We have spent some time over our last few studies considering BBC’s new church covenant, and with this study we come to the end of our consideration. We have seen what it means to affirm our conversion, our calling, our care, our confession, our commitment and our commission as the church of the living God.
As these messages were delivered from the pulpit of BBC, the elders were encouraged by the overall positive response of the church to these messages on the covenant, and it was quite evident that the church was largely committed to living out our covenantal relationship and responsibilities with God and with one another.
But having said this, let us also make the necessary observation that this will not always be easy to do. In fact, there will be times when we will be tempted to reject our covenant. There will be times at which we will not want to care for one another, or to fulfil our calling, or to obey our commission, or to congregate for the purpose of living out our confession. In fact, there will probably be times in which we would actually like to dig our heels in and not fulfil our covenant. There will be times in which we may be irked with the elders and/or the deacons. We may be angry at the preacher. There may be times in which we are not happy with other church members. In fact, there may be times at which we are tempted to be out of sorts with God. This is all a fact of church life—while we are here on earth.
The church militant battles with these issues, for while in our unglorified state we are in a struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil. It is this struggle which makes church life difficult. And it is precisely for this reason that a church covenant is so important.
You see, it is the concept of the covenant which can be of such immense help in giving us the wherewithal to keep on standing with, and continuing in the life of the church when faced with the temptation to withdraw. When we experience disappointment in our church life we may be tempted to remove our hand from the plough and to take our eyes off of the goal. It is precisely at just such times that we need to remember the covenant. That is, we need to remember that we gave our word, that we made a promise, and that thus we must keep it—by the help of God.
Let me illustrate this by reminding us of the covenant of marriage (Malachi 2:14; Proverbs 2:17). When we were married we made a promise, a vow, a covenant that we would fulfil our marital obligation “till death do us part.” This covenant was recorded by God and witnessed before family, friends and either a minister or magistrate. And if you had been properly prepared for marriage you would have realised that this was no mere formality, but that rather you were making a solemn oath—one for which God would hold you accountable.
Sadly, the divorce rate in our postmodern world clearly points to the fact that integrity is at an all time low. People just don’t seem to have the character required to keep their promises. In fact, one suggestion from Bavaria is that the German government pass a law stating that couples can only remain married for seven years and then they may either renew their vows or go their separate ways.
But for men and women who choose not to live like fools (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5) the covenant of marriage is that which will keep a wedded couple together. And of course this is right. Covenants are binding agreements and they are expected to be fulfilled. (It is for this reason that, as a church, we discipline those who choose to not keep their marriage covenant.)
But having said this let me add an important note. No one wants the motivation to stay in a relationship to be merely a cold, letter-of-the-law commitment. Though this may be necessary at times (and even commendable) the fact is that we should seek to have a joyful commitment to keeping our covenants. And this is precisely what the apostle prays for in this famous benediction of 2 Corinthians 13:14. Paul desires for the church at Corinth to persevere together—to fulfil their covenantal obligation—motivated by the Triune God to whom they belong. And so it is for us.
The motivating factor behind our affirmation that we will continue to affirm our covenant is a God-driven one. Our covenantal commitment could, I suppose, be carried out in a cold and calculating manner (a grin-and-bear-it approach) but in the end this will be counterproductive. No, our covenant is to be lived out compelled, constrained by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, by the love of God, and by the communion of the Holy Spirit. The cause of our covenantal relationship is God and thus the cause behind our covenantal responsibilities must be God. When we realise the cause, and respond accordingly, then we will find ourselves joyfully committed to covenantal living in the face of temptations to draw away.
In this study, I wish to give a final word of encouragement regarding the affirmation of our covenant before God and before others. Let us be instructed concerning a key to living out our covenantal relationships: the apostolic benediction. These well known and serene words identify for us the cause and constraint which leads us to affirm our covenant.
The Setting of the Benediction
This apostolic benediction is by far the most well-known of any in Scripture and it would not be sensational to say that it has been spoken many millions of times throughout church history, primarily at the end of a church service. Many church traditions use this as a weekly word spoken at the end of corporate worship. Perhaps it is used so frequently because, as Charles Erdman notes, “it is the fullest form of benediction used by Paul.”
Without a doubt these words are, when properly considered, some of the most encouraging to which the beleaguered believer and church can run in their encounters with the world, flesh and the devil. Consider that in this short statement Paul has reminded us of the “free love of our Lord Jesus Christ; the actual love of God and all the gracious communications of the Holy Spirit of God” (Matthew Poole). As Matthew Henry said, “What more can we desire for ourselves or for our brethren than this oft repeated apostolical blessing?” And the significance of these words are seen even more clearly when we understand the historical context in which they were written.
The Corinthian church was not an easy congregation to deal with. From Paul’s first inspired letter we learn that they were dividing over personalities, they were doctrinally challenged, they were suing one another, they were getting drunk at the corporate potluck before Communion, and they were boasting in their liberty in Christ—even to the point of condoning a lax attitude in dealing with sin. This church had some serious issues. And yet it is interesting that he said some nice things (see 1 Corinthians 1:4-9). In his first letter he wrote to sort out some of these issues and we can assume that much was improved.
But it is in his second inspired letter to them that we see how bad things had gotten and how painful this was for Paul. At some point the Corinthian church had begun to entertain travelling teachers who had an agenda against the apostle himself. They were slandering Paul to the Corinthians with the result that many were turning a deaf ear to his ministry. Those who slandered him accused him of insincerity and duplicity in his ministry. They said that Paul did not love the Corinthian church and that he was only using them for his personal gain. One can only imagine the pain that this caused Paul for in fact he did love these people. It was largely for this reason that he wrote this letter. For the glory of Christ and for the good of the church Paul wrote to defend his ministry, his message, his manner and his motives.
This church was in bad shape. And yet Paul believed the best about her. He believed that she was indeed the church of the living God and thus he knew that she had potential for much good. He knew that as the church of the living God she was the object of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ; that she was the recipient of the love of God the Father; and that she was the heir of the communion of the Holy Spirit.
In other words, Paul was persuaded that the church at Corinth had all that she needed to persevere for the glory of God. He knew that this church had all that was necessary for her to be the church to each other for the glory of God and that by doing so the “regions beyond” could be evangelised for Christ (10:16). He was convinced that the cause behind this church’s existence was the Triune God and thus he was convinced that the cause could constrain them to living honourably, covenantally as the church. And so it is for us.
BBC, by God’s good kindness, is no church of Corinth. And yet no one in the church would claim that we have arrived. On the contrary we recognise that there is much work to do and this work will need to be carried on not only in our lifetime but in the generation that follows. Today we may make an affirmation to be the church to each other for the glory of God in all the nations but we cannot fulfil this in our flesh. Good intentions are not sufficient for us to fulfil these affirmations; well-meaning desires will not be enough for us to repent when we fail; sentiment will not sustain our commitment to one another over the long haul. No, we need the help of the Triune God if we will overcome the natural tendency to selfishness, to argumentativeness, to arrogance and to overcome the tendency to rebel against God’s assigned authority in the church.
This is why this benediction is so powerfully relevant to us as we affirm our covenant today. These closing words of this epistle, one that was so filled with severity, sternness, struggle and debate, speak with serenity of blessedness and hope. Yes, the church, like a marriage, faces challenges in our quest to live peacefully and fruitfully with each other. But according to Paul, we can invoke the Triune God as the cause, the constraint, to continue on in healthy, happy (because holy) covenant relationships with one another.
The Specifics of the Benediction
“Paul invoked the blessing of the Triune God so that the grace manifested by Christ, the love expressed by God the Father and the fellowship created by the Holy Spirit might be experienced in Corinth,” write John Walvoord and Roy Zuck). And this invocation is our heritage as well. Let us find encouragement as we look closely at the three parts of this Trinitarian constraint, which enables us to overcome the challenges that we will face in our covenantal commitment.
The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ
First, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” constrains us to fulfil the covenant. Commentators are almost unanimous in pointing out that the order in which the three members of the Trinity are mentioned is not consistent with the Scriptural norm, for the Son is here mentioned before the Father. Why is this? I think that Professor Tasker hits the nail on the head:
The unusual order in which the three persons are mentioned reminds us that in the thought of the early church about the nature of God, the redemption wrought by Christ had a primary place. There can be no adequate understanding of God’s love apart from the cross; and the only lasting fellowship between men is the fellowship of sinners redeemed by the blood of Jesus.
These believers were no doubt in great need of growth when it came to loving one another and thus Paul points them to the love of God in Christ. He points them to the cross.
The church was being anything but gracious in their treatment of Paul, let alone in their relationships with one another. Thus Paul points them to the grace of Christ Jesus their Saviour. As Don Carson has written regarding the Son being mentioned first,
[This] may owe something to the enormous emphasis on self-sacrifice and self-abasement in these chapters (cf. 8:9), since those virtues were so magnificently manifested by Christ. The grace shown by Christ condemns our self-centredness and triumphalism …
We would do well to be reminded of the grace of Christ which ensures that we are continually forgiven and which is also a power to sustain our commitment to Him. Thus when things get tough in our covenantal commitments we need to look to Christ for the wherewithal to stay faithful. We can be gracious because He is gracious; we can care for one another because He cares for us. We can support the evangelical ministry of the church because His grace is sufficient and endless. Yes, we can fulfil this covenant happily and thus fruitfully because the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ continues to be cause of which sustains us.
No doubt there will be challenging times ahead for all of us in our relationships with one another. How will we respond? We will respond sinfully or graciously? One commentator noted that at the end of this letter Paul is saying “Whether you value me or not, I heartily wish you well, and all the best things.” How could Paul be so gracious to a people that had treated him so badly? Only by “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” And what was true for Paul is true for you and me as well. We can respond graciously to the occasional ungracious words and actions by fellow church members. And if we are continually constrained by His grace then we will be also at the same time restrained by His grace from an unbiblical and damaging reaction.
Dear people, as we affirm our covenant may we do so today, and every day, motivated by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. May Jesus keep us near the cross.
The Love of God
Second, “the love of God” constrains us to fulfil our covenant. It was imperative that the church at Corinth be reminded of the love of God; especially in light of the tension that existed between some of them and their missionary-pastor. A factious and rival spirit had been brought into the fellowship and the only sure remedy for such cancers was a fresh realisation of the love of God as manifested in the gospel. As Don Carson notes, “the love of God demonstrated by Christ’s grace banishes our jealously and factionalism.”
This major problem in this particular church can also be ours. How then are we to overcome our temptation to jealousy and schism? How can we overcome our destructive tendency to cynicism and the critical and divisive manifestations that result from this? How can we continue to gather with and minister to one another when we at times don’t even like one another? Only by experiencing the love of God.
Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian believers was that they would grasp something of this amazing love (Ephesians 3:14-ff). He knew the immense power of the love of God to heal broken relationships and to unite and develop the Body of Christ. He knew the power of the love of God to help the afflicted believer to persevere in Christlike character and thus he instructed the Roman believers to dwell upon this reality (Romans 5:1-5). And so he does here regarding the Corinthians. They needed to reflect often upon the Father’s covenant with the Son, and so do we.
Oh that we would know more and more of the experiential love of God! How this will constrain us in our communion with one another! How this would drive back a backbiting tongue and how this will propel us to a more fervent evangelical ministry!
But this need not be merely a pipedream for this is our very birthright. And this birthright is rooted in the everlasting covenant which God made concerning us, long before we were ever born. And His covenant was motivated by His choice to love us.
When we consider how much God loves us we have all the motivation that we need to persevere in our covenantal obligations. When we are tempted to turn away from living a life of allegiance to Christ we simply need to reflect upon the truth that God loves us and thus “if God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). When we are tempted to cause disunity in the Body we need to remember God’s amazing love for us and this will put us back into a right frame of mind. As the onslaught of the world tempts us to fall away it is then that we need to experience afresh the love of the Father for us and we will then be enabled to stand strong in the faith.
One very practical way for us to experience the ever present and powerful love of God is by the fellowship of the saints. As we gather to worship, to hear testimonies, to sing praises and to hear the Word preached we are putting ourselves in a position to reflect upon God’s great love. And as this occurs we are emboldened to carry out our covenantal obligations, not from mere stoic grit but rather out of a joyous and passionate devotion to God; a heartfelt love for God because of His amazing love for us.
The Communion of the Holy Spirit
Third, the communion of the Holy Spirit constrains us to fulfil our covenant. I would agree with those who interpret this phrase in the sense, not primarily of what the Holy Spirit produces between believers, but rather by what He does in the life of the individual believer. That is, He comforts, He encourages, He convicts, He corrects, and He empowers those in whom He dwells. And obviously, by doing so individually the effects will be experienced corporately.
The Holy Spirit, the third member of the Godhead, enables us to fulfil our covenantal obligations by doing all that I have mentioned above. He gives to each believer the ability to live out our covenant in relation to one another, as well as before God. His indwelling power is a major cause in the church being the church to each other for the glory of God in all the nations. We should be greatly encouraged by this for this means that we are not left to ourselves for the ability to fulfil our high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
I often think that the average believer lives so much lower than his potential and usually because we are tempted to think that we are on our own. We don’t say this out loud and, yes, we know all of the Bible verses to the contrary, and yet we often fail to utilise our personal relationship with God the Holy Spirit. He is working within us to exalt Christ and to point us to Him. He is committed to forming Christ in us and He is desirous for us to walk with him (Galatians 5:16). He aims to produce the fruit of Christlike character as we rely on Him.
When you look at our covenant it is rather daunting. These are commitments to supernatural living. But praise God we have the Holy Spirit on our side to lovingly correct us when we go astray, to comfort us when we repent, and to empower us to get back on our feet and obey. Praise God, the Comforter has come!
The Summons of the Benediction
Dear people, our cause is a great one: to follow the Lord Jesus Christ as we daily take up our cross in a world which is hostile to grace. We are called to do this alongside one another in the local church with the aim of glorifying God through all the nations. This will not be easy. Not only the world is opposed to this but even in Christendom we will face much criticism, cynicism and thus attempts at discouragement. But we are not in this alone. Yes, we have one another to lean on (and thus a huge reason for this covenant) but most importantly we have the Triune God who is clearly for us. He is the cause of our mission but He is also the cause of our motivation. Thus may we go forth in “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit.” Praise God that we can affirm our covenant because we have been enabled to affirm our cause.