james D. Slopsema is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.
Our Part in the Covenant
According to the Baptism Form the third principal part of the doctrine of baptism is as follows:
Whereas in all covenants, there are contained two parts: therefore are we by God through baptism, admonished of, and obliged unto new obedience, namely, that we cleave to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; that we trust in him, and love him with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our mind, and with all our strength; that we forsake the world, crucify our old nature, and walk in a new and holy life.
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.
Quite obviously the third principal part of the doctrine of baptism deals with our part in the covenant of grace. We have already seen that baptism is a sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace. According to the Baptism Form, “when we are baptized in the name of the Father, God the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us, that he doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us.” Now the form will speak of our part in that covenant.
In the covenant of grace there are two parts: there is God’s part and there is our part. We must be careful to understand the relation between the two.
Certainly the relation between these two parts of the covenant is not such that God’s part is dependent on us doing our part. To put it differently, our part in the covenant is not a condition that we must first meet before God can or will do His part. This would be rank Arminianism and is to be rejected.
Neither is it the case that God’s part and our part in the covenant is a matter of cooperation. In that case the covenant would depend on us doing our part and God doing His part. Should we fail in doing our part, the covenant itself would fail regardless of God’s efforts to establish and maintain the covenant. This too is to be rejected as being totally contrary to Scripture.
Rather is the relation such that our part in the covenant is totally dependent on God’s part. God’s part in the covenant is always first and primary. Our part in the covenant is merely the fruit of God doing His part.
To understand all this we must remember that God’s covenant is a living relation of friendship and fellowship between God and His elect people. The elect, we have seen, are to be identified by their faith in Jesus Christ.
Due to the very nature of the covenant, God’s part in the covenant is to draw near to His people in His love and fellowship. What specifically God does in His love is briefly set forth in the second principal part of the doctrine of baptism, which we considered in our last article. In His love God, first of all, adopts His chosen people as His own children and heirs to His glorious inheritance. In His love He also provides them with every good thing, and averts all evil or turns it to their profit.
At this point we may begin speaking of our part in the covenant. Our part in the covenant is to return God’s love so that we serve Him in loving gratitude. This follows from the very nature of the covenant. The covenant is a relation of friendship and fellowship with God, a relation of love and companionship. For such a relation to exist it is not only necessary for God to show His love to us, it is also necessary that we love God in return and show that love in our capacity as creatures by serving God.
However, by nature we cannot keep our part in the covenant. As the Baptism Form has already instructed us, we with our children are conceived and born in sin. We are corrupt and depraved, so much so that we will not and can not serve God in love. God in His love can adopt us as His children and heirs. In His tender love He can provide us with all sorts of good gifts. But the fact remains that we are conceived and born in sin so that we can not return His love. All we can do and all we will do is to hate Him and walk in rebellion against Him. We will spurn His fellowship. We will refuse Him as a Companion and Friend. And, of course, that means that a covenant relation of friendship and fellowship is impossible, made impossible by our inability to do our part in the covenant.
For this reason the Baptism Form, in describing the second principal part of the doctrine of baptism, goes on to describe the work of God to wash away our sins. Not only does God adopt us, His people, to be His children and heirs, providing us with every good thing, but He also washes away our sins in the blood of His Son Jesus Christ. And through the Spirit of Christ God also dwells in us His people, sanctifying us to be members of Christ, applying to us that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins and the daily renewing of our lives.
This work of God in Christ to wash away our sins also belongs to God’s part in the covenant. And what an important work it is. For it is only through this washing away of sins in Christ that we can and will do our part in the covenant. The fruit of the washing away of our sins is that we do respond to God’s love. We love Him, even as He has loved us. In love we delight to serve Him. We also desire His fellowship and companionship.
Such, then, is our part in the covenant in relation to God’s part. God’s part is first and primary. Our part is merely the fruit, the necessary fruit, of God’s part.
Quite in harmony with this the Baptism Form instructs us that by baptism we are by God admonished of and obliged unto new obedience. Baptism is a sign and seal of the washing away of our sins in the blood of Christ, a sign, therefore, of the very work of God that enables us to do our part in the covenant. Consequently, through the sacrament of baptism itself God admonishes and obligates us to do our part in the covenant, namely, to walk in new obedience.
The Baptism Form goes on to describe this new obedience.
Of all that the form has to say about this new obedience the chief and central idea is that we love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our mind, and with all our strength. This means that we are to love God with all that we are and in all that we do. We are to love God every minute of every day and in every part of our life. Our whole life must be one expression of love to God. This, according to our Lord Jesus Christ, is the great commandment of the law (cf. Matt. 22:37-40). And this obligation of ours, we have already seen, is fully in harmony with the whole idea of the covenant as a living relation of friendship and fellowship. In the power of the washing away of our sins, we are obligated by God to love Him as ourpart of the covenant of grace.
The Baptism Form goes on to show us how we are to manifest this love. We are to forsake the world, crucify our old nature, and walk in a new and holy life.
Negatively, we are to forsake the world. The world here is the world of sin and darkness in which we live. Our love for the triune God must come to expression in such a way that we forsake this world. The love of God must turn us away from this world so that we refuse to be a part of its corruption and evil. We are to be in the world, but not of the world.
To do this requires that we crucify our old nature. Through the washing away of our sins in the blood of Jesus Christ we have been principally renewed. However, there is still remaining in each one of us a sinful nature full of evil lusts and passions. If, therefore, we will renounce and forsake the world of sin, it is necessary to crucify our old nature. That means that in the power of Christ’s crucifixion we put to death the evil cravings of our sinful nature so that they no more reign over us and lead us into the corruption of this world.
Positively, the love that baptism obligates us to have for God is to manifest itself in that we walk in a new and holy life. Our whole life must be new and different from the life of this world. It must be a holy life, a life consecrated exclusively to the service of the living God.
To attain all this it is necessary that we cleave to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This is an expression of faith. Faith is a clinging to God and to His Son, Jesus Christ. By that faith we receive God’s grace and Holy Spirit to love the Lord our God day by day, to forsake the world and to walk in a new and holy life.
This is our part in the covenant of grace. To this we are admonished and obligated by baptism.
The Baptism Form concludes this section with a word of comfort and encouragement. The form recognizes that because of the weakness of our flesh we often fail to do our part in the covenant of grace. We do not always love God with that zeal as we are bound. We often fall into sin. These sins are often horrible sins. The Scriptures are filled with many examples of shocking sins that the saints in the past have committed. We today are no different.
The Baptism Form warns us that when we do fall into such sins, we are not to despair of God’s mercy. And certainly we must not in the state of despair continue in sin, thinking that all is lost. For according to the Form, baptism is God’s seal and undoubted testimony to us as believers that we have an eternal covenant of grace with God. The emphasis falls on the word “eternal.” The covenant God seals to us in baptism is an eternal covenant. That implies that this covenant can never be broken. It can be violated; and we violate it every time we sin. But the covenant can never be broken in the sense that it is disannulled or destroyed because of our sins. This is because God is a merciful God and, therefore, a forgiving God. When we come to God with our sins and confess our sins with grieving hearts, God in mercy will forgive us for Christ’s sake and receive us again into His blessed love and fellowship. What is more, when we stumble and fall into sin, God in His great mercy will even lead us to Himself in repentance and confession so that we may be reconciled to Him and be received into His favor.
Certainly then we are not to despair when we fall into sin and fail to do our part in the covenant. Nor are we to continue in sin. But in the power of God’s great love and mercy, sealed to us in baptism itself, we are to repent and turn again to our God to do our part in the covenant as forgiven sinners.