Covenant Renewal Blog Post: 1/3

"As Christians, we belong to an unbroken line of faith going back to the days of Abraham and even before. How important it is, if we want to keep a sense of perspective, to remember our forefathers. I want, over the next few months, to look at some of the lessons our Christian forefathers can teach us – particularly in the area of practical Christian devotion. These are things our fathers and mothers in the faith used to do, but for one reason or another, the modern Church has forgotten all about them. They include devotions such as fasting, meditation and catechisms, and many more. These are lessons which our forefathers in the faith still teach, if we will but listen. Tonight, and over the next couple of weeks, I want to reconnect with our Christian heritage by considering with you a largely forgotten devotional habit known as ‘renewing our covenant with God’.

This is an extract from a sermon that our friend and colleague preached in Glasgow City Free Church, Rev Dr Colin Dow. Six years ago, Dr Dow preached three sermons to his congregation on the topic of 'covenant renewal'. Over the next two days, I will be re-posting these excellent sermons on our blog.

I was so glad that at the beginning of the year we were able to have our first covenant renewal service at Cumbernauld Free Church. I strongly believe we need a recovery of covenant theology in the 21st century Free Church. I also believe that we need to learn and restore many of the practices of our Christian forefathers. There is no better place to begin by renewing your covenant with Him!

Here is his first installement. Enjoy!

A Biblical Introduction to Renewing Our Covenant with God

Read: Joshua 24:1-28

Pupils from 6 Drumchapel Schools recently attended the opening ceremony for a large wooden bench in Garscadden wood. The Antonine Wall Bench was commissioned by Glasgow Greenspace and was created by furniture maker Alan Kain. It was made to celebrate the fact that the Antonine Wall – the Roman wall which stretches between the Forth and Clyde Rivers and goes through Drumchapel, was named a World Heritage Site in 2008. According to a local newspaper, the opening ceremony was not just attended by school pupils, but by one actor dressed up as a Roman Centurion, and another actor dressed up as a Caledonian Warrior. Gathered around this bench, at least in theory, were the past, present and future of the community in North West Glasgow. In particular, the school children got a chance to see what those who first lived at the Antonine Wall wore, and what they did. It reconnected them with their distant past, showed them where they came from, and gave them a taste of how their forefathers lived.

As Christians, we belong to an unbroken line of faith going back to the days of Abraham and even before. How important it is, if we want to keep a sense of perspective, to remember our forefathers. I want, over the next few months, to look at some of the lessons our Christian forefathers can teach us – particularly in the area of practical Christian devotion. These are things our fathers and mothers in the faith used to do, but for one reason or another, the modern Church has forgotten all about them. They include devotions such as fasting, meditation and catechisms, and many more. These are lessons which our forefathers in the faith still teach, if we will but listen. Tonight, and over the next couple of weeks, I want to reconnect with our Christian heritage by considering with you a largely forgotten devotional habit known as ‘renewing our covenant with God’.

The first mention of ‘renewing our covenant with God’ is in a sermon preached by the New England Puritan Jonathan Edwards in 1742. This sermon influenced an English preacher called John Wesley, and shortly afterwards, he produced a short book called, “Directions for Renewing our Covenant with God”. Wesley is the father of Methodism, and some Methodist churches still observe a service of renewal every year. However, I first came across the devotional activity called, “renewing our covenant with God” in the diary of the Scottish Disruption Father Thomas Chalmers, who, in the early years of the 19th Century, kept a prayer diary where, on regular occasions, he took the opportunity to renew his covenant with God. From the mid 19th Century onwards, there seems to be very little reference to the practice of renewing our covenant with God – the Church has forgotten all about it. And so, by way of reconnecting us with our Christian past, I want tonight to introduce the Biblical idea of ‘renewing our covenant with God’, so that we, together and as individuals, may profit from what our forefathers can teach us. I want to do so under two headings: first, an explanation of renewing our covenant with God and secondly, examples of renewing our covenant with God.

[A] An Explanation of Renewing our Covenant with God

The words ‘renewing our covenant’ sound dark, ominous and unexciting – filled with gothic intrigue and mysterious suspense. In reality, renewing our covenant with God is a life-giving, exhilarating and beautiful thing. But what do the words themselves mean, and therefore, what is this thing which our forefathers did?

1. Defining our Covenant with God – although we could be far more complex, at its most basic level, a covenant is an agreement, a compact, a bargain between 2 people. Some examples of covenants include marriage – where 2 people make an agreement before God to live together as husband and wife; employment – where an employee and an employer make an agreement with each other, and citizenship, where a person and a state agree to live with each other according to certain rules and regulations. Basically therefore, a covenant with God is an agreement between Him and Us – a corporate covenant between God and His people or and individual covenant between God and one of His people. What is the agreement we enter into with God? Simply put, the agreement is – He will be our God and we shall be His people; or at an individual level – He will be mine, and I will be His. This covenant forms one of the promises which God made to Abraham – “I will be your God and you shall be my people”. To be in covenant with God means that He has agreed to be our God, and we have agreed to be His people.

2. Entering into Covenant with God – how do we enter into this covenant with God? Is it as simple as a word, or a voice? In 1 Peter 2:4-10, Christians are spoken of as being a chosen people who are the Covenant Possession of God – a royal priesthood, a holy nation. But how did we become the covenant people of God – how did we enter into this agreement with God in the first place? There are two aspects to this entrance highlighted in these verses in 1 Peter 2.

We Received Mercy (vs. 10) – mercy is that attribute of God whereby He does not give us what we deserve. Because of our sins, we deserved condemnation at the hands of a holy God, and yet because of His mercy through Christ Jesus (spoken of earlier in the passage as ‘the living stone’) we, who once were not His people, have become His people. We don’t have to pass an entrance exam to enter into a covenant with God, where our high moral qualifications sway the examiner; rather, we enter as sinners by His mercy shown through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The mercy of God in Christ is our great hope in the covenant between us and God.

We Believed (vs. 7) – although faith itself is not a work, it is the handle by which we lay hold of the mercy of God in Christ. Faith is necessary unto salvation – we must believe in Christ if we are to be the people of God. Peter says as much in vs. 7 where he talks of ‘those who believe’. The people of God are people who have faith in Him. Entering into the covenant and becoming one of His people does not require a high moral standard; it does not require us to be a certain kind of person; all it requires is that we have believe in Jesus Christ and have faith in Him. It does not require strong faith, but even faith as small as a grain of mustard seed will do.

To become God’s people depends wholly on the mercy of God being grasped by the withered hand of faith. Perhaps you’ve thought that only good people are qualified to be God’s people – people of high moral standing; but not you, because you know the darkness of your heart and mind – you’ve done ugly things in your life which you think disqualify you from entrance into the covenant of God. But no – the only qualification necessary for someone to become a Christian is that they are a sinner in need of the mercy of God. And we are all that surely?

3. Renewing our Covenant with God – if, from our side anyway, a covenant with God is an agreement to have Him as our God and for us to be His people – for Him to be mine and me to be His; and if it is entered into through by faith and through the mercy of God in Christ, then to renew our covenant is to renew our determination and commitment to be His and His alone. It is to resolve that we shall not go back but we shall depend more and more upon the mercy of God in Christ. To renew our covenant is to formally re-acknowledge our need of the saving mercy of God and to proclaim our determination to be God’s precious possession with all that goes along with it. To use the words of 1 Peter 2:9, we renew our commitment, by word and work, “to proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”.

One example of a renewed covenant is that of the renewal of vows which sometimes takes place in a marriage. Supposing a couple have been married for a given length of time, they renew their vows to love and cherish one another until death do them part. They renew their commitment to each other. Renewing our covenant with God means renewing our commitment to Him. When you take into account the description Peter gives of God in vs. 9 in terms of His excellencies in calling us from darkness into His marvellous light, you realise that renewing our covenant with God is no dark and sinister thing; not a thing of Shakespeare or Chekhov; but a life-giving devotion, filled with beauty, love and light. When we think of the God whose infinite mercy towards mankind lost was expressed in the death of His Son Jesus, it makes us question why ever we have forgotten our forefather’s devotion to ‘renewing our covenant with God.’

[B] Examples of Renewing our Covenant with God

Although I’ve begun tonight by talking about how our forefathers in the Reformed faith understood the devotion of ‘renewing our covenant with God’; we have to understand that the only reason they engaged in such a devotion was because they saw it written down in black and white in the Bible. We too, in the last analysis, will only renew our covenant with God because we have Biblical examples and a Biblical command to do so. Although there are more, I want to take one example of a renewed covenant – the Old Testament renewal in Joshua 24:1-28.

Joshua 24 is an incredibly important chapter in the storyline of the Bible. It represents the end of the wilderness journey of the people of Israel and the continuance of the occupation of the Promised Land of Canaan. Joshua is Israel’s last link with Israel’s bondage in Egypt and God’s miraculous deliverance of His people– and now, in Chapter 24, he has drawn all his people together to give them one final farewell – a call to arms – to follow the Lord and to renew their covenant to Him. Thinking about the whole topic of renewing our covenant with God, as we pass through Joshua 24 we notice four stages: first, a reminder of God’s salvation; secondly, a call to covenant faithfulness; thirdly, a commitment to follow the Lord and lastly, a witness to the covenant renewal.

a. A Reminder of God’s Salvation – throughout the earlier portions of this chapter – really from vs. 1-13, Joshua delivers God’s message to His people, reminding them of His past dealings with them. He goes all the way back to before Abraham, whom He called from beyond the Euphrates and led him to the land of Canaan. From being an idolater, God made Abraham into one of the outstanding figures of faith in the Bible. God then intervened to miraculously free His people from Egypt – through plagues and the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. He led them through the wilderness and destroyed their enemies before them as they entered into the Promised Land. He saved them from idolatry, He made them into a nation; He saved them from Egypt, He gave them a land of their own. So much so that now, as we read in vs. 13, “you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant.” Israel are here being reminded of all God has done for them and the covenant faithfulness and salvation of God towards them. These past deliverances of God form the basis on which the covenant is renewed.

In the same way, as Christians we look back not just to Abraham and Joshua – but to Jesus Christ – His loving incarnation; His perfect life; His atoning death; His victorious resurrection; His joyful exaltation and His generous gift of the Holy Spirit. In His mercy, He has taken us from a fearful pit and from the miry clay, and He has set our feet upon a rock; He has saved us. And so, as we contemplate renewing our covenant with God, we think of all He has blessed us with in Christ Jesus. God has made us New Creations in Christ Jesus – the old has gone, the new has come. By grace, we are not perfect, but we are not what we once were. These blessings form the bedrock of our decision to renew our commitment to Him.

b. A Call to Covenant Faithfulness – in vs. 14-15, through Joshua, the Lord calls His people to serve Him in sincerity and faithfulness. This means that they are to forsake and abandon the gods which their fathers served both before Abraham was called to follow the Lord, and the gods their people served in Egypt and in the wilderness. The Israelites must not return to the ugliness of the scene at the foot of Mount Sinai, when they worshipped the golden calf and attributed to it those miracles God Himself had done. They must abandon all other gods and serve only the Lord. God is committed to being their God – and He has faithfully kept His side of the bargain; and now the people must be committed to being God’s people – and His alone. No syncretism or pluralism allowed here – they must serve the Lord in sincerity – that is to say in oneness of heart; with no admixture or impurity – not saying that they follow the Lord whilst at the same time worshipping Baal.

God calls His people then, and now, to covenant faithfulness – to follow Him in sincerity and wholeheartedness – to take our commitment to Him seriously and not to give space in our hearts to other gods. The ‘other gods’ we serve are less visible than those the Israelites bowed down to. And yet it is just as abhorrent to serve them as it is to bow down to a golden calf. The ‘other gods’ we serve are the agendas of the world – the things the world goes after – prosperity, popularity, happiness, security, career, reputation, moral respectability – if we live our lives to gain these things; if we make them our aim and goal in all we do – then we have made an idol of them and for all our holy speak, we are not being sincere in our faith. When we ask ourselves the question, “what is my chief end”, if my answer is “to make as much money as I can”, or “to be as happy as I can” or “to rise as high in my career as I can” or “to have others think I’m great”, then we have idols in our hearts other than God. But God calls us to get rid of them – to abandon them. These are the idols we served before we came to know Christ – these are the things we lived for before we became aware of Christ’s saving love for us and His wonderful forgiveness available to all men. God calls us then to covenant faithfulness – to worship Him alone in our hearts and to wholeheartedly serve Him. There is no balance here – it’s all for Jesus or its nothing for Jesus. Which is it for you tonight? All, or nothing? And so, when we are renewing our covenant with God, we are renewing our commitment to follow God and Him alone and to abandon idols in whatever form we find them.

c. A Commitment to Follow the Lord – in vs. 16-21, having been given the choice of covenant renewal or covenant abandonment – or, to put it another way, the choice of following the Lord in sincerity of heart, or following idols and the false gods their fathers followed – as one, the people answer in vs. 21, “we will serve the Lord.” They have recognised the miraculous ways in which God has saved and protected them, and they have understood the cost of following the Lord – but given these things, they want to renew their covenant with Him. They are renewing the vows godly forefathers of theirs made to serve the Lord and Him only. They are deciding, once again, to go God’s way and to follow Him – deciding to put away their idols and in sincerity and faithfulness, worship God alone.

There is a sense in which, as we saw earlier on, the decision we once made to follow Jesus is binding upon us for the rest of our lives. But there is another sense in which every day, we need to renew our commitment to following Jesus Christ as Lord. We need to recommit ourselves to walking in His paths – to putting off the works of the flesh and to putting on the works of the Holy Spirit – to saying no to selfishness, godlessness and idolatry, and to saying yes to self-control, righteousness and godliness. And so, we will renew our covenant with God to abandon our own idols, and to follow Him and Him alone – to listen to Him in His Word and to have glorifying and enjoying Him as our chief end in life. We make all kinds of different decisions every day – some of which are fairly major. But now, will we make this decision – to renew our commitment to God; in view of the saving work of Christ Jesus, are we ready to renew our covenant?

d. A Witness to the Covenant Renewal – in the last few verses of Joshua 24:1-28, we read of two witnesses to the covenant renewal – two witnesses which remember the choice which the Israelites made. In vs. 22, the people themselves are the witnesses. They know the promises they have made – to put away their idols and foreign gods and to serve the Lord alone. If they should break the covenant with God, then they are not only acting faithlessly to Him, but to themselves – for they themselves are the witnesses of their promise. You remember your first commitment to Christ, you perhaps also remember some of the other times in your life when you have renewed your commitment to Him. If you should go back to the way you were before you became a Christian – back to worshipping the gods of materialism, the world and the flesh – then not only are your breaking your promise to Christ, you are breaking the promise to yourself – you are lying to yourself and deceiving yourself – you are dishonouring yourself for you are a witness to your covenant with Jesus. Secondly, in vs. 26, having written these words down in the book of the law, Joshua sets up a stone to act as a witness – so that whenever the people see the stone, they remember the covenant they renewed with their God. What are your stones? Perhaps the Lord’s Table; perhaps a Sunday service; perhaps someone you know whom, when you speak to them, reminds you of times when you were more zealous after Christ. These are your stones of Shechem – reminding you of close, intimate times of fellowship with Christ and previous decisions made to follow Him and Him only.

Are you ready to renew your covenant with God? Are you ready to recommit yourself to following Christ? Are you ready to trust in the work of the Holy Spirit in your life? We know the grandeur and the wonder of His salvation on our behalf; we have tasted His love and we know that His purposes for us are good – are you ready to answer the question Joshua sets for you in vs. 15 when he says, “choose this day who you will serve”? Reconnect with your past and with the fathers of the Church, and renew your commitment to serving Christ and Him alone.

But perhaps you haven’t even started following Jesus yet. Maybe you’ve never taken that decision to accept His loving salvation. The question Joshua asks rings through the centuries and millennia right down into your ears now demanding, “choose this day whom you will serve.” Who will you serve? Jesus or the idols? I urge you not to leave this building without saying, “we will serve the Lord, for He is our God.” AMEN