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In high school, I saw a print ad for a tire company that vividly stuck in my memory. It was the picture of a sprinter. He was coiled up at the starting blocks. His muscles were tensed and ready to explode into an all-out sprint. But on his feet were bright red high-heeled shoes. The ad’s header explained this jarring juxtaposition: “Power means nothing if it cannot be applied.” It doesn’t matter how powerful the sprinter is if that power cannot be effectively applied to the track. It is the same for our theology. It does not matter how powerful your covenant theology is if you cannot practically apply that theology to the real lives of the family, the church, and the individual. What does covenant theology do? What does our covenant theology look like when it is applied to our lives?
In applying covenant theology, we need to recognize that God covenants corporately and not simply individually. God’s covenant with Abraham was not just to Abraham but “to [his] offspring” (Gen. 15:18; 17:7). This does not remove the individual, but the individual does not simply remain an individual. Every individual is born naturally into a family and a people. Likewise, an individual believer is born supernaturally from above into a fellowship with Christ as Head. The individual Christian is part of a family; the “household of God” (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:19; 1 Tim. 3:15; Heb. 3:6; 10:21). Thus, the application of the covenant primarily happens in the household of God, that is, in the church. It certainly has implications for the individual and for the natural family, but it is seen primarily in the church. This means that a faith expressed solely as “just God and me” is foreign to the pages of Scripture.
We can see how the covenant is applied in the life of the church when we see the parallels between Christ as the substance and Mediator of God’s covenant blessings and the church as the recipient and instrument of God’s covenant blessings. The substance of the covenant is Christ Himself, “who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3). And these blessings are mediated through Christ (Eph. 1:20; 1 Tim. 2:5). The “what” and the “how” of the covenant are Christ. But where these blessings make contact with believers is in and through the church. This is where the rubber meets the road. The church is the recipient of Christ, “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). And the church is the instrument of Christ, by which this blessing causes the church to build “itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16). In sum, the application of the covenant is when the church receives and is built up in Christ. One way we can speak about how the church receives and is built up in Christ is by what theologians call the “marks of the church.”
Usually theologians speak of three marks of the church: the Word, the sacraments, and discipline. But there is enough overlap in these that Calvin saw only two, Word and sacrament, whereas Francis Turretin limited it to the Word alone. This points to how the Word can be seen as primary in that it governs how the sacraments and discipline are administered.
Christ, as substance and Mediator, is revealed to us through the Word. Therefore, how we worship is dictated to us by the terms of God’s covenant with us as expressed in that Word. It is directed by more than just our feelings; rather, our worship must be obedient to God’s Word. Our worship must sing the Word, pray the Word, hear the Word, preach the Word, and see the Word. In this obedience to God’s Word, we renew our commitment and faithfulness to His covenant on a weekly basis.
As we think about how we receive Christ and then are built up in Christ, we come again to our being nurtured by Christ through God’s Word. It is milk to the immature and solid food to the mature (1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12). We abide in the Word (John 8:31). We keep His Word (14:23). We study the Word (5:39). It is by the Word of God’s covenant applied to us in and through Christ that we are reborn, brought to faith and repentance, purified and sanctified, and gathered and established. We are built up on the firm foundation of that Word into the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
The application of the covenant is also marked by the proper administration of the sacraments. These are signs and seals of the covenant of grace that serve to strengthen our faith. As mentioned, the covenant is made not with individuals but with a people. We are individuals, but we are born, naturally and supernaturally, into families and peoples. As circumcision marked a person belonging to a covenant people by birth, so baptism also marks one belonging to a covenant people by birth. The same grace that called out a people to belong to God is at work in baptism and in circumcision (Col. 2:11–12). Additionally, that promise was never just to a person but to a person and his offspring (Gen. 15:18; Acts 2:39). When Zacchaeus was called, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9, emphasis added). This call is based on the call given to Abraham and his offspring. And now it flows through Zacchaeus and his offspring. This is repeated in each of the household baptisms in Acts (Acts 11:14; 16:30–34; 1 Cor. 1:16). If there is one covenant of grace between God and man mediated by the Lord Jesus Christ, then it is signified and sealed by baptism to all those belonging, by birth or conversion, to that people. A consistent view of the covenant of grace requires the sign and seal of baptism to be given to all believers and their children.
The other sign and seal of the covenant of grace is the Lord’s Supper. In the Old Testament, the Passover was a sacrificial meal that pointed forward to Christ (John 1:29; 1 or. 5:7). The Lord’s Supper is a meal in which believers are spiritually nourished by the body and blood of Jesus. Through the eating of the bread and the drinking of the wine, the death of Christ and the fulfillment of the covenant is proclaimed until He comes again (1 Cor. 11:26). Both sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant of grace. But where baptism is a sign and seal of incorporation into the covenant, the Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of maturation and strengthening in the fellowship of Christ.
To the marks of the Word and sacrament, the exercise of discipline should be added. Because the covenant is made with a particular people, there are boundaries that define its membership. The covenant is made with this people and not that people. Thus, membership in this visible people is the greatest thing that the church can bestow. And membership in the visible church is critical for all in the covenant. The maintenance and cultivation of this membership is called discipline. Calvin argued that discipline serves as “the sinew of the church.” It is also called the power of the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). It includes the governance of the church through its officers and their obligation to pronounce well-being on the righteous and woe to the wicked (Isa. 3:10–11). Paul modeled this in Corinth when the incestuous man was removed from the church (1 Cor. 5:2). In order to maintain the glory of God, the peace and purity of the church, and in hope that a lost sinner would be reclaimed, discipline is exercised. This includes, on occasion, the excommunication of the unrepentant, though most discipline is not quite as severe.
So, there is, on occasion, need for the church to put some outside its membership. But the church is called on to exercise great compassion and mercy on those outside the church. Yes, the church is to “contribute to the needs of the saints” (Rom. 12:13). The church must care for those who are members of the covenant people. But the church is also to “show hospitality.” The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia, which means “love of stranger.” There is to be a kindness and care shown to those outside the covenant people. The covenant applied in our lives means that there is mercy, compassion, and love not only for those inside but also for those outside.
So, we must remember that the covenant is just words if it isn’t applied. But when the church receives and is built up in Christ, it experiences power. The pure proclamation of the Word, the orderly administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of discipline are what it looks like when the power of covenant theology is applied to our real lives.