Contours of God’s Covenant — An Unofficial Exposition of the URCNA (1999)

15 January 2010 by Wes Bredenhof

While digging through some old issues of Clarion, I came across an article published by the URCNA Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity.  The article appeared in the August 6, 1999 issue of Clarion.  There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this article, but this especially caught my attention:

Frequently the Reformed churches have used the wording “the covenant of works” as applying before man’s fall into sin, and “the covenant of grace” referring to God’s gracious and just deeds and promises after and in response to the fall.  This bi-focused view of God’s relationship with his creature is questionable.  The use of the former in particular has limitations as to its usefulness, since the Bible does not suggest nor employ the wording.  We believe that the simple designation “God’s covenant” is preferable.

The Scriptures teach that in His covenant the Creator establishes a relationship of friendship with His creature man, requiring and demanding obedience and love in response.  The Garden of Eden was a setting designed by the LORD God (notice the consistent use of the covenant Name in Genesis 2) to demonstrate the Creator’s love for the world and to test man’s response to that love and friendship.  The ingredients of the covenant are sharply delineated by God, as the trees, the task, the commandment, and the punishment are poignant commentaries of the LORD’s love and justice. (375-76)

Later on in the same issue of Clarion, there is an article entitled, “Points of Agreement Between Canadian Reformed and United Reformed Representatives.”  Here’s what they agreed upon with regards to the covenant:

The covenant is a relationship between God and man established by God at the time of his creation of Adam and Eve.  It is one sided in origin and two sided in existence.  God established it to live in fellowship with man and show him his love and favour, and to receive from man love, obedience, trust, and honour.  When man broke this covenant of favour by his rebellion and fall into sin, God in his grace maintained this relationship and promised to redeem man by the sacrifice of his Son, the seed of the woman in its deepest sense.  The Lord makes this covenant of grace with the believers and their offspring.

The promises of the covenant together with the demand to repent from sin and believe the promises must be proclaimed throughout all the world.  All who are grafted into the covenant are called to repent and believe and receive Jesus Christ as their Saviour and so share in the fullness of its promises and blessings.  The death of Christ on the cross represents the fulfilment of the terms of the old covenant.  Therefore in the new dispensation of the covenant of grace in Jesus Christ, believers and their seed are called by the power of God to live in true thankfulness and live according to all the commandments of God.

In an obedient response to the covenant obligations the believers are called to gather together in unity with Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, and in unity of faith with the church of all ages.  These gatherings are found where the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed in purity, where the sacraments are administered in purity, and where church discipline is exercised for the correcting and punishing of sins.  All people belonging to God’s covenant of grace are called and obliged to join the church and unite with it, maintaining the unity of the church.  The fullness of this covenant takes place at the consummation of all things when the one triune God will live with his chosen people in perfect love and fellowship through all eternity. (379)

That was 1999, only eleven years ago.  There seemed to be substantial agreement at that time between the URCNA and CanRC on these thorny issues.  George van Popta, the managing editor of Clarion at the time, even wrote, “With thanks to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, we note the unanimity that exists between the brothers on the doctrines of the church and of the covenant.”  How did we get from there to here?  And yes, I am aware that the statements quoted above were controversial in the URCNA in the early years of the new millennium.

6 responses to “Contours of God’s Covenant — An Unofficial Exposition of the URCNA (1999)”

  1. Fascinating! Thanks for high-lighting the article.

  2. Hi Wes,

    You probably know this, but for those who might not:

    The CERCU published this material without asking any of the rest of us about it. It was actions such as this that cause Classis SWUS to send an overture to Synod Escondido complaining about the methods of the committee and theological claims made by the committee on behalf of the URCs.

    We’ve come to where we are now because our CERCU did not facilitrate adequately discussion within the URCs and with the CanRCs about these very important issues. This is why two URCNA classes have sent questions to the CanRC committee and why I posted Questions for the CanRCs on the HB.

    • Hi Scott,

      Thank you for your response. This does raise a couple of interesting points:

      1. In the early years of the new millennium, a Classis SWUS asked a URC synod (2001) to reign in CERCU for speaking on behalf of the URCNA on questions of covenant theology even in an “unofficial” capacity. Yet, some years later, another Classis SWUS drafts questions on covenant theology and justification and expects the CanRC CPEU to come with a response. While the situations are not exactly comparable, there is some irony there.

      2. It also raises the question of what lives theologically within the URCNA. Obviously, most of the men who wrote those items are still ministers in good standing in the URCNA and I don’t think their views have changed. Is there room in the URCNA for these understandings of covenant theology? Apparently there is, but should there be? If not, you not only have to put the brakes on the merger process with the CanRC, you’ll also have to purge out the old leaven from within.

      • And it’s doubly ironic that, after objecting to the work of a committee mandated by synod, one man would propose to speak on behalf of the URCNA and direct questions at the CanRC rather than going through the legitimate ecclesiastical channels.

      • Hi Wes,

        Well, in the case of the classical questions to the CanRCs I understand that the committees were to put the questions to the churches for response, which, I understand, never happened. In the case of the URCNA CERCU, they presumed not only to give the impression that all the URCs were more or less Schilderite but they did so without consulting the churches. So, the connection, as I see it, in both cases, is that committees did not do what they ought: talk to the churches.

        As to whether there is room in the URCs for the views expressed in the ’99 report, well, I think the position of the URCs is clearer since Synods 2004 and 2007. That’s how the churches understand the Scriptures and the standards. Does every single minister/elder agree? No, but the composition of CERCU has changed considerably in 10 years.

  3. Gull,

    As to the propriety of “one man” (a minister in the URCNAs) asking questions, well, our CERCU asked for input.

    It did provoke a good and helpful discussion in which there was some clarification gained.

    Why is it wrong for a minister to express publicly questions he has about the history and theology of a sister federation?

Leave a Reply