Are the Old Calvinists Giving Up Covenant Theology?

Rejoicing in a revival of Calvinism but concerned is that this Calvinism without covenant theology is insufficient

For many of us who discovered Calvinism decades ago, it was something like a second conversion.  Likewise, for many of us who discovered covenant theology decades ago, it was something like a third conversion.  The thrill was just as great.  For many of us, Calvinism without covenant theology still borders on theological poverty.

 

Like many of my friends, I rejoice in a revival of Calvinism, whether it be among the Young, Restless, and Reformed, or whether it be among the various shades of denominational Baptists.   The doctrines of grace glorify God and give hope for the sinner.  I am thankful for the numerous cooperative gospel coalitions that promote sovereign grace.  These cooperatives have been a blessing to many people in the reformed community.  Our decadent culture demands cooperation among Christians.

However, there is still something very important that is absent in these relatively new movements promoting Calvinism.  What is missing is covenant theology that has traditionally distinguished Reformed Presbyterians from Reformed Baptists, and now distinguishes Reformed Presbyterianism from the Young, Restless, and Reformed.  In my opinion, even though the church is much richer because of these movements, yet these movements miss the important mark of understanding and promoting covenant theology and thus leave the church and the Christian deficient.

For many of us who discovered Calvinism decades ago, it was something like a second conversion.  Likewise, for many of us who discovered covenant theology decades ago, it was something like a third conversion.  The thrill was just as great.  For many of us, Calvinism without covenant theology still borders on theological poverty.

I do not have the time to go into the foundations of covenant theology here.  There has been much written on the topic.   Like Calvinism, unless covenant theology is aggressively taught and applied in the church, it will be lost in a generation or two.  I fear that this is happening now, even in Presbyterian churches.  I’m concerned that the Old Calvinists have given up covenant theology.

Theology affects how the church lives and thinks.  Covenant theology is practical theology.  My goal here is simply to list a few differences between covenant theology and Calvinism.  Covenant theology tends to balance the personal experience with objective Christianity.  It moves the focus of thought from the individual experience to the corporate body as a whole.  It does not deny the importance of the personal experience. Yet, it is not escapism prominent in the old gospel songs like I’ll Fly Away.  It is not introspection (finding more pleasure in God).

Sad to say, what is missing in most of the newer versions of Calvinism (nominally called Reformed theology) are the children.  The issue is not merely infant baptism, but a Weltanschauung (a world and life view).

In covenant theology, children inherit the covenant promises, thus the focus naturally shifts from self to the family and their future. What will happen to our children and grandchildren when we are dead and gone? Covenant theology has a long term perspective.  Contrary to Dispensationalism, the rapture ceases to be the focus of the Christian experience.  Contrary to non-covenantal pietism, our heart ceases to be our only battlefield.  Our first mission field becomes our own home, especially the children. Evangelism begins at home.  Church planting begins at home.   Not only are people the object of evangelism, but the culture is the object of evangelism, too.  The Kingdom of God is greater than the Church.

Covenantalism creates a shift from the personal to the objective, from the personal experience to the corporate body beyond the heart.  In covenant theology, nations also are blessed or cursed by God, and thus God’s law becomes important even outside of the church and family.  God owns everything in all creation, and we are to take every thought captive to Christ.  We are to preach the gospel to the nations and remind the civil magistrate that he is a minister of God’s justice as exemplified in God’s law.

“The law is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”  The Psalmist studied the law constantly, not to develop a better personal relationship with God or to fulfill his daily devotional requirement so as not to feel guilty, but to better understand the law of God that he and others might obey it. Obedience brings God’s blessing for both the individual and the corporate body.  Ironically, the result was a closer walk with God.  Covenant theology shifts the focus of the Christian life from a mystic orientation to an objective obedience.

Having first been justified by faith alone, a Christian is able to apply God’s law to himself, to his family, to his calling in life, and to the civil magistrate.  Covenant theology turns the eyes toward the Kingship of Christ in all areas of life.  The Psalmist studied the law of God constantly to understand better the commandments of God. “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.  Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies. For they are ever mine”  (Psalm 119: 97-98).  The law made him wiser than all his teachers and also wiser than the aged (without being arrogant).  The law made him wiser than his enemies.  The law kept him from the evil way.  The law gave him understanding and taught him how to hate every false way in his own life, in his church, in his family, and in even in the nation where he was a citizen.

I am thankful for the new venues and coalitions that promote Calvinism, but my concern is that Calvinism without covenant theology is just insufficient.

Larry E. Ball is a Honorably Retired Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and a CPA. He lives in Kingsport, Tennessee.

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