Church covenants can sometimes be hot topics. Many believers debate whether church covenants are condoned by Scripture, and some professing believers may even refuse to join a church if they are expected to submit to a covenant. And yet those who are willing to honestly examine Scripture and church history will find that church covenants are perfectly consistent with both.
Brackenhurst Baptist Church has had a church covenant for many years, and recently the leadership of the church have agreed that it is perhaps time to adopt a new covenant. The new covenant does not change anything that was stated in the old covenant, but it states it far more succinctly. The study you are reading, along with the others that will accompany it in this series, is essentially a biblical defence and explanation of BBC’s church covenant.
The eldership of the church has further decided–in addition to the adoption of the new covenant–that a corporate church meeting will be held during which BBC will affirm the covenant she is adopting. Again, some might question the need to publicly affirm such a covenant, but we believe this is necessary for several reasons.
First, as elders, we are entrusted with the watch-care of our church members’ souls. We are deeply concerned with the nominal, culturally-accepted guise of Christianity that is so prevalent in our society, and which breeds a damning false sense of security with regard to one’s soul. Simply stated, we desire to guard people from empty, false professions of faith.
As will be seen in the studies to come, the covenant that we are adopting is a statement of–to borrow C. S. Lewis’ term–“mere Christianity.” That is, it expresses the core values of how born again people live. The covenant is not so much a declaration of our doctrinal distinctives as it is a statement of how believers live because of what they believe. In other words, our declaration of belief is coupled to specific duties that naturally flow from those beliefs. Our profession of faith assumes obligations of faith and it is precisely here that the covenant plays such a vital role in the life of the church.
Every believer lives by grace through faith, and they also long by faith to grow in Christlikeness. But they don’t do this in a vacuum. Believers in a local church are in covenantal relationship with each other because they are in covenantal relationship with God through Christ and His new covenant (Hebrews 8). Because of this we covenant together to live for Christ, together.
Let me pause at this point and define what is meant by “covenantal relationship.”
The term “covenant” means “an agreement” and, biblically, it means “a solemn agreement between parties.” So, in a church covenant, we are agreeing among ourselves to fulfil certain commitments (pledges) regarding moral and spiritual obligations as we live out the dictates of the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” Without such a covenant, without such commitment, we are merely a “bunch” of people rather than a Body of believers. Listen to what John Piper says regarding this.
What makes us a church is our covenant. We are a church because we come together and, with common commitment, we pledge to be the church for each other and for the world and for the glory of God … One way to look at it is that a church without a covenant is like a marriage without vows. Marriage vows are not spelled out in the Bible, just like church covenants aren’t. [But] both follow necessarily from the nature of relationship.
The point to grasp is simply this: If you and I are partakers together of the new covenant in Christ, then we have obligations to both Christ (by virtue of His redemptive work) and to each other (by virtue of our relationship to each other in Christ). After all, we are seated together with Him and thus how much closer can we get?
So what does this have to do with the elders’ concern for the souls of the flock? Everything!
If there are those on the membership role of BBC who are not, and will not wholeheartedly commit to fulfilling their covenantal obligations, as mandated by Scripture, then the conclusion to be drawn is that such a person is not in Christ. The covenant affirmation is thus a practical and pastoral means by which each of us can examine ourselves whether or not we are in the faith. The last thing that we want is for lost church members to assume, “It is well with my soul,” when in fact their house is on fire.
But positively, this covenant affirmation will also give us cause for great joy as we once again appreciate God’s saving grace in our lives which will spur us on to greater covenantal faithfulness on our part for His glory.
Second, BBC has experienced a glorious reformation over the past nearly decade and a half. This has contributed to a more biblical understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ and thus a member of the Body of Christ. And in light of this we feel the need to affirm, as a local church, “thus saith the Lord” in such a way that we guard what He has deposited with us.
We are grateful to God for what He has taught us over the years and for the practical reformations that have flowed from this. We have embraced important doctrinal reformation as well as ecclesiastical reformation. That is, our beliefs have been changed by the instruction of the Word as has the way that we “do church.” Our change from a one-man-pastor to a plurality of elders is one illustration of such changes. And it is precisely because of some of these reformations that we are pursuing greater reformation personally and thus corporately in the life of the church.
By affirming our covenant with God and with each other we are taking a practical step towards the preserving and the propagating of the faith. As the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) we take seriously our responsibility for this stewardship entrusted to us by Christ. We want to “do church” His way and only His way. And what is being proposed is not unique in the history of God’s church.
In the Old Testament we read of several instances in which God’s people, His church, His “called out assembly,” corporately affirmed His original covenant with them (see Deuteronomy; especially 5:2-3). In fact, the title “Deuteronomy” means “second law,” because the covenant is being repeated prior to the children of Israel entering the Promised Land.
The book is written for the purpose of the children of Israel, the professing “church,” to affirm God’s covenant with them. (See “Amen” 12 times in Deuteronomy 27.) By affirming the covenant these people were declaring, “We belong to the Lord, and we will love and serve Him. If we do not, then we bring God’s curse upon us.” Or, in New Testament language, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha” (1 Corinthians 16:22).
In Joshua 5 we read of the Jewish males (who had been born during the years in the wilderness) affirming that they are in covenant relationship with God by undergoing the rite of circumcision. Later, Joshua leads the children of Israel in a corporate affirmation of their intention to follow the Lord as he declares, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve” (24:1-15). The people respond with a corporate affirmation that their intention is indeed to be God’s people for His glory (24:16ff).
After the rise and fall of Israel we read of several reforms amongst God’s people, with a subsequent affirmation of the people of God regarding their covenantal obligations before God. See such affirmations under Asa (2 Chronicles 14-15), Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 23), Josiah (2 Chronicles 34), Ezra (Ezra 10), and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 9-10, 13).
Clearly, in the Old Testament, we see covenantal affirmation as an important step in the preserving of God’s truth, and so it is with the church of the new covenant.
In a very real sense, the events recorded in Acts 2 form the record of an affirmation of being in covenantal relationship with God and with each other. Consider the facts.
On that day Peter preached the gospel and he preached it from the Old Testament! He filled in the blanks in the people’s theology as he pointed them to Christ, the heart of both the old and the new covenant. He called upon God’s chosen nation to call upon the Lord and to be saved. He was calling upon them to embrace the covenant, to say amen to the covenant; he was calling upon them to affirm that they were indeed in covenantal relationship with God. This is why Acts 2:38-47 is such an important part of Scripture for the church to grasp.
Peter calls upon those who say that they believe in Christ to be baptised. Why? Because the ordinance of baptism is a public affirmation that one is in covenant relationship with God in Christ. And is it not interesting that, following this declaration of covenantal relationship with God, these same people are immediately seen in covenantal relationship with each other? In fact, it could be accurately argued that each time the church partook of Communion together (Acts 2:42) they were affirming the covenant.
As Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper is a kind of covenantal affirmation. Thus, as “the body” is “discerned” in the eating of the bread and the drinking of the juice, we acknowledge our obligation to Christ and to those who are of Christ.
Not only do we read of such covenantal affirmations in the Old and New Testaments, but subsequent church history also undergirds what we are doing.
Throughout history, local churches have adopted church covenants which articulated the biblical expectation of those professing to be of Christ’s church. These covenants formed an integral part of church life as they were solemnly (and rightly) viewed as “affirmations,” as “amens” to the recognition that they belonged to Christ. And what is interesting is that such covenants were almost always given impetus by a preceding work of reformation.
What BBC is doing is thus rooted in Old Testament precedent, inferred by New Testament principle, and illustrated by historical practice in the churches. Clearly BBC’s reformation calls for a corporate affirmation of what we have discovered to be the biblical teaching regarding Christ and the church. We want to obey our Lord and to ensure that BBC remains the pillar and ground of the truth. We want to guard the perpetuity of a true local church.
Third, this covenantal affirmation is called for because the Word-driven changes have resulted in love-driven commitment.
As I write these words, I am in my fifteenth year as a member of BBC, and of ministry as its pastor-teacher. And without dispute, in these years BBC has never enjoyed the vision, unity and teachability as is currently the case. The Word-driven reformation has led to love-driven relationships. And we should corporately affirm this for the sake of reforming and relating even more.
The church is commanded to love one another and thus this affirmation will be a public and corporate commitment to do just this.
Fourth and finally, the elders believe, while gratefully recognising God’s gracious work thus far, that BBC still has much work to do. We need to pursue holiness; we need to experience a wider exercise of gifts and to see more people involved in ministry. We need to improve in the area of love-driven mutual accountability and certainly we need to see a greater appetite for the Word of God, which will be reflected in better corporate church attendance. Thus, as we corporately affirm our commitment to our covenantal obligations to Christ, we will be saying loud and clear, “Lord, we love You, we love Your people, and we want Your help in loving better in both spheres.”
An Affirmation of Our Conversion
The preamble to the covenant is foundational for our fulfilling of the obligations that subsequently follow.
Having been brought, we trust, by the Spirit of God to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour, and to give ourselves to Him; and having been baptised upon our profession of faith, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we now, relying on His gracious aid, in the presence of God, the angels and this assembly, do solemnly and joyfully renew our covenant with each other.
As one contemplates the covenantal obligations that follow it soon becomes apparent that they require Divine aid for their fulfilment. Apart from the grace and power of Christ there is no way that we can fulfil such requirements. In fact this covenant is in a very real sense a call to sanctification. And as we well know, it is only by the enablement of Christ that we can grow in Christlikeness (Philippians 2:11-12; 3:8-14).
Thus this preamble is a statement of our dependence upon the Triune God for our covenantal faithfulness to Him.
Apart from a saving relationship with Him we cannot fulfil such obligations called for and thus this preamble reminds us of the distinct nature of the church, that is, we are a work of God. Once we realise this then we indeed affirm our “solemn and joyful” covenantal relationship “with each other.”
This preamble is thoroughly biblical, as a study of Ephesians 2 will doubtless prove. And it begins with what is essential for everyone to honestly affirm in order to affirm the covenant at all. That is, it is an affirmation of our conversion. Apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit we cannot affirm this covenant for we will never, in the flesh, be able to “give ourselves to Him.” And clearly this repentant lifestyle is necessary for the fulfilling of the covenant.
Let me sum this up. If we will wholeheartedly affirm this covenant then we must be born again. If we have not been converted then we will make a mockery of our affirmation. This covenant is for those who “have been brought, we trust, by the Spirit of God to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour, and [have] given ourselves to Him.” And so I ask you–whether you are a member of BBC or not–this most important question: Is this your affirmation? Can you say amen to this preamble? Ephesians 2 will help you to answer this question accurately.
In this chapter, the apostle Paul is carrying forward his thesis of chapter one that those who have been chosen before the foundation of the world have indeed been immeasurably blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ Jesus (1:1-6). He is almost beside himself in exultation over the riches of God’s redeeming grace in Christ (1:7-14). He expresses his joy at the reports that he has received concerning the persevering faith and purifying love expressed in the lives of these Ephesian believers, and he tells them of his prayer for them (1:15-23). His prayer is specifically that they would grow in their appreciation of what God has done for them in Christ and what is still available for them regarding their spiritual perception and progress. At the conclusion of this paragraph (v 22), he introduces the word that is actually the theme of this letter: “church.” He uses this word nine times in the epistle, but the concept permeates it throughout. He is amazed at what God’s grace, mediated through Christ, has produced: the multiethnic body that we call the church.
Keep in mind that Paul is writing to a church that has a large Gentile population and thus they need to be reminded of God’s wonderful grace in forming them into “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). This concept of the church in which Jew and Gentile are united in a relationship with both God and with each other was and is a profound truth. In fact, this revelation had been hidden in ages past; but now God had revealed this to and through Paul. Indeed believing Jews and believing Gentiles together form the organism called the Body of Christ, the church. This could only be accomplished by the work of God.
Paul saw the church as supernatural. He saw the church as the result of God’s work in raising sinners to spiritual life, and doing so in such a way that one body (2:16; see 1:23) was formed. He saw clearly that the church was the Body of Christ and thus each member in the local assembly was in unique covenantal relationship with each other. As the letter later indicates, this covenantal relationship between believers, regardless of race, is one that they were called upon to embrace responsibly and joyfully. That is, they needed to see that by God’s grace they were in this together because they were in Christ together.
Allow me to pause at this juncture in our study and ask you a very pointed question: Have you “been brought … by the Spirit of God to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as [your] Saviour,” and have you “given yourself to Him”? If the answer is “amen” then you, like the Ephesian believers, are in covenantal relationship with all who can truthfully say, “Amen!” with you.
If you can say amen to these initial words of the preamble then you are declaring that you have experienced what these believers in Ephesus had experienced: You have been brought into a saving, covenantal relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps you are asking, “How do I know if I am in covenantal relationship with Christ?” The answer is found by answering another question: Are you alive?
Twice in this passage Paul speaks about being “made alive” (“quickened”–see vv. 1, 5), and in v. 6 Paul has the same idea in mind when he says that God raised us up together to sit with Christ. This is most probably resurrection language. The obvious contrast is with being at one time “dead in trespasses and sins.” As A. Skevington Wood wrote, “The most vital part of my personality–spirit–was dead to the most important factor in life–God.”
Clearly, it is only by God’s power that the physically dead are raised to life, and this is true spiritually as well. And so, again, I would ask, have you been raised from the dead? Has the Holy Spirit given you new life? Let’s examine the evidence of spiritual life.
A Healthy Appetite
Just as those in graves never crave a meal, neither do unbelievers crave God, or His Word, or His people. As noted, Paul contrasts the dead (v. 1) with the living (vv. 1, 5). “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” If the living have an appetite, then it follows naturally that those who are alive in Christ have an appetite for the things of Christ.
One of the criticisms that is often heard regarding church covenants and church attendance is that “going to church doesn’t make you a Christian.” True. Still others are quick to point out that the New Testament doesn’t tell us how many times we must gather. Equally true. But consider this: If you have no appetite for being amongst the living, and if you have no appetite for the Word of life, is it not a fair deduction to say that you probably have no life, particularly if you’d rather be in the company of the dead?
My point is simply that one sign of life, of spiritual health, is appetite. The issue regarding the church covenant has far less to do with attendance than it does with appetite. How’s yours?
Those “who have been brought by the Spirit of God to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour” have an absolutely new hunger that drives them to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). They “desire the sincere milk of the word, that [they] may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2). God’s Word is better to them than honey; it is their meat and their bread. They thirst for truth and they take it in, not as some food critic but rather as one who delights in being fed the truth of the Lord.
Those who have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ have done so because the Lord has given them the ability to do so and their belief is accompanied by a lifestyle of repentance as their appetites are ever conforming to those of Christ. Like Him, their meat is to do the will of the Father (John 4:34) and thus the tempting aromas of the meals offered by the world are increasingly being discerned for the rubbish that they actually are. Dear church member, are you alive? Are your appetites healthy, as defined by Scripture?
If you have been led by the Spirit (Romans 8:9) unto Christ then it will show in your actions. Paul contrasts not only death with life but he also contrasts walking like the world with walking in God’s good works. Before, we “walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” (v. 2). But after conversion, “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
Lost people walk in disobedience and in darkness, whereas believers walk in “in the light as he is in the light” (1 John 1:7) and their works are “good.” Another way to say this is that those who have embraced the Lord Jesus as their Saviour have repented and they continue to repent. They have had an about face by the working of the Holy Spirit (vv. 18, 22). They cannot explain it, but their actions are different. They are increasingly characterised by devotion rather than by disobedience. They can see that old things are passing away as all things are becoming new. Conduct has been inexplicably changed. Righteousness, not unrighteousness, is their pursuit.
In v. 10 Paul uses an interesting word which conjures up the image of a poem. He describes those who have been alive as God’s “workmanship.” The Greek word translated “workmanship” is poiema, from which we derive our English word “poem.” What a beautiful description! Believers are a divine poem. And the poem is one that walks about and works for the glory of God.
We could put it this way: Before we were saved we were like a trashy novel that someone might hide away when company arrives. But having been brought by the Spirit to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ we are now a well-favoured and beautiful book of poems. Each day a new page reveals the beauties of Christ as we seek more and more to live for Him. We are no longer living lives that are characterised by shame, but rather we are walking in good works which God has destined us for. “Such were some of you” (1 Corinthians 6:11) is a wonderful statement regarding God’s sovereign grace in our lives. Our language is changing, our behaviours are slowly but surely changing, our entertainment habits are undergoing profound rehabilitation, our financial stewardship is less covetous, etc. Truly those that are alive are increasingly characterised by holy actions. Is this you?
A Humble Attitude
Not only does the Holy Spirit change the appetites and actions of those He regenerates, but He also changes their attitude.
Repentance is a change of mind and thus those in a covenant relationship with Christ and with others have a distinct attitude change. Paul contrasts the mind of the unregenerate with the mind, the thoughts, of the converted. Unbelievers are those who have their “conversation … in the lusts of the flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind.” They are “by nature the children of wrath” (v. 3). On the contrary, the lifestyle of believers is described in the next chapter:
This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But ye have not so learned Christ; If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus: That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.
Paul writes that, before our conversion, our mental health was in bad shape. In fact, in 4:17-19 he elaborates concerning how bad it was. But then he informs us in of the profound change that grace has brought to our minds and this change is seen in our relationships.
It is interesting that one characteristic of a converted mind is that it relates well to other believers. And since this requires humility we can conclude that this humility of mind (Acts 20:19) is a mark of spiritual life. Let me apply this to our covenantal affirmation.
If you will affirm that you have been converted then you need to honestly asses the state of your mind. Specifically, are you concerned about others or are you self-absorbed? Is fellowship with others even remotely important to you? Are you puffed up in your assessment of others and thus critical of all and sundry? Do you see yourself as the gifted cynic in the church, or are you characterised by a humble and teachable spirit? These are vital questions.
Before conversion we were hopeless, self-centred rather than God-centred, and our pursuits were earthly (vv. 11-13).
Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.
In the words of William Hendriksen we were “Christless, stateless, friendless, hopeless and Godless.” But now, through salvation in Christ, we have heavenly aspirations–we “sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (v. 6)–as we are made nigh to God through the blood of Christ. Elsewhere Paul alludes to this heavenly ambition when he writes, “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” Wow, what a location! And thus, what a wonderful ambition for those who are alive.
Those who have been brought by the Spirit of God … to give themselves to Christ live with an eternal perspective and thus with a heavenly mindset. This is not “pie in the sky till you die” escapism, but rather a robust approach to life which has the backbone to say, “Take the world but give me Jesus.” The converted businessman seeks to excel in the marketplace for the glory of Christ; the believing student labours hard as a good steward of the grace of God; the homemaker labours in love to impact the next generation for Christ; the investment broker seeks to be rich in this world so that he can invest in the next; the doctor sharpens his skills so that he can be a tool of mercy in the hand of the Saviour; the salesman labours hard and ethically to prove that Christ is Lord, yes, even in what is otherwise a cutthroat marketplace. Whatever our calling in life, we who have been born again and have publicly professed this by being “baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” go daily into the world with a heavenly ambition to take dominion for Christ, “relying on His gracious aid.”
If we have been born again, if we by the Holy Spirit give ourselves up to Christ, then we will have a new appreciation for what Christ is building: His church (vv. 14-22). And with this we will have a corresponding affection for His Household.
As one reads these words of Paul you can almost sense his excitement and love for the holy temple, for the household of God. He is excited about the assembling of the assembly. And those who affirm their conversion can only do so if they have a love for the church.
When the Lord Jesus asked Peter if he really loved Him (John 21:15-17) He identified the criteria for such love: Was Peter committed to feeding, to caring for His flock? And as subsequent history shows, Peter did just this thus affirming his answer, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” The lesson for us is plain: If we truly love the Lord then we will love what He is building, what He is assembling. Thus I ask you, do you have affection for the assembly? Don’t blow that question off lightly. Think about it. Are you manifesting any love for her by your assembling with her, by your involvement in the assembling of her through your ministry? These are serious questions that deserve serious and thoughtful answers. To affirm your covenant with Christ and his church means that “some assembly is required.”
If we will be committed to affirming our covenant with God and with each other, we must realise that we do so “in the presence of God, the angels and the assembly.” We are called upon to do so “solemnly and joyfully.” But we can only do so if, in our heart of hearts, we have said amen to the question: Have you been brought by the Spirit of God to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as your Saviour and have you given yourself to Him? May God grant us the grace to do so.