The Covenantal Summons:
When God Gathers His People in Worship
by Michael Horton
What are we doing on the Lord's day, especially when we are gathered as God's people in church? How do we understand Christian growth and discipleship -- as chiefly corporate or individual, as nourished by the preached Word and the divinely instituted Sacraments or by self-approved "means of grace"? Would an outsider coming into our worship services be immediately impressed with the centrality of preaching, baptism, and the supper, or would he or she be more likely to notice the importance given to performance?
All of these questions were at the heart of the Reformation debate as part and parcel of recovering the Gospel. But they are just as acute in our day, when we have sought a bewildering array of means of grace. This article will focus on the nature of worship as a service of covenant renewal.
The Biblical Story of Redemption
Our non-Reformed readers will hardly be surprised to learn that I would begin a brief biblical sketch of worship with the covenant. But no one can doubt that this is central to the biblical story of redemption. Even after the fall, God promised Eve a son who would crush the serpent's head, and although Cain murdered Abel, God provided another son, Seth. While Cain's descendants were building their own proud city of rebellion (Gen. 4:15-24), "Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord" (v. 26). Thus, the two cities -- cult (i.e., worship) and culture, fully integrated in creation, were now divided and pursued two separate ends through distinct means. Jesus' warning that the world will hate his disciples and Paul's contrast between the wisdom of this world (works-righteousness) and the wisdom of God (the righteousness which comes by faith) are not borne out of any hostility toward the world per se. Rather, it is the world in its sinful rebellion that the biblical writers have in mind.
After calling Abram out of Ur, God commanded a ritual sacrifice as a way of making the covenant. (In fact, the Hebrew word for covenant, berith, comes from the verb, "to cut.") In ancient Near Eastern politics and law, a suzerain (i.e., great king or emperor) would enter into a treaty with a vassal (i.e., the king or ruler of a smaller territory) by cutting various animals in half. Then, walking together between the halves, both partners agreed to perform all of the conditions of the treaty with the following sanction: If I should be unfaithful for my part, may the same end befall me as has befallen these animals. In Genesis 15, when God makes his covenant with Abraham and his descendants, this ancient Near Eastern treaty is the pattern:
But Abram said, "O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?" So the Lord said to him, "Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon." Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other... As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nations they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions... When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram.... (v. 8-18)
Two sorts of things are promised by God in this covenant: a holy land (Canaan) and everlasting life. What especially distinguishes this suzerainty treaty is the fact that although God and Abram are covenant partners, the Lord (appearing as a smoking firepot with a blazing torch) walks alone through this path, placing on his own head all of the sanctions and assuming on his own shoulders the curses which he himself has imposed, should the treaty be violated by either party. Then in chapter 17 there is another cutting ceremony:
Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you... I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you... This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you." (v. 3-12)
This ceremony signified the cutting away of uncleanness, especially of original sin that is passed on from Adam through every subsequent father. But here, instead of the knife being plunged into the body to bring down the curses of the transgressors (yes, even fresh from the womb we are in this class), it instead is used to cut away the sin so that the recipient may live.
Eventually, God's promise was fulfilled: Israel did inherit the land. As mentioned previously, God promised a holy land and everlasting life. As becomes clearer with the progress of redemption, the land was (like Adam's enjoyment of Eden) dependent on works -- the obedience of the Israelites. The Mosaic covenant, with its ceremonial and civil as well as moral laws, promised blessing for obedience and judgment for disobedience. Once again, God would fight for his people and give them a new Eden, a land flowing with milk and honey. God would be present among his people in the temple as long as they were righteous.
But (also like Adam) Israel failed and in its rebellion violated the treaty with the great king, provoking God to enact the sanctions of this works covenant. The lush garden of God became a wasteland of thorns and thistles, as God removed his kingdom back up into heaven, the children of Israel being carted off to Babylonian exile. After these years of exile, a remnant returned to rebuild Jerusalem. Ezra and Nehemiah report this remarkable event and the tragic infidelity and infighting that went along with it. Despite human sinfulness, under Nehemiah's leadership the remnant rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and its magnificent temple which God's evacuation had left desolate and ransacked by invaders. The poor were cared for. But the centerpiece of this event appears when the Torah is rediscovered for a generation of Israelites that had never read or heard the Scriptures read except perhaps from their grandparents' memory:
When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion... Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, "Amen! Amen!" Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. (Neh. 8:1-6)
Even during their exile the Israelites were reminded by Jeremiah's prophecy of the divine promise -- not to restore ethnic Israelites to the geopolitical territory of Palestine as God's kingdom on earth, but to save a remnant from both Israel and the nations of the world. Although the Mosaic covenant had been thoroughly violated, God, you will recall, was still carrying the entire burden for the Abrahamic covenant of grace. Thus, again and again in the prophets we read, "Not for your sakes, but for the sake of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob..." So through Jeremiah God declares,
"The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people... For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." (Jer. 31:31-34)
This new covenant "will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers" under Moses, says the Lord, but will be an everlasting and unbreakable covenant. It will be based not on the national election of Israel, but on the eternal election of individuals whom the Son redeemed: "and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God and they will reign on the earth" (Rev. 5:9). The Sabbath rest which Israel forfeited in the Holy Land because of disobedience is now freely given to sinners, Jew and Gentile. Even Joshua, Moses' lieutenant who led the Israelites into the land, was looking for a greater land, a more excellent kingdom, with a firm and unshakable foundation: "For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his" (Heb. 4:8). Thus, the New Testament Gospel is identical to that which Abraham believed when he was credited with the perfect righteousness of Christ through faith alone, apart from works (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 9:8; and Gal. 3:6-14). This is not the Mosaic covenant, an administration based on our faithfulness, but the Abrahamic covenant, an administration of God's faithfulness and grace.
The Covenant Renewal Ceremony
It is in this context that we talk about the "covenant renewal ceremony," then, which is how Reformed folk often talk about the worship service. Whenever we gather for Word and Sacrament, it is because we have been summoned. That is what "church" means: ekklesia, "called out." It is not a voluntary society of those who come together regularly with the chief concern to share, to build community, to enjoy fellowship, and so forth. Rather, it is a society of those who have been chosen, redeemed, called, justified, and are being sanctified until one day they will finally be glorified in heaven. We gather each Lord's day not merely out of habit or social custom, but because God has chosen this day as a foretaste of the everlasting Sabbath day that will be enjoyed fully at the marriage supper of the Lamb. God has called us out of the world: that is why we gather.
We also gather to receive God's gifts. And this is where the emphasis falls -- or should fall. Throughout the Scriptures, the service is seen chiefly as God's action. The one who brought us up out of the land of Egypt and made us his people takes the initiative in salvation and throughout the Christian life. The shadows of Christ in the Mosaic covenant, especially the detailed legislation for the sacrifices, are fulfilled in the advent of the Messiah. Therefore, we do not worship in an earthly sanctuary, but in the heavenly sanctuary where we are seated with Christ in heavenly places. Hence, Jesus' statement to the Samaritan woman in John 4:23-24. Like the smoking firepot with a blazing torch, God walks down the middle of the aisle assuming the judgment his own justice requires and his own mercy satisfies. He circumcises our hearts, with the baptismal font prominently centered. He creates faith in our heart from the preaching and confirms us in this faith through the Sacraments.
As in all covenants, there are two parts to the covenant of grace. God speaks and delivers; we respond in faith and repentance. And yet this faith and repentance is not "our part" in this covenant in the sense of providing some of the grounds for our participation in it. God even grants faith and repentance. And yet God does call us to respond, to grow in grace, and to persevere to the end. The triumphant indicative concerning God's action in Christ establishes a safe foundation on which to stand as we meet the divine imperatives. That's why worship is "dialogical": God speaks and we respond. That is the form that we find in the Psalms: God's wondrous works in creation, preservation, judgment, and redemption are extolled; it is only then that it makes sense to respond, whether in confession, praise, thanksgiving, lament, or whatever else might be appropriate to the divine activity that is announced. Unlike the Psalms themselves, many of the hymns and praise choruses of the last century and a half have become increasingly human-centered. Even with praise choruses that paraphrase a psalm, the response section of the text is often torn from the indicative section proclaiming who God is and what he has done. Thus, the focus of worship seems to be on what we are doing, how we are feeling, and how we intend to respond: "I just want to praise you"; "We will lift you up"; "Let's just praise the Lord"; "I am joyful," etc. But this is to separate the law from the Gospel, the imperative from the indicative, and to make at least the singing part of the service predominantly the former rather than the latter.
If worship is a covenant renewal ceremony, the service must reflect the divine initiative in the covenant itself. There must be response -- and there will be response, if there is something to which we are inclined to respond. God meets his people in Christ as the Holy Spirit works through the liturgy, the preaching, and the Sacraments. It is the person and work of this Triune God that must be front and center, as this God actually confronts us just as he did in the assembly when Ezra read God's Word. It is the Word, not Israel's response to the Word, that is central in that account, and yet the report does not fail to inform us that "all the people listened attentively" (v. 3) and, later, that they even "lifted their hands and responded, "Amen! Amen!" followed by bowing down "with their faces to the ground" as they wept because of their sense of their own sinfulness and God's amazing grace (vv. 5-6, 9).
No wonder, then, that at Pentecost a similar event occurs. Peter addressed the crowd in Jerusalem, announcing the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32 and that despite the people's culpability in crucifying Jesus, God had all along planned to save his people through the death and resurrection of the Savior. He drew on the Psalms as well to make the point that Jesus is the "seed of the woman," the "Son of David," the one promised to Abraham in whom all the nations would be blessed. Out of this preaching the new covenant church was established. And what was the pattern of this weekly covenant renewal ceremony? "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers" (Acts 2:42).
It is a new and better covenant, with Christ himself rather than Moses as its mediator. The Lord's Supper is neither a mere memorial of Christ's death nor a resacrificing of Christ (as if we preferred the shadows of Moses to the reality in Christ), but is a participation in the very body and blood of Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 10:16). "This cup is the new covenant in my blood," we read in the words of institution. No wonder the writer who so strongly urges believers to recognize the superiority of the new covenant to the old also charges us not to give up the covenant renewal ceremony which God enacts each Lord's day:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another -- all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Heb. 10:19-25)