian lifestyles may result from careless attitudes. The gospel of the Lord Jesus always calls on Christ's people to believe and to repent of all their sins, especially because they are in covenant with a holy and just God.

The fullness of the covenant takes place at the consummation of all things, when the Bride of the Lamb, "beautifully dressed for her Husband," comes down out of heaven from God. That is when "the dwelling of God is with men and He will live with them. They will be His people and God Himself will be with them and be their God" (Rev. 21:2,3). Such is the completion and full glory of the covenant of God, a wonder in anticipation of which "the Spirit and the Bride say, Come! And let him who hears say, Come!" (Rev. 22:17).

For the Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity of the URCNA,
Rev. R. Stienstra, minister of Grace Reformed Church (URCNA), Dunnville, Ontario