This excellent article gives a brief description of Covenant Theology. it was written by J. Ligon Duncan, a Presbyterian minister, and was published in RPM Magazine, an online publication of Third Millennium Ministries.

Covenant theology is the Gospel set in the context of God’s eternal plan of communion with his people, and its historical outworking in the covenants of works and grace (as well as in the various progressive stages of the covenant of grace). Covenant theology explains the meaning of the death of Christ in light of the fullness of the biblical teaching on the divine covenants, undergirds our rainbow-covenantunderstanding of the nature and use of the sacraments, and provides the fullest possible explanation of the grounds of our assurance.

To put it another way, Covenant theology is the Bible’s way of explaining and deepening our understanding of:

(1) the atonement [the meaning of the death of Christ];

(2) assurance [the basis of our confidence of communion with God and enjoyment of his promises];

(3) the sacraments [signs and seals of God’s covenant promises — what they are and how they work]; and

(4) the continuity of redemptive history [the unified plan of God’s salvation].

Covenant theology is also an hermeneutic, an approach to understanding the Scripture — an approach that attempts to biblically explain the unity of biblical revelation.

When Jesus wanted to explain the significance of His death to His disciples, He went to the doctrine of the covenants (see Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, 1 Corinthians 11). When God wanted to assure Abraham of the certainty of His word of promise, He went to the covenant (Genesis 12, 15, and 17). When God wanted to set apart His people, ingrain His work in their minds, tangibly reveal Himself in love and mercy, and confirm their future inheritance, He gave the covenant signs (Genesis 17, Exodus 12, 17, and 31, Matthew 28, Acts 2, Luke 22). When Luke wanted to show early Christians that Jesus’ life and ministry were the fulfillment of God’s ancient purposes for His chosen people, he went to the covenants and quoted Zacharias’ prophecy which shows that believers in the very earliest days of ‘the Jesus movement’ understood Jesus and His messianic work as a fulfillment (not a ‘Plan B’) of God’s covenant with Abraham (Luke 1:72-73). When the Psalmist and the author of Hebrews want to show how God’s redemptive plan is ordered and on what basis it unfolds in history, they went to the covenants (see Psalm 78, 89, Hebrews 6-10).

Covenant theology is not a response to dispensationalism. It existed long before the rudiments of classical dispensationalism were brought together in the nineteenth century. Covenant theology is not an excuse for baptizing children, nor merely a convention to justify a particular approach to the sacraments (modern paedocommunionism and baptismal regenerationism).

Covenant theology is not sectarian, but an ecumenical Reformed approach to understanding the Bible, developed in the wake of the magisterial Reformation, but with roots stretching back to the earliest days of catholic Christianity and historically appreciated in all the various branches of the Reformed community (Baptist, Congregationalist, Independent, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Reformed). Covenant theology cannot be reduced to serving merely as the justification for some particular view of children in the covenant (covenant successionism), or for a certain kind of eschatology, or for a specific philosophy of education (whether it be homeschooling or Christian schools or classical schools). Covenant theology is bigger than that. It is more important than that.

“The doctrine of the covenant lies at the root of all true theology. It has been said that he who well understands the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, is a master of divinity. I am persuaded that most of the mistakes which men make concerning the doctrines of Scripture, are based upon fundamental errors with regard to the covenant of law and of grace. May God grant us now the power to instruct, and you the grace to receive instruction on this vital subject.”

Who said this? C.H. Spurgeon — the great English Baptist preacher! Certainly a man beyond our suspicion of secretly purveying a Presbyterian view of the sacraments to the unsuspecting evangelical masses.

Covenant theology flows from the trinitarian life and work of God. God’s covenant communion with us is modeled on and a reflection of the intra-trinitarian relationships. The shared life, the fellowship of the persons of the Holy Trinity, what theologians call perichoresis or circumincessio, is the archetype of the relationship the gracious covenant God shares with His elect and redeemed people. God’s commitments in the eternal covenant of redemption find space-time realization in the covenant of grace.

The Christian view of Work

A secular worldview, that is, an outlook on life that fails to take God and his revelation into account, distorts work in either of 2 ways. It could see work as a meaningless but necessary burden which we have to bear in order to survive, or it turns work into an idol – the sole purpose of a person’s existence. Work and not God becomes Lord.

The first view considers work as a curse; we do it because we have to. We cannot so much as bring passion to it. Do your work, receive your pay, and enjoy it on the things that really satisfy. The second view goes in the opposite direction. Career advancement becomes all a person lives for. Everything, including relationships, are simply tools to push us further on the career ladder. These views are not merely different ways of relating to work, they issue in different understandings of the nature of work itself.

The Christian worldview has a high view of work. We find the origin of work at the dawn of Creation. God had made man, planted a beautiful garden, and placed man there to take care of it (Gen. 2:15). Some verses earlier in Gen 1:28, God had given humanity (the combined team of man and woman) a charge to develop and extend creation. This charge has been called the Cultural Mandate, and it denotes humanity’s divine assignment  to complete and perfect the work of Creation as partners with God. Given these considerations, work thus takes on a new look. Far from being a mere necessity or a cursed burden, and far from being a platform for self-worship, it is a means by which we fulfill our task of developing the universe under God. Instead of a burden, it becomes a privilege. And instead of exalting ourselves, work becomes an avenue for glorifying God and serving others.

With the onset of sin,  however, the exercise of work is frustrated. Much of it now comes with toil and suffering. Nevertheless, where sin abounded, grace abounded much more. Under God’s common grace, he keeps knowledge alive and limits the effects of the fall. And with the coming of Jesus the Redeemer, we are renewed and empowered to serve one another with the grace we have received from Him (1 Pet. 4:10).

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Once  again, a look at the death of Christ. Isaac Watts’s immortal meditation on this grand and glorious theme.

When I survey the wondrous crossIsaac_Watts
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

Why did He die?

It’s Lent again.crucifixion

This is traditionally a season of penance, repentance, and self-denial leading up to the greatest celebration on the Christian calendar, Easter, which commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, it is a good time to reflect on the death of Jesus Christ several centuries ago.

Since, as Christians believe, the death of Jesus on the cross was God’s plan, the question logically arises: Why did he die? What was the intention behind his gruesome execution on the cross?

Several answers have been given historically, but I think they may be summarized into 2 broad categories:

  • Christ as an Example for humanity
  • Christ as a Substitute for sinners

Christ as an Example

To many, the death of Jesus was meant to portray the love of God condescending to suffer with his creatures. This act on God’s part would soften our hearts and move us to repentance. In other words, Christ did not die in order to satisfy divine justice. Another view under this category holds that Christ taught faith and obedience as the way to eternal life and he demonstrated this through his life and death, urging us to follow his example. The point of these answers is that although the Cross has an impact on us, it was not designed to take away our sins. It displays God’s love and teaches us to live sacrificially for the good of others. These answers are inadequate because they do not take into account all that the Bible reveals about the death of Christ, and they generally deny that God’s justice requires payment for sin.

Christ as a Substitute

The second view is the orthodox Christian view. While the cross reveals God’s love and also teaches us to lay down our lives for the good of others, the death of Jesus is primarily a payment for the sins of the world. John the Baptist called him the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). This view sees his death as a  penal substitution.

By penal, it means Jesus died as a punishment for sins (Isa. 53:4,5; Rom. 6:23). God was not merely interested in making a point to humanity or teaching a lesson. Through our sin, humanity had offended God (cf. Gen. 3) and justice must be carried out. This Jesus accomplished.

By substitution, we mean he died in place of others (Isa. 53:6, 12; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal. 3:13; Heb 9:28). He did not need to die for his own sins for he was sinless. What he did he did in our place, guilty helpless sinners.

Praise be to God for His indescribable grace!

Living Words – C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most cs lewisuninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

Living Words – Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957)

sayersIn nothing has the Church so lost her hold on reality as in her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as a result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion

The Christian View of Human Flourishing

little girlIn a lovely little book I recently read (see my review here), Miroslav Volf highlights the importance of the concept of human flourishing. Every individual wants to live the best life possible. We don’t just want to exist; we want to thrive. We want to flourish. But what exactly is it to flourish? There are different views: the author identifies three, but I’ll contrast only two.

According to Miroslav Volf, the prevalent view today in the Western world is that of Experiential Satisfaction. This way of thinking, however, extends beyond the west. It is a result of fallen human nature. According to this view, we flourish when we live a life in which we experience pleasure. It doesn’t matter what the source of the pleasure is: It could be the excitement of listening to beautiful music or keeping up with the latest fashion. It could be the love of sports or absorption in religion. What counts is that something gives us pleasure, and when we experience this we flourish.

It is a mistake to seek fulfillment in pleasure. For one, all pleasure, whatever the source, never satisfies. It has to be constantly renewed. Each pleasure enjoyed only leaves us with a hunger for more. Also, we face this emptiness in our pursuit of pleasure because everything that is enjoyed has a true meaning beyond itself. Only when we reach beyond the pleasures of sex, music, food, knowledge, etc, and ascend to the God who created them can we be truly satisfied. As Miroslav Volf wrote:

“Whatever we have, we want more and different things, and when we have climbed to the top, a sense of disappointment clouds the triumph. Our striving can therefore find proper rest only when we find joy in something infinte.” (A Public Faith, p. 62)

The Christian view of Human flourishing, however, holds that we truly prosper when we live a life centred on loving God and our neighbour. This outlook can be summarized in the following points:

• God is a person who loves and can be loved in return.
• The human person must necessarily love something – this could be God, others or himself. To be human is to love.
• We live well when we love both God and our neighbour.
• We are truly happy only when we derive joy from loving God and our neighbours in God.

In other words, to flourish, God must be at the centre of all our thinking and acting. Several centuries ago, Augustine wrote in his autobiography, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find rest in you”. We were made for communion with God, and until we live in this loving and intimate interaction with Him, our lives remain empty.