Advancing and Sustaining the Covenant Community

Now may our God and Father himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men, just as we also do for you; so that he may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you may excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

Let me begin this morning by putting this series on the church covenant in a wider context of American culture.

Up till now we have stressed that local churches like ours come into being and get their meaning from a covenant that believers make with each other, and that this covenant with each other is rooted in the new covenant that God made with his people through the death of Jesus. God says in this covenant: "I will be their God and they will be my people" (Hebrews 8:10). What this means is that the divine covenant creates a human community. The commitment God makes to us in the new covenant creates and shapes the commitment we make to each other in the church covenant.

In other words, up till now our focus has been on how the church covenant relates to God and takes its origin and its character from him and his covenant with us.

Church Covenant and American Culture

But for just a moment now I want to relate the church covenant to American culture. I don't know if you feel this or if you are aware of it in any way, but what we are focusing on in these days in calling each other to serious, practical reaffirmation of life together in covenant is very counter-cultural. But we are not unique in recognizing this.

Habits of the Heart

In 1985 Robert Bellah, Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, published with several others a very popular book called Habits of the Heart. It was a study in American individualism and a warning that the loss of ideals like commitment, community, and covenant will be the undoing of America.

He took his start from a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville who came and described America 160 years ago like this:

Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.1

Thus, not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.

Bellah argues that this is even more true of Americans today than 160 years ago. He says,

Individualism narrows our concern to our own immediate problems, often cutting us off from our own past as well as the history of our society. The languages of individualism—[both the] utilitarian [individualism of Ben Franklin, disconnected from Christian faith, or even objective moral reason] and [the] expressive [individualism of Walt Whitman whose famous poem begins, "I celebrate myself, and sing myself"—both of these kinds of individualism in America] . . . are impoverished vehicles for public discussion because they focus on immediate payoff or inner feelings. They do not help us think about the traditions that have formed us or about the larger problems of our society . . . The mono-culture of the mass media is couched largely in utilitarian and expressive form [of individualism]. It is oriented to our immediate wants, desires, and emotions. Television, for example, is much more effective in transmitting powerful images and emotional reactions than in stimulating careful and rational discussion.2

Bellah thinks this development of utilitarian and expressive individualism in America is tragic and dangerous. It's not surprising that his earlier book in 1975 was called The Broken Covenant, because he thinks that the concept of covenant and community and commitment to the wider common good is essential if America and its "institutions of liberty" are going to survive. And he is not the only one who is saying such things.

The Point in Making This Connection

Now my point in connecting our focus on the church covenant with the peril of American individualism is not to justify our focus as part of America's salvation. Our church covenant is justified by God in Jesus Christ and will be valid whether America stands or falls. America is not God's main commitment. The glory of God is God's main commitment. If America sinks into individualistic anarchy where everybody does what's right in his own eyes, God will still be Lord of the nations; his purposes will be on track; and his people, who live for his glory and not for any finite, narrow nationalistic cause, will endure to all generations.

My point in making the connections with American individualism is to wake us up to the fact that the whole idea of covenant and mutual commitment is counter-cultural and, to the degree that we have all been influenced by our culture, it might feel strange or un-American, and for many, therefore, exhilarating and liberating and strengthening and stabilizing in a world turned upside down and falling apart. And secondly the aim is to show that this need for covenant relationships and stable community commitments is so deep in the human heart that even outside the church in America there is a rising tide of urgency and hope that we may as a people discover this before it is too late.

The Biblical Foundation of Paragraph Two

As a biblical foundation for paragraph two in our Church Covenant consider three brief points from today's text in 1 Thessalonians. This paragraph of the covenant focuses on walking together in love and advancing and sustaining the holiness and mission of the covenant community.

Love: Both a Gift and a Command

The first point is that the central requirement of love in the new covenant community is both a gift and a command. Notice in 3:12 Paul prays (in the form of a benediction), "May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all men." Our life together originates in the covenant love of God and so one essential mark of our covenant relationships in church is love. And this love is the work of God. "May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love."

This is exactly the way we expect Paul to pray for new covenant blessings because the new covenant (as we have seen in the last two weeks) says, "I will write my law on their hearts . . . and I will circumcise their hearts to love me . . . and I will put my Spirit within them and cause them to walk in my statutes" (Jeremiah 31:33; Deuteronomy 30:6; Ezekiel 36:27). So here Paul says: you promised to do this in the new covenant; so I pray that you will now do it: "Cause them to increase and abound in love." So the covenant requirement of love is first and foremost a gift in the new covenant.

But it is also a command. Look at 4:1–2,

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus [not merely pray for you], that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk [namely, to love each other]), that you may excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus [not just what gifts God gave you by divine enabling].

So the requirements of the new covenant are both gift and command. And the command rests on the gift, as we know from the logic of Philippians 2:12–13, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling [that's the command], for it is God who is at work in you to will and to do his good pleasure [that's the gift].

So the first point is that the pervasive adhesive of love that binds the our church together in covenant is a sovereign work of God so that he will get the glory (1 Peter 4:11), and he brings this about through the engagement of the will of his people in commandments.

You see this unity of divine working with human engagement in the first line of paragraph two in the covenant: "We engage, therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit . . . " Behind all the engagements of our promising and our willing is the aid of the Holy Spirit—the working of God. The requirement of love is both gift and command.

*God-Wrought Love: The Essence of Holiness

The second point from the text is that this God-wrought love is the essence of holiness. God's covenant people are called to be a holy people—"You shall be holy for I am holy" (1 Peter 1:15–16). And our covenant says we will strive for the advancement of this church in holiness. But holiness is not something other than love.

Look at the connection between 3:12 and 3:13.

12) May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men, just as we also do for you; 13) so that he may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness . . .

If God causes them to abound in love, they will have the holiness they need to meet the Lord. I infer from this that love is the essence of holiness. And that means, then, that the covenant requirement of holiness is also a gift as well as a command, because the love that is the heart of holiness is a gift and a command. Paul wants the church to be holy and so he prays: Lord cause them to abound in love so that they will be holy. You have promised in the new covenant to write your holy law on our hearts. You have promised in the new covenant to give us the Spirit and cause us to walk in your holy statutes. So, Lord, do it now, and do it by making love increase and abound.

The New Covenant Community: Not Perfect, but Growing

Which leads to the final point from the text, namely, that the new covenant community in this fallen world is not a perfect community, not a completed community, but a community growing and advancing toward perfection. Look again at 3:12, "May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love." If our love were perfect or complete, there would be no room for increase. But Paul prays for increase.

This means that the new covenant community is a pilgrim community. We have been saved from condemnation and transferred from death to life and from darkness to light and from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of God's Son, but in this new relation to God we are not yet perfected or completed, but are on the way to becoming what we ought to be.

All of this is the biblical foundation especially for paragraph two in our Church Covenant, but also for the others as well. The first commitment of the covenant is love. In a sense all else is an unfolding of that. And the commitment of love and holiness is not a static one, as though any of us had arrived, but a commitment to strive forward and advance and promote and sustain.

Paragraph Two of the Church Covenant

I will close by reading the paragraph and in the coming two weeks we will take up more of the details.

(2) We engage, therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love, to strive for the advancement of this church in knowledge, holiness and comfort; to promote its prosperity and spirituality; to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline and doctrines; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the Gospel through all nations.3

Will you pray with me in these days the way Paul prayed in 1 Thessalonians 3:12—that God himself will cause us to love like that? Then not only will we be faithful in our covenant commitments to God and to each other. But we will in a radically counter-cultural way bear witness to the kind of communal, committed, covenant life that America needs to see so badly.

  1. Quoted in Robert N. Bellah, et. al. eds., Individualism and Commitment in American Life, (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1987), pp. 12–13. 

  2. Individualism and Commitment in American Life, p. 4. 

  3. Charles H. Reynolds and Ralph V. Norman, eds., Community in America: The Challenge of Habits of the Heart, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 17. 

    The word "engage" goes back to the beginning of the use of covenants in this country. For example, The Church Covenant of the First Baptist Church of Boston written in 1665 began like this:

    The 28 day of the 3d Mo. 1665 in Charlestown [Boston], Massachusetts, the Church of Christ commonly (though falsely) called Anabaptists were gathered together and entered into fellowship and communion each with other; engaging to walk together in all the appointments of their Lord and Master the Lord Jesus Christ as far as he should be pleased to make known his mind and will unto them, by his word and spirit.

    The word "engage" was probably synonymous with pledge. An old meaning of the word "gage" is "pledge." To "engage" was thus to take a pledge. This meaning is seen most clearly today in the noun "engagement" between a man and a woman who solemnize the "engagement" with a ring and with a statement of intention and purpose. It also implies the engagement of the mind and will to pursue intentionally the stipulations of the covenant.