How Covenant Theology Changed My Thinking

I’ve been in church my whole life.  One of my earliest memories is showing my new shoes to somebody at church, and telling them how old I was (3 years old).  I remember listening to sermons (though I cannot now remember the details), how the preacher would get excited, and maybe even pound the pulpit.  I remember how exuberantly the people would sing.  I remember seeing joy on the faces of the people, and it made me happy to be among them.

However, the church I grew up in didn’t really have a good explanation for why we were all together.  At least, the explanation wasn’t satisfying for me.  It was often described as fellowship.  There was a common bond, that of the love of God, and love for God.  But I never really got a sense of why we were otherwise connected.  It could have been a meeting of any organization, except for the fact we were there because we all believed in Jesus.

I couldn’t explain it at the time, but I just wanted to be with God’s people.  I mostly always wanted to be in church every time the doors opened.  I looked forward to it.  I still do.

My family and I have lived in several different places, and the same consideration was always foremost in my mind when it came to move to a different place.  Where are we going to go to church?  While serving in the Marines, I even made a career decision to take orders to a place because I knew of a church there.

Though I didn’t know why back then, I know now it all had to do with the Spirit’s call on my life.  My being  drawn towards the Bible, to preaching, to praising God, and to true fellowship, was all because the Spirit was, and still is, calling me to Himself.

Until about 12 years ago, I had this nagging question occurring frequently in my mind.  Why do I want to be in church?  There has to be something different about church which sets it apart from any other organization.  Since I always had the impulse to be among God’s people, I needed to understand why.  I grew up believing I had a personal relationship with Jesus, but there seemed to be more to it than that.  The Bible seemed to be saying God has a people, not persons.  I was born into a family, not simply as an individual.

My family and I even stopped going to church for a while.  The thought actually went through my mind: maybe we would be okay if we didn’t go; maybe we would be okay on our own.  After all, we are the church, right?

God sent me an astounding simple answer: WRONG!  It was not wrong to say we are the church.  However, it was wrong to say it, if we weren’t going to be an active part of the church as worshipping members.  He told me I was wrong by introducing me to covenant theology (CT).

When I started looking into CT,  I realized I belong to a people, whom God has chosen to save.  While I do have a personal relationship to Christ, it is also familial.  In other words, how do I know Him?  I know Him as friend, but also as an older brother.  He doesn’t live in the house next door, He lives in the same house I do, because I have been adopted into His family.

This opened up for me a whole new line of thinking.  The lights didn’t simply switch on.  It’s as if I had been blind, but could now see.  Now, don’t get me wrong, CT is important as a system of doctrine.  But it is not the “end all, be all” of theology.  There are other foundational doctrines more important; like the doctrine of God, Scripture, justification by faith alone, etc.  And I’m not saying those who do not espouse CT as a system are blind.  However, CT lays down a grid into which all these several doctrines may be properly, and connectedly understood.

Because when I was shown the covenantal construct of God’s plan, the pieces finally were put into place.

Now, I’m not going to explain all of CT in this post, but I’d like to share some thoughts on why I believe CT is important.

CT Connects the Bible in Christ

What connects the Old and New Testaments?  It is not the book binding.  The word testament comes from the Greek word for covenant.  There is an old covenant and a new covenant.  This isn’t a term devoid of meaning, as if we think of the OT as volume one, and the NT as volume two.  Rather, and more importantly, Christ is the binding; He is central in both.

If we believe in Jesus, we must see Him in the OT as concealed, but in the NT revealed.  He is the same Christ, yesterday, today, and forever.  This testament is His (2 Cor. 3:14; Heb. 9:16-17).  If He is crucial to and central in both, then CT is the only lens by which we might take in all of Him.  If we don’t look at Him through this lens, then maybe He is still veiled.

CT Shows God’s People as One in Christ

If Christ is central in both, His people are also central.  Christ has one bride, not many.  That bride is made up of all those who believe in Him.  And if Abraham is the father of all who believe, then the bride is made up of more than just NT people.  Think about it.  How can Abraham, who was an OT saint, be the father of the NT saints (Rom. 4:11-16), and NOT be included in Christ?  Is he the only one from the OT who was saved?  And was he saved by slavish obedience to the law?  No, he was saved just like NT people, by faith.  Moreover, he was justified by faith BEFORE he was circumcised.  It was not because of his works he was saved (Rom 4:2).  If Abraham is our father, how can it be that he was saved differently from us?

Moreover, God made a covenant with Abraham to be the father of many nations, in whom all the world would be blessed.  CT is the only system that fully explains how this covenant has progressed through the centuries.

Therefore, if Christ saved Abraham by faith, and made a covenant with him to include a people of faith; and if we are all sons and daughters of Abraham because we have faith, then Abraham is the father of the bride, so to speak, of this covenant marriage.  CT is the only construct by which this may be properly understood.

CT Informs Our Worship of Christ

In the OT, there were various covenant renewal ceremonies.  These all pointed forward to Christ.  In the NT, Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, in which He says, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood.  This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me,” (1 Cor. 11:25b).  If Christ used the term covenant to explain the sacrifice of His blood, then understanding the covenant is crucial to our worship of Him.  He instituted this ordinance to Jewish men, who would have understood the term rather clearly.  The NT church, largely made up of Jewish believers, participated in the ordinance quite regularly.  So to them, it would have been understood as a covenant renewal ceremony.  If we worship Christ today, then covenant should play a particular role in our understanding.

CT Explains the Foundation for Our Earthly Existence

The Hebrew writer gives a glorious benediction: “Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.  Amen,” (Heb. 13:20-21).  There are a few key terms here.

The God of peace.  What is peace?  Remember, this was written to a Jewish audience.  Even if they read the term in Greek, they would have understood it by the Hebrew word shalom.  This word describes a fully reconciled life; a complete life; a real life.  This reconciled, complete, real life is made possible by the death of Christ.

Christ is the Great Shepherd of the sheep.  Who are the sheep?  Just do a word search in the OT, and you’ll quickly see the sheep are God’s people.  The same people.  A Jewish man reading this would have remembered passages like, Psalm 79:13, 95:7; 100:3; Isa. 53:6.

How does Christ, the Great Shepherd, save His sheep?  He saved them THROUGH the blood of the everlasting covenant.  This is the same covenant made to Abraham, and renewed in the cup of Christ’s blood.

How does this change our lives?  Christ is working in us to accomplish His will, and to make our work pleasing in His sight.  Because we see Him as our Great Shepherd, and because we do so on account of the blood of the everlasting covenant, we work all our obedience for Him, and give Him all the glory.

Give CT a look

Now that I have matured a bit, I can honestly say I really can’t stand not being a part of the church in her various expressions.  I love to go to Lord’s Day worship, Presbytery, and General Assembly.  At times, if I am providentially hindered from attending, I even feel guilty for not being there.  Where God’s people are, I want to be.  I am drawn to the saints, and the faith once for all delivered to them.  I now know I am thus drawn because of the covenant God made; and the Son ratifying it, and dying as its testator; and the Spirit speaking in the Word, and changing my heart through Christ’s person and work.

If you’re like me, and have gnawing questions as to how to put the Bible all together, and how to understand the people of God, take a look at CT.  I do not have all the answers, and CT is not a “magic bullet.”  But it does explain a great deal, and is a wonderful rubric by which we see the full revelation of Jesus Christ.


How Does Reformation Begin?

If reformation is going to happen in the church today it must begin with reformation in our hearts. When we divide over issues, each side believes its arguments have more veracity and necessity. These arguments claim to find scriptural, confessional, or constitutional warrant.

Modern automobiles have built into their braking system a warning sound that tells the driver when the brake pads are wearing thin: the dreaded squeal. It is as unnerving as Robert Shaw’s fingernails on the chalkboard in the movie, Jaws. But this squeal serves a purpose. It indicates that we need to have our brake pads replaced as soon as possible.

Now if you’re like me, you may ignore the squeal until it goes away, and then an equally unnerving sound of metal grinding takes its place. I’m a procrastinator by nature. But I also loathe the idea of taking my car to the shop to get it fixed. I’ve even tried to fix the brakes myself. This has been successful at times, but an abysmal failure at others. I don’t want to go to the effort. I don’t want to pay the cost.

In my physical life, I see signs of aging: becoming heavier, hair turning gray, balding, and getting wrinkles. When I get up in the morning, I hear creaking and cracking; I feel aches and pains. I let this go on for a while before I finally go to the doctor, where I’m told I need to change my diet, get more exercise, etc. But all these factors are warning signs I’m getting nearer to my end; the death all God’s creatures must die.

But I don’t want to change. I don’t want to put forth the effort. I don’t want to pay the cost of replacement, nor do I want to reform my habits. I think all this shows, at least in myself, a propensity to maintain the status quo. However, with everything external to me, I want the status quo to be upended.

When it comes to my church and my denomination, I see the warning signs rather clearly. I run headlong onto the freeway of ecclesiastical travel, and attempt to stop every car with squealing brakes. I burst into the doctor’s office of the church’s clinic to add my own warning, so that the patient, who needs far more help than me, will implement changes in habit. “Why don’t you get that fixed?” I’ll mutter under my breath. “Why didn’t you take the doctor’s advice?” I’ll retort. I believe others need more reformation than I do. But I am the one who needs fixing first. I need to repent and confess my own sins. Reformation starts with me.

When we look at the lives of the Reformers, I think we focus too much on how they stood against the ills of the Church, instead of how they dealt with the ills within themselves. Luther wouldn’t have reformed anything if he had not had so much concern about his own sin. Calvin couldn’t have sought to reform Geneva without reforming himself first. It is hypocrisy to believe reformation needs to happen over there or changes need to be made in those people, without first considering what reformation and change needs to happen in our own hearts.

If reformation is going to happen in the church today it must begin with reformation in our hearts. When we divide over issues, each side believes its arguments have more veracity and necessity. These arguments claim to find scriptural, confessional, or constitutional warrant. But they may also have an unhealthy belief that the other side simply doesn’t understand the issues or the validity of the other side’s argument. And if change is to come of it, they don’t agree the changes proposed by the other side will benefit their side of the issue and will be too difficult and costly to implement.

Does God want to confuse and confound us in these divisions? We have to think about that carefully. God could be using the division as discipline or worse, judgment. We know the enemy wants us to be confused and confounded. But how much of our division do we bring on ourselves with the result of pleasing the enemy rather than pleasing God? If each side of the question took a step back and asked God to forgive their sins and to reform their hearts, don’t we believe He would grant that request? And, if in granting that request, don’t we believe God will bless us with the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? Don’t we believe He would send us reformation?

God is a God of reconciliation as Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21. He is in Christ reconciling the world, not imputing our sins to us, but giving us Christ, who knew no sin, to become sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Stephen Charnock, in “A Discourse of God’s being the Author of Reconciliation,” made the point that God reconciles us, but not our sins. “God and sin are irreconcilable enemies, so that where there is peace with one, there must be war with the other. Fire and water may sooner agree than God and sin, than a peace with God and a peace with sin.” If we want true reformation and unity in our denomination, I suggest we see our sins as the enemy, not the fellow across the aisle, or the speaker at microphone 3. I suggest that if we reformed ourselves our church would be reformed. Perhaps if we weren’t so ready to maintain the status quo of our own spiritual lives, we might be able to see a way forward to a place where we may all agree.

I am by no means accusing others of not confessing their own sins. But how are we doing in our corporate confession of sin? If our confession is deficient, could it be this is one of the causes of our divisions? Paul says divisions are necessary, but I do not believe he is saying that sin is also a necessity in our divisions.

One speaker at the recent Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly indicated that when GA was held at his church years ago there was a call to repentance over the issue of race. There are many important issues facing us as a church today. I’m not de-emphasizing the issues. I’m emphasizing that if they are causing unhealthy divisions, then we need to repent and pray.

Perhaps the PCA Administrative Committee will consider basing the theme of next year’s GA on a call to repentance and forgiveness for the divisions within our denomination. The AC can urge Presbyteries and churches to use this year to commit themselves to pray and work for unity of the church. There is no harm in urging this and it may actually lead to healing.

There are squealing brakes and dire prognoses in our church indicating that there may be unhealthy divisions over important issues. And we must all endeavor to do what we can to heed the warning signs. The cost of fixing our issues will have to be addressed, as well as the monumental effort it will take to reform ourselves. But the first step must take place in our own hearts. If we believe God requires this of us first, then we can believe He will hear from heaven and heal our hearts and our church.

Originally published on the Aquila Report by the author of this site.

The Doctrine of Divine Covenants