Previous article in this series: October 1, 2020, p. 17.
In the PRC’s covenant theology, there is a significant truth that, though not entirely overlooked in the past, is still frequently overlooked in the present.1
Not long ago, I revised my lecture on Lesson 18 (“The Covenant of Grace”) in the Essentials of Reformed Doctrine class that I teach to the young people of Provident PRC in Metro Manila. I first made that lecture nearly ten years ago, but I had not taught it since moving to our mission field in the Philippines in 2017. Regretfully, I discovered that in my lecture I had overlooked a most glorious truth: that God, in this present age of history, is establishing His covenant with the elect in all nations of the world. I had neglected to teach the very important truth that God, in this new dispensation of the covenant, looks in two different directions and works in two distinct ways to draw those whom He loves into His bond of friendship in Christ Jesus: through faithful mission work to the nations near and far (those outside the sphere of the covenant) and through diligent instruction of the children of believers in the home, school, and church (those within the sphere of the covenant). Needless to say, I added a section to my lecture and plan to teach this significant truth to the future catechism students whom the Lord might set before me. Let me also encourage my fellow ministers to remember this truth in your teaching on the covenant of grace.
We do live, after all, in the new dispensation, not the old. We live in that exciting time of history when “many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11).
Before the coming of Christ, God established His covenant almost exclusively with one people in one way: with the children of believers in the nation of Israel. He had chosen Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be in His covenant (Gen. 17:7), and He remembered His covenant with them when the children of Israel groaned in Egypt (Ex. 2:24). He redeemed them from bondage by a mighty hand and made His covenant with them at Mount Horeb (Deut. 5:2). There at Sinai, He expressed the demands of the covenant for that age: that they faithfully keep His law and diligently teach it to their children (Deut. 6:7; Ps. 78:1ff.). He continued His covenant with Israelite believers and their seed in their generations, but He cut off the generations of those who hated Him, served idols, and taught their children to do likewise. On rare occasion, God caused the glorious light of the new dispensation of the covenant to flash into the old, as when He called Rahab the harlot, Ruth the Moabitess, and others out of heathen darkness into His covenant by a wonder of grace. But those were rare exceptions. Almost exclusively, God looked to one place to draw His beloved people into the sweet bond of friendship with Himself that He calls His covenant: from the children of believers.
But after Christ came, the age of the new covenant dawned. God, in fulfillment of His promise to make Abraham a “father of many nations,” enlarged the scope of His covenant to include all nations under heaven.
Through the sending of His Son and then His Spirit, God began to realize this cosmic purpose of His covenant. In the upper room, Jesus took the cup and said, “This is my blood of the new testament (or covenant) which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28). Jesus is called the “mediator of the new covenant” (Heb. 8:6-13; 9:15-20; 12:24), for He “confirmed with His death and shedding of His blood, the new and eternal testament, that covenant of grace and reconciliation when He said: It is finished.”2 For “it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father.”3 God sent His Son to perform the greatest mission of all: to confirm the covenant of grace by shedding His blood, by taking away the sin of the world (John 1:29), so that all the elect in the whole world might receive the right to be members of God’s covenant and enter into fellowship with Him. When Jesus finished His mission on the cross, He arose from the dead as the Head of the church that would be gathered out of all nations and as the first fruits of a great harvest (I Cor. 15:20; Rev. 14:14- 16). Then from heaven He poured out the Holy Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17, 33). Through the Spirit, He draws men and women from all nations into the new covenant, by uniting them to Christ and giving them life (II Cor. 3:6). Through the preaching of the gospel near and far, He causes that regeneration life to sprout in the hearts of the elect and to produce a true faith in Jesus Christ, whereby they experience the blessings of justification and sanctification, salvation from sin and fellowship with God, and whereby they live a godly life of gratitude in His covenant.
When God thus enlarged the scope of His covenant to embrace every people, tribe, nation, and language, the risen Christ issued a new demand of His covenant. In the old dispensation, God called parents to cherish His words in their heart and diligently teach them to their children, for in that way He would continue His covenant with them and their seed after them in their generations. That demand of the covenant still fully applies to us today. But God has also given us another covenant calling in this last age of history. The risen Christ, addressing His disciples on a mountain in Galilee, expressed a new demand of the covenant when He said, “Go ye into all the world and teach all nations. Preach the gospel to every creature. Ye will receive power from the Holy Ghost and will be witnesses unto me here in Jerusalem and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8). “The promise of the gospel…together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.”4 The Great Commission, which is a demand of the covenant in this present age, will remain in force until the end of history, for “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations, and then shall the end come” (Matt. 24:14).
If you were asked, “What is your calling with regard to the extension of God’s covenant,” what would come to your mind? Would you think only of your duty to train up your children in the home, school, and church? Or would you also think of your calling to shine as lights in the world, holding forth the word of life to your neighbors (Phil. 2:15-16)? I am convinced that a great truth is often overlooked in our thinking about the covenant, namely, that we do not live in the old but in the new dispensation; that God has expanded the scope of His covenant to include all nations; that God has two ways of gathering the elect into His covenant in this last age; that God has given us two callings in regard to the extension of His covenant. My dear readers, if we are asked about our calling with regard to the gathering of God’s covenant people, let us remember that we are called to look inward and outward. We are called to devote ourselves to the pious and religious education of the children of the covenant, as we vowed to do when we brought them for baptism. We are likewise called to shine as lights in the world and to hold forth the word of life to our neighbors through missions and evangelism so that “by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.”5
Since the Great Commission comes first and foremost to ministers of the gospel, allow me a word to my dear brothers in the ministry. My brethren, we are called to go into all the world to preach the good news of salvation because it pleases God by the foolishness of preaching to save into His covenant those who believe, because unto them who are called, both Jews and Greeks, the preaching of Christ crucified is the power of God and wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:21, 24). What an astounding and wonderful task has been given to us! Some of us have been called to leave our homeland and go into nations afar off to preach the gospel and issue its call. Some missionaries, indeed, have suffered the loss of all things and persecution at the hand of hostile powers. But for us, the hardest thing has been to leave our beloved covenant community where we were raised and nurtured in the knowledge of the Lord; to lose close contact and regular fellowship with our Protestant Reformed friends, family, colleagues, and churches; to move far away from the official and unofficial gatherings for worship in the Protestant Reformed Churches in America; and not least, to let go of the priceless benefit of training our children through the good Protestant Reformed schools. Yet here on the mission field, our greatest joy is to participate in the formation, fellowship, and worship of new covenant communities as God establishes them through our labors.
My dear fellow ministers, if the Lord should call you to leave your community, the beloved sphere of the covenant where you now labor with believers and their seed, will you be ready to count the cost, willing to sell your earthly things, to bid farewell to your Protestant Reformed family and friends, to go and preach the gospel to those afar off whom the Lord our God shall call? Our Lord issues a very serious call when He says, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37-38). But He also adds these sweet words of hope, “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (v. 39). When we go into the world, He promises, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matt. 28:20).
Many ministers will never be called to leave their covenant community and go out into a foreign land for a lengthy amount of time. Yet does that mean they have no calling in respect to this great work of God establishing His covenant among the nations through missions? They most certainly do have a calling, for the Great Commission comes to the whole covenant community, the whole church, not just to a few missionaries. May the Lord give much zeal to every one of you, my fellow ministers of the Word, to be busy doing the work of an evangelist in your local area (II Tim. 4:5). May the Lord also give much wisdom to you elders who supervise the work of your pastor so that you not only allow him to do evangelism but also encourage and enable him to do so. May our God give fruit on your local outreach work so that men and women who grew up outside the covenant will be brought into it, even as many as were ordained to eternal life.
Finally, if the Great Commission is directed chiefly to ministers, does that mean there is no calling for the rest of the people of God who live within the covenant community? They most certainly do have a calling to participate in this great work. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). May it be said of you, dear readers, that you were outstanding examples of witnessing, “For from you sounded out [echoed forth] the word of the Lord… so that we need not to speak anything” (I Thess. 1:8). May our God use your joyful and faithful witness to your neighbors who are still outside the covenant to bring them to hear the preaching that takes place within the covenant, that they might be drawn into the covenant.
The Great Commission marked the end of the age when God established His covenant only in the lines of the children of believers. It signified the dawn of the age when God establishes His covenant also with multitudes from the nations. By that command to move outward into the nations, Christ signaled that God would now fulfill His promise to make Abraham the father of many nations (Gen. 17:4-5). In my first article in this series, I directed your attention to the promise of God to Abraham. Before God uttered the promise to establish His covenant with believers and their seed in their generations (Gen. 17:7), He first declared that He would make His covenant with Abraham as the father of many nations.6 God did not mean, first of all, that Abraham would be the progenitor of many earthly nations. But, as Paul explains clearly in Romans and Galatians, God meant that Abraham would be the spiritual father of believers in Christ from all nations under heaven. God would multiply his seed like the stars of heaven, the sand on the seashore, and the dust of the earth. For the purpose of God from the beginning of time was always to establish His covenant with the world of men, though not with every man.
When we think about and use the word covenant, let us not assume that it is synonymous with the promise of God to us and our children. Yes, we ought to speak of “covenant homes” and “covenant schools.” But we can also speak of “covenant missions” and “covenant evangelism.” For God not only uses the Christian home and school to draw His elect into the covenant, but He also uses Christian missions and evangelism. When we memorize Genesis 17:7 and treasure that verse deep in our hearts, let us also memorize Genesis 17:4-5 and treasure it just as deeply. When we teach about the recipients of the covenant in our catechism classes and sermons, let us not forget that God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, “father of a multitude,” for in this last age of history, in which we are privileged to live, He draws a multitude of people from every people, tribe, nation, and language under heaven into His everlasting covenant of grace.
When God establishes His covenant with the elect through missions, as He did with many of our ancestors in the heathen Lowlands, He then continues that covenant through the pious instruction of their children in the lines of continued generations. In the next article, I hope to consider the relation between these two ways in which God establishes His covenant.
1 See Wilbur Bruinsma, Standard Bearer, “Defining Missions” (Nov. 15, 2007). He writes, “Reformed churches must be fully aware that there are two distinct, yet interrelated, ways that the Son of God gathers His church in the new dispensation of the covenant. The one means is the faithful nurturing of the children of the church by believing parents and by the church itself…. But the church may never ignore the other command of God’s covenant: ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature’ (Mark 16:15). Equally important to the gathering in of the church in the new dispensation is diligent labor in the whole area of missions.”
2 “Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper” found in the Psalter used by the PRC.
3 Canons of Dordt, Head II, Article 8. Emphasis added.
4 Canons of Dordt, Head II, Article 5.
5 Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 32, Q&A 86.
6 W. Bruinsma, “Defining Missions.” He mentions the promise to believers and their seed and asserts, “The truth of God’s covenant teaches us that God will cause His church to grow from within the confines of that church by means of the generations born to believing parents.” Then he adds, “There is another marvelous truth revealed in Genesis 17 that too often is overlooked. We read these words of God to Abraham in verses 4 and 5: ‘As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.’ Not only did God promise to establish a relationship of fellowship and friendship with Abraham and his seed, but God also told Abraham that in him all the nations of the earth would come to share in that fellowship and love of God.”