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 areone, 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 Israelcould 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 heavenlyFather. 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 templeof 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. Iconfess 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 Godin 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 ofGod’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 throughthe 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 unbiblicallanguage. 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 ofJesus 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 ofapostle. 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 intoGod’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’trecall 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 justabout 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 theysay, “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 thatkind 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’scovenant, love the church.