Defining “Covenant” (Kline)

 Quite obviously the term and concept of covenant is a major theme in Scripture.  It’s not always easy to define since there are quite a few covenants made in the Bible and since they are made in different cultures and time periods.  Having said that, I appreciate Meridith Kline’s general definition of covenant:

Of the biblical words usually rendered “covenant” the primary one in the Old Testament is the Hebrew berith, for which the Greek diatheke was the translation choice of the New Testament writers. What is it that constitutes the peculiar berith-character of that which is so denominated?

Repeatedly we read of a berith being “made.” The berith-making is accomplished through a solemn process of ratification. Characteristically this transaction centers in the swearing of an oath, with its sanctioning curse. Clearly a berith is a legal kind of arrangement, a formal disposition of a binding nature. At the heart of a berith is an act of commitment and the customary oath-form of this commitment reveals the religious nature of the transaction. The berith arrangement is no mere secular contract but rather belongs to the sacred sphere of divine witness and enforcement
I like how Kline stresses the aspects of commitment and oath found in biblical covenants.  Later he notes how the word “chesed” (steadfast love or loyalty) is sometimes used synonymously for (or with) berith.  Furthermore, the word “emeth” (truth) is also found in the contexts of covenant and faithfulness.  What this means for us in the covenant of grace is that God will always be faithful and loyal to his covenant promises made to us in Christ.  We can have hope, confidence, and joy in the fact that our covenant God is a loyal, promise-keeping God!
The above quote is found on page 1 of Kingdom Prologue by M. G. Kline.
Shane Lems
Hammond, WI
Advertisements

The Old Covenant Has Come to an End (Owen)

The Works of John Owen (17 vols.) Hebrews 8:13 says that the Old Covenant is “obsolete”: “When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear” (NASB).  In this context, the Old Covenant had to do with the priesthood, sacrifices, and Moses’ law (broadly speaking).  The Old Covenant was the covenant God made with Israel after he rescued them from Egypt (Heb. 8:9).

Based on Hebrews 8 and other texts such as Ephesians 2:15-16 and Acts 11:2-10, Reformed theology teaches that the ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant have been “abrogated” (WCF 19.3).  Furthermore, Reformed theology also says that Israel’s judicial laws in the Old Covenant have “expired together with the state of that people” (WCF 19.4).  This abrogation and expiration is due to the fact that the Messiah has come and enacted a new and better covenant, as Hebrews says so clearly.

I appreciate John Owen’s explanation of Hebrews 8:13.  He noted that some 1st Century Christians believed that the Old Covenant was still in force.  Owen then said that the author of Hebrews “knew that this persuasion was destructive to the faith of the gospel, and would, if pertinaciously adhered unto, prove ruinous to their own souls.”  Therefore the author of Hebrews gives many reasons and examples how and why the Old Covenant is no longer in force.

Owen wrote that God, in his providence, broke in upon and weakened the administration of the Old Covenant by showing that it was “decaying”:

Immediately after the giving of this promise [Jer 31:31 – Heb 8:8ff], the Babylonian captivity gave a total intercision and interruption unto the whole administration of it [the Old Covenant] for seventy years. This, having never before fallen out from the making of it on mount Sinai, was an evident token of its approaching period, and that God would have the church to live without it.

In other words, during the Babylonian captivity the Old Covenant was interrupted.  This showed Israel that it wasn’t going to last forever.  Or we could say that the Old Covenant had built-in limitations and a built-in time limit.  Here’s Owen again:

Upon the return of the people from their captivity, neither the temple, nor the worship of it, nor any of the administrations of the covenant, nor the priesthood, were ever restored unto their pristine beauty and glory. And whereas the people in general were much distressed at the apprehension of its decay, God comforts them, not with any intimation that things under that covenant should ever be brought into a better condition, but only with an expectation of His coming amongst them who would put an utter end unto all the administrations of it, Hag. 2:6–9. And from that time forward it were easy to trace the whole process of it, and to manifest how it continually declined towards its end.

Owen then wrote that no institution of God will ever decay or perish “unless it be disannuled by God himself. Length of time will not consume divine institutions; nor can the sins of man abate their force.  He only that sets them up can take them down.”  Owen ends with this wonderful statement:

All the glorious institutions of the law were at best but as stars in the firmament of the church, and therefore were all to disappear at the rising of the Sun of Righteousness.

You can find these quotes and the entire commentary on Hebrews 8:13 in John Owen, (1854). An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews. (W. H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 23, p. 175). Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Is Predestination Central in Calvinism?

There’s much more to Reformed theology than the doctrines of grace (TULIP).  Similarly, there’s more to the doctrines of grace than predestination.  This needs to be said and repeated since some say that the central dogma of Calvinism is predestination, that predestination is at the core of the doctrines of grace.  Michael Horton gave some helpful points to refute this error:

  1. Calvin was not the first Calvinist.  The standard medieval view affirmed unconditional election and reprobation and held that Christ’s redemptive work at the cross is ‘sufficient for the world, efficient for the elect alone.’  …On even the most controversial aspects of predestination, Calvin’s view can scarcely be distinguished from that of Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, and Gregory of Rimini.  …In fact, some of Luther’s strong comments in ‘The Bondage of the Will’ make Calvin moderate by comparison.
  2. Calvin was not the only shaper of the Reformed tradition.  Although his formative influence is justly recognized, he regarded himself as a student of Luther.  The Strasbourg Reformer Martin Bucer also left a decisive imprint on Calvin, as on a whole generation, including Archbishop Thomas Cramner.  …Heinrich Bullinger, John Knox, Jan Laski, Girolamo Zanchi, and Peter Martyr Vermigli were also among the many contemporaries of Calvin who shaped Reformed teaching, not to mention the following generations of leaders who refined and consolidated the gains of the sixteenth century.
  3. It is interesting that John Calvin never identified predestination or election as a central dogma.  He spoke of the doctrine of justification as ‘the primary article of the Christian religion,’ ‘the main hinge on which religion turns,’ the principal article of the whole doctrine of salvation and the foundation of all religion.’  Obviously he considered predestination an important doctrine.  But he was not only unoriginal in his formulation; he did not raise it to the level of a central dogma.  As B.B. Warfield has pointed out, Calvin’s emphasis on God’s fatherly love and benevolence in Christ is more pervasive than his emphasis on God’s sovereign power and authority.

“None of this is to diminish the obvious importance of election in Reformed theology, but it does serve to dissuade us from regarding it as a central dogma or as a uniquely Calvinistic tenent. …The truth is, there isn’t a central dogma in Calvinism, although it is certainly God-centered – and, more specifically, Christ-centered, since it is only in the Son that God’s saving purposes and action in history are most clearly revealed. …With Melanchthon and Bullinger leading the way, covenant theology emerged as the very warp and woof of Reformed theology.  Even this is not a central dogma, however, but more like the architectural framework.”

Michael Horton, For Calvinism, pp 28-30.

Shane Lems

Our Children, God’s Children

In Reformed theology, children of believers are part of God’s covenant community and are regarded as such.  We do, of course, teach our kids about the mighty acts of God, the redemption that is found only in Christ, and the need for personal repentance, faith, and godliness.  But we don’t consider our children lost pagans who need missional parenting.  I appreciate how Chad Van Dixhoorn explains this Reformed teaching:

The church consists of ‘professors.’  It also consists ‘of their children’ [WCF 25.2].  Being part of a Christian household, whether a household with one Christian parent or two, is a great privilege.  God sets apart both the children and even the spouse of someone who is closely tied to him.  They do not automatically become Christians by virtue of this relationship.  The Apostle Paul, when he mentions this topic in passing, straightforwardly calls an unbelieving spouse of a Christian an unbeliever.  Nonetheless, Paul says they are ‘sanctified’ and ‘holy’ compared to other unbelieving spouses, or other children without a Christian parent (1 Cor. 7:14) whether they like it or not.  Perhaps a useful analogy is found in Romans 11:16, where Scripture says that ‘if the dough…is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.’

The reason for the inclusion of the children in the church finds its roots in the Old Testament, and it is a truth which God himself expressed passionately in the face of denial: children of professing Christians are God’s before they are ours.  In a dark chapter of Israel’s history people took their sons and daughters and offered them as burned offerings to pagan gods.  This was an outrage by any account, but the Lord describes it as an intense personal offense: the children which they considered theirs were ‘born for me’; they were ‘my children’ (Ezek. 16:20, 21).

God takes ownership of covenant children.  At the beginning of biblical revelation God promised to direct the future of Adam and Eve’s ‘seed’ or descendants (Gen. 3:15).  It is for that reason that he placed his covenantal ownership sign on all those who were under the instruction and authority of godly householders, especially their children (Gen. 17:7).  It is for that reason, as the church was initiated into a new age at Pentecost, that Peter not only stressed that the promise of the gospel was for all those ‘who are far off’ (meaning, the Gentiles), but also for ‘your children’ (meaning, our children! Acts 2:39).

Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, p. 339-40.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Are Our Children Lost?

One recent and popular Christian book called Parenting spent a chapter talking about how our kids are “lost.”  It wasn’t a minor theme mentioned in three sentences; it was a major point of the entire chapter that Christian parents are raising “lost” children.  For example, Paul Tripp wrote, “Our children are not just disobedient; they are disobedient because they are lost. …Our children are not just lazy; they are lazy because they are lost” (p. 98).  He goes on to talk about the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son and explains how they apply to parenting lost children.

I realize that Tripp may be writing from a Baptist perspective.  Of course Christians in Baptist circles will differ from Christians in Reformed circles when it comes to views on children in the home.  Thankfully whether Baptist or Reformed we can still call each other brother or sister in Christ.  But is it biblically accurate to call children in a Christian home “lost?”  A Reformed perspective says “no” based on Scripture’s teaching.

First, a more nuanced approach to the “lost” parables would deal with the kingdom of God, Israel, the first century background and other exegetical and interpretive matters (which would take too long to discuss here).  I’m a little hesitant to talk about these parables primarily in terms of parenting “lost” children.

Second, the Bible doesn’t specifically call the children of believing parents “lost” or little heathens (even if they act like it from time to time!!).  In both the Old and New Testaments Scripture talks more positively about the children of God’s people.  Abraham is a good example; God says he will be Abraham’s God and the God of his children (Gen 17:6).  Herman Bavinck explained this covenantal aspect further:

Children are a blessing and heritage from the Lord (Ps. 127:3). They are always counted along with their parents and included with them. Together they prosper (Exod. 20:6; Deut. 1:36, 39; 4:40; 5:29; 12:25, 28). Together they serve the Lord (Deut. 6:2; 30:2; 31:12–13; Josh. 24:15; Jer. 32:39; Ezek. 37:25; Zech. 10:9). The parents must pass on to the children the acts and ordinances of God (Exod. 10:2; 12:24, 26; Deut. 4:9–10, 40; 6:7; 11:19; 29:29; Josh. 4:6, 21; 22:24–27). The covenant of God with its benefits and blessings perpetuates itself from child to child and from generation to generation (Gen. 9:12; 17:7, 9; Exod. 3:15; 12:17; 16:32; Deut. 7:9; Ps. 105:8; and so forth). While grace is not automatically inherited, as a rule it is bestowed along the line of generations.
The Bible also says that Jesus blessed and welcomed little children.  Paul wrote that children in the home of even one believing parent are not unclean but “holy,” or set apart (1 Cor. 7:14).  Again, Bavinck:
The holiness Paul mentions here must not be taken as subjective and internal holiness but as an objective, theocratic kind of holiness, for otherwise the children and the husband would not be holy on account of the believing mother and wife but on their own account. Nor is Paul in any way thinking here of infant baptism, nor of anything that might serve as a basis for it. His sole interest is to show that the Christian faith does not cancel out the natural ordinances of life, but rather confirms and sanctifies them (cf. 1 Cor. 7:18–24).

This passage is of importance for infant baptism, however, because it teaches that the whole family is regarded in light of the confession of the believing spouse. The believer has the calling to serve the Lord not only for oneself but with all that belongs to oneself and with one’s entire family. For that reason the children of believers are admonished by the apostles as Christian children ‘in the Lord’ (Acts 26:22; Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20; 2 Tim. 3:15; 1 John 2:13). Also the little ones know the Lord (Heb. 8:11; Rev. 11:18; 19:5), and have been given a place before his throne (Rev. 20:12). Scripture knows nothing of a neutral upbringing that seeks to have the children make a completely free and independent choice at a more advanced age. The children of believers are not pagans or children of the devil who still—as Roman Catholics and Lutherans hold—have to be exorcized at their baptism, but children of the covenant, for whom the promise is meant as much as for adults. They are included in the covenant and are holy, not by nature (Job 14:4; Ps. 51:5; John 3:6; Eph. 2:3) but by virtue of the covenant.

While I applaud many of Tripp’s helpful tips on Christian parenting, I think it is unhelpful and unbiblical to view our children as “lost.”  Are they sinners who need Jesus like I do?  Yes, for sure!  But a healthy biblical and covenantal perspective won’t let us call our kids “lost;” we’re not missionaries to our kids.  Like the Heidelberg Catechism (Q/A 74) says, “Infants, as well as adults are in God’s covenant and are his people.  They, no less than adults, are promised the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit who produces faith.”  Our job is to teach them what it means to be a child of God: to repent, believe, and follow the Lord!

The above quotes are from Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 529–530.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

It Does Not Depend Upon Any Uncertain Condition (Witsius)

Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (2-Volumes) In Reformed theology distinctions are quite important.  There’s a distinction between the law and the gospel, between justification and sanctification, and between the covenant of works and covenant of grace  (just to name a few).  Here is how Herman Witsius explained the difference between the latter:

Here we are to observe a remarkable difference between the promises of the covenant of works, and those of the covenant of grace. The same eternal life is promised in both, which can be but one, consisting in the communion and enjoyment of God; but it is promised in a manner quite different in the one from what it is in the other.

In the covenant of works God promised life to man, on condition of perfect obedience; but he did not promise to produce or effect this obedience in man.

In the covenant of grace, he not only promises life eternal, but also at the same time faith and repentance, and perseverance in holiness, without which life cannot be attained, and which being granted, life cannot but be obtained. And even in this sense it may be said – that the covenant of which Christ is the Mediator is “more excellent, and established on better promises” (Heb. 8:6), because it does not depend on any uncertain condition, but is founded on the suretyship and actual satisfaction of Christ – does infallibly secure salvation to the believer, and as certainly promise faith to the elect.

Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, trans. William Crookshank, vol. 1 (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), 251–252.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Peace (Vos)

Most of the books in my library are replaceable.  I do loan out my books and try to keep track of who has what.  But if one of these books would get lost, I wouldn’t be too upset.  There are, however, a handful of books that I don’t loan out because I have so much writing in them.  These would be hard to replace because I’ve written my own indexes and marginal notes. They’d also be hard to replace for sentimental reasons: I usually remember when and where and what stage I was at in my Christian life when I read these books.  Geerhardus Vos’ Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation is one of those books I don’t loan out because it would be hard to replace.  Speaking of this book, one article in it stands out for me: “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology.”  I read this one more than a few times and still find nuances I missed before!  Here’s one part that I highlighted and underlined:

If man already stood in a covenant relation to God before the fall, then it is to be expected that the covenant idea will also dominate in the work of redemption. God cannot simply let go of the ordinance which He once instituted, but much rather displays His glory in that He carries it through despite man’s sin and apostasy. It was merely the other side of the doctrine of the covenant of works that was seen when the task of the Mediator was also placed in this light. A Pactum Salutis, a Counsel of Peace, a Covenant of Redemption, could then be spoken of.

There are two alternatives: one must either deny the covenant arrangement as a general rule for obtaining eternal life, or, granting the latter, he must also regard the gaining of eternal life by the Mediator as a covenant arrangement and place the establishing of a covenant in back of it. Thus it also becomes clear how a denial of the covenant of works sometimes goes hand in hand with a lack of appreciation for the counsel of peace.

If you have to read these lines a few times to get the point, don’t feel badly; I did too.  But Vos is right on here: the covenant God made with Adam and the covenantal aspect of Christ’s work go hand in hand!  Herman Bavinck, another Dutch Reformed theologian, echoed a similar conclusion: “The covenant of works and the covenant of grace stand or fall together.”

You can find Vos’ article in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI