Last fall we spent almost all our Sunday morning messages and all our BITC Plenary Sessions searching the Scriptures to answer the question, What does it mean to be the church today?
The Fruit of Last Fall's Sermon Series
Those reflections are now bearing fruit in several ways.
1. Small Groups
Our study is bearing fruit in a heightened sense of priority for ministering to each other in small groups—not just studying, but transmitting God's grace to each other in love, and meeting each other's needs and strengthening each other's faith, and sustaining each other's hope, and keeping each other focused on God, running the race with perseverance.
2. Shepherding Efforts
Our study is bearing fruit in a wider shepherding effort coordinated with this small group network, and overseen by the elders. The aim is to do the best we can not to lose track of people who are not in one of our small groups but who are part of the body and would benefit from regular contact with the leadership of the church. The goal of the elders is to have this structure in place some time in March.
3. A Ministry Mindset in All Members
Our study is bearing fruit in a renewed commitment to foster a ministry mindset in all the members and to create an atmosphere that releases your vision for how to meet needs in the body and spread the truth and beauty of Christ in the city. The elders and ministerial staff exist to equip the saints to dream and do the ministry. We do this through teaching and prayer and inspiration and coordination and oversight, but we do not see ourselves as the primary inventors and organizers of ministry. For example, I see one of my main roles at Bethlehem as fostering a spirit of hope in God and joy in God where the Holy Spirit releases energy for ministry through your initiatives—and not just in-house initiatives but initiatives unique to your professions and occupations and trades.
4. Striving for Right Spirit
Our study is bearing fruit in a deepened sense that structure is not the essential problem when we are not what we ought to be—like not as outgoing to strangers, or not as sensitive to hurts in the body, or not as aggressive in evangelism. Structure is part of the problem, but again and again in our Plenary Sessions last fall people would say, what we are striving for is not the fruit of right structure but right spirit.
All the structure in the world won't create love and openness and vulnerability and authenticity and friendliness and self-denying acts of kindness. The most basic issue is a spiritual one and the upshot of this insight is that we will not leave this issue behind and say, "O, good, we spent a few months on that. Now we can forget it and go on to something else." Rather, we know more than ever that, in one sense, we must never leave this issue, but humble ourselves continually and look into our own hearts for stumbling blocks and pray without ceasing that the spirit of love will abound for the new-comer and the old-comer and the invisible-comer and the no-longer-comer and the no-comer.
5. The Covenantal Meaning of the Local Church
Finally, our study is bearing fruit in sending us back to the covenantal meaning of the local church. For over a decade all the members that have been received into the church have been instructed to read the Affirmation of Faith and the Church Covenant and to assent to them as part of their membership commitment. But in all that time we have never studied the covenant or given it a prominent place in our life together.
The elders see this as one of the causes of our present weaknesses. We have not been clear and public and well-taught about what it means to be people gathered into a local church by covenant. For example, not once in the past decade have we woven the reading of our church covenant into a ceremony of receiving new members.
This omission has worked with other forces to reduce the biblical significance of being part of a covenant community. So one of the main results of last fall's study is that the elders plan to reverse this trend and put the covenant in a more prominent position as part of the meaning of membership at Bethlehem, and the process of becoming a member.
This is one of the ways that the crucial issue of what it means to be church will be kept at the forefront of our ministry. For example, the elders plan that beginning some time this spring we will have periodic Sunday morning covenant affirmations which would take about the same amount of time as the baby dedications and would involve all the new members in standing before the congregation and affirming their covenant commitment along with the rest of us by answering "I do" to five questions based on the five paragraphs of the church covenant. We think that this solemn, public act of mutual covenant affirmation and renewal in the most prominent service of the week will go a long way to awakening us again and again to the meaning of our common commitments as a church—or what it means to be church for each other and for the world and for the glory of God.
A Series on the Meaning of a Church Covenant
What this means now is that for the next several Sundays I am going to try to help us recover a biblical and historical sense of what a church covenant is and why we have one and what it means to be a people in covenant with each other.
At the end of this series our intention is that we would have a covenant renewal Sunday in which the members of the church would solemnly reaffirm our commitment to Christ and to each other through the covenant of our church.
The Definition of "Covenant" in Relation to God
Let me begin today with a definition of the term "covenant." A covenant is "an agreement or mutual obligation, contracted deliberately and with solemnity" (Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 562).
God Decides the Terms of the Covenant
But there is a problem with that definition, when it comes to God's making a covenant with man. In that case the terms of the covenant are not mutually decided on. God does not negotiate with anyone as to the degree of their allegiance to him. He comes to us and offers a covenant relationship with the terms already decided.
Psalm 111:9 says, "He has commanded his covenant for ever. Holy and terrible is his name." Judges 2:20 says, "This nation has transgressed my covenant which I commanded their fathers." So there is mutual obligation, but not mutual determination of what those obligations are. God comes to the covenant knowing what is best for us and we come trusting and obeying or not at all. In a covenant between God and man, God sets the obligations, not man.
God Puts Himself Under Obligation with Promises
But the glory of God's covenants with man is that God also puts himself under obligation with solemn promises. For example,
- God says to Noah, "I establish my covenant with you . . . and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth" (Genesis 9:11).
- And to Abraham God says, "I will make my covenant between me and you and I will multiply you exceedingly . . . you shall be the father of a multitude of nations" (Genesis 17:2, 4).
- And to Moses God says, "Behold, I make a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels such as have not been wrought in all the earth" (Exodus 34:10).
- And to David God said, "I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, I will establish your descendants for ever, I will build your throne for all generations" (Psalm 89:3–4).
So the glory of God's covenants with man is that God obligates himself with solemn promises.
Contrasting Two Covenants
Our text today, Hebrews 8, contrasts two covenants. Both of them are initiated by God. The reason they are relevant for thinking about a church covenant among believers is that both of them are designed to bring a people into special relationship with God and with each other: the first was the covenant with Israel that God made when he took them out of Egypt; and the other covenant—the new covenant—is the one God made with the church when Jesus died for the church and rose from the dead. The first covenant created the nation of Israel and the new covenant created the church, the true spiritual Israel, and will eventually gather in the converted nation of Israel as well (Romans 11:26–27).
The Main Difference Between the Two
The main difference between the "old covenant" (2 Corinthians 3:14) with Israel and the new covenant is that in the new covenant God not only sets the obligations of faith and obedience, he also pledges to create the faith and obedience.
Notice how Hebrews 8:6b speaks of better promises: "He [Christ] is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises." One thing that makes the promises better is that they are promises that God will cause the elect to fulfill the conditions of the covenant.
You can see this in verses 8–9,
In finding fault with them [notice: the fault lies in the people not the covenant per se, as also in Romans 8:3], he says, "Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, when I will effect a new covenant with the house of Israel, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant."
So the first covenant was inferior mainly because it did not contain a divine guarantee that it wouldn't be broken. They did break it. But the new covenant does have a divine guarantee of obedience. Verse 10:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put my laws into their minds, and I will write them upon their hearts and I will be their God and they shall be my people . . . (verse 12:) For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.
What's Really New About the New Covenant
What is really new about the new covenant is that Christ seals it with his blood and purchases not only eternal life for the covenant people but also the faith and obedience that we must have in order to inherit eternal life. "I will put my laws into their minds, and I will write them upon their hearts"—that is, I will not leave it up to human initiative whether the terms of the new covenant are fulfilled. I will cause them to be fulfilled (Ezekiel 11:19–20; 36:27).
At the Last Supper Jesus took the cup and said, "This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." The "many" is the church, the new Israel, the elect. So what happened when Jesus died was God's final, decisive, sovereign, invincible act to create a people for himself—not only by purchasing their forgiveness, but also by purchasing their faith and their obedience in fulfillment of the new covenant promises: "I will put my laws into their minds, and I will write them in their hearts."
You and I exist as Christians because of the irresistible force of the new covenant promises. The new covenant creates the church and guarantees that the gates of hell will not prevail against it and nothing will separate it from the love of God. God has given the church to his Son as a bride by a sacred marriage oath called the new covenant. And nothing will destroy this union.
The Ultimate Reasons for a Covenant Community
That's the ultimate reason why it is fitting for local churches to be formed as covenant communities—assemblies that covenant to be the church for each other. Christ has created us by a covenant to be his people, not just individuals, but a people—a body, a bride—for himself. To fulfill that covenant calling demands that we form assemblies called churches—visible churches—which in some way make a covenant together to be the body of Christ for each other, for the world, and for the glory of God.
What Constitutes a "Church"?
One of the reasons we don't feel the necessity of a church covenant today is because we take the existence of local churches so for granted. There are thousands of them in the greater Twin Cities. So we don't often ask the question: what constitutes a visible local body of believers as a church?
But put yourself back into the early 1600s in America. As the early Congregationalists and Baptists struggled with the formation of new churches, they wrestled with just what made a group of people into a church. The answer given again and again was that what made a group of persons a church was a covenant—a solemn pledge to one another that they would believe in Christ and worship and minister in common.
The Reasonings of Cotton, Mather, and Partridge
For example in 1649 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, John Cotton, Richard Mather, and Ralph Partridge drew up a "model of church government" which reasoned like this: God wills for his people to gather in visible local churches. This is clear from the New Testament, for example, from the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor which were all very different (Revelation 2–3).
But, they said, this visible union cannot be established by mere "faith," for that is invisible; nor by a "bare profession" of faith, for that does not make a person part of one particular church or another; nor by "cohabitation" (i.e., living in the same community), for "atheists and Infidels may dwell together with believers"; nor by "baptism," since baptism by itself does not make a person a part of a particular church.
What establishes the visible union of a group of believers into a church is that they make a covenant with each other to be the church. This is the origin of Bethlehem's Church Covenant. It is rooted ultimately in God's sovereign call that creates a visible people for himself in fulfillment of the new covenant promises. And it is rooted secondarily in the biblical necessity of becoming local expressions of that one global covenant people.
Understanding Our Covenant Commitments
Bethlehem exists because of covenant commitments. First, we exist because of God's "new covenant" commitment to forgive our sins and to write his law on our hearts and make us his people and be our God; and second, Bethlehem exists because of our own "church covenant" commitment to trust Christ and worship God and love each other in ways commanded in the New Testament.
This is what we need to understand far better than we do. This is what we need to bring to the center of our membership process. Reawakening of what it means to be a covenant people will go a long way to fulfilling the longings many of us have had in recent years to be more of what God is calling us to be. Pray with me and study with me in these next weeks to that end.