Anyone who sat with any regularity under the preaching of the Reverend Herman Hoeksema knows that there were few subjects that gave to him greater satisfaction than the subject of the Covenant of Grace. Anyone who took part in the pleasantly informal study classes which he so fondly conducted in church and school also knows that one of his great regrets in life was, especially in his latter years, that he had never been able to find the opportunity to bring to development the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace in its interrelation with all of the rest of theological thought. It has often seemed to me that the responsibility to remember and to pursue this goal remains as a kind of legacy upon the Protestant Reformed Churches.
The present series of articles does not presume to be a fulfillment of that purpose. The author lacks both the theological and literary abilities for that. But what is hoped is that these articles may serve to remind us of the need and to provoke some thoughts in that direction; and, if they so do, the efforts will be satisfied.
Strikingly beautiful in Genesis 1:26, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
Imagine what it would mean if we read here, “And God said, I will make man…” Something would be missing; something would be wrong. The picture that would be left us would be of a God who was all alone in eternity, a God speaking to Himself, creating man, as it were, because he needed someone with whom to speak and share His life. It would be hard to escape the feeling that God was creating man because of a lack in His own nature that needed to be filled. But could such a God even be a real God at all?
Allah, the god of the Moslems, is really like that Mohammed, in setting forth his concept of god, borrowed a great deal from our Scriptures, with the result that there is much in his concept of god which is similar to ours. But one thing he missed was the doctrine of the Trinity, and with that he missed the heart of the whole matter. The result is that his Allah is a lonely figure, who in spite of all of the greatness ascribed to him dwells all by himself in a cold and distant eternity. Even the most devout of Moslems feels no closeness to Allah on a personal level. All one can ever do is to bow fatalistically before eternal whim. Allah is not one who can share life, and therefore not one who can be looked to for compassion and understanding. A person can only submit himself in cold legalism before his impersonal demands. And so Islam is a cold and fatalistic religion, functioning through legalistic systems of reward and merit, because of the nature of the god before which it bows;
But Christianity is not that way—because our God is not that kind of god. He does not just exist; He lives a full personal life in a fullness of personal love and fellowship within Himself throughout all of eternity. Here is the wonder of the doctrine of the Trinity. Our minds may not be able to grasp it in full, rational understanding, but through it we know that there is a personal fellowship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit within the eternal oneness of the divine Being.
Loneliness is a terrible thing. We all know it instinctively. It is one of the sorest pains a person can know. Those who are lonely die their own kind of death.
We learn to hide it when we get older, but look in on any group of children and you can soon see it. That which counts to them most is to have friends, others with whom to play, others by whom they are accepted, someone with whom they can feel together. I have often asked groups of young people what, in their day-to-day living seemed to concern them more than anything else. It usually takes a little while to get through to them that one is not asking for what they think they should answer or even what their peers might expect them to say, but in the end it will almost always come out that they are mostly concerned with having friends, someone with whom they can talk freely and be accepted for what they are, someone with whom they can freely share.
And this is not all so superficial as it might at first seem. It reflects something basic in the nature of man, according to which he was made to be an image-bearer of the Creator God, as Genesis 1:26says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
Accordingly Solomon; blessed with a sage power of observation by God, made note of it thus inProverbs 15:17, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.” And again in Proverbs 17:1, “Better is a dry morsel, and quietness therewith, than a house full of sacrifice with strife.”
In a much more profound way David brought out the importance of friendship to life when he reflected so often in the Psalms upon the suffering which was his when this was denied to him. So we read in Psalm 31:11, “I was a reproach among all mine enemies, but especially among my neighbors, and a fear to mine acquaintance: they that did see me without fled from me.” Psalm 38:11, “My lovers and my friends stand aloof from my sore; and my kinsmen stand afar off.” Psalm 55:12, 13, “For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him: but it was thou, a man mine equal, my guide, and my acquaintance.” But it is the next two that strike us with a special force. Psalm 22:6, “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach to men, and despised of the people.” And Psalm 41:9, “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me.” These are important because we know that especially these latter two Psalms do not represent the mere weakness of a sinful and troubled man; they are Messianic Psalms which anticipate the nature of the suffering of our Lord and Saviour, when he would come to take the anguish of our sin upon Himself. This was His suffering, too.
And what does it all mean? Actually we are touching very closely here to one of the deepest principles of Scriptural thought—the truth of the covenant of grace.
Not infrequently it has been recognized in both Reformed and Baptistic traditions that there is something basic about the truth of the covenant, which runs through the whole of the Scriptures and serves as a unifying principle. Moreover, especially in light of recent archeological and linguistic findings, it is increasingly apparent that the historical Reformed objection to the idea that the covenant could be a sort of two-sided agreement between God and man is quite correct. Very apparently, the whole idea of a covenant, even in secular practice, was that of a relationship imposed by a sovereign ruler upon his subjects, and so the covenant of God in Scripture must be a unilateral covenant too.
When, however, effort is made to give some substantial content to the concept of the covenant, so as to give meaning to its unifying function in Scripture and theology, efforts seem to flounder. Almost invariably what comes out is another sort of legalistic relationship which simply cannot do justice to the organic nature of the relationship between God and His people.
There is, however, one striking exception to this. The Rev. Herman Hoeksema, when writing about the essence of the covenant in Believers and Their Seed, p; 62, puts it this way, “That life of God is a covenant life, a life of the most intimate communion of love and friendship, resting in the unity of God’s Being, and living through the personal distinction. The Lord God is a covenant God.”
There are particularly two things that we should note about this statement.
In the first place, it designates the essence of the covenant life to be “a life of the most intimate communion of love and friendship.” This is much more than a mere legalistic arrangement by which various persons come under obligation to each other, such as various treatments of the covenant concept purely in terms of oaths, promises, testaments, pacts, etc., would seem to intimate. It is true that some of these things do relate closely to the covenant in the presentation of Scripture; but the essence and importance of the covenant goes much deeper than that. It touches the communion of spiritual life, whereby the inner realities of spiritual experience are shared together in the living fellowship of the covenant. It is this which reaches out through the history of covenant development to give new meaning and content to the whole of theological conceptions.
And in the second place, it is to be noted that the) source of this covenant is to be found in the very nature of God Himself—the triune nature, wherein Father, Son and Holy Spirit dwell together in a perfect and eternal covenant communion of life. Here is where all spiritual realities begin. They were not created. The spiritual realities belong to the nature of God in eternity. It is only our privilege of grace to be able to see them through the wonder of divine revelation, and to be able to live in them through the wonder of the covenant which this God has established with man.