The following is an edited transcript of my address to the 1975 Convention of the Federation of Protestant Reformed Young People’s Societies, delivered at the occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of our Protestant Reformed Churches. HCH)
[Convention Text: , “For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations.”]
Beloved Protestant Reformed Young People and Beloved Protestant Reformed Brethren and Sisters gathered with us tonight:
First of all, I want to say that I have always counted it a privilege to be able to address one of our Protestant Reformed Young People’s Conventions; and especially is that the case in this Fiftieth Anniversary Year of our Protestant Reformed Churches, and when, as much as possible, all our people may be gathered with us to celebrate this occasion. I count that a privilege indeed. In the second place, I think a word of congratulations is in order to our Young People’s Federation for planning their convention around the theme of our denominational celebration. I think congratulations are in order for two reasons. In the first place, this shows, to my mind, a healthy denominational consciousness and loyalty. And, secondly, I think it gives the lie to the idea that there is any serious generation gap among us. We are together at this occasion, old and young—and, may I say, middle-aged. And I think it is a glorious occasion that we may all be together in this fashion to commemorate this anniversary.
The theme is appropriate, I believe, not only because it surely touches on a key aspect of the Reformed faith as we have always held it and still do maintain it today; but more than that, it is appropriate because it expresses something fundamental concerning our very existence, our very life, as a Protestant Reformed people. And it certainly expresses what must be in the theme of all our celebration: we must end in the Lord our God and in His faithfulness, and never in self or in any man.
With that in mind, I will try to expound to you tonight THE IDEA OF GOD’S COVENANT FAITHFULNESS, and will do so under three heads:
I.A High Distinction
II. A Sovereign Faithfulness
III.A Divine Revelation
A High Distinction
It is necessary, first of all that we pay attention to the idea of faithfulness as such. We must ask and answer the question: what is implied in that notion offaithfulness? Faithfulness implies, in the first place, that there exists an established relation between two or more persons, or some kind of alliance or agreement. I am not speaking now, you understand, about the covenant. But faithfulness in general implies and presupposes an existing relationship of some kind. In connection with tonight’s subject that existing relationship is the covenant relation, the bond of friendship between God and His people in Christ Jesus. You cannot properly speak of faithfulness without such a relationship. In everyday life you can speak of faithfulness, for example, between friend and friend, or of faithfulness between husband and wife. But you cannot properly speak of faithfulness between those who are enemies or between those who sustain no relationship whatsoever to one another. In the second place, there is suggested in this idea of faithfulness, especially in connection with tonight’s subject, the idea that somehow that relationship is put to the test. It is put under stress. It is strained. Faithfulness implies the existence of something which strains a relationship. Either that relation is strained by a long period of time, a long period of absence, or by some adverse circumstances of some kind which make it difficult and even impossible for that relationship to continue, and to be maintained, and to function, to survive. In the third place, faithfulness implies that in spite of these adverse circumstances, which put a strain on the relationship, nevertheless that relation between those persons does indeed endure and is indeed made to function. In that sense, for example, you can speak of a friend. A friend in times of prosperity, also according to the book of Proverbs, is nothing special. But a friend who is a friend and who remains a friend in adversity and in difficult circumstances, when that relation of friendship is put to the test, is a faithful friend. Then the faithfulness of a friend comes to manifestation.
Hence, there is the aspect in this subject of “The Idea of God’s Covenant Faithfulness,” first of all, of the covenant relationship itself. Let me briefly call attention to that covenant relation. That is necessary, and I think it is very important. I am afraid sometimes that we tend to become accustomed to that very glorious idea of God’s covenant, that we probably tend to let it become commonplace, so that it becomes a matter of course for us, perhaps, to speak of that covenant relation of friendship between God and His people in Christ without really ever contemplating the amazing wonder of it. And it is wonderful! I would like to call attention to that idea in terms of the Convention text in . The covenant is not literally mentioned there; nevertheless there is a very beautiful description of the covenant relation in that passage.
Let me call your attention, in the first place, to the fact that that passage speaks of God’s covenant people as one people, one spiritual nation, a holy nation, a special people. God, you see, does not simply save a number of individuals and take them up into the stream of His own covenant life. He does not simply save a multitude, a mass of people. But He saves one people, a nation, one whole, with one King, one spiritual life-principle, one character, one law, one language, one heavenly country. He saves the generation of spiritual Israel from among all nations, the new humanity in Christ. That, first of all.
At the same time we must remember that God’s people are not characterized by mere monotony. They are not all the same. They are not exact replicas of one another. But there is diversity among them. There are many citizens in that one spiritual nation, gathered from the beginning to the end of the world and from among all nations. And each of those citizens occupies his own place and serves his own purpose in the whole of that nation, according to his own peculiar characteristics and talents and status. And yet that takes place so that all are fundamentally alike. And with that fundamental likeness of the people of God each serves in his own way in his own place to bring out the one idea of that covenant people of Jehovah.
In the third place, we must keep in mind tonight the organic viewpoint. What is said in the Convention theme text, and what is addressed to the people of God certainly cannot be applied to every individual in Israel of old, nor every individual in the church here in the midst of the world in the New Testament day. Nor can it be applied, let me add, to. every one of us as Protestant Reformed people. Not all are Israel that are of Israel. But God’s election and reprobation cut right across the generations of His covenant as they exist in history. Outwardly, indeed, all belong. Outwardly all share in the same benefits. Outwardly all claim the same name, and are called by the same name. But some to their salvation, and some to their damnation. Nevertheless while here in the midst of the world and in the course of history many branches may be cut out of that tree of God’s covenant, the tree itself is saved. And God’s covenant people here in the world are viewed as a whole, as an organism, and addressed as such, from the viewpoint of the elect seed that is always present in their midst. That is important to remember. For it means that only as you and I are actually redeemed and delivered, only as you and I are actually a holy people unto the Lord our God, can we and may we lay hold personally on the high distinction that is described in this passage.
Notice that there are several terms in the Convention text which serve to emphasize that God’s covenant people are indeed a most excellent people. They are highly distinguished! For one thing, they are called aspecial people. That is a term in Scripture which really carries the connotation of being a purchased possession, and in that sense a very dear possession, and in that sense a peculiar people. What a tremendous thing that is, beloved! We are God’s special people, God’s very own. All things are God’s. He is the Sovereign of heaven and earth. But from among all things, from among all the nations of the world, from among all men and in distinction from all the others, there is one people that is His very own, His inheritance, precious in the sight of the Lord, the apple of His eye—His as no one else is His. In that sense they are a special people. How often this idea is emphasized in Scripture. God’s people are His bride, His wife, His friends. Or, as is emphasized in , where the final realization of God’s covenant is described, “They shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.”
In the second place, they are the people upon whom is the divine stamp of approval. They are His chosen people. And as that expression is used here in Scripture, it points to the fact not only that God chose His people from before the foundation of the world. It points not only to the fact that God selected them from before the foundation of the world, in distinction from others. But it points also to this fact, that God realized that choice in time, that in history He actually singles out His people. And the expression that is used here in Scripture emphasizes especially that He set His heart and mind upon His people, that He approved them, that the divine seal is upon them, and He says to them: “You only have I known among all the families of the earth.”
In the third place, we are the objects of His love. And the expression that is used here for God’s love emphasizes the idea of fastening or binding together. It implies, therefore, that we are the people in whom God has delight. And as such we are the people whom God unites with Himself in the bond of fellowship, the bond of intimate communion and friendship.
Finally, God’s people are called here a people which is holy unto Jehovah. I cannot take the time tonight to expound that idea of holiness in detail. But let me emphasize that holiness with respect to God means that He, as the absolute Good, is Self-centered. And with respect to us, His covenant people, it means that we are God-centered. We exist for His glory and for the manifestation of His virtues and praises. And as such we are consecrated to Him with heart and mind and soul and strength.
That, briefly and in concrete fashion, is the idea of God’s covenant with us.
What a glorious estate is ours! Beloved, I mean not only that this is a wonderful doctrine. You know, it has been characteristic of us as Protestant Reformed Churches to emphasize that idea of God’s covenant. And that is well. That is our heritage. But let us understand clearly that this doctrine of God’s covenant with His people in Christ Jesus is the description of the actual, living relationship between God and us. Ye are a special people unto the Lord our God. Ye are a chosen nation. Ye are the object of His love. Ye are a holy people unto Jehovah or God. And Scripture never ceases to emphasize that idea. It never hesitates to remind us of that glorious estate that is ours. It does not speak merely in terms of what we must be, but in terms of what we are. And it does so not to make us proud, but to make us humble and thankful. It does so not to make us carnally secure, but so that we may also know and fulfill our calling. It does so to remind us and reassure us of this glorious act, because that excellency is so often denied by the world, and because it is so often hidden, covered up, by our own sin. That covenant is the heritage of us as the people of God, of us as a Protestant Reformed people. We represent the cause of God’s covenant in the midst of the world!
A Sovereign Faithfulness
It is in this connection that we must understand the idea of God’s covenant faithfulness. I noted earlier with you that faithfulness implies the presence of some kind of adverse circumstances which make it difficult, and even impossible, for a certain bond or relationship to be maintained and to function. And it implies that in spite of those adverse circumstances that relation is maintained and endures, cannot be destroyed, and functions. And that is true of this covenant relation.
That is true, beloved, first of all, as far as our origin as God’s covenant people is concerned. We were once God’s covenant friends by creation, in Adam, in the state of righteousness in Paradise. We were created that way in Adam. We were made in the image and likeness of God. We were created capable of living in covenant relationship, covenant friendship with the living God. Not only that: we were created living in God’s fellowship in Adam. That was our original estate. God was our God, our Friend-Sovereign; and we were created His friend-servants, living in His fellowship, serving Him, knowing Him, and enjoying His friendship, His fellowship, His lovingkindness that is better than life.
But we fell. We were unfaithful. We were not true to that covenant position. We turned our backs on our Friend-Sovereign. We chose instead to be the friends of the prince of darkness. And when we did, we came in to the house of the bondage of sin and death, the house of slaves. Do you understand what that means? Those are those adverse circumstances of which I was speaking a moment ago: And those adverse circumstances were so adverse that as far as we were concerned, friendship with the living God became forever impossible! As far as we were concerned, that was the end, the end forever of that covenant relation of friendship between God and us. We became dead in trespasses and sins. We lost the right and we lost the ability to be God’s friends. We lost the right and the ability to enjoy His fellowship and favor. We lost the right and the ability ever to be the objects of His love again.
But He redeemed us and delivered us by His mighty hand and by His stretched out arm. He brought us out of the house of bondage of sin and death. He changed us from being not the objects of His mercy to being the objects of His mercy. He changed us from being not His people to being the people of the living God. And remember: even from a natural point of view, even apart from the whole question of our lostness,—even from a natural point of view there was nothing attractive about us. That is what the Word of God emphasizes in to the children of Israel, too. It wasn’t that they were such a wonderful people even naturally. It wasn’t that they were such a numerous people naturally. They were the fewest. They were the littlest. And literally Scripture emphasizes they were the “scrapings”—that which is left on the plate after you eat and which you throw away into the waste barrel. Such people God redeemed and delivered! Not the greatest, not the noble, not the mighty, not the wise, not the prudent! But the poor, the ignoble, the weak, the despised, yea, and things that are not, to put to nought things that are.
God is faithful, beloved! He is true! He had every reason to forsake us, every reason to turn His back on us forever. But He maintained His covenant. He took us anew for His covenant friends in Christ Jesus. And He even raised that friendship to the higher and heavenly level of the resurrection-life of our Lord Jesus Christ, and made us like—not unto the image of the first Adam—but like unto the image of His Son.
Still more. He maintains and realizes that bond of friendship and causes it to function although, even after we have been restored as His people, restored to His friendship, we still give Him every reason to turn His back on us, still give Him every reason to break off that covenant. I am referring now to the fact that as long as we are in this present earthly life, we sin against Him. We sin against Him a thousand times daily. And those sins are sins against grace, you understand. They are much more heinous. We violate His covenant. As far as we are concerned, we make that covenant incapable of functioning, we break it every time we sin. Any single one of our sins as the imperfect people of God would be sufficient in itself to bar us from His fellowship forever. But God is faithful. He never forsakes us though we make ourselves worthy of being forsaken a thousand times over. He never leaves us. He always forgives. He always takes us back. And He heals, He cleanses, He sanctifies, and He preserves to the very end. There is one expression in our beautiful Baptism Form that expresses that idea. It is a heart-warming and comforting expression to any child of God. At the end of the doctrinal section of that form you read: “And if we sometimes through weakness fall into sin, we must not therefore despair of God’s mercy, nor continue in sin, since baptism is a seal and undoubted testimony that we have an eternal covenant of grace with God.” That is God’s covenant faithfulness!
And it is sovereign! That is the beauty of it.
If you ask the question why God is faithful, the reason cannot be in you and me. We are unfaithful. The reason can only be in God Himself, beloved. God’s covenant faithfulness—that is the theme!
His faithfulness is sovereign. It is not dependent on anything in you and me. That is a good thing, too. If ever it depended on anything in you and me, that would be the end, the sure end.
He is faithful, in the first place, because He loved us. That is why—simply because He loved us. And that means, you understand, that He loved us in His electing love, from all eternity, according to His counsel, for reasons which He took out of Himself. He loved us from all eternity in Christ Jesus as our elect Head. In the second place, He is faithful because of the oath which He sware. That is a beautiful idea. God swore an oath. And because He could swear by no greater, He swore by Himself, by His own eternally, unchangeably, divine, true Being. And that He swore an oath means, first of all, that He spoke a word within Himself. From all eternity, God said “Surely, blessing I will bless them, and multiplying I will multiply them.” And His own eternally and unchangeably true Being is the witness of that oath. That is the oath that He spake unto our fathers and that He always speaks unto His people according to the Holy Scriptures. It is the sure word of promise!
That is the idea of God’s faithfulness. According to that love and according to that oath He always beholds us. God, you understand, sees us not as we are in ourselves. He views us not as we are apart from Christ. He always views us as He purposes to make us in Christ Jesus. He always beholds us as we shall be some day, without spot or wrinkle among the assembly of the elect in life eternal. And always in Christ Jesus, therefore, He loves us—from eternity to eternity, in unchangeable love and faithfulness.
A Divine Revelation
Then you can understand Christ, you see. Christ does not come to change the hatred of God into love. Then you would never have an answer to the question, “Whence is Christ? How could Christ come?” But He, the crucified and risen Lord, Who is become the quickening Spirit—He is the revelation of God’s sovereign love and faithfulness. Christ means that rather than forsake us, God—mystery of mysteries—forsook His only begotten Son in the bottom of hell, in order that we might be saved. Christ is the channel of God’s unfailing mercies.
Then, too, you can understand the very possibility of God’s faithfulness to us in the light of His faithfulness to Himself. For we must never forget that God’s faithfulness means in the deepest sense of the word that He is true to Himself as the Triune God of infinite perfections. Faithful God is to His own holiness and righteousness. But then the question arises: in the light of His holiness and righteousness, how can He be faithful to us? If He loves us, if He is faithful to us, poor, wretched, lost sinners in ourselves, aliens from His house by nature, can that not only be at the expense of His own holiness and righteousness?
No, beloved; look to the cross! There, at the cross, is the revelation of a sovereign love and of a sovereign faithfulness, but a love and a faithfulness in the way of God’s righteousness and justice. For there God’s own unchanging love and faithfulness provided satisfaction of His righteousness and justice. There mercy and truth—or if you will, faithfulness—are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
What is the conclusion?
This we have nothing to boast—not as individuals, and not as churches.
And it is this: ours is a wonderful and sure heritage. It is not the heritage merely of some dead doctrine, but of living and comforting and real truth. And the end of it all must be: all glory to our faithful covenant God! “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord!”