What It Means to Be Reformed (2): COVENANTAL

Previous article in this series: February 15, 2015, p. 220.

This 90th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformed Churches (1925-2015) is good opportunity to remind ourselves who we are, to reflect with joy that God has preserved us as a denomination, and to express humble gratitude for what God has given us. It also makes us plead (paraphrasing but slightly, Psalter #27): “O God, preserve us; for in Thee alone our trust has stood.” And exclaim: “The lines are fallen unto us in places large and fair; a goodly heritage is ours, marked out with gracious care.” Grace has brought us where we are; grace will sustain us, if God will be pleased to do so.

To be and remain Reformed is what the PRCs want. This is my conviction and must be the conviction of all her confessing members. Membership in a church with the name “Reformed” means understanding and agreeing with what the name designates.

I ended last editorial saying that, although there are many opinions of what it means to be Reformed, these editorials will assert that to be Reformed is to be covenantal, Calvinistic, confessional, church-focused, and have a definite and particular view of the Christian life. Without any one of these, a church may have important elements of a Reformed identity, but cannot legitimately take for herself the name Reformed. Especially in these days when so many want to be known as Reformed only because they believe the five points of Calvinism, it is important to identify Reformed more carefully and more comprehensively.

The heart of it all

Central to understanding what it means to be Reformed is God’s covenant of grace. The heart that pumps with life in a Reformed church is the reality—both the teaching and the living—of God’s everlasting covenant.

We start with covenant and we end with covenant.

And not merely because covenant has been at the center of PRC history and doctrinal development, although it certainly has. The existence of the PRC and the history of the PRC are related to the defense of and development of the doctrine of the covenant. For many in Reformed churches, to say “Protestant Reformed Churches,” is to say “covenant.” We are happy with that.

But we start and end with covenant because the Christian faith does. Christianity itself is covenantal. To say “Christian” must make a Reformed person say “Covenant.” To say “Christian” without saying “Covenant” is to misunderstand the very essence of Christianity.

The everlasting covenant of grace is God’s living bond of friendship and love between Him and His elect people in Jesus Christ—embracing also their children—established and sealed with inviolable promises. The covenant is not children, even though it is necessary to emphasize that God’s covenant embraces also the elect children of believers. The covenant is not promise, even though covenant is not covenant without rich and beautiful promises. Nor can we say covenant without saying, “unconditional,” a hallmark adjective of PRC doctrine, which will be explained under the heading “Calvinistic,” since God’s covenant must be understood as gracious. But God’s covenant is a bond of friendship and love. It is the revelation outside of Himself of the covenant life He lives within Himself as the God of Trinity, in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit fellowship in love.

At the heart of the Christian faith and experience is God’s embrace of an undeserving people, His drawing them to Himself in love by His own Son, His declaration to them, “I am the LORD thy God and ye are my people,” and His binding Himself to them with the oath: “I love you eternally; I will never break my covenant.” God’s covenant friends then by grace respond, “We belong to Thee, body and soul, in life and in death; we love Thee and delight in Thee.”

Christianity—Reformed Christianity—is personal, experiential, comforting, delightful.

Living the covenant

It is not permissible, although it is possible, for Reformed Christians to defend covenant doctrine, battle against covenant heresies, explain everything theological in terms of covenant, but not live covenantally. To be Reformed is not only to confess the gracious covenant, but to live the life of the covenant. To be a friend of God. To speak with and embrace Him. To listen to His Words of love to us. To walk with Him in the cool of the day. To delight in His presence.

Of course, one cannot live covenantally without knowing covenant truth. One cannot embrace a God he does not understand, or listen to a God whose embrace of him he thinks is, for example, deserved. So my saying that covenant must be lived is not saying that covenant need not be explained—by thorough and precise doctrine. It is saying, however, that it is possible to know all about the covenant without truly knowing God and, thus, that without living as God’s friend one cannot call himself truly Reformed.

Illustrating covenant

To confess, defend and fight about the doctrine of the covenant without living covenant life would be like a married man spending his life on the road, speaking at conferences about the beauty and truth of marriage, without coming home to love, embrace, and fellowship with his wife. He may speak ever so eloquently, even moving married people to tears by his explanation of God’s good gift of marriage, but if he does not draw near to, embrace, converse with, and live intimately with his wife, he does not know marriage.

That is an apt illustration because it is biblical. “I am married to you,” God said to Israel (Jer. 3:14; see also Ezek. 16, especially v. 8). In Ephesians 5, after Paul described marriage in quite the detail, he concluded with the startling remark, “But I am speaking of Christ and the church.” The relationship between God and His people in Christ is best illustrated by a good, Christian marriage. The covenant relationship (really a redundancy) between God and His people, first revealed in paradise of Genesis, finds its goal and climax in the marriage supper of the Lamb, the paradise of Revelation and eternity.

A marriage is a bond. I am bound to my wife, for life. In a Christian marriage is delight, fellowship, conversation, intimacy. Marriage is not a promise, even though a man is bound to his wife by oaths he swears at the wedding. Marriage is not children, even though in most marriages there are children. Marriage is a living bond of friendship and love. So is God’s covenant.

Proving covenant

That covenant is the heart of the Reformed faith and of Christianity itself is biblical. The Bible itself is comprised of Old Covenant and New Covenant. A legitimate way to think of and even translate the word testament in “Old Testament” and “New Testament” is covenant. The entire Word of God to His people is in the framework of covenant. For the first four thousand years, God’s way of speaking to and living with His people was the “shadowy” way of types and pictures, designed for an immature church, but all pointing to Jesus Christ. God’s way of speaking to and living with His people, for the past two thousand years, is new—that is, without all the old forms and shadows of the first dispensation. But whether old or new, God has always spoken to and lived among His people as their covenant friend. Whether old or new, it is all covenant.

So God’s relationship with the crown of His creation—Adam—the one in the image of the Creator, was a “friendly” relationship, until sin interrupted that intimate fellowship, which immediately brings the promise of the sending of God’s own Son to restore and elevate that friendship to the highest level. But all through the old covenant, this is the testimony of the Word. God was the friend of Noah. Enoch walked with God. Both Testaments identify Abraham as the “friend of God.” And when God’s people became a multitude, He preserved His friendly relationship by erecting His tabernacle-house in the middle of the multitude, from which house He spoke to them and lived with them. “Come, visit Me. I am your God; ye are My people.” Friendship. Intimate secrets (Ps. 25:14). Love. Covenant.

When God’s friends violated that relationship by loving and communing with other gods, the prophets put that sin in terms of violating a marriage—adultery. “I am married to you!” objected God through Jeremiah. To the prophet Hosea God said, “Marry a woman known for her unfaithfulness; she will be unfaithful to you; but by this painful experience you will be able to convey to My people what their idolatry is essentially—a violation of a marriage friendship.”

And when God—true to the promises of His covenant—would graciously maintain the relationship with undeserving people, He sent His own Son. Not only would Jehovah-Salvation pay for our sins. God would have Him known as “God with us” (Matt. 1:23), the one who “tabernacled among us” (John 1:14). If nothing else testifies that the heart of the Christian faith is covenant as friendship, it is the stunning and humbling reality that God did not spare His own Son from death, and that His own Son willingly and lovingly laid down His life for His friends.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends…. …I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends… (John 15:13-15).

If anything makes a Reformed believer happy that he may number himself among those who rightly call themselves Reformed, it is this reality. God is my Friend through Jesus Christ. I love Him. He loves me. Me. Undeserving me. Gracious friendship. Gracious covenant. This is Reformed.

Confessional truth

It may be said that at the time of the writing of the Reformed confessions the doctrine of the covenant was not developed as it is today. That may be true. Explicit definitions of covenant may be lacking. Fully worked-out doctrine of the covenant explicitly as friendship, pictured by marriage—a gracious and everlasting relationship of love—you will not find.

But no one may say that our Reformed fathers did not know covenant.

The greatest statement, in my estimation, that shows that our Reformed fathers understood the Christian faith—the Reformed faith—as essentially friendship and love, a statement that will likely never be improved upon, is the opening statement of the Heidelberg Catechism. That experiential, comforting, personal, most favored of all the Reformed creeds, begins with a statement that could hardly be described better than “covenantal.”

Read it again, and think of it in the terms we have been describing. And rejoice that you may call yourself Reformed, and by that simply mean “Christian.”

What is thy only comfort in life and death?

That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with His precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto Him.