Monthly Archives: October 2015

Children in Covenant, Part II

Even more confused is the condition of that child who is told that he likely is a Christian, but that that means, basically, only that he is a forgiven sinner who must try as hard as he can to lead a Christian life (out of gratitude for being saved, and to show that he is a Christian).  One can easily see that a “Christian” education based on those principles is not going to be a deal different from the kind given the child in the preceding post, nor even that in a “good” public school, especially if the teacher happens to be a Christian and/or the Bible is read and  prayers are offered.

Such kids grow up in literally hopeless bewilderment as to just how “good” you have to be to make personal confession of faith, or how much to know of a “before and after” as to sin and misery.  They have been told, wrongly, that they have two natures in a life-long struggle, and how can they decide which one has the ascendancy or a good prospect of winning out?  They are more to be pitied than mature Paul and his “wretched man” experience before he knew who he was in Christ Jesus.

So we come back once more, now in the case of our beloved children, to the fact that we all are saved by a Savior in such a way that we are brand-new creatures; that many of us (maybe most children born into devout Christian homes) were born “the second time” before we came into this world physically; that our old nature died and was buried while we were in our mother’s womb; that Christ lives in us and we in him in such intimacy that we can speak of ourselves as being “married”, one flesh; that we do not have to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling by ourselves, even with God’s help, because it is God himself who is at work both to will and to do.  Recognition of this is what gives a (young) person a sense of identity, of real importance, of dignity, plus a true explanation as to remaining “failure” in his life and the healthful humility of knowing that any importance and virtue in him are not autonomous but thanks to the fact of being a new person in Christ.  This is what constitutes a “coming of age”.  (Increasing awareness and experience of the infinite implications of this divine estate are life-long, and continue throughout eternity.  That is what makes heaven heavenly.)  This recognition is what constitutes making “confession of faith” or becoming a full (adult) member of a church; this kind of recognition makes the sacrament of baptism truly significant and gives it real fullness of meaning.

Children should be taught not to go to God with the endless requests, be they ever so pious sounding, “Give me faith, give me patience, give me wisdom, give me joy,” but rather, “Heavenly Father, be my faith, my patience, my love, etc.”

This parent and pastor is persuaded that such children may and ought to take part with us in the family meal that we call the Lord’s Supper.  We have many misconceptions as to that “type” and its purpose, but “worthiness” has nothing to do with age.  A long list of arguments might be adduced in favor of child participation in Communion; in fact, huge parts of the Christian Church do practice this, just as children took part in the Passover long ago.  As a “covenant” sign, it is far more appropriate than the practice of infant baptism, because the latter is a once-for-all ceremony that can hardly be repudiated and actually calls for much more initiative and action than the Lord’s Supper, which, being repeated, can be withheld from the unqualified, and reflects better the wonderful passivity with which we are saved by God’s initiation of new life and provision for its growth.  Moreover, baptism is individual, while the Lord’s Supper is communal (as its very name indicates).  It is grossly non-communal if a large sector of the family of God which is indicated as belonging by the fact of having been baptized, are arbitrarily told that we believe (or hope) they have saving faith or are parties to the benefits of belonging to God’s household, but do not want to make provision for that faith or include spiritual food (a means of grace) amongst those benefits.  The more one thinks about it, the more arbitrary and groundless it appears.

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Children (Minors) in Covenant, Part I

How do “minor” members of the church fit into all this (i.e. the “covenant”)?  In theory they play such an important part that sometimes the “tail seems to wag the dog”.  Eg – minor members are called “baptized” ones, as though the “full” members are not.  We speak of “covenant education”, as though it were limited to youth, when it is a lifelong process.  People who join a church as adults are sometimes called “non-covenantal” members, and at least one baptismal fount has on it the quote, “Suffer the children to come unto me”, as though others were the exception by way of admittance to that rite.

That which – like any type – is supposed to be a source of assurance or enlightenment to “children” of any kind or age, is in the case of covenant membership quite baffling.  On the one hand they are baptized as tender infants and told thereafter they belong to the church; then in adolescence they are expected to “join” church.  (At that point they are assured that all the “privileges” of such membership are now theirs, but such privileges vary mightily with the individual churches.) “Baptized” membership is supposed to guarantee Christian education of what is called a “covenantal” kind, but there is often no discernible difference between it and a “non-covenantal” Christian school next door, or even the public one across the street that has prayer and Bible reading, or even a Christian teacher.  They are told in one breath to act like Christians (sometimes the label of “covenant-member” is invoked if they don’t, or even “covenant-breaker!”) but in the next breath they are told that they are prone to sin against God and society in thought, word, and deed almost constantly, and that it is heresy to think of themselves in any other “presumptuous” terms.

Well, let’s look at the “type”.  (As always, great care must be taken not to confuse the essence of the type with what logicians call the accidents or incidentals (which would make allegories out of types.) This is true, for example, of the fact that in the Old Covenant (whether with Abraham or Israel) only males received the initiation rite; women-folk were “included” in covenant the way that they are in male church-voting even today in some churches.  (Female ordination involves other principles than church membership and its privileges.)

  1.  Children were undeniably participants in covenant in the Old Testament.  Boys were circumcised the eighth day after birth, and both sexes (an important point) took part in Passover from infancy.
  2. Children shared in “covenant” only as secondary participants, not as principals.  Scripture has no examples of God making covenant with minors.  Children shared as beneficiaries (and/or the penalties, the baneful results) of the various covenants, and, insofar as they were capable, did have minor active roles to play to the extent of their ability.  But, as to covenant made “to thy seed after thee” the reference is to the renewal or reaffirmation “in their generations”, when the children reached an age of accountability.
  3. Some “minor” members in some situations, an entire generation through its leaders – or even a whole genealogy through unfaithful ancestor(s) – broke covenant in adulthood.
  4. Nothing is said as to the internal or eternal condition of the participants of the covenants, especially infants.  The type (picture) had to do with membership in the “chosen” community; some who did not physically leave it were false members, as Paul indicates in Romans 9-11; on the other hand we are not to assume that all the children of Achan or Korah, Dathan, and company were eternally lost.

In the light of the foregoing, we may make the following assumptions as to children of professing Christians today (in or “under” the “new covenant”, the New Testament).

  1.  We obviously cannot assume that every such child is born again and certain of heaven; circumstances plainly indicate otherwise when some of them (too many) reach the “age of discretion” and simply repudiate their baptism, “church membership”, etc.  On this score alone the practice of infant baptism is on weak ground.  If it be said that all (male) children received the Old Testament covenant initiation (membership) sigh and all youngsters took part in Passover, let it be reminded that nothing was said in the type as to spiritual salvation.   As to unbaptized “Christian” children who die in “minority”, some Scripture indicates that this part of God’s providence was also to their eternal salvation, which may be equally true of unbelievers’ children who die in infancy.  To think that baptism or the lack of it, per se, has anything to do with salvation is superstition of the worst water.
  2. So-called New Testament “covenant membership”, apart from baptism or anything else, has little practical meaning for children if the parents are not conscientious in the Christian tutelage, example, and parental prayer life that their professed new life entails for them.  Example:  If a missionary child were kidnapped and raised by heathens, its Christian ancestry (for generations) and/or baptism would have little significance.  This calls for some sharp thinking.  Some strongly “covenant” churches are half-hearted about baptism of adopted children from unknown parentage.  This makes the miracle of regeneration (or at least predisposition to it) a matter of genes.  What is more, a single Christian parent entitles to infant baptism in some churches on the strength of I Cor 7:14, but nobody baptizes the “unbelieving husband” because he is sanctified.  In fact, if he is an impediment to his wife’s sanctification of the children (as they often are, silently or actively) the significance of their baptism is more sentimental than sensible.  Completeness demands the statement that countless Christian parents are committed to the Christian training of their children, but to whom the word “covenant” is completely unknown in word or concept.  Many will dedicated their children to God in a church ceremony that includes the same promises as in churches that practice infant baptism; others do not even do that.  The results of godly example and instruction in all these instances are largely the same.
  3. While it is presumptuous (facts proving otherwise) to assume that all children born to Christian parents will themselves become Christian, if history and the Scripture type of “covenant” mean anything we may assume as to each one of them, until they give evidence to the contrary, that they are and have been born again.  (Once again, this warranted assumption does not give warrant for baptizing.  Adults are baptized not on the basis of their presumed regeneration, but profession of faith.)

It is obvious that point #3 is a far cry from raising a child (in a Christian home or school) with the attitude that until he gives evidence to the contrary he is a lost sinner.  The conflicting or contradictory fact is that such a child often is a born-again Christian, of the same immature level that his intelligence, personality, or sex are.  No wonder such children grow up with as many, if not more, spiritual problems and identity crises than a child raised in an admittedly non-Christian home, none of whose members is unduly concerned as to their spiritual condition.

Covenant, Part II

As we all know, the whole concept of covenant was so changed or became so obsolete that in most places of the occurrence of the word in the New Testament the word is translated as “testament”, a secondary meaning of the word in any language.  “Testament” is a legal enough arrangement or document, but one in which the Party of the First Part does all the “work” – even to the point of to make the covenant, and the Party of the Second Part doesn’t do a thing except receive and enjoy the benefits of the contract.  So abolished is the covenant idea and arrangement now that not only is the “new covenant” known by the name of “will” or “testament”, but the Old, as well, (which was undeniably a very law-full arrangement, with duties and responsibilities assigned to bother parties) has been given the name “testament”.  (It is entitled to the new term not only because, despite its different nature – law versus grace – it anticipated or prepared for the grace era, but itself was plenty gracious on the score of God even entering contract, including amongst the human responsibilities numerous pictures of forgiveness, and in the fact that God did not inflict the penalties of repeated violations; the “covenant of grace”, let it be said again, began after the fall.  What we call the Old Testament is only one, old, now obsolete dispensation or era in the history of covenant, dispensation or testament of grace.

The clearest indication of the termination of any Abraham covenant today is found in Galatians generally, especially 3:16, where Abraham’s “seed” is said to be Christ, and “covenant” becomes “promise”.  Abandonment or conversion of the word “covenant” finds clear statement in 3:20,26-29, which says that covenant calls for 2 parties and a mediator, but the present arrangement is such that the two parties (and the mediator) have become one!  (Cf John 17:20-24)

That brings us to the question as to what “covenant” – the word and the notion of – (in the “old” covenant) symbolized.  As was already said, the gracious relationship which undeserving Israel enjoyed with God is a picture of the church; “a royal nation, a holy priesthood”, a spiritual “body-politic” without any racial, national, sexual or other distinctions, but all one in Christ Jesus.  To expect any literal, physical future for Israel as a political/religious entity is really as irrelevant as expecting the restoration, say, of the now extinct nations who are mentioned in some of those “millenarian” prophecies, and ignores the numberless places in the New Testament in which the all-nation body of Christ is called the Israel of God, the “Twelve tribes”, the house of David, etc.

On the individual level, covenant in the Old Testament symbolizes the intimate, indissoluble, “one-person” union that we have in Christ, which is symbolized in the New Testament by the picture (type) of marriage.  The Bible has many other types to depict it, such as body, building, flock, tree, etc., but marriage is the most apt metaphor for the simple reason that a Christian couple in themselves constitute a church, a tiny congregation of “2 or 3” who are in Christ; see Ephesians 6.

Notice the parallels; marriage is undeniably a covenant, a contract.  The thing that makes two people legally one is the civil document; where does a divorcing couple go to annul their union?  To the court.  So no one denies that we are in a covenant with God, as regards ourselves and our children (the product of a marriage).  BUT, what happily married person ever thinks of their union as primarily a civil, legal, contractual affair?  What successful marriage was ever built upon a spelled-out arrangement of responsibilities and duties, with consequent benefits and penalties?  If some one says about type-fulfillment that Israel was “married” to God in the Old Testament, the answer is that indeed she was, but only in the legal sense outlined here.  The marriage customs of those days, in which a person could be legally, officially “married” to some one for seven years or longer, the severing of which was “divorce” (cf. Jacob and Jesus’ own parents) and still not be “one flesh” in the sense of living together and establishing a new home and family, was itself a providential “sign” of Israel’s relation to God prior to the coming of the Bridegroom and his union with his bride as symbolized in Jesus’ repeated parables about those ceremonies.  Cf also Jesus’ strange choice of miracle and situation in which to launch his public ministry. (John 2)

Perhaps the reason why “covenant” is exploited as a term and a concept in some Christian traditions is because their conception of both the nature of salvation and of Christian marriage is grossly deficient.  If salvation is little more than the legal, objective, external forgiveness of sins, then the idea of “covenant” fits it quite well – a quid pro quo (as lawyers would put it) arrangement in which justice is satisfied, an inherently guilty person is declared innocent or at least is acquitted on what the court regards as sufficient grounds, etc.  If, however, salvation is nothing less than the creation of a new person (like physical birth) and an eternal, perfect union of the believer with Christ, it is totally inadequate to describe it as a legal arrangement, a mutual “understanding”, a covenant.

In turn, the high divorce rate within the Christian church (as an organization: the Bible indicates it as unthinkable between true members of Christ’s Body) is clear evidence of a low conception of marriage and even lower conception of one’s relationship to God.  The former is indicated, as said, by the fact that Christian couples will go to court to become divorced, contrary to the clear admonition of I Cor. 6:1-11.  (This alone is grounds for church discipline, apart form the divorce itself.  Such couples should be asked, “Why don’t you go, in order to sunder your marriage, to the place and person where your marriage was performed?”)  As regards the latter, in almost every instance of failure of a “Christian” marriage, either one or both is not “married” to God, in Christ.  Both may stoutly claim “church membership”, and their parents may make loud protests about “covenant” membership, but all that is something else.

Next time I’ll address Children (Minors) in Covenant.  

Covenant, Part I

There is one “type” in Scripture of great importance, long duration, and inclusive of many “sub-types”.  That is the word and concept, “covenant”.  Few doctrines in the Bible are more controversial, confused, misunderstood, even meaningless.

The chief reason for this is the fact that few Christians realize that “covenant”, like such things as the ark of the covenant and the rite of circumcision, was or is a type, and not a final “truth”, like the fact of our atonement  Once upon a time it had reality, “fact”, significance in its own, just as Jonah was an actual historical person with a message for us (about evangelism and enemy-love) if Christ had never come.  But, in addition, he (and his experience) was a picture of Christ.

A great part of the Christian church keeps the idea and term “covenant” alive today (as though we were to embalm Jonah and display him).  Premillenarians – who dislike the present use of the word “covenant”, predict a “thousand years” when it will be very much restored.  Catholics continue some of its elements with priests, sacrifices, alters, etc.  Calvinism makes so much use of the word that it has become a catch-all cliche to avoid clear thinking and good communication.  Some of its denominations are known as “Covenanters”, who even have the Old Testament ideal of a union of church and state (like Israel’s theocracy); they sing only psalms in church, etc.  Other individual congregations have the word “covenant” in their name, but we all make that confusion of Old Covenant and New when we persist in speaking of a church building as “the house of God”; we ought to quit the use of that typological word once and for all.  Some Calvinists reverse this anachronism by talking about the “church” in the Old Testament; this is like calling Moses the first Calvinist.

Here are some of the facts (realized by very few who use the word “covenant” the most); the first occurrence of the word is ages after Adam lived and died; (after the Flood!).  The familiar phrase “covenant of grace” occurs nowhere in Scripture and “covenant” by itself is hardly found in the New Testament.  “Covenant of grace” is basically a contradiction in terms, because “covenant” is a very legal term, and is part of the dispensation of “law”.  IF we can speak of a “covenant of grace”, it did not begin with the New Testament (as it is often thought), but immediately after the Fall.

What we call the “old covenant of testament” (not the 66 books) began as late in history as 1400 BC, maybe millions of years after creation.  The “new covenant”, on the other hand, did not begin at Jesus’ birth; he lived and died in the “old testament”, so that the Four Gospels are included in the New Testament much as the preface and introduction to any book, and Moses’ story of creation to his own times in preparation for the Old Testament, technically not a part of it.

Look at all the different ideas on the covenant TODAY, on the part of those who think the arrangement is still in force!  Some think children of Christian parents belong to it, others do not.  Some say that “our” part in covenant is to “believe”; others say that faith is a gift of God and hence part of “his” side; our obligation is to obey, serve him.  Some think that children who are in the covenant are saved, born again, and will go to heaven if they die in infancy.  Others say that covenant says nothing on that score, but simply makes children members of the Christian “community” and the beneficiaries of Christian nurture which “covenant parents” promise as their part of the contract.

The result of all this contradiction and uncertainty is that instead of the clarity and assurance that any and every type were designed to bring (like the sacraments today)., this only makes for confusion and doubt, on the part of all human part-icipants, but especially parents and children.  (Some even have the idea that if you are a childless adult you are not an active member of any covenant.  Some think children are more so than grown-ups!)  When it comes to the sacraments, which are “covenantal” (using that Old Testament term for the New Testament) signs, some churches permit children to participate in both, some in neither, and some insist that they must in baptism but not in the Lord’s Supper, when – as we shall see – if it is one or the other, the Lord’s Supper should have the preference.

Following the Fall, when man and God became enemies, and before they were made friends again (and more) by the reconciliation of the God/man Jesus Christ, God provided a system of agreements, legal contracts (which is another word for “covenant”), that would bring man as close as possible to him before their at-one-ment in Christ.  These covenants were something like a truce between hostile nations, and, on the part of the human participants, just about as meaningless, since the latter kept on breaking the terms.  These covenants employed mediators (like Moses), and even angels, whose service in the Old Testament was primarily between God and man, while in the New, since they (God and his people) have become inseparable friends, their service is between man and Satan, in defense of the former against the latter.

The covenant between God and Israel was not only an interim thing to be replaced by something completely different (as grace took the place of “law”), but was to be a picture (type) of God’s relation to the church (the fulfillment, or reality).  Israel, as a “chosen” nation, was itself a picture of the Body of Christ; this is why Christ chose exactly 12 apostles, paralleling the 12 tribes.  (Does the frequent use of the number “seven” regarding the church indicate the church’s growth by addition – three, God’s “number”, plus four, that of creation – as well as by multiplication/reproduction – three times four – which was primarily the Old Testament source of growth?)

From all this it will be evident that the purpose and function of “covenant” were served and completed when Christ came and said on the eve of his crucifixion, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”  If it be said, “Ah, there!  We are in a covenant still today,” the answer is that the reality that was symbolized in the obsolete sign still continues, but not the form.  A perfect analogy is the fact that we are still under “law” today in the sense that Adam was, before the fall, or we will be in heaven, while Scripture categorically says that the law per se, in its Old Covenant form, has served its purpose and is passed away.  So too with “covenant”, an integral part of a arrangement by law, itself being a legal instrument.  Jeremiah predicted the days of a “new covenant”, in which external law would be no more – a covenant without a contract, and an era of “law” without laws.