So far we have looked at one aspect of Reformed covenant theology (as distinct from other kinds of covenant theology), which distinguishes it from those varieties of popular evangelical theology, piety, and practice. Many are excited about the “doctrines of grace” but they do not connect those doctrines to covenant theology or to the church. The Reformed do. Last time we also looked very briefly at what the Scriptures say about the visible church as the Christ-confessing covenant community.
The Abrahamic Promise
Another way in which Reformed covenant theology affects our piety and practice is the way it influences the way we regard and raise our children. For the vast majority of those who identify as “evangelical” (the meaning of which becomes more elusive with each passing year) it assumed that though God included the children of believers in his visible people under Abraham, Moses, and David, he does so no longer under the New Covenant until they make profession of faith. This is a big assumption for which there is no positive Scriptural evidence but which we need not debate here. For the purposes of this discussion it is only important that we recognize that these two different ways of regarding the children of believers exist.
Under the Reformed understanding of Scripture, the promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 17:7 is still in effect. It has never been revoked. There God promised to Abraham (and to us): “I will be a God to you and to your children.” This is the way that the New Covenant is understood and presented in the Old Testament Scriptures, e.g., Jeremiah 31:17:
There is hope for your future,
and your children shall come back to their own country.
This is a foreshadowing of the promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31–34 (where the New Covenant is contrasted with the Old (Mosaic) covenant) but in Jeremiah 32:38–40 we see the promise of Genesis 17:7 and the promise of the New Covenant synthesized:
And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me (ESV).
The Lord’s language here comes right out of Genesis 17:7 but it looking forward to the New Covenant. According to Jeremiah 32, the New Covenant is a renewal of the Abrahamic promise. So, the Reformed are not surprised when we see that promise re-stated by Peter in Acts 2:39. There we see the him, after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, preaching the law and the gospel to the gathered men of Israel. They respond by asking, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replies:
…“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38–39; ESV)
Certainly he calls those adults who heard the sermon to repent, believe, and be baptized but he says more more. In v. 39 he explicitly re-states the promise of Genesis 17:7 and invokes Jeremiah 32:38–40. Why should they repent? Why should they be baptized? Because of the promise. Which promise? The promise. Peter did knew that all those Jews present for the feast knew exactly to which promise he was referring. It was so obvious, so clear, so well known to them, so basic, that it would have been insulting to spell it out: “You know, the promise that you have been claiming for the last 2,000 years, the promise that you invoked over the circumcision of your children, the promise that was said over you at your circumcision.”
For two millennia the promise of the Lord to Abraham had been the defining promise. It is so important to the Old Testament and to the self-consciousness of Jews that it was the source of a major argument between Jesus and the Jews (John 8). They claimed to be Abraham’s children on the basis of their lineage. Jesus agreed that Abraham has children but he disagreed with them in the sharpest possible terms about what makes one a child of Abraham. “Abraham saw my day and rejoiced” (John 8:56) he argued. Were they really Abraham’s children they would do as Abraham did.
The Abrahamic Pattern
In modern evangelical theology, however, the biblical understanding of Abraham, the promise of God made to Abraham, and how that works out in the New Covenant, has largely been lost. There is not a single word in the New Testament revoking that promise and there is a strong affirmation of it at the outset of the ministry of the Apostles. Peter continued to invoke Abraham in his preaching (e.g., Acts 3:13). He invoked the Abrahamic promises explicitly:
You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness” (Acts 3:25–26; ESV)
Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises of Genesis 12 and 15. We are still under the Abrahamic covenant and promises. They were never about merely earthly possessions. The promises were always spiritual. In his last sermon, after which he was martyred, Stephen invoked the Abrahamic promises (Acts 7:2,8,16–17,32).
Paul spend most of Romans 4 explaining that the Abrahamic promises and covenant are still in force in the New Covenant. E.g.,
[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised (Romans 4:11–12; ESV).
Abraham is the pattern for the New Covenant. The Lord preached the gospel to Abraham. By God’s grace alone, he repented and believed. He received the sign of entrance into the visible covenant community (circumcision). That was Abraham’s version of Acts 2:38. Genesis 17:7 is his Acts 2:39. It is the same pattern: The promises are given to believers and to their children.
To Believers And Their Children
The Abrahamic promise always included children in its expression and in its outward administration. They were always included in the visible people of God, the covenant community, the church. This does not mean that every child of every believer will come to faith. Ishmael was the first child of Abraham to receive the sign but he did not receive the promise. Paul says explicitly that Jacob was elect and Esau was reprobated (Rom 9;13; quoting Mal 1:2,3) but Ishmael and Esau both received the sign of the covenant and both were included in the visible people, the Christ-confessing covenant community. The promise is not magic but it is a promise. God will save all his elect and he wants us to include our children, the children of believers, in the visible covenant community.
This idea, that of including children in the visible covenant community, of following the Abrahamic pattern of applying to them the sign of the covenant, of raising them in the covenant community, of saying to them: “God has included you in his promise and people. You belong to the Lord. You have been separated from the world. You have received the sign of the covenant. You need to trust the Lord and love him with all your heart” is founded on the biblical promises in Genesis 17:7, Jeremiah 32:38–40; and Acts 2:39. The Abrahamic promise is not magic but it makes a difference in the way we regard our children, the way we speak to them, and the way we raise them.
R. Scott Clark