Covenanting in the New Testament

Samuel B. Wylie, a Pastor in Pennsylvania, preached a sermon on June 27th, 1803. The message was On the Obligation of Covenants.  This is how he defines covenanting: “Vows and covenants are only a bond whereby we solemnly engage to adhere to this unerring rule. We owe a debt of obedience unto God. His law is the rule by which the payment is to be regulated as well as the register wherein the various items of the debt are specified. Our covenants are the bonds wherein we recognize the obligation and solemnly engage to be conscientious in paying it.” No one can deny that covenanting with God took place in the Old Testament (Joshua 24, 21, 24, 25; 2 Chronicles 15; 2 Kings 11:17; 2 Kings 23; 2 Chronicles 34:31-32; Nehemiah 9:32-38) but do we have any reason to believe that the command continues in the New Testament? Samuel B. Wylie strongly believes that it does and he gives us six convincing arguments for the continuity.

“1. It was expressly commanded under the Old Testament dispensation, Psalm 76:11. “Vow, and pay unto the LORD your God.” It behoves those, who deny its obligation in New Testament times, to prove that it was not, in its nature, a moral duty, but belonging to the ceremonial law, or judicial policy of the Jews. But this I presume, will not be easily done. If it was a type, where is its antitype? What peculiarity was there, in the circumstances of the Jews, rendering it expedient for them, to bind themselves to serve the Lord, while Christians are exempted from every such obligation?

It seems to be the bent of the present generation, to get rid of all the obligations contained in the Old Testament. These deistical Christians (if I may be allowed the expression) resemble the children of old, who spoke half in the language of Canaan, and half in the language of Ashdod. But the Old and New Testaments ought to be considered as the two Statute-books of Heaven. All the statutes contained in the former book, remain binding upon the conscience, if not repealed in the latter, either by express precept, necessary deduction, or approved example. Therefore, before the doctrine of covenanting be rejected, it ought to be proved, that it has been abrogated by the authority of that divine Legislator who first appointed it. It would be but reasonable to allow us the same privilege, in quoting the statutes of Heaven, that every lawyer has in referring to acts of Parliament. Though these were made in the reign of Alfred the Great, and thirty folio volumes intervened between that in which these acts are contained, and the one in which those of the present age are recorded, yet, if they are not repealed by some subsequent act, they remain obligatory on the nation. By these the most important suits will be decided. Why should we deny the same authority to the unrepealed statutes of the King of nations?

2. Scripture prophecies evidently referring to New Testament times, mention its approbation, Isaiah 19:18. “In that day,” (viz. the gospel day or New Testament times) “shall five cities in the land of Egypt speak the language of Canaan, and swear to the LORD of hosts.” And in the 21st verse, we are told, “The LORD shall be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the LORD—and shall do sacrifice and oblation.” A collateral or, at least, a consequential part of their character is, that, “they shall vow a vow unto the Lord, and perform it.” This is predicated of them as a national deed, done in a collective, social or corporate capacity. It’s general practice among the Christianized Gentiles, their mutual co-operation in the cause of God, and the smile of divine approbation which they shall enjoy in so doing, are beautifully painted out in the 23, 24, 25 verses. “In that day shall there be a high-way out of Egypt to Assyria; and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria: and the Egyptians shall serve the Assyrians. In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land. Whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance.”

3. The New Testament itself seems to recognize the duty, 2 Cor. 8:1.—The apostle speaks highly to the commendation of the liberality of the church in Macedonia, and their willingness to contribute to the assistance of the poor saints at Jerusalem, and in verse 5th he declares, “And this they did, not as we hoped, but first gave their ownselves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God.” Here we have the language of covenanting, and every reason to believe that the thing existed also. What can be meant by this twofold surrender of themselves, first unto God and afterwards unto the saints? It cannot, as some think, refer to their junction with the church, for they were organized into a church capacity, previously to their solemn surrender. In the 1st verse they are called the churches of Macedonia, which implies their ecclesiastical organization. Neither can this passage, as others allege, refer to the celebration of the sacramental feast. If it did, is it not strange, that this act should exceed the apostles’ hopes and expectations of them? Was it not rather a thing which he had full reason to expect? The neglect of the duty in these circumstances, might hereby have disappointed his expectations. Lately organized in a church state, possessing the glow and ardour, which almost universally animate the hearts of new converts, they would long after, and earnestly desire the sacramental feast. This act, whereby they gave themselves unto God, &c. must therefore, in all probability, be solemn, social covenanting.

4. It was one of the distinguishing privileges of the Jews, to be in covenant with God. “I am married unto you,” saith the Lord. The privileges of the Christian church are increased, and not diminished. The Old Testament dispensation, compared to the New, is denominated a system of “beggarly elements.” In the present system, there is no abridgment of privileges. Every immunity in the old, either continues to exist, or is superadded by another more valuable, and more adapted to the spirituality of the new order of things, in which the shadows have given place to the substance, Heb. 12:18. “For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire,” &c. “But” (verse 22) “ye are come unto mount Sion,” &c.

5. This duty is involved in the church’s relation to God. The language in which he recognizes this relation, includes so much, Hos. 2:19,20. “I will betroth thee unto me,” &c. All real believers are united, by this marriage covenant to Christ, and to one another. They are closely connected with him as their head, and joined to one another as members of the same body, actuated by the same Spirit, Eph. 5:30 & 4:25. Covenanting is only a solemn recognition of this relation, and engagement to evidence this by a life and conversation becoming the gospel. In Isaiah 62:4, a passage which alluded to New Testament times, as is evident from the two verses immediately preceding, where the calling of the Gentiles and the latter-day-glory are clearly intimated, national covenanting is signified under the notion of marriage relation, “Thou shalt no more be termed forsaken,” &c. By the marriage of a land unto God, we are not to understand, that the trees of the forest, the mountains or plains, come under engagements. Surely it must be the nation inhabiting the land. National marriage implies a national deed, whereby the inhabitants, in their national capacity, solemnly covenant unto the Lord.

6. God has on various occasions, signally countenanced his people, in coming under their social engagements. Witness the Reformation in Scotland, during the 16th century. The zealous Scots engaged heartily in this work, renewed their bonds again and again, in adaption to their circumstances, and God wonderfully countenanced their efforts, and crowned them with success, notwithstanding the secret stratagems, and open opposition of the blind votaries of the church of Rome. And in the 17th century, when God began to sift the house of Jacob, he did not suffer the least grain of the wheat to be lost, Amos 9:9. He performed to them his promise, Isaiah 43:4. To the happy experience of the renowned sufferers, he supported them amidst the most excruciating agonies, to which they were subjected by the satellites of the man of sin, to the astonishment even of their persecutors. It was abundantly evident they enjoyed the smiles of the Divine approbation. The Son of God was with them in the fiery furnace. He sent them help out of the sanctuary, and strengthened them from Zion. He remembered their offerings, and accepted their sacrifices; Psalm 20:2,3.”

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