Chapter 4: Sanctions

Ray Sutton

Narrated By: Devan Lindsey
Book: That You May Prosper


Subscribe to the Audiobook

iTunes Spotify RSS Feed

Chapter Text

D: Fourth Point of Covenantalism

(Deuteronomy 27-30)

One night God came to Abraham. It was time to cut a covenant.

Many years before this interrupted evening, God had promised him that he would be the father of many nations (Gen. 12:1-3). But so far, he had only wandered around the known world finding out how great the other rulers were!

This evening was different though. God came to him and told him to look into the heavens and count the number of stars (Gen. 15:5). Why? God wanted Abraham to see how large a number of descendants he would have. To many men, this exercise would have seemed futile, since his wife was much too old to bear children. But he was not just any man.

He believed the Lord (Gen. 15:6).

Faith, however, does not rule out the possibility of questions. Abraham asked God how he could know that he would really be given the land promised to him. God answered his question by cutting a covenant (Gen. 15:18). To form this covenantal alliance, a standard procedure was used.

Abraham was instructed to bring five different types of animals: a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon. They were cut in half, and the halves being separated, were placed in front of Abraham. Normally, Abraham would have passed between the animals, and burned them with fire to seal the covenant. By this time, however, a day had gone by and the sun was about to set. God made Abraham fall asleep, and He passed between the animals, burning them with fire.[1] He takes an oath, sanctioning Himself for Abraham’s benefit. Here are the ingredients of the next principle of covenantalism, the actual process of ratification. To cut a covenant, three elements are necessary: sanctions, oath, and witnesses.

All of these elements are present in the fourth section of Deuteronomy (27-30). Israel accepted the sanctions of blessing and cursing by dividing into two groups on Mt. Gerizim (blessing) and Mt. Ebal (cursing). They received the sanctions by sacred oath, saying “amen” to the curses of the covenant. Finally, the witnesses of “heaven and earth” verified the authenticity of the ceremony. This momentous occasion was the actual ratification of the covenant.

Let us consider each aspect of this process, beginning with sanctions.

  1. Sanctions (Deut. 27-30)

First, the sanctions are blessing and cursing. Blessing always has to do with the reception of inheritance (Gen. 48:1-22). This inheritance is personal and cultural, everything from holiness to financial and civilizational prosperity (Deut. 28:1-14). The most common image of blessing is a garden. The Bible begins and ends in one. Jesus was taken by the authorities in a garden. Cursing, on the other hand, concerns death. It too has personal and cultural dimensions. The same list of blessings in Deuteronomy is followed by an even more extensive list of cursings such as sickness, famine, war, and bankruptcy (Deut. 28:15-68). The metaphors of cursing are the sea (chaos) and the desert (desolation). These are pictures of what the world becomes when man breaks covenant, places where the devil and demons live.

Second, the sanctions of blessing and cursing are actually promises. This promissory idea goes back to the garden. Two original promises were made to Adam. God promised the blessing of rest on the Sabbath Day (Gen. 2:1-3), and He promised the curse of death if the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were eaten (Gen. 2:15-17). Because the sanctions were issued beforehand, they were promissory in character. Heads of households did the same. Before they died, they called the first-born, laid on hands, blessed the first-born, and thereby transferred the inheritance. In some cases, the father even issued a curse to an unfaithful son (Gen. 49:4). In short, all sanctions are prophetic.

Third, the sanctions are judicial, involving a judgment before blessing. Adam was to have received blessing first. Cursing was not supposed to have been involved in the Sabbath Day experience at all. Sin disrupted the day of blessing, however, and cursing ended up coming first. From that moment on, blessing could only come through cursing. God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel” (Gen. 3:15). In the midst of declaring the curse, God promised the blessing of a seed who would destroy the serpent. We know that this is the first giving of the Gospel. Through the Seed’s death, none other than Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion, blessing came to the world. Blessing comes through cursing. Thus, the covenant is always ratified through the curse. It has been this way ever since Adam sinned. Abraham’s animals had to be severed and burned with fire. The Deuteronomic covenant was cut by receiving twelve curses on Mt. Ebal (Deut. 27:15-26).

A very critical point about the covenant now emerges. Blessing, reward, and inheritance come through Judgment and its counterparts: discipline and suffering. The way of the covenant is: judgment first, and success later. Nothing is instant. If you want to build a mud hut, it takes a day. If you want to build a cathedral, it takes a century. If you want to build a civilization, it takes generations. The kingdom is built one brick at a time. Judgment comes before blessing. God’s true people do not despise judgment. They are willing to meet judgment up front in life. They confront Christ’s death while alive, rather than wait until Judgment Day. Moreover, all other phases of the Biblical faith that also involve meeting judgment take on clearer meaning: discipline, suffering, or receiving correction and rebuke. Christians are willing to face these, because they understand that life comes through judgment. People who are willing to implement these sanctions capture a civilization. They will rear better children, because they will be willing to discipline them. They will make better employees, since every occupation requires judgment and discipline. They will make better leaders, due to the fact that leaders have to make critical judgment calls. Thus, the covenant engages one in judgment, and judgment transforms him and his world.

Fourth, dual sanctions imply that there is one covenant with two sanctions of blessing and cursing. Both are applied, not just one. And, because there are two sanctions, it is possible to break the covenant. Students of the covenant, however, have often tried to avoid this conclusion by creating two covenants: law and promise.[2] Law is understood to be conditional, and promise is interpreted to be unconditional and everlasting. Some have even gone so far as to say that law covenants are “works” oriented, and promise covenants are characterized by “grace.”[3] None of these approaches does justice to the plain sense of the Bible. “Promissory” covenants have conditions, and so-called conditional covenants are built on promises.

Conditional or Unconditional?

Promissory covenants. Take the New Covenant as an example, a covenant which no one disputes is promissory. Paul says,

In the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted of the good Word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame (Heb. 6:4-6).

I am aware of the fact that some commentators have tried to use the grammar involved to remove the real possibility of departing from the covenant. In other words, there is no real potential for “falling away.” The warning is only hypothetical. This is nonsense. A non-conditional covenant would nullify Paul’s warning. There would be no real warning. If I should say, “If you don’t move out of the street a car will hit you,” when there is no possibility whatsoever that a car would ever hit you while you stand in the middle of the street, what is the sense of the warning? Why even give it? The fact is that the promissory New Covenant is conditional, and the traditional interpretations of Hebrews 6 reflect just such a conditional sense.[4] Promissory covenants always have conditions.

Law covenants. Just as promissory covenants have conditions, so-called law covenants always have promises. Moses says, “And now, o Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform, in order that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you” (Deut. 4:1). This statement refers back to the promises of seed and land given to Abraham (one of the “fathers”) (Gen. 12:1-3). Their obedience was based on the promise. Yet, the promise is not actualized without obedience. The false dichotomy between grace and law just will not work. Grace and law are not in conflict.[5] As one man says, “There is no grace without law or law without grace.”[6]

Every covenant with the exception of Christ’s on the cross was unconditional. Even the first covenant with Adam was unconditional. Adam had done nothing to be created or to earn the garden. The terms of not eating the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were in the context of the unconditionality of creation. We can call them the terms of unconditionality. The only person who entered a purely conditional covenant was Christ. But once He met its terms and died on the Cross, it became unconditional to everyone who received it. God the Father will never revoke His declaration that Christ perfectly met the terms of the covenant. The unconditionality of the covenant is assured eternally. As long as one lives in Christ, he is under an unconditional covenant.

This does not mean people in the covenant cannot apostatize. We enter an unconditional covenant, but there are terms of unconditionality. James speaks this way when he says, “Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). If the terms of unconditionality are not lived out, faith and its works, then the covenant becomes a works-oriented system. It then becomes conditional. Thus, the covenant-breaker turns the covenant into a conditional system as it applies to him. He refuses to accept Christ’s perfect work in place of his own feeble efforts to placate God’s wrath. 

“Not Guilty” or “On Probation”?

Apostasy is real. People can fall away. Question: Fall away from what? They fall from the visible covenant. If they never come back and repent, then they were never truly converted to begin with. From the human point of view, however, we can only live by the visible covenant. We cannot read hearts and say infallibly that a person really and truly is a Christian. We do not have to view every believer in a skeptical manner either. If a person “says” he believes, is baptized, and shows basic outward evidence of being a Christian, he should be treated as a believer.

Should he fall away from the faith, his assurance is lost. The easiest way to understand the apostate’s position is to compare it to a judge’s granting of a suspended sentence with probation. He does not declare them “Not Guilty.” He gives them a suspended sentence with probation to see what they can do with their freedom. He reserves the right to put them back into prison at any time.

Matthew 18 is a major New Testament passage dealing with Church discipline (sanctions). Jesus gave a parable about a man who owed a fortune to a lender. When the lender calls in the debt, the man pleads that he cannot repay the debt yet. The lender graciously gives the man time to pay the debt. But the man then goes out and hounds a poor man to pay him what is owed – money that cannot possibly go very far to repay the huge debt he owes. The original debtor has him thrown into prison. He had not forgiven the debt; he had only suspended the collection day. Because the debtor refused to show mercy, the creditor decided that he was no longer entitled to mercy (Matt. 18:23-35).

But what of the terms of the covenant? Disobedience requires death, from Adam to the present. On what basis does the heavenly Judge extend time to the sinner? On what legal basis can a suspended sentence with probation be handed down? Only on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection. God does not have to extend anyone time, but He does so. Even so, some apostatize like the original debtor in the parable. Such a person dies as an unrepentant sinner. In this account, the story applies in particular to Israel. Their lives built up more wrath for themselves (Rom. 12:20).

Thus, the doctrines of Sovereign Grace and predestination are “covenantally qualified.” From the moment a person begins his walk with God, he does so by faith. Then he is baptized and enters life as a covenant-keeper. All of these things are covenantal qualifications that he knows the Lord. No one has the ability to look into the decree of God to see what was written before the foundation of the world. Man’s assurance can only be in terms of the covenant. Jesus points to the covenantal response of faith to make this clear. He says, “He who believes on Me has eternal life” (John 6:47). So anyone who has believed in Christ should have this assurance. Why? Because faith is a covenantal response. Faith informs a person that the Holy Spirit has indeed worked in his heart.

What if this covenantal response of faith stops? What if a person says he has faith in his heart, is baptized, and then leaves the faith? If he never comes back to covenantal faithfulness, it indicates that he was never truly one of God’s elect, and that he had been a tare in the congregation. The covenant does not consist of perfect but persevering people. Everyone sins, but the test of faith is whether one recognizes, confesses, and moves on in the faith. It is possible, however, to have members of the Church who are in the process of covenant-breaking and falling away. The Church is not like the name of a certain church in my town that is called True Vine Church. Think of the implications of this name. It means this church believes that only “true” believers are members. This sounds so “spiritual,” but it is impossible. I know for a fact that there are members who professed faith, were baptized, and then fell away. And, I also know for a fact that this is true of every church and every denomination that has ever existed. The covenant is not inviolate.

To say God deals without dual sanctions, therefore, is to weaken the covenant. The ratification of the covenant is nothing more than a “fire insurance policy” against hell. A person lives any way he wants without the consequences of being cursed. But, the sanctions do not work this way. They consist of blessing and cursing; they are promissory; they are judicial; and they are both part of one covenant. Now that we have seen what they consist of, let us address how they were actually received.

  1. By Oath Consigned (Deut. 27:1-30:20)

The sanctions of blessing and cursing were received by an oath, a self-maledictory (“to speak evil on oneself”) oath. The suzerain entered the covenant by pledging and calling down evil on himself from his deities, in the event that he failed to honor his word. The vassal also entered the covenant by taking a self-maledictory oath. Perhaps it could be argued that “secular” covenant-cutting involved two oaths. It seems, however, that the vassal actually received the suzerain’s oath. What the suzerain called down on himself would hit the vassal, should the latter violate his agreement. So, there was essentially one oath by the suzerain consigned to the vassal.

Even if this were not the situation in secular oath-taking, the Biblical covenant was by consignment. When the Abrahamic covenant was first established, God took the maledictory oath. God passed through the dismembered bodies of the animals (Gen. 15). Then, Abraham received the same oath through the rite of circumcision, a bloody symbol of death (Gen. 17:1-27). It ultimately pointed to Christ’s death: God’s own self-maledictory oath. It was a sign and seal of what God did to Himself through Jesus Christ. Paul records, “In Him [Christ] you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by Christ” (Col. 2:11). Thus, the covenant was received by taking hold of God’s own self-maledictory oath. Specifically, the Deuteronomic congregation said “amen” to the “curses” of the covenant (Deut. 27:15-26), or what Von Rad has called the “dodecalogue.”[7] Twelve times they responded with “amen” on Mt. Ebal, the mount of “cursing.”[8]

Man enters the covenant by saying “amen” to God’s self-maledictory oath. In other words, “amen” means, “May God render to me the curse that He has been willing to take on Himself, should I renege on the covenant.” What exactly does this mean? Going back to the Abrahamic example again – where animals were cut in half and burned with fire – the one who enters covenant with God is saying that that would literally happen to him; he would be torn in half; the birds would come and devour him; he would be utterly burned with fire. Saying “amen” should not be taken lightly!

The Sacrificial System

Apparently the congregation’s amen was also focused in the offering up of sacrifices. The fourth segment of the covenant says, “You shall build there an altar of the Lord your God of uncut stones; and you shall offer on it burnt offerings to the Lord your God; and you shall sacrifice peace offerings to the Lord your God” (Deut. 27:6-7). Then the description of the list of amens follows. This structuring of the chapter indicates that amen was said in relation to a sacrifice.

How did this work? Remember that two sanctions were received by a consigned maledictory oath. The sanction of cursing fell on God Himself, so that the sanction of blessing could be received by the one in covenant with God. In other words, God pledged that covenant-breaking would result in death. But the presence of sin meant that the maledictory oath would hit the person in covenant with God. To avoid this judgment he needed a sacrifice, or substitute. In the example at the beginning of this chapter, the animals served as objects of malediction, preventing Abraham’s being burnt with fire. Through them, Abraham ratified and said “amen” to the covenant.

The sacrificial system was at the heart of covenant ratification. It expressed the need of atonement. It pointed to an oath that was made in terms of an object that took the place of man. It was directly linked to the covenant itself. As a matter of fact, there were five sacrifices, matching the five points of the covenant.

First, there was the reparation offering.[9] The introductory formula to this offering parallels the transcendence point of the covenant, “When a person acts unfaithfully against the Lord, and deceives his companion…. He shall make restitution [reparation] in full, and add to it one-fifth more. He shall give it to the one to whom it belongs on the day he presents his guilt [sin] offering” (Lev. 6:2).[10] So the transcendence of the Lord was acknowledged first by paying a form of restitution as an offering. This also was a show of good faith that the guilty party believed God was immanent.

Second, the sin (purification) offering was a way of confessing actual sin. This offering provided a process of mediation. Hands were laid on the head of the purification offering, thereby transferring the guilt of the sinner to the animal (Lev. 4:33). This is the representational principle we discussed in the hierarchical point of covenantalism. The animal represented the man.

Third, a whole-burnt offering was made. Stress was placed on a “perfect male animal” (Lev. 1:3, 10). Why? This offering atoned for all of the breaking of the law so that the individual could completely offer himself up to God.[11] It had specifically to do with the breaking of the commandments.[12] The ethical section of the covenant comes to mind.

Fourth, a cereal offering was made. This was a tribute made by a mixture of grain and salt (Lev. 2:13). Salt is a symbol of judgment. “The cereal offering then was a gift by the worshipper to God. It normally followed the burnt offering. God having granted forgiveness of sins through the burnt offering, the worshipper responded by giving to God some of the produce of his hands in cereal offering.”[13] Thus, the sanctions point of the covenant surfaces. I have pointed out above that blessing comes through judgment.

Fifth, the peace offering was offered last (Num. 6:17). This was a communion meal between the priest and the guilty party’s family. As we shall see in the final point of the covenant, it has to do with the reception of confirmation in the context of a meal.

These five sacrifices match the five points of covenantalism. They were obviously a way of saying amen and renewing the covenant. But there is another interesting twist. Animal sacrifices were only temporary means of averting the malediction of God. Why? Remember, God took the malediction on Himself. Because of His pledge, He promised His own eventual judgment. God did not have to make this pledge, but He did. This is grace! The animals protected man, and because God took a Self-maledictory oath, they also held in abeyance a judgment that He Himself would have to incur.

This brings us to the Cross and the New Covenant. Due to man’s sin, the self-maledictory oath was received unto the Son of God. The sanction of cursing, accepted by the consignment of a self-maledictory oath, fell on Jesus. Thus, the sanctions segment of the covenant necessarily involves substitutionary atonement. Faith receives the payment for a broken maledictory oath.

Now we are prepared to see in Deuteronomy that this faith is expressed through symbols, and that the sanctions are applied to households.

  1. Symbols

The oath is made by faith but not to the exclusion of certain symbols of faith. The recipient of the covenant says “amen” to God’s oath by means of specific symbols. Whether Old or New Testament, these symbols declare the sanctions of blessing and cursing in a visible form. The covenant with Abraham was cut by means of severed animals and fire. The fire indicated judgment sanction. Then, Abraham’s personal reception was the rite of circumcision. Of course, circumcision was a “bloody” ordeal that also denotes cursing sanction in symbolic form. In the New Covenant, the symbols of the sanctions become baptism and communion. They too imply blessing and cursing. In Appendixes 8 and 9, I discuss the sanctions of the Old and New Covenants in detail. For now, however, it is important to understand that all of these symbols manifest both sanctions. For example, the Lord’s Supper is a visual manifestation of the finished work of Christ, which mediates life and death. It communicates life and death. If partaken wrongly, it kills the recipient (I Cor. 11:27-34).

In each case, the covenant is actually received by use of some symbol. In Deuteronomy, perhaps the most obvious symbol involved in renewing the covenant is the use of the “large stones,” coated with lime and etched with the actual covenant (Deut. 27:2-4). The covenant was actually written on them. So they did more than symbolize, they sealed the people and the land to Yahweh. But the logical question is ”Are these symbols real?” And, “What is the relationship between the symbols and their meaning?” The questions being raised are one of the connection between “sign and thing signified.” There are only three views: nominalism, realism, and covenantalism.

Nominalism says there is no connection between the symbol and what it means. There is no relationship between cause and effect. The judicial ceremonies that Israel engaged in have nothing to do with reality. The signs and seals of the covenant really do not mean anything. Using an analogy that David Chilton applies, ”A kiss is

just a kiss.” When a nominalist sees a woman kiss a man, he says, “That doesn’t mean anything. What they’re doing is only symbolic.” The kiss does not mean love, affection, or necessarily anything. The absurdity of this is that if the nominalist is right, a man could just as easily “slap” the woman with a glove – that is, if “symbolic gestures” do not really mean anything.

The Bible disagrees. While man’s symbols may at times have no meaning, God’s symbols have power because His word is behind them. When He says He will bless those who are faithful to the covenant sign, His word is true. When He says cursing will fall on the one who violates the symbol of the covenant, that too will happen. So, God’s special covenant signs really seal a person to God: incorporation. The word comes from the Latin, meaning “one body.” Incorporation is automatic upon the reception of the covenantal sign, but not automatic salvation. Remember, there are dual sanctions, precisely what the nominalist fails to realize.

The other extreme is called realism. Realism says that a covenant is established through some kind of “substantial” contact between the persons. Whether it is legal is not important. What really counts is substance or material contact. This is the theology of the Roman Catholic Church. As mentioned in Chapter One, a Roman Catholic Archbishop cancelled out a marriage involving a paraplegic. His reasoning: Since the marriage could not be “physically” consummated, it was not legitimate. The substantial, physical, sexual contact of the persons was supposedly the basis of marriage, not the covenant bond itself.

The third approach to the relationship between sign and thing signified is covenantalism. The connection is covenantal, meaning representative. The reception of the covenantal symbol represents something greater than itself. What thing? Symbols of the covenant stand for God’s self-maledictory oath. Thus, Jesus commands His disciples to baptize in the “Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). The power of the symbol of baptism is in the Name of God.

The nominalist says there is no power in the symbol. Just because one is baptized does not mean he is in covenant with God. The realist, on the other hand, would say there is power in the substance, the water itself. Both views deny the covenant. The covenantalist says the symbol has meaning because it represents God’s oath on Himself. Since it represents something God has done, it is a real symbol; it is not empty. Anyone baptized has God’s Name on him. He is claimed by God and should ordinarily be counted as a believer. But, because the symbol has no power in and of itself, covenantalism requires faithfulness. Thus, if one lives in contradiction to the covenantal symbol, he should be warned that apostasy is a real possibility. There are dual sanctions to the covenant. If he does not repent, God’s curse will fall on him because His Name is at stake.

The covenantalist argues that God’s Trinitarian Name helps to explain properly the relationship between symbol and reality. In the Trinity, the members of the Godhead are “distinct but not separated.” So, since the Church is baptized in this Trinitarian Name (Matt. 28:19ff.), the relationship between symbol and reality is “distinct but not separate.” Faith is distinguished from the rite (baptism), meaning there is no power in the sacramental elements themselves to convey salvation, but neither is faith to be separated from the sacraments. The latter clarifies why baptism is so closely associated with salvation (Acts 22:16).[14]

Only the covenantalist can adequately present the connection between symbol and reality. The nominalist does away with reality, and the realist loses the symbolic.[15] God’s covenantal symbols are powerful. They are the God-appointed means of saying “amen” to God’s self-maledictory oath. They picture blessing through curse. The sanctions are really conveyed through symbol.

  1. By Households

The consignment of God’s oath-sanctions is applied to households, not just individuals. When Adam and Eve fell, their family fell with them. What happened to them happened to their descendants by legal representation. “In Adam’s fall we sinned all,” as the Puritans’ primer for children began. But, by the grace of God, we are not all left in this state of condemnation. Indeed, the Bible is the story of how God brings salvation to the world. But, as Van Til says, “The redemptive revelation of God had to be as comprehensive as the sweep of sin.”[16] Thus, since sin destroyed the family, we must conclude that redemption saves it, unless “grace is not greater than all our sin.” As a matter of fact, the redemption of Adam and Eve is also the redemption of the family, demonstrated by the constant emphasis on bringing the whole household into the faith.

The same principle of representation holds true in salvation of a family unit. Many cases of household salvation by representation can be cited. Noah’s family, not just “adult” believers, is brought into the ark. Abraham’s family is given salvation through the circumcision of the males: males represent females. And, in the sanctions section of Deuteronomy, we read of the various categories of people to whom the sanctions are applied. Moses says,

You stand today, all of you, before the Lord your God; your chiefs, your tribes, your elders and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the alien who is within your camps, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, that you may enter into the covenant with the Lord your God, and into His oath which the Lord your God is making with you today (Deut. 29:10-12).

Notice how Moses first lists the covenantal “heads” of the nation. Then he includes the children and even the alien. We know from other passages in the Old Testament that the alien was not circumcised, but he was required to live in the general sphere of the covenant (Ex. 29:33).[17] Regarding children, however, how can the Bible include them in the covenant? Parents represent their children. If they are in the faith, then their children are claimed for the faith as well.

Is this just an Old Testament principle? Even in the New Testament, salvation by household continued to be a practice. Once when Jesus’ disciples were keeping parents from bringing their children to Christ, He rebuked them saying,

And they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He might touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them. But Jesus called for them, saying, “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all” (Luke 18:15-17).

Mark makes it clear that Jesus was laying His hands on the children to “bless them” (Mark 10:16). Remember, to bless someone is to impose a sanction. So, Jesus was placing the sanction of the covenant on these children and including them in the household of faith. The only basis for doing so was that their parents were in the covenant.

Finally, when one comes to Acts, he discovers that households are being saved by the same principle of representation. In one chapter where households are mentioned, Luke speaks of their being brought into the kingdom and being baptized without stopping to explain why. He says “Lydia and her household were baptized” (Acts 16:15). Of the Philippian jailer, Luke says, “He [the jailer] took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household” (Acts 16:33).

Luke does not have to stop, because the New Testament builds on the Old. God redeems the family, as well as individuals, by placing them under the sanctions. Remember, the covenant has terms of unconditionality. The children may grow up and deny the covenant. They may fall away. But of course, this is a possibility for adults. The sanctions are familial. Cut off the children, and one effectively destroys the future!

We come to the end of our discussion on the second aspect of cutting a covenant, and we come to the third and final element.

III. Witnesses

The last but not least important aspect of cutting a covenant is the role of the witness. Notice that Moses calls two witnesses to verify the ratification of the covenant. He says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that 1 have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants [seed]” (Deut. 30:19). Witnesses make the ratification official. They testify to the fact that a covenant was actually made, whether the recipients were serious or not. I add the last statement because the attitude of the recipient when the covenant is ratified is not of primary importance. God’s disposition is of main concern. Even though someone might not take his entrance into the covenant very seriously, God does! He will make sure the sanctions of the covenant are carried out one way or the other. These witnesses testify to the fact that God’s oath has been consigned to the candidate. As a matter of fact, should the covenant be broken, the witnesses are called forward to prosecute the one who has actually broken the covenant, called a covenant lawsuit.

The “officialness” of entering the covenant raises an important question. When is a person considered a Christian? When he says he is a Christian or when he is baptized (ratifying the covenant by sanction, oath, and witnesses)? Notice that the question is not “When is a person a Christian?”, but when is he considered a Christian? This distinction is quite important.

For one, certainly belief in Christ is the basis of personal salvation, but any professing believer who will not be baptized and come under the accountability of a local church is probably not a true Christian. He is like a man and woman who say they love each other but will not make their love “official” in a marriage ceremony. Most people would not take their love very seriously. Love involves commitment, and committed people should have no difficultly making their commitments legal.

Two, man can only live by a “visible” covenant. He cannot look into the soul of his fellow man. Sinful man cannot be trusted with such power. Anyone who says he can do this should be considered demon-possessed. Moreover, just because a person says he is a Christian does not necessarily mean that indeed he really is. One is not a Christian because he says he is, but because God says he is. God initially makes this declaration at the reception of the signs and seals. They, and only they, make the covenant official. One might be a Christian before they are applied, but there is no official way of knowing so. The normal covenantal place of transferring from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light is at baptism.

The temptation of the Church through the ages has been to elevate other indicators of salvation above baptism and communion, like experience and knowledge. Granted, they have their place of importance, but the covenant is damaged when salvation is determined by them. The New England Puritans destroyed the theological foundation of their entire culture when they created experiential tests of conversion in the 1630s, producing the infamous “Halfway Covenant.”[18] Nowhere does God make experience the basis of salvation. It grows out of salvation. The covenantal signs, however, symbolize the heavenly witnesses, the most important testimony. They demonstrate that God’s Name is at stake.

The result of covenantal theology is that more weight is given to the sacraments. Anyone who is baptized should be counted as and treated as a believer unless he is apostatizing. But even in this case, he would be approached as an apostate, and not an unbeliever. The check and balance against the violation of the covenant is always discipline. Groups that emphasize the sacraments should not be criticized for their sacramental theology so much as they should be condemned for not applying church discipline. Nevertheless, experience and knowledge have not proven to be superior checks and balances against “leakage” from the covenant. All the experiential and intellectual groups have had just as difficult a time with apostasy. The best prevention of covenantal leakage is the last point of covenantalism: continuity. Before we consider it, one final application should be made in reference to the ratification process.

The Doctrine of Adoption

The cutting of a covenant-involving sanctions, oath, and witnesses – creates a transfer. The member of the covenant receives a new name, or a name change which amounts to the same. Abram received a new name (Abraham) when the covenant was ratified (Gen. 17:5). Jacob became Israel. The New Covenant sign of baptism places God’s name directly on the baptized (Matt. 28:19-20). Historically, the Church has added a Christian name at baptism to be placed in front of the surname, indicating that the covenantal tie supersedes the blood bond. Most churches’ language still reflects this: “What is your Christian name?” is a traditional expression for “What is your first name?” This change in name means the covenant member has been transferred into a new family. It is called adoption.

Adoption is covenantal. It enables someone outside the family line to become an heir. Since the Fall, man has been outside God’s family. His parents are “dead.” He lost them when Adam sinned. And along with his parents’ death, he even lost his inheritance. Covenantally, man is an orphan. The only way that God can become his parent and he can become God’s son is through adoption. He is not, never was, nor will he ever be part of God’s essence. He cannot go rummaging through lost archives to prove that he is a legitimate heir by natural descent.

Children of believers are to receive the covenantal sign for this reason. They are born covenantally dead (Psa. 51:5). Death is associated with the womb (Lev. 12:1-8). After birth, the parents are supposed to bring the child to the leaders of the church to receive the sign of the covenant. When the child receives the sign, he (or she) thereby is declared covenantally alive and given back to the parents, a gesture indicating that sin takes our children away but the covenant gives them back. This is an adoption process. The covenant teaches that all of our children are actually to be adopted. They are entrusted to parents by the covenant.

The doctrine of adoption is totally contrary to blood-religion, not to be confused with the Biblical requirement of blood sacrifice. Non-covenantal religions sometimes advocate salvation by bloodline, instead of blood sacrifice. Bloodline religion is racist. One race is supposedly purer, or better equipped, than all the others, whether the Arian race as advocated by the Fascists, or the Jews as proposed by the Zionists. All racists are the same. They believe their race or even their nation is special because of its ethnic distinction. Faithfulness to God’s covenant has nothing to do with salvation, only faithfulness to the race. This inevitably leads to war, because impure races have to be destroyed. They are a threat to the pure race.

The Jews had forgotten the covenant. They thought their race was superior. If they had believed in the covenant, however, they would have known there was nothing special about their blood. It was like all the other bloodlines. Their greatness had been due to covenant. And they were certainly not part of the covenant because of their bloodline. Jesus reminded them of this fact when He said, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). They were adopted sons. Thus, if the Biblical covenant is rejected, man easily becomes a racist!


This concludes our analysis of the fourth principle of the covenant, sanctions. The covenant is established by the reception of these sanctions through an oath before witnesses. First, the oath has dual sanctions, blessing and cursing, giving the covenant terms of unconditionality. When the Bible speaks of faith, it means faithfulness. Man is required to persevere! If he fails to do so, the oath that God takes on Himself will hit the participant in the form of a curse. Along with the terms of unconditionality, the covenant is both promissory and legal. Grace and law are not in conflict.

Second, the oath is received through the consignment of a self-maledictory oath. God pledges Himself to the participants, attaching blessings and cursings. When man places his “amen” on the covenant, he receives what God has done. He says “amen” through certain symbols, and has them applied to his household.

Finally, witnesses are required for the ratification of the covenant. The witnesses are heavenly and earthly when the covenant is cut. They verify that an actual covenant has been created. Without them, the covenant is not official.

This ratification process creates a transfer of name, called the doctrine of adoption. Covenant cutting adopts the initiate into the kingdom of God. He receives a new name and inheritance.

The next chapter advances the study to the last principle of the covenant, continuity. In this chapter, we will focus more on inheritance. The ratification of the covenant creates a new inheritance, but a constant process of covenant renewal has to occur before the inheritance is actualized. Several questions will be answered. What is the point of continuity in the covenant: blood-bond, or something else? What is the inheritance of God’s people? Is it spiritual or physical?

[1] Jesus did the same thing in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-46). The disciples fell asleep. He sweated drops of blood for them. God the Son received a maledictory oath on Himself, becoming a substitute.

[2] Robert D. Brinsmead, Covenant (Fallbrook, California: Verdict Publications, 1979), pp. 85-99.

[3] C. I. Scofield, editor, The Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1909). See especially the notes on Galatians. Note that the New Scofield Reference Bible has removed the idea that Old Testament saints were saved by “works.”

[4] John Owen, Hebrews (Marshallton, Delaware: The National Foundation For Christian Education, [1668] 1970), Vol. III, pp. 3-144.

[5] Thomas McComiskey, The Covenants of Promise (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), pp. 59-93. Arthur W. Pink, The Divine Covenants (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), pp. 139-202.

[6] Ernest Kevan, The Grace of Law (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, [1966] 1983), pp. 208-209.

[7] Gerhard Von Rad, Deuteronomy: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), p. 167.

[8] Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 192.

[9] Gordon Wenham, The Book of Leviticus: New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), pp. 106-112. This offering is also called a “trespass” sacrifice. Wenham correctly prefers to call it a reparation offering.

[10] Note by the way that the sacrifices are arranged theologically in the first chapters of Leviticus. Their liturgical order, the actual order in which they would be offered, is specified in Leviticus six and nine, and Numbers six in reference to the Nazirite.

[11] Wenham points out that the other sacrifices “atone,” but that the whole-burnt

offering “atones in a more general sense” p. 57.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 71.

[14] If a person should be providentially hindered from baptism in this life, like the thief on the cross next to Jesus, he still passes through God’s baptismal “sea” around His throne (Rev. 4:6).

[15] Indeed, this is precisely how the reformers argued against the Roman Catholic view of the sacrament. If the elements changed, then they ceased being real symbols. They became the reality! B. A. Gerrish, “John Calvin and Reformed Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper,” Una Sancta (Pentecost 1968), pp. 85ff.

[16] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974), Vol. V, p. 133.

[17] The “stranger” is forbidden in the Exodus passage to eat sacrificial food because it is “holy.” Circumcision entitled an Israelite to eat this food (Lev. 1-5), so the stranger obviously was not circumcised.

[18] E. Brooks Holifield, The Covenant Sealed (New Haven: Yale, 1974), pp. 169-186, 193. Church leaders in Puritan New England decided to alleviate the visible/invisible tension in their churches. They started requiring conversion experiences of their children. Even if children were baptized, but could not produce a “credible” profession, they were not permitted to be part of the church. Then came the grandchildren. They had not owned the covenant. What should be done with them? Their parents had the sign of baptism but were not allowed to come to the Table. The grandchildren did not even have the sign. The solution was to proceed with the baptism of the grandchildren, but view them as only “halfway” in. The “Halfway Covenant” was born. Children were in the covenant but not really considered believers.