This is part two in a series on reformation in the church today. You can find part one here. 

This past Sunday, we were witness to God's gracious working among His people. We (the congregation) watched as He placed the covenant sign on, and sealed his covenant promises unto, our daughter, Karina, in the sacrament of baptism. And, at the same time, we experienced the work of the Spirit in our lives, reminding the church that we exist, apart from any work of our own, as God's covenant people. A people chosen and called by the Father; a people redeemed by Christ and renewed by the Spirit; and a people commissioned and sent out by this Triune God.  As we'll see, a renewed emphasis on this beautiful truth--that we are the covenant community--has significant implications for our worship and discipleship. 

laying the groundwork

A covenant is a "bond-in-blood sovereignly administrated,{1]" or, put another way, a relationship between parties involving promises and responsibilities, blessings and curses. And though there are numerous covenants found in the pages of Scripture, the Bible is unified around a single, progressively unfolding divine covenant (the Covenant of Grace) in which God sovereignly works, establishing the terms, upholding the obligations, and fulfilling His promises to redeem a people, renew all things, and dwell among them. We are a part of this story. The church, from its Old Testament beginnings all the way up to this day, is the recipient of God's promise given in the gospel and the ordinary means of grace (Word, Baptism, Lord's Supper).  

Notice the language I am using: we, the church, us. Everything is framed in terms of the community.  All too often, we fall prey to the wider culture's individualism, emphasizing one's "personal relationship with God," to the detriment of the corporate (and cosmic) scope of God's relation to His creation. As Richard Pratt writes, "As important as individuals are in the Bible, covenant theology highlights our corporate relationship with God...No biblical covenant was made with just one person. [2}"  While we must acknowledge and remember that the promises of God in the gospel extended through the Word and Sacraments must be received individually (by faith), as Reformed Christians, we should emphasize the covenant community in all aspects of our lives. I will highlight just two below:

Worship

Many services give the allusion of community, while in reality, they convey the same sort of individualism that we see at work in the world: a variety of service styles to satisfy everyone's taste; darkly lit auditoriums and brightly lit stages to hide those around you and fix your gaze up front (the emphasis is upon the personal experience of God in the music); overly loud music that drowns out the chorus of the saints; messages that forget to include "we" and "us" and fail to connect with doing life together as the people of God; children who are entirely absent from the service and (though not a part of the service) age-segregated Sunday school and/or small groups. 

A covenant community engages in covenant renewal worship.  The service reminds us that we are in covenant relationship with God, and centers around His meeting with His people to dispense His grace, and the people of God responding in praise, prayer, and action. Covenant renewal worship images the redemptive drama, reminding us, much like the visible signs of the covenant (baptism and the Lord's Supper), of the grace of God in the gospel and our need to confess both our sinfulness and our faith in the finished, satisfactory work of Christ for us. Such worship should take us out of ourselves, and renew and reorient us towards the community, the Triune God, and the work He is doing among us.[3] 

Living into our identity as a covenant community means welcoming and incorporating those most often neglected--the children, singles, handicapped, and elderly--into the service.  Furthermore, those in the covenant community remember that they are in a long line of saints going back to ancient times and seek to integrate the riches of its heritage into the service. An obvious example of this is found in the musical component of worship: we sing from the songbook of the Bible, the Psalter, as well as hymns passed down by departed brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as contemporary songs that convey the beauty, truth, and goodness of the Triune God, His work and His ways in our own day (not falling into the ruts of blind traditionalism or the trends of the day).  

You can begin to see the way an emphasis on being in covenant relationship with God and a covenant community gathered by God shapes public worship both in style and substance. 

Discipleship

Being a part of a covenant community means discipling those who belong to it in the teachings of that community. Psalm 78 declares: 

He [the Lord God] established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.

Out of a perceived "irrelevance", a desire to "innovate", and/or a lack of trust in historic practices, we have largely abandoned catechism, mentorship, and intergenerational fellowship.  Instead, we've resorted to entertainment, morality training, and giving tips for personal piety (prayer and Bible study).  Because of this, many young people fail to see the significance of the church and its teachings, or how to persevere in faithfully following Christ throughout all of life. Renewing an emphasis on being a covenant community means taking up these tools as rich resources for discipleship and spiritual transformation.  

Catechesis is a means of teaching youth the truths of our faith, and ingraining them on their hearts and in their minds so that they bubble up in the time of need. It is a means of connecting them to our historic heritage of faith going back, in our case, to the Reformation. Yet, it is also a means of teaching them the way in which their answers (in word and deed) are "a participation in their vocation as divine imagebearers," reflecting their God to the world around them.[4]

In addition to this, a covenant community recognizes the value of mentorship. In a culture that seemingly despises the elderly, the covenant community embraces the wisdom and experience they can pass on.  Not only that, but a covenant community encourages people to build relationships with those unlike themselves so that they may each be built up into the fullness of Christ. I, a twenty-something, have benefited immensely from conversations and reading the Bible with men who have followed Christ longer that I've been alive. There is a refreshment that can come to weary saints from the excitement of children and new believers. Young parents have as much to gain from the insights of empty-nesters as they do from their peers.  And teens struggling with bullying, peer pressure, sex, and decisions about their future can find comfort and encouragement from college students and young professionals pouring into their lives.   

When we lose sight of the fact that we are a covenant community, we rob ourselves of some of the most powerful resources available to us for our spiritual formation.  We lose sight of the fact that we are in covenant relationship with God in Christ and the way this informs our services of worship. We lose sight of the value of all those who comprise the community and the way in which we were called and gathered to sharpen one another to the glory of God and the good of the church.  And in losing sight of our identity as a covenant people, we distort the witness of the church as an alternative community, a (re)newed community in Christ.  

So, may we seek to renew our emphasis on, and live into our identity as, a covenant community.  

(Next week, we will continue this series, looking at The Gracious Use of Church Discipline

 

 

[1] O. Palmer Robertson, Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980), 4.  
[2] Richard Pratt Jr., "Reformed Theology Is Covenant Theology," Tabletalk Magazine (June, 2010), accessed May 2, 2017 at http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/reformed-theology-covenant-theology/. 
[3} Robert Sherman, Covenant, Community, and the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 84.
[4} Steve Macias, "Becoming Your Catechism," Kuyperian Commentary, January 25, 2017, accessed May 3, 2017 at www.kuyperian.com/becoming-your-catechism/. 

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