Christian Education: A Crisis of Our Time – The Covenant
Christian Education and the Covenant
A Biblical concept of Christian Education requires the people of God to give their children an explicitly Christian Education in all things. The Christian life is an all out war to be fought on every front of human experience.
As Presbyterians we have a distinctive view of children in the Covenant of Grace. We believe the Bible reveals a covenant God who is the God of believers and their children (e.g. in Gen 17:7, Acts 2:39). By this we do not presume that the children of believers are automatically real Christians nor indeed that all will be, rather we treat them as God tells us to, i.e. as members of His covenant people and we hold fast to His promises concerning them.
Any faithful examination of the issue of our children’s education then, cannot proceed divorced from the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace. Sadly however, this has been the approach for too long. Louis Berkhof lamented this when he treated the subject in the 1930s. Coming from a Dutch background with a long tradition of Christian Education he was still unable to find one piece of existing literature linking Christian Education and the Covenant. He writes in his article ‘The Covenant of Grace and Christian Education’: ‘It is quite evident in most of the churches of our land, even in those who theoretically subscribe to the doctrine of the covenant, that this doctrine has no grasp on the life and conscience of the people in general, and fails utterly to have a determining influence on the education of their children’.
So what do we Believe?
- We do not hold that our children are automatically heirs of salvation, but that they are heirs of the covenant promise of salvation.
- We believe the Covenant not only comes with promises but conditions, and that to participate in true covenant life, the child must exercise personal faith in Christ the Mediator, and that this faith is a gift of God.
- We also believe that God has appointed means in the use of which He will give this faith to His elect seed. This of course includes the preaching of the Word, but those means extend far beyond the formal preaching of the Gospel to embrace the whole covenant nurture of the child commanded in Ephesians 6:4 that we ‘Bring them up in the nurture and the admonition of Lord.’
This (nurture) includes, writes Berkhof, the whole round of Christian truth with its broad sweep, touching every realm, every sphere and every relation of the Christian life. This he says Is a very comprehensive requirement ... hence the need for Christian Education which is one of the means which God is pleased to use for working faith in the heart of the child, for calling an incipient faith to action, and for guiding the first steps of that faltering faith.
Solomon had this in view in Proverbs 22:6 when he wrote, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old he will not depart from it’. We are not justified, indeed we err, if we apply these words to our children today separated from the covenant context in which they come to us. These are the words of Solomon, the son of David, a son of Abraham. He is now teaching his son in turn to train his son in the way of the Lord because God had promised to be the God of his children as he was his God and the God of his fathers.
Education and the Covenant applied to our Children
It follows from what we have said that the responsibility to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ lies upon every one of our children as individuals, and with it the duty to believe and obey the whole counsel of God. If they do not believe in Christ and walk in His ways then they not only turn their back on a great privilege but they break covenant with God. It must be understood that living in this covenant relationship is more than simply living under the Gospel and under the free offer of salvation. ‘There is an agreement. The covenant is an established covenant, a covenant agreed to, agreed to by parents also for their children’. It will be worse on the Day of Judgment for those who have simply heard the Gospel and rejected it than those who have never heard. It will be worse still for our children, covenanted to God in baptism, if they reject this covenant agreement and their covenant nurture to perish in their sins. Woe to them, for it will be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than for them!
Education and the Covenant applied to Parents
While the responsibility lies on children to believe, the responsibility lies on parents to train their children in the whole nurture we have described. Our failure to do this is therefore covenant failure on our part in simple terms, to neglect to provide a Christian Education for our children is at variance with the vows we take at the baptism of our children. We might be zealous for their salvation, diligent in family worship and faithful in evangelising them and bringing them to the meetings of the Church, all of which is commendable. Beyond this we might have a desire to see the unconverted in the world won to the Lord Jesus Christ and engage heartily in the work of evangelism. Yet that zeal is surely confused if while we seek the salvation of the world we give our children, whom God calls His children (Ez. 16:20-21) to be trained in hostility to His covenant.
In view of this J G Machen writing in 1934 on,
The Necessity of the Christian School concluded: ‘I can see little consistency in a type of Christian activity which preaches the gospel on the street corners and at the end of the earth but neglects the children of the covenant by abandoning them to a cold unbelieving secularism’.
The implications of the Covenant are stark and perhaps painful. Failure to provide our children with an education agreeable with the nurture and admonition of the Lord is a failure to meet the terms of our covenant responsibility. Yet even if we take steps to provide this education there are no guarantees. God’s purpose of election will stand, there will be Jacobs and Esaus and so we readily admit that children who are given a Christian Education may grow up to turn their back on it and break the covenant in spite of their privilege. On the other hand, many others may not be given a Christian Education and grow up to keep the way of the Lord without it, indeed many have. God will retain His sovereignty in this area as in all others and ultimately the consequences belong to Him. However, what belongs to us and our children is what He reveals as our duty in His Word, and therefore not to provide this education for our children is a breach of His covenant on our part.