What It Means to Be Reformed (3) COVENANTAL—Implications
From God’s covenant flows everything!
If God’s covenant is the heart of the Christian faith and life, as well as the heart of what it means to be Reformed, one would expect that from this central truth come many other truths. As a matter of fact, from the covenant comes everything. This first “C” in our five identifying characteristics of a Reformed church leads to everything else in the Christian and Reformed faith. In the effort to clarify what is Reformed, we can say “covenant” is the heading under which all else is subsumed, in the same way that “theology” is the heading under which all the other chapters of Reformed doctrine are subsumed. Thus, everything about being Reformed is an implication of covenant.
Yet there are four rather direct implications of covenant that ought to be mentioned (before moving on to the next “C”) in our efforts to identify comprehensively as well as succinctly what it means to be a Reformed church. Characteristic of Reformed churches that understand the covenant is an emphasis on 1) covenantal worship, 2) the Christian Sabbath, 3) covenant children of believers, and 4) the defense of God-honoring marriage. Each of these is a direct application of our Reformed covenantal identity.
We begin with worship because worship is the supreme activity of God’s friends as they relate to Him. Worship is the friends of God coming into the presence of God in order to fellowship with God. The matter of proper worship is also a hallmark of the Reformed faith. That, God willing, we will treat under the “C” of “Church.” Here, we treat the more basic truth that the covenant friends of God will worship God, will live in His presence as Adam and Eve did when God first created them for fellowship. We speak mostly of the public, communal worship of the congregation.
The Reformed Christian wants to worship. He does not come to God because of a command as much as because of a desire. He does not worship because it is required as much as because it is the happiest activity of his life: “With joy and gladness in my soul, I hear the call to prayer. Let us go up to God’s own house and bow before Him there” (Psalm 122 versified). Worship is part of a believer’s new nature, which is why it is not first a command that produces worship, but regeneration—he lives the life of his Friend. Commanding a Christian to worship is something like commanding a human to breathe. God (re-)made us for fellowship with and worship of Himself! Our joy, comfort, and satisfaction are in Him and before His face. We mean it when we say, “The loving kindness of my God is more than life to me.” And, “O Lord, my God, most earnestly my heart would seek Thy face, Within Thy holy house once more, To see Thy glorious grace. Apart from Thee I long and thirst, And nought can satisfy…” (Psalm 63 versified).
As we saw last time, since marriage is the best illustration of covenant, a Christian wife in a good marriage understands the believer’s longing to be in God’s presence. If her marriage is healthy, no one needs to command her to be with her man. If the biblical doctrine of covenant actually lives in us, it is love for God and not a command that will carry us to church on Sunday. A good dose of self-analysis is in order for all believers—why do I attend church?
Worship as an implication of covenant means also that the activity of worship is conversation, and joy in one another’s company, not entertainment. God speaks; His covenant friends respond. God is central and His voice is prominent, but the believers’ voices are heard, too. Which means that the common distinction between “worship/praise” and “preaching” is improper. Mention “worship” today and most think praise bands and singing, but usually not preaching. By “worship” we mean the meeting of the covenant people with God in which they both speak and sing but also hear.
But preaching has prominence because in preaching it is God who is speaking (I Thess. 2:13). That is, pride of place is given to preaching that is careful exposition and application of God’s Word. We want to be “more ready to hear than to give the sacrifice of fools,” and to “let our words be few” (Eccl. 5:1, 2). Even when we speak, sing, and pray in response to God’s speech, as good conversations go, God’s voice must remain prominent. And I wonder, very cautiously, whether our sinful tendency is always to get that balance wrong in both the reality of covenant life with God, and in the covenant’s best illustration of marriage. Think about it. That’s humbling, and I do not mean for wives.
If Reformed worship must make sure that conversation is emphasized, it is just as important to emphasize that God must determine the subject of conversation. Reformed sermons are not about what makes us happy or gives us a pleasant and satisfying life, but about the great works God has performed (compare Psalm 77:11ff., and Acts 2:11). The subject of preaching and the center of conversation is Jesus Christ, because Christ is God’s greatest work! Jesus Christ is our covenant God’s mighty hand and stretched out arm that gave us redemption and covenant salvation. He is the covenant’s Mediator and Head. Access to God is through Him. Who is so great a God as our God?
The Heidelberg Catechism points in this direction, and not subtly either. The student of the Catechism must not be distracted by its beautiful explanation of proper worship, but first focus on the bigger picture of worship itself. The very structure of this Reformed creed is covenantal: how we, created in the image of our Father, now fallen out of fellowship with God, are miserable (the First Part). How we, by grace and through faith in Christ can be restored to the fellowship of the One to whom we belong (the Second Part). And how we may respond to this gracious reconciliation and restoration (the Third Part). A covenantal framework. Now the response of redeemed believers (the Third Part) is striking: “Love the One who loved us!” This is what obedience to the commandments is: love Him! “And then speak to Him in prayer.” The conclusion of the Catechism is exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s all covenant!
Although we emphasize public worship, not to be forgotten is the Reformed tradition of daily, covenantal, family and personal worship, which flow out of the public worship of God. Threatened in every generation, but more so today by the busyness of society, regular family and private worship are also inevitable expressions of Reformed believers’ love for their Friend.
The Covenantal Sabbath
The second great implication of covenant and fellowship is Sabbath observance. The covenantal Sabbath. Reformed churches have long maintained the Sabbath as a “perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages,” as “one day in seven…to be kept holy unto him” (Westminster Confession of Faith XXI:7).
Sabbath observance, even tenacious defense of Sabbath observance, is not narrow Puritanism, but Reformed. The Reformed faith has always seen the importance of preserving the entire first day of the week for this covenantal worship and rest. This is the teaching of our Presbyterian relatives in their Westminster standards, and of our Heidelberg Catechism in LD 38. Sabbath observance then is not legalism, but gratitude, as its placement in the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us. We call the Sabbath a delight (Is. 58:13) because God designed the day for our time of special fellowship with Him. Lose the day and we damage our friendship. Keep the day and we grow in our marriage-relationship with Him.
Too many Reformed churches have shot themselves in the foot (heart, really) by calling attention to the Catechism’s “all the days of my life ceasing from my evil works,” in order to eliminate the weekly Sabbath.1 God forbid! Reformed churches keep the weekly Sabbath as the token of the eternal Sabbath, and as a day in which, as we remember both our good creation (Ex. 20:11) and our gracious redemption (Deut. 5:15), we find strength to live the rest of the week, yielding ourselves to the Lord and beginning already in this life the eternal Sabbath (HC 38). Sabbath rest, covenant friendship. A day together in God’s courts is better than a thousand….
The Church’s Covenant Youth
Third, how beautiful the Reformed teaching that the arms of God’s covenant love reach around believers’ children too! Thus, Reformed churches have not only put the sign of the covenant upon the infants (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 27), but also devoted their lives and energy to these baptized, covenant children in amazing ways. It is genuinely and uniquely Reformed to lavish attention on the covenant seed. Not because we believe God loves all the children of believers. We know well enough that God’s covenant embrace of children is God shall call” from among them (Acts 2:39). But we lavish attention on them in obedience to God’s command to leave a spiritual inheritance to our children and their children (Prov. 13:22) and to teach them in the way that they should go (Prov. 22:6). Then we leave it to the Lord to reveal to us if some of the precious sons and daughters are not truly His. But Reformed believers treat their children as God’s children.
Although I mention infant baptism almost in passing because of the nature of these editorials, infant baptism is not of passing importance. The Reformed creeds demand infant baptism. To be Reformed is to require members of the church to baptize their infants. This is a friendly but sharp message to those churches or seminaries who befriend Calvinistic Baptists to such a degree that they forget the great chasm between Reformed and those who refuse to be “baby sprinklers,” as one man pejoratively referred to me recently. It must be said, even if some take offense at it: with a proper definition of “Reformed,” the name “Reformed Baptist” is an oxymoron. Reformed churches understand the inclusion of the children of believers in the covenant.
The lavishing of care on covenant seed starts in the covenant home and family where mothers are “keepers at home” (Titus 2:5) and fathers come home to make their household a refuge from the wicked world and a happy dwelling of love and peace. Teaching and playing and conversation and discipline—the ordered but happy home life of covenant fellowship.
Covenant life with children continues in the Christian day school, God permitting, where Christian parents band together to do their best with the rearing of God’s children. The covenant demands good rearing; the covenant demands that we do our utmost for these children of whom we parents are stewards. Where it is feasible, therefore, Reformed covenant communities have established institutions where trained Reformed teachers stand in the place of Reformed parents to teach Reformed children covenant life in the church and world. With mammoth and costly efforts, the covenant people exert themselves to think and work together for the covenant seed.
Although these Christian schools are parental and not parochial, the church does more than passively observe these parental covenant efforts. The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Art. 21) has consistories actively “seeing to it” that there are good Christian schools in which parents have their children instructed according to the demands of the covenant.
But the church does not end her efforts in the home and school. Reformed churches understand the glorious history of officebearers, especially pastors, giving catechism instruction to the covenant youth, from kindergarten until their confession of faith, and perhaps beyond. So important is this focus on the children that when our Reformed Church Order mandates Church Visitation (Art. 44), the church visitors must “take heed whether the…consistory… properly promote[s]…the upbuilding of the congregation, in particular of the youth” (emphasis mine).
The Covenant of Marriage
Finally, a Reformed church will be a church that defends the precious institution of marriage. If marriage is the preeminent biblical illustration of God’s covenant with His elect, what better way for the covenant seed to learn about covenant than by observing good marriages! If one were an enemy of God’s church, one of the main bulwarks he would assail—with mortar after mortar and one battering ram after another—would be the bulwark of Christian marriage. Thus, the institution we must earnestly defend is the institution of marriage.
No one can write such words in AD 2015 without feeling a great sense of sadness, and a good deal of righteous anger, that the devil has made such headway in his battle against the covenant by ruining so many marriages. No one can think about the importance of marriages for the covenant seed without his heart breaking for the dear children whose parents have either divorced or are not living in love and peace. God hates putting away. For the sake of a “godly seed” God made two to be one (Mal. 2:15). Nor may any be deaf to the righteous anger in God’s voice through Malachi as He rebukes Israel for the wickedness of their “marriage problems.”
By a wonder of grace, may God preserve these children. I would give all my possessions to see one particular miracle performed today. And my choice of miracles would not be a blind man receiving his sight or a crippled child made to walk, even though such miracles would bring me tears of joy. I would give my right arm if doing so would preserve one child from the terrible damage done when their churchgoing parents allow their marriages to deteriorate and die.
But we must not desire to give our right arms. Reformed believers must give their entire life and all their energy, working and praying that God preserve our marriages. We must preach and preach, and teach and teach, and then preach and teach some more, the biblical doctrine of marriage—preach that God “hates putting away;” preach that, even if marriage is only temporal, it is still one of the most important temporal institutions God created in the beginning for the preservation of His covenant people.
May our merciful and good God spare Reformed churches, in their generations, by preserving in them good marriages. By leading young people to marry only in the Lord (I Cor. 7:39), to walk in marriage only with those with whom they are agreed (Amos 3:3), and to live chastely and temperately whether in holy wedlock or in single life (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 41). And may our gracious God forgive (and correct) what sins He may be judging in churches where the covenant perhaps is accurately taught but not truly lived, one of the most flagrant ways to offend the covenant God.
1 Right along with this is an appeal to an old claim that there has always been a diversity of opinion between a “Continental” and a “Puritan” view of Sabbath-keeping.