The Corporate Character of Grace


We have so far, in speaking of the aspects of the piety, the Xian thinking and living, which ought to be characteristic of people who believe as we do in the reformed church, mentioned: a high view of God in his majesty and glory as the Almighty and Sovereign Lord; a penetrating and abiding sense of our own sin and its greatness; an abounding joy in the Lord and his great salvation; and, a gratitude to God which intrudes into all we think, say and do.


There are, of course, many other virtues or characteristics of a piety molded and formed by the great realities of our faith as they are presented in God’s Word.  But, I wanted to be sure to mention the one which is before me tonight, for I think it is of immense importance, it is especially characteristic of the reformed church and tradition to take note of this theme in Scripture and to seek to do justice to it; and, yet, further, I find that a great many believers, even in our own churches, have only a vague and indistinct notion themselves of what Scripture actually teaches on this theme.


I am speaking of the corporate character of grace, of grace as God dispenses it in the world and by which he saves his people.  If I had another evening, I might well spend it on the importance that the church, and point out that that expression of the corporate character of grace is also far too much neglected and its vast importance too little seen in our individualistic American churches. But, tonight, rather, I wanted to devote our time to the family, as the most basic and fundamental corporate institution of human life and of the grace and kingdom of
God.


It is our inheritance as reformed Christians to appreciate the vast importance that God’s Word attaches to the family, because our forefathers saw so much more clearly than many today, that the Bible is one; and that its message does not change from what we call the Old Testament to what we call the New Testament.  And, in particular, they saw clearly that what the Scripture says about God’s grace having a corporate, rather than merely an individual reference, is a fundamental and crucial aspect of the bible’s teaching about salvation and the life of Christians in the world.


Text Comments: Gen 17:1-8; Acts 2:38-39; 16:29-31


Soon after I arrived in Tacoma, Washington to commence my pastorate there, I was delighted to discover that one of the elders of that congregation was connected to me in the most interesting and wonderful way.  His father, who had been raised in an unbelieving family and was an unbeliever himself, took a trip back to Wisconsin in 1914 to visit friends.  One of those friends was a Christian and took Oscar Anderson along with him to an evangelistic service and there that night, Oscar believed in Jesus Christ. He was a changed man.  He later married a Christian woman and had children and raised his children in the faith of Jesus Christ and one of them, now an older man himself, was an elder in the church I had been called to pastor.  He had a daughter who is a lovely young woman and a few years after my coming to Tacoma, it was my privilege to marry her to a splendid Christian young man and they together have been earnest and very effective workers for the Lord as husband and wife. They now have three lovely daughters of their own who are being nurtured in the love of God, and in the faith of Jesus Christ. Now the real pleasure of the story is that the man who preached Oscar Anderson into the kingdom of God that night in 1914 was my grandfather!


Little did anyone realize that long ago night in 1914, in faraway Wisconsin, that the grandson of the evangelist would one day serve on the same church session with the son of the convert, and that he would later preside at the wedding of that new believer’s granddaughter and then baptize his three great granddaughters.


But, you know, wonderful as that all is to me, it is a commonplace in the church of God; it happens all the time. And it is supposed to happen all the time.


When God created man, he created him as a family.  It was not good that man should be alone.  Mankind was not present in the world, until there was a husband and wife together in marriage, ready to have children of their own. According to God’s Word, it is the family, not the individual that is the fundamental unit of human society.




  1. This is our quarrel with feminism as a philosophy and as a worldview.  It is not so much that they wish to blur the distinctions between man and woman, and so on.  Our dispute with feminism goes much deeper.  Feminism defines the human race as a collection of individuals.  The Bible defines the human race as a collection of families; and from that fundamental and profound difference arise all the specific quarrels that separate feminist from Christian thinking.
  2. Well, just as the family is the fundamental unit of human society; so, in the Bible it is the fundamental unit of the kingdom of God, of human society reborn.


And no view of the Christian life will be biblical in its character that does not embrace this fundamental principle and this corporate character which divine grace has had from the beginning.


I want to set this biblical doctrine and theme before you in six principles.  If we had time, a message could easily be devoted to each of these 6 principles; but I wanted to give you a comprehensive grasp of the biblical perspective and so, you will understand, if I am able to give only a smattering of evidence and illustration for each of these six points.




  1. First, God’s saving grace runs in family lines.


It is a truism of biblical revelation that it does.  And the evidence begins to pile up at the very beginning of the Bible.  At the end of Genesis 4 we are given a brief genealogy of the line of Cain; as one ungodly father after another produces a son like himself, until we finish with Lamech’s arrogant and mean-spirited boast: ‘I have killed a man for wounding me…’


Chapter 5 of Gen., on the contrary, is the genealogy of the line of Seth, a godly man, and generation after generation follows its forbear in the life of faith.  The two men we are given any special information about, Enoch, and then Noah, were men of a supreme righteousness and faith.


The terrible tragedy which overtook the world in Noah’s day, the Scripture is careful to explain, was the direct result of the godly line intermixing in marriage with the ungodly line, which, as is always the case, resulted not in the purification of the ungodly, but in the corruption of the godly.


And that is but the beginning.  Abraham-Isaac-Jacob-Joseph; Boaz-Jesse-David-Solomon; are but two prominent examples of godly successions in the Old Testament.


And it is no different in the New Testament.  John the Baptist, our Savior himself, Mark the author of the Gospel, were all sons of godly parents.  Paul, writing to Timothy in his second letter, says to his young assistant: ‘I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.’


And where the Scripture history leaves off, the history of the church takes up the theme:




  1. Polycarp, one of the earliest Christians we know anything about after the New Testament period, a student of the Apostle John himself, told his accusers before his martyrdom: ‘Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and he never did me any wrong.’  Well, Polycarp couldn’t have been much more than 86 years old, if any, when he uttered those words.  His parents were no doubt believers.
  2. Origen, the great church father, was raised by very godly parents, and his father was martyred for his faith in Christ when Origen was just 16.
  3. Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzen, and Augustine were all sons of splendid Xian mothers.
  4. And so on down to the modern world.
  5. Thomas Boston used to spend days and nights in prison with his covenanter father.
  6. Donald Cargil, the Scottish preacher and martyr, said to his accusers: ‘I have been a fearer of God from my infancy.’
  7. Matthew Henry was the product of devout parents
  8. So was Jonathan Edwards
  9. The great Mather family of early Massachusetts ,Richard and Increase his son, and Cotton, Increase’s son, godly men and ministers all, were immortalized on the patriarch’s gravestone:


    Under this stone lies Richard Mather
    Who had a son greater than his father,
    And again a grandson greater than either


  10. And what of the American Presbyterians: say the great family of Hodge’s father Charles, son Archibald Alexander, and grandson Caspar Wistar Hodge, whose teaching at the old Princeton seminary spanned most of a century.


And, of course, we needn’t mention only the famous.  I myself am at least a fourth generation Christian.  And, I have no doubt than many of you have Christian parents and grandparents.  It has always been so, that grace runs in family lines.




  1. The second principle is this: It is God’s will andintention and declared purpose that his saving graceshould run in family lines. It is not a mere coincidence that such great multitudes ofbelievers have believing parents and grandparents.  Godpromised that it would be so.




  1. The text we read from Genesis 17, is but one of a great many texts, which include this promise of the Lord to be our God and the God of our children after us.
  2. In the fourth commandment in Exodus 20:6, we learn that God shows his love to the 1000th generation of them that love him and keep his commandments.
  3. In David’s immortal 103rd Psalm we read: …from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children–with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.
  4. In Isaiah 59 the Lord says to his people: ‘This is my covenant with them; My spirit who is on you andmy words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendant from this time on and forever, says the Lord.’
  5. In Malachi 2:15, the prophet explains why believers must marry only in the Lord: ‘Because the Lord is seeking godly offspring.’ And it does not change at all when Christ and the Apostleshave come and the church makes its way out into the paganworld.
  6. As we read this evening, Peter says the promisecontinues to be to us and to our children.
  7. When Paul gathers those who are afar off in his evangelistic work and preaching, hecharacteristically gathers them in households—andpreaches to that end: ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christand you will be saved and your house.’
  8. Indeed, so much is it the expectation that godly homes will produce godly offspring, that Paul lays it downas a general rule that elders should have believingchildren, as a demonstration of their fitness to rule andnurture the flock of God.


This then is the second principle.  It is God’s will thathis grace should take in families as a whole; that itshould run in the lines of generations and that when itembraces those who are afar off, who become the first Christianin their family, it is God’s intention, ordinarily, forthat person to begin himself or herself another family line of grace and salvation. So the Bible seems unmistakably to say.




  1. The third principle is that is it the biblical pattern for children of believing parents to grow up in faith from their earliest days. Now we who have been Christians for some time have grown up in a spiritual culture which has been deeply influenced by the American frontier revival experience and has come to expect that everyone should have a conversion ‘experience’ including children raised in godly homes. And, in many evangelical churches, this is the expectation.


But it is surely a striking thing to notice how little support for that model or paradigm of the salvation of covenant children may be found in the Bible.


David speaks in Ps 22:9 of trusting in the Lord from his mother’s breasts.


The author of Ps 71 says to the Lord: ‘from birth I have trusted in you.’


Paul reminds Timothy that from his infancy he has known the Scriptures which are able to make men wise unto salvation.


In fact, I have searched the Scriptures to find a clear-cut example of covenant children, that is, children of believing and godly parents, converted in adolescence or young adulthood, and have found only one unambiguous case–and there is such a clear reason for this, that it hardly serves the point.  I am speaking of the brothers and sisters of the Lord, who did not believe in him, but, after the resurrection are found with the disciples in the Upper Room according to Acts 1.  It is not too much to say, I think, that in God’s providence, they were kept from believing so as to be decisive witnesses to their brother’s resurrection!


Now, don’t mistake me.  I’m not saying that it never happens that covenant children are converted in their later childhood, or adolescence, or young adulthood.  Of course some are.  I merely point out that that is not the Biblical expectation or model.


And, ordinarily, in godly homes, as a matter of simple fact and observation: children grow up believing in the Lord from their earliest recollection. It was the case with me and with my brother and sisters; and, no doubt, with some of you; and it is the case with my own children who, like me, have never known a day when they were outside of the family of the Lord and cannot remember a time when they stepped into it from the outside.




  1. The Fourth principle is that our children are by the stipulation of God’s covenant, members of the church. I will be brief here.




  1. Circumcision in the Old Testament was a sign of membership in the family of God and was, of course, given to the infant sons of Israel as a sign of their membership.  So is baptism in the new epoch.
  2. When the church in the Old Testament gathered to enter into covenant with the Lord, regularly the children, even the infants, were required to be present, because they were part of the Lord’s people. Cf. Deut 29:9-15
  3. When Paul writes to the saints and the church in Ephesus, he means to include the children, as it is clear later in chapter 6 when, in breaking down the church into its constituent parts, he includes husbands, wives, parents, and children, and addresses each part of the church separately with admonitions appropriate to each.
  4. Jesus himself said that such children belong the kingdom of God, in Matt 18:13-15.
  5. And, then, it is worth pointing out that there is not in all the 66 books of the bible even a whisper that children had to reach a certain age, or have a certain kind of experience before they could ‘join the church.’ They already belonged; and their task was not to get in, but to live as a son or daughter of the covenant should.




  1. The fifth principle, then, is that believing parents are charged by the Lord to raise their children for him and for the covenant.




  1. We read of God’s promise to be Abraham’s God and the God of his children in Genesis 17.  In the next chapter, in 18:19 we read of the means God will employ to make his gracious purposes come to pass.  ‘For I have chosen Abraham, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’
  2. We know the great challenge of Deut 6:4-9: ‘These commandments I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, when you lie down and when you get up.’ And there are many such passages in the Book of Deuteronomy.
  3. And what of such passages in the Psalms as 78:3-8?
  4. The entire book of Proverbs is pre-pubescent training for children in a godly Israelite home.
  5. Paul orders the parents in the church in Ephesus to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.


And so on.  When God promised to be our children’s God, he also provided the means to bring that great blessing to pass; and chief among those means, is the godly nurture that covenant children receive by word and by example from their parents in their home.




  1. The 6th, and last of these principles is that the Bible stresses the direct connection between the faithful nurture of covenant children and the working of divine grace within their hearts and the awakening of spiritual life.


Just as God has appointed instrumentalities by which to bring the unchurched and unsaved to himself–such as witness-bearing, the preaching of the Word, the reading of the Bible, etc.–and just as he has appointed instrumentalities which are absolutely necessary to the continuation of that new Christian in faith and Christian life—such as discipleship, prayer, fellowship, the encouragement of the church, the correction of his errors by godly discipline, etc.–so God has established instrumentalities by which his grace accomplishes its purposes in the lives of the children of believing people.  And these instrumentalities–training, instruction, a holy example, prayer, discipline, etc.–have, in the economy of God, a direct relationship to the salvation of these children.


Not that our children are saved by our works; not at all; but that God’s gracious promise is realized through means; means which include faithful parental nurture.  Just as the Bible can say of the lost outside of the church, even given all that it has said about election and the sovereignty of divine grace: how shall they call upon the Lord if no one preaches the Gospel to them; so it can say of covenant children, how can they grow up in faith and love unless they receive godly nurture.


The Bible makes this connection in both ways:




  1. First, positively:




  1. e.g. Gen 18:19 (we already read)… nb the ‘so that the Lord will bring…
  2. Ps 78:7-8: nb the ‘then they will put their trust in God…’
  3. Ps 103:17-18: the Lord’s love is with those who fear him from everlasting to everlasting; and his righteousness unto children’s children’, with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.
  4. Titus 1:6: godly nurture will result in believing children.
  5. As well as all the proverbial wisdom, e.g. Proverbs 22:6




  1. Negatively




  1. Eli: did not restrain his sons
  2. David: no accident that in the biblical narrative 2 Sam 13 follows chapter 12.
  3. 1 Kings 1:6: re Adonijah, David’s rebellious son. A reason is offered: ‘David had never interfered with his son by asking: ‘Why do you behave as you do?’


Now, there is not time tonight adequately to provide the biblical balance.  Sometime when covenant children rebel and live and die in unbelief, it is not only Christian parents who are at fault.  It may well be the whole church, and its minister, and other members of the family. Furthermore, God’s grace sometimes reaches families when the children are older, or saves but one parent and leaves the other unconverted, and this, no doubt, has a great effect upon the spiritual condition of the children.  God’s grace remains free.  But, it cannot be gainsaid that the bible draws a direct and immediate connection between the spiritual life of the church’s children and the nurture in the faith by word and example that those children receive in the church and in the home.


Now, having set out the biblical data and the corporate and family perspective that saving grace is given in the Bible, let me finish with several implications or applications of these great facts.




  1. First, it ought to be the cause of immense joy to parents that God has made such a promise to us. No one in the world means more to us than our children. They are, as the Puritan John Flavel put it, just a piece of ourselves wrapped up in another skin; the thought that we should be populating hell when we bring children into the world is too terrible to contemplate.  But God is also a father and knows a father’s love.  And in his great love for us, and in his great love for the family which he has made so fundamental to human society and well-being, he has declared himself to be our children’s God and called upon us to bring them up for him, and promised to ratify that training and that godly example by the Spirit’s work in their hearts.
  2. Second, we ought all of us to renew with great determination our commitment to fulfill the duties of this stewardship with a full heart.  Let it never be said of us as parents, or of this congregation as the extended family of the children who grow up here, that they did not restrain him, or that they did not faithfully teach her, or that the example they set for that boy or that girl did little to adorn the faith of Christ in his or her eyes.
  3. Third, we ought to see clearly and then seize with both hands the immense advantage of this divine scheme for the progress of the kingdom of God.  It is God’s plan that this church and her families should produce for generations to come a steady stream of well taught, deeply experienced, practiced, committed, and eager Christian soldiers and workers–who will leave their homes fully equipped to fight the good fight of faith and to carry the battle to the enemy.


The Lord’s idea is that with training beginning in infancy and carried on throughout childhood and into young adulthood, these young warriors will be able to spend the whole of their adult life of faith in this world—not preparing for the battle, but waging it.


Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of this church, what its children could do for Christ and his kingdom, if from infancy, each one of them, in grateful dependence upon the promise of God, is prepared to love and serve the Lord to the maximum extent of the potential God has put within them.