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The Covenant As A Framework For Life and Family

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  • The Covenant As A Framework For Life and Family

    by Willem VanGemeren

    The concept of the family is undercut in our society. Individualism and politically correct language have eroded the classic image of the family. While the "image" of the nuclear family is not necessarily biblical, there are forces that seek to destroy the family as an antiquarian relic of the Judeo-Christian legacy.

    The biblical concept of covenant has a bearing on our understanding of the family from a Christian perspective. The word "covenant" is found in both the Old and New Testaments. It is frequently a designation for the relationship that God graciously maintains with sinful and frail humans from generation to generation.

    First, the Lord initiates the relationship. A divine covenant is monergistic (i.e., God inaugurates the relationship and guarantees its fulfillment). The covenant is not quite like a contract wherein two parties agree to the terms, sign with or without witnesses, and are held responsible for meeting the terms as legally binding within a given time frame. A covenant is an agreement that God initiates, signs, and agrees to the terms of its fulfillment.

    God's covenants are rightly designated as "sovereign administrations of grace." The word "sovereign" brings out the source of the grace: It is God who initiates and maintains the relationship. If it were to depend on human beings, the covenants would be null and void, because, by our very nature, we are covenant breakers. Each covenant is an assurance of God's commitment to maintain the relationship.

    Covenant with Creation
    At creation the Lord made a commitment with all of life, including humans. Though the covenant terminology is not formally used in Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis, the idea is implicit. God decrees the world into existence, brings all the components harmoniously together, and calls the family of humans to serve him. The order in creation came by divine fiat. God spoke and created a world with great variety and harmony.

    Order is both conservative and progressive. God loves order, but not static order. With him is great variety, "How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures" (Ps 104:24). The congruence of all its parts permits uniformity as well as progression. On the one hand, the Lord maintains all his works. On the other, he ensures that his handiwork matures, progresses, and develops. Creation is subject to time, and, as such, participates in a history of the natural order. The solar system effects a cycle of day and night, of seasons, and of years. Within the sequence of time, trees and plants grow and hybridize, and living creatures (animals and humans) reproduce. Over time, creation is enhanced by the great variety within the species, made possible by genetic changes.

    The order of creation is also the concern of humans. The Lord has given us the mandate to serve him. This mandate comes with two provisions. First, the Lord endowed humans with his image. We are like him in character (e.g., love, compassion, fidelity, purity, patience, righteousness, justice), in our ability to communicate, and in our competence to operate in his world. The second provision is his blessing. The divine blessing is a grace that enables us to live and experience vitality in our existence. Vitality is a gift that takes many forms in everyday life: the enjoyment of food and drink, the ability to establish a family and produce offspring, the vigor of health and life, the competence and skill that make a person creative and productive, the social skills and wisdom necessary to maintain a social network, and the likelihood of meaningful communication.

    God's gracious commitment to the world, and to us, is the context for human responsibility. By God's grace we enjoy life, sustain our physical existence, communicate, develop a social network, achieve success, and reproduce. However, the enjoyment of his grace necessitates an appropriate submission to his Lordship. This response comes in the forms of love for God, submission to his will, an imitation of him, and a zeal for the glory of his name. We were created with the will to serve him well or poorly, to reflect his character or to develop character deficiencies, to enhance order or to obstruct it.

    The Lord put the character of Adam and Eve to the test. They failed the test. Their failure, through their disobedience, to glorify God did not end their marriage, their special place in the divine order, or their dignity. It did radically alter the covenant relationship because it inaugurated a new dimension to the covenant. From this point on the covenant becomes "a sovereign administration of grace in which the Lord continues to bless his creatures even though they are under condemnation." God's covenant with creation from the fall of humanity until the second coming of the Lord Jesus is the assurance that he upholds his created order, but the fullness of his blessing diminishes to a trickle: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time" (Rom 8:22).

    God has moderated his blessing, but he has not ended it. Were he to stop his blessing, we would be lethargic, and soon be extinguished. The psalmist expresses this sentiment well: "When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust" (Ps 104:29,30).

    The fall of humanity did alter our relationship with God, as well as the operation of the provisions. While we still reflect God's character, the image of God in us has been marred because of sin. Selfish expressions are more the norm than the exception: self-love, harshness, infidelity, impurity, impatience, lack of righteousness, injustice, etc. Whereas God had graced human existence with "vitality," the fall introduced "death." Death is that experience in which we live in alienation from self, other humans, the world, and, especially, from God. It is the opposite of vitality, in that death decreases our enjoyment of life and our sense of accomplishment and purpose.

    Covenant with Noah: Common Grace
    This biblical emphasis of God's commitment to creation, including fallen humanity, is the subject of God's covenant with Noah (Gn 9:8-17). It confirms God's care for the human family, even when we live in rebellion, corruption, and alienation (Gn 3; 6; 11). On the one hand, we endure anguish or pain (Gn 3:16,17; cf. Ps 90:9,10), are subject to physical deterioration ending in death (Gn 3:19), enjoy a limited span of life (Ps 90:10), and, worst of all, are under condemnation of eternal separation from his fellowship (Rom 5:16). The experience of pain imperils our perspective because we are preoccupied with our mastery, triumph, and success. On the other hand, God keeps the possibility of a relationship with him open. We are not possessed by evil nor are we demonic. While we are totally depraved, we are still image-bearers. The covenant is an assurance that we, while under condemnation, may still enjoy God's grace. This grace, also known as common grace, secures benefits for all creatures. As Jesus said, "He [God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Mt 5:45).

    Covenant with Abraham: Special Grace
    The covenant with Abraham provides the assurance of both grace and promise. The grace God bestowed on Abraham and his descendants is special in the sense that God brings people into fellowship with himself, assures them of his presence, and gives them the hope of restoration. Special grace comes in the form of election and of promises. Whereas before Abraham, God had already demonstrated a special love for individuals (Enoch, Noah), with Abraham he revealed his marvelous plan of a new order. Let us look at several aspects of the Abrahamic covenant.

    Election
    God freely chose Abraham. His privileged position was unmerited: "For I have chosen [Hebrew: "known"] him" (18:19). National Israel's position was also one of grace, because their entitlement came not because of their righteousness (Dt 9:5). Central to the relationship between God and his people is their special status as the "people of God": "I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you" (Gn 17:7; cf. 26:3). The people of God also have a hope and a purpose. In the reality of adversities in life, the godly put their hope in the Lord's promise that he will "tabernacle" among his people.

    Promises
    God promised to be with Abraham and to increase his family, to be with his offspring, to protect them in the land of Canaan, and to make them a source of blessing to the nations (Gn 12:2,3). He promised to protect and to deliver his subjects (Gn 15; 17). The Lord bound himself to the family of Abraham to be their Protector. The promise of his protection is further augmented by the promise of his blessing. As the promise was God's word to deliver his people, the blessing was his promise to ensure their prosperity, happiness, and security. His presence is the guarantee that he will protect them from adversaries and is the assurance of his blessing. God enters the world as the Deliverer (Divine Warrior) of his own people. This dimension is further developed in the tabernacle/temple in the Old Testament, in the experience of Israel's Exodus and Conquest, in her existence in Canaan, in Israel's restoration from exile, in the coming of Jesus Christ, in the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and in the biblical hope of the glorious coming of our Lord.

    God's protection goes beyond the individual. The Lord confirmed his promises and covenant with Abraham's descendants: Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes of Israel. God is the transgenerational God, "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (Ex 3:6). As such, the covenant privileges are open to the family of Abraham. More than that, implicit in the promises is a promise that includes the families of all nations: "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations" (Gn 17:4). This clause gave protection to all non-Israelites who sought shelter with the God of Abraham during the Old Covenant, and it foretold the cosmic perspective of the New Covenant.

    Living Faith
    Whereas family relationship opens up the benefits of special grace, real participation in the covenant is conditioned by the work of the Spirit in one's life and results in a personal expression of faith in the covenant Lord. Faith is an expression of trust in the Lord. Abraham had such faith: "Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness" (Gn 15:6). Living faith also includes an active dimension, demonstrating love for the Lord through obedience to his will. The lifestyle of covenant participation can be best expressed by the word "integrity" (cf. Gn 17:1). The people of the covenant are counter-cultural in that they submit themselves to God's revealed will alone, rather than live by the traditions of their culture (cf. 18:19).

    The New Covenant: The Special Grace of God for All the Families of the Earth
    Space does not permit us to explore the covenants with Moses and with David. Each of these is a nuanced expression and development of the Abrahamic covenant; each is an assurance of God's grace and promise. Contrary to popular opinion, the Mosaic covenant is an assurance of grace, but is overshadowed by the threats of punishment. The Davidic covenant is an assurance of God's presence and protection through the rule of his messianic king. The inspired sages, psalmists, and prophets of Israel develop the hope of the One from the offspring of Abraham and David who will live with integrity before God, remove the "curse" of the law, renew the covenant, establish a kingdom of justice and righteousness, and rule with equity over all nations.

    The New Testament confirms that this One is the Lord Jesus. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ has opened up a new administration. All of God's covenants come together under one administration: in the New Covenant. Jesus is the "radiance of God's glory" (Heb 1:3), the Son (3:6), and the high priest-mediator (4:15; 5:5; 8:1,2; 12:24). He is the good shepherd who gave his life for both Jews and Gentiles (Jn 10:11, 16). He was faithful to the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant (Mt 5:17), completed his ministry on earth, bore the curse of the law (Gal 3:10-13), suffered vicariously, rose from the dead, is presently seated with the Father in glory (Acts 2:31-36), and rules over the Church as well as all of creation (Col 1:18-20).

    The sacrifice of his life for his own ended the era of sacrifices, the temple, the priesthood, and ceremonies. All who belong to him share in the New Covenant, of which Jesus spoke shortly before his death: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you" (Lk 22:20). The Church as the new community of God participates in the New Covenant of grace, which may be defined as "a sovereign administration of grace and promise in which the Father calls people to himself, renews them by the regenerating and sanctifying presence of the Spirit, justifies and adopts them as being children of God in union with his Son, and seals them for the day of their glorious redemption." As Paul declares, "And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified" (Rom 8:30, cf. vv. 20,21). The redemption of the saints will also signify the liberation from bondage and the restoration of the created order: "The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (8:21).

    Jesus is Lord of the New Covenant. His is the sovereign administration over the Church and over creation. On the one hand, the members of his Church are greatly blessed (Eph 1:3). Their blessings are spiritual as well as material. Because of Jesus we experience God's forgiveness, great love, the benefits of being children of God, the presence of the Spirit, and the assurance of the hope of glory. Because of Jesus we also enjoy the gifts of food and drink, health and physical life, and the very important gift of children (Mt 6:33,34). As heirs of his grace and of his promises, covenant children are a blessing ("vitality") from God. They are born in the context of God's special grace. They are not outside, but within the covenant of grace. Theirs are the promises and the blessing, "The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call" (Acts 2:39). Their upbringing and education, therefore, are to be viewed from a covenantal perspective.

    The sovereignty of Jesus has also a bearing on our lives. Ours is the responsibility of living godly lives before our children, so that they may see how our families differ from families where Jesus is not known. The injunctions of the apostles (Eph 6:1-4; Col 3:18-21; 1 Pet 3:1-7) set forth the manner of life the Lord Jesus expects from Christian husbands, wives, parents, and children. Christian families make a difference in God's world!

    On the other hand, the Lordship of Jesus extends beyond the Church (Eph 1:10). The whole of the cosmos is held together by him and belongs to him (Col 1:17). The happiness and vitality that our non-Christian neighbors enjoy is Christ's gift. They live because of his gracious benefits. However, he will also hold them accountable when he comes to establish his sovereignty, then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power. "For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet" (1 Cor 15:25-26).

    In conclusion, Jesus Christ does not only relate to us as individuals. Christ is the sovereign Lord who invites individuals to be members of his covenant. Each Christian is a member of the covenant fellowship that embraces all Christians throughout the created order. As sovereign Lord, Jesus assures us of God's grace, of the reality of God's presence with us, of the application of his grace and promise to the members of our family, and of the glorious future that awaits us with him. But, the Lord Jesus expects to see that our lives reflect a zeal for God, a passion for our family, a love for humanity, and a concern for his world.

    Jesus' lordship also extends to the whole created order through common grace. His sovereignty extends further than the local church or one's denomination. This broader understanding of the covenant helps us to understand that God's grace extends beyond the Church to the whole world. An empathetic approach to the world at large can promote a spirit of compassion for humanity and an intercultural readiness to build bridges to people in need of the Savior. After all, they are recipients of the benefits of God's common grace. Their pain is a reminder that they, too, may find saving grace in the Lord Jesus!
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