On Covenants and Those Who Sing Them
At Grace Church, we see the great value in, not only holding to a confession of faith, but also giving ourselves to a church covenant.
Mark Dever, in his great new book (with Paul Alexander), The Deliberate Church, says this about church covenants:
As mentioned before, a church covenant answers the question, How do we commit to living together? The form of the covenant is the way we express our commitment. The content of the covenant is the way we understand our commitment. Our church here in Washington, D.C., was founded with such a covenant, and the original still hangs framed in our main meeting hall, complete with the original signatures from 1878.
Requiring people to sign a church covenant lets them know that they will be expected not only to believe the statement of faith, but to live it. It also lets them know how they will be expected to live it out-- i.e., in clear ways that build up the corporate body and enhance the corporate testimony of the church in the community. Implementing a church covenant helps to correct the misperception that members can live in either isolated individualism or unrepented sin and still be members in good standing. It provides a biblical standard of behavior for members, notifying them of what it means to be a member of the local church, and reminding them of the obligations that membership entails for our lifestyles and interactions with each other. Church covenants make membership meaningful because they clarify the spiritual and relational commitments that membership signifies. Clarifying the commitments of membership promotes the health of the local church because it keeps nominalism at bay and keeps us accountable to growing in real Christian piety. And the more we grow in true Christian holiness and love, the more evidence we have that we are indeed His disciples (Dever and Alexander, 62).
Very well put! In agreeing to a church covenant, we agree to "be the church" one to another in a certain fashion. It propels us toward being the type of community of faith that draws people to the love of Christ. It gives us a standard to which we can hold one another, expecting the loving discipline of the church when we go astray. We could say that confessions of faith guard the church's doctrine, while church covenants guard the church's practice (although there is obvious overlap between the two). More and more churches across America are returning to this wise, old practice of using church covenants. Grace Church is one of them.
To sign a covenant, however, and then forget it is obviously not to be preferred. Dever advocates in his book that churches regularly read their covenant vows to one another. He suggests reading the covenant when the body gathers to take the Lord's Supper. Probably about a year ago, however, I had another idea.
Rich Mullins once spoke of the power of great hymns. He said in an interview, something like, "How many of Wesley's sermons can you name? But if I asked you to list some of Wesley's hymns, you could probably name many!" He went on to argue for the enduring benefit of great, well-written hymns.
Why are hymns so powerful? I say, because, first, they help us emotionally respond to deep, theological concepts. We can read great truths, and that is good. But to sing those truths is greater. Hymns enable to us to connect our heads and hearts. They help us to exult in those truths. They assist us in reveling in the truths of the gospel. Great hymns can help us engage our hearts, and not just our minds, in worship.
Second, hymns help us remember great truths. Singing rich theological concepts helps cement them in our brains. Coupling great words with great music can result in great retention. This is why I am so delighted that our son Hadley is already singing songs like "Amazing Grace" and "Holy, Holy, Holy." As he begins to understand those concepts, I want him to remember them, and then eventually sing them with deep praise for the Lord.
What does this have to do with church covenants? Perhaps about a year ago, I approached a good friend, Eric Schumacher, about composing a church covenant in verse form that could be sung by our congregation. How great it would be, I thought, to have a covenant, composed in verse form and wedded with great music, indelibly written upon our hearts!
Eric accepted my request, and I am delighted. The pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Keokuk, Iowa, he is not only a gifted preacher, but a gifted hymnwriter. I am amazed at the way God has gifted him in taking great truths and putting them in verse form.
Recently Eric began collaborating with another friend of mine, David Ward, who hosts ReformedPraise.org. I encourage you to check out their first piece together, "There Is No Greater Portrait." In addition, Eric has numerous hymns posted at CyberHymnal.org. Please pray for Eric, asking God to use him greatly in giving His church great hymns.
Below is "Covenant Song." I told Eric recently that, as a sinner, I'm simultaneously excited and bummed. I love the song! However, it's so good that I know we won't be the only church to use it. Of course, that's selfish, and I want many local churches to benefit from this great work. I can just be happy enough knowing that we were the first to use it! A great benefit of the song is that it can be song to a great Indelible Grace tune, "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," by Kevin Twit.
Brought by God the Holy Spirit to trust Jesus Christ the Son,
We, the church of God the Father, as his people join as one.
Having been, our faith professing, baptized in the Triune name,
We, in joy and holy earnest, do this covenant now proclaim.
We will work with love and patience for the Spirit’s bond of peace.
As we pray, we will endeavor to see holiness increase.
We will warn, exhort, encourage, as occasion may require.
We will seek to love each other, ever quick to reconcile.
We will not forsake assembling, nor neglect to serve in prayer.
We will seek to teach the gospel to those God puts in our care.
We will bear each other’s burdens and in sorrow share our tears.
We will celebrate God’s blessings, sharing in each other’s cheer.
We will strive to walk in newness, free from worldly lust and sin,
As proclaimed in our immersion, “Dead to sin and raised with Him!”
We, our presence, gifts and service, do to this church now commit.
We will keep her faith and practice; to her discipline submit.
Should the Lord be pleased to move us, we will seek to quickly find
An assembly of like doctrine with a covenant of like kind.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus with God’s love upon us fall;
May the Spirit’s sweet communion be forever with us all.
May God the Father write these words of covenant commitment to one another on our hearts, Grace Church!