“Passing the Covenant on to the Next Generation”
Deuteronomy 4:9-14 Part 2
November 21, 2021
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
We return this morning to Deuteronomy 4:9-14, with Moses speaking to the second exodus generation of Israel, before they enter the promised land.
And our text is focused on how we both receive the covenant, and pass it on to the next generation. The covenant is the structure of our relationship with God. And our text focuses on how we receive that relationship, and then how we pass a relationship with God on to our children.
Last week we looked at how we receive the covenant relationship with God. This week we are considering how we pass it on to our children – to the next generation.
Now, before anyone starts to mentally check out, let me stress that this applies to all of us – whether we have children or not. As we will see in our text, the responsibility to pass the covenant on to the next generation lies not just with parents, but with the entire covenant community – with the entire church. We all have a part to play in this, and if you think you don’t, then my challenge to you is to listen this morning, and to ask where God may be calling you to participate in this work of the Church.
Every time an infant is baptized here, I ask the members of the congregation to take a vow. And in that vow, you promise to surround that child with Christian love, to pray for her, and to set an example for her of genuine Christian faith and virtue, so that she will early in life know the reality of personal salvation and rich fellowship in the kingdom of God.
If you are a part of our church body, then this morning our text calls on you to consider what that vow means for you.
With that in mind, let’s now hear from our text: Deuteronomy 4:9-14.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
4:9 “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children— 10 how on the day that you stood before Yahweh your God at Horeb, Yahweh said to me, ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.’ 11 And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. 12 Then Yahweh spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. 13 And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. 14 And Yahweh commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Lord, you are our hiding place and our shield,
we hope in your word.
Help us to turn from all false ways,
and keep instead the commandments of you, our God.
Uphold us according to your promise, that we may live,
and let us not be put to shame in our hope.
Hold us up, that we may be safe
and have regard for your statutes continually.
For we know we will one day stand before you and give an account,
and so, with that in mind, help us now to attend to your word.
Grant this in Jesus’s name. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:114-117, 120]
The Church, in the Scriptures, is not a voluntary association. It’s not a club, or a corporation. It is a family.
The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, says that the Church is the household of God. [1 Timothy 3:15]
In that household – in that family – God is our Father. Jesus, as we read in Romans 8 and in Hebrews 2, is our elder brother. [Romans 8:29, Hebrews 2:11]. We, as individual Christians, are brothers and sisters. And the Church as an institution, as the Apostle John has implied [2 John 1; Revelation 12:17], and as Christians as ancient as Cyprian of Carthage [On the Unity of the Church 6] and as Reformed as John Calvin [Institutes IV.1.iv] have affirmed – the Church is our mother.
And that helps us understand the concept of covenant succession. Covenant succession is the biblical concept that God’s saving grace often runs in the lines of generations – that the children of believers are born into God’s family (the Church), are members of God’s family by birth, and that the Church’s calling is to nurture such children spiritually so that they grow into active and life-long members of the family of God.
It is a biblical perspective often at odds with many of the assumptions of our culture. In our culture that is so shaped by concepts of modern expressive individualism, it is often assumed as self-evident that you can only really be part of a religion once you’ve chosen it in a thoughtful and independent way. It tends to assume that religious beliefs are not really authentic or sincere unless they come from within us. It tends to assume that an understanding of God taught by parents to a child is an imposition, and cannot result in a real, genuine, relationship with God.
And if the Church were just a voluntary association of like-minded people, or a philosophical school of thought, or a political action coalition, then those assumptions would make more sense.
But if the Church is a family … if the Church is the family of God … then those assumptions of our culture quickly become odd.
Because a child does not become a part of her family by independent choice – a child is born into her family. A child’s relationship with his parents doesn’t begin when he is capable of abstract thought, but from birth – even before birth – he knows and responds to his mother and father. Family relationships are not chosen … but that doesn’t make them inauthentic. All of that is true in our individual families. And all of that is also true in the family of God.
Now, of course, change of family is possible. Someone can abandon their family. A child can be adopted into a new family later on in life. And some of us have received the covenant in a way that looks more like that.
But those realities do not nullify the truth that those who grow up in the family of God are supposed to remain in the family of God.
On one level, that is all that we mean by covenant succession: that those who are born into the covenant community of the Church – the family of God – would ordinarily know God as their Father, and remain in his family, and mature into faithful and active members of God’s people.
But all that said, there’s a complicating factor. A relationship with God is not only a natural thing. It’s also a supernatural thing. Because while we may be born into the covenant, our hearts are still conceived in sin. We are also children of Adam. And from Adam’s rebellion we have inherited hearts that are twisted away from God, in rebellion. And only God can change that – only God can change our hearts to be drawn to him instead.
Now, we know from the Scriptures that God does not restrict his work of changing someone’s heart based on their age or their mental capacity. In Psalm 22 – a psalm provided by David to God’s people, for them to sing together – in Psalm 22 the people of God who grew up in the covenant are instructed to sing together that God had called them to himself from the womb – that they have trusted God even when at their mother’s breast. [Psalm 22:9-10] In Luke’s Gospel we read of how John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit even in his mother’s womb, and leapt for joy at the presence of Christ even before he was born. [Luke 1:15,44] So we know that God does work in the hearts covenant children even from the womb.
Of course, the question becomes how those things relate to each other. We know that we, as the family of God, are called to raise children born in the church as members of God’s family – we are to raise them to know their Heavenly Father, to trust Christ their elder brother, to live in the ways of God’s family and so on.
We also know that for our children to embrace the covenant from the heart – for them to mature and continue in the ways of Christ, God must be the source of their salvation – he must do a work in them.
So how do those two things relate? How are we to understand our calling to pass the covenant on to our children?
The commands of our text are simple: Make the works and the ways of God known to your children, and your children’s children, we read in verse nine. Teach the fear of the Lord to your children, we read in verse ten. And again, this is not just for parents but for the covenant community as a whole.
As one commentator sums it up: “Each generation has the responsibility of instructing the next generation in the faith.” [Barker, 337]
What does that look like as it plays out?
To answer that question, let’s consider four metaphors: three of which are not like covenant succession, and one of which is.
Covenant Succession Is Not a Slot Machine
First, covenant succession is not like a slot machine.
Have you ever watched someone play a slot machine for a while? There’s this combination of attentiveness and helplessness in it.
What I mean is that there is attention there – right? Their eyes are focused. They’re looking at the reels, they’re watching the symbols that come up. And then the minute they stop spinning and the don’t match, they push the button or pull the lever again. They are focused and watching attentively … but at the same time there’s a sense of helplessness in it all. Because they can’t do anything to increase their odds of winning. All they can do is keep pressing the button, keep pulling the lever, and helplessly hope that the symbols line up and they win.
And sometimes we can treat covenant succession like that. We can watch attentively for the outcomes, we can push the buttons we are called on to push … but really, in our minds, it’s all a gamble. We’re helpless to affect any real change. And so we just sit there and wait anxiously to see whether or not things will line up.
This view assumes that we are pretty inconsequential to the outcome in covenant succession.
And yet, the Bible tells us again and again, that our role matters.
Our own pastor emeritus, Pastor Rayburn, has, of course, written on this topic in several places, and preached on it many times. His Wikipedia page (and yes, he does have a Wikipedia page) refers to him as “the modern patriarch of covenant succession thinking.”
And he has helped many see the emphasis that the Bible places on our role in covenant succession.
We see it in the book of Genesis, where the faith, and sometimes the sin, of the patriarchs is passed down family lines in ways that often hinge on the conduct of the previous generation.
We see it in the law of God – including our own text – in which the people are commanded to make the works and the ways of God known to their children – a command that is given in a way that communicates that how we respond will have consequences.
We see it in the wisdom literature of the Scriptures, where Proverbs models how faithful fear of the Lord, and wise attention to God’s word is something that faithful adults are called to pass on to children within the covenant community.
We see it in numerous examples in the Scriptures and in Church history, where faithful Christians were the products of faithful Christian parenting.
It is true that God is sovereign over salvation – the Bible tells us that. But the Bible also tells us that how we disciple (or fail to disciple) covenant children matters. We cannot use one biblical truth to cancel out the other biblical truth. We must hold on to both.
Yes, God is sovereign over salvation. But God has chosen to work through means. [WSC #85-88] And one of those means is covenant nurture.
We have a key role to play in the spiritual lives of the children in our homes and in our congregation. What we do matters.
Covenant succession is not a slot machine.
That’s the first thing we need to understand about covenant succession from the Scriptures.
Covenant Succession Is Not a Lazy River
Second, covenant succession is not a lazy river.
Have you ever been on a lazy river ride? It’s this ride, often at a water park, where there’s an artificial river. And it’s usually circular, with an artificial current. And what you do is you get an inner tube at the entry point, and you get in the tube, and float out on the river, and then you just sit back, and relax, as the current takes you along.
I remember there was a lazy river at a water park that my family used to go to growing up. And my siblings and I loved it because there’d be all sorts of fun areas along the way where water was squirting at us, or bubbling up, or being poured on us as we floated along. And now, as a parent myself, I suspect that my parents really liked it because they could put us in a tube, and send us down the river … and they would float along nearby, of course … but for the most part they knew we were taken care of for a while. They didn’t have to chase after us, they didn’t have to herd or corral us, they knew where we were, and since the river was a closed system, they knew where we’d end up. Even if we tried to paddle our inner tube in a different direction, the current would overtake us. We’d end up where they wanted us to. And they could just sit back in a tube themselves, and relax for a few minutes.
And there can be a temptation among some Christians to treat covenant succession like a lazy river.
Someone else builds a system. Maybe it’s the church and it’s youth discipleship program. Maybe it’s a Christian school. Maybe it’s a parachurch children’s ministry. Maybe it’s a combination of those things. But whatever it is, someone else has built a system. And we can think of covenant nurture as simply plugging our children into that system, and then assuming everything is taken care of, and we can know where they’ll end up as a result. We enroll them in the right combination of programs, and now we can sit back and relax. The current of the system will carry them along. We’ve done our part by getting them in the tube and shoving them our into the artificial current.
But covenant succession is not like that. Covenant nurture is not something that can be accomplished by a program. It’s not something that can be outsourced to a Christian camp or a Christian school. Our own families don’t work that way, and so how could we think that God’s family would?
In our families, relationships are complicated, and take work and cultivation, and we can’t expect a program to establish a healthy set of family relationships. In the same way, a child’s relationship not only to the Church as Mother, but to God as Father and Christ as elder brother must be cultivated – it takes work and is complicated, and it must engage each child as a unique individual, not like just one more body in an inner tube.
And we see this in our text. God does not call for an external program to accomplish covenant succession. A program might be a part of the process – don’t get me wrong. But it cannot be the heart of it. God expects covenant succession to happen in the details of real life and real relationships. He expects each person to be teaching the children around them the fear of the Lord, as he says in verse ten. He expects each person to tell them about the works and ways of the Lord, as he says in verse nine.
It is not a task where we sit back and do nothing – but one that requires continued engagement. Hear how Moses describes it in Deuteronomy 6 – concerning the words of God he says: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.” [Deuteronomy 6:7-9a]
That is very active language.
Covenant succession is not a lazy river.
Covenant Succession Is Not a Cake Recipe
But third, covenant succession is also not a cake recipe.
Over the years, my wife and I have watched a number of episodes of “The Great British Baking Show” – this show that involves competitions between amateur bakers in the U.K.
And in each round of the competition each person bakes something, and then, they each have to present the results of their work to the judges. And the judges make an assessment.
And what’s striking is that when they do, there’s never any mystery as to why the result came out the way it did. If the cake is perfect, then the judges go on about each element that they got right. But if there’s a problem with the cake, a skilled judge is always able to tell them the mistakes they made – whether they baked it at too high a temperature, or didn’t leave it in the oven long enough, or used too much of an ingredient, or not enough of an ingredient, or the wrong flavor combination, or something else.
The baker is in control of everything – the ingredients, the recipe, the temperatures, the time, and then how accurately they bring them altogether – and so any mistake in the final product can always be traced back to a mistake made by the baker – either in how they formulated the recipe or in how they carried it out.
That’s how a cake recipe works: get the right recipe, and follow it just right, and the results are all in your control.
Joel Belz, the founder of World Magazine and a former moderator of our denomination, is helpful in exposing our tendency to approach covenant succession in this way.
When it comes to raising our children in the faith, “What we long for, of course,” Belz writes, “is a formula. Take three cups of A, half a teaspoon of B, a dash of C, and stir vigorously for seventeen years. Presto, out comes an absolutely perfect son or daughter. In other words,” he says, “we want to be able, with a high degree of certainty, to predict the future about our children. And being more inclined toward naturalistic solutions than we are toward supernaturalistic ones, we hurry to formulate our recipes to make sure we are doing everything right at this end, so we can be absolutely sure everything will come out just right on the other end. And when it doesn’t? We hurry back and reformulate our recipes.” [Belz, 279]
Belz then explains how these reformulations can go on over the course of generations. One generation has the recipe that they are convinced will produce a perfect Christian child. But when their approach fails to control every outcome, then the next generation changes it – whether slightly or radically – and is just as confident that their new formula really will control their children’s futures. And when that fails, the following generation goes through their own over-confident reformulations. “How many more readjustments will it take,” Belz writes, “before we learn that God doesn’t deal in formulas?” [Belz, 279-280]
“It is to remind us not to trust in formulas that God sometimes intrudes into our comfy routines and shatters our neat designs.” Belz states. And then he recounts a period of shattering in his own life – when, after earnestly seeking to raise his five daughters faithfully in the Lord, one of them walked away from the ways of the Lord. Belz shares how after that happened, he wrestled first with thinking over his own deficiencies in parenting. But then, after that, he wrestled with whether he was looking too much to his own role rather than relying on the mercy of God. Then, once he thought he had learned his lesson, he struggled with why God hadn’t brought her back to the faith already.
He wrestled with how much to actively pursue his daughter on matters of faith, and how much to prayerfully wait. And even as he considered how to be obedient to the Lord, he realized more and more that he could not control of the situation – and the fact was he never was in control of it. There was nothing he could do to put God in his debt. There simply was no formula – no recipe – to control the process or its final outcome. 
After two years, their daughter returned to the Lord. Though it felt like a very long time for him, Belz recognizes many mothers and fathers have waited, or continue to wait, much longer.
Still, that two years wait forced him to learn several things. He had to learn that when God makes us wait like that, “it isn’t usually so that we’ll finally get it right. [But it’s] almost always so that finally we’ll understand that we’ll never get it right.”
And so, he explains, “God weans us from thinking we know His ways, or from supposing we can chart the path that would let us wrest from Him exactly what we want, when we want it.”
“For after all,” Belz goes on, God is “quite determined not to let anybody reduce the great God of heaven to a mere formula. […] our faltering faithfulness is to be a humble response to His faultless faithfulness – never a means of earning His faithfulness in the first place.” [Belz, 285-286]
God calls his people to pass the covenant on to the covenant children of the next generation. He calls them to make the deeds and the commands of the Lord known. He gives us a calling and a responsibility. But he does not promise us control.
Covenant succession is not a formula.
Covenant succession is not a cake recipe.
Covenant Succession Is a Garden
Covenant succession is not a slot machine – we have a role to play and our input matters.
Covenant succession is not a lazy river – it’s not a system someone else constructs and we just insert our children and then we can relax and rest assured that they will end up right where they are supposed to.
Covenant succession is also not a cake recipe. It’s not a formula where we get to control every element, and so long as we get it all right, we can control both the process and the final outcome.
What then is covenant succession like?
Jesus, in his parable of the sower compared the preaching of the word to a sower sowing seed. In the parable, the same sower sowed the same seed over the ground. In some places it was eaten by the birds. In others it sprang up and then died. In others it was choked by weeds. And in others it bore much fruit.
In the parable, it mattered that the sower sowed the seed. And it mattered that it was good seed that was sown. But the final fruitfulness of his work did not lie in his efforts alone, but in the quality of the ground, and in other elements beyond the sower’s control. [Matthew 13]
The Apostle Paul gets more specific. Speaking of his own ministry along with the ministry of a man named Apollos in the same congregation, he says:
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants, nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field.” [1 Corinthians 3:5-9a]
All ministry – including covenant nurture and covenant succession – is like this. It is like planting and watering. It is like cultivating a field.
Covenant succession is a garden.
In gardening, our efforts matter, but we cannot make anything grow by our own power. The best we can do is supply what is needed for growth, and rely on God to give that growth. Our efforts do matter. But even when we do everything right, drought or blight or disaster can lead to no fruit coming from our efforts. And even when we make major mistakes, other conditions can make up for them and we can yield a great harvest despite our shortcomings. And yet, ordinarily, our efforts are key to the results – even if our efforts alone are not sufficient for the results. Our efforts matter, even though we are not in control.
And the proper response to seeing the lack of control we have is not to stop trying, but to do what God has called us to do, and then to pray for the things he has not given us the power to do.
What might this look like in day-to-day life?
Eugene Peterson, who served as a pastor for many years, writes about a time, later on in their ministry, when he and his wife were asked to speak to a group at a retreat center.
After his wife spoke, someone in the audience asked her: “Do you have any pearls of wisdom that you can give us for raising our children?”
Jan’s answer was: “Have a family meal every evening.”
“She elaborated by telling of a women’s retreat she had led a few years before. Her subject was […] hospitality. But she had decided to be as specific and down-to-earth as she could. No generalities, and no big goals like taking in strangers or working in a soup kitchen for the homeless, but just zero in on one manageable task: gather the family for the evening meal. Every evening.
“‘I know that it might be difficult,’ [she said] but it should be possible to get everyone away from the TV in their rooms [this was before smartphones] […] to eat together. A time to gather the events of the day into conversation, to enter into the mutuality of passing and receiving, of stories, potatoes, carrots, and pork chops. Share food and conversation with one another. Listen to one another. Receive a blessing.’”
With that background, Jan then returned her attention to the person at this later retreat – the person who had asked her for a “pearl of wisdom” on raising their children, and she said: “There are no ‘pearls’ out there that you can use – no scripture verses to hand out, advice to guide, prayers to tap into. As we live and give witness to Jesus to our children and to whoever else, we are handing out seeds, not pearls, and seeds need soil in which to germinate. A meal is soil just like that. It provides a daily relational context in which everything you say and don’t say, feel or don’t feel, God’s word and snatches of gossip, gets assimilated along with the food and becomes you, but not you by yourself – you and your words and acts embedded in acts of love and need, acceptance and doubt. Nothing is abstract or in general when you are eating a meal together. You realize, don’t you, that Jesus didn’t drop pearls around Galilee for people as clues to find their way to God or their neighbors. He ate meals with them. And you can do what Jesus did. Every evening, take and receive the life of Jesus around your table.” [Peterson, 195]
That’s one form the spiritual gardening of covenant nurture might take. Of course, if family meals are not possible due to your circumstances, it can take another form.
But what Jan Peterson describes in a unified way, it might be helpful to break down into its parts. We might think of these as the different tasks, or the different kinds of seeds, used in the spiritual gardening of covenant nurture.
Pastor Rayburn, in one sermon, identifies four elements. He writes: “the nurture of faith in a covenant child’s heart […] is equal parts instruction, discipline, example, and the atmosphere of a home in which the love of God and the joy of salvation are dominating principles.” [Rayburn, “An Emphasis … Part 1”]
First, we are to instruct our covenant children in the works and the ways of the Lord. This can take many forms, but the most important aspect of it is that it happens. Whether in formally organized devotions, or in intentional conversations along the way, we are to instruct covenant children in the faith, that they might know the things of the Lord.
Second, we are to discipline our children. There are to be clear rules for them, and consequences for disobedience. In our discipline we must actively resist the pulls to be too harsh, or too lax, or both. [Rayburn, “An Emphasis …– Part 2”] In our rules we must resist the temptation to stray from the Word of God, or to sever consequences from the grace of the gospel.
Third, we are to live as examples before covenant children. They see what we do. And they see what we don’t do. And we are to live in such a way that not only our words, but our deeds preach the gospel to them. This means not just seeking to do what is right. But it especially means that when we fail, when we sin – and especially when we sin against them – we admit it. We confess our sins openly, without defensiveness, as a Christian should. We ask those we sin against – including our children – for forgiveness. We let them see us seeking forgiveness from other people and from God. [Rayburn and Nicoletti, 79]
Fourth, we try to cultivate an atmosphere in our homes “in which the love of God and the joy of salvation are dominating principles.” Or, as Pastor Rayburn has put it elsewhere: we seek to create an atmosphere in our life together “that has enough of heaven in it to make [our] children want to go there.” [Rayburn, “An Emphasis … Part 2”] This speaks not just to the holiness of our life together, but to the joy of our life together. For true holiness cannot be separated from joy.
And, of course, every element is to be rooted in our love and affection for our children. For it is love that will change their hearts. J.C. Ryle’s second point on The Duties of Parents is to “train up your child with all tenderness, affection, and patience.”
Under that heading he writes:“Sternness and severity of manner chill [our children] and throw them back. It shuts up their hearts, and you will weary yourself to find the door. But let them only see that you have an affectionate feeling towards them—that you are really desirous to make them happy, and do them good— […] and they will soon be all your own. But they must be wooed with kindness if their attention is ever to be won.
“Anger and harshness may frighten,” […] [and] “it is a dangerous thing to make your children afraid of you. Anything is almost better than reserve and constraint between your child and yourself; and this will come in with fear. Fear puts an end to openness of manner—fear leads to concealment—fear sows the seed of much hypocrisy, and leads to many a lie.”
“Love is one grand secret of successful training!” [4-5]
Now once again, no one will do these things perfectly. But the call is not to do them perfectly. The call is to seek to do them faithfully. To repent and try again when we fail. And to trust the whole time that the power lies in God, not in us.
For our part, our efforts will look different with every stage of life, and as we attend to the unique attributes of each child. We must attend to the plant before us with its strengths and weaknesses – not to what we think the plant should already be. We must respond to the circumstances we face, not the circumstances we’d prefer. We must admit there is much below the surface we cannot see. But God knows what is there – whether unseen problems, or unseen life. We must trust God to know what we cannot know, and to do what we cannot do.
But what are the tasks of instruction, discipline, example, atmosphere, and affection that you are called to towards the covenant children close to you, right now?
What are the tasks of spiritual gardening that you need to attend to?
Where do you need to repent of looking for pearls (for spiritual silver bullets), and begin the more ordinary work of sowing seeds … seeds which may not bear fruit right away … seeds which may not bear fruit for a long time … but seeds which will go into the soil … and lay there … and if God wills it, can bear fruit one day in the future?
Slot machines are attractive, because when we lose, we can simply blame the machine.
Lazy rivers are attractive, because as long as we push our children in, we can rest assured that the current will take them to the right end.
Cake recipes are attractive, because we get to have total control, and as long as we get it right, everything will turn our perfectly.
Gardening is harder. It requires us to plant and to water, though we cannot control the outcome. It calls us to be attentive and responsive to the needs that arise. It calls us to know the soil and the plant. It calls us to do what we can to cultivate the land, and then to prayerfully rely on the Lord to give growth, and to bring fruit.
That is the work that God has called us to with our covenant children – in our families and in our congregation.
So plant faithfully. And water faithfully. And look to the Lord to give the growth.
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