Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in January 2015.
The more we understand the soaring, sweeping, shepherding beauty of God’s covenant of grace, the more we are transformed by His grace to show Jesus to one another.
“Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually! … Remember his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations” (1 Chronicles 16:11, 15).
The Gospel of grace is the Good News that the Sovereign, Triune King of the universe enters into a relationship with His people. How could such a thing happen? It took a covenant.
Covenant is a compelling idea. Covenant is the storyline of the grandest of stories, a story that began before the beginning of time when God chose us in Christ to be His own (Ephesians 1:4), that exploded into time and space when God created us in His image (Genesis 1), was scandalously lost when our first parents rebelled (Genesis 3:1-7), was graciously restored when God promised a Redeemer (Genesis 3:15), was gloriously fulfilled when the Word became flesh (John 1:14), and will reach its spectacular consummation when we hear “a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’” (Revelation 21:3).
Covenant is a promise that stretches from Genesis to Revelation: I will be your God, you will be my people, I will live among you (Genesis 17:7; Exodus 6:7; Deuteronomy 29:12-13; Jeremiah 24:7; Zechariah 8:8; John 1:14; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Revelation 21:1-5).
The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant. (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. VII, 1. Of God’s Covenant with Man)
The covenant is Trinitarian. In the pre-creation covenant of redemption the Father chose a people, the Son redeemed them by His blood, and the Holy Spirit applies what the Father purposed and the Son accomplished and seals our inheritance (Ephesians 1). There was diversity of function but unity of purpose — “to praise His glorious grace” (vv. 6, 12, 14). The inspiring implication: “Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 1).
Covenant is so transcendent and yet so near. The High and Holy Creator/King of the universe is the one to whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6).
Covenant is so nurturing. I think this is why, as a woman, my heart is drawn to this tender “condescension on God’s part” to adopt us as His children, nurture us, and prepare a home where we can live with Him forever.
I am grateful for, and have been influenced by, theologians past and present who have written about the content of the covenant. Their works inform this article, but my objective is to consider the day-by-day, generation-by-generation covenant privileges and responsibilities of the local church. I am convinced that when the content of the covenant is taught in the context of covenant community life it will culminate in Word-driven discipleship that will leave a biblical legacy of faith for all generations.
As I wrote in my book “Heirs of the Covenanent,” “God has given us His book of the covenant. It is our rule for faith and practice. … It reveals the Initiator, the promise, and the terms of the covenant. … Teaching covenantally equips students to think biblically. When they look beyond the person or event and see Jesus, they encounter the person of God, and they begin to fathom His covenant promise to live in relationship with us. They begin to see that this covenant is sovereignly initiated and sovereignly sustained. As they begin to comprehend the marvelous sovereignty of God, they begin thinking integratively. All of their thoughts about faith and life begin to coalesce around the person of Jesus. A biblical worldview starts to take shape. … Our knowledge of God’s character and His promise determines our view of our lives and the world.”
“Covenant is a promise that stretches from Genesis to Revelation: I will be your God, you will be my people, I will live among you.”
The Larger Catechism gives a stunning statement about the Bible. “The scriptures manifest themselves to be the word of God, by their majesty and purity; by the consent of all the parts, and the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God.” (Q. 4).
The consent-and-scope principle helps us develop a covenantal perspective of Scripture. Every part of Scripture agrees with every other part because the scope of the whole is to glorify God. If we separate any part of God’s Word from this overarching framework — if we tell stories without telling The Story — we risk reducing Scripture to rigid legalism or insipid moralism that aims for behavioral change apart from grace. The consent-and-scope principle harmonizes all of Scripture. It shows us that it is all about Jesus.
One of the great stories of PCA lore is an occasion when Dr. Edmund Clowney taught a seminar on how to teach the Bible to children. Over and over he said, “Show them Jesus.” At the time, Great Commission Publications was searching for its branding. Some GCP staffers in the seminar walked out and said, “That’s it. Show Them Jesus is our calling.” The words Show Me Jesus, imprinted on a child’s hand, are a continual reminder of our mission to teach Scripture the way the resurrected Jesus taught His disciples on the Emmaus road: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
When we disciple God’s people to see the consent-and-scope principle of Scripture, they begin to see that it also applies to life. Every circumstance and relationship in life fits into the grand scope of the whole, which is God’s glory. Nothing is random. It all matters. It all fits together. Paul seems almost breathless as he explains that before the beginning of time the Triune God had a comprehensive plan to unite all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:7-10).
In Peter’s Pentecost sermon he showed how the Old Testament points to Jesus. He reminded the people of the covenant promise. And about 3,000 believed and were baptized. Immediately community life began: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47).
There was teaching and fellowship — content and context — and the results were dramatic.
“Scripture clearly teaches that the content of God’s covenant is to be contextualized in the covenant community. If the covenant is taught in a purely academic way, it will be anemic. God never intended the passing on of the covenant to be just a mental exercise. The covenant is corporate. Our relationship with God is personal and individual, but when that relationship is established, we are immediately in community with others who are in relationship with Him. …
“The concept of a covenant community is so foreign to our fallen natures that our redeemed natures struggle to believe and practice it. The cultural bent to privatization and individualism is nothing new. It is simply a group picture of the bent of our sin nature. It started in the Garden when Adam blamed Eve and refused to accept responsibility for their actions. It was dramatically perpetuated in their son Cain. After Cain murdered his brother, God asked, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ Cain’s response is the response of fallen man: ‘I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Genesis 4:9). Cain was clueless that the answer is yes. …
“God’s adoption plan was put in place before time began (Ephesians 1:4-5). When God adopts us into His family, we become joint heirs with His only begotten Son, Jesus, and with His other adopted children. We are family. God adopts us into His family on the basis of the finished work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. There is nothing about us that caused Him to choose us to bear His name. Community life in the church will be just as vain and vacuous as life in any other community unless it is grounded on our adoption. …“The church should be zealous to cultivate community among believers. But unless the members of the community understand that the covenant community was established by an act of God’s free grace and that their existence and purpose is about His glory and not their personal happiness, they will lack the substance to sustain the structures they put in place.”
“We are obliged to share our gifts and graces with one another. Heirs of the covenant are bound to maintain a holy fellowship and to care for one another.”
As I write in “Heirs of the Covenant,” “The covenant community is not a self-centered attempt to meet my needs. The covenant community is a wild and wonderful conglomeration of God’s children, most of whom probably have very little in common except our kinship with our Elder Brother Jesus. But it is this kinship that binds us together in an eternal bond. God establishes this community. It is our privilege and responsibility to maintain, nurture, and cultivate a community life that will be a compelling evidence of our adoption.”
The Westminster Confession of Faith gives a bold and beautiful statement about covenant life in God’s family. It explains that those who are united to Christ are also “united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man. Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus” (Chapter XXVI. Of the Communion of Saints).
We are obliged to share our gifts and graces with one another. Heirs of the covenant are bound to maintain a holy fellowship and to care for one another. These strong words are counterintuitive and countercultural, but they are convincing evidence of the power of God’s grace in His people.
Covenant is immensely theological and intensely practical. The consent-and-scope principle is applicable to life and to how we do ministry in the local church. The problem is that we are bent toward independence rather than interdependence, even in ministry. When there is ministry specialization without coordination, the ministries often become task-, personality-, or event-driven rather than Word-driven. When the parts have no common vision and coordinated plan, the unintended consequence is diminished effectiveness of the parts and the whole. The doctrine of covenant gives the theological and practical foundation for churches to optimize their efforts to obey Jesus’ assignment to disciple His people.
A covenantal consciousness will help leaders develop comprehensive discipleship ministries that support and encourage one another as together they “tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done … that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Psalm 78:4-7).
“As people are discipled to think biblically and live covenantally, they begin to gratefully assume their corporate privileges and responsibilities in the covenant community.”
Discipleship that is intentionally covenantal is informational, relational, and transformational. This discipleship balances teaching all that Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:20) and cultivating covenant relationships that reflect the uncommon unity Jesus prayed and provided for in John 17:22-23: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
Paul exquisitely described the informational/relational dynamic: “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).
Covenantal discipleship teaches the theology of the task — why we do what we do. A women’s ministry does not simply use the Gospel imperative in Titus 2:3-5 to urge older and younger women to cultivate friendships. A nursery or middle school ministry does not simply plead for volunteers. Rather, a church teaches God’s people the wondrous reality that we are adopted in Christ and empowered by His grace to reflect the Gospel in a vibrant covenant life. Then each ministry provides opportunities for people to participate in covenant life.
At a women’s conference a young woman told me that she was in charge of fellowship dinners at her church. “I’ve always enjoyed this ministry because I love to organize and cook, but now I see the theological dimension. These dinners are a time for us to share our lives with one another and to cultivate covenant family life in our church.”
Shared language and traditions bind people together. As covenant words and events are repeated, our minds and hearts are renewed and refreshed. Each Sunday we gather for a time of covenant renewal. We celebrate covenant continuity when we baptize our babies and when our youth ratify the covenant and are received as communing members of the church. We see a visible reminder of our Bridegroom’s covenant love at weddings. And as we hold tightly to God’s covenant promises we grieve at funerals, but not as those without hope.
As people are discipled to think biblically and live covenantally, they begin to gratefully assume their corporate privileges and responsibilities in the covenant community. The more we understand the soaring, sweeping, shepherding beauty of God’s covenant of grace, the more we are transformed by His grace to show Jesus to one another.
“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20-21).
Susan Hunt is a mother and grandmother, a pastor’s wife, and the former director of women’s ministries for the Presbyterian Church in America. She has authored and co-authored more than a dozen books.