Chapter 11: The Historical Church Covenant

Ray Sutton

Narrated By: Devan Lindsey
Book: That You May Prosper


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Chapter Text

Like the family, the Church has a covenantal character to it. Church covenants are expressed in many forms. Most of them are too long to be reproduced in this chapter. But there is one place to find the essence of a Church covenant: in membership and baptismal vows.

The following sample is from the baptismal vows of the Episcopalian Church and dates back several centuries, parts of it all the way back to the early Church. They date from a period in which the Episcopalian Church was more orthodox than at present, although much renewal is presently in progress in various Episcopal Church spin-off congregations and movements. These vows represent an excellent summary of a Church covenant. They are the baptismal vows taken at the point of Church membership.

Church Covenant

Baptismal and Membership Vows

Minister: Dost thou renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the sinful desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them?

Answer: I renounce them all; and, by God’s help, will endeavor not to follow, nor be led by them.

Minister: Dost thou believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God?

Answer: I do.

Minister: Dost thou accept him, and desire to follow him as thy Savior

and Lord?

Answer: I do.

Minister: Dost thou believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith, as contained in the Apostles’ Creed?

Answer: I do.

Minister: Wilt thou be baptized in this Faith?

Answer: That is my desire.

Minister: Wilt thou then obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of thy life?

Answer: I will, by God’s help.

In this chapter, I want to use the same five-fold structure of the covenant. The basic themes are found.

True Transcendence

Dost thou accept him, and desire to follow him as thy Savior and Lord?

The church covenant is transcendent. The candidate confesses Christ as Savior and Lord. God’s sovereignty is part of confessing Christ. In Peter’s famous sermon at Pentecost, he said, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ-this Jesus Whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). The word “Lord” means Sovereign. There is no “chance” or “contingency” in God’s program. If God is not sovereign, then man or something else is. If He is not 100% sovereign, then God is not God. And this is the whole point. To confess Christ as God means Christ is sovereign, the controller of all things.

The transcendent character of the Church covenant means the Church is not infallible. This was Martin Luther’s great point. He argued that the Bible is the “depository of truth.” The Roman Catholic Church had held that the Church itself is the depository. What is the difference? If the Church is the depository of truth, then its interpretations of the Bible are infallible and cannot be contradicted. This places man above the Bible and confuses revelation with interpretation. It also creates a monopoly of interpretation.

The covenant also has an immanent sense. God is not only transcendent, but He is also present: at baptism. These vows are simultaneously an entrance into the Kingdom of God and the Church. Christ made this kind of association when he spoke to Peter. He said,

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock [Christ] I will build My Church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:18-19).

Christ’s words give unusual authority to the Church. He brings together His presence and this particular institution (Matt. 28:18). Christ is with the Church. To go against the Church is to go against Christ. Saul of Tarsus found this out when he persecuted the Church. Christ stopped him on the road to Damascus, and He said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me” (Acts 9:4). So, we must make a distinction between Christ and the Church, but we must also be careful not to separate Christ’s presence from it. The Church is Christ’s priesthood that represents Him on earth.


Wilt thou be baptized in this faith?

The church is the agent that baptizes “into the faith.” As such, the church is by definition a hierarchy, meaning authority. There can be no law without some kind of institutional authority to apply it. Holiness cannot take place in a vacuum. It can only come about in the context of a lawfully constituted authority. To say one is committed to Christ, therefore, and not be a member of a local Church, is a contradiction to his baptism. It is a contradiction to the Christian faith.

Why? Everyone should be accountable. If one does not have real accountability to the Body of Christ, then he is symbolically and covenantally autonomous. Not only is this extremely dangerous to one’s spiritual health, but it implicitly destroys the Church. To be accountable means to be in submission to the Church, and this means that one can be pursued in a process of discipline, as in Matthew 18:15. If one is not a member of a Church, then he cannot be disciplined. He cannot be excommunicated. How can a person be excommunicated from something that he is not a member of?

Here is the real practical value of a church roll. There is a Church roll in heaven (Rev. 13:8; 17:8). Lf the Church has power to bind and loose on earth, and if this implements what has already been established in heaven, then a church roll is a picture of the roll in heaven. Jesus’ words quoted above indicate this. A church roll is a simple way to maintain accountability. Just because churches abuse their rolls does not remove the fact that a roll is necessary to accomplish true discipline. The abuse does not negate the use.

Not only should the members be accountable, but so should the officers. The Biblical system is that everyone is accountable. Although it takes more to bring a charge against an elder, he should still be accountable to a system of discipline. No one should be above the law. I began this section saying that members are to obey their leaders. Does this mean the leaders can tell members to do “anything”?

This brings us to the next section.


Wilt thou then obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments?

The covenant is ethical. The baptismal candidate commits to the Lord’s “will and commandments.” These are the stipulations and laws of the Bible. The elders and/or officers may not ask the people to do anything and everything. They may only command what is stated in the Bible. An elder, for example, may not tell his congregation that it may not ride bicycles. He does not have authority to do so because the Bible does not forbid such activity. His power is limited to the ethical, and only the ethics expressed in the Bible. When it comes to the commandments of the Bible, however, the officers have special authority to apply them.

The Church covenant is ethical in character. It is not magical. The will of God is expressly laid out in the Bible. Any time the will of the Lord is sought, the ethical character of the covenant should be kept in mind. We use our same “totem pole” diagram.








In this particular diagram, I have placed the elder, or officer, in the “middle” position. Actually, this is a picture of the Roman Catholic Church. Its officers are believed to be “infused” with the special “being” of God. There is a connection between the “Being” of God and the “being” of man. It is not based on an ethical relationship, the covenant. The “bond” is magical. In the Roman Catholic Church, it is believed that this “being” of God is transferred to communion. It even physically changes the substance of the bread and the wine into Jesus (transubstantiation).

The Bible teaches that the officers do represent and even speak for the people. They speak for God to the people. But they do not have part of God in them. They are distinct from Him. Consequently, they do not have a “mysterious” relationship to God. Every believer has direct access to Him because every believer shares in the same covenant. The members also have a covenantal bond to their leaders. They are responsible to obey them, but these men have limits on their powers and abilities because they are not God. If a leader is connected to God in his “being,” then he shares in Divinity. This makes him the same as God! He can speak as God! Only the Word of God, the Bible, speaks in this authoritative manner. The “words” of the preacher are different. The Word of God should be distinguished from his “personal” opinions.

These are some of the matters effected by an ethical understanding of the covenant. It places authority and leadership in the proper light. It gives leadership a high place of authority, but not so high that it becomes “Godlike.”


Dost thou renounce the devil?

The candidate passes judgment on the devil. As he judges, however, so is he judged. Should he ever leave the covenant, all that he has judged will judge him. Satan, the world, and the flesh always wait for the candidate to fall, so that they can return the judgment by killing him.

Also, the questions preceded baptism. Christian baptism identifies one with Christ’s baptism. The Gospel of Mark asks us:

”Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to Him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” (Mark 10:38-39).

The “cup” and “baptism” that belonged to Christ were manifested in His death on the Cross. Baptism unites a person with this death so that the recipient enters a symbolic death. This death is not merely a symbol, however; it is covenantal. In saving a person, God legally declares the “old man” dead; He legally declares the regenerate person a new creature. Baptism is the Church’s institutional ratification of what God has declared. This places a seal on the man’s faith, bringing him under the covenant’s sanctions of cursing and blessing. This is judgment. It begins the Christian walk. Judgment is a way of life for a church member.

Christians do not normally think of the Church as a place of judgment. In fact, some “Christians” pride themselves in telling other Christians not “to judge one another.” But the Apostle Paul says Christians are the ‘judges” of the world (I Cor. 6:2-3). Christians are supposed to judge. They judge because they have met judgment in Christ and are part of bringing that judgment to the rest of the world.

What the ‘judge not” passage in Matthew 7:1 says is that we are not to judge with judgment that we do not want to receive.

Do not judge lest you be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you (Matt. 7:1-2).

This means that we are supposed to judge with the judgment we want to receive: God’s righteous judgment. Thus, if we want to be judged fairly, we must judge fairly. If we choose not to judge, then we will be judged by some other judgment. There is no neutrality possible: not giving judgment is the same as providing a sanction for what is going on. When the old woman is mugged by some hoodlum and has her purse stolen, the jury must decide: Is the hoodlum guilty or innocent? The jury must judge. To seek to avoid making a judgment grants the hoodlum the purse. To say nothing in the face of evil is to condone evil institutionally. This is precisely what the ‘judge not” antinomians are doing: condoning evil in every area of life.

Since there are dual sanctions to the covenant, blessing and cursing, there are two kinds of judgment that God brings. There is judgment unto life and judgment unto death. Christians are judged to life. But they are still judged. Christians are not afraid to face judgment. The whole point of facing Christ is that there is no fear in facing other judgments. What “other” judgments can be worse than facing Christ? “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). When the new member answered the questions above, he was entering the judgment of Christ. It was believed that resurrection would occur. This was only the beginning.

During his life, the church member will face the judgment of the Word of God many times over, each time to be resurrected to newer life. And, in the end, he will pass through God’s fiery Judgment Day to the final Resurrection. This is a Church covenant that is judicial.


Dost thou believe in the Articles of the Christian faith, as contained in the Apostles’ Creed?

Perhaps the reader notices that one of the questions is, “Dost thou believe in the Articles of the Christian faith, as contained in the Apostles’ Creed?” This question concerns legitimacy. The Apostles’ Creed is made part of the church covenant because it legitimatizes church membership.

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth;

And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried: he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic (universal) church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

The Apostles’ Creed is one of the earliest confessions of the historic Christian Church. It is a creed. A creed is simply what the Church believes. It should be based on the Bible. If the statement is true to Scripture, it is a confession of faith. The issue is not whether a person has a creed – everyone does – but “Does the creed conform to the Word of God?”

Creeds are inescapable. There is no such thing as a “creedless” person or church. The word itself comes from the Latin “credo” and means “I believe.” Everyone has an interpretation of the Bible, and every church has a creed. Creeds can be found in such places as doctrinal statements, hymns, sunday school material, and the preacher’s sermons. A church may not actually say, “This is where our creed is located,” but these are the places where one finds out what a church “believes.”

When a church professes to have no creed, it has opened itself up to both tyranny and liberalism. Tyranny, because the preacher or controlling group can say whatever he or they want, interpreting the Bible any way that furthers the interests of the controllers. It becomes difficult for anyone outside the inner circle to dislodge them. The struggles for control over the Church become power struggles, and liberals (who profess no creeds) are usually better at political infighting than orthodox Christians are. The liberal’s religion is power religion: salvation by power, salvation by law. He lives by politics and Roberts Rules of Order; the Christian lives by the Bible and the Holy Spirit. Creedless churches, if they are systematic in their confession of creedlessness, have opened themselves to those who profess the error of relativism and who exercise authoritarian power.

Why is this ancient confession important today? It is the statement of the faith of the historic Church. All of the basic “fundamentals” are expressed: the Trinity, Creation, the Deity of Christ, the historic death and resurrection of Christ, His bodily return and judgment of the world, baptism, forgiveness, and the Church. If a person does not believe these, he is not a Christian. If a church is not willing to confess these points, it is not part of the historic faith.

So what? What is so important about being part of the historic church? The Church is bigger than anyone local church, and bigger than the present. It grows out of the past and into the future. It had a Founder; it has members; it will have heirs. The legitimate ones are those who profess the “true” Christian faith. Paul says:

If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to all godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing (I Tim. 6:3-4).

To submit to the historic confessions of the Church is to submit to the “doctrine.” Here is how the early Church defeated the cults. The battle the modern Church is facing cannot be won without sound doctrine. The modern Church will have to regain a sense of history, particularly its own. It will have to be legitimatized by joining the confession of the Church of all ages. The very point of joining the Church is to join not just a local church, but the Church that has gone on for centuries. So, the Church covenant reflects a statement of who qualifies to be a legitimate heir of the faith.

This is the final aspect of covenant. For a covenant to be transferred, the heirs have to be legitimate. The true covenant does not get handed down to “bastards.” To legitimatize the faith on the basis of doctrine and practice means there must be some kind of discipline. It is not enough to just join the Church, and then live like “hell” Take the modernist churches as an example. They no longer believe in the fundamentals of the faith; they have denied their confession. So, their confession condemns them. There is no escape from the covenant: blessing or cursing. Any church that professes a Christian creed which its members in fact do not believe has become a spiritual bastard. So has any denomination that denies the faith that has been handed down from the Apostles.

But we should make one final point about legitimacy. Although the “mainline” churches have all but collapsed theologically, they have survived institutionally for centuries. How? It is the issue of legitimacy. If one is a legitimate heir of the Christian faith, then he will perpetuate the faith one more generation. Here is where confessionalism comes in. If people do not know what it is they are supposed to transfer to the next generation, then the faith will be lost in that particular church.

This is why the confessional churches have been the biggest, strongest, and most influential churches in history. To be sure, some of them are falling by the wayside, because they have illegitimated themselves by denying the historic faith. So it is fine to criticize an apostate church. But the critic needs to ask, ”Am I producing a church that will even rise to the heights of influence of the church I’m criticizing?” Any church that wants to perpetuate itself over the ages, and even climb to the former glory of such churches as the Episcopalian Church, will have to be confessional.


We have examined a church covenant. There is no doubt that it is a covenant. It fits the qualifications: true transcendence, hierarchy, ethics, sanctions, and continuity. Not all church covenants are this complete. I have tried to take the “best” example that I could find. But even a defective covenant would prove my point. What is it? All arrangements between groups of people are based on some sort of covenantal model: contracts, etc. To the extent their covenant conforms to the prototype of all covenants, the Biblical covenant, the bond they established will be successful. So, even a bad covenant proves the covenantal nature of man’s dealings.

Family and Church follow the pattern of the covenant. What about the State? Is there a Biblical guide to determine whether it, too, should be organized by the covenant? Are there any historic examples? Let us begin with the Biblical and then make our way to the historical.