For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. Acts 2:39
Although Protestant Reformed people have a correct understanding of the covenant in many regards, I believe our lack of zeal and activity in missions and evangelism is due, at least in part, to an underdeveloped understanding of the covenant. Deficiency in outreach is likely due to a deficiency in understanding God’s covenant of grace. I plead for humble and honest self-examination regarding our view of the covenant especially as it relates to missions.
There are many misconceptions of the covenant. Some merely think of “Covenant” as a good name for a high school. Some think of “covenant” as equivalent to “election.” While it is true that only the elect are members of God’s covenant, it is confusion to conflate the two. Perhaps the most common misunderstanding about the covenant in our circles is that the covenant means “children” or that the covenant is God’s salvation of the children of believers. Although it is true that the salvation of our children is one of the comforting promises of the covenant, this is a myopic view of the covenant that leads to great deficiencies in our calling of missions. The truth is that the covenant is just as much for those gathered through missions and evangelism as it is for children growing up in the church. God’s covenant has an evangelistic character.
Review with me the definition of the covenant of grace: The relationship of friendship and fellowship that God unconditionally establishes and maintains with His elect people. It is not a cold contract or agreement between two parties, but it is a warm personal relationship of fellowship. Out of pure, unconditional love, God has from eternity chosen the members of that covenant. In time, He sent Jesus Christ His Son to earn the rights for all His elect to be in that covenant. Then, sometime after each of us was conceived in sin as an enemy of God, He sent His Holy Spirit to join us to Christ so that we might enjoy His friendship and fellowship through faith alone.
Dear reader, do you have and experience this friendship and fellowship with God that we call the covenant? That is a critical heart question. I am not asking whether you can repeat the correct definition of the covenant. I am not asking whether you have been catechized in the doctrine of the covenant. Nor am I asking if you belong to a church that holds to the right teaching of the covenant. I am also not asking if you can explain the significant decisions of Synod 2018 regarding our experience of the covenant. I am asking if you have this relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Is He someone you hear speak to you by His Spirit and Word? Is He someone you respond to in prayer as you rest in His lovingkindness? Is there a living conversation that takes place between you and your God? First things first: If the covenant is not fellowship experienced in the souls of Protestant Reformed people, but merely a doctrine of the intellect about which you are correct, then there will be no missions and evangelism. The very power of evangelism and missions is from living fellowship with God in Jesus Christ.
Now I mentioned previously that this covenant that we know and enjoy has an evangelistic character. I have chosen that description for three reasons. First, that word evangelistic should bring to mind the gospel. Evangelistic is from the Greek noun which means “gospel” or “good news.” The content of the gospel is the covenant. The gospel is Immanuel—God with us. The gospel is that God the Son has come in the flesh that we His enemies might be made God’s sons and daughters. This wonder of the covenant is the gospel. It is “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10b). The covenant is evangelistic because it is the gospel.
I have used the word evangelistic, second, because it should bring to mind both the official preaching and personal witnessing. In the New Testament, there is a Greek verb that refers narrowly only to the official preaching of an ordained minister. But there is another verb in the New Testament that refers to both the work of an ordained preacher and the work of God’s people echoing the word in their personal witnessing. That word is “evangelize.” All God’s people have the duty of telling others about this gospel.
Third, and more importantly, I call the covenant “evangelistic” because there is an outward-looking direction of the covenant. When Protestant Reformed people think too narrowly about the covenant, we think of it as having an inward focus. We think about the promise of God to gather His people from our generations. But that is only half of the truth. If we stop there, with that inward-looking perspective, then we have a deficient view of the covenant. The covenant is the gospel to be both preached and witnessed, not only to our children, but “to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39).
The evangelistic character of the covenant is evident in the first covenant. From eternity, there has been a covenant among the three persons of the Triune God— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God has had a close, personal relationship of friendship and fellowship within Himself.1 Within this family, God has a beautiful inward- looking activity that theologians describe with the Latin term ad intra. But thankfully, God does not stop there. He also turns outward (the Latin term is ad extra)! He has unconditionally chosen to take puny and putrid sinners like us into His family. That has been in His eternal plan.
“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:10). Looking outward, He sent His only begotten Son. He breathed to His Son, “Go ye into the world,” and His Son willingly took on flesh that He might say to those who of themselves are enemies, “Thou art my people, and I am thy God.” Marvel at this! His covenant has from eternity had an outward, evangelistic character.
Those who have been brought into that covenant must recognize this, for the same Savior who was sent now sends us, His disciples. “Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:21-22). In order that we who are graciously brought into the covenant might reflect that evangelistic character of God’s covenant, Jesus calls and breathes His Spirit upon us. As the Father sent Him, so the Son sends us: “Go ye into all the world” (Mark 16:15).
This evangelistic character of the covenant is found everywhere in Scripture, indeed even in the Old Testament. Although it is true that the covenant revealed to the Old Testament people emphasized an inward-looking view, there was already then an evangelistic character. Often quoted to prove the covenant of God with the children of believers is Genesis 17:7. There God said to Abram, “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.” However, we do injustice to the character of the covenant by quoting that text out of its context. For in Genesis 17:4-5, God says to Abram, “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.” Abraham and the Jewish people with him cherished the promises of God to gather His people from their generations, but they also eagerly anticipated the evangelistic character of that covenant soon to be displayed in the gathering of the Gentiles. When Christ, the seed of Abraham, would come, God would cause all the nations to flow unto the house of Israel (see Is. 2:2-3). The Jews sang and prayed for this to be fulfilled: “Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee. Then shall the earth yield her increase; and God, even our own God, shall bless us. God shall bless us; and all the ends of the earth shall fear him” (Ps. 67:5-7). Although the gathering of the nations was not their focus, the Old Testament saints recognized and looked forward to it with the coming of the Messiah.
But we are now no longer in the Old Testament. An insightful elder once observed not so articulately, “Rev., I think sometimes our view of the covenant is Old Testament.” There is some truth to that. We live in the New Testament age where there is supposed to be an emphasis on the gathering of others into the covenant, but we live focused like the Jewish people mainly on God’s covenant with our generations. Broadening our scope, Jesus explained the purpose for which He poured out His Spirit at Pentecost, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Then, with that Holy Spirit, He gave the sign of tongue-speaking, a miraculous picture of the gospel going outward to all nations. Explicitly in Acts 2, Peter preached, “The promise is unto you, and to your children,” but he did not stop there. He continued, “… and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” Additionally, found throughout the book of Acts is this fact: The healthy New Testament churches like Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, and Thessalonica were the churches that became centers of evangelistic and missionary activity; for especially in the New Testament, Christ displays the evangelistic character of the covenant.
To those in the covenant, Christ demands, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 18:19). Protestant Reformed people are accustomed to hearing that phrase “demand of the covenant,” referring to our calling regarding the education of our children (see Church Order, Article 21). At baptism, therefore, we vow to teach our children according to the Scriptures to the utmost of our power. However, just as much a demand of the covenant is that we go into all the world, teaching and baptizing God’s elect not yet gathered. To the utmost of our power, we must reflect this evangelistic character of the covenant.
This is not only a command but also part of our identity. Those whom God brings into His covenant are given this identity and equipped to live accordingly: “Ye are my witnesses” (see Is. 43:10, 12; Luke 24:47; and Acts 1:8). “Witness” is not only your calling. It is your name. Each member of the covenant has been saved unto this identity. If our church as a whole is a covenant community, she will have an outward-looking, evangelistic character. “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid” (Matt. 5:14).
Three serious implications follow from this: First, a true Christian will be a witness in both word and deed. A Christian is a prophet (see Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 12). Joined to Christ by faith, every Christian is anointed by Christ’s Spirit to confess His name. A true Christian bubbles over saying, “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). A Christian with no witness is no Christian.
Second, a true church will have this evangelistic character. The first mark of a true church is the pure preaching of the gospel (see Belgic Confession, Article 29). Missions and evangelism pertain to that very first mark: “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” (Canons of Dordt, Head II, Article 5). A Reformed missiologist, Johannes Blauw, puts it strongly, “There is no other Church, than the Church sent into the world.”2 A church without this evangelistic character is deficient in displaying the first mark of a true church.
Third, evangelism is a priority of true prayer. Jesus prayed, “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word” (John 17:20). When He prayed with His disciples on the night before His death, He prayed not only for those already gathered, but also for those yet to be gathered. Jesus also explicitly taught us this priority in what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Contained in the first and second petitions are outward-looking desires. “Hallowed be thy name” means, “that we may so order and direct our whole lives, our thoughts, words, and actions, that Thy name…[may be] honored and praised on our account” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 47). When we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” included is, “Increase Thy church” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 48). Jesus shows that true prayer makes evangelism and missions a priority.
That the covenant has this evangelistic character does not mean a neglect of those already in the covenant. I have heard the fearful sentiment that if we focus too much on evangelism and missions, we will neglect and endanger our children and schools. But the covenant has always safely been both inward and outward looking. Evangelism labor and education of children are not mutually exclusive. Let us trust the God of the covenant who has always preserved and grown His church faithful in both.
Let the church as a whole have this evangelistic character. Each member needs to grow in zeal and interest for the mission of the church. Missions and evangelism may not be done by proxy. We may not have a missionary do it for us while we remain uninterested. We may not let an evangelism committee do it in our place, while we distract ourselves with media. If only done by a few, the few will burn out. Missions and evangelism must flow out of the organic life of the congregation. As each individual member makes evangelism a priority, the church will be unified in her mission to show the evangelistic character of the covenant.
Pray earnestly for our churches to grow in this area. Cry out with Psalm 67:1-2, “God be merciful unto us and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us….” To what end? “That thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations.” As God’s face shines upon us, we want to be like little mirrors, though cracked by sin and dimmed by weakness— we desire to reflect His glorious grace to the nations for their salvation. May God answer this prayer and fulfill His covenant promise which is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off.
1 This truth is developed in the book Trinity and Covenant: God as Holy Family by David Engelsma (Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2006).
2 Johannes Blauw wrote The Missionary Nature of the Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974). This quote is from God’s Missionary People by Charles Van Engen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 79.