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Volume 13, Issue 2: Thema

Covenant Kindness

Douglas Wilson

One of the great problems of the Reformed world is the tendency to look at the covenant through the lens of election instead of looking at election through the lens of the covenant.

This is not said in an attempt to back away from the doctrine of election at all. The Bible teaches it, and so should we, and there are of course settings when the Scriptures tell us to use that "lens" of election to see more clearly. During a time of persecution, this can be an enormous comfort. Who will lay a charge against Godís elect? It is God who justifies (Rom. 8:3).
But as a general pattern, Scripture places the words of the covenant in our mouths, and these are the words we are to speak in our households and to our children—we are to live inductively from the terms of the covenant, not deductively from the abstract truth of election. This should be obvious. We do not know the names of the elect. But we do know the names of the covenant members around us.
We are told to make our calling and election sure, which is what we do through faith as we continue in covenant faithfulness. We are not told to make our place in the covenant sure through continuation in trying to divine the names on the roster of the elect. The secret things belong to God (Dt. 29:29), but the things revealed belong to us and to our children. The details of election reside with God. The stipulations of the covenant are in the Bible right there in our lap.
All of this has important ramifications for our children. When we start with the doctrine of election as a theological datum, and then we reason from there, apportioning the blessings as we go, too often, by the time we come to our children, who are regularly last in line, there is nothing left for them. Because we cannot see election, we have devised another indicator of election which we cannot see either, but it is easier for us to pretend that we can see it. We pretend to be able to see whether or not a heart is genuinely converted.
Whenever these two things are found together—strong Calvinism and pietistic conversionism—children are regularly mangled by the covenant people of God instead of being nurtured by them. Jesus pronounced a solemn warning against anyone who stumbled the little ones, and this is a warning that ought to be heeded in our circles far more thoughtfully and submissively than it is.
So in setting forth what is sometimes called the doctrine of covenantal succession, I do not want to begin with the proofs. This is because we must be repenting of our idolatrous rationalism. Consequently, I want to start by describing, with scriptural terminology, what it is like to believe and live this way. In this way, perhaps those who are opposed to this teaching, or those who have concerns about it, may at least see what it feels like before the controversy starts. And perhaps they might muse for a moment on how wonderful this would be if it were true. Having done this, we can turn to what results are produced by unbelief in these promises, and lastly, we can consider the promises themselves.
The key to understanding this aspect of the covenant is not primarily argumentation, but rather faith. Everything must to be done in the context of faith. Credo ut intelligam. It is not until we believe God for our children that we can begin to understand our children. How could it be otherwise?
In countless places, God promises Himself to us and to our children. He never gives Himself outside the boundaries of a covenant, and this gift is no exception. He will be our God, and we will be His people. In giving this gift to us, He does not do it with the understanding that the human partakers of the covenant are somehow perfect. When God keeps covenant over many generations, as He promises to do in many places, He promises as part of this to show mercy to those who love Him and have faith in Him. This showing of mercy shows that the key which unlocks the covenant is not perfection, but faith. Or, rather, it is not our own perfection. Christ kept the terms of the covenant perfectly, and when we believe God in the name of Jesus Christ, His perfect obedience is imputed to us. The instrument which God uses to bring this blessing to us is faith. And, just in case we are tempted to put on airs because we were shrewd enough to have faith, Paul dryly informs us that even faith is a gift.
The initial blessing of the covenant which is appropriated by faith is that of justification. But it was never intended to stop there. Our life in the covenant is from faith to faith. In numerous places we are told that the just shall live by faith. The prophet does not say that the just shall commence by faith, and then finish through sheer dint of human strivings. Everything we do, everything we say, is to be set apart and sancitified by faith. This is not controversial, but let us move it over into controversial territory.
The covenant blessings of God include many blessings which are less than salvation itself. All of them are appropriated by faith, working through love, faith that is true faith, from beginning to end. God promises to answer prayer, for example. Does this mean that if a believer disbelieves that he has lost his salvation? Of course not, but he certainly (at the least) has lost the blessing of answered prayer.
God promises us the salvation of our children as a blessing of the covenant. We see in Scripture, and in the Christian world around us, many examples where the children of the covenant are not saved. Does this mean the Word of God is of no effect? Of course not—let God be true and every man a liar. If God has promised us our children as part of the covenant, our duty is to look at the Word of God in faith, and repent of casting sidelong glances at other peopleís children.
It is a fact that many covenant children fall away. Apostasy is a real sin, committed by real people. But this does not set aside the promises. Do we really want to say that those who scoff at prayer have the authority to nullify all the promises made concerning prayer? And if not, then why do we want to reason the same way concerning our children? So every child we beget, conceive, bear, carry, spank, feed, rock, teach, comfort, discipline, and love is to grow up in an atmosphere of faith. This faith is a faith in the God who always keeps covenant and mercy to a thousand generations.
What happens when we do not live before God in this faith? We continue to teach our children inescapably, somehow, some way. I do not want to overstate this, or state it in a way that brings unnecessary grief to parents. But the reason we must proceed anyway is that something has to be done about all the children who are being brought to grief. I have seen many Reformed believers literally chase their children away from salvation. We have somehow come to think the bread of life is a choking hazard.
We all know the problem of overt hypocrisy—where a father is saintly at church but tyrannical and obnoxious at home. When children in such a home flee from the Christian faith, the reasons are obvious. But the problem we have in Reformed circles is far more insidious than this. Of course we all have to struggle with the impact of our sins on our children. But the problem we are discussing here is the impact of our "virtues" on the children. We are talking about believers who take the good stout rope of their pietistic traditions and tie their children up lest they get under the table to gather crumbs with the daughter of the Syro-Phoenecian woman.
A young child comes to his father and says that he wants to believe in Jesus. The father, trained in the tenets of pietism, does not believe that this could possibly be sincere or genuine. In a Baptist home, the child is kept away from baptism, and in a Presbyterian home, he is kept away from the Lordís Table. But he is young and pliable. He knows that he does not know a lot—he trusts his father on this and moreís the pity. The father says in effect, by keeping him at armís length from any covenant blessings, that his profession of faith and trust is more worthy of doubt than credence, and this is the first (twisted) covenantal lesson the child learns. Christian parents are commanded to teach their children to believe, and instead, in the name of high conversion standards, we teach them to doubt. Then, when they grow up and mature in the doubting we have taught them, we point to that doubt as clear evidence that we did the right thing in keeping them away in the first place.
It is as though we withhold food from our children because they are not yet big and strong. Grow up to be big and strong, and then we can give you some food. But they donít grow (not having any food), and then, when they finally die of starvation, we shake our heads sadly. Such is the grip of our revivalist theology that we actually do not notice what we are doing to them. The (covenantal) death of the child is then, in all seriousness, treated, after the fact, as a good reason for not having fed him.
This is not what we find in the Bible. The children of Godís servants will continue, and their descendants will be established before the Lord God (Ps. 102:28). God is a jealous God, visiting the consequences of idolatry to the third and fourth generation—but to those who love Him, the blessings flow for thousands of generations (Dt. 5:9—10; 7:9). God keeps covenant and mercy with our great, great great grandchildren. He thinks more of them than we do. But nevertheless, we, the children of Abraham, will inherit the world through the righteousness of faith and not through works of the law (Rom. 4:13). The God who makes sons of Abraham out of rocks can certainly make sons of Abraham out of sons of Abraham (Matt. 3:9). David, the servant of God, is now king over us, and will be our prince forever, in an everlasting covenant, He will rule us, our children, our grandchildren, and on to the end of the world (Ez. 37:24—26). We are not now called to bring forth children to trouble; we are the blessed of the Lord, and our children with us (Is. 65:23).
We are the people of the new covenant; we drink the cup of the new covenant. And who is this covenant for? The Spirit is upon us, and His words are in our mouths, and in the mouths of our children, and in the mouths of their children (Is.59:21). The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to those who fear Him, and His righteousness to childrenís children (Ps. 103: 17—18). To think this is automatic, faith or no faith, is absurd—the promise is for those who believe, for those who remember His commandments to do them. How do we do the works of God? We believe Him.
Our Lordís dear mother did not think she was the dead end of all Godís promises concerning children. She knew, as a woman of faith, that her womb contained the beginning of all Godís blessings on all Godís children. His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation (Luke 1:48—50). And in His mercy, He considers my children as His children.
After all, the promise is to you and your children (Acts 2:39). These are wonderful words. Christian parents would do well to believe them.

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