Every pastor knows the value of a good illustration. I have a few in my pedagogical toolbox and I use them regularly. Some are timeless and I’ll likely keep using them as long as I teach and preach. Others made sense to everybody 10-20 years ago, but fewer people are grasping them with the passage of time.
One of my favourite illustrations has to do with baptism and the covenant promises signed and sealed by God in this sacrament. I’ve used it countless times in sermons and catechism lessons. I didn’t come up with it — I don’t even remember where or from whom I first heard it. It’s the illustration of the cheque.
This is the illustration as used in my book I Will Be Your God: An Easy Introduction to the Covenant of Grace:
We must distinguish between extending the promise and receiving what is promised.
An illustration might help. It is not a perfect illustration, but it will get the point across. Imagine if I were to give you a cheque for $10,000. Another name for a cheque is a promissory note. It is a promise from me that you will receive $10,000 from my bank account. But say that you take my cheque and put it in your pocket and then forget about it. Next week you pull those pants on and you put your hand in your pocket and there is a crumpled wad of paper. It has been through the washing machine, so you are not quite sure what it is anymore. You throw it in the garbage.
Did I extend a promise of $10,000? Yes, I wrote the cheque and gave that promissory note to you.
However, did you receive $10,000? No, because you did not take the cheque to the bank and deposit it or cash it. You did not do anything with that cheque and so you missed out on what was promised.
Do you see the difference now? It is the difference between extending a promise and receiving what has been promised. It is the difference between giving a cheque for $10,000 and getting $10,000 in your hand.
That is what happens in the covenant of grace. God proclaims the promises of the covenant to all in the covenant. Every single person — and that needs to be stressed. However, not every single person receives what is promised in the covenant: the blessings. That is because there is a human responsibility within the covenant relationship. Everybody needs to bring the cheque to the bank, so to speak. The big question is how.
Do you see a possible problem this illustration might encounter today?
When we moved here to Australia in 2015, we right away noticed that cheques are almost completely extinct here. It was getting like that in Canada, but Australia is even further along in electronic payments for everything. In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen an Australian bank cheque. Still, I’ve kept on using the cheque illustration, banking on the hope that most people still know what I’m talking about. Most probably do, even the kids in my catechism classes. Yet the illustration is undoubtedly losing its currency.
I’m mentoring a couple of young men from my church in teaching catechism. I have a sabbatical coming up shortly and they’ll be taking over my catechism classes. One of them was teaching on baptism. Afterwards, we got to discussing this illustration and I asked how it could be updated. “A gift card,” was the reply. Hmmm…..
Indeed, if someone gives you a gift card for $10, it’s like a promise for that amount. However, in order to cash in on the value of the gift card, you need to do something with it. If it’s for iTunes, you need to get yourself to the iStore. If you leave that gift card in your pocket and forget about it, it’s given you no benefit. You have to redeem it. Similarly, with God’s covenant promises, you have “to redeem them” in order to receive their value and benefit. The way that’s done is through faith in Jesus Christ. I think that works to bring the illustration into a new era.
As I intimated in the book excerpt above, it’s not a perfect illustration. It can only be taken so far. For example, it doesn’t reckon with the reality that not appropriating the promises for yourself doesn’t leave you in a zero-sum state. If you don’t deposit your cheque or redeem your gift card, you’re just left with nothing. There’s no penalty. But if you neglect or spurn God’s covenant promises, there are serious consequences (e.g. Hebrews 10:26-31).
It’s often said that the best way to teach is to show and not tell. A well-crafted illustration does exactly that. “Well-crafted” means also ensuring our illustrations are relevant and easily grasped.