From Antithesis (Vol. II, No. 3) May/June 1991
To put it mildly, American Christianity is regrettably permeated with an individualism that stands in stark contrast to the biblical teaching of covenantal Christianity. But even Christians who believe in and emphasize covenantal thinking are still influenced by this individualism; they often exhibit a marked tendency to limit the emphasis and teaching on covenants to the church (the New Covenant) and to families (the marriage covenant).
Our individualism is so thorough that we don’t even limit it to individuals. Modern Americans have awarded individual status to decades, generations, and centuries. For example, we think of “the 60’s” almost as though they were a person, now deceased. We think of the Victorian Era as a distinct entity or a distinct “individual.”
Thoroughly modern, we never realize that obligations do not cease with the passage of time or with a change from one generation to the next. Covenantal Christians hopefully affirm current covenantal obligations to God, church, wife, husband, children, and so forth. But virtually no one affirms the obligatory nature of covenants over an extended time. Who today cares what his ancestors may have covenanted to do? Or who thinks covenantally about his descendants beyond two generations?
My aim is to briefly consider the scriptural teaching regarding covenants made for subsequent generations and then apply this understanding in the modern world. Our task should be to seek understanding that we — and our descendants after us — may obey: “the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children” (Ps. 103:17).
Covenants Made by God
The beginning of our understanding must be found in God and in what He has done. How does He deal with men? We see in the Decalogue that God does not just deal with individuals, but with families. But when He gives His Law to families, the obligations do not cease after one generation. They also involve the descendants
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Ex. 20:4-6).
For the disobedient, the chastisement flows down to the third and fourth generation, but for those who love God, and keep His Word, His mercy is shown to thousands. Thousands of what? The context appears to require thousands of generations. The covenant was intended to be perpetuated over generations, with each new generation being born into the obligations of the covenant.
This understanding is confirmed in Deuteronomy. In chapter five the people are reminded of their obligations to keep the covenant made with them at Horeb (Deut. 5:1-2), even though the majority of those present were not even alive when the covenant in question was made (Deut. 2:14,15; Num. 14:28-35). Two chapters later, the generational obligations of the covenant are made explicit: “Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments.. .” (Deut. 7:9). Even more striking, when Moses renews the covenant in Moab, he declares: “Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath; but with him that stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day” (Deut. 29:14).
The faithful king Josiah provides us with another example of the binding nature of God’s covenants over time. When Josiah ascended the throne, he instituted a series of reforms, one of which included refurbishing the Temple. During the time the Temple was being restored to a place of honor, an ancient scroll was discovered there. The scroll was the Book of the Law — probably Deuteronomy.
The time which had elapsed between the making of the covenant in Deuteronomy, and the recovery of that ancient covenant in the time of Josiah was approximately 800 years. But when the terms of the recovered law were read to Josiah, he did not treat it as an arcane bit of archaeological trivia (2 Kings 22:1-11). He did not have the manuscript placed in the Jerusalem Museum of Judean History. He tore his robes. And over what? If we discovered something comparably ancient, it would date around 100 years after the Norman Conquest, and we would therefore treat it as though it had nothing to do with us. And we would be wrong— at least about the time factor.
The radical individualism of modernity is baffled by Josiah’s response. The thought that commands given to our ancestors, or actions taken by them, can somehow be binding on us leaves us aghast. But how does the Bible record Josiah’s response?
“Then Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, ‘I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.’ And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it So Shaphan the scribe went to the king, bringing the king word, saying, ‘Your servants have gathered the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of those who do the work, who oversee the house of the Lord.’ Then Shaphan the scribe showed the king, saying, ‘Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.’ And Shaphan read it before the king. Now it happened, when the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, that he tore his clothes” (2 Kings 22:8-11).
Some may want to argue that modern Christians do acknowledge the authority of ancient covenantal obligations, since, after all, do we not submit to the authority of the Bible? Yes, but most Christians treat it as a book that falls out of Heaven into the warehouses of Zondervan or Thomas Nelson. We buy it at the Christian bookstore brand new. It is therefore commonly treated as a grab-bag of proof texts, inspirational quotes, and so forth. The Bible is not treated as an ancient collection of documents, which has continuing authority over us. This can be seen in the atrocious ignorance of church history on the part of modern evangelical Christians — it is as though we think the New Covenant springs into existence each generation, over and over again. Part of the reason we may have this attitude is that we no longer read the Word of God from old copies of manuscripts. The Bible is treated as an historically contextless Word from God, which we apply as we see fit.
Now if our obligations under God’s covenants do not cease because those who initially incurred those obligations have been dead for two hundred years, what can we say concerning obligations placed on us by men, without explicit divine direction? The Bible indicates that obligations of this nature are also carried over generations; they also flow downstream.
Covenants Made by Men
In Jeremiah 35, the prophet encounters a group of men, living in accordance with a command made by an ancestor. The Lord instructs Jeremiah to go to the house of the Rechabites, bring them to the house of the Lord and invite them to drink wine (Jer. 35:2). When Jeremiah does so (v. 5), the Rechabites decline the wine because Jonadab the son of Rechab, their father, had commanded them not to (v. 6). The command was to them and to their sons forever (v. 6). But, says the modern, “And who does Jonadab think he is?”
The prophet Jeremiah draws a contrast between the obedience of the sons of Jonadab, and the disobedience of the sons of Israel. If these Rechabites were faithful to the terms of a covenant initiated by a man, how much more should the Israelites have been obedient to the covenant from God? Having drawn the comparison, Jeremiah blesses the Rechabites for their covenantal faithfulness.
“Because you have obeyed the commandment of Jonadab your father, and kept all his precepts and done according to all that he commanded you, therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not lack a man to stand before me forever’” (vv. 18b – 19).[i]
Now Jonadab himself was not present at this meeting with Jeremiah; he had lived about three hundred years before—he was the man who helped Jehu slaughter all the priests of Baal (2 Kings 10). Nevertheless, his descendants were still abstaining from wine and living in tents hundreds of years later, according to their ancestor’s command. The modern temptation is to dismiss this as yet another instance of traditionalism run amok, but that is not Jeremiah’s response. He praises them for their faithfulness, and uses them as a contrasting example to the disobedience of Judah.
An example may put this in perspective. Our individualism makes us think of our ancestors as inhabiting another world, a world which is totally detached from us. But this is a thoroughly unbiblical way of thinking of generations. The cast of characters in the collage of the modern American mind includes the Puritans, but it also includes the Klingons from Star Trek. Consequently. we can no more imagine a sane Christian modifying his behavior on the basis of something done by an ancestor in 1691 than we can imagine an emotionally-balanced Trekkie.
Granting the obligations of trans-generational covenants, no one, of course, has the right to bind the conscience of another person contrary to the Word of God. In addressing the nature of covenants overtime, we must never forget that the covenants, in order to be binding on anyone, must first of all be lawful. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, “Neither may any man bind himself by oath to any thing but what is good and just. . .” (Ch. 22; Sec. 3).
The Bible teaches clearly the authority of the magistrate (Rom. 13:1-7), but it also teaches that the authority, like all authority, is limited by the Word of God (Acts 4:19-20). In the same way, a lawful covenant cannot require something contrary to Scripture. But to the extent that the covenant is not contrary to the Bible, then we should consider the covenant to be binding — even on descendants.
In addition, we should remember that the principal locus of faithful obedience to all covenants is within the family. In what follows, I focus on national and institutional covenants, but there will be no faithfulness to such covenants unless there is faithfulness in families. Consequently, we find some of the strongest Scriptural statements on this subject addressed to families. This emphasis is not because other covenants are unbiblical, but rather because these other covenants depend on faithful families.
Nations: The Solemn League and Covenant
Modern Scotland is not a Christian nation. It is no longer faithful, like so many other countries that once submitted to the Lordship of the Christ. “Woe to Arid, to Ariel, the city where David dwelt!” (Is. 29:1). Scotland, once a light in Europe, is currently unfaithful and disobedient to the Word of God. But is unfaithful Scotland in the same condition as some primitive tribe which has never heard the Gospel? Not at all; to whom much is given, much is required. God does call them to repent (Acts 17:30); they consequently have an obligation to do so. But do the Scots have an additional and covenantal obligation to repent and believe? Are they violating, by their unbelief, the terms of a covenant made by their ancestors? I believe they are.
In the autumn of 1643, representatives of the Scottish Covenanters vowed, along with the English Parliament, to work together to protect and reform the churches “in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government according to the Word of God.” What was stated in this great Solemn League and Covenant? They entered this covenant so, “that we, and our posterity after us, may, as brethren, live in faith and love, and the Lord may delight to dwell in the midst of us.” Moreover, they agreed to “remain conjoined in a firm peace and union to all posterity, and that justice may be done on all the wilful opposers thereof. . .”[ii]
If we focus on the Scottish obligations of this covenant, should we not ask modern Scots: Does the Lord delight to dwell in your midst? If not, then will they not incur a greater wrath than shall fall on those who sin against a lesser light? They should not attempt to justify or excuse themselves on the basis of the mere passage of time. Christ’s command was to disciple the nations and to teach them obedience. When such a nation is brought to Christ and obligates herself to remain with Him, then how is it possible to argue that the obligation somehow ceases if enough time passes? How can an obligation to remain faithful over time be erased by time? A covenant was made which bound posterity; the fact that there has been great unfaithfulness does not abrogate the terms of the covenant.
The modern Christian may want to ask what difference does it make? Should we not just preach the Gospel to non-Christians and not worry about whether they live in Scotland or the Bongo Bongo? The answer to this is no. There is a vast difference between preaching the Gospel in a nation which has never heard the light and preaching the Gospel in a nation which has fallen away from the light. The latter will have a greater hardness, which is not seen even among the pagans. In my own experience, I have presented the Gospel many times to those who have grown up in a culture with a Christian heritage (Americans), and I have presented the Gospel to people from a non-Christian heritage (Koreans). The two groups differ starkly in their degrees of hardness.
Of course, the heart of the solution is to present the biblical gospel, with power and with doctrinal precision, and to do this no matter where the evangelist is. Nevertheless, an important part of the solution to the hardness of apostate cultures is a preaching of their former covenantal obligations. If we are to preach about the sins of the people as a prelude to offering them the fruit of Christ’s suffering for sin, then should we not address those sins in which the people are living? If a man were preaching to cannibals, his message should address their sins. And if a man is preaching in an apostate culture, should he not preach against the apostasy?
Institutions: Yale University
“Listen to Me, you who follow after righteousness, You who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, And to the hole of the pit from which you were dug” (Is. 51:1).
We often reveal a great deficiency in our understanding of righteousness in the way we discipline our children. Our children think, and many parents concur, that forgetting to do our duty is a legitimate excuse for not having done it. How many parents have second thoughts about disciplining their children when they hear the excuse, “But Mom, I forgot!”
But in the Scriptures, forgetting is sin in its own right (Jdgs. 3:7;1 Sam. 12:9; Ps. 78:11; 106:13,21; Jer. 23:27; Hos. 2:13; 13:6). Families and individuals are not the only entities required to keep the memory of certain things alive. The obligation includes institutions which have obligated themselves to stay faithful over an extended time.
To take one example among many, what did the original trustees of a new college called Yale say about their undertaking? “Whereas it was the glorious public design of our blessed fathers in their removal from Europe into these parts of America both to plant and under the Divine blessing to propagate, in this wilderness, the blessed reformed Protestant religion . . .” Part of the mission of Yale was to propagate the Christian religion. But how did they approach this task? Did they get together a group of believers to hand out tracts down at the taverns? Although that is certainly a worthwhile venture, that is not what they did — they had a longer vision in mind. They had history downstream in mind. They planted a college, which meant that their intention was to propagate the Christian religion over time. You do not build an ocean liner to get across a creek. You do not build colleges unless you are thinking of generations. Yale was established with the mission of training future generations in faithfulness to the Lord. And what does this mean? Can we ignore this obligation by saying that was then — this is now?
Not at all. It means that Yale now is apostate, unfaithful, and under God’s chastisement. It means that no matter what they do, no matter how well-trained their graduates are, no matter how much prestige they have in the eyes of the world, Yale is a failure in terms of her original commitment and mission. This kind of failure is not erased by time. It also means that an evangelist working there has a weapon in his arsenal which would be of no use, for example, at the University of Wyoming. The University of Wyoming is unbelieving, and outside any covenantal obligations as an institution. Yale is faithless to the covenant. The University of Wyoming is guilty of guilty of fornication; Yale is guilty of adultery.
And Yale is not the only institution or government in this position. A brief glance around our culture shows that any attempt to list the institutions in adulterous apostasy would quickly become unmanageable. And there are many other modern evangelical groups which, like Judah tagging along behind the northern apostate kingdom of Israel, are not there yet. Nevertheless, while retaining the name evangelical, they are seeking to put greater distance between themselves and the terms of their covenantal obligations to their God. Such groups within mainstream evangelical Christianity have a bad case of theological AIDS. The virus of unbelief is in the system, and the final results are simply a matter of time.
I have already noted that an evangelist addressing sinners in such a situation has a weapon in his arsenal that could not be used elsewhere. But how would such a weapon be used? How would it be preached? For purposes of illustration, let us join such a hypothetical message in progress. It is the kind of message we may pray will one day be preached in many places.
. . . and friends, how is it possible to defend yourselves by saying that you know nothing of what I am saying? That is the nature of my charge; this is the crime of which you stand accused. You have forgotten God. When charged of such a thing, it is not possible to say that you could not have forgotten Him, for you don’t remember a thing. A thin defense!
I am bringing you a subpoena; you must now appear in the court of God’s justice. You must answer for yourself in this covenant lawsuit. Here is that of which your Lord and God accuses you —Your fathers said they would remember Him, and they did. Their sons said they would remember Him, and they did not. And you, their sons, continue their faithlessness. You are faithful in only one thing and that is in your faithlessness.
The Lord was once in your midst, blessing and keeping you. He delighted to honor and bless; He was once in your streets, and corridors, and halls. But you have forgotten and forsaken Him — for the sake of cisterns which hold no water.
But though you are faithless, He is not. Though you have been whoring after other gods, He remains faithful. And because He is faithful, He will have you back. I do not mean that He is willing to have you back, although that is quite true. I mean that He will lave you back. What you have taken you have no right to keep; what you have stolen shall be returned to Him. What you have taken you have no strength to keep; your arms are too short to hold Him at bay.
The Lord Christ was lifted up from the earth; He said that this would draw all men to Himself. This He has been doing and will continue to do. And what is the power which draws? It is the proclamation I set before you today — the proclamation of the cross. Because He suffered, and bled, and died, and rose, all according to the Scriptures, the covenant will be restored. I do not know about you as an individual — you may fall under His curse as one of the faithless. There have been many such before you. But because the Lord Christ suffered, He shall see the travail of His soul and be satisfied. And He will be satisfied here. Here, on this soil, in this place.
The prophet tells us that the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. This place is not a mountaintop — this place will be covered like the rest. But more than that, this place was once covered. This nation once served the Lord. Ah, you say, that was another time. Yes, it was — they were faithful. And in their faithfulness, they made a commitment to Almighty God, and their commitment was made in your name. They obligated you to serve the Lord. Now, do you? I know, you do not. That is why I am here today. The Lord Christ has purchased His people in this place, and its inhabitants once walked in that redemption. But the redemption has not lost its power. The covenant your fathers made with Him, on the basis of His precious blood, is not a covenant which was buried with them.
The covenant lives. You may die, but the covenant lives. The Lord Christ lives — He is seated at the right hand of the Father — and He remembers what your fathers said you would do. Do you think the hundreds of years that have passed make any difference to Him? The covenant stands, and its words are terrible to you who are disobedient.
What will you do with this? What must you do with this? You must repent of your sins, all of you, and you must believe on the Lord Christ, and trust yourself to the merit of His sacrifice. And having done this, you must renew the covenant.
[i] Incidentally, the descendants of Rechab are apparently still around, living northeast of Medina — Green, Jay, ed., The Classic Bible Dictionary (Lafayette: Sovereign Grace Trust Fund, 1988), p. 948.
[ii] Neal, Daniel, The History of the Puritans. 1837 (Reprint: Minneapolis: Klock & Klock Christian Publ., 1979), vol. II, p. 219. 220 [emphasis added].