Archive for the ‘Covenant’ Category
While we have considered several models of Lord’s-day worship such as a tryst or the gathering of a military host, the primary model for corporate worship presented to us in scripture is that of covenant renewal. This is presented to us more by way of model and repetition than by way of explicit instruction, but it is one of those things that you begin to see everywhere once you realize it is there.
God’s people live and worship in covenant with him. Consistently, when God’s people assemble before him, there is a structure to that assembly that we call covenant renewal. This structure is repeated time and time again: in some of the great covenant renewals such as those of Deuteronomy and Ezra-Nehemiah, in the order of sacrifices prescribed for tabernacle and temple worship, and even in the heavenly pattern of worship laid out in Revelation. We see this in much of the language used to describe worship: worship is sacrificial (Rom. 12:1, Heb. 13:15), a drawing near to God (Heb. 4:16, 10:22), a visit to the new Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22), an eating at an altar-table (Mal. 1:7, Heb. 13:10), a going to Jesus (Heb. 13:13), an ascending to be with God (Ps. 24:3) that often symbolically takes place in an upper room (Acts 1:13, 20:8).
The consistent structure of covenant renewal is this:
- God calls his people into his presence
- God’s people respond by consecrating themselves: confessing sin
- God’s people ascend in song to meet with him, he speaks his word to them, and his people give tribute-gifts to him
- God fellowships and feasts with his people by serving them a covenant meal
- God commissions his people to go back into the world as his ambassadors and army
All of these elements are properly aspects of every covenant renewal, and the renewal is really incomplete if they are missing. For example, we ought to bring tithe-tribute to God every time we meet with him (Deut. 16:16). Likewise, to call worship a sacrifice is in fact to identify it essentially as a covenant meal: the one old-covenant offering that is called a sacrifice is the peace offering, which was the one offering that all worshippers were to eat with God in his presence. Similarly, Israel’s worship at Sinai was equated with a feast (Exodus 5:1,3; 10:7,9), and the worship-service of Revelation culminates in a feast (Rev. 19:9).
Thus, weekly communion; because we have weekly worship, and to worship is to renew covenant is to feast.
E. J. Hutchinson analyzes the grammar of Matthew 28:19:
“The nations” are in the accusative: they themselves, and not some group of people from them, are the direct object of the imperative “disciple” or “teach.” Whatever the phrase means, therefore, it is “the nations” themselves, considered as such, that are to be acted upon.
Brad Littlejohn writes the following about the objective existence of the church in history:
The most crucial and insightful work on [the question of church history] to come out of Mercersburg was Philip Schaff’s What is Church History? published in 1846. . . . At the outset, unsurprisingly, he insists on the intimate connection between ecclesiology and Church history:
In proportion, however, as the Church is thus brought into prominent and principal view, her History must also become for theologians an object of attention and inquiry. Church and History altogether, since the introduction of Christianity, are so closely united, that respect and love towards the first, may be said to be essentially the same with a proper sense of what is comprised in the other. The Christian Church is itself the greatest fact in the history of the world, by which the ancient order of life both Jewish and heathen has been overturned, and the way opened for a new course of existence altogether. Almost nothing has since occurred that can be counted great and important, which is not found to stand in nearer or more remote, friendly or hostile, connexion with the Church, and to acquire its true historical significance precisely from this relation. History, on the other hand, is the bearer of the Church; by whose means this last is made to possess a real existence, whereas, under any other form it could be nothing better than a baseless, fantastic abstraction, which for us who are ourselves the product of history, and draw from it all the vigour of our lives, would have no meaning or value whatever. (Schaff, What is Church History? 25-26)
In this quote, Schaff argues that the Church is, by its nature, visible and historical, and comes to maturity in history. Moreover, history, by its nature, is oriented by the Church. Therefore, not only is a proper understanding of Church history essential to any true idea of the nature of the Church, but it is necessary to give meaning to the lives of Christians today. The study of Church history, then, is as important as any area of doctrine, and those who neglect or abuse it endanger the project of Christian theology as a whole.
The inseparable relationship between Church and history follows directly from the Mercersburg view of the visible/invisible church distinction, discussed above. For Nevin and Schaff, the visible, historical Church is inseparable from the invisible, timeless Church—it is indeed its necessary manifestation. There is no concept of a true Church existing in a transcendent realm beyond time and space, of which the Church we see is merely some vague corollary. No, if the Church is to have reality at all, it must be a reality which actualizes itself in space and time. And of course, we will remember that this is so because the Church springs out of the Incarnation, in which God declared that His saving power must be something which was actualized in space and time. But more importantly, the Church must be historical because God has a historical plan for His creation. Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation—the whole order of the world’s life flows forward, first as a degeneration toward death and separation from God, then after the Incarnation and Resurrection, as an eternal regeneration towards life and union with God. God has willed neither that the glorification of mankind take place in an instant, nor that man be divorced from time and the world to be clothed with his glorified state. For it is not just man who is to be redeemed; the God-man came for the life of the world, and through His saving power in the Church, the whole world must be transformed into a new creation, to the glory of God the Father. This story of transformation is the story of History, and it is thus through history that the Church becomes the Church and accomplishes her God-given task to disciple the nations.
This idea comes out in Schaff’s fondness for the scriptural image of the Church as the “kingdom of Christ on earth.” Just as any kingdom, it has citizens, it has a history, and it accomplishes its conquests in history, until it completes those conquests and history as we know it shall cease: “The church is in part a pedagogic institution, to train men for heaven, and as such is destined to pass away in its present form, when the salvation shall be completed.” Moreover, the Church is “the continuation of the life and work of Christ upon earth.” Therefore, because it is alive, animated by the life of Christ, “the church is not to be viewed as a thing at once finished and perfect, but as a historical fact, as a human society, subject to the laws of history, to genesis, growth, development. Only the dead is done and stagnant. All created life . . . is essentially motion, process, constant change.” Again, however the distinction between ideal and actual plays a key role in this concept of development: “the church, in its idea, or viewed subjectively in Christ, in whom dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, who is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever, is from the first complete and unchangeable.” However, he says, we must distinguish from the idea of the Church its “actual manifestation on earth; from the objective revelation itself we must discriminate the subjective apprehension and appropriation of it in the mind of humanity at a given time.” This latter is necessarily gradual and progressive; the Church slowly grows to maturity through history. (The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity, 77-79)
[Jesus] ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. (Apostles’ Creed)
When will this coming of Jesus be? We cannot know for sure, but the Bible gives us some helpful clues.
One clue is a prophecy made by David:
Yahweh says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.” (Psalm 110:1)
Jesus will remain seated until his enemies become his footstool. This is an ambiguous image—they may become his footstool either in repentance or in judgment. Closely related to this, we have the great commission that Jesus gives to his church:
Go therefore and disciple all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)
This has echoes of God’s promise to Abraham that “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). This promise was partially fulfilled at times in the Bible. For example, Joseph became a father to Pharaoh (Gen. 45:8) and ministered to “all the earth” (Gen. 41:56). Much later, through Esther, God’s supremacy was proclaimed “in every province and in every city” of a global empire, so that many peoples were converted (Esther 8:17).
There is no reason to doubt that the gospel of Jesus (the greater Ahasuerus) will be successful in accomplishing the great commission, as the church (the greater Esther) offers her own life for the world. God declares that it is too small a thing for him to save few people or nations:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
But so far we have no indication of timing, only of context. In Joseph’s case, the entire world came to Joseph in fourteen years. In Esther’s case, many nations were converted in nine months. God made David’s and Solomon’s enemies to be at peace with them in a matter of decades.
However, the Bible gives us a time-related clue in another one of God’s promises:
Know therefore that Yahweh your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.(Deuteronomy 7:9)
If we take a generation to be 40 years (the time Israel spent in the wilderness, the reign of a king), then God promises to show faithfulness for 40,000 years. There is some elegance to taking this number, because it makes the old covenant, which spanned 4,000 years, to be a tithe of all of history. However, in other places God speaks of plural thousands of generations (Exodus 20:5-6, 34:6-7, Deut. 5:9-10, Jer. 32:18). And in another case when God lays claim to thousands, we take it to be an understatement, not an overstatement:
For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills. (Psalm 50:10)
So it seems that 40,000 years may be a bare minimum.
Perhaps it is not just the earth, but the universe, that God intends for us subdue.
See also: The future of Jesus
Should government be allowed to divorce the people and marry business?
Must power ever be crowned with feminine glory, or may it hunger for other power?
In a multitude of people is the glory of a king,
but without people a prince is ruined. (Proverbs 14:28)
My pastor turned up this great quote from Herman Bavinck:
In short, the counsel of God and the cosmic history that corresponds to it must not be pictured exclusively—as infra- and supralapsarianism did—as a single straight line describing relations only of before and after, cause and effect, means and end; instead, it should also be viewed as a systemic whole in which things occur side by side in coordinate relations and cooperate in the furthering of what always was, is, and will be the deepest ground of all existence: the glorification of God. Just as in any organism all the parts are interconnected and reciprocally determine each other, so the world as a whole is a masterpiece of divine art, in which all the parts are organically interconnected. And of that world, in all its dimensions, the counsel of God is the eternal design. (Reformed Dogmatics, II:392)
This is a great perspective on how God relates to time and history. God is the painter to our painting, the composer and conductor to our symphony.
I want to consider how this perspective relates to the doctrine of regeneration. We generally speak of the regeneration of the Christian almost as though God reaches down and flips an invisible switch inside of us from death to life. For example, Wayne Grudem writes:
We may define regeneration as follows: Regeneration is a secret act of God in which he imparts new spiritual life to us. . . . Because regeneration is a work of God within us in which he gives us new life it is right to conclude that it is an instantaneous event. (Systematic Theology, 699-701)
This may be true as far as it goes, but it does not fully account for the way that God works with his creation and with us. Consider the example of Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion-regeneration:
Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!
“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this. I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!”
He was so fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions, that his broken voice would scarcely answer to his call. He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears. (Dickens, A Christmas Carol)
In one sense, it is quite correct to say that something changed inside of Scrooge from death to life. But this is not the whole picture: it does not account for Dickens and his own steady resolve to make a new man out of Scrooge. In the same way, our understanding of regeneration should take into account how God works with his creation and how he imparts life to us. For our physical life we are dependent on God to sustain us at every moment; certainly we are equally dependent on God at every moment for our spiritual life. It is thus more proper to speak of regeneration as a settled determination on God’s part to continually fill us with life through his Spirit.
This perspective helps us in several ways. It reminds us that God is the source of regeneration, so that we are always looking to him rather than making a futile search into whether something invisible has happened inside ourselves. It reminds us that regeneration is an ongoing process. So, just as we cannot rely on past repentance and faith but must walk in new repentance and faith each day, neither can we rely on past regeneration. We must look to and ask for more help from the Spirit each day. Rather than asking “am I regenerate,” we ask “will God give his Spirit to those who ask him?” Yes (Luke 11:13), he will!
Another way to think of this is in terms of what we might call the tenses of salvation. There is a sense in which we can say we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. Likewise, we have been given new life, we are being progressively given more abundant life, and we will finally be fully given life.
Calvin speaks of regeneration as occurring progressively. In the Institutes, he refers to it as something “which [God] begins in us” (Method and Arrangement III). It will be “complete” at “the final resurrection,” (M&A III) which he refers to as “the day of regeneration or resurrection of the body” (M&A IV). Calvin identifies regeneration with the ongoing procession of the Spirit to us, saying that “we have nothing of the Spirit except through regeneration” (II.3.1). Interestingly, he identifies regeneration and mortification as two halves of repentance, to the point that he says “by repentance I understand regeneration” (III.3.9). He later speaks of the “commencement and progress of regeneration” (III.11).
This definition of regeneration also underscores that it is a change in our status and position before God at least as much as it is an internal change in our persons. We are grafted into a tree (Romans 11), into a vine (John 15); we are planted by streams of water (Psalm 1). This links it closely with other great changes in status like justification and adoption. Adoption in particular is how we come to receive the Spirit (Romans 8:15). In regeneration we enter into God’s new creation, which is to say that we are reconciled to God and made a part of his kingdom (2 Corinthians 5:17ff) — again, a change in status.
Scripture uses the term regeneration to refer to a change in our status. In Matthew 19:28, Jesus refers to his kingdom and new creation itself as the regeneration. In Titus 3:5, our baptism is called the “washing of regeneration.” In The Priesthood of the Plebs, Peter Leithart demonstrated that baptism is a symbolic form of priestly investiture, hearkening back in all its imagery to passages like Leviticus 8:15. In terms of Titus, this means we can speak of baptism not only as our investiture into priesthood and sonship, but also our entry into the new-creation kingdom that is God’s church, our enrollment into an inheritance (Titus 3:7).
On the one hand, this serves as a warning to us that we are not meant to coast on yesterday’s experiences and accomplishments. But it also serves to remind us that God is near to us, and has a settled determination to provide all that is needed to complete his work (Philippians 4:19, 1:6).
It is rare to practice the Lord’s supper without reading from 1 Corinthians 11. There is certainly nothing wrong with this, but it is odd. We have plenty of other material to draw from for communion reflections; it would take a year alone to work through passages that reference bread (or grain) and wine, not to mention food and feasting in general.
I worry that we have come to believe reading God’s instructions discharges our duty to obey them. Jesus commands us to “do this.” Considering 1 Corinthians 10-11 together with Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, what is it that we are to do?
- Use bread
- Give thanks to God for the bread
- Break the bread
- Use wine
- Give thanks to God for the wine
- Examine ourselves to ensure we discern one another’s membership in the body
Many evangelical churches are failing on all counts listed above, possibly with a sense that it is permissible to ignore these, but without the necessary conviction that it is better to ignore them.
The last point may be the least obvious. I have argued elsewhere that Paul’s use of discern and examine is generally misunderstood. I suggest that we are failing to do this not least in failing to recognize our young children’s participation in Jesus and their full welcome to his presence and his table. We therefore, with Peter, stand condemned and out of step with the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:11ff). If we were to work through those many food and feasting passages, we would become more sensitive to this.
The result is that we have arrived at something unnaturally stilted, unfamilial, un-supper-like. It is not straining in every way to enact a foretaste of Jesus’s marriage feast, or to welcome all those here who would be welcome there if they were to die today.
See also: Unbelievers?