God is the covenant friend of his people. Abraham “was called the Friend of God” (James 2:23), for God said about Abraham and his seed, “But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend” (Isa. 41:8). Jehovah “spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend” (Ex. 33:11). The church confesses about God, her divine husband, “This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem” (Song of Sol. 5:16).
It is especially in Jesus Christ that the church sees God as her covenant friend. Jesus spoke that way to his disciples: “And I say unto you my friends…” (Luke 12:4). Jesus said about Lazarus, “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep” (John 11:11). Our Lord says to us, “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you”(John 15:14–15).
God is the covenant friend of his people.
But what does that mean? What is a friend? And what can it possibly mean that God is our friend?
There are two ideas to being a friend. One is obvious; the other is perhaps not so obvious. The first and obvious idea of friendship is the bond of fellowship that exists between two friends. Friends spend time together, friends talk together, friends look forward to seeing each other. Friends have a bond, and friends commune. Even Merriam-Webster defines a friend in terms of this bond and this fellowship: “one attached to another by affection or esteem.”
Scripture certainly speaks of friendship according to this bond of fellowship, and calls it God’s covenant. To Abraham God says, “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” (Gen. 17:7). Do you hear the language of friendship there? “I am your God.” That is the way a friend talks. A husband and wife say in that very close friendship that is marriage, “I am yours, and you are mine.” That is the language of God in his covenant.
About God and his church, the psalmist writes: “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant” (Ps. 25:14). Do you hear the language of friendship there? Jehovah tells a secret to his people, which secret is his covenant and his love. Literally, the word “secret” means “cushion.” The figure is of two friends sitting on a couch together, speaking their hearts and minds to each other, or even a husband and wife, with their heads on the same pillow, talking and whispering. In close intimacy, God is the covenant friend of his people, revealing himself and his love to his church.
In his covenant friendship with his church, God dwells with us and brings us into his home. He does that now already by dwelling in our hearts by his Spirit. “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). He also does that now by assembling us in his presence in worship, for the church is the temple of God. “In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22). God also prepares an eternal home in glory for us, where we will forever dwell in fellowship with him. “And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Rev. 21:3). Do you hear the language of friendship in all of this? God dwells with us; he lives with us; he abides with us. This is the behavior of a friend. This is the language of fellowship. God is the covenant friend of his people.
How can such fellowship be? God is God, and we are dust! Will the majestic King of kings dwell with dust? God is holy, and we are sinful! Will the pure and righteous Jehovah befriend sinners and rebels? Yes! Yes he will! The whole word of God testifies that God is indeed our friend! And the whole word of God also testifies how it is that God is our friend: through Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son. By the incarnation of our mediator, the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The eternal Word, the second person of the Trinity, came into our dust and united it to himself! He is Emmanuel, God with us! By the death of the mediator, all our sins were covered in the sight of God, and we were redeemed from sin and death to serve the living God. “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:14–15). God is the covenant friend of his people through Jesus Christ!
The second idea of friendship, which is perhaps not so obvious at first, is that friendship is costly. It is pleasant to be a friend, but it is not easy to be a friend. To be a friend, a true friend, means suffering with a friend through his trial, bearing a friend’s reproach when she is despised, sticking by the friend when it would be easier or safer for one personally to end the friendship. Even unbelievers recognize that hard times reveal who your true friends are. How much more so for believers, who know the true love of God to them, and to whom God gives a true love for God and the neighbor. That true love of true friendship is full of sacrifice and self-denial and service of the friend.
The Bible speaks of the costliness of friendship. “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly.” And how does one show himself friendly? Not only by being a nice, pleasant person, which is fine in itself; but by sticking with one’s friend even when your friend’s own family forsakes him. “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). The cost of friendship is sharing in your friend’s reproach.
The cost of friendship is also being willing to rebuke a friend who is erring, thus wounding him, or being willing to be rebuked by a friend when you are erring. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful” (Prov. 27:6). When everyone else is willing to tolerate and excuse sin, a faithful friend is willing to wound the sinner through rebuke. Those who tolerate sin show themselves to be enemies, not friends. When the church world today tolerates and even praises divorce and remarriage, it shows itself to be an enemy of the divorced and remarried, who perish as impenitent adulterers. Only those who rebuke the divorced and remarried to their wounding show themselves to be true friends, seeking the true good of their neighbors in true love for them.
Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered as our covenant friend. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). God’s love of true covenant friendship sacrificed his only begotten Son for our salvation. Christ’s love of true covenant friendship was full of sacrifice and self-denial and service of us.
We will also suffer as the covenant friends of God. We will suffer the hatred and enmity of the world against us for our friendship with God. “Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also. But all these things will they do unto you for my name’s sake, because they know not him that sent me” (John 15:20–21). “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:24–25).
Oh yes, there is a cost to being God’s covenant friend. But what a little cost it is! It is only our life and only our self, which is nothing! It is only the world and all that is in it, which is nothing! It is only a lifetime of afflictions, which are light and are only for this present time and are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us! How happily we suffer that cost! For to be a friend of God in his holy covenant and to know his love in Jesus Christ is better than life. Our friend Jesus Christ gave his life to redeem us unto God, so that we now joyfully offer ourselves unto him.
What a blessed thing: God is the covenant friend of his people!
Originally published August 2020, Vol 79 No 8
The relationship between the church and the state is big news these days. God has made it big news by sending a coronavirus pestilence upon the whole earth. In response to this pestilence, government officials in most states have forbidden their citizens from assembling in public gatherings. The purpose of these orders is to prevent the spread of the pestilence and thus to protect the lives of the citizens. In many cases, the government has included the church in its ban on public gatherings. Some churches disobeyed the government and assembled anyway. In one case, the police came and issued tickets to everyone who came to church. In another case, the pastor of the church was arrested and put in jail. The mayor of New York City threatened to close down the churches permanently if they did not obey. News organizations are reporting these things, and our nation is facing the question of the relationship between the church and the state when it comes to worship. May the state ban the assembly of the church for worship? And if it does, must the church obey the state’s ban on the church’s assembly for worship?
As covenant young people, we are interested in these questions too. In fact, these questions are vital for us! They have to do with our relationship to the state in the matter of worship. These questions are not merely an interesting discussion topic for us, but we must have definite answers. Let us take each question in turn and make our stand on the word of God.
Question: May the state ban the assembly of the church for worship?
Answer: No, absolutely not. The state has no say whatsoever over the worship of the church. This applies to government officials at every level. The president of the United States may not forbid the church from worshiping. The governor of a state may not forbid the church from worshiping. Nor may an international health department like the World Health Organization. Nor may the county health department. Nor may the city mayor. Nor may the local police force. Nor may a legislature. Nor may a judge. No state official of any standing whatever has any authority to ban the assembly of the church for worship.
This applies to any reason that someone might think of for banning the assembly of the church. It certainly would be wrong for the state to persecute the church in hatred for the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this case, the state would do what the rulers of the Jews did to Peter and John. “And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). The state may not ban the church’s assembly out of hatred for the gospel. But it also would be wrong for the state to ban the assembly of the church for any other reason. The state may not ban the assembly of the church for public safety reasons. It may not ban the assembly of the church to slow the spread of a pandemic. It may not ban the assembly of the church to preserve the health of the citizens. It may not even ban the assembly of the church to save the lives of the citizens. There is no reason whatever that would give the state the authority to prohibit the assembly of the church for worship.
There are two principles that make this clear. The first principle has to do with the nature of the church. The church is the body and bride of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:22–23; 5:22–33). Therefore, the church is not an earthly institution, but a spiritual and heavenly institution. Although the church is gathered on the earth, meets in earthly buildings, and is made up of God’s elect who live their earthly lives as citizens of earthly kingdoms, the church is not earthly. It is not of this world, but has its source, its existence, and its nature from its heavenly head, Jesus Christ. The word of God testifies to this heavenly nature of the church. Jesus: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Paul: “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17). As the heavenly kingdom, the church is unique and distinct from every other kingdom in the world. The church does not exist under the authority of any earthly kingdom, but in and alongside earthly kingdoms. The church is in the world but not of the world. This is the teaching of the footnote to Article 36 in the Belgic Confession. “The New Testament does not subject the Christian church to the authority of the state, that it should be governed and extended by political measures, but to our Lord and King only, as an independent territory alongside and altogether independent of the state, that it may be governed and edified by its officebearers, and with spiritual weapons only.”
The second principle has to do with the nature of the church’s assembling for worship. The church’s assembling for worship is a holy and heavenly meeting with God himself. The church’s assembling for worship is unique and distinct from every other assembly of men on earth. It is not like the book club at the library. It is not even like the Bible study on Wednesday night. In the assembly of the church as church for worship, God himself brings his congregation before his own face. Leviticus 23 calls the assembly of the congregation for the feasts “holy convocations.” Exodus 39:32 calls the tabernacle the “tent of meeting” (translated in the KJV as “tent of the congregation”). Hebrews 10 teaches that we as the church in worship “enter into the holiest” (v. 19), that is, into heaven itself, through the flesh and blood of Jesus. This flesh and blood of our Lord is the “new and living way” for the New Testament church in her worship to come right into God’s presence (v. 20). This is one reason it is so important for us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (v. 25).
These two principles show that the church is a spiritual and heavenly institution and that her worship is a spiritual and heavenly activity of meeting with God. Therefore, it is not only unlawful, but impossible, for the civil state to try to rule over the worship of the church. The civil government may rule over our earthly church buildings by imposing fire codes, and over our earthly church property by imposing or exempting us from taxes; but the civil government may not and cannot touch the spiritual activity of worship by the heavenly body of Christ. This position is implied in Article 28 of our Church Order, which recognizes the civil government’s authority when it comes to the church’s earthly possessions and order, but also firmly maintains the absolute authority of Jesus Christ over his spiritual body. “The consistory shall take care that the churches, for the possession of their property and the peace and order of their meetings, can claim the protection of the authorities; it should be well understood, however, that for the sake of peace and material possession they may never suffer the royal government of Christ over His church to be in the least infringed upon.”
Question: If the state does ban the assembly of the church for worship, must the church obey?
Answer: No, absolutely not. The church is not obligated to obey any rule of the state that limits or prohibits her worship. If the state says only 50 people may assemble, the church may assemble with 30 or 80 or 500 people. If the state says there may be no public assemblies, the church may call the entire congregation to worship in the public assembly of the church. The church in her worship is under no obligation whatever to obey the the state’s ban on public assembling. For worship, she may disobey the state’s ban with a clear conscience before God.
The principle here is the Christian’s obedience to the civil state in all lawful things. Civil government is an earthly institution with very real authority from God himself. The government officials are ordained of God (Rom. 13:1). Our calling as citizens of the United States, as citizens of our respective states, and as citizens of our local communities is to be subject to these authorities (Rom. 13:1). We are forbidden from resisting these authorities, which would be to resist the ordinance of God and to receive to ourselves damnation (Rom. 13:2). We are required to honor civil government in all things without exception, and to obey civil government in all things that do not conflict with the word of God. As Reformed Christians, our heartfelt confession is that “it is the bounden duty of every one, of what state, quality, or condition soever he may be, to subject himself to the magistrates; to pay tribute, to show due honor and respect to them, and to obey them in all things which are not repugnant to the Word of God; to supplicate for them in their prayers, that God may rule and guide them in all their ways, and that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (Belgic Confession, Article 36).
However, the authority that God has granted to the state does not extend to the worship of the church. When the civil government by executive order forbids the congregation of Jesus Christ from assembling for worship, it infringes on the royal government of Christ over his church. God says, Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together (Heb. 10:25). The civil government says, Forsake the assembling of yourselves together. We recognize that the government is not forbidding us from preaching the gospel. We recognize that the government is not explicitly persecuting the church. We also recognize that the government’s motivation is the honorable desire to contain COVID-19. Nevertheless, in banning the church from worship, the government has usurped authority that belongs to Christ alone. The state has required something, even unwittingly, that is “repugnant to the Word of God” (Belgic Confession, Article 36).
The church’s response to this must be, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye” (Acts 4:19). Our response must be, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Regardless of the government’s reason for denying the church her call to worship, the church must not cede that authority. She “may never suffer the royal government of Christ over His church to be in the least infringed upon” (Church Order, Article 28).
Our disobedience of the state’s ban is not rebellion. Even when we must disobey, we may never rebel. We still submit to the government’s authority, even though we may not obey the executive order. Submitting to the state means that we would not prevent a police officer from investigating our actions. If there were a penalty for noncompliance, we would suffer that penalty. We will also obey the executive order in non-worship events, such as refraining from group assemblies in our own personal lives, closing of our schools, postponing events, and the like. But in matters of worship, we must obey God rather than men.
Only the church itself, under the authority of Jesus Christ, may decide matters of worship. It may do this for reasons of persecution or the safety of the members (Matt. 10:23). The individual child of God is also free to stay away from church for his own protection and physical safety, as David left Jerusalem in his flight from Absalom (2 Sam. 15). Under the authority of our head and by his wisdom, the church itself may decide to cancel services. The church is called to love our neighbor. Although the state overstepped its authority in forbidding the church’s worship, the purpose behind the ban was to minimize the transmission of coronavirus. As the church, we are also interested in limiting the transmission of this disease. We may not willfully expose ourselves to danger (Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. 40, Q&A 105), and we must also prevent our neighbor’s hurt as much as in us lies (Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. 40, Q&A 107). This means that our assembling for worship must not be done in reckless disregard for our physical health or for that of the neighbor in our broader communities. It means that the church herself may judge that it is not safe to assemble. Even if the church would make this decision, it would not do so because the state said so.
Yes, the relationship between the church and the state in the matter of worship is big news these days. As covenant young people, let us take our stand in this big news upon the word of God and our confessions.
Originally published June 2020, Vol 79 No 6
This might surprise us at first. What does the flood have to do with the return of Christ? After all, the flood is recorded way at the beginning of the Bible, while our Lord’s return will be the very last thing that happens in the history of this earth. The flood resulted in the utter destruction of all flesh, except Noah and his family, while our Lord will make a new heaven and earth when he returns. What does the flood have to do with the return of Christ?
And yet our Lord and his apostles repeatedly connected the flood with Jesus’ return. Our Lord, in Matthew 24:37–39: “But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” And Peter, writing about “the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished,” writes that “the heavens and earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men,” which will occur on “the day of the Lord” (2 Pet. 3:6, 7, 10).
The connection between the flood and the return of our Lord is that the flood was a precursor of the second coming. The flood foreshadowed and foretold the return of our Lord Jesus Christ from heaven. The flood stands as a powerful promise of God to his church that Jesus Christ is coming indeed! For as it was in the days of Noah, so also shall the coming of the Son of man be. This promise of God encourages the hearts of God’s people as we wait for our Lord to appear. Especially when it seems to us that we have been waiting long for him, knowledge of the flood assures us that God’s word is true and that Christ’s return is sure. The child of God, believing God’s word concerning the flood, lives in the hope of the new creation.
There are especially three things to note about living in the hope of the new heavens and earth. First, the Lord Jesus Christ shall return to the earth personally. He will come visibly and bodily in such a way that every eye will see him. The flood foreshadows this personal return of Christ to the earth, because when God sent the flood, he himself came to the earth. God did not sit at a distance from the earth and send the flood waters, but he himself visited the earth and brought the flood waters with him. Notice the language that God uses in Genesis 6:17: “And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth….” If God were far away, he would only send a flood of waters. But God himself came to earth and brought a flood of waters upon the earth.
This was also the prophecy of Enoch about the flood, recorded in Jude 14–15: “Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, To execute judgment upon all…” Even though the ultimate fulfillment of Enoch’s prophecy awaits the second coming of Christ, Enoch was definitely speaking about the flood as a type of the final judgment. Enoch, the seventh from Adam, was prophesying to the last generations before Noah, the tenth from Adam. Those were days when the church was apostatizing through the sons of God marrying the daughters of men (Gen. 6:2). To those ungodly generations, Enoch prophesied that God would soon come in judgment “with ten thousands of his saints.” What a striking prophecy! It means that when the flood waters were exploding up from below, God himself was there with his own hands breaking up the fountains of the great deep. And when the flood waters were crashing down from above, God himself with his own hands was opening the windows of heaven. And the angels of God, as the servants and ministers of God, were there, for they are the “saints” spoken of by Jude. Though unseen by the wicked who choked and drowned in the waters of the flood, God came personally to earth in the flood, with a multitude of angels in his attendance. Yes, it is true that God is always present on the earth and never leaves or departs from it. Part of his glory as God is that he is omnipresent, or everywhere present. But there are also times when God comes in a special visit to the earth. The flood was such a visit, as the Lord came in judgment with ten thousands of his saints.
So it will be when our Lord Jesus Christ returns on the clouds of glory. He himself personally shall return, and his coming will be triumphant, majestic, and glorious. The very last sign before his coming shall be the sun turning to darkness, the moon not giving her light, and the stars falling from heaven (Matt. 24:29). Into that pitch blackness there shall sound the shout of Jesus Christ himself, accompanied by the trumpet-blast voice of God, and the voice of the archangel (1 Thess. 4:16). As he shouts, the Lord himself shall descend from heaven on the towering clouds of heaven as his chariot (Acts 1:11), shining with all of the full, bright glory of God himself (Matt. 25:31), and every eye shall see him (Rev. 1:7). He shall be attended by all his holy angels (Jude 14). His shout, and the trump of God, shall have raised the dead (1 Cor. 15:51–54), whose bodies will be reunited with their souls. That same trump of God shall change those of us who are alive and remain so that we too undergo a kind of translation or a resurrection without dying that makes us fit for life in the new heavens and earth, and we shall be caught up with the Lord (1 Thess. 4:17). What a blessed hope the children of God have as we await our Lord. He is coming, personally and visibly, just as he promised!
The second thing to note about living in hope is that, when our Lord returns, he shall make a new heavens and earth. He will do this by burning up the present heaven and earth with fire so that the elements shall melt with a fervent heat, and the world that now is shall perish. Here too, the flood was a type and precursor of the coming of the Lord. Through the waters that blasted up from the earth and that smashed down upon the earth, the world that existed before the flood, being overflowed with water, perished (2 Pet. 3:5–6). The earth that Noah stepped onto after the flood was a new earth. Even though it was recognizable as a place where he could plant a vineyard, for example, it was nevertheless new. So it will be in the coming of our Lord. Out of the ashes of the present heaven and earth, as it were, our Lord will make a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13).
There are many things that we could say about the new heavens and the new earth, for the Bible reveals much about them. It reveals the light of them—not the sun, but the Lamb. It reveals the work we will be engaged in—worshiping God and ruling over the heavens and the earth with Christ. Even though there is much to say, we say it all as the blind trying to describe color, for we yet see through a glass darkly as we sojourn on this present earth. So, for this article anyway, let us focus on only one aspect of life in the new heavens and new earth: covenant fellowship with God.
Here too, the flood has something to teach us, for covenant fellowship with God was a prominent feature of the flood. God told Noah to come into the ark (Gen. 7:1), not go into the ark, indicating that God was in the ark and that God lived with Noah and his family in the ark for the entirety of the time that they were sealed in. After the flood, God said to Noah, “And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you” (Gen. 9:9). Then God gave to Noah one of the most visible, recognizable, and beloved symbols of his covenant: the rainbow. “I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth” (Gen. 9:13).
When God gave the rainbow as the symbol of his covenant, he was revealing that his covenant is essentially friendship and fellowship between himself and his people in Christ. God’s covenant is that he dwells with his people and brings them to dwell with him. In order to understand this, we must understand the rainbow. Some say that the rainbow is a covenant symbol because it has seven colors, and seven is the number of the covenant. Others say that the rainbow is a covenant symbol because it unites earth and heaven by appearing to span them both. There may be some truth to these ideas, but they do not capture the main biblical significance of the rainbow. The key to understanding the rainbow is Revelation 4:3. There, God is described this way: “And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.” Here we are told that God’s glory, which always shines forth from him, is the brilliant color of the rainbow. When God gave the rainbow as a symbol of his covenant, it was as if he took a little wisp of his glory and painted it across the sky. By this, God tells his people that we may dwell with him and behold his glory. Rather than destroying us in hell as we deserve, he will take us to live with himself and show us his beautiful glory in heaven. God gives us this precious gift through Jesus Christ, who bore the flood of God’s curse against our sins and delivered us from them. Life in the new heavens and earth will be the life of covenant fellowship with God in Christ, dwelling before his throne and beholding his beauty and glory world without end.
The third thing to note about living in hope is that we may be absolutely sure that God’s promise of Christ’s coming is true, even though there are many who deny it and laugh at us for believing it. The Bible says that there shall be scoffers in the last days who say, “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2 Pet. 3:3–4). By this question, the scoffers mean to say that Christ shall never return and that his promise has failed, because we have been waiting two thousand years and he still has not returned. Over against these scoffers, we hold to the promise of the scriptures that “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness,” and we, “according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:9, 13).
The flood teaches us this patient hope as well. Remember that Noah lived in the midst of a wicked generation who lived in open ungodliness. Noah looked forward to God’s coming to the earth in judgment, but it was a judgment that must have sounded so strange to people in his day. God said that he would send a flood, and Noah was commanded to build an ark-box for his family and the animals. But it had never rained before! How could water possibly cover all the land and destroy all flesh? And yet Noah believed God. By faith, Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, built the ark (Heb. 11:7). So it is with us. All we have to go on is the word of God, which promises the return of our Lord. But that word is sure, surer than all of the scoffing and scorning of the wicked. And so we look forward in hope to the coming of our Savior and to our eternal fellowship with him before the throne of God. For the flood is a powerful promise that Jesus Christ is coming again!
Scripture often speaks of our union with Christ. It does this wherever it tells us that we are “in Christ.” The word “in” speaks of a union. If the branch is in the vine, then the vine and branch are united. So also, to be in Christ means to be united to him. And so the Corinthians were “them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2). The Ephesians were the “faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:1). The Philippians were “the saints in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:1). The Colossians were the “saints and faithful brethren in Christ” (Col. 1:2). The Thessalonians were the church “which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:1). All of these churches were in Christ. That is the language of union. So also you and I who believe are in Christ. Our “life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). You and I live, “yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Union with Christ.
From one point of view, this is a very simple truth to understand: I am united to Jesus Christ.
From another point of view, this is a very difficult truth to grasp. I am united to Jesus Christ, but Jesus is in heaven, and I am on earth. We are in different places. How can I be united to him? What is more, I cannot see our union with my eyes, I cannot hear it with my ears, I cannot lay my hand upon it. If I cannot sense this union with my physical senses, then what exactly is this union with Christ?
Because of the impossibility of sensing this union with our physical senses, John Calvin and other Reformed theologians have called our union with Christ the mystical union. By this description, they meant that our union with Christ is a real union, but it is not a physical union. The word “mystical” means something that is not physical, something that cannot be sensed with our physical senses, but which is nevertheless real and spiritual and deep. Even though Jesus, according to his human nature, is in heaven, he is still present with us by this mystical union. And even though we are on earth, we are still united to Jesus through this mystical union.
Union with Christ.
The mystical union.
But what is it? What is this union? That is the hard question we must answer.
So let’s start simple. What is union with Christ? This: Union with Christ is the real, spiritual connection between Jesus Christ and his people. It is the real, spiritual connection between Jesus Christ and me. Although Jesus is in heaven, and I am on earth, we are truly, really, spiritually connected to each other. We are in separate places, but we are not separate from each other. We are united! We are connected. And notice that the connection is spiritual. That is why we cannot see it with our eyes, hear it with our ears, or otherwise detect it with our physical senses. It is spiritual. But it is a very real connection for all that. It is a connection that we can detect spiritually and that we enjoy spiritually.
This spiritual connection is union with Christ.
This spiritual connection is the mystical union.
We can go further. We can describe the character of the connection between Christ and us. Let’s begin with Christ. Union with Christ means that Christ dwells with us. Although Christ according to his human nature is in heaven, he is always present with us according to his divine nature. He is truly man, but he is also truly God. And as God, he dwells with us. As the Heidelberg Catechism says, “with respect to His Godhead, majesty, grace, and spirit, He is at no time absent from us” (Lord’s Day 18, Q&A 47). Further, he dwells in us. There is that word “in” again: a word that speaks of union. Jesus said about his people, who love and obey him in gratitude for salvation, “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (John 14:23). A little later, Jesus said about us, “I in them…” (John 17:23). The connection between Christ and us is that he indwells us.
Let’s also look at it from the other point of view. What does it mean that we are connected to Christ? It means that we are incorporated into him. The word “incorporated” simply means that we are members of his body. We form one spiritual organism, with our Lord as the head, and with us as so many members of his body. As Paul wrote, “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ…Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (1 Cor. 12:12, 27).
Union with Christ.
The mystical union.
Christ indwelling us, and we incorporated into him.
We can go even further yet. We can precisely identify what the connection is between Christ and us. First, the union between Christ and us is the Holy Spirit. Our Savior has given us his own Spirit, who now dwells in both Christ and us, uniting us as one. As the Heidelberg Catechism says, we “become more and more united to [Jesus’] sacred body by the Holy Ghost, who dwells both in Christ and in us; so that we, though Christ is in heaven and we on earth, are notwithstanding flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone; and that we live and are governed forever by one Spirit, as members of the same body are by one soul” (Lord’s Day 28, Q&A 76).
Second, the union between us and Christ is faith, which the Holy Spirit works in our hearts. Faith is an ingrafting into Christ (Rom. 11:17, 20; Lord’s Day 7, Q&A 20). Faith is abiding in the vine (John 15:1–8). Faith is embracing Jesus Christ (Belgic Confession, Article 22). All of these descriptions show that faith is that real, spiritual connection between God’s people and Christ.
Union with Christ.
The mystical union.
The Holy Spirit, who works faith in our hearts.
The truth of union with Christ is encouraging to God’s people. It is encouraging to the young person. This truth teaches you that you have Christ. You have Christ! You have him dwelling in you, and you are incorporated into him. He is the Savior who brings the good news of salvation from sin and death (Luke 2:10, 11). And he is yours! He is the Lamb of God, which taketh away your sins by his precious blood (John 1:29). And he is yours! He is the Advocate, who makes intercession with God for you (1 John 2:1). And he is yours! He is the Friend that sticketh closer than a brother (Prov. 18:24) when you are lonely. And he is yours! He is the great Physician (Luke 5:31, 32), who heals our deadly disease by taking away our sin. And he is yours! You are united to him.
Therefore, the truth of union with Christ is also a help to God’s people in living their Christian lives. It is a help to the young person. When the devil tempts you in your car to listen to the world singing about its pride and its lust and its warped idea of what makes life good, then you remember, “I am united to Christ! He dwells in me, and I will not make Christ listen to such things!” When strange women tempt you online to view their shameful deeds, then you remember, “I am united to Christ, and I will not make Christ view such things!” When an evil spirit of hatred tempts you to laugh at the godly classmate who is different, then you remember, “I am united to Christ, and I will not let Christ hear me laugh at one of his own.”
Union with Christ.
The mystical union.
All glory be to God!
Patrick’s life reads like an adventure story, with chapters on pirates, kidnapping, foreign lands and languages, slavery, prophetic dreams, a daring escape over land and sea, a shocking return to the pagan barbarians, druids, leprechauns and fairies, and war. By the time he was 16, Patrick had had more real life adventures than most of us hope to have in a lifetime.
Underlying Patrick’s personal adventures is the more important story of how God used Patrick as a missionary to bring the gospel to Ireland, and from Ireland to many other places in Britain and Europe. The mission work of Patrick was one fulfillment of God’s promise in Psalm 67:7, “God shall bless us; and all the ends of the earth shall fear him.”
Patrick’s life is instructive for all Christians, but Patrick’s story is especially gripping for young people because Patrick’s adventures began when he was still in his teens. As you read on, imagine what it would have been like to be Patrick, subjected to these great struggles, and learn from his response how to endure the lesser or greater struggles that God may send into your life.
Patrick’s story begins on the western coast of the island of Britain, sometime around 389 AD. At that time Britain was ruled by the Roman Empire, which had sent its soldiers into Britain centuries earlier. The Roman soldiers had brought the Christian faith with them, so that by the time of Patrick’s birth the island was at least nominally Christian. Patrick’s father was a deacon in the church and his grandfather was a priest, so Patrick was raised in a Christian home. However, Patrick took his Christian home for granted. He was lazy in his studies and did not take his faith to heart. Later, when Patrick looked back on this time of his life, he concluded with shame that he was an unbeliever as a child. Young Patrick was about to learn the folly of his wasted youth, as God prepared to take his precious Christian home away from him.
Covenant youth, mark the value of your Christian home. Like Patrick, we are not always as sensible of this great gift as we should be. Sometimes we simply become so used to having a Christian home that we forget how rare a thing it really is. After all, a Christian home is the only kind of home we have ever known. All our friends are in Christian homes. Everyone at church has a Christian home. It seems to us that Christian homes are the rule. But look beyond the walls of your home and see that what you have is a rarity in the world. Asia has the most populous countries in the world, and therefore has by far the most families and homes. But these houses overflow with idols to a host of Chinese and Hindu gods. Turn to the Middle East, and you find the families in their homes bowing down to Mecca five times a day in worship of the false god Allah. Turn even to the Western nations in Europe, Australia, and North America that have traditionally been Christian, and you find homes ruled by the unholy trinity of pleasure in unrighteousness, abounding iniquity, and open hostility to God’s law, where man has made himself god. What you have in your covenant homes, young people, compared with the rest of the world, is a precious and rare gift of God. Do not take the gift for granted; certainly do not spurn the gift, but treasure it as a token of God’s love and be grateful.
When Patrick was 16 years old, God took him away from his covenant home and brought him to the pagan island of Ireland. Although the Roman Empire had subjugated much of the island of Britain, that was the limit of its reach. Across the Irish Sea lay the unconquered island of Ireland. There the people remained untouched by Roman law and order. They worshiped the ancient Celtic gods of earth and stone, sky and water, and believed in magical realms populated by leprechauns and fairies. The druids were the priests of this Celtic paganism, and they were suspected of practicing dark magic, including human sacrifice.
Occasionally pirate raiders from Ireland crossed the sea to Britain to slave and to steal. One day the raiders came to Patrick’s home, enslaved him, and carried him back to Ireland. He was sold to a farmer and spent his days and nights tending the man’s cattle, without adequate shelter in the wet, cold weather. Patrick was intensely lonely, living against his will in a strange land, separated from his family and all whom he loved. But God was using Patrick’s suffering to prepare him for a life of mission work. Patrick picked up the Irish language, as well as the customs and ways of the Irish people. More importantly, in the fields of Ireland God converted Patrick from his childhood unbelief to faith in Jesus Christ. In his deep anguish, Patrick cast himself upon the Lord, praying 100 times a day and almost as many times each night. Patrick was filled with devotion to God out of a sense of his great spiritual need.
Patrick’s fervent devotion is an example for covenant young people today. In his sovereign providence, God sometimes brings young people into great affliction, as he did Patrick. Isaiah 40:30 teaches us, “Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall.” Although you may be in the prime of your physical strength as youth, all human strength is vain, so that even youths can suffer greatly. In your deep need, you must cast yourself upon God. As Isaiah 40:31 puts it, you must “wait upon the Lord.” Turn to him in prayer as often as the need is felt! 100 times a day! Turn to his word and memorize uplifting passages, so that your mind is stayed on God. Just as God lifted Patrick in his grace, so God will lift you. He has promised it! “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).
Finally, after six years of slavery in Ireland, Patrick found an opportunity to escape. He fled overland to the coast, where he found a ship willing to carry him back to Britain. All told, he traveled over 200 miles to reach his home. Once he arrived, he resumed his education in earnest. As hard as he studied, he always felt that he was behind in his learning. Yet by God’s grace, Patrick was no longer a careless, lazy, immature youth, but a godly, mature young man.
In his growth to Christian maturity, Patrick is an example for covenant youth. God still calls the young people of the church to reach for spiritual maturity. God uses the means of your Christian homes, your Christian education in a Christian school, your godly friends, your life in the world but not of the world, your work, and all the circumstances of your life to bring you to this spiritual maturity. The primary means God uses in your maturing is his word. In 2 Timothy 3:14–17, Paul told Timothy that the holy scriptures “are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” He says that “all scripture … is profitable… for instruction…that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” Therefore, Timothy – and we – are to “continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of.” Timothy grew to spiritual maturity through the word; Patrick grew to spiritual maturity through the word; and we must grow to spiritual maturity through the word.
After several years in his home, Patrick became convinced that he must return to Ireland as a missionary. Although his six years a slave in Ireland had been miserable, Patrick’s heart was now burdened with the need to bring the gospel to the Irish people. Interestingly, God used the means of special dreams to guide Patrick’s decisions. One night he dreamed that a man from Ireland handed him a letter that was entitled, “The Cry of the Irish.” As he read the letter in his dream, he heard the Irish people crying out to him, “Holy boy, we are asking you to come and walk among us again.” This was not the first time that Patrick had been guided by a dream, for his escape from slavery had also been prompted by a dream.
In his reliance on dreams Patrick is not an example for covenant youth. Patrick lived among superstitious people, so it is not entirely surprising that Patrick himself would be influenced by some superstition. Nevertheless, taking our dreams as revelations from God is superstition. God guides us by his word and the application of the principles of his word to our life. God uses our circumstances to open and close doors. God uses prayer as a means of subjecting our will to his will. But God does not use dreams to tell us what to do. In this Patrick was mistaken, although God sovereignly used even Patrick’s superstition to accomplish his purpose. Young people, look to the scriptures for your guidance, not to your dreams.
When Patrick was forty years old, he was ordained as a bishop by the church in Britain and sent to Ireland as a missionary. Preaching was his main labor, but he had many other responsibilities as well. He baptized, trained, and ordained bishops (elders), established monasteries, and traveled far and wide in Ireland to bring the gospel. Patrick recognized the need for hard work, and consciously labored diligently in his calling. At the same time, he attributed all of the fruit of his work and the hard work itself to God.
Patrick and the Irish church suffered persecution as a result of their faith in Jesus Christ. As it turned out, the Britons were just as capable of piracy as the Irish had been. A Briton named Coroticus led a band of soldiers into Ireland in order to kill, capture, and enslave some of the newly converted Christians. Patrick wrote a letter condemning Coroticus’ actions, pronouncing God’s judgment on his barbaric act, and excommunicating him from the church. Patrick himself was insulted and reproached throughout his mission work, and on at least one occasion he was cast into prison. Rather than abandon the gospel, this persecution made Patrick and the Irish church all the more zealous for the truth.
The fruit of Patrick’s mission work, under God’s blessing, was that many people were converted from Celtic paganism. Patrick himself spoke of thousands of converts, including some influential members of Irish society. The Roman Catholic Church perpetuates the idea that Patrick converted all of the kings and chieftains of the Irish tribes, but this is most likely a myth. However, it is true that many churches were established, elders were ordained, pastors were taught and sent out, and the true gospel of salvation through Christ alone was proclaimed in Ireland.
Through Patrick’s labors, paganism began to decline in Ireland as many people left behind their pagan gods and believed in the one true God. Human sacrifice was almost entirely eradicated, and the slave trade between Ireland and Britain came to a halt.
God used the conversion of the Irish to preserve the gospel for Europe. The Roman Empire was in severe decline, and the pagan barbarians were driving Christianity out of the European lands that were formerly under Roman control. However, in Ireland the knowledge of the scriptures was preserved, as well as the disciplines necessary to understand the scriptures, such as reading, writing, and logical thinking. The churches and monasteries established by Patrick were the centers from which the gospel would return to Europe.
Yes, Patrick’s life reads like an adventure story, and there are many lessons to learn from it. As God’s covenant youth, let us continue in the faith of our spiritual fathers, for God’s glory.
God often describes His people as sheep. For example, in John 10, the Good Shepherd repeatedly refers to us as his sheep. The theme passage of this year’s convention, Psalm 23, is the familiar confession of sheep.
When God calls us sheep, he is not paying us a compliment or flattering us. Rather, he is telling us there is something wrong with us by nature. Sheep are foolish creatures, prone to wander, helpless, selfish, and stubborn. By calling us sheep, God reminds us that these are our natural characteristics as well.
Yet it is very blessed to be a sheep, because sheep have a shepherd. Though the sheep cannot care for themselves, they belong to one who can and does care for them. So it is for us. Our shepherd is God himself through Jesus Christ. All of the glory for our care and our salvation, therefore, belongs to him.
Rev. McGeown already developed the idea of the Shepherd. As we now turn to the idea of the sheep, we are going to see the same overarching theme: all glory goes to God, not to the sheep. Our comfort is not that we save ourselves, but that our Shepherd does. This is the viewpoint of Lord’s Day 1: My only comfort is “that I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” Let us look at just two ways that we have this comfort as our faithful Shepherd cares for us helpless sheep.
First, sheep are prone to wander. Isaiah 53:6 teaches, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” The question is, Why do sheep wander? One reason is that sheep are naturally proud, thinking that they know the way that is best for them. Isaiah 53:6 again: “We have turned every one to his own way.” How ridiculous for a sheep, of all creatures, to be proud! Yet sheep think they know best—and we do too. We are tempted to listen to the appeal of the world or our own sinful flesh instead of the wise advice of parents and family. In pride we think that we know best what is good for us. How ridiculous for us, of all creatures, to be proud! The right way is the way that God has laid out in his word, but we turn to our own way.
Another reason that sheep wander is that they are hurt. Ezekiel 34 describes the sheep who were scattered because false shepherds came in and neglected them. In their confusion and fear, the sheep scattered. There are many ways that we are hurt in this life as well. It is, after all, the valley of the shadow of death and the vale of tears. When we face difficulties and trials, we may be tempted to scatter by questioning God’s goodness or the benefit of belonging to his flock. Our calling is to respond to hardships in faith and trust, but we are prone to respond with frustration and impatience.
The Shepherd rescues us from such wandering. He calls to us by his voice, and that voice causes us to follow him. As Jesus said in John 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Through the preaching of his word, the sheep hear Christ’s voice.
The sheep know the shepherd’s voice so well that they are in tune with it. They ignore the voices of other shepherds, and follow only when they hear their own shepherd. What voices are we in tune with as young people? What voice excites us and makes us eager to follow? Is it the voice of worldly entertainment that interests us, or the voice of fornication, or the voice of drunkenness? As sheep, we must be in tune with the Shepherd’s voice, so that our greatest joy is to hear him. Your love for Christ’s voice has been evident at this convention so far, and for that we are profoundly thankful.
Second, sheep are naturally selfish and cruel to each other. Sheep do not look out for each other, but for themselves. Ezekiel 34 describes the sheep who push with the shoulder and butt with the horns so that they can have the best pasture to the hurt of the other sheep. This is our nature as well. At a convention, we are tempted to size each other up with a glance and disdain those who do not meet our standards. We are tempted to talk and gossip about him or her, and avoid them if at all possible.
The Good Shepherd saves his sheep from this sin of hating the neighbor by his own love for the sheep. When Jesus says in John 10, “I know my sheep,” He is saying, “I love my sheep.” His knowledge is the deep and personal knowledge of love. So great is his love for his sheep that the Good Shepherd even laid down his life for us (John 10:11). The cross is the greatest demonstration of Jesus’ love for His sheep, as the Good Shepherd gave himself to the curse of God in our place, that we might live.
That love of the Shepherd for us he also bestows upon us, so that we love him. And loving him, we also love his sheep. The cross of our Lord changes the way we look at each other. Instead of sizing each other up with a superficial glance, we look on each other as fellow members of the flock of Christ. Even more, we look at each other as brothers and sisters in the Lord. No more pushing each other around in selfish hatred, but receiving one another in love as blood-bought family members.
All glory goes to the Shepherd, who rescues his helpless, wayward sheep. No honor goes to us, but what a glorious thing to be a sheep! Then we can confess, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” And we can confess, “My only comfort is that I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful shepherd Jesus Christ.”
The 2007 Protestant Reformed Young People’s Convention will be the 67th such convention in the history of our Protestant Reformed Churches. With God’s blessing, this convention will be for the great spiritual benefit of the young people who attend, just as the past 66 conventions have been.
The 67th Young People’s Convention! Could anyone at the first convention have imagined that the Protestant Reformed Young People’s Societies would still be having conventions in the year of our Lord 2007? Could anyone then have dreamed of a 67th convention?
But that gets us thinking: how will our 67th Young People’s Convention compare to our first? What was that first convention like? Where was it held? Who went? What did they do? And more importantly, what was the goal of that convention, and what was the value of that convention for those who attended?
This question is not one of idle curiosity. Instead, the question comes out of a desire that the conventions of this generation be for the spiritual good of our young people, just as the conventions of that generation years ago were for their spiritual good. And especially, the question comes out of a desire that our 67th Protestant Reformed Young People’s Convention be for the glory of God, just as the first Young People’s Convention was. After the first convention, they could confess, “The Lord was surely with us.” After the 67th convention, we want to be able to say the same.
So…what was that first convention like?
The first convention was held in 1939 in South Holland, Illinois.1 That was a fitting setting, since it had been the Young People’s Society of South Holland that had come up with the idea of doing something to unite all of the young people’s societies in the Protestant Reformed Churches. The fruit of that idea was the National Convention of Young People’s Societies—the first convention.
There are certain ways that the convention this year will be different than it was in 1939. Probably the most noticeable difference is that our gathering this August will last much longer than our gathering did that August. Then, the conventioneers arrived one day and went home the next. Now, the convention lasts from Monday through Friday.
Another difference is the number of young people attending this year compared to that first year. In 1939, 114 young people registered. In 2007, hundreds more have registered. Similarly, the number of Young People’s Societies participating is far greater now than it was then. In 1939, the Young People’s Societies of Pella, Oak Lawn, First, Hudsonville, Holland, Hope, and South Holland were officially represented, with unofficial representatives from Oskaloosa, Creston, and Kalamazoo. In 2007, there will be members from the Young People’s Societies of all our churches, Lord willing.
Yet another difference is the assessment of dues then and now. In 1939, each society member was assessed eighty cents to help pay for the convention. In 2007, each society member was assessed ten dollars. A good bargain then, and still a good bargain today!
In spite of these relatively minor differences, the convention of 1939 and the convention of 2007 are identical in the most important areas. The goal is still the same now as it was then, and therefore the value of the convention remains the same.
The goal of the convention in 1939 was that the Young People’s Societies be united in their mutual spiritual edification. They expressed this goal in one of the resolutions they adopted at the convention: “The purpose of this convention is to unite all Protestant Reformed Young People’s Societies to work in close unity and in this manner secure a sense of solidarity in order to seek the mutual edification and development of talents as becomes Christian young people.” In other words, the Young People’s Societies wanted to come together for spiritual growth. This goal was met by the activities of that convention. The first evening, they sang Psalter numbers, prayed, read Scripture, and heard an hour-long address from Rev. G. Lubbers out of Ecclesiastes entitled “The Days of Our Youth.” The second day was taken up with meetings from morning until evening. Most of their time was taken up with organization and laying the foundations for future work together as Young People’s Societies. The evening of the second day was spent in fellowship and Zion’s songs.
Spiritual growth together as young people is still the goal of this 67th convention. The evidence that this is the goal can be seen in the fine way the convention is presented and advertised by the host, Grandville PRC. Although we look forward to these things, the focus is not the trip to Cedar Point, not the beach or facilities, not the banquet, but the speeches. The first thing one sees on the convention home page (www.prcconvention.com) is the theme of the convention, “Living Sacrifices of Thankfulness,” and the text, Romans 12:1, 2. The spiritually edifying speech was the focus in 1939, and the spiritually edifying speeches are still the focus in 2007.
Because the goal of the Protestant Reformed Young People’s Convention remains the same now as then, the value is the same today as then. The value is that like-minded young people of the Protestant Reformed Churches may come together for fellowship and encouragement. More importantly, the value is that the young people may come together to grow spiritually through the speeches and discussions. And most importantly, the value is that the young people may come together to the glory of their covenant God.
The secretary of that first convention in 1939 offered the following prayer at the conclusion of her report to the Standard Bearer. God answered that prayer, and we pray that He continues to do so not only in 2007, but for generations to come.
May this convention be the forerunner of many more and may the Lord our God continue to bless our Young People’s Societies, so that we may be a rich blessing for our Protestant Reformed Churches, both now and in the future. God be with us till we meet again.
1The information in this article having to do with the 1939 convention comes from the Standard Bearer, volume 15, issue 22, pages 528, 529. The convention was not held for a couple years during World War II, which is why the convention of 2007 is the 67th and not the 69th convention.
Andy is a member of Hudsonville Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan. He wrote this essay for the 2004 Protestant Reformed Scholarship.
Western culture more and more shows itself to be an enemy of marriage and the family. Astronomical divorce rates, remarriage after divorce, homosexual unions and now marriages, and the increasing disregard for the ordinance of marriage by couples who live together and raise children together outside of marriage all contribute to Western culture’s attack on marriage. Mothers who leave their children with grandma or at day-care to pursue a career outside of the home, parents limiting the number of children they have so that there is as little interference as possible with the parents’ interests and activities, and a refusal to discipline children all contribute to Western culture’s attack on the family. Rather than sound the alarm, much of the church world today approves of Western culture’s attack on marriage and the family, even lending its theological arsenal to the culture to defend and advance the attack. In light of these trends, which are not new, the true Church of Jesus Christ has the calling to preach the truth about marriage and the family, to catechize her children and young people in the honorable state of marriage and the blessedness of the man and woman who are given children, and to admonish and discipline those members who live in sin with regard to marriage and the family.
Examples of Western culture’s attack on marriage abound. The most recent attack concerns homosexual marriage. On May 17, 2004, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts legalized homosexual marriage for citizens of the state. As far as Massachusetts is concerned, men may now marry men, and even women may now marry women. What has begun in Massachusetts will soon follow in other states as well; for courts in other states have already been doing everything they can to sanction this abomination.
Western culture is not only busy attacking marriage by sanctioning homosexual unions. Western culture has been busy for years overthrowing the institution of marriage by its promotion of divorce and remarriage. Divorce is allowed for every conceivable reason. And although the process of a divorce still costs a significant amount of money and consumes much time, the divorce rate continues to be high. Some estimates put the divorce rate in the country as high as 50%. Because of the high divorce rate and the significant financial and emotional cost of securing a divorce, some young couples decide to forego marriage altogether. They decide to live together and raise children together as if they were married, but they refuse to enter into the bond of marriage in the first place.
Having undermined marriage, Western culture goes to work on the family. The attack on the family focuses on children and the parents’ attitude toward their children. Children are not viewed by the society as a blessing, but as a nuisance. That society views children as a nuisance comes out in the actions of the parents toward their children and in the advice that the popular culture gives to parents regarding their relation to their children. Parents are encouraged to limit the size of their family by using contraceptives to prevent the conception of too many children. At all costs, time must be left for the parents to pursue their own pleasure and their own leisure without the interference of a houseful of kids.
Western culture also attacks families by taking the mother out of the home. The parenting magazines are full of articles that promote the absence of mother from the home. At worst, these magazines and articles encourage mothers to abandon their children in day-care or at grandmother’s house so that the mothers are free to pursue their careers outside of the home without the nuisance of raising their own children. At best, these magazines and articles present the mother’s abandonment of the home as an acceptable alternative to the mother being a keeper at home.
When Western culture attacks marriage and the family, we are not surprised. The ungodly culture of the world has never been a friend of biblical marriage and the covenant family. Ancient Greece and Rome, with all of their high culture, were full of homosexuality. In some cases, the male children were taken out of the home and away from their parents at an early age for the purpose of training them in the art of war. Scripture tells us of the horrendous destruction of the family by the godless cultures surrounding Israel, which at times was practiced also by Israel. For example, part of the service of the god Molech involved burning one’s own children as they made them “pass through the fire” (cf. II Kings 17:17).
What is more surprising is that the nominal church stands right behind the ungodly culture, encouraging and defending the culture’s destruction of marriage and the family. On every issue, from homosexual marriage to the various ways of viewing children as a nuisance, the apostate and apostatizing churches of the day stand ready to defend the culture.
The biblical and Reformed view of marriage and the family is based on the life of God Himself. God is a covenant God in Himself, living in perfect fellowship as the Triune God. God is the original family, the Father eternally generating the Son in love and the Son eternally being generated by the Father in love. The Father, in His love for the Son, breathes after His Son the Holy Spirit, and the Son does the same to the Father. In His love for Himself, God has determined to reveal Himself in Christ as the covenant God to creatures outside of Himself. The church was eternally chosen by God as the bride of His incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, the whole Reformed view of marriage and the family is founded upon God as the covenant God. That the Reformed view of marriage and the family flows out of the truth of God’s own covenant life in Himself is not strange. The structure of the Belgic Confession indicates that all Reformed doctrine is founded upon the knowledge of God. After a few introductory articles on Scripture, the Belgic Confession begins its treatment of the doctrines of Scripture with the doctrine of the Trinity. So important is the knowledge of God for all of doctrine, that even before its introductory articles on the Word of God, the Belgic Confession begins in Article One with a confession that “there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God.” The knowledge of God is foundational to the knowledge of all the other doctrines of Scripture.
As far as marriage is concerned, marriage is one of the outstanding covenant symbols that points to the relationship between Christ and His church. That marriage is an outstanding covenant symbol of Christ’s marriage to His church is taught by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5. After explaining how a man and a woman ought to live together as husband and wife, the apostle concludes, “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). Therefore, when a Christian man and a Christian woman enter into marriage, they are not primarily entering into an arrangement that suits themselves and their own happiness. Rather, they are entering into a bond that reflects the love and union of Christ and His church.
The rest of the rules regarding marriage flow out of this covenantal truth. Marriage may not be broken by man (with one exception) because Christ does not break His marriage with the church. Only those whom God has designated are candidates for marriage, because marriage was God’s institution as a symbol of His Son’s marriage. Not two men or two women, but one man and one woman are eligible to marry.
With regard to the family and children’s place in the family, God declares that children are a blessing to the godly husband and wife. “Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate” (Psalm 127:3-5). It is folly for the covenant husband and wife to attempt to limit the number of children they have for their own selfish interests. Also, in His wisdom, God has fitted and equipped the mother for the high calling of nurturing those covenant blessings in the home.
The proper view of marriage and the family is being attacked by modem culture and the modern church. But let the true church of Christ protect the proper view of marriage and the family among her own members. The church must preach the truth of marriage in connection with the great symbolism of marriage as the marriage of Christ and the church. The church must catechize her children and young people in how to marry and how to raise a family. The church must also admonish and discipline those members who walk in sin with regard to marriage and the family. By these means, God preserves His covenant people not only in the proper view of marriage and the family, but in a proper walk in marriage and in the family.
Andy is a member of Hudsonville Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan. He wrote this essay for the Protestant Reformed Scholarship.
Prayer is necessary for Christians. Prayer is not merely an option for Christians, to be used or not as they see fit. Rather, the Christian man or woman is under a joyful and blessed obligation to pray. He has been so commanded in I Thessalonians 5:17-18: “Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” Therefore, prayer is a significant part of the Christian’s life. Not only must he pray, but he must do so “without ceasing.” Lord’s Day 45 of the Heidelberg Catechism also indicates the important place of prayer in the Christian’s walk. The Catechism explains that prayer is necessary for Christians in part “because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us….” The Christian shows his thanks to God for God’s marvelous salvation of him in prayer. Prayer is necessary for Christians.
Prayer is necessary for all Christians. It is not only the mature Christians who are commanded to pray without ceasing. It is not only the mature Christians who must show their thankfulness to God chiefly through prayer. Also the newly converted Christians must pray. Also the children of believing parents must pray. All Christians must pray. All Christians must, therefore, learn to pray. The young child, the new convert, and the mature believer all must learn to pray in order that they might heed the command they have to pray and to show their thanksgiving to God. Here, we are especially interested in the covenant children who must learn to pray. How shall we teach them to pray? What role do the church, the home, and the school play in this instruction?
Before anyone undertakes to teach covenant children to pray, he himself must know how to pray. Just as the carpenter who intends to instruct his apprentice in how to build a house must first himself know how to build a house, so also the believer who intends to teach children to pray must first himself know how to pray. Christ instructed us how to pray in Matthew 6:9-13 with the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer is explained for us in Lord’s Days 45-52 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Let every parent, pastor, and teacher study this instruction so that he may know how to instruct children.
Children must learn many things as they learn to pray. This is because God only hears prayers that are proper. Therefore, children must be taught to raise proper prayers to God. Question and Answer 117 of the Catechism teach us what a proper prayer is. “What are the requisites of that prayer, which is acceptable to God, and which he will hear? First, that we from the heart pray to the one true God only, who hath manifested himself in his Word….” In the first place, then, children must learn who God is. They must learn the true God, who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. They must learn to know the true God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture. From their earliest years, they must be taught how God cared for and preserved and regulated the lives of His people in the Old Testament. They must learn God as the Creator in Genesis and as the Redeemer in Exodus. They must learn that He is a God Whose will is sovereign and Who gives His people His law. All of this, they must be taught about God so that they know to Whom they pray.
The Catechism continues explaining what a proper prayer is when it says that prayer is “for all things He hath commanded us to ask of Him.” In other words, prayer is not up to us. Just as we do not decide whether we will pray or not, so we do not decide what it is for which we will pray. God’s will must be the rule in all of our prayer. Therefore, children must be taught that they may not pray for the new bike that they sinfully covet. Rather, they must be taught to pray for God’s kingdom, God’s glory, forgiveness of sins, and the rest. They must be taught to pray in accordance with God’s will.
Children must not only know God in order to pray; they must also know themselves. This, the Catechism declares when it says, “[s]econdly, that we rightly and thoroughly know our need and misery, that so we may deeply humble ourselves in the presence of His divine majesty.” Children must know that they may not come before God in pride, but as creatures, and sinful creatures at that. Even the holy seraphim cover their faces and feet with their wings as they fly about God’s throne crying, “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). Children must be taught that the utmost humility is needed in prayer, for in prayer they draw before God’s throne as His children. Children must be impressed with the fact of their own sin and misery and neediness so that in humility they draw before God’s face.
But the instruction must not stop there, for God’s view of us does not stop at our sins. He sees us in Christ, washed and cleansed and righteous with Christ’s righteousness so that though we come before Him humbly, we come before Him also in confidence. This, the Catechism teaches us when it says, “[T]hirdly, that we be fully persuaded that He, notwithstanding that we are unworthy of it, will, for the sake of Christ our Lord, certainly hear our prayer, as He has promised us in His Word.” Children must be taught that we come before God only in Christ Jesus. They must be taught to say “for Jesus’ sake” in their prayers, so that they are conscious of the only One in Whom they are heard. These are the things that children must be taught as they learn to pray.
The question arises how this instruction must be carried out practically in the home, church, and school. In the home, the children learn from godly parents how to pray. As father opens and closes each meal with prayer, the children listen and learn what petitions are proper in prayer. As mother prays with the children while father is at work, the children learn the humility and reverence with which prayer is conducted. Our covenant homes must be homes of prayer, not only because this is our command, but because our children will learn much in the home about prayer. If family prayer is not a part of the family life at home, prayer will not be important in the eyes of the children of that home. Therefore, there must be a time of day set aside for family devotions, in which the family gathers around God’s Word to be instructed by God and to pray to Him. This is usually done at the evening meal of the family, when all of the family is together. But more and more, our lives become busy. Not only the parents are busy, but the children also have soccer practice, sleepovers, and the like. It is especially difficult to find a time of day when the whole family is assembled as the children learn to drive and desire to spend more time with friends than at home. Godly parents must insist that each day, be it early morning, or the evening meal, or any other time that works, the entire family is gathered together for prayer. Parents can also instruct their children by teaching them simple prayers from their earliest years. Teach them to say “Lord, bless…” and “Lord, we thank Thee…” before and after they eat. Teach them the simple and easy to learn Lord’s Prayer. Teach them a prayer to say before they go to bed at night, so that in this way they memorize prayers and get in the habit of setting aside time each day to pray. Furthermore, parents can teach their children to pray without ceasing by praying with them at all times. Before and after meals, before and after discipline, before leaving on vacation, before bedtime, before the activities of the day begin, and at all other events of the day, prayer can be raised. In this way, the children also learn to see that every single activity of the day is not isolated but has its meaning in God.
The church also teaches children to pray inasmuch as the preaching explains prayer. This is a powerful reason why the church ought to continue to insist on the preaching of the Heidelberg Catechism. There are eight entire Lord’s Days devoted to explaining prayer to God’s people. In this way, the church regularly receives instruction in the important activity of prayer. God’s people are then able to explain to their little ones how to pray. But the children must be taught by the preaching itself. The preaching that reveals God and God’s will, our own sinfulness, and Christ’s covering blood must be applied to the children as well as the adults. In this way, the children will learn from the voice of Christ Himself how it is that they must pray.
The school, also, must teach children how to pray. Prayer must be an integral part of the school day so that children learn to pray among their peers. The teacher serves the same role as the parent in the home in teaching the children to pray in school, instructing them in the proper prayer and in the necessity of prayer. Time must be set aside in the school day as well when all of the students together sit around God’s Word and then pray to Him as the teacher leads in prayer.
When children are taught to pray, God’s name is glorified. This is the motivation for all parents, pastors, and teachers in teaching children to pray. Then, not only from the mouths and hearts of the older sheep, but also from the mouths and hearts of the littlest lambs is God’s name praised. God help us in this task.
Andy is a member of Hudsonville Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan. This article was written as a 2001 Protestant Reformed Scholarship essay.
“We believe that discipline makes children miserable without offering them any genuine benefit, because punishing children whose behavior is out of control actually interferes with their ability to learn self-governance”1
Parents of the world understand that disciplining children can be a difficult and confusing task so they seek out the advice of experts to help them in this job. There are many places to turn for advice because there are nearly as many child-rearing methods as there are doctors and psychologists who study children. Each doctor has his own idea of the most successful way to discipline so it seems there is no end to the advice that parents can get when raising their children. However, most of the advice boils down to the quote given above. The worldly psychologists and doctors come to the conclusion that a child will naturally turn out just fine if only the parents will keep their big, bumbling selves out of the way.
How strange that the people who have devoted their whole lives to studying children can come to the conclusions that children are naturally good and that children aren’t sinners! Even the world’s parents and the world’s teachers see that children are plagued with sin. They see the heavy, rusty, abrasive chains of sin that shackle their children. What is more, they understand that those same chains shackle themselves. So it’s no wonder that they deny such chains exist. To admit that a child is a sinner worthy of death is to admit that they are sinners worthy of death. In order to remain blind to their own sin, they must make themselves blind to the sins of their children. So every time a child sins, the sin is explained away as a mere phase that the child is going through and will soon outgrow. By passing the blame for sin away from children to phases, the world fools itself into thinking that children are free from sin.
This view is really a denial of total depravity. The world maintains that children are born good and it scoffs at those who hold that children are born polluted with original sin. The world scoffs at this confession that we make in the Canons of Dordt:
All men are conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto, and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation (Heads III & IV, Article 3).
Children are born naturally evil, not naturally good! But the world wickedly denies God and His Word and continues to pass the blame for sin away from children and away from themselves.
This takes away any need to discipline as well, since misbehavior and sin are simply indications of a certain phase in the child’s life. If a child throws a tantrum when Mom or Dad says “No,” parents are advised to speak more and more gently until the child is willing to listen to reason. No discipline is to be administered because the tantrum is just a phase and you can’t very well discipline a phase. When the child bears no responsibility for sin, parents are unable to discipline. So parents are advised that their role is to “be there” for their child to help him or her through the phase but not to discipline their child.
This view of worldly psychologists and doctors about how to discipline a child is a plague on worldly parents who take their advice. The result is unruly children who refuse to accept responsibility for any of their misbehaviors and sins. But not only parents trying to raise their children are affected by this view. The church suffers from the same tendency to shy away from discipline. Individuals who live in open and unrepentant sin are allowed to remain members in good standing in the church. This is a plain failure of the office bearers to “watch for the souls” of their congregations. Hebrews 13:17 mentions this watching as the job of the rulers in the church.
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief for that is unprofitable for you.
When the office bearers fail to perform their duty, the blood of the members of the congregation is on the office bearers’ heads (Ezekiel 3:17-19).
Not only do many office bearers today neglect to “watch for the souls” of their congregation by turning a blind eye to sin, but they go a step further by attempting to explain away sins and by making excuses for unrepentant members. The alcoholic and the homosexual are not to blame for their sins because their sins are a result of their genes. The couple living in adultery because of divorce and remarriage is not to blame for their sin because they were the innocent parties. When no one is responsible for their actions, the office bearers can’t exercise discipline in the church. How can a church discipline genes? It can’t, and so the members of the church go on in their unrepentant sins without any hope of being corrected.
Does this sound familiar? The majority of churches today are doing the same thing that the worldly doctors and psychologists do! First, they blame sin on circumstances or phases or a host of other things, and then they deny that discipline is necessary. What a hopeless situation these churches place their members in, because ultimately these churches are saying, “You don’t need Christ!” The members hear that nothing is their fault and they see that they can live uncontested in gross sins. This teaches them to think, “What need is there for the mercy of God in Christ if my sins aren’t my fault anyway? Why should I repent for actions that I can’t control anyway?” What a hopeless life if you’re left to die in sin!
We can avoid falling into this view of discipline only by God’s grace. Our natural inclination is to pass the blame away from ourselves too. Adam tried to blame his sin of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil on Eve, and Eve tried to blame her sin on the Serpent. So we must pray for God’s grace that He make us see our guilt and our wretchedness because of our sins. We must pray for God’s grace that He cleanse us from our sins in the blood of Jesus Christ. And we must pray that if we are yet so stubborn as to remain unrepentant, that God use the means of discipline, administered by our parents and office bearers, to drive us to our knees in repentance. Then we will trust in God’s mercy for forgiveness and we will see discipline as the blessing that it is.
1William Pieper, M.D. and Martha Heineman Pieper, PH.D. Smart Love. Harvard Common Press.
As we examined the first eleven chapters of Genesis last month, we took note of the fact that the book of Genesis is theological, meaning it helps us to grow in our knowledge of God. In addition, we noted that the book of Genesis is historical, meaning that the events chronicled in it are the […]
Who am I? What is my purpose on this earth? Why is everything the way that it is? These are the kinds of questions that often trouble young people as they become more independent from their parents, enter the world of college or career, and make major life decisions such as choosing a spouse, a […]
The book of Proverbs was written by King Solomon to his young adult son. Solomon’s purpose in writing Proverbs was “that the generation to come might know them [God’s wonderful works]…that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Ps. 78:6–7). Throughout the book, Solomon […]
The group of churches that John writes to in this trio of epistles had recently experienced a split because of doctrinal controversy. We do not know the exact content of the error that these false teachers were spreading, but it is apparent from John’s writing that their teaching somehow denied the truth of the incarnation—that […]
This article was originally presented as a speech at a Protestant Reformed mini convention held at Quaker Haven Camp in August 2021. Jael lived during the era of the judges. Deborah the prophetess was the judge who served Israel at the time of Jael. During this time, the Canaanites under the rule of king Jabin […]
Although it’s been a couple of months since we’ve been immersed in news coming from Japan about the 2020/2021 Olympic games, it’s still worth considering how these events are understood in the modern worldview of our country. The “Top Story of the Day” on Monday, August 9 (at least according to my newsfeed), was how […]
One of this year’s “mini conventions” was hosted by Grace and Grandville Protestant Reformed Churches at Quaker Haven Camp. Located just over two hours away in northern Indiana, the camp was a perfect fit for the 120 kids and 15 chaperones who attended. A total of twelve different churches were represented: Byron Center, Faith, First […]
At the point that this edition of Beacon Lights arrives in the homes of our subscribers, most young people in the Protestant Reformed Churches will have been sitting under the catechism instruction of their pastor or elders for more than a month. If our readers are honest, that observation probably comes with a (quiet) sigh […]
The 2021 Tennessee young people’s retreat was held August 9 to 13 by Providence, Hudsonville, Unity, and First (Holland) Protestant Reformed Churches. The retreat took place at Eagle Rock Retreat Center in the city of Tallassee. It was about an eleven-hour drive, give or take a bit due to stops for food and restrooms. Though […]
This article was originally presented as a speech at a Protestant Reformed mini convention held at Quaker Haven Camp in August 2021. The story of Judah is one of the most beautiful in the Bible. We often overlook this history because it is nestled in the middle of the story of Joseph. All the […]