Keeping God's Covenant



H e r m a n H a n k o

D a v i d J . E n g e l s m a


Published by British Reformed Fellowship, 2006

BRF Web Site:






Chapter 1

The Covenant We Are Called to Keep

Chapter 2

Keeping God’s Covenant in the Church

Chapter 3

Keeping God’s Covenant in Marriage

Chapter 4

Keeping God’s Covenant in the Home

Chapter 5

Keeping God’s Covenant & the Exercise of Discipline

Chapter 6

Keeping God’s Covenant & the Antithetical Life

About the British Reformed Fellowship



    The triune God remembers His covenant: “He hath remembered his covenant forever, the word which he commanded to a thousand generations” ( Ps. 105:8 ). But how few are imitators of God in this?

    Jehovah commands us to remember His covenant: “Be ye mindful always of his covenant; the word which he commanded to a thousand generations” ( I Chron. 16:15 ).  How quickly we forget!

    Remembering God’s covenant involves keeping it by obeying His Word out of gratitude for His salvation of us in Jesus Christ: “But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; to such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them” ( Ps. 103:17-18 ).

    God’s saints everywhere who seek sound, practical, biblical instruction as to keeping  God’s covenant will welcome the publication of this helpful book. After the first chapter’s explanation of the nature of the covenant that we are called to keep, the five succeeding chapters explain what it is to keep God’s covenant in the church, in marriage, in the home, in parental discipline of children and in an antithetical life. The six chapters of this book were originally the six main addresses at the 2004 British Reformed Fellowship (BRF) Biennial Family Conference at High Leigh, Hertfordshire, England. The members of the BRF rightly decided that these speeches deserved further circulation in book form. As you read on, I trust that you will have cause to thank our heavenly Father for providing you with this edifying book.

    The two authors, David Engelsma and Herman Hanko of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, are members, husbands, fathers, pastors, and professors in Reformed and, therefore, covenantal churches. Both have kept, preached, and written about God’s covenant of friendship in Jesus Christ for many years. Works on this grand theme are included amongst their many books. Prof. Hanko has penned God’s Everlasting Covenant of Grace (1988) and We and Our Children (revised edition 2004). Prof. Engelsma has contributed The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers (2005); and his Trinity and Covenant: God As Holy Family will soon be published (DV).1 Keeping God’s Covenant is a worthy addition to their books on the covenant, especially from its practical perspective.

    I commend this book to you with the prayer that it may be used to increase the church’s covenant consciousness leading to more faithful covenant keeping to the honour of the triune God.

Rev. Angus Stewart

BRF Chairman


 Chapter 1

The Covenant We are Called to Keep

P r o f. David J. Engelsma


Scripture: Genesis 17:1-22


    For some, the truth of the covenant is familiar; for some, it may be controversial; for others, it may be virtually unknown.  All should be convinced of the importance of the covenant.  This cannot be taken for granted today on either side of the Atlantic.  There is a loss of covenant consciousness among Christians.  This is true even of Reformed and Presbyterian Christians among whom consciousness of the covenant once was lively.

    Where today do professing Christians think of their salvation as a matter of God’s making His covenant with them? Rather, salvation is commonly thought of as their making a decision for Christ.

    Where today do Christians practice the Christian life of holiness as a matter of keeping the covenant? Rather, they devote their life to Jesus, or imitate the life of Christ, or obey certain rules laid down in the Bible.

    The covenant is of the greatest importance according to Scripture.  When God  began to work out the salvation of His people in the nation of Israel in the Old Testament—a work that would culminate in the coming of Jesus the Messiah and His redemption of the people of God—God began that work by making His covenant with Abraham and his seed ( Gen. 12 ). The history of  the Old Testament from this point on is covenant history. Since this history has Jesus Christ as its goal, Jesus Christ came into the world to fulfil the covenant and on behalf of the covenant. This is how Zacharias explained the birth of Jesus  in Luke 1:72 , 73: “to remember his holy covenant; the oath which he sware to our father Abraham."

    The entire saving work of Jesus Christ is making the covenant—the new covenant—with the elect church and each member in particular. This is the teaching of Hebrews 8:6-13 . By Jesus Christ, the high priest, God makes a new covenant with His people as He promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34 . By His atoning death, Jesus earned the right for God’s people to receive the covenant. By His Spirit and Word, Jesus actually makes the covenant with each of God’s people personally. Therefore, Hebrews 8:6 gives Jesus the title, the mediator of the covenant.

    Such is the importance of the covenant that it is salvation for a person. That God made His covenant with Abraham was Abraham’s salvation. The various blessings Abraham received from God were covenant blessings, particularly, justification ( Gen. 15:6 ). Galatians 3:6ff . instructs us New Testament Christians that the covenant is our salvation and that we receive and enjoy salvation only in the covenant. Indeed, the passage teaches that the covenant God made with Abraham is our salvation. Verse 8 describes the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 17 and other places as God’s preaching of the gospel to Abraham, particularly, the gospel that God would justify the heathen through faith. Verse 13 teaches that Christ’s redemptive death was the fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham. The entire passage teaches us Gentile believers that our justification by faith, our receiving the Holy Spirit, and our inheriting eternal life are blessings that come to us in the covenant made with Abraham and his seed.

    It is necessary that we know this. It is necessary that we know that all the blessings we have from God are covenant blessings. What husband would be pleased that his wife received all his love, care, and gifts while remaining oblivious to the marriage in which and on account of which he lavished his love upon her?  God’s love, salvation, and care come to His people in and on behalf of the covenant, which is the real marriage.

    As will become plain when we see what the covenant is, God already revealed the covenant in the very first promise of the gospel, in Genesis 3:15 : “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”

    This importance of the covenant lends urgency to our calling to keep the covenant.  No duty we may possibly have outstrips the duty to keep the covenant. Indeed, for the believer and the child of believers all duties, whether earthly or heavenly, are, in reality, the duty to keep the covenant.

    What is the covenant? What is this truth that looms so large in the Bible—announced in Paradise, established with Abraham, and perfected by Jesus Christ?


The Nature of the Covenant

    There is much ignorance and confusion among professing Christians concerning the covenant. Even though I do not intend to refute all kinds of erroneous teachings about the covenant, I warn that there are serious errors on the doctrine of the covenant, not only in the evangelical churches, but also in Presbyterian and Reformed churches. In recent developments in North America in reputedly conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches, it has become plain that these errors concerning the covenant fatally compromise the gospel of salvation by the grace of God in Jesus Christ alone.  Particularly, the fundamental doctrine of justification by faith alone is corrupted and denied.

    My purpose, however, is to teach the truth of the covenant positively, demonstrating from Scripture that it is the truth.

    The covenant of God with His people is a unique relationship of intimate fellowship in mutual love. That was the covenant announced to Adam and Eve in the garden immediately after the fall. That was the covenant established with Abraham. That was the covenant as administered to Israel, even though the covenant with Israel was burdened with the law. This is the nature of the perfect form of the covenant with believers and our children in the present, gospel age.

    We must not think of the covenant as comparable to a bargain struck by two businessmen, dependent upon stipulated conditions, for the purpose of the advantage of them both. But we must think of the covenant of God with men and women as a delightful marriage, or as a warm friendship.  It should be evident at once that it makes a world of difference regarding our keeping of the covenant, whether we think of the covenant between God and ourselves as comparable to a cold, business-like, conditional bargain, or as comparable to a marriage, or a friendship. A wife and a friend behave differently than a businessman, especially with regard to the motives of the heart.


Scripture on the Covenant

    We must learn the nature of the covenant from Scripture. We do not learn what the covenant is from extra-biblical sources, specifically, the treaties that heathen nations made with each other in ancient times. Scripture teaches the covenant, and Scripture reveals what the covenant is. At stake here are the truth that Scripture interprets Scripture, the truth of the sufficiency of Scripture, and the truth that every believer can understand Scripture in its fundamental doctrines.

    Scripture describes the covenant as a loving relationship of close communion between God and us. Scripture teaches this clearly, so that there is no excuse for the errors, the confusion, and the ignorance concerning the covenant on the part of many Christians and churches. First, in virtually every passage where the covenant is on the foreground, especially, where there is a new, progressive development of the covenant, the same words occur. They are the words, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” By these words, God reveals to us what the covenant is, the nature of the covenant. They are found in Genesis 17:7 , where God establishes the covenant with Abraham; in the preface to the ten commandments, by which God established the covenant with Israel as a nation, in Exodus 20:2 ; in Jeremiah 31:33 , where God promised the new covenant with Israel and Judah; and in Revelation 21:3, where John saw the new creation and the glorified church in the day of Christ.

    These words are the “covenant formula.” They describe the covenant as a bond of love. They are similar to a man’s saying to a woman, “I will be your husband, and you will be my wife.” They are like the words of a man to a boy, “I will be your father, and you will be my son.” Running throughout the entire Bible, they show the unity of the covenant.

    That the covenant is a relationship of fellowship is proved, secondly, in that the two earthly realities to which Scripture compares the covenant are both close, indeed, the closest, relation-ships of love. They are the father/son relationship and marriage ( Ex. 4:23 ; Ezek. 16:8 ).

    Third, Scripture finds the essence of the covenant, and the enjoyment of the life of the covenant, in the tabernacle and temple.  The tabernacle was the place where God dwelt with His people and where they, therefore, could draw near to their God, to live with Him in His presence, glorify Him, and enjoy Him. In one word, the tabernacle, or temple, which was at the centre of Israel, was fellowship. It was not a stock exchange, or a lawyer’s office, where spiritual deals were made, but it was home.

    In this connection, I remind us that the incarnation of Jesus, according to the Greek text of John 1:14 , was the Word’s “tabernacling” with us (the AV has “dwelt among us”). Also, the New Testament teaches that the church is the temple of God (I P et. 2:5) and the house of God ( I Tim. 3:15 ); the children of God (II Cor. 6:18); and the bride of Christ ( Eph. 5:22-33 ). All of these descriptions of the church express close communion between God and His people. According to Revelation 21 , heaven will be this, that the tabernacle of God will be with men, that is, the fullest enjoyment of the covenant.

    Fourth, in light of Scripture’s teaching that the covenant is God’s fellowship with us, and our communion with Him, we can see the announcement of the covenant in Genesis 3:15 . God put enmity—hatred and hostility—between His chosen people and the devil, implying that He restores friendship between some of the fallen human race and Himself. By the fall, all the human race became hostile to God and friendly to the old serpent. By the promise of the gospel of Genesis 3:15 , God delivered some from their friendship with Satan and created friendship with Himself.  Enmity between the seed of the woman and Satan means friendship between the seed of the woman and God.

    Fifth, with regard to Abraham personally, God’s covenant with him makes Abraham “the friend of God” ( James 2:23 ). God and Abraham expressed and enjoyed their friendship. On one occasion, God came down from heaven to have a meal with Abraham.  God told Abraham the secrets of His plan concerning Sodom.  Abraham freely spoke with God about his hopes and fears. Abraham and God walked together “as good friends do, and true” ( Gen. 18 ).

    Likewise, God has His meal with us in the Lord’s Supper. He tells us all His heart in the preaching of the gospel. We unburden our hearts to God in prayer and song. We walk with Him, consciously living in His presence, as He is with us by the Spirit of Christ in our hearts.


The Highest Good

    Fellowship with God, which is the covenant, is the greatest good, the highest privilege, and the supreme bliss for humans.  Fellowship is the most delightful pleasure in everyday, earthly life: friend with friend, family life, and especially the sharing of life  in marriage. Even though the early church may not have used the word “covenant” in describing the highest good for Christians, it taught the truth of the covenant when it proposed the “beatific vision”—the sight of God—as the high point of salvation and as the supreme bliss of heaven. Heaven will be home, because Father dwells there, and we will live with Him.

    As fellowship with God, the covenant is not a temporal means to a higher, better, eternal end, or goal. The covenant is the end, or goal, itself. The Bible teaches that the covenant is everlasting: “I will establish my covenant,” God promised to Abraham, “for an everlasting covenant” ( Gen. 17:7 ). Hebrews 13:20 speaks of the blood of our Lord Jesus as “the blood of the everlasting covenant.”

    As communion with God, the communion of children with their heavenly Father, the covenant reflects God’s own blessed life. God does not merely exist, like a lonely hermit. He lives in a communion of persons. His rich life is triune life: the fellowship of love of the Father and the Son in the Holy Ghost. John 1:18 teaches that the Son lies eternally in the bosom of the Father. The life of God is the original family life. This is why family is basic in creation and in the church. In grace, the triune God reveals His own life, which is fellowship, in His covenant with us. Indeed, He lets us share, in a creaturely way, in His life.


Established in Christ

    Jesus Christ laid the basis of the covenant in His death, obtaining for God’s people the right to become friends of God ( Heb. 8, 9). Now, as risen, Jesus creates the living bond between each of God’s people and God by His gospel and Holy Spirit. The  realization of the covenant was Jesus’ prayer in John 17 : “that they also may be one in us” (v. 21). This prayer God would answer the next day by the redemption of the cross. Therefore, Jesus is called the mediator of the covenant ( Heb. 9:15 ).

    Since Jesus is the mediator of the covenant, the only way into the covenant, and the only experience of the covenant, is faith in Jesus Christ. We come to the Father only by faith in Jesus Christ ( John 14:6 ).

    But there is another sense in which God has established the covenant in Christ. God has made the covenant with Jesus Christ personally. The covenant is not made with the elect directly. It is made directly with Jesus Christ. The covenant is made with us only because and inasmuch as we belong to Jesus Christ. According to Genesis 17:7 , God made His covenant with Abraham’s “seed.” Commonly, we think of Isaac, or perhaps of  all Abraham’s physical children. This is a mistake.

    That “seed” was Christ. This is the explicit teaching of Galatians 3:16: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” God made the promise of the covenant to Christ. Thus, He established His covenant with Christ as head of the covenant. As head, Christ is the legal representative of all God’s people. Just as the covenant of creation in Paradise was made with Adam as head of the race, so the covenant of grace was made with Christ as head of the new human race of the elect out of all nations. Romans 5:12ff . compares Adam and Christ as two heads of the covenants in history.

    This implies that God makes His covenant with those whom He has elected in Christ unto salvation. God does not establish His covenant with all men without exception. He does not establish it with all the natural children of Abraham. He does not establish it with all the physical children of believers. Galatians 3:29 makes this application of the truth of Christ’s headship in the covenant. Galatians 3:16 has stated that God established the covenant with Christ, as the “seed” of Abraham. Verse 29 teaches, “if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.” The promise, the covenant, and the inheritance are for those who are Christ’s.


A Gracious Covenant

    Established in Christ, the covenant is gracious. It is truly the “covenant of grace,” as Scripture and the Reformed confessions name it. It is not a covenant of human works, of human will, or of human worth.

    God decreed the covenant in His eternal counsel, out of grace alone. God confirmed the covenant in the cross of Christ, out of grace alone. God establishes the covenant in the hearts of elect believers and the genuine children of believers—the “children of the promise” ( Rom. 9:8 ) —by the regenerating Spirit, out of grace alone. God maintains the covenant and perfects it with all those who are Christ’s, preserving His covenant friends, out of grace alone.

    The covenant is unconditional: it does not depend upon the sinner. The teaching that the covenant is conditional is a form of the denial of salvation by grace alone. This doctrine makes salvation in the covenant a matter of man’s willing and running, which Romans 9:16 rejects: “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth.” I note in passing that the grievous contemporary heresy in the reputedly conservative Reformed churches in North America that denies justification by faith alone bases itself on, and arises from, the doctrine of a conditional covenant.

    In light of what the covenant is, namely, fellowship between God and His people, fellowship established in Christ, and fellowship that is gracious, we can understand rightly what Scripture means when it admonishes us to keep the covenant.


The Idea of Keeping the Covenant

    Those with whom God makes His covenant are called by God to keep the covenant.  After God promised His covenant to Abraham in Genesis 17:7 , He commanded Abraham, “Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations” (v. 9).

    The ten commandments were God’s demand to Israel, to keep His covenant. Exodus 34:28 calls the ten commandments “the words of the covenant.” Still today, the ten commandments are binding upon the church as the rule for the church’s life with God in the covenant. In the ten commandments, God demands that believers and their children keep His covenant.

     Christians are called to keep the covenant in the sense of observing the covenant, doing what God requires of His covenant friends, living the kind of life that is fitting for the covenant. Christians are to keep the covenant as a wife’s submission to her husband keeps, or properly observes, the marriage, and as a child’s honoring his parents is fitting for family life.

    Keeping the covenant is not a work of man upon which the covenant depends, or that cooperates with God’s work, to make the covenant promise effectual, or to bring the covenant to perfection.  If this were the case, the covenant and salvation in the covenant would not be by grace, but by works. Such a doctrine of covenant keeping is a denial of the gospel of grace.

    The conclusive evidence that keeping the covenant is not a work of man upon which the covenant depends is the plain teaching of the Bible that our keeping of the covenant is itself the gracious gift of God to us and in us. All our obedience and good works are part of the covenant itself. The prophet promised the new covenant with the church in these words: “this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; after those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts” ( Jer. 31:33 ). Love for God in the heart and obedience to all the commandments are not a work of the sinner upon which the covenant depends. Rather, they are the gift of God to the elect church and her members in His great work of making His covenant with them. Obedience to the law is not a condition unto the covenant, but a privilege and blessing of the covenant.

    Similar is the teaching of Genesis 18:19 . Jehovah said to Abraham,  with whom He had established His covenant, “I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.” As is also true for us parents in the new covenant, it was necessary that Abraham keep the covenant by commanding his children to “keep the way of the LORD.” But Abraham’s commanding of his children was the fruit of Jehovah’s knowing Abraham. The word “that” in the phrase, “I know him, that he will command his children” is the conjunction of purpose in the Hebrew, “in order that”: “I know him [Abraham], in order that he [Abraham] will command his children.” Abraham’s commanding his children to keep the way of the Lord is the fruit of the Lord’s own mighty covenant love. It is the fruit of election. It is as if Jehovah said, “I will cause Abraham to command his children.”

    Our sanctification (and this is what our keeping the covenant is) is not our work upon which our salvation depends, or our work cooperating with God’s work. Away with this notion, once and for all, from the thinking and teaching of Christians! Nor does this notion stimulate lazy Christians to work harder. Rather, it terrifies the people of God, makes others proud Pharisees, and causes others to work for God as slaves. God works in us all our willing and doing (Phil. 2:13).


The Necessity of Keeping the Covenant

    Although not a work of man upon which the covenant depends, keeping the covenant is important, indeed, necessary. It is necessary, because God demands it, because it is the way in which we are saved, and know we are saved, and because it glorifies God, which is the chief end of the covenant.

    But covenant keeping is necessary also in view of the fact that the covenant is a relationship of fellowship between God and us.  We have a part in the covenant, just as God also has a part. In an earthly relationship, both of those who are related to each other must do their duty. The husband loves his wife and cares for her, and the wife submits to her husband and helps him. Parents rear their children in love, and the children honor their father and mother. So in the spiritual relationship of the covenant, God in Christ loves and saves His friends and children, according to His own free promise. His people love, reverence, serve, and obey Him, which is His demand of us, and our calling.

    Even though God works in us to do our part in the covenant, He works in such a way that we keep the covenant freely, willingly, cheerfully, and carefully. And this pleases God, pleases God immensely, as it pleases a husband that his wife loves him and willingly is a help. It displeases God, displeases Him greatly, that we fail to keep the covenant. Therefore, He chastens His children for disobedience, sometimes severely.

    In addition, so important to God is our covenant keeping that He tries, or tests, our commitment to Him. Such was the trial (not “temptation,” as the AV has in Genesis 22:1 ) of Abraham in the matter of offering Isaac to God as a sacrifice. When we pass the test, as Abraham did, although only by the grace of God, which is mighty in us, as it was in Abraham, God is pleased with us, as He was with Abraham: “now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Gen. 22:12).

    It is not possible that one with whom God has established His covenant can, by failing to keep the covenant, break the covenant in the sense of cutting off the relationship and nullifying both God’s gracious covenant purpose and God’s gracious covenant work. God preserves His covenant saints (Canons of Dordt, V). Having begun a good work of covenant grace in one, God will “perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).

    Scripture does warn against the great sin of breaking the covenant. Genesis 17:14 threatens that the uncircumcised man-child “shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant” (a warning all Baptist parents should heed). The grave warnings in Hebrews 6:4-8 and Hebrews 10:26-31 are the same. Covenant breakers violate and transgress the covenant, which, although not made with them personally, is revealed to them. In the sphere of this covenant they live. The life of this covenant is their duty.  Refusing to keep the covenant, they render themselves guilty of despising the covenant. They bring down on themselves the curse of the covenant. These are the men, women, and young people described by the apostle in Romans 9:6 as being “of Israel,” in distinction from the elect covenant keepers, who are “Israel.”

    The nature of the covenant as fellowship with God and the truth of covenant keeping as living rightly with God in this bond of love determine the manner of our keeping the covenant.


The Manner of Keeping the Covenant

    Here we take note of certain basic characteristics of our life as covenant keepers. These characteristics apply to every aspect of our life: worship, marriage, family, citizenship, and work.

    First, keeping the covenant consists of obeying God’s commandments.  Psalm 103:17, 18 affirms God’s covenant faithfulness “to such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.” The Hebrew parallelism of the psalms teaches here that keeping the covenant consists of remembering God’s commandments, to do them. Covenant keeping is simply this: obedience to God’s commandments in holy Scripture. Ignoring the commandments of God, whether by a church or an individual, is covenant breaking, even though the church or individual ignores the commandments on behalf of a better worship of God (“progressive worship”), or of a service of God that is more acceptable to contemporary society (women in church office and the denial of the headship of the husband in marriage), or of sympathetic love for the neighbor (permission of unbiblical divorce and remarriage).  The great principle of covenant life was stated by the prophet Samuel in the Old Testament: “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” ( I Sam. 15:22 ).

    Second, we keep the covenant by loving God as our heavenly father, our husband in Jesus Christ, our redeemer from sin and death, and our dear friend. We keep the covenant by love for God in our heart. Love is the demand of the husband from his wife and of the parents from their children. Love is the demand of God from us. This love, which is the essence of covenant keeping, is grateful love. It is love that is, and must be, greater than love for anything or anyone else, so that all else is given up, if need be, in love for God. This love proves itself genuine by right worship of the triune God alone. 

    In order to love Him, we must know Him, and the more we know Him, the more we will want to know Him. Love for God shows itself in study of the Word, attendance at sound sermons, and the reading of solid theological books and magazines.

    Third, the manner of covenant keeping is drawing near to God, as Hebrews 10:22 exhorts: “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” It is a troubled marriage in which the wife keeps her distance from her husband. We draw near to God in prayer. We draw near to God by seeking Him where He is to be found: in the true church; in the preaching of the gospel; in the sacraments, particularly, the sacrament of the Supper.

    Fourth, it belongs to the manner of keeping the covenant that we keep the covenant unconditionally. God’s covenant is unconditional on His part. This is comfort for us.  But the covenant is likewise unconditional on our part. This is often suffering for us.  Covenant keeping means loss, sacrifice, self-denial, suffering, and even death. Scripture describes all of this as the “cross” (Mark 8:34). Parents have given up the friendship of their children; wives have lost a husband; men have denied themselves sexually; all the members of the covenant suffer reproach; many have paid the price of their life.

    Covenant keeping is not only for the time when it is convenient and easy, but also for times when keeping the covenant sails against the wind. This is what the apostate churches and false prophets of the twenty-first century deny, and what the people gladly ignore.

    The command in the covenant is, “Unconditionally, be faithful to your husband or wife!” “Unconditionally, confess the truth!” “Unconditionally, bring up your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord Jesus Christ!” “Unconditionally, see to it that you join a true church, and remain a lively member of it!”

    Fifth, we keep the covenant in our generations. The covenant is always with Christ and His chosen people in such a way that the covenant and its salvation run in the lines of believers and their children. This was true in the Old Testament: “… between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations” (Gen. 17:7). This is true in the New Testament: “the promise is unto you, and to your children” ( Acts 2:39 ). The believer does not only keep the covenant himself personally, but he also keeps it with regard to his children and grandchildren. He has children, when God blesses his marriage with conception and birth; he presents his children for baptism in a true church; he teaches his children the truth; he rears them in love; he disciplines them. He does not live individualistically and for the moment, but thinks and acts covenantally for the welfare of his descendants for years to come.

    Last, we keep the covenant in the hope of future, everlasting blessedness, which will be a gracious reward of our covenant keeping.  Abraham had this hope. He looked for a heavenly country ( Heb. 11:16 ).

    What is this future blessedness?

    This, that the tabernacle of God will be with men, and God will dwell with us. We will be His people, and God Himself will be our God. God will then wipe away all tears from our eyes, and there will be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying. Neither will there be any more pain, because God will make all things new ( Rev. 21:3-5 ).

    Communion with God!

    The consummation of the covenant of grace!


Chapter 2

Keeping God's Covenant in the Church


P r o f. Herman Hanko


    There is, according to the Scriptures, the closest possible relationship between the truth of the covenant and the doctrine of the church.  Or, to put it more concretely and practically, there is the closest possible relationship between God’s establishment and maintenance of His covenant with His elect and His establishment and preservation of the church in the midst of the world. And there is the closest relationship between our responsibility to be keepers of God’s covenant and our responsibilities to the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. So close is that relationship that I am convinced that we do not exaggerate if we say that the covenant of grace that God establishes with His people in Christ could never come to realization in history without the church. God establishes and maintains His covenant through the church of Christ, particularly as that church comes to manifestation in the midst of the world in the church institute.

    God chose to Himself a church in Christ. When Paul begins his epistle to the Ephesians, he calls the church to join with him in a doxology of praise to Him who has chosen us in Christ from before the foundation of the world ( Eph. 1:4 ). Christ and the church are so much one that it is impossible to speak of Christ without speaking at the same time of the church. There is no Christ apart from the church. There is no church apart from Christ. They are one, together the elect of God.

    When the Scriptures emphasize that the church is one in Christ, that is covenantal language. We are His body, Scripture tells us. We are joined to Him by a true faith. He is our Head. We are nothing apart from Him. All our life comes from Him. We are His and He is ours.

    The unity of Christ and His people in the church is also the realization of God’s covenant with His people.

    This identity of the covenant and the church was prefigured already in the old dispensation. The nation of Israel in the old dispensation was the church, as Stephen in his speech before the Sanhedrin calls it: “the church in the wilderness” ( Acts 7:38 ).  The very centre of the life of that church of the old dispensation was the temple. In that temple God dwelt in the midst of His people.  Israel constituted the church because the temple had been established there; that is, because God had taken up His abode in Zion and called His people to dwell with Him in the temple. God and His people dwelling together was the heart and centre of all of Israel’s life as the church.

    In God’s marvelous ways of working, the temple in the old dispensation was a picture, a figure, and a type of God’s covenant relationship with His people in which He dwells with them and calls them into fellowship with Himself. But because the temple was a figure of the covenant, the temple itself was not and could not be the perfection of the covenant. It was only a figure because God dwelt in the Most Holy Place, in the innermost sanctuary, and the nation of Israel could not enter the temple beyond the outer court. That meant that, from one point of view, God and His people dwelt together in covenant fellowship because they dwelt together under one roof. They lived together in the same house.

    But at the same time, because it was figurative and because the fulfillment had not yet come in Jesus Christ, God and His people could not come very close together. It was almost as if a young man married a young woman and, though they were united in marriage, and though now that they lived together in one house under the same roof in the fellowship of marriage, nevertheless, the wife lived in the one end of the house and the husband lived in the other end of the house. They could not come together. The distance of the intervening rooms separated them from each other.

    That was the way it was in the old dispensation. God was in the pillar of cloud that filled the Most Holy Place (the same pillar of cloud, by the way, that had led Israel through the wilderness for forty years, and the same cloud that took our Lord Jesus Christ to heaven at the time of His ascension). That symbol of God’s presence was in the Most Holy Place. Israel was in the outer court.  Between God and His people a heavy veil, the altar of incense, the table of shewbread, the candlestick, the whole Levitical priesthood and, above all, the altar of burnt offering separated the two. The blood of atonement had not yet been shed. It was prefigured in the sacrifices, but Israel could not come near to God, as near as it is possible to come, until atonement had actually been made.

    That was the typical covenant fellowship in which God dwelt with His church. The church, the existence of the church, depended upon that temple. When the temple was destroyed, that was the end of Israel as a church to all intents and purposes, and the nation was scattered among the heathen.

    At the very beginning of our Lord’s ministry a very interesting and important incident took place, recorded for us in John 2 . I am referring to the cleansing of the temple by our Lord Jesus Christ at the time of the Passover. On two different occasions Christ cleansed the temple of the buyers and sellers who had made the house of God a house of merchandise. Our Lord cleansed the temple at the beginning of His ministry and at the end—almost as if it were His inaugural sermon and His farewell sermon.

    That cleansing of the temple infuriated the Jewish religious leaders. It infuriated them, I suspect, because they were embarrassed.  They had been made to look like fools in the eyes of the Jews. But it was above all a challenge to their authority in the nation. So they came to the Lord with a question: “Who gave you the authority to do this? Who are the ones whom God has appointed to be responsible for what takes place in the temple? If you chase us out, you must claim an authority that is higher than ours.  We would like to know what that authority is that is superior to ours and that gives you the right to determine what should take place in this temple and what should not.”

    To that question, the Lord gave a very striking answer, which at first glance seems almost to be evasive. Christ said to the Jews, “This is the authority by which I cleanse the temple: Destroy this temple and in three days I will build it up.” Now, you understand that the Jews pretended that they did not perceive what Jesus meant. They mocked. “Oh,” they said, “are you going to build this temple in three days? This temple has been in building for forty-six years and it is still not completed. Who do you think you are that you can build the temple in three days?” But, although they mocked, they were very uneasy. Those words of Christ stung so badly that they never forgot them.  Even when the Lord was finally hanging on the cross, they still remembered those words that He had spoken at the beginning of His ministry, and they called out to Him: “Oh, temple destroyer! Save thyself.” They understood, maybe not entirely what the Lord meant, but well enough to be frightened.

    John explains the meaning of Jesus’ words: “he spake of the temple of his body” (John 2:21 ).

    There is the idea of the covenant. That old temple was a symbol of God dwelling with His people under one roof. But it could not be the reality. God and His people were too far apart from each other to enjoy the full intimacy and the richness of the fellowship of marriage. The blood of atonement had not yet been shed.

    Our Lord claims for Himself true authority over the temple: “I have authority over this old temple because My body is the true temple, and that old temple is but a figure of My body. That old temple is Mine because it is a shadow cast by Me over the whole of the old dispensation. I have the right to do with it what I will because I own it. This body, the true temple, is Mine. I will do with it as I please. And I please to do the will of My heavenly Father. So you Jews, who will hate me enough to kill Me, will yourselves destroy this temple. But following your act of destroying this temple, when I raise it up in the resurrection, the true temple of God will be built.”

    The cleansing of the temple was an amazing event in the life of the Lord Jesus Christ. That it stands at the very beginning of His earthly ministry is intended to impress upon us the fact that our Lord, in the entire earthly ministry in which He was engaged, culminating in His cross and resurrection from the dead, was building the temple of God, the true temple, where God would dwell in covenant fellowship with His people.     Christ is the temple of God. The perfect sacrifice for sin has been made. The blood of bulls and goats need no longer be shed.  The veil of the old temple was ripped from top to bottom. Christ entered into the Most Holy Place, and He took us along. Not the typical Most Holy Place of the earthly temple in Jerusalem, but the inner tabernacle of heaven itself where God dwells.

    In Christ, that perfect fellowship of the covenant is attained.  Paul tells us in his epistle to the Colossians, as he describes the great glory of Christ the head of the church, that in Christ “dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” ( Col. 2:9 ).  Every word in that text is important. In Christ dwells the fullness of the Godhead: the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the fullness of His divine life and glory is in Christ, revealed in Him and through Him, dwelling in Him. But, says Paul, the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Him bodily. It dwells in the body of Christ.

    Who is the body of Christ? The church! All of Scripture testifies of that. Christ is the one, therefore, in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells with the church, so that Christ is the one in whom God and His church come as close together as it is possible to come; so close, in fact, that Peter, in a statement that never ceases to astound me, says in II Peter 1:4 that we are “partakers of the divine nature.” I have never dared to preach on that text. I confess that I do not know what that means, except for the fact that it illustrates in an astounding way how close God and His people come together in our Lord Jesus Christ, so that they dwell together in the true temple of God in covenant fellowship: the church in covenant fellowship with God in Christ.

    Christ, in order to realize the covenant of God, establishes the church in the midst of the world. The church is a covenant community. I thought long and hard about that word “community.” (I am not fond of the word. It has connotations in our modern ecclesiastical parlance that are distasteful to me. But I cannot think of a better word, so we will use it.) The church constitutes God’s covenant people. The church is an organization, an institution of God’s covenant people. That does not only mean that the church is established for purposes of showing that God establishes His covenant with His people. The church, the institute of the church, the church in her organization, the church with a constitution, the church with a membership roll, the church with officebearers—that church as an institution is the means by which God realizes His covenant.

    In the worship of the church, God’s people enter into covenant fellowship with God.  God comes to dwell with His people.  He speaks to them and they to Him in the holy conversation of covenant fellowship. He tells them His secrets ( Ps. 25:14 ) and they respond in praise.

    The church is the mother of God’s covenant people. The figure emphasizes that the church is the instrument by which God brings forth His covenant people. That is, He makes them His covenant people. He regenerates them. He makes them, through the work of regeneration, His sons and His daughters. He takes them into His family. He begets them again by a second birth so that they are children of God and He is their Father. It is through the Word of the gospel that the people of God are quickened unto new life, the power of regeneration within them is made to grow, and faith is worked within them, which unites them to Christ their Savior. Therefore, the church is necessary for the establishment and realization of God’s covenant in the world.

    In Lord’s Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 54, the doctrine of the church is discussed and defined with reference to an article in the Apostles’ Creed, “What believest thou concerning the ‘holy, catholic church’ of Christ?” The answer to that question, in part, is this: “That the Son of God ... gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself by His Spirit and Word ... a church chosen unto everlasting life...”   He gathers that church.  He defends that church. He preserves that church by His Word and Spirit. And, as the Catechism makes clear, and as is taught throughout the Scriptures, the Word is the Word of the everlasting gospel, the power of the new life, the power whereby God’s family is brought into existence, the Word that almighty God speaks through the gospel to call out of darkness into light His elect church and to call them into fellowship with Himself in Jesus Christ. That is the work that He gives to the church.

    But not only is the establishment of the covenant dependent on the church, but also its maintenance. Our subject is: Keeping God’s Covenant. Keeping God’s covenant is our calling and responsibility.  I want to underscore at the very outset the fact that all of our calling is possible because of the church.

    God is pleased to establish His covenant in the line of generations.  “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee” ( Gen. 17:7 ) is God’s Word to Abraham. The church, therefore, is the gathering of believers and their seed. That means that the elect children of believers are members of the church, that is, of the church institute, of the church in her organizational form and not only of the church as the body of Christ.

    One does not bring his child to baptism to have that child inducted into the church.  Or, if I may put it differently, a child of believers does not become a member of the church through baptism.  An elect child of believers does not become a member of the church when that child comes of age and makes confession of his or her faith. We may not say, “Oh, so-and-so has now made confession of faith and has joined the church.”  That is unbiblical language. When our Heidelberg Catechism discusses the reason why we must baptize infants, it says, “Of course they have to be baptized, because they, as well as adults, are members of God’s covenant and of the church of Jesus Christ” (cf. Q & A 74). We baptize them not to make them members of the church. We baptize them because they are members of the church, because God establishes His covenant, saves His church, in the line of generations.

    Having said that, I do not merely mean that the children of believers have their names on the membership rolls of the church.  That may be true. And a consistory that keeps good records of the membership of the congregation includes in the records the name of every child of believers. That is true. But that is not the meaning. It is not a reference to the mere fact that somewhere in the archives of the elders appears the name of this child. An elect child born into the church institute is a member of the body of Christ; incorporated into the family of God. Of that child you may say what God says: “I am your God and you are my child.”

    That truth does not negate the mission calling of the church, because God gathers His church from all the nations of the church in the new dispensation. It is as if the Spirit, poured out on Pentecost, burst the bonds that bound the church to the nation of Israel, so  that the work of the Spirit is now a work that He accomplishes in every nation and tribe and tongue.

    But always when the Spirit goes forth to gather that church catholic, the Spirit gathers not individuals here and there. The Spirit gathers believers and their seed, generations, children. Paul could say to the Philippian jailor when the Philippian jailor, with a heart-rending cry, said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” ( Acts 16:30-31 ).

    Baptists argue, “We don’t know whether there were any children in the jailor’s house.” I suppose we do not. But it does not make any difference. That is not the point.  The point is simply this: How could Paul say to the Philippian jailor, “Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is salvation for you and your house”? How could he say that when he had not met anybody in the house, when Paul himself did not know whether there were children in the house? It did not make any difference to Paul because Paul understood that salvation is in the line of generations. Believers and their seed constitute the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Children in the church belong to God’s covenant. They are regenerated sons and daughters in the family of God.

    Covenant keeping, therefore, in the church (and I turn to that subject now) involves taking care of the children. It seems as if the modern church in America, as well as here in the British Isles, has no conception of that whatsoever. In many churches in America where children are still brought to church, there is the silly and altogether sinful practice of the minister calling all the children to the front of church before the service. He then sets all the children on the floor in front of him and he sits on the steps. He says to those children some empty, meaningless, nonsensical words. Then he says to the children, “Now you must go.” So some adult arises from the congregation and leads the children out of the church. That is wrong! That is not leading the children to Christ. That is leading the children away from Christ.

    There is a beautiful incident recorded for us in the last chapter of the gospel according to John. You recall how Peter had denied his Lord. The sin of denying his Lord was such a great sin that Peter had made it impossible for him to function any longer as a disciple or later on as an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. He had, by his sin of denying the Lord, cut himself off from the Lord. In a very moving scene, the Lord restores Peter to his office of apostle. And among the instructions He gives to Peter, the apostle who is now restored to office, is this: “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15). That is a command given to the apostles. And because it is given to the apostles, it is given to the church built on the foundation of the apostles. The words of Christ still ring down the centuries of time to the church of Jesus Christ today: “Feed my lambs.”

    If you want to speak, as you must, of keeping covenant in the church, begin there. Feed Christ’s lambs. Christ wills it, Christ commands it. Christ makes a special point of it when He gives His orders to the church of the new dispensation through the apostles.

    What a horrible thing it is, therefore, to refuse to feed the lambs of Christ. Why feed them? Because they are lambs. Because they belong to the sheepfold, they as well as adults. It reminds us of Isaiah 40:11 : “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”

    Such care begins with baptism. Baptism feeds the lambs. Baptism is the sign of the covenant. Baptism is a sign of the fact, therefore, that God is pleased to establish His covenant with believers and their seed. It is a marvellous sign that has taken the place of  circumcision. It is a sign that demonstrates to us in a vivid way that our children are washed in the blood of Christ even as we are. They are incorporated by the blood of Christ into God’s everlasting covenant of grace.

    I am not prepared to say with any kind of certainty whether a child at the moment it is being baptized is already receptive in some small measure to the means of grace that God has provided for the church in the sacraments. But I do know this, that in the heart of that child is the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ. And the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ unites that child to Christ. That Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ has powers that are beyond any earthly imagining. Any pastor who is faithful in his visitation of the sick and of the dying knows with certainty that the evidence of spiritual life can be present in a sick person when all evidences of natural life are gone except for a shallow breathing.  The Spirit can do what we cannot. So it can be with a baby. A child is influenced by being in church, by the singing of the Psalms, by the word of the minister, by the fellowship of the people of God.  Keeping covenant means to feed Christ’s lambs.

    But the church has other responsibilities.

    Any mother knows that her baby needs the healthiest of foods.  No mother is going to be satisfied with watery gruel to feed that baby, but she wants the best and richest milk.  No mother is going to feed that baby a bottle that is laced with arsenic. A mother is careful to give her baby that which will nourish that child. Can covenant parents be satisfied with anything less, for the children of the covenant, than the true food that feeds the soul?

    In the baptism form that is used in our churches, this question is put to parents before the sacrament of baptism is administered: “Whether you acknowledge the doctrine which is contained in the Old and New Testament, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and which is taught here in this Christian Church, to be the true and perfect doctrine of salvation?” To put it in the figure in which the Bible itself puts it, parents are asked, “Do you promise to feed this child with the only food that will nourish that child’s soul?” A doctor would not send a baby home with its mother if the doctor had any suspicion whatever that that mother was going to starve the child. The church has the same interest in her children and insists that parents promise and vow before God, “We will see that this child is fed with the only food that can feed and nourish the soul of that child unto everlasting life.”

    That vow they may not break. The church is responsible for feeding that child. The church is responsible for the religious, spiritual edification of the children. Children must be brought to church and must be kept in the sanctuary. We often underestimate the ability of a child to understand the sermon. Sometimes children, little children, pre-school children, amaze me with what they heard in a sermon and what they understood.  Parents have an obligation to bring their children to church and teach them to listen to the sermon.

    In a congregation I once served, mothers took their babies to church the moment they were able to come to church themselves.  Sometimes there were four or five babies in the auditorium. There was nowhere for the mothers to go if the baby started to cry, so they stayed in the auditorium. They asked me once, “Does it bother you when you have two or three squalling babies in  church?” Well, I suppose maybe it does. I don’t know, I don’t recall exactly. One can block it out. But I’d much rather have them be there than that mothers keep them home until parents think they can sit still in church at six or seven or eight years old.

    This does not just mean that you take your child to church and park it on a chair and let it sit there and hope it goes to sleep so that it will not disturb the rest of the congregation. You teach that child what it means to listen. You teach that child what the minister is preaching on before the service. You teach that child what he has to listen for. You teach that child that this is the Word of God. You teach that child to know as much as it possibly can of what the minister is saying. The results will surprise you. It is my conviction and my experience that parents underestimate the spiritual abilities of children to understand.

    Nevertheless, the church is aware that little children cannot understand the full doctrines that are being proclaimed from the pulpit as the minister preaches the whole counsel of God. And so the church prepares catechetical instruction for the children.  The church does this. Sunday School is not enough. I do not want to leave the wrong impression. I have no objection to Sunday School in itself. But the church has a responsibility, the church established by Christ has a calling in the covenant to feed the lambs, as part of its official ministry.

    Catechetical instruction has fallen on bad times. In most churches it has disappeared altogether. And where catechetical instruction is still practiced, it is often begun at twelve or thirteen years old, when the best seven or eight years of a child’s life have been missed.

    Even if catechetical instruction is started when children are five or six years old, some ministers, seemingly too busy, give their catechism work a lick and a promise.  Oh, they are only children. We can wing it in catechism. Nobody will ever know.”  This will not do. It is as important to prepare instruction for the children as it is to prepare a sermon for the Lord’s Day. Any minister with any conscientious awareness of his calling has those words of Christ ringing in his ears: Feed My lambs! He painstakingly leads them through the Scriptures, first through the sacred history of the church, the history of God’s covenant, God’s mighty deeds; and then gradually he introduces them to the great truths of the Reformed faith. He does that as a minister of the gospel, as a servant of Christ in the church, as an officebearer fulfilling the church’s responsibility,  until those children come to spiritual maturity and can take their place in the church.

    Let me say one more thing about that, something that I consider important. The children of a congregation are the responsibility of the congregation. When the parents present their children for baptism and answer “Yes” to the questions that are put to them, the point is that the parents assume primary responsibility to teach their children the ways of the Lord. But the whole congregation joins with the parents and says resoundingly, though in their hearts, “Yes, we assume the responsibility for the covenant instruction of these lambs of Christ!” You must never forget that. We may not ignore our responsibility towards the children in the church. We may not say, “Oh, that’s the parents’ business; let them take care of it.” The church that does not heed this calling of Christ suffers, and will suffer, because of its indifference to the instruction of its children. That is where keeping God’s covenant begins.

    Keeping God’s covenant in the church means also what Paul says in Ephesians 4:3, “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” That word “endeavouring” could perhaps be interpreted as meaning “striving with all your might, laboring night and day, dedicating yourself to the task of keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

    Let me call your attention to a couple of elements. In the first place, notice verse 1: “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called.” Paul formulates this admonition in this fashion because he wants to remind the Ephesians that he is a prisoner in Rome and that it is more than likely that his life on earth is near its end.  He is saying, in effect, to the Ephesians, “Now that I have just about come to the end of my earthly ministry in the church of Christ, as a prisoner awaiting execution, if there is one thing more than any other that I want to admonish you to do, it is this: strive to keep the unity of the Spirit.”

    Second, it is clear that Paul is speaking here of the church institute. He is assuming that the people of God who keep covenant are members of the church. We say we face problems here in the British Isles in establishing the church institute in its purest form.  Do you think Paul had no problems in establishing the church institute on his missionary journeys throughout Asia Minor and Greece and Italy? Nevertheless, he assumed that those to whom he writes are members of the church. And now he is saying, “As members of the church, because the church is the means whereby God establishes and maintains His covenant with His people, strive to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

    Third, Paul means that the church of our Lord Jesus Christ is at the very heart and centre of our lives. I underscore that because, in today’s world, even those who belong to the church have a very loose attitude toward the church. They are what I call ecclesiastical hobos. They move from one church to the other without giving it a second thought. They come to a church, maybe even a Reformed church where the gospel is fully preached, and they say, “Ah, we found it at last. Here is a church that preaches and holds to the Reformed faith.” With eagerness in their heart they join. But within six months or a year, the man, who is working for such and such a company, receives orders from his superiors, “You are being transferred to such and such a town. And we will double your salary and pay for your moving expenses.” Before you can even realize what is happening, he has ordered a moving van.  You say to him, if you can catch him before he leaves town, “Is there a church there?” “I don’t know, I’ll find somewhere to go,” is his response. And off he goes with a wave of his hand. That is not the attitude of one who keeps covenant towards the church. This is the church where God is realizing His everlasting covenant of grace. That means that this church, to which I belong, where my children and where I myself and my wife can be fed, where I can be defended from the fierce attacks of the enemy, where I can be preserved by the almighty grace of God through the preaching of the gospel, is the church that is at the very centre and heart of my life.

    Nothing is so important as my church. Without that I have nothing. And so the entire life that the believer lives revolves around the welfare of the church. That is where his heart is. That is the object of his love. For that church he continually prays. On behalf  of the unity of that church he will do anything.

    So often our attitude towards the church is one of selfishness.  We go to church on Sunday and we sit there. Maybe we are in a foul mood. Maybe we are sleepy or tired. We leave church and say, “I don’t know what is the matter with that minister, but this was rubbish that we had this morning and I didn’t understand anything of it. It is far above my head. And I didn’t get anything out of the service.” Well, as frequently as not, the answer to that kind of complaint is this: You don’t go to church for your own benefit in the first place. This is the church of Christ, where God is praised and glorified, where God establishes and maintains His covenant. The whole church does not revolve around whether you are edified or not. If you are, that is good. You must be. If you take a proper attitude towards the preaching of the word, you will be. And if you dedicate yourself to the church, blessings will flow to you and to your family. But it is not all about you. It is not a personal matter that involves your own personal feelings and judgments. It is the church; it is the cause of God and of Christ. It is the cause of His covenant, which is far, far greater and far more important than your personal edification or mine. In other words, to keep covenant in the church means that we set ourselves to the side, in the interests of the welfare of the church of Jesus Christ and its glorious and mighty calling in the midst of the world, that God’s covenant may continue with us and with our seed, and that the church may be gathered, the elect brought into the fellowship of the body of Christ, and God’s covenant realized.

    The church is your mother. If you cannot find your mother where you live, you must look for mother, or you are an ecclesiastical orphan. Mother carries us in her womb. Mother comes close to death in bringing us to birth. Mother feeds and nourishes us as the lambs of Christ with that true heavenly bread. Mother disciplines us when we grow a little older and our footsteps stray, because mother loves us. Mother keeps us safe.  Mother protects us from the bullies that roam the streets. Mother will see to it that no harm befalls us. We are defended and protected by mother. Mother will, if we submit ourselves to her rule in keeping covenant, bring us to spiritual maturity, when mother will say to us, “Now you yourself are ready to become a responsible part of the church, to raise your own covenant family, that the covenant may be continued with you and with your seed.” If you love God’s covenant, love the church.


Chapter 3

Keeping God's Covenant in Marriage


P r o f. David J. Engelsma


Scripture: I Corinthians 7:1-17, 39 ; Malachi 2:11-17



    God Himself emphasizes that right behavior on the part of His people in marriage is an important aspect of our keeping the covenant. He emphasizes this when He makes marriage the outstanding symbol of His covenant with us. Throughout the Old Testament, for example, Jeremiah 3 and Ezekiel 16 , God teaches that He is married to Israel/Judah. In Isaiah 54:5, 6 , God is called Judah’s husband, and Judah is called Jehovah’s wife. In the New Testament, Ephesians 5:22ff . teaches that God is the husband of the church in Jesus Christ. God’s spiritual marriage to the church is the covenant.

    If marriage is nothing less than the symbol of the covenant, our behavior in marriage is certainly an important part of our keeping the covenant. We are called to show the truth of the covenant in our marriage.

    God emphasizes the importance of our behavior in marriage also by making the behavior of Christ and the church in the covenant the pattern of the behavior of the Christian husband and wife. This is the teaching of Ephesians 5:22ff . The Christian husband is commanded to behave towards his wife as Christ behaves towards the church, and the Christian wife is commanded to behave towards her husband as the church behaves towards Christ.  The comparison implies that the covenant of God in Christ—the real and everlasting marriage—must be evident in our marriage.  So closely  are covenant and marriage connected in the life of most of us.

    There is still a third way in which God emphasizes the importance of our conduct in marriage with regard to keeping the covenant.   Ordinarily, God uses our marriages to bring forth and rear children who, by His election, are members of the covenant of grace. The covenant promise is always to believers and their children.  Right behavior in marriage promotes the covenant by benefiting those members of the covenant who are the children of believers. Behaving rightly in our marriage, we are obedient to Christ, who said, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” ( Luke 18:16 ).

    There is also the obvious emphasis in the Bible on proper conduct in marriage as covenant keeping in that so many passages are exhortations, warnings, or instruction concerning marriage.


Transgressing the Covenant

    We must be aware, as we consider this aspect of our calling to keep the covenant, of the powerful pressures on Christians to transgress the covenant by corrupting marriage.  There is such development of rebellion against God in the West that not only is marriage dishonored by open, shameless fornication and by divorce and remarriage at whim, but society also approves homo-sexual unions. States are sanctioning such unions as “marriages.”

    There is such lawlessness in churches that most, including those with a name for orthodoxy and conservatism, tolerate, if they do not approve, divorce for any reason and subsequent remarriage. This lecture will not be polemical. My intention is to be positive in setting forth what the Bible teaches on the great covenant truth of marriage. But I observe at the outset that there are very few churches any longer that even restrict remarriage after divorce to the “innocent party.” In the practice of most supposedly conservative churches, remarried guilty parties are accepted as members and received at the Lord’s Table.

    God’s faithful covenant friends are called to keep the covenant in marriage in a time when there is such widespread sexual promiscuity,  such encouragement of the gratification of sexual desire outside marriage, and such exaltation of the goddess Sex as tend to destroy the institution of marriage altogether. In such societal, religious, and moral darkness, the call comes to the saints: “But fornication, and all uncleanness … let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints” ( Eph. 5:3 ). A little later, in the same chapter, the Spirit calls us to conduct ourselves rightly in marriage, which He describes as the mystery of Christ and the church ( Eph. 5:22-33 ).

     Before I take up the subject of keeping the covenant in marriage, I must recognize that some Christians are called to keep the covenant outside marriage, that is, in single life. I Corinthians 7:7-9, 25ff. allows this, if one has the gift of sexual self-control, so that he does not “burn.” Others are prevented by God from living in marriage, as I Corinthians 7:11 notes. A woman separated from her husband because of his adultery must remain single, or be reconciled to her husband.

    Single life is perfectly honorable. The unmarried can more fully devote themselves to the Lord. Marriage for all its importance is of no permanent significance. It is a passing institution and relation: “they that have wives be as though they had none” ( I Cor. 7:29). The unmarried believer has the reality of marriage: his or her union with Christ.

    Nevertheless, marriage is the rule for Christians. The Creator said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” ( Gen. 2:18 ). God made the race male and female for marriage, and God Himself instituted marriage for the human race.



    Keeping the covenant in marriage for a member of the covenant—a believer—is, fundamentally, being faithful to his wife or to her husband. Marriage is the unique, intimate, mysterious, and delightful relationship of one man and one woman, in which the two become “one flesh.” This is what marriage is by the will and institution of God as revealed at creation: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” ( Gen. 2:24 ; see vv. 18-25).

    For this reason, the true church and a genuine Christian will never recognize or speak of “homosexual marriage.” Homosexuals can do many things, although being fruitful and multiplying is not one of them. What they cannot do is marry. I do not say they may not marry. They cannot marry. They are not able to marry.  They are not able to marry regardless of the contrary legislation of states that rebel against the law of God in nature and regardless of the decisions of apostate churches. By virtue of the ordinance of God, marriage is the union of a male and a female.

    When a man and woman marry, God the Creator binds them together, so that they are no longer two, but one flesh, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 19:6 : “Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh.” The two persons share one earthly life.

    This amazing, even mysterious, closeness demands that a Christian marry a fellow believer, with whom he or she is one in the truth of Scripture and in church membership.  “In the Lord,” the apostle commands in I Corinthians 7:39 . How difficult it must be to try to share one earthly life, especially in the rearing of children, with one who does not share Christ with you. The Dutch have a proverb: “Twee gelooven op een kussen, daar ligt de duivel tussen” (“two faiths on one pillow, the devil lies between them”).  An English proverb runs: “Who has an unbeliever for a mate has the devil for his father-in-law.”

    An important aspect of this shared life is the sexual relationship.  Sex is not all that is referred to by “one flesh.” “One flesh” is far more than the uniting of two bodies. But the sexual relationship expresses, confirms, maintains, and deepens the shared life of the two. Sex is intended by God for marriage, and for marriage only. Keeping the covenant in marriage consists, in part, of perfect sexual fidelity in marriage and of abstinence on the part of the unmarried.

    As this intimate, one-flesh relationship, marriage is the appropriate symbol of the covenant between God and His people in Christ. Both are intimate relationships of fellowship. Both are relationships of love. In both, those who were two are so united that they become one. In the covenant with God, we are not absorbed into the Godhead, but we do become the party of the living God. To use the language of Ephesians, the church becomes Christ’s very body.

    In the relationship of marriage, the fundamental calling of both husband and wife is faithfulness. They must always regard and will each other as their exclusive marriage companion. They must always actively share earthly life, especially in the fellowship oftalking together. I Corinthians 7:3-5 commands them to pay each other the debt of the sexual relationship and activity. According to this frank passage, such is the bond of marriage that neither has sole authority over his or her body. For one or the other to withhold himself or herself sexually is a “defrauding” of the other, that is, robbing the other of that which is his or hers. And abstinence for the sake of more intense spiritual exercises too long continued may well lead to fornication.

    Since marriage is an exclusive relationship, husband and wife must rigorously guard against falling in love with another. Marriage is an exclusive relationship: one man and one woman (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:18-25; Eph. 5:22-33 ). This is essential to the symbolism of marriage: Jesus Christ alone and His one church.

    There may be no wishful dwelling on the attractiveness of another woman or another man; no opening up of oneself, even in conversation, to another as is appropriate only to marriage; no physical contact with another that can become a powerful temptation to fornication, for example, dancing; no dangerous private meetings in restaurants, or cars, under the pretence of business or even of Christian fellowship.

    Indulging in pornography is unfaithfulness to one’s mate, regardless whether it leads to the act of fornication.

    Unfaithfulness is adultery. God forbids adultery in the seventh commandment as a refusal to keep the covenant. No adulterer enters the kingdom of heaven ( I Cor. 6:9, 10).

    God calls us to unconditional faithfulness. The marriage form expresses this call this way: “for better, for worse.” Whether one’s wife is a lovely lady, or a brawling woman, whether one’s husband is a lovable man, or a fool like Nabal, married Christians are called to be faithful to their wife or husband. We are called to be faithful as God is unconditionally faithful to His miserably sinful people and as the church is unconditionally faithful to God, who, though He is always good, often afflicts His church.

    Faithfulness in marriage is fundamental, and, therefore, it is sworn to with a vow.  Regardless whether the vow is uttered, marriage is entered into with a vow—a vow to God, whose institution marriage is. Faithfulness in marriage, therefore, is always faithfulness to God, not only to one’s marriage companion, just as unfaithfulness is always treachery with regard to God, not only with regard to the betrayed wife or husband.

    God Himself has sworn to be faithful to His covenant people: “when God made promise to Abraham [of the covenant], because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself ” ( Heb. 6:13 ).  He kept His vow at the cost of the sacrifice of His Son.  How shameful that there is marital unfaithfulness in the churches! How shameful that there is as much marital unfaithfulness in the churches as in the ungodly world! How shameful that the vow of marriage means as little in the churches as in the world!  How shameful that the churches tolerate and approve marital unfaithfulness and the breaking of the vow of marriage!


Divorce and Remarriage

    On behalf of the faithfulness of the covenant people in marriage, the Word of God forbids and condemns divorce and remarriage.

    The gospel forbids and condemns divorce. Christ forbids divorce in Matthew 5:32 :  “whosoever shall put away [divorce] his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” In this prohibition of divorce, Christ fulfils the Old Testament.  The prophet Malachi declared that Jehovah God “hateth putting away [divorce]” ( Mal. 2:16 ).

    It is true that there is one, and only one, exception to the prohibition against divorce on the part of the citizens of the kingdom of heaven, namely, fornication ( Matt. 5:32 ; 19:9). In these passages, as elsewhere in the New Testament, fornication refers to all kinds of sexual relationships with others than one’s husband or wife, whether by the married or by the unmarried, including adultery, homosexual acts, incest, and bestiality. But God also forbids fornication, so that among God’s people there will, as a rule, never be a ground for divorce. Besides, even if one’s marriage companion falls into fornication, as can happen, the one who is sinned against—grievously sinned against—should forgive and be reconciled with the offending husband or wife, if he or she repents. Fornication by one’s marriage companion does not require divorce. Fornication certainly does not dissolve the marriage bond. In the covenant, God forgives and takes back His fornicating wife ( Jer. 3 ; Ezek. 16 ). This is the experience of every one of us, who often have gone awhoring from our God.

    But if one’s marriage companion continues in fornication, or commits fornication repeatedly, a believer may divorce him or her. Divorce as permitted in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 is full, legal, and probably permanent separation. It is separation “of bed and board.” The divorced Christian is freed from all marital obligations towards the fornicator. This indicates the gravity of the evil of sexual immorality, especially on the part of a married person. It, and it alone, is ground for divorce.

    Contrary to the thinking of many, I Corinthians 7:15 does not give another ground for divorce, namely, “desertion”: “But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace.”  First, this would contradict Jesus, who, in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9, teaches that there is only ground for divorce. Second, divorce is not the subject in I Corinthians 7:15 . An unbelieving husband or wife forsakes the Christian wife or husband, because of the believer’s confession of Christ. The believer simply lets him or her go: “let him [or her] depart.” The thought is not whatsoever that in this case the believer may,  indeed should, get busy to divorce the deserting unbeliever. The believer is called to do nothing.  Quite literally, the apostle says: “Do nothing!” “Let him go!”  That is, “Do not deny one particle of the Christian faith, or give up the least aspect of the Christian life, on account of which the unbeliever left you, in order, perhaps, to get him back!” “Nor should you pack your bags, and follow him all over Corinth, or even all over Greece, leaving the true church and the fellowship of the saints, in order, perhaps, to get him to live with you again!”  “Let him go!”

    In such a case, the apostle adds, that is, the case of an unbeliever forsaking a believer on account of the gospel, the forsaken believer is “not under bondage ... but God hath called us to peace.”  Not being “under bondage” is not the same as not being “bound.”  In the language of the New Testament, being “under bondage” and “being bound” are two completely different words and two radically different realities. Not being under bondage, when one has been abandoned by an unbeliever, in I Corinthians 7:15 , has absolutely nothing whatever to do with being bound, or not being bound, in the bond of marriage. In this text, the apostle is not addressing the subject of being bound, or not being bound, in marriage. He will address this subject directly in verse 39, where the word is “bound,” not “under bondage”: “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth.” In verse 15, the teaching is that the abandoned Christian is not living in sin, even though he or she lives alone, apart from his or her marriage companion.  He or she is not enslaved by guilt and shame. He or she is not enslaved by the power of disobedience to God’s law concerning marriage. He or she need not feel guilty, ashamed, or disobedient—not with regard to his or her living apart from the deserting wife or husband. He or she may have peace in these irregular circumstances—peace with God and peace with his or her circumstances.  “Not under bondage in such cases,” is the verdict of the apostle.

    To explain the word, “under bondage,” as though it were the word, “bound,” and the words, “but God hath called us to peace,” as though they meant, “but God now gives us  the right to re-marry,” is indefensible exegesis, contradiction of Jesus’ teaching that there is only one ground for divorce, corruption of the biblical truth of marriage, and practically disastrous for the lives of many professing Christians.

    The gospel also forbids remarriage, even in the case of lawful divorce. This is clearly the teaching of Mark 10:11 , 12 and of Luke 16:18.

Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.  And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery ( Mark 10:11, 12 ).  Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery (Luke 16:18).

    This is also the teaching of the more difficult passage, Matthew 19:9: “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”  Christ permits divorce on the ground of fornication, answering the question of the Pharisees in verse 3 concerning the lawfulness of divorce. He does not permit the remarriage of the woman unjustly put away by her husband, who then commits adultery by marrying another woman. In the second part of the text, Christ teaches that whoever marries her, the so-called “innocent party,” also commits adultery.

    The basis of the gospel’s prohibition of remarriage after divorce, including the remarriage of the so-called “innocent party,” is that marriage is an unbreakable bond for life. That marriage is an unbreakable bond for life is the implication of the very nature of marriage as a one-flesh union by the ordinance of God in creation ( Gen. 2:24 ). That marriage is an unbreakable bond for life is the express doctrine of the apostle of Christ in I Corinthians 7:39 : “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.” Romans 7:2 teaches the same: “For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.” Verse 3 draws the implication concerning all those who remarry after a divorce: “So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress.”

    Marriage is an unbreakable bond for life, because marriage reflects and symbolizes the covenant, and the covenant is an un-breakable relationship between God in Christ and His church.

    We should note that the unbelief of one’s marriage companion, much less spiritual differences, is not ground for divorce.  The Christian is patiently to live with the unbelieving husband or wife, treat him or her in a Christian manner, and pray that God will use the Christian’s godly testimony and conduct to convert the other. I Corinthians 7:12, 13 forbids the Christian with an unbelieving wife or husband who is willing to dwell with the Christian to divorce or leave the unbeliever. I Peter 3:1, 2 requires a Christian wife to live submissively with her unbelieving husband.  She may have the hope that God will use her holy behavior to convert the man.

    Submission to an unbelieving husband and living with an unbelieving wife do not include that the believer leaves the true church, denies sound doctrine, or commits wicked deeds, in order to please the unbeliever and maintain the marriage. In a mixed marriage of believer and unbeliever, as everywhere, the great truth holds, that the Christian must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29).


Love and Submission

    Faithfulness in marriage, as an important aspect of keeping the covenant, includes more than living together, not divorcing, and not committing adultery. Ephesians 5:22-33 , another of the outstanding passages of Scripture on marriage, calls the husband to love his wife and the wife to reverence her husband. The passage makes the relationship between Christ and the church, that is, the covenant of grace, the pattern of the faithful conduct of husband and wife: “as the church is subject unto Christ ... as Christ also loved the church” (vv. 24, 25).

    The wife must actively put herself in subjection to her husband in “reverence” for him, that is, respect for his authority in the marriage and in the family. The husband is “head,” which means “authority”—the God-given right to rule wife and home. Marriage is structured by God, just as is the covenant. The structure is that of authority and submission. Rejection of the headship of the husband in marriage—headship as authority—is rejection of the headship of Christ in the covenant, by virtue of the comparison in Ephesians 5 between Christ and the husband; the throwing of the home into confusion and uproar; and, on the part of a wife, disobedience to her calling.

    Submission to her husband includes the wife’s obedience to his will in lawful things (I Pet. 3:6 ). The calling to submit is a strong exhortation in Ephesians 5:24 : “in everything” and “as the church is subject unto Christ.” The submission of the wife is an aspect of her being the “help” to her husband God willed when He created the woman (Gen. 2:18 ). The married woman no longer has an independent life of her own, but she lives for her husband. According to Ephesians 5:22-33 , the wife is the “body” of her husband, who is her “head.” The body lives for the head. The characteristic sins of a wife are rebellion and sheer independency.

    The husband must actively love his wife, and he does this by consciously assuming the headship entrusted to him by Christ and deliberately exercising this headship in giving himself for the wife. The husband too has a calling in marriage. He is head in the marriage, but he is not sovereign over the marriage. Rather, he is subject to Christ.  Christ is lord over our marriages.

    The headship of the husband must express itself in a surprising way, not by using the wife for his own advantage, but by giving himself for her advantage. Literally, Ephesians 5:25 speaks of the husband’s “giving himself up,” that is, sacrificing himself for the benefit of his wife. This, of course, is the idea of the pattern to which the husband must conform his behavior. Christ, the husband of the church, gave Himself up to the death of the cross for His bride, the church. The Christian husband, therefore, spends his life pleasing his wife. He serves his wife by seeking her welfare, especially her spiritual welfare.

    Giving himself for the wife is motivated by the husband’s love for his wife. Love for one’s wife is commanded by the apostle: “Husbands, love your wives” ( Eph. 5:25 ).  Love for one’s wife, therefore, is not only, or even primarily, a romantic feeling.  Feelings cannot be commanded. Rather, this love is esteem for this particular woman as precious to the husband, as the one woman bound to him by God, and the will, or resolution, to do her good.  This esteem and resolution issue in the behavior of selfless, sacrificial giving on her behalf. In love for his wife, the husband works for her; supports her; takes her wishes into consideration; listens to her; lives for her.

    The calling of the husband is a very strong exhortation to a demanding behavior: “even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” ( Eph. 5:25 ).

     Two further aspects of the behavior of the husband are important.  The first is that he must treat his wife with tenderness: nourish and cherish her, according to Ephesians  5:29 . The second is that when a man loves his wife he is loving himself, for she is one flesh with him ( Eph. 5:28-30 ). How foolish, how sinfully stupid, that we treat our wife harshly, or brutally! We thus hate ourselves, make ourselves miserable, and destroy ourselves.

    The typical sins of the husband are tyranny, brutality, taking the wife for granted, and seeking himself at her expense.


Marriage, a Calling

    Love on the husband’s part and submission on the part of the wife are a calling, a holy duty assigned by God in His covenant. By carrying out their calling in marriage, husband and wife keep God’s covenant. On the other hand, professing Christians who impenitently disobey their calling in marriage transgress the covenant and will be judged as covenant breakers.

    Marriage itself is a calling. So must married Christians view their marriage. With regard especially to marriage, Paul wrote, “as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk” ( I Cor. 7:17 ).  Neither marriage nor single life, neither a happy marriage nor a troubled marriage, is of ultimate importance to the Christian. What is of ultimate importance is that he faithfully carries out the calling God gives him in his circumstances. Living married life as a calling, the “innocent party” lives a single life, or is reconciled to his wife, or to her husband; the husband with a shrewish, insubordinate wife loves her for God’s sake; and an Abigail with a Nabal for her husband is in subjection to the fool as to the Lord.

    Marriage, or single life, is brief, for “the fashion of this world passeth away” ( I Cor. 7:31 ). Soon, at the coming of the Lord, everyone will receive the reward of his faithful exercise of his calling.

    For two Reformed believers, fulfillment of the calling is possible, and expected, by the indwelling Spirit of Christ.

    For our failures, confession of sin and forgiveness are necessary—confession to each other, as well as to God, and forgiveness from each other, as well as from God.  Especially husbands and wives must not let “the sun go down upon your wrath” (Eph. 4:26).

    Faithfulness in marriage by a husband who loves his wife and a wife who reverences her husband will glorify God in Jesus Christ, will mean bliss for the couple, and will benefit the children.


Seeking a Godly Seed”

    Our purpose in marriage must include “seeking a godly seed,” that is, desiring children who fear and serve God. This is ordinarily God’s purpose with the marriage of believers. He purposes His own glory as the couple reflect His covenant in their marriage, and He purposes the enjoyment of the delightful companionship of marriage by the two who marry. But He also purposes a “godly seed.”

    The phrase “seeking a godly seed” occurs in Malachi 2 . Verse 15 describes the original marriage as God’s making Adam and Eve one: “And did not he make one?”  The prophet then asks, “And wherefore one?” The answer is: “That he might seek a godly seed.” Seeking a godly seed from Adam and Eve was one of the purposes of God in the institution of marriage. In accordance with this purpose, God blessed Adam and Eve with the Word of fruitfulness: “Be fruitful, and multiply” ( Gen. 1:28 ). Malachi 2 makes plain that God still seeks a godly seed from the marriage of believers.

    Malachi raises the truth of God’s seeking a godly seed as part of the prophet’s condemnation of the men of Judah for divorcing their wives: “For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away” (v. 16). Divorce is destructive of the children, who are not simply the children of the two married persons, but covenant children— "godly seed.” Divorce opposes God’s seeking a godly seed.

    In the covenant, God promises to save the children of godly parents. He is pleased to use Christian marriage to bring forth elect members of His church, to lead them to Christ, and to rear them to spiritual maturity. The faithfulness of the Christian husband and wife to God and to each other, their own peaceful, loving relationship, the stability and peace of the home, the godly example of their lives, and their teaching are used by God to produce the godly seed He seeks.

    Reformed married persons keep the covenant in their marriage by bringing their will into conformity with God’s will. They too seek a godly seed. They seek a godly seed in these ways. They have children, and, if God wills, many children. They teach their children the Word of God at home and see that they are taught the truth at church and in the good Christian school. They rear their children also by supervising their life, disciplining them, and dwelling with them. The mother is a keeper and worker at home.  The father is at home evenings and weekends, as much as possible.

    Emphatically, they do not divorce and remarry. For God’s sake.

    And for the children’s sake.


Chapter 4

Keeping God's Covenant in the Home


P r o f. Herman Hanko


Scripture: Psalm 127

    It is not so easy to make a speech on the subject of the implications of the covenant for the home. I suppose that some of you would say, “How can that be? After all, you have had eight children of your own. You have had lots of experience.” But part of my experience is this: that those who have no children of their own are the experts on bringing up children and establishing a home, while those who have struggled through the years when children were in the home are aware of how difficult the task is.

    I am thankful that we have the Word of God. The Word is an objective standard that comes to us with authority, to which we are to conform our covenant calling in the home. And obedience to the Word will be blessed.

    God’s Word is replete with information concerning what constitutes a covenant home,  that is, how the principles of the covenant are to be applied to life in the home. I can only call your attention to some of those things. I have chosen to call your attention to the most important.

    I am aware of the fact, of course, that not all of you have children at home. Perhaps you have a home where the children are grown up and now married and the responsibility of bringing up children is no longer yours. I would like to relieve your mind of the thought that you have no responsibility any longer. It was once my hope that when my children finally left the home that at last the responsibility that fathers and mothers have towards their children would be gone. Such is not the case. The responsibilities, in a certain sense, grow, because covenant parents cannot escape a sense of responsibility for their children, for their grandchildren, and, if you live long enough, even for your great grandchildren.  The responsibilities seem to grow heavier rather than lighter.  That means, and this is the point I want to make, that if your children are grown and have homes of their own, your responsibilities towards your children and towards your grandchildren have not ceased. You must, insofar as you are able, and taking into account also the circumstances, still assume the responsibilities of assisting your children and grandchildren in establishing covenant homes.

    Some of you are not yet married. This discussion may be of profit to you. If your desire is to marry and to establish a covenant home, you ought to give serious thought before marrying to what the Bible tells us about a covenant home.

    God established the home as an institution of creation. He did that when He brought Eve to Adam and instituted marriage. This institution of marriage included God’s command: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” ( Gen. 1:28 ). That was the word of God’s command that established the home.

    You notice that the home is the only institution of society that God established in connection with creation. He established only the home because the other institutions of society, now so familiar to us, grew organically out of the home. It does not make any difference what institution you speak of—whether you speak of the institution of government, the institution of the shop (that is, the place of employment), the institution of the school, or even of the church (although the church, of course, arose and was established by God only after the Fall). Organically, in the history of mankind, all these other institutions arose out of the home and have their roots in the home. They draw their life from the home.  They draw their spiritual, moral character from the spiritual and moral character of the home. This means, of course, that the chaos that is present in all institutions of society today is to be traced back to the chaos that exists in the home.

    It amuses me that in our own country (although it is also unspeakably sad), the government almost every year, regardless of who occupies the White House, creates “Blue-ribbon Panels” to discuss and come up with reasons why the schools are not functioning as they should. Many of the children are not receiving an adequate education, so that even graduates from college are illiterate.  These committees are composed of high-powered men in society, professors of prestigious universities and professional educators. Millions of dollars are spent on such studies. Year after year this is repeated. They all come up with learned reasons why the schools are a failure, and with ways in which the schools can be improved. Usually it all comes down to this: the government must spend more money on the schools. Money will solve the problems.  The Christian knows better. But the experts do not consult the Christians, of course.

    The problem with the schools is simply the home. The home is a shambles. It is a moral wreck. Divorce and remarriage prevail in the land. Homosexuality is on the increase and is approved by government. It is becoming almost a byword that children in most homes are what are called euphemistically “latchkey children” because they carry their own key to the house. Mother and father are both out working. The children have to shift for themselves. Single-parent families contribute immeasurably to the moral decay in the home.

    Because all the institutions of society have their roots in the home, there are no solutions to the moral ills of society without establishing once again the home as Scripture defines it—something that will never happen in the history of our world. We must be prepared for that. It will not happen, I guarantee you. It is impossible in America and the British Isles to stem the tide. When even evangelical and conservative churches approve of divorce and remarriage, how is one ever going to stem the tide and return to solid homes based on the foundation of Scripture? It will not happen.

    That means, however, that the Christian must exert himself with all the effort at his disposal to build and establish a Christian home that is free from the influences and corruption of society.  This must be done not only in order that the Christian home may be a witness, a shining light in a dark and sinful world; it is also for the sake of the church and the cause of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    What is true of society in general is true of the church as well. When the home deteriorates and becomes a moral shambles, the church will lose its strength.   We do well, therefore, to speak of what constitutes a covenant home.

    First of all, it is necessary to point out to you that a Christian home is also a picture of God’s covenant; and it is proper, therefore, to speak of covenant keeping in the home. Not only is the institution of marriage created and instituted by God as a picture of His covenant, but the home, the family, is also instituted by God as a picture of His covenant.

    The family is a picture of God’s covenant, in the first place, because at the heart of the family is a husband and a wife—a believing husband and a believing wife—who are not only husband and wife but also brother and sister in Christ. I recall well the time when, some fifty-odd years ago, my wife and I were married in First Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The reception that followed the wedding ceremony was closed with prayer by a professor under whom I was studying at the time—Rev. George Ophoff. In the course of his prayer—I vividly remember it—he said something about asking the Lord to bless my wife and me, who were not only husband and wife but also brother and sister in Christ. That was the first time that thought had ever occurred to me. And it struck me so forcibly that I did not hear another word of Rev. Ophoff ’s prayer. I am not sure I even heard the “Amen.” Brother and sister! That is the spiritual relationship of a covenant marriage. In fact, it is that relationship of brother and sister that is the everlasting relationship that endures when marriage fades away and when the church is taken to glory. There are no husbands and wives in heaven—just brothers and sisters.      The fact is that the family, the covenant family, is also, as a family, a picture of God’s covenant. God’s covenant of grace is a revelation of His own covenant life that He lives in Himself. The doctrine of the Trinity is not cold, abstract theology. It is a glorious truth. God, who is three in person—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—but one in essence, lives in Himself the perfect covenant life of a family. And when He reveals that covenant life that He lives in Himself, He does not just simply give us some information about the covenant life that He lives as the one true and living God, but He takes His people into that life. He adopts them as His children. So a covenant family is a revelation of, a picture of, the covenant life that God lives in Himself and the covenant life as we in heaven shall know it perfectly when all the institutions of this world pass away.

    So, when you speak of the implications of the covenant for the home, then you must understand that a covenant home is a home patterned after the relationship of God with His people.

    In that family of God, God—the triune God—is the Father of His people. He begets them to new life, a second birth by regeneration.  He adopts them, signing and filling in the adoption papers with the ink of the blood of the cross of Christ. He makes them His children so that by His Spirit in their hearts (as Paul expresses it in Galatians 4:6 ) they are able to say, “Abba, Father.”

    “Father.” I wonder if you appreciate what that means. You will be hard-pressed to find any place in the Old Testament where the saints called God their Father. It was well-nigh impossible in the Old Testament to do that because the Spirit had not yet been poured out. “But when the fulness of time was come,” Paul says, “God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law.”  Christ gives them His Spirit whereby they are able to say, “Abba, Father” ( Gal. 4:4-6 ). There must have been something that was totally startling to the disciples when, as instructed by the Lord in prayer, they were taught to say, “Our Father.” It must have come like a thunder clap.  They had never before heard anything like that. “When ye pray, say, Our Father.”

    That is the family of God. Now in that family of God, Jesus Christ is the First-born, the elder Brother. I do not want to take the time to explore with you that rich concept of the first-born as it was typically in the old dispensation. Let me merely point out to you that the first-born in the families of the Hebrews had dominion over his brethren, received a double portion of the birth-right, and was the heir of the covenant blessing.  Christ is the First-born in the family of God. He is the First-born because He is the eternal Son of God in our flesh. And, therefore, He is responsible for and has dominion over all His brethren. He rules by His sovereign power and grace over the family of God. All the family of God belong to that family only because Christ, as the First-born, paved the way, if you will, by opening the womb of God’s counsel in the eternal decree of election in order that all of His brethren might follow.

    But there is more to it than that. The family is also a covenant family because there must be, in the family, if it is a covenant family, a fellowship of life, of love, and of joy and peace. Fellowship!

    Now I am going to get a little bit ahead of myself here. One of the highest expressions of fellowship in the life of a family is mealtime.  That is the time when the family is together, is able to pray together, and can talk together. But, above all, there is something about eating and drinking together that constitutes in itself fellowship. When I was pastor of a congregation in the western part of America, I frequently had to go on what in our churches are called classical appointments, sometimes thousands of miles from home. I had to leave my poor wife with four naughty boys while I was off on preaching assignments in distant parts of the United States. Of course, I had to eat alone. That was the worst time of the day—when I had to sit there at the table and eat alone. It was barely tolerable. The only way I could stand it was to bury my head in a book. And, of course, when one buries his head in a book, he soon forgets the food on his plate and it gets cold and tasteless (which it was to begin with because I did not know how to cook). So, finally, one of the members of the congregation said, “We think you are lonely, so we brought you a television set.”  Television set!? I said to him, “You really did not have to do this. I have better comedies at home.”

    Eating and drinking constitutes in itself fellowship. It is exactly for that reason that the Scriptures (in Revelation 19 , speaking of the final glory of the covenant) describe the covenant in terms of a feast. Revelation 19:9 calls the blessedness of heaven the wedding feast of the Lamb. That is because of the fact that in glory, although in a profoundly wonderful and spiritual way, we will be with Christ to eat and to drink and to have fellowship— the fellowship of laughter and fun—about the heavenly table where we are fed forever with heavenly food. That also constitutes part of the figure of the covenant in family life.

    Having said those things, there are some things that, to me, are the essential ideas in Scripture as to what constitutes a covenant home. I have five or six points to make. I am not necessarily going to give these points in any order of importance. They are points that seem to me to constitute the essence and heart of a covenant home.

    In the first place, a covenant home is a home where every member of the family has his or her own place. I think you have to have children to experience that fully, or you have to have been brought up in a family with many children. Each child that God puts in the home is different. Husband and wife are two different people. Sometimes when I stand before a couple that are being married I marvel at the miracle of God—that two people who are so different can live together in a most intimate relationship of life. But each child also has his or her own place. So true is that, that if, for example, in a home with children, God should take from that home a child in its infancy or early youth, we even say to each other, “His place is empty.” No one else can take that place, even if God should bless that home with additional children. Each additional child occupies his or her own distinct place in the family and cannot ever take the place of the child whom God has taken away.

    That is true of father, of mother, and of each child. And that is the way it is in the family of God. When God from all eternity, according to the decree of election, chooses His family, each member of the family has his or her own important place. With such precision, with such exquisite perfection, does God accomplish this that the family, as it is finally brought to glory in heaven where Christ has prepared for the family a home of many mansions, the family is perfect and is complete. There is no possibility of having any more in that family. It is ordained by God with each in his own place. No place is empty.

    Now I want to talk about that for just a few moments. The place of the father in the home is the place of prophet, priest, and king. That is a responsible position. That means that he represents in the home Christ Himself, who is the officebearer in the family of God. As prophet, he is responsible for bringing the Word to his family. As priest, he is responsible for being the intercessor of his family. Perhaps we forget that sometimes. I think of Job.  Before disaster struck under the sovereign control of God and by the instrumentality of Satan, we are told that Job was an upright man, perfect in all his ways, who feared God and eschewed evil.  One of the things that he did was pray for his family. His sons and his daughters were wont to feast on their own because they had, apparently, grown up. Every day Job made sacrifices for his family and said, “Lest they have sinned and cursed God.” He prayed for them. He prayed not only in general for them. He prayed as their intercessor, bringing their sins before the throne of God’s grace ( Job 1:5 ). By his prayer the family was sanctified. That is the responsibility of one who is a priest in a covenant home.

    As king, the father rules. He does not rule as a tyrant or as a dictator. He does not rule with an iron rod harshly and cruelly.  But he represents the rule of Christ in all of Christ’s compassion and love, and yet sovereign authority, in the home. He represents Christ because it is through him that Christ rules the family. I do not want to make light of that, or minimize its importance. I am not at all sure how to emphasize it except by personal experience.  When we had children in the home, little children in the early years of our marriage, there were times when I would get up in the morning in a way that could only be described as grumpy and out of sorts. And frequently, at the breakfast table, that grumpiness would immediately show through. Not much time elapsed at the breakfast table before the children were squabbling with each other, fighting and kicking each other under the table, and arguing about each piece of toast that came out of the toaster. As I pondered that, and the reason for that, it dawned on me that although my children were totally depraved as well as I, nevertheless, a lot was to be laid at my feet because I came to the table grumpy; my grumpiness soon spread to the other members of the family—sometimes, sad to say, even to my wife. What I am saying is this: So important is that idea of headship, that the father is ultimately responsible before God for determining the entire atmosphere (spiritual and moral) of the home. How he conducts himself, how he lives with his wife, how he shows her his love, how he deals with his children, what is his mood, what is his attitude—all this determines, in large measure, the attitude that prevails in the home. God wants it that way. God has so ordained that the father is the responsible head of the home. 

    The mother has her place in the home. You notice that I say her place is in the home.   Let us assume that. One of the curses of our modern times is the curse of mothers working when they should be at home. I have heard all the excuses—we can’t pay the mortgage on the house, we can’t pay the Christian school tuition, it’s so outrageously expensive to have a large family educated in the Christian school that the mother has to work in order to pay the bills. I do not believe that. I went to a Christian school during the depression when my father was making five hundred dollars a year, which at today’s rate of exchange comes to three hundred pounds a year. He paid the Christian school tuition. It had to be paid every week. We did not always eat what we wanted to eat.  We did not have any new clothes. All our clothes were given to us (although it never bothered us as children). But the Christian school tuition had to be paid. That was all there was about it.  Whatever my father may have earned, out of the money he received came first of all the budget for the church and the Christian school tuition. The rest was used for food and clothing.

    Mothers in the home are so important that, if you read the Old Testament, you discover, perhaps to your surprise, that at those crucial times in Israel’s history when everything was going wrong, apostasy was setting in and the worship of Baal or some other god or goddess of the heathen was prevalent, godly mothers were the ones who kept the flame of the hope of Israel burning.  Godly mothers, when fathers were apostate, were the strength of the home. Godly mothers kept the home. Think only of Rebekah, and of Hannah, who had a spiritual nothing for a husband, one who could not even understand why she wanted children so badly because of her longing for the hope of the promise. Have you ever read the song of Hannah when Samuel was born and compared it with the song of Mary in the gospel of Luke, chapter 2?  They are almost the same. She wanted a child because in her burned brightly the hope of Israel that out of them would come the Christ. I think of Jehosheba, the wife of Jehoiada, who took the infant Josiah and hid him seven years, until the time when he could be crowned king and Athaliah overthrown. There are many such women. The Old Testament is replete with them.

    Surprisingly enough, the same thing is true of the new dispensation.  You cannot read the biographies of saints without being struck by the fact that the most godly of men in the history of the church of Jesus Christ were men of whom history says almost nothing about their fathers but speaks in glowing terms of their mothers. Think of Chrysostom, the golden-tongued orator whose mother led such a life of piety in the godless city of Antioch in Syria that even the heathen said, “What mothers these Christians have.”  Think of Monica, the mother of Augustine. Think of the mother of Thomas Aquinas. While you may not want to consider him a saint, he emerged as the powerful theologian that he was because of the influence of a godly mother. It certainly is true that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.

    A mother’s place is important because the father has to go out and earn his daily bread. Mother’s place is important because if the father is a prophet, the mother is a prophetess. If the father is a priest, the mother is a priestess. If the father is a king, the mother is a queen. She has to take care of the family. Frequently the burden of the instruction of the children falls upon her. She has to provide for the needs of her husband. She has to support her husband and be a help to him in his own place and calling in the kingdom of God. If he is an elder, his wife has to be his support and his help. If he is a minister of the gospel, his wife has to be sure that in her busy life and the heavy demands that are placed on her by the children, she can help him in his calling to serve the kingdom of heaven.

    What would a covenant home be without a mother? It would not exist. No wonder Scripture sings the song of a godly mother and wife who is more precious than rubies (Prov. 31:10-31 )! A covenant home is a home where a mother occupies an important place in the life of the family.

    The elder brother also occupies a unique place, because the covenant family is a reflection of the family of God. I wonder sometimes how much we are aware of that. I knew a family where I used to stay quite frequently when I preached in that congregation, a family of nine boys—no girls. How that mother ever coped with nine boys I will never know. But they had a keen sense of the importance of the first-born of the family. The father, who had his own chair in the living room, which was, of course, the best chair, had the second best chair next to him at his right hand, which was the chair for the eldest of the sons at home. No one else might sit there. And if someone did happen to be sitting there and the elder brother came into the room, the one occupying his chair immediately got up and vacated that chair so that the elder brother could sit in it. That was not only a symbolic thing in that family. The elder brother was responsible, because the mother was unbelievably busy, for the good behavior of his brothers in the home. He was responsible to see to it that they did their chores every day. He was responsible to see to it that they all got off to school on time and dressed properly. He was responsible, by his conduct, to be an example to his brothers in their lives. He even was responsible, when he became old enough to do that, to admonish his brothers. Now, I know, he did not always do that faithfully. Families have a great deal of sin. But, nevertheless, the family insisted upon that. And that position of elder brother in the family remains a responsible position till that elder brother leaves the home, when that responsibility devolves on the next in line.

    It is part of the experience of my life that that responsibility of an elder brother never ceases. And when the family has a very aged father or mother, then the tables are almost turned. While all our lives my father was responsible for us, and continues to be, suddenly in his old age the eldest becomes responsible for him—the decisions that have to be made for his care and for the years of his declining age.

    So it is with all the children. Somehow or another, in a covenant family, it is the eldest upon whom devolves the final responsibility that has to be borne for the welfare of the family—even when everyone is married. If you are intent on establishing a covenant home, you must teach your elder son that that is part of his responsibilities in the home.

    So each has his or her own place. An important place it is, a place in a covenant family that is a picture of the family of God.

    In the second place, a covenant home is a home that has the Word of God at its centre. Now I want to speak about the importance of family devotions. Family devotions have fallen on hard times. Partly the reason is that everyone is so frantically busy that no one has any time for devotions. The father goes to work early. The children stagger out of bed an hour or two later, run about getting their clothes on and books together, packed away in their backpacks so they can dash off for school, perhaps grabbing a piece of toast as they make their way out of the door. And when the evening comes, mother is scheduled to go here and father is scheduled to go there; this child is working at this place and that child has to go to practice soccer. In the busy and sometimes hectic life of the family no time is available to have devotions together.            The best practice is that a family have devotions at the beginning of the day at the breakfast table and at the end of the day at the dinner table. My father tells me that his own father, who was a painter and who had to work hard for a living, left for work at six o’clock in the morning. The children were all out of bed by five-thirty because my grandfather insisted that all the family be together at the table for devotions and for breakfast. The same thing was true in the evening. If he had to finish a job and it kept him at his work until seven or eight o’clock, no one ate until he was home and until the family together could have its devotions.

    As far as the devotions themselves are concerned, there are families that have devotions, but they are of such a hit-and-miss character that they amount to almost nothing. The father reads a passage from the Scripture in a voice conducive to putting the children to sleep, and his prayers are mumbled, if he prays at all, so that one can hardly make them out. And at the moment they faintly hear an “Amen,” everyone dashes off in different directions.

    I suggest to you that you must make an effort in your home, if you want to follow the biblical pattern of making the Word of God and prayer the centre of family life, that you take time with your devotions; that you begin the meal with prayer, asking God’s blessing; that you end the meal with prayer by thanking the Lord for His goodness; and that Scripture reading be meaningful.

    You ought to have a Bible dictionary sitting on the shelf by the table so that you can look up the word “Mizar” when you come to it in the Psalms. I doubt whether ten of you here know what the word Mizar means. You ought to have a good commentary, so that when you come across a difficult passage where you say, “I’m not sure what this means,” you can look it up. I suggest that if you want a good commentary, you cannot do any better than Calvin. Calvin, to this day, is the commentary that I use the most.  He is the best. You do not have to read the commentary every time. But at those points where father, mother, and the children are puzzled by the meaning of the text, read Calvin. He is almost always right. He had an insight into the Scriptures from which we can profit all our lives. It is much better to read three verses from the Bible and know what they mean than it is to read Psalm 119  when no one is paying attention.

    Take the time to explain the passage to your children. Take the time before you read to tell them about this passage. And, by all means, do not skip about from place to place in the Scriptures in your Bible reading, but start with Genesis 1 and read through the Bible from beginning to end, including the laws. If you will take the time to explain them and the reason for them, you will find that your children can even be interested in the laws; but you must point them to the reason for the laws in Israel’s history and to their fulfillment in our Lord Jesus Christ—something not all that difficult to do if you will only take the time to understand them just a bit. Get the children involved in discussing the meaning of the passages, and you will be surprised what questions they ask and what knowledge they gain from taking the time to make Scripture reading important.

    And when you pray, bring the needs of the family to God—not your own. You must have your own private devotions for that.  But the family has all kinds of needs. Pray for your wife, who needs the grace of God in the difficult and trying task that God has laid upon her. Pray for your children. Pray for your family in times of deepest woe and trouble. Pour out your soul to the Lord on behalf of your family in these difficult times. And when the Lord’s blessings rain upon your family, be thankful and let the family with you shout for joy in your prayers to God who deals so graciously with you. You are praying for the family. And you must pray in that way.

    Because my father insisted on Christian education for us, I was forced to travel two thousand miles from home in my junior and senior year in high school to attend a Christian high school.  I had to stay with an uncle who was a godly man and the home was a godly home. But my uncle had one very irksome habit.  When he would come home from work, his wife would have to report to him all the peccadilloes of which we were guilty during the day. And in the prayer at the beginning of the meal, he would start with the oldest and he would bring to the throne of grace the sins of so-and-so and what so-and-so had done. If you were near the bottom of the list, you spent a lot of time squirming in your seat. He used his prayers to reprimand us.

    Now, do not get me wrong. We needed the reprimand. If he had taken us aside at a proper time and showed us why what we did was wrong and called us to repentance, we could have taken that. That was our due. But to wait one’s turn in prayer-time at the table to receive his reprimands (which were sharp) was a very, very trying experience.  Do not ever do that! There may be times when, perhaps, a sin of a child in the home is so great and has affected the family so much that you must mention it in prayer at family devotions. But do not use prayers to escape your responsibility to talk with your children about their sins. Make your devotions important in the life of the family.

    A covenant family is a family where covenant instruction is fundamentally important. If I were creating this list in order of importance, I would probably make this first. The Bible keeps emphasizing this all the time. When God came to visit Abraham in the plains of Mamre and He and His companions walked with Abraham in the direction of Sodom and Gomorrah, along the way God stopped and consulted with His companions. He asked them the question: “Shall I reveal to Abraham the counsel of my will with respect to Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot and, really with respect to the church of all ages, as it is called to live in a world that is ripe for judgment? Shall I do that?” And the answer that He Himself gave is this: “Yes, I will tell Abraham what I am going to do.”  Why? Because I have known him, “that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he has spoken of him” (Gen. 18:19). That is, “I am going to make known to Abraham the mysteries of My counsel because he will instruct his children. And by means of that instruction, I will bring upon Abraham that which it is My purpose to do.”

    In the book of Judges, you have only to read into chapter two to discover the reason for the unspeakably sad history of the people of Israel in those days. What is that reason? A generation arose that knew not the Lord, neither the wonders that He had performed for Israel ( Judg. 2:10 ). Instruction had fallen in bad repute. The children of Israel did not know the wonderful works of the Lord. That is why the sad history of the judges is a part of Old Testament history. Psalm 78 drives home the point that covenant parents must instruct their children from generation to generation (vv. 1-8).  And the wise king of Israel in the book of Proverbs speaks of the fact that one must train up his child in the way that he should go, and when the child is old, he will not depart from it ( Prov. 22:6 ).

    Concerning that covenant instruction, much could be said. 

    In the first place, it ought to be clear to you by this time that covenant instruction is based on the principle that God saves His children in the line of generations and gathers the members of His own family in the families of believers. He does that by way of covenant instruction. That is the means He uses. So important is that means that a failure to bring up our children in the ways of God’s covenant results in our being cut off in our generations.

    Now, I am aware of the fact, of course, that part of covenant instruction is the establishment of Christian schools. That is another reason why God’s people, when they are scattered hither and yon, ought to come together so that, if at all possible, they can establish Christian schools where their children can be taught in the truths of God’s Word in creation and history from the viewpoint of the Scriptures and the Reformed faith. Nevertheless, the home is the fundamental institution of society, and the school can never rise in its moral character or in the quality of its instruction, from a spiritual and confessional point of view, higher than the level of the home. The home is important for covenant instruction.

    The instruction of the home is unique. The power and beauty of the instruction in the home is this, as Deuteronomy 6 points out in such an eloquent way, that the parents are so diligent in their covenantal walk in every part of family life that by their very example they teach the children how to walk in the world as covenant children and how, finally, to establish their own covenant homes. Example does not exclude verbal instruction. Of course not. But example is the character of the home. In times of great grief, great trouble in the home, the attitude of the parents towards these afflictions and chastisements that God is pleased to send will determine how the children will learn to deal with them when they grow older. When the parents are prosperous and there are seemingly few clouds on the pathway of life, their attitude towards the things of this world, their thanksgiving in times of prosperity, and their right use of material things will teach the children that material things are not ends in themselves but are to be used for the kingdom of God. The normal, God-ordained life of a covenant family is the most powerful tool of instruction there is.

    Daughters will learn how to take care of their husbands when they marry by watching mother. They will even learn how to cook and sew. Sons will learn how to be the head of the house because they have a father who took that position as head of the house.  To  this day, when I am confronted with a difficult question on what to do in the family, I frequently ask myself, what would my father have done? That is the kind of impact that covenant parents have on their children. When a mother devotes herself to the difficult (I would almost say, boring and unappreciated) task of bringing up her children—putting bandages on their skinned knees, comforting them when they come home from school crying because they have been teased, showing them that the favor of God is the thing that counts, feeding them, loving them —in all these ways she makes a lasting, indelible impression on her daughters and on her sons.

    It is a striking thing (it was true in our family and, I suppose, it is true in every family) that when the children are home the sons are closest to their mothers and the daughters are closest to their fathers.  The daughters always came to me when they wanted advice on something. My sons always went to my wife. And then they were married and it turned around. Now my daughters always go to her and my sons come to me. That is a peculiar thing. I have no explanation for that. But it is part of covenant instruction. And it is a part of the lasting influence that parents have on their children and part of that truth that God continues His covenant in the line of generations through the power of covenant instruction.

    Part of that covenant instruction is that we teach our children the ways of God’s covenant. We tell them, “You must walk as a child of the covenant. You must learn to do that now. You must learn to do that as you grow up, as you take your place in the church, when you establish your own home. You must walk as a child of the covenant.”  When a child refuses to walk in the ways of God’s covenant that child must be rebuked, admonished, and chastised, as God does with us when we sin. They must be told, “If you do not walk in the ways of God’s covenant and you refuse to turn from your evil ways, you show by that that you are not a true child of the covenant at all.” Covenant parents know that not all their children have the promise of God that God will save them. The lines of election and reprobation cut right through covenant homes, as they did in Israel and in the family of Isaac and Rebekah. Parents have an obligation in that regard. Tough love? I’m not sure what that means. But the obligation of covenant parents is to warn their children of sin and its consequences. 

    Another curse that plagues the church and covenant homes is permissive parents. The consequences are evident in the schools.  The teacher sends a note home: “Johnny did this in school.” And the parent rushes to the phone and dials the teacher’s number: “My Johnny would never, never, do a thing like that. Something’s wrong. Maybe he was driven to it by unkind classmates,” or whatever.  So the parents hold a hand over Johnny’s head and Johnny chuckles to himself: “I can do as I please and I can always hide behind mum’s skirts.” Permissive parents are a curse on covenant homes and ultimately destroy them.

    There are two things in the home that are curses of our modern generation. One is the television set. I do not know if as an adult you can handle a television set, but it is a curse on a home with children. My wife and I told the children when they first began to realize what was going on about them: “No television in this house. You can have all the books you want. You can go the library every week if necessary to get your books, but no television.  And no watching television by the neighbor. We will not have you watching that stuff.” Now, I am not saying that the television set is wrong in itself. But it is an unbelievable power for evil in the home. And I am not talking now about the pornography on the television, about the comedies that destroy everything sacred in a humorous way, that exalt the henpecked husband and the disobedient child, and make a joke of adultery and fornication. I am not talking about that. I am talking about all aspects of TV.

    Malcolm Muggeridge wrote a book quite a few years ago: The Fourth Temptation. It was a book that contained the speeches that he delivered to religious television broadcasters. Among the many things he said in the speeches was this: “Television by its very nature is incapable of bringing anyone reality.” You cannot learn the truth about anything from television. It is impossible.

    But even that is not the worst. You can listen to the BBC or ITV, I suppose, and pick up some of the news, and they might be right on the weather, although for two weeks now, I am told, they predicted rain and gusty winds every day and we have had marvelous weather (with an occasional shower), so I am not even sure about that. But I am talking about the advertisements. Now I know that here you do not have so much of that. But in America the advertisements constitute about a half of every program. Sex is the one thing that is used to sell cars and almost everything else.  If a woman, dressed like the women in those ads and speaking the language that they speak on television, would come to the door of my house and say, “I would like to come in and talk to your children;” I would say to her, “Get out of here, you whore. I won’t let you in this house.” But we let her in through the television set and nobody thinks anything of it. There she is, spewing her filth and acting in the most outrageous, immoral way, dressed in the most immodest fashion. But, because it is an advertisement, we do not seem to mind. There she is in the home, for all of that.

    The second instrument of destruction in the home is the computer.  And, once again, I am not against computers. I use one myself all the time. I am not even against the Internet so much, although I prefer myself to use it only for e-mail. But I know marriages that have been broken up because of pornography on the Internet. These pornographers are unbelievably bold. There was a time, until I got a filter on my computer that filters out the “spam,” when the e-mail that came in was such utter filth that it was almost impossible to believe that that stuff was going on in the world.    

     Now it just so happens that my children and my grandchildren know a whole lot more about computers than I do. When something goes wrong with my computer and I cannot get my son to come over to help me at the time, I can usually get some help from my eight or nine year old grandchild because he knows more about it than I do. It is that very knowledge of computers with which our children are growing up that makes those things such instruments of evil if our children are not taught the terrible, frightening evil of that sewer of filth that pours into the homes.

    I suggest to you that you be aware of this and guard against this and by your own example, if you have children in the home and a television set, be careful! It would be better to throw the thing on an ash heap than fill the souls of your children with the moral rot that is found in this modern invention.

    But I must end. This, then, in conclusion.

    The home is composed of a covenant father, a covenant mother, and covenant children. They are all sinners. Planted in the very heart of the home must be the cross of Jesus Christ. That is the only place for all to go. The children have to be taught by the example of their parents at the foot of the cross. The children have to be taught that repentance means to seek forgiveness in the cross, and that in the cross of Jesus Christ alone is to be found the power of a godly and holy walk. There is nowhere else to get it. The cross is the place. And so the family must find itself frequently together at the foot of the cross beseeching the Lord of all mercies that He will have compassion on them in their struggle, their difficult struggle, in a Christian home; that He will be merciful and forgive sins; and that He will do His work, though He is pleased to use us as weak and frail instruments, and give to us grace that our homes may be shining lights in the darkness and evil of our present time.


Chapter 5

Keeping God's Covenant and the Exercise of Discipline


P r o f. David J. Engelsma


Scripture: Hebrews 12:1-17

    The exercise of discipline in the topic refers to Christian parents’ exercising discipline upon their covenant children.

    The discipline of our children is an important aspect of our keeping God’s covenant.  The reason is that God calls believing parents to rear their children. This rearing of their children includes discipline. God uses this rearing, with its discipline, to carry out His covenant purpose of saving the covenant children of believing parents.

    The importance of discipline is shown in Hebrews 12:1-17 , particularly verses 9 and 10: “Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.”

    The passage refers to, and gives instruction about, parental discipline. “We have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us.” Even more importantly, the passage makes a comparison between God’s discipline of His children and our discipline of our children. This comparison is the main thought in the passage.

    The Spirit has a practical purpose in Hebrews 12 . This practical purpose is that God’s people will submit to God’s painful chastisements of them. It was necessary that the Spirit encourage the Hebrew Christians along these lines because those Hebrew Christians were becoming wearied and faint in their minds on account of the severity of their chastisement (v. 3). Such discouragement as the Hebrew Christians were experiencing is always a danger for someone who is being chastised by God, as the proverb quoted in Hebrews 12:5 and 6 indicates. The danger is that a discouraged Christian is ready to despise the chastening of the Lord and to faint as he is being rebuked by God.

    In order that the chastised Christian not faint but rather submit to the chastisement, the writer of Hebrews reminds Christians that their troubles are sent them by God and that those troubles serve a good purpose in their life.

    Our troubles are not unfortunate accidents. They are not the result of blind fate. Neither are they punishments inflicted upon us by a wrathful God. Rather, evils in the life of the Christian are chastisements.

    A chastisement is some evil, that is, a painful event, administered by God for our correction from some sin; or for our development unto spiritual maturity; or for our general increase of holiness in view of the corruption of our sinful nature, which we retain.

    God’s motive in this chastisement is love for us, not hatred.  God’s goal with this chastisement is salvation, not damnation. In these ways, chastisement differs radically from punishment. Punishment may be the very same kind of evil in the life of the ungodly, but the punishment is motivated by God’s hatred of that reprobate, ungodly sinner. It is intended to inflict upon him the penalty, in part, of his sin. And it has as its purpose, as indeed eternal hell will have as its purpose, the destruction of the sinner.  God punishes the reprobate ungodly. He chastises the elect believer.

    Evils in the life of the Christian, such is the teaching of Hebrews 12, are an aspect of the wise and good rearing of His beloved children by God in His capacity as their heavenly Father. To drive home this comforting truth, the passage compares God’s dealings with us to an earthly father’s dealings with his children.  The passage does this already in verse 7: “If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons [and here comes the comparison]; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?”  This comparison is made again in verses 9 and 10, quoted above.

    The passage makes a comparison between the heavenly Father and us earthly fathers with regard to one aspect of the activity of fatherhood. The one aspect of fatherhood that is the point of the comparison is chastisement, or what we more commonly call discipline. God disciplines us, and we discipline our sons and daughters.

    This comparison between God and earthly fathers is of the greatest importance practically for our discipline of our children in the Christian, or covenant, family.

    Parents often ask, “What is our calling with regard to the discipline of our children? Must we discipline? If so, how are we to discipline? What is good discipline in a family?”

    In the covenant, parents are helped often, and should be helped, by the example of their own parents. The power of this example ought not to be minimized. Those who study such matters in the world tell us that child abuse is passed on from generation to generation. If one has himself been abused in one way or another, particularly by his own parents, he will likely be abusive to his children. And then his children will be abusive to their children. And this evil runs on in the line of generations. But the opposite is also true. Good discipline is passed on from generation to generation. The example that we set to our sons and daughters bears fruit to generations following.

    Nevertheless, the example of parents, even Christian parents, is not infallible. For Christian parents are imperfect. This imperfection of Christian parents in the discipline of their children is recognized in Hebrews 12 . With reference to parents, the writer of the book says that they discipline “after their own pleasure” (v. 10). We need an infallible guide.

    Scripture alone is this infallible guide for right discipline. Scripture speaks of child rearing, particularly of discipline. Scripture speaks about discipline with infallible wisdom and authority. This, by the way, is comforting to anyone who may have had a father or a mother who set a dreadful example in the discipline of their children. It is by no means necessary that such a one also abuse his own children. This pattern must be broken. This pattern can be broken in the life of one who has been converted to Christ. Then the guide of his own discipline of his children cannot be his own parents, but will be the clear, authoritative teaching of the Word of God.

    The Bible is not a manual of parental discipline, although the book of Proverbs is devoted in large part to child rearing. But instruction concerning discipline is found everywhere in Scripture.  It is found not only in the admonitions but also in the history.  Both the history and the specific admonitions regarding discipline warn against bad discipline and exhort to good discipline.

    One aspect of the Bible’s instruction concerning discipline is often neglected. This is the example, or pattern, of good discipline that God sets by His own fatherly discipline of His children.  How God disciplines is revealed in Scripture. And our discipline of our children must reflect and pattern itself after God’s discipline of His children. This is the importance of Hebrews 12 with regard particularly to its comparison between God’s discipline of His children and our discipline of our children.

    There is still another reason for the importance of Hebrews 12 with regard to the exercise of discipline. Inasmuch as Hebrews 12 compares our discipline of our children to God’s discipline of His children, the passage is useful to those who are not parents. Some are not parents. Some of us here are no longer parents with children at home to be disciplined. Some are never going to be parents. This does not imply that this passage is of no benefit to such persons. Inasmuch as the passage is structured as a comparison between God’s discipline of His children and our discipline of our children, the passage is useful to all Christians to instruct us concerning God’s exercise of discipline upon us.



    The chastisement of Hebrews 12 is the infliction of some pain upon the child because of the child’s wrong doing. Chastisement in this chapter is discipline, not in the broader sense of the entire rearing of the child, but in the narrower sense of rebuking a child, or spanking a child, or of taking away some privilege from the child. That this is the reference of chastisement in the passage is plain from verses 6 and 11, where the apostle speaks of painful things that God has brought upon His Hebrew children. In verse 6 we read of scourging or whipping. Verse 11 states that “no chastening ... seemeth to be joyous, but grievous,” to which every child who has ever received a good spanking says a hearty, “Amen.”

    Such discipline, or chastisement, is necessary. Every believing parent must discipline. He must discipline every one of his children.  Now I am quick to add that, although parents must discipline in the sense of administering painful chastisement, although it is true that parents must discipline every one of their children, it is also the case that parents must not, in an ironclad, inflexible way, discipline every one of their children in the same way, even though the offence may be the same. Children are different. Parents must exercise discipline with a wisdom that recognizes the differences in their children. One child may be of such a sensitive nature that a sharp rebuke reduces that child sincerely to tears and brings that child to a heartfelt repentance.  Another child may have quite a different disposition, so that a mere rebuke makes no headway against that child’s sinfulness, but that a spanking is necessary, and a hard spanking at that, that results in the child’s roaring. We had that, I may say, in our own family of nine children.  One child was of such a tender disposition that a rebuke (and not a particularly sharp rebuke) reduced that child to tears.  As a result, that child did not receive so many spankings. The other children noticed that. (This brings up another important aspect of child-rearing: fairness is required in the family. Any unfairness is immediately noted by the children.) To this day, although all of those involved are mature and have their own families, the other children will say to this particular child, “You were the favorite child. Did you ever get a spanking in your life?”  Well, this child did. But this child did not need that type of discipline.  This child needed discipline, to be sure, but not that kind of discipline.

    Nevertheless, discipline is necessary for all the children. The evidence for this lies on the very surface of the passage. The necessity of discipline for every child is the thought of verse 7. It is simply unthinkable that there is a child whom a father does not chasten at all: “what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” Chastisement is simply part of the relationship of father/child. This necessity of discipline for every child is emphasized in verse 8. The only possibility of not disciplining some one is that the person (and the reference is to one who seems to be a child of God in the church) is illegitimate, a bastard. Incidentally, I note that the Holy Spirit teaches that there are two kinds of members of the visible church and two kinds of children among the physical children of believing parents. They are not all children of God.  Some are legitimate children, spiritually begotten by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Others in the visible church may be bastards.  They are illegitimate, they are not children of God at all.

    The necessity of discipline is brought out strongly in the passage in a way that may not be so obvious. It is brought out by the word that is used for discipline throughout Hebrews 12 . The word that is used is a word that means “child rearing,” or “education” in the full sense. It is the Greek word from which we get our word “pedagogy.” Parents are to educate their children. But this word is used by the Holy Spirit in Hebrews 12 to refer, as we have seen, to one specific aspect of child rearing, namely, discipline.

    So fundamental a part of the upbringing of our children is discipline that discipline is virtually identified in the passage with child rearing. Certainly there cannot possibly be good child rearing without discipline.

    There is an application of this basic scriptural truth to the training and teaching of children in the schools. Regardless of the wisdom of the learned who govern the state schools of our nations, there can be no effective rearing of children in the schools without chastisement, without discipline. The whole project must be a failure, apart from all other reasons, if there is no discipline in the schools.

    Discipline is necessary. Holy Scripture condemns much modern educational thinking and saves believing parents from the evils of this modern educational thinking. In the world, the theory prevails that children are not to be spanked and are not even to be rebuked. This permissive thinking governs many homes as well as many of the schools. But sometimes this thinking also appears in the churches. A member of the churches will argue that it is enough to teach his children the right way. If this is done, discipline is unnecessary. Another member of the church will simply neglect or ignore the discipline of his children altogether. In reality, this refusal to discipline, or this opposition to discipline, or this neglect of discipline, is a criticism of the wisdom of God. God finds it necessary to discipline His children. To contend that discipline is unnecessary in the rearing of our children is an implicit criticism of the wisdom of God.

    This, of course, is what is at the bottom of the modern educational theory. In every area of life, man knows better than God. In every area of life man deliberately sets aside the will of God and replaces it with his own will. The consequences are obvious for all to see.


Sinfulness of Children

    The reason for the necessity of the discipline of our children is their sinfulness. Our sinfulness is the reason why it is necessary for God to discipline us. The discipline of us by God is part of our great struggle, our great striving, against sin, as the apostle describes it in verse 4. That God’s discipline of us is required and necessary because of our sinfulness is implied when we read in the passage that the purpose of the divine discipline is that we partake of God’s holiness (v. 10). This is also the reason why discipline is necessary for our children. Even though our children are covenant children, they still have a depraved nature. Their wicked nature expresses itself in wicked speech and behavior. This wicked speech and behavior are then opposed and checked and overcome by the administration of discipline.

    In locating the necessity of discipline in the sinfulness of the children, Scripture condemns the error that is at the root of much educational thinking today. This is the thinking that the children are basically good or, at least, not depraved. To put it in theological terms, the error at the bottom of much educational thinking today, denying the necessity of discipline, is the rejection of the doctrine of total depravity and rejection of the related doctrine of original sin. Christian parents, as much as unbelieving parents, pass on to their children their depraved nature, a nature that is totally corrupt, wholly inclined to all evil, and incapable of any good. In fact, this is the only thing that Christian parents pass on to their children. The new nature in Christ that God promises to give our elect children in His promise to be the God of us and our children is His work, His gift, and His operation of supernatural grace. But when God regenerates our children and converts them, these children retain still, as long as they live, the corrupt nature that they have received from Adam. The world does not know the doctrine of total depravity and the doctrine of original sin. Therefore, the world maintains that children are good.

    Strange to say, we can be attracted to this very same error, namely, that we view our children as good, or, if not good, then, at least, as not very bad. Although we confess total depravity and faithfully apply total depravity to children in general and to the neighbor's children in particular, we sometimes cannot apply the doctrine of total depravity to our own children. Our own children are good. Our own children are always right. Our own children are never wrong. Whenever our children are involved in some trouble, immediately we take the side of our children and go to war against any with whom they may be in conflict. This is foolish behavior, that is contrary to the truth that is at the bottom of the requirement in Hebrews 12 that we discipline our children.  As Oliver Cromwell once said to disputing Puritan ministers in his entourage who were busy dividing what he was trying to unite, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, consider the possibility that you may be wrong.” So also we parents with regard to our children ought to consider the possibility that our children are wrong.



    Discipline is necessary. The question now is, Whose responsibility is it to administer this discipline? According to Hebrews 12 , the responsibility is that of the children’s parents and, specifically, that of the father. It is as the Father of spirits that God chastises His children, and it is fathers of our flesh who corrected us (v. 9). Discipline is a parental duty. Discipline is part of the requirement of parents that they also take upon themselves in the vow of the baptism of their children. When we baptize our children, we vow that we will bring them up in the fear of the Lord, in the doctrine of the church in which they are baptized.  This upbringing very definitely includes disciplining our children.  It is the parents’ responsibility not only to teach their children, to send their children to catechism, and, wherever possible, to send them to the Christian school, but also to chastise the child.

    This implies the authority of the parents over their children.  Parents have a right to inflict pain upon their children. More importantly still, parents have the right to direct their children’s lives. For this, after all, is the reason for inflicting the pain of discipline. There is no sense in exercising discipline in itself. But the application of discipline has as its goal directing that child’s life in a certain way. When the parent disciplines, he says to the child in that powerful language of the rebuke or of the stick, “Not in that way you shall go, but in this way you shall go.” For this, parents have authority. They have authority from God. This is why in Hebrews 12 fathers are mentioned. Fathers are mentioned, for one thing, in order to impress upon us, especially at the beginning of the twenty-first century, that every Christian family ought to have a father in the home. Now God Himself sometimes acts so that this is not a possibility. Then God will care for the Christian mother, with the help especially of the elders and some other male members in the church, so that that mother can be father and mother both. This is the exception, however. The rule is that the Christian home shall have a father. And the rule is as well that that father will be a real father, a father characterized by strength, a father who is the real head of the home, a father who exercises authority—wisely, rightly, and in the love of God, but who exercises authority.

    Is it not striking that even the world, which has jettisoned the wisdom of the Word of God, now recognizes the importance, the very great importance, of what they call a “father-figure” in the home. The world itself can see that the results are disastrous in those homes, those many homes (at least in North America) where there is not a father and never will be a father. Not only in the formation of gangs, but also in the psychological and ethical disturbances of children who come from such homes, the importance of the biblical wisdom of the father in the family is made plain.

    Fathers are mentioned because Scripture wants to underscore that parents have authority over their children to direct their lives in discipline. Fathers are mentioned in the passage also because, finally, the responsibility of the discipline of his children is his—even though his wife helps and even though, as a matter of fact, the wife does most of the disciplining. The wife and mother ought to do much of the disciplining, simply because she is there with the children more than the father is throughout the day. There is something wrong when the mother never administers discipline—partly because the effectiveness of discipline is that it is administered when the offence is committed and not hours or days later, but also because in this case the mother is saying to the children, “Wait till your father gets home,” and the children learn to dread the father and his coming home because all that means for them is that finally they get the spanking that they ought to have had six hours earlier. Nevertheless, though the mother administers much of the discipline, the responsibility for the discipline is the father’s.    God does give the parents authority over their children. Here Scripture strikes at another serious evil in much of educational thinking today. This is the evil that holds that no one has the right to direct the life of another. Not even parents have the right to direct the life of children. Children are autonomous.

    Lively consciousness of their authority is necessary on the part of the parents for the faithful discipline of their children. This authority is implied in the fifth commandment of the law of God.  If children are to honor their parents, parents have the authority that ought to be honored. For the exercise of this authority parents will answer to God in the day of judgment. Not only will husbands and wives answer to God for the keeping of their vow to each other in marriage, but they will also answer to God for the vow, whether explicit or implicit, concerning the discipline of their children.



    Parental discipline requires parental oversight. This means that parents live with their children, actually live with their children.  Much of the breakdown of discipline today stems from the breakup of family life. Parents are not there in the home to know their children’s weakness, behavior, and needs. Obviously, divorce is one instance, one cause of parents not living with their children.  In Malachi 2 , where the prophet is admonishing the men of Israel for divorcing their wives and remarrying others, God reminds those men in Judah, as He reminds men in the church today, of one of the great purposes that God had in the beginning when He made Adam and Eve one flesh.  Malachi asks the question, “Wherefore one?” Wherefore did God make the two one?  And he answers his own question, “That he might seek a godly seed”  ( Mal. 2:15 ).   One of the great purposes of God with marriage from the very beginning was children, not just children in general, but godly children, children who might rule in the world under Himself, to His glory, so that the creation would be devoted to the glory of God.  The application of this truth by the prophet to his own time makes plain that still today, in the faithful marriages of His people, one of God’s great purposes usually is that He seeks in their marriages a godly seed. Divorce, as even the world recognizes, is one of the main reasons for the destruction of children—the physical and psychological and, we would add, spiritual destruction of the children.

    This is one reason why Christian husbands and wives who are having severe trouble ought to stay together in their marriage. I have had it that a couple came to me, members of the church, who for years and years, as became evident, had grown apart and had learned cordially to hate each other and who were bound and determined to divorce.  Really they came to the church to get the church’s sanction of their purpose to divorce.  After both of them had poured out their litany of woes, which were intended to convince me that they certainly must divorce and that even God Himself would not require two such warriors to live together any longer in marriage, one of them asked, “You wouldn’t expect us to stay together for the sake of the children, would you?” “Ah, yes,” I answered. “Now finally you talk some sense. Here we can make a beginning. Exactly so. If you don’t stay together for any other reason, you selfish people, then stay together for the flesh and blood of your own bodies, who are at the same time to be regarded as the covenant children of God. Sacrifice yourselves.  Sacrifice your own happiness.  Then we will work to see to it whether the Spirit of God won’t bring you to repentance and reconciliation so that you can enjoy living with each other again.  But do not forget the children.” God hates divorce ( Mal. 2:16 ).   And the true church hates divorce. And every genuine Christian ought to hate divorce, among other reasons, because, apart from some extraordinary grace of God, it will destroy all the children. Parents must live together to rear their children rightly and to discipline their children.

    Not only divorce, but also mothers, with children at home, who work outside the home find it very difficult, if not impossible, to discipline the children.   

   There is also the fault of many fathers today who, at the end of the day, rather than come home, to spend the rest of the day with their family, are out on the golf course or amusing themselves with some other entertainment or taking on some other job, not because that is necessary for the support of the family, but because they are intent on amassing wealth.

    For good, on-going, effective discipline the mother must be a worker at home and the father must make time with his family after work and on the weekends.

    Still more, the context of effective covenant discipline is peaceful life together as a family, family-life as fellowship with God and with each other. It is not enough that parents live under the same roof with their children. They must live under the same roof with their children in warm and healthy communion with their children.  They must live with their children as being one with them in Jesus Christ.

    Is it not the case that the nature and real power of God’s effective discipline of us is the context of His warm communion with us in love? The afflictions God sends us are not imposed simply by some almighty sovereign. They are laid upon us by our Father, who loves us and with whom we live in friendship. What is the climate, the atmosphere, the day-to-day quality of our home? Is it fellowship in which, although we are father and they are children, we live with them and in a way share life with them, as our beloved children?



    Discipline of children is necessary. The question is: How are parents to exercise this discipline? The answer in Hebrews 12 to our “How?” is implied in the purpose of discipline. The purpose of the discipline of children according to Hebrews 12 is the children's holiness. This is the purpose of God’s discipline of us. So we read in verse 10: “but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his [God’s] holiness.” The purpose of God’s discipline of His children is the profit of those who are disciplined, our good. This profit consists of our partaking of God’s holiness.  This cannot mean that by chastisement God’s children become holy for the first time. We already are God’s children—elect, redeemed, and born again by the Spirit—before He chastises us.  Our being children is the reason why He chastises us. God does not chastise people to make them His children. God chastises people because they are His children. We are already holy by the sanctifying Spirit before God chastises. But we are only imperfectly holy. As the Heidelberg Catechism says in Question 114, we have only a very small beginning of the new obedience.

    Chastisement of His children by God is the means by which the holiness of God’s children is preserved from the power of sin and by which holiness in them is increased.  By aiming at our holiness with His discipline, God in His chastisement has nothing less than our life as its purpose—our spiritual, eternal life. This is verse 9: we should “be in subjection unto the Father of spirits [in the matter of chastisement, you understand], and live.” Without holiness no one will see the Lord (v. 14). And without discipline there will be no holiness.

    God’s purpose in the chastisement of His children establishes what our purpose must be in the chastisement of our children.  Our purpose in chastising our children must be their profit. But their profit is not their pleasure, but their holiness. Thus our purpose in disciplining our children is nothing less than their life. Do we want our children to live? Do we want them to live spiritually?  Do we want them to live eternally? Do we want them to live in the day of Jesus Christ? Then we discipline, because discipline maintains and preserves and increases holiness.

    I note in passing (this was what I was driving at a moment ago when I emphasized that God does not chastise people to make them His children; He chastises them because they are His children), that this implies a fundamental truth about the children of believing parents from their earliest infancy. We are to regard our children as the children of God, elect, redeemed, and regenerated, from their earliest infancy. This is not because all our children are necessarily elect and saved. We know better. Hebrews 12 speaks of an Esau, who was reprobated before he was even born, according to Romans 9 . But it pleases God, as the Puritans said, to cast the lines of election in the generations of believing parents. It pleases God to gather some of His church out of the families of believers. What God means when He says, I will “be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” ( Gen. 17:7 ), and, on the day of Pentecost, “The promise is ... to your children” (Acts 2:39), is not that God may someday save one or two of our children and be the God of our children when they finally grow up and make a decision for Christ, but that He is the God of our children as children. The promise of God is to us and to our children as children, infant children.

    This is implied by the calling parents have to chastise their children with the same purpose that God has in chastising His children. We do not chastise our children to try to make them holy, children of God. You cannot make people holy children of God by spanking them or rebuking them. If they are not already holy children, spanking and rebuking have the effect of embittering them. But we are to discipline our children because they are children of God. In them God has already worked His holiness.  This makes for the possibility and reality of the effectiveness of discipline in maintaining this holiness and in increasing this holiness.

    What I am saying is this: Parental discipline of children does absolutely no good if the children are not saved. Neither does instruction of the children do any good if the children are not saved. What fruit can there be upon it? What spiritual good can come from it? If I were convinced about my children that they were all unregenerated until such a time as they grew up and might be converted in their teenage years or later, all I would ever say to them is, “Repent, repent, repent,” hoping that God would make that effectual in their salvation.

    God disciplines us because we are His children. He calls covenant parents to discipline their children, who are the children of God.

    Then our discipline is fruitful because the Spirit of God is in their hearts. This is what the covenant promise means: “I will be the God of you and your children.”

    Not all of the children of believing parents are elect, redeemed, and regenerated children of God. One way that those who are reprobate children show their reprobation is by wickedly despising the discipline of their parents and hardening themselves against it. There may also be some elect children who rebel, who even rebel for a long time.  Think of the prodigal son. This is why parents with wayward children must not give up on their children too readily, but at the very least (and this is quite something) pray for them that God will turn them. But there may be reprobate, ungodly children of believers.  Then they refuse the rebuke, they ignore the discipline, and they walk wickedly. They are covenant breakers, not in the sense that God established His covenant with them personally by establishing that bond with them in their hearts or by promising to them personally salvation. But they are covenant breakers in the sense that they are born and raised in the sphere of the covenant. The duties of the covenant are brought to them and, knowingly and deliberately, they transgress the covenant and the covenant commandments.

    With regard to such children, whether elect children who for a while are rebellious or with regard to reprobate children, when the children refuse the admonition and discipline of the parents, the parents ought to take their child to the elders of the church.  Keeping the covenant as the people of God means that we are members of a church that has elders. These elders discipline the members of the congregation according to the Word of God. Elders help in the discipline of unruly children in the congregation. Parents are never in the position that they throw up their hands and say, “We can’t do anything with our children.” We must never allow ourselves to be put in that position. Sometimes we feel that our backs are put to the wall. But we are never in a position that we can do nothing. We can always do something. When they become of age, we take a rebellious child to the elders of the church, for them to work with and for them to discipline in the sense of administering church discipline, so that finally these children are excommunicated from the church. Then the parents themselves refuse fellowship with these children, to drive home the discipline. They have contact with them, they speak to them, telling them to repent and be converted; but they break off fellowship.  Parents, then, will cooperate with the church in the ecclesiastical discipline of their own children.  This is really what Moses called parents in such a position to do in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 .  If they had a son who was a drunkard and rebellious and would not listen to his parents’ admonition, the parents were to take their son to the elders and, in those days, the elders would stone that rebellious son to death. Today, the elders of the church exercise the discipline of excommunication.

    But the purpose of our discipline is to correct the sins in the lives of our children and to direct the children to consecrate themselves to God. We must explain this to our children too. We must say to our child, “I am rebuking you, or I am spanking you, because of your sin. This is what God requires.” When God chastises us, He makes known what it is in our life for which He is chastising us. This means that it is essential in discipline, that we bring our child to the cross, when our child is penitent, for forgiveness.  It is essential that the father of the home, as the servant of Christ, say to the child, “I forgive you in the name of Christ, and Christ forgives you, and you are reconciled to me again.” Father brings the gospel of the grace of the cross of Christ.

    The discipline of children implies a standard of right and wrong, as well as a goal the children must reach. After all, it is an awesome responsibility to direct the life of another human being.  They must know what the standard is: the law of God. They must know what the goal of the direction is: the mature man or woman of Christ.

    If the purpose of our discipline is the children’s profit, our discipline will be consistent. Discipline always suffers from inconsistency.  Day after day a child may be disrespectful, to his mother especially, and is permitted to get away with it. Then one day when we are irritable the child has a big mouth, and we explode in anger and give him a sound spanking. This is inconsistent.  The trouble is that we are not really aiming at the child’s holiness. If we were, we would discipline the child the first time he was disrespectful and every time that he was disrespectful.  The trouble with us is that all too often, as Hebrews 12:10 says, we discipline “after [our] own pleasure.” This is true. I may confess that one of the sorrows of my life, as I now become old, is the imperfections of my own discipline of my children. I am very thankful that there is a cross of Jesus Christ for imperfect Christian fathers. I am very thankful, thankful beyond all telling, that although I recognize that God uses the imperfect discipline of us imperfect fathers to save His people, the work of saving our children is the work of God and not the work of imperfect fathers. It is the work of God alone and not the work of God and us imperfect fathers. That is a painful line in Hebrews 12 , they for a time “chastened us after their own pleasure” (v. 10). We must not discipline after our own  pleasure. Scripture, of course, is not approving of this. It is merely recognizing what all too often is the case. Our discipline is weak and poor. In contrast, God’s discipline is strong and good.

    The argument of Hebrews is this: If we submitted to the imperfect discipline of our parents, all the more we ought to submit to the perfect discipline of our heavenly Father. We must not chasten a child because he bothered us. We must not chasten a child because we want to vent our anger on him for provoking us. We must not discipline our children because they fail to achieve certain selfish ends that we have for them, for example, that they will shine academically and educationally, putting unreasonable demands upon our children. Never must we discipline for those reasons. The goal of discipline is not our profit, but the child’s profit. The standard of discipline is not what seems good to us, but what seems good to God as found in His law. The motive is not self-love—we must watch out for that in our rearing of our children—but the love of our child.



    Since the purpose of discipline is the child’s holiness, it is implied that the motive of the disciplining parent is love, love for the child for God’s sake. This is expressed in verse 6 of Hebrews 12, the quotation of Proverbs 3:12 , where the motive of God in chastising His children is said to be love: “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.” Just as God’s motive in chastening us is love, love for us, so must our motive for chastening our children be love. Then, not just love for them as our flesh and blood—natural love—but love for them as God’s children! Every time a father lays a hand on his child, he ought to look at that hand and see that hand as the hand of God applied to the little child of God, so that in our discipline God is very really disciplining His children.  But our motive must be love. Love seeks the good of the be-loved.  Love acts to achieve this good (in this case, holiness). Since this good comes through discipline, love disciplines. There is no opposition between love and discipline. To say so is to accuse God of being unloving.

    But we parents must see to it that love is our motive in the discipline of our children.  Love is not the motive if we discipline in a rage. Love is not the motive if we strike out with heavy blows and sarcasm to destroy the child. Love is not the motive if we discipline unfairly. Love is not the motive if our oversight of our children is too rigorous.

    Love is not the motive if we are always criticizing our children and never praising them. Some Christian parents are mistaken here. Some have said, “I don’t praise my child because that will tend to make the child proud.” Does God praise His children?  Does God incite godly behavior in His children by praising? What an amazing thing! He works in us to do these good works. Then, when we do the good work in our sinful, imperfect way, He praises us for the good work and thus encourages us. God must be a pattern to us in this respect also.

    What does my child see when I discipline? Does she see love?  Does she know, amidst her tears, that I love her? In twenty-five years as a pastor before I became a teacher in the seminary, I saw in the congregations as many children ruined by unloving harshness as I saw ruined by the laxity of an Eli. There is an urgent warning to fathers in Colossians 3:21 : “Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.” Parents must take pains to assure their children that their motive in discipline is love. Children joke about this, not at the time, but afterwards, “I wish you didn’t love me so much.” Nevertheless, disciplining parents must assure them of their love when they discipline. Love must permeate our entire relationship with them. Love must control the manner of our chastisement of them. Parents must tell the child of their love when they chasten, especially afterwards, taking the child on their lap, speaking of their purpose in the holiness of the child. God does. God takes us on His lap after He chastises us. He says to us (listen to it in Hebrews 12 ): “Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth” (v. 6). Oh, we grown-up children of God need to know this, especially in time of painful chastisement. We need to hear Him say in the gospel, by the Spirit in our hearts, “I love you in this chastisement. Because I loved you, I whipped you. Because you are my beloved child, I discipline you.” So let covenant parents discipline, knowing in addition that we have only a few days.  The author of the epistle to the Hebrews speaks of this, too: “our earthly fathers for a few days” (v. 10)—just a little while we have them at the age and size that we can discipline them. So let us discipline them.

    This is the calling of parents in the covenant.


Receiving Discipline

    There is also a calling to covenant children in this matter of discipline. First of all, the application is to all of us who are children of God, subject to discipline. This is the main practical purpose of Hebrews 12 . The main practical purpose is not the calling of parents to administer discipline, but the calling of children to receive discipline. The great calling to us grown-up children is to receive the discipline of the Lord. Do not despise His chastisement.  Is He chastising you or me? Is it a very painful thing? Is it something altogether unpleasant? Are you roaring because of this chastisement of God, day in and day out? Do not despise it. Do not be embittered by it. Receive this chastening of the Lord as from your heavenly Father, in His love, for your profit and holiness.

    But now to you young people and children: Do not despise or rebel against the discipline of your parents. Receive it submissively.  Reverence your parents even as they are giving you a spanking or rebuking you. Yield to it, so that that discipline does its work in your life: holiness without which you, nor anyone, will see the Lord.


 Chapter 6

Keeping God's Covenant and and the Antithetical Life


P r o f. Herman Hanko


Scripture: II Corinthians 6:14-7 : 1, James 4:1-4 , and

Deuteronomy 33:26-29


    Take special note of the fact that in all of these biblical passages the antithesis stands on the foreground; and in every in-stance, the antithesis is connected to the doctrine of the covenant.

    Earlier this week one of the attendees at the conference, who had apparently read the program and who had seen the topic of this speech, called my attention to the fact that the word “antithetical” was most peculiar. She said to me, “Does not the last part of that word come from the word for God? And doesn’t the first part of that word mean ‘against’? Therefore, doesn’t the term ‘antithetical’ mean that the life of the Christian is a life against God? Why do you choose a subject like that?” That remark brought back memories of a long, long time ago—I think it was probably in the late forties or early fifties—when, at a young people’s convention, Rev. Herman Hoeksema delivered the keynote speech on what was the theme of the convention that year: The Antithesis.  He said, “We must not interpret antithesis in the convention's theme in the literal sense of that word, because it means ‘against God.’ ‘Antithesis’ is a wrong term,” he said. That lived vividly in my mind, because a wrong term to describe such an important part of the Christian’s calling is something of a disaster.

    I shall have to take exception, however, to those criticisms of the term. It is my judgment that antithesis comes from a Greek word that means “to set or place over against,” and that the end of the word does not come from the root word for God, but from a verb meaning “to set” or “to place.”

    The idea, therefore, of the antithesis, as the term itself implies, is that the Christian life, as the Christian walks it as a member of God’s covenant, is set against the life of the world in the midst of which he is to live.

    The subject is so vast that I am going to have to skim over some things very quickly.

    It must be clearly understood, at the very outset, that God creates the antithesis. He created the antithesis at the very beginning of history after the fall. When God met Adam and Eve in paradise and said to Satan, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” ( Gen. 3:15 ) —that was the announcement of the antithesis. Enmity was created between the devil and his brood and the seed of the woman by God. God does not place that enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent simply by filling the hearts of the seed of the serpent and the hearts of the seed of the woman with hatred for each other; but God creates that enmity by performing the work of salvation in the hearts of His people. That work of salvation in the hearts and lives of the people of God is God’s marvelous way of creating enmity, because it makes God’s people representatives of God’s kingdom and covenant in a world hostile to God.

    Second, the antithesis is rooted in and cannot be understood apart from the decree of sovereign predestination. It has its roots in election and reprobation. The seed of the woman is Christ, and in Him all the elect. The seed of the serpent constitute the reprobate. Behind the antithesis is God’s sovereign decree, which He executes in history.

    In the third place, that antithesis is fundamentally and essentially realized in the cross. You may picture the cross, from this point of view, as planted by God in the centre of the stream of history. As that cross is planted in the centre of the stream of history, the whole of the human race flows over Calvary and is divided by the cross into two groups: the elect and the reprobate, who are at enmity with each other, which enmity is created by and expressed fundamentally in the perfect work of our Savior on Calvary.  Our Lord Himself announced prior to His death that, in addition to dying for His people, with the cross had come also the judgment of the world: the prince of the world is cast out ( John 12:31 ).  

    Finally, that antithesis is executed by the exalted Lord. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough! Into the Lord’s hands, into the hands of the ascended Christ, is given the control of the universe— or, if I may put it a different way, is given the full execution of the whole counsel of God. God entrusts to His Son the authority and power to execute God’s counsel. He rules over all.  He does not only rule sovereignly over the elect; He rules sovereignly over all. Nothing takes place, not only on this earth but also in hell and in heaven, apart from the sovereign rule of Christ. That rule is a rule of grace, irresistible grace, as He sets up His throne in the hearts of His people. And that rule is one of sovereign power in His rule over the reprobate as He causes them to serve the purpose of the salvation of His church. Why is it that God laughs in the heavens as the heathen rage and the people imagine a vain thing? He has set His Son on the holy hill of Zion! The wicked can do nothing but serve God’s purpose ( Ps. 2 ).

    That twofold rule of Christ is the sovereign reason why there is an antithesis in the midst of the world. Bear in mind, therefore, that these great truths of the Scriptures stand at the basis and foundation of the antithesis. 

    The story of how that antithesis is worked out is one of the most exciting, one of the most thrilling, one of the most dramatic, stories that can ever be told. It is, in fact, the only story in all of history that is worth telling. When history is finally rewritten in the great Judgment Day, and God writes history as it should have been written on this earth but never was, and when God points out how in all of history He accomplished His eternal purpose, then that history book will be the only history book worth reading. It will fill the souls of those who read it with glory and with doxologies of praise to God who works wondrously.

    That story began in paradise, the first. That story began there when Adam was created in the image of God, as God’s covenant friend-servant, who was given lordship over God’s earthly creation.  In giving Adam lordship over that earthly creation, God gave to Adam the responsibility for keeping the garden. That is, He gave Adam responsibility for working in God’s creation as God’s representative in the world—to use God’s world to the praise and glory of God’s name.

    It was while these things were happening here on earth that dramatic events were taking place in heaven. There Satan conspired against God to attempt in a desperate coup d’état to seize God’s throne. He failed, even though he had a multitude of angels who sided with him and agreed with his purposes. The result was that he was expelled from heaven, although his final expulsion did not take place until the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ ( Rev. 12:9 ). Because of his failure in heaven, he decided instead to make this present earthly creation his possession, to steal it from God, to set himself on the throne of this earthly creation, and to make this earthly creation so completely his possession that the whole creation would serve his purposes, which purposes were nefarious, hellish, opposition to God, born of hatred of God and of God’s glory and name.

    But Satan had no access as such to this earthly creation except through Adam. So he conspired to tempt Adam, through Eve his wife, to gain Adam as his ally, because Adam was the head of the creation. If Adam would agree to cooperate with Satan against God, Adam would be Satan’s representative in the world and would be so manipulated by Satan that through Adam Satan could accomplish his purpose here below. He succeeded. Sad to say, he succeeded.

    Because Adam was the head of the creation, the fall of Adam meant that the curse that came upon Adam came also upon God’s creation. That was a necessary consequence. It could not happen any other way. Adam was responsible for the creation. Now, remaining responsible for the creation, Adam became the representative in the creation of Satan and of Satan’s purposes.

    I want to remind you, although it will be a very brief reminder, that the fall was not, from the viewpoint of God, a mistake. God did not sit in heaven and watch the dramatic events that were taking place at the foot of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil hoping against hope that Adam could stand in the face of the severity of the temptation.  And when Adam fell, God did not wring His hands in despair and weep over the destruction of His original purpose in creating heaven and earth so that, consulting once again with Himself, He decided that, due to Adam’s apostasy, He would be forced to adopt another plan in order to attain the glory of His name.

    Such a conception of the fall of Adam can never do justice to the glory, sovereignty and eternal purpose of God. We must proceed from the principle that God is God who does all His good pleasure and accomplishes His purpose unfailingly ( Eph. 1:11 ).  His purpose, in His eternal counsel, was to glorify His own name, not through the first Adam but through the second Adam—Christ, of whom the first Adam, according to Paul, was only a type (Rom. 5:12-14). In order to accomplish that purpose, God, without staining His own infinite holiness in any respect, without in any way becoming the author of Adam’s sin, nevertheless sovereignly controlled events in such a way that even the fall served the realization of His eternal purpose. That is what God announced to Adam in the words of the gospel. He immediately brought the gospel, the gospel of Christ, to those poor saints. Rev. Hoeksema, in school and in his preaching, used to put this in an unforgettable way: “When Adam fell into sin, he fell into the arms of Christ.” God brought the gospel: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, between thy seed and her seed.”

    The result of it was that God, in the realization of His purpose in Christ, planted the cross on Calvary, by means of which power the enmity could be created. In the old dispensation the work of God looked ahead in anticipation to the coming of Christ and the work that He would perform. The saints in the old dispensation understood that— and they lived in the hope of the coming of Christ. Satan understood it no less.  Revelation 12 tells us that Satan immediately saw the threat to his plan when God announced the gospel to Adam and Eve. The whole old dispensation, therefore, has this thread running through it: Satan’s desperate attempt to prevent the seed of the woman from being born. He stood with open mouth, as the dragon, before the woman in an effort to devour her Son ( Rev. 12:1-4 ).

    It was only by a wonder of grace throughout the entire old dispensation that the seed of the woman was preserved. Think of godless Athaliah who, by the way, was born out of an unholy union, a repudiation of the antithesis, between Judah and Israel, due, sadly, to Jehoshaphat’s foolishness, though he was a child of God. Athaliah killed all the seed-royal (except Joash). Think of Haman and his plot to kill all the Jews. Think of the repeated apostasy in Israel and in Judah that finally led the nation into captivity. It is all the terrible story of Satan’s attempt to destroy the seed of the woman. Psalm 137 is a psalm of pathos: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept; and when our conquerors required of us a song, we hung our harps on the willows—how could we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land? Did not all of the songs of Zion talk of Christ? How can we sing of Christ in Babylon? It is impossible that Christ be born here in Babylon. But we shall hang our harps on the willows that we may use them again. We will remember Zion, because God’s gospel shines as an inextinguishable light in the darkest hours of history. And the power of the gospel frustrates every attempt of Satan to accomplish his purpose. We shall return to Zion.

    God takes to Himself, according to His own eternal decree of election, a covenant people, a people whom He took out of Satan’s clutches, rescuing them from Satan’s power and establishing them in the midst of this world as His covenant people. Because they are His covenant people, He makes them His friends and becomes a friend to them—such a friend that He tells them in the sweetest possible terms, “I have so taken you into My fellowship that I will make known to you, My people, all the purposes of My will that I purpose to do until the end of the world, when all of My purpose is realized.”

    Psalm 25 speaks of God’s covenant in terms of a friendship between God and His people that is so close that God tells them His secrets: “The secret of the LORD is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant” (v. 14). He lets us in on His secrets. He whispers, as it were, in our ear so that nobody else can hear: “I will tell you of all I purpose because I do all things for you. I will do this for all My elect—I will do this in all the history of the world.”

    But He tells His covenant people His secrets in order that they may represent His cause and the cause of His covenant in the world. That work of God puts the purpose of Satan and the purpose of God, in the lives of the people of God, at loggerheads.  Satan’s purpose is to banish God from His world, come what may.  He will use as his allies and tools the whole of the wicked world. He will use the creation and its powers.      But there is this small, almost insignificant, frequently frightened group of saints to whom God entrusts the secret of all of history and the secrets of the universe embracing heaven itself. He says to them, “Now, in this world, you represent My cause.  And you do that by saying as loudly as you can, for all to hear, and by your entire life: ‘This world is God’s!’ It is not Satan’s. It does not belong to you. God claims it as His own.  He will not let go of that which He created. It is His. And He will accomplish His purpose in it, too, when Christ comes again to redeem all things, to glorify them, and to give them to His elect as their everlasting inheritance.” That testimony of the elect is the antithesis.

    There are especially two figures that Scripture uses to define the antithesis; there are more, but there are two figures to which I want briefly to call to your attention.

    The one figure is the figure of a battle. The covenant people of God are summoned to a battle. They are drafted into the armies of God. They do not volunteer for Jesus, as that wretched Arminian hymn has it. They are drafted by an act of irresistible grace.  And yet, they are not drafted against their will, nor do they fight against their will. God, in His gracious work of making them soldiers in the armies of Christ, who represent the cause of God and Christ by warfare, makes them joyful, willing soldiers. It is a wonderful thing, people of God, to fight in the battle of faith. It is a wonderful thing because soldiers of the cross are fighting for the only thing worthwhile. To fight for anything else is to fight for a useless cause, doomed to defeat. But to fight for the cause of God is to fight for the glory of His name and the realization of His eternal purpose. It is glorious beyond compare because the Christian soldier fights in the consciousness that the victory is always his. He is united by faith to Christ, his exalted Lord, who is sovereign over all. Christ is not only the captain of his salvation, but Christ is in the camp of the enemy directing operations, controlling the movements of bodies of troops, always for the sake of His soldiers. Our captain is in full control of all the power of the enemy’s armies. How can we help but win!

    Now just a few words about that battle. I fear, sometimes, that the people of God forget that life here in this present world is indeed a battle. They like to think of it in terms of its being a playground—we are in the world to enjoy ourselves; we are in the world to get everything out of life we possibly can; we immerse ourselves in the pleasures of this creation to the full. It is a playground, we think. No, it is not that. It is a battlefield. It is always a battlefield. And God’s covenant people ought not to forget that, because if they lose sight of that they will fail to represent the cause of God.

    In the second place, that battle is fierce. That battle is fiercer than any battle that has ever been fought in the history of the world. What does God care about World War II in comparison with the battle of the ages? What does God care about Iraq except insofar as it is a small item in His counsel and plan? The battle of the ages—that is the fiercest battle that has ever been waged or will ever be waged to the very end. And the ferocity of the battle is experienced most at its worst on the battleground of our own flesh, for our flesh is an eager ally of Satan.

    In the third place, from every single human point of view, the battle is hopeless. The church is a Gideon’s band. Isaiah, in chapter 1 of his prophecy, looks at the church in the time of Judah (not all that long before the captivity), and in a plaintive voice describes the church as a hut in a garden of cucumbers, a besieged city, a very small remnant. From every earthly point of view, all the odds are against the church. They have no strength; they have no numbers; they have no power. They have nothing at all going for them. They are their own worst enemy. There is no reason why anyone observing the battle should ever say, “They have a chance at victory.” And sometimes the people of God, feeling the sting of their smallness, begin themselves to be discouraged and frightened—especially when the enemy is discovered in their camp, when he leaves their churches in ruins and makes those who are supposed to be ministers of the gospel become ministers of the propaganda of the enemy.

    When the mighty hand of the world reaches out to snatch their children from their arms and dash them to pieces against the stones of false doctrine or persecution, the people of God sigh with a great sigh, “We are afraid. The enemy is victorious. He will win.”

    But if you are of those who belong to God’s covenant and who represent God’s covenant in the world, you will fight on. And you will fight in the assurance that the victory is yours. What a glorious promise God gives us. The victory does not come through marching on from battle to battle in the cause of the gospel and ultimately so overcoming the world that the battlefield of this world is strewn with the wreckage of this present time and the Reformed faith triumphs here in the midst of the world in a golden age when the kingdom of Christ is of the earth. That is no triumph; that is no victory. But the child of God looks for the victory in the full realization of the purpose of God in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. His seeming defeat is in fact the victory, just as it was at the cross when the seeming defeat of Christ was the victory over all the powers of darkness.

    In the fourth place, if you read that powerful metaphor of Paul in Ephesians 6:10-17, where he describes the Christian warrior and urges upon the people of God, “Stand fast,” you will notice, if you read carefully, that the various parts of the amour, both defensive and offensive without exception, in one way or another, refer to the Word of God. We do not fight the battle with bullets. We do not fight the battle, as Francis Schaeffer suggests in his Christian Manifesto, by fleeing to the mountains, organizing guerilla bands and waging war against the civil government in an attempt to overthrow it and establish Christianity as the rule of the land. We do not fight that way. To fight that way is to lose and to go down to crushing defeat. We fight with the Word of God.  That is our weapon. That is the only weapon we have. But that is a sufficient weapon because God is pleased through the foolishness of preaching to gather, defend, and preserve His church and each member in it. Just the Word. Use that as your armor!     

    Paul means to say that the Christian warrior in the midst of the battlefield, with the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, the breastplate of righteousness, his feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace, and the shield of faith, will stand. He cannot be overcome. He may at last be weary of the battle to the marrow of his bones.  His sword may be broken and his helmet knocked askew; blood may be streaming down from his head and from the wounds in his body; but when the battle is over, and he is ready to exchange his amour for a robe of righteousness and a palm leaf of victory, you will find him in the middle of the battlefield standing for the cause of God and of His truth.

    To be a part of God’s covenant is to fight. You are summoned to battle. You are summoned to battle against all that militates against God’s truth, and against an evil that is contrary to God’s holiness. That is the antithesis.

    The second figure that Scripture uses in order to define the antithesis (and this is the figure on which I want to concentrate for the rest of this chapter) is the name Scripture gives the people of God who live the antithetical life in the world: the name pilgrims and strangers. Peter addresses his first epistle to pilgrims and strangers.

    The entire first epistle of Peter is instruction on how the child of God must live the life of a pilgrim and a stranger. I would like to suggest that, in your devotions in the next week, you read the first epistle of Peter. Read it through the first time from beginning to end, never mind the chapter distinctions (which are later additions), never mind the verse separations (which are later accretions), just read it. And read it thinking in your mind this: “I am a stranger here as my fathers were. God gives me this hand-book by which I must live as a stranger in the world. I will read it in order to learn from my God what it means to be a pilgrim and a stranger.” Then, when you have read it from beginning to end, read it again in short sections, meditate on it and learn what it means to live the life of the antithesis.

    There was this figure of pilgrims in the old dispensation. It is in Hebrews 11:13-16. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were called out of Ur of the Chaldees and told to sojourn in the land of Canaan, when the land was owned by others; when they did not own so much as a foot of ground; were truly strangers in a strange land. This passage tells us in beautiful words, in words that God intends that we take into our hearts, as He sums up the life of the patriarchs: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” For they that say such things, the author of Hebrews 11 goes on to say (as the patriarchs said in confessing that they were pilgrims and strangers in the earth), if they had had any desire to return to the land of their birth (Ur of Chaldees) they would have found opportunity to return. To be a stranger was not pleasant. To be on guard against all the enemies that surrounded them was living a life of constant danger.

    And besides this, the land of promise was a desert. God had said, “I’ll give you this for a promise.” Abraham must have looked around him and almost said, “Who in the world wants this land?”  Twice he had to go from the country because of famine. Isaac had to go because of famine. Jacob had to go because of famine. A land ravaged by famine. A desert place. God said, “This is the land I’m going to give you.” But by an amazing wonder of grace—and you can explain it only as a marvelous miracle between the time that the patriarchs died and God brought Israel into the land of Canaan—it became a land flowing with milk and honey.  Mind you, one cluster of grapes was so heavy that two men had to carry it from that land.

    But Canaan was not the land they sought. They sought a better country, that is, an heavenly country. They were content to dwell there in that strange land as pilgrims and strangers because they understood that this was not really their home. God promised them and their seed this land as picture of a better country.  So they sought a better country, that is, an heavenly country: “wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God” (Heb. 11:16).

    That last line—perhaps it has nothing to do with my speech, but I must underscore that for a minute. Just think! Can you think of anything more blessed than that God would ever say about you and me, “I’m not ashamed to be called your God. I want all the world to know that I am your God”? We, who are so wicked, we, who are so often ashamed of God, we, who in the struggles of our lives to conform to the ways of God’s covenant fail so often, have this assurance: God is not ashamed to be called our God.  What a blessing! What a wonder! The God of heaven and earth, the Creator of all, is not ashamed of us but delights in calling us His sons.

    Be that as it may, there was the Old Testament picture. Peter picks it up and says, “Now this is what you are in the New Testament.”  If you read this epistle of Peter, you will discover that Peter does not say, “The life of a pilgrim and a stranger is to pull out of the world and get out of it as far as you can to hole up in some dark, dank, dismal monastery cell where you can lie on a stone bench, and where you can beat yourselves with whips in order to attain the holy life.” Peter says that pilgrims and strangers live right here in the world. They have to, because their calling is to say, for everyone to hear, “This world belongs to God. Whatever you wicked may say and whatever you wicked may do, this world belongs to God!” We insist on that. And if the world mockingly says, “Who? What in the world are you talking about? We’ve got the whole world for ourselves and we are going to squeeze you out until you can’t find a place for the sole of your foot,” the child of God says, as he is pushed out of that last square foot of ground, “But this world belongs to God. God has let us in on His secret. It is His purpose to give it to us. And His purpose will be accomplished in the coming of the day of Jesus Christ.”

    So Peter says that to walk as a pilgrim and as a stranger in this earth means that God commands us to walk holily, for “I the Lord thy God am a holy God.” Peter says, “You are a citizen of a country here in the world. Submit to those that are in authority over you. Be the best citizen in the whole land because you submit, for God’s sake, to the authority of your rulers.” Peter says that though you are a pilgrim and a stranger you are not (ordinarily) to be celibate. You must marry and have a family. But be sure that in your family you live as citizens of the kingdom of heaven and as members of God’s covenant. And he gives instruction in chapter 3 on how that is accomplished.

    Peter says, “You must have a job; you must work for your living.  Don’t be slothful and don’t be lazy. Maybe you even work for an unbeliever. That does not make any difference. But when you work, give honor to your employer and do so for God’s sake.  And if he despitefully uses you and gyps you out of your wages, don’t join a labor union and say to yourself, ‘I’m going to join with others and I’m going to get that rascal’”  Oh, no! The Christian does not say that. He bears evil for Christ’s sake, even when his employer is cruel to him.

    Ultimately, as he lives his life as a pilgrim and a stranger in the world, he will have to suffer. So Peter spends a great deal of time in his epistle describing and defining what the believer must do in times of suffering. A pilgrim’s way is a difficult way to walk and involves persecution, for so is the will of God for him. Read it. He is on a journey towards his eternal destination, the house of his Father. He is on a journey to what John Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress calls the celestial city. He does not fit in the world. He is an anomaly. He is such a strange person, and in the eyes of the world acts so peculiarly, that the world thinks there is something wrong with him.

    Peter says, “So different are you that not only do you attract the world’s attention by your peculiar conduct, but they will ask you the reason, ‘Why do you live the way that you do?’” (I Pet. 3:15).

 I remember that my mother was in the hospital a great deal before she died. In those days, hospitals had big wards—maybe 10 people in a ward. And, of course, those women who were in the ward with my mother all talked about their parties on Friday night; how they spent their weekends in all kinds of pleasure seeking, the latest shows they went to, and so on and so on.  Finally, when my mother was quiet, they said to her, “Don’t you ever do those things?” “No,” said my mother, “I never do. I’ve never been drunk. I’ve never been to a show in all my life. I’ve never been inside a cinema.” “Oh,” said the ladies, “don’t you ever have any fun?” “Yes,” said my mother, “I have the happiest life of you all! I have much more fun than any of you have. Is it fun to wake up on Saturday morning with a head that feels like a stick of dynamite has exploded inside of it? Is that fun? We have our fun on the Lord’s Day in church where we hear the word of God.” They could not understand it. “Why do you do that?” they said. Well, we are strangers in the world. We are on a journey. We are pressing on the way to our eternal destination. That is why.  God has let us in on the great secret of the universe. We believe Him and we believe His Word. And when all this wicked world is destroyed, there will be a new heavens and a new earth that God will give to His covenant people in Jesus Christ.

    A pilgrim and a stranger in the earth is, therefore, one who claims this creation for God by using it, insofar as he is able to do that, for the glory of God’s name. That means that he recognizes the fact that the creation as now constituted is not worth all that much. It is under the curse. It is not worth being delayed in your journey. It is not worth accumulating to yourself its possessions.  A pilgrim and a stranger sits loose to the things of this present time. He is not interested in a beautiful home, not in the first place. If God gives him that, that is something else, although God does not do that very frequently to His people. They are the offscouring of the world. But he is not interested in that. He is not interested in accumulating to himself wealth. What is the use? If he fills his backpack and his suitcases with bottles of wine and whiskey or gold and silver bars, it is almost impossible to walk on his pilgrim’s journey with such a load. And if he builds to himself, in the spiritual sense of the word, a gloriously beautiful and expensive mansion, he forgets he is on a journey. It is much better that he carry a tent that he can pack up in the morning and put on his back to carry it in the next mile of his earthly pilgrimage.  Even while he sits loose to the things of this present time, he says, “But this is God’s world. But I am relatively uninterested in it now as far as accumulating the things in it is concerned. It doesn’t bother me that I have little of it, because someday God is going to give to me and to all His people the whole creation glorified in Christ as my everlasting inheritance. That will be glory, for then I will be with Christ.”

    Moreover, when he has these earthly things he is interested in them for an altogether different reason than the wicked are interested in them. He is interested in them for one reason only, that is, that by means of them and by using them he may seek the cause of God. That is the important thing in his life. That is what counts. Just as soon as he takes some of God’s possessions from this creation and uses them for himself, he says, “This is mine to use as I please.” God says, “No, Christian pilgrim, they’re Mine.  And I give them to you as a steward only so that you may use them in My service.”

    There is one thing the Christian pilgrim is very intent on and that is fleeing all the world’s lusts and sins, fearing them with a great dread. He does not turn the television set on to watch the moral rot of the movies. He does not buy magazines filled with wicked pictures. In fact, if you would visit his house, be it but a temporary dwelling place, you might find a sign above the door of his house that says, “In this house Christ is King.” And if you were invited inside, it would not take you five minutes to discover that parents and children alike bow in service to King Jesus.  You can tell that by the songs that are being played on the CD player or the radio. You can tell that by the books that fill their shelves. You can tell that by the language that the family use in the house, which is language that reflects the fear of God that pervades their life. You will say, “Christ rules here by His grace. And in this home Christ is king. You will not find here the lusts and pleasures of the world.” A pilgrim’s home is an island of holiness in a wicked world.

    We are on a journey. The journey is difficult. There is a cross to carry. The journey is filled with suffering. The world hates us, standing along our pilgrim’s pathway, throwing its clods of mud at us and, finally, brutally attacking us on the pathway of life to frighten us from what is a narrow, difficult, steep pathway at best.   But in suffering there is victory, and in dying there is heaven. We are always victorious, ever pressing on towards the goal and knowing that faith is the victory that overcomes the world.


About the British Reformed Fellowship


    The British Reformed Fellowship (BRF) was founded in 1990 by a group of Reformed Christians set for the defence of the historic Reformed faith in the British Isles. Its doctrinal basis is “the inspired, infallible, inerrant Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as summarized and systematized in the Reformed confessions, specifically the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards.”

    The BRF produces a biblical and theological journal, the British Reformed Journal (BRJ), four times a year or as frequently as possible. Subscription rates, as of 2006, are £10 (UK, Europe & elsewhere) or $20US (N. America) for four issues of the BRJ. Membership in the BRF, which includes receiving four issues of the BRJ, costs the same as subscription to the BRJ and is available to Reformed Christians in the British Isles who agree with its doctrinal basis.  New subscribers and members are welcome.

    The BRF holds biennial family conferences at various locations in the British Isles for a week in the summer, usually in the beginning of August. Previous conference themes include Marriage and the Family, The Covenant of Grace, Sovereign Grace, The Church, The Last Things, The Kingdom of God, Assurance, and (of course) Keeping God’s Covenant. Why not consider joining us for a relaxing week’s fellowship around God’s Word?

    The BRF website ( contains articles from the BRJ as well as information on BRF conferences, contact details, and other material. So look us up on the web!