It is exciting to discover what are sometimes called “the doctrines of grace,” i.e., the teaching that even though by nature we are dead in sins and trespasses, we came to faith because God loved us in Christ from all eternity and the Holy Spirit powerfully brought us to new life and to true faith. It is exciting to know that God the Son loved us and laid down his life intentionally for me and for all his elect, that we are saved by God’s free favor (grace) alone, through faith alone and that faith, in salvation, is nothing but resting, receiving, and trusting Christ and it is a free gift of grace. It is thrilling to learn that through faith the Holy Spirit has united us to the risen Christ, that we are adopted as sons, and that our Savior shall never lose any of those for whom he laid down his life. It is wonderful to learn that our sanctification, i.e., our gradual and gracious conformity to Christ, our dying to sin and living to Christ, is the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. These are glorious biblical and Reformation truths. We rightly celebrate God’s abounding grace. AGR is devoted to making known these wonderful truths as far as the Lord carries the good news across the globe.
The Christ-Confessing Covenant Community
As marvelous as these truths are, however, they are only the beginning of the Christian life. Our new life in Christ must be lived somewhere and Christ has graciously provided even that. He calls that place where we live out and enjoy all these benefits “the church.” In Matthew 16:18 he promised to build “his church” and that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church. He gave the “keys of the kingdom” (16:19) to Peter as a Christ-confessor an anticipation of his office as apostle. In Matthew 18 our Lord instituted a process for dealing with sin in the church. In v. 17 he commanded “tell it to the church.” When he used this noun church he assumed that we all knew what he meant. He assumed a certain knowledge of the Old Testament, where the idea behind the church was first revealed and developed. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX), which influenced the language and thought of the New Testament, the word church (ἐκκλησία) is used. The noun is the very same one that is translated “church” in Matthew 16 and 18. In Deuteronomy 9:10 Scripture says that the Lord gave two stone tablets, on which were inscribed by the finger of God, and on which were written all the world which the Lord spoke to us on the mountain “on the day of the assembly” (ἐκκλησία).1 “The assembly” is the formal, official covenant assembly gathered at the foot of the mountain, at the foot of the Lord, as it were. This expression or a parallel occurs many times in the LXX (see Deut 4:9–10; 18:16; 32:1; Josh 8:35).
In other words, the idea of a formal, public assembly of the Lord’s people before the face of the Lord was well known and well established long before the New Testament. The Apostles continued this way of thinking and speaking. Much of Acts concerns the establishment and practice of the visible, institutional church established by Christ. There was even a synod in Jerusalem (Acts 15) to discuss and sort out some thorny theological and practical problems. The same Jesus who was crucified and raised for our justification poured out his Spirit upon his Apostles and thereby empowered them to serve in his name, in his place, as his ambassadors. Paul described his pre-Christian mission as a persecutor of “the church,” i.e., the Christ-confessing covenant community (Phil 3:6). In Acts 5:11 Luke records that the entire church was afraid after the Holy Spirit put to death Ananias and Sapphira. Many places in the New Testament the noun church refers to the visible assembly, governed by offices, gathered in assembly (e.g., Acts 20:17). The Apostles established the offices of pastor, elder, and deacon to serve the Word, to govern the people, and to serve their basic material needs during difficult times. There is a survey linked below to fill-in the story.
No Homeless Christians
We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone to be a part of this visible covenant community. This is where we learn about God’s holy law, from which we learn the greatness of our sin and misery and our need for the Savior and from which we learn how, in the covenant of grace, we ought to order our lives. We call these the 1st and 3rd uses of God’s law. When the law demands of us perfect righteousness for our salvation (the 1st use) our theologians and some of our confessions have called this “the commandment of life” (Belgic, Art. 7) or the covenant of works (Westminster Confession, ch. 7). Those who have been received by God in favor, for Christ’s sake alone, through faith alone, are in what we call a covenant of grace In that covenant of grace we seek to obey God’s law not in order to be saved but because we have been saved by grace alone. Our theologians regularly equate the covenant of grace with the gospel, the good news. Christ has been raised. We have been given new life. We are righteous before God for the sake of Christ’s righteousness credited (imputed) to us alone. God is no longer our judge. He is our gracious heavenly Father. Wrath has been replaced by love and grace.
God applies his grace to us through the use of these covenants, works and grace. By the covenant of works we are driven to Christ. In the covenant of grace we are received freely by God for Christ’s sake. He administers his covenant of grace particularly, officially in the visible church. There the gospel is preached, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered, and church discipline is administered to correct us and to point us back to the way of Christ.
So, the covenant of grace and the church, the Christ-confessing covenant community, are bound up together. We cannot ordinarily have Christ without his covenant and his visible church. This is one reason why the pastor to the Hebrews urged them not to forsake the visible covenant assembly (Heb 10:25) as some were in the habit of doing. This is one way that covenant theology makes a difference to our faith. For many well-meaning Christians, the ideas of covenant and church are largely unknown. Some are even hostile to the idea of a covenant theology, even though the New Testament speaks of the “New Covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20) and the Apostle Paul (2 Col 3) described himself as a minister of the New Covenant. The writer to the Hebrews lays out a covenant theology throughout his epistle but especially in chapters 7–10. He contrasts the blessings of the New Covenant over against the Old (Mosaic) Covenant.
A covenant theology is a churchly theology. Covenant theology draws the Christian into the church as the Christ-confessing covenant community, where burdens are shared, prayers are offered together, where the Word is preached, and the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are administered. The church is important but she is not the Lord. She is not the Savior. She is a servant of the Lord and a servant of his Word. The Roman communion has forgotten this and elevated herself above the Word and, arguably, even about the Lord—when she contradicts his Word, renounces his gospel, and seeks to bind men’s consciences to man-made traditions. The Eastern communions have similar problems from our point of view.
The Reformed churches begin with the Word (sola scriptura) but we honor the church established by Christ and normed by his Word because Christ has established his church by his Word and is present there and is working powerfully and mysterious there for the glory of his name and edification of his church.
1. Καὶ ἔδωκέ μοι Κύριος τὰς δύο πλάκας τὰς λιθίνας γεγραμμένας ἐν τῷ δακτύλῳ τοῦ Θεοῦ, καὶ ἐπʼ αὐταῖς ἐγέγραπτο πάντες οἱ λόγοι οὓς ἐλάλησε Κύριος πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἐν τῷ ὄρει ἡμέρᾳ ἐκκλησίας· Lancelot C. L. Brenton, The Septuagint Version: Greek (London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1851), Deut 9:10.