Forming Covenant Identity in Children
Benjamin W. Miller
Covenant identity" is a particular way of answering the hard questions, "Who am I? Who or what defines me as a person? Who or what makes me who I am?" To see what is so particular about the "covenant" way of answering such questions, it may help to reflect on how people in our world generally tackle the problem of personal identity, how they go about answering these hard questions.
It is a fairly sacred idea in our world that each individual (including each child) has a "right" to self-discovery, self-definition, and self-determination. I have a right not just to find out who I am, but also to define who I am and to determine what I shall be and what I shall do.
The biblical view, by contrast, is that God, as the Creator of human life, defines what it means to be human. He determines what is right and good for his human creatures in general, and determines the personality, potentials, and destiny of each human person in particular. It is thus the duty of each person to discover God's defining purposes for him or her, both as a human being and as a particular human person.
Specifically, God made his human creatures for two purposes. First, he made us to commune with him. We can call this the cultic dimension of lifethe sphere of worship or devotion. Second, he made us to take dominion over the rest of his creation. We can call this the cultural dimension of lifethe sphere of work, cultivation, or service (see Gen. 2:15).
On the biblical view, then, to know who I am (to form an accurate conception of my identity) requires that I know myself as a human person created, defined, and determined by God. But this is not all. Out of the mass of rebel human creatures, God has chosen a people to whom he wills to relate, not only as Creator, but also as loving Redeemer. They belong to him, and he to them, in bonds of everlasting love and fellowship. They are not only part of his creation, but also part of his covenant of grace.
These people are visibly identified as the households of those who profess the Christian faith, on whom God places his covenant name in baptism. They are nourished on Christ, the covenant Mediator, as he gives himself to his people through the means of grace in his church. Their lives are progressively renovated to worship God (cultus) and to work for God (culture). So then, for those who are baptized (for those in God's covenant), a proper sense of identity involves knowing that they are chosen by God to receive grace and inherit glory with all his people, and that they are called to live with God and for God forever with all his people, fulfilling the purposes for which he made his human creatures.
Why Is Covenant Identity Important?
The importance of covenant identity can be explained both negatively and positively. Negatively, if the church doesn't form the identity of its children, someone else will. If our children are not transformed by the identity their Creator and Redeemer gives them, they will be conformed to the identity offered them by the world. If they do not think of themselves as subjects of the King of kings, they will soon live in practice as rebels. This should sober us. The church today is losing its youth to a considerable degree; their personal identity is not being formed as it should be by creation and covenant, by their participation in the history of God's people. (Check your teen's Facebook page if you have doubts.)
Positively, well-formed identity leads to well-formed living, to human life as God intended it, to flourishing human existence. Children who know who they are will know what they should do; their sense of identity will lead them to lay hold of the blessings and obligations given to them by their covenant Lord. A robust sense of "being" will lead to vigorous "becoming."
How Is Covenant Identity Formed?
What follows is not intended as an eight-step program! It simply represents various aspects or components of the identity-forming work of parents, pastors, and teachers in the covenant.
1. Faith. We need to ask ourselves, as we come to our living rooms, classrooms, or pulpits, whether we expect God to do anything. Has he not promised to use his Word to convert and build up his people (Isa. 55:10-11)? Has he not promised that his Word will be effective in the lives of generations of his people (Isa. 59:21)?
2. Prayer. The apostle Paul articulates the yearning of every teacher of the gospel: "pray for us" (see Col. 4:2-4).
3. Example. We sometimes rely too much on talking to our children. Covenant identity is something they need to see modeled before them. They need to see that we love our God, that we talk with him, that we walk before him with conscious awareness of his eye upon us, that we enjoy worshiping him, that we treasure his name upon us, that we admire his works, that we hope in his promises, that we listen to his Word, that we work for him, that we identify ourselves with his people, their history, and their future, and that we love righteousness and hate sin. One who is unmotivated cannot motivate. If our children do not see us moved by God's creating us and covenanting with us, they will never be enthusiastic about these things. Our being who we are will help them understand and embrace who they are.
4. Instruction. This being said, it should be obvious that in our example there is a very strong verbal component. Our children are not simply to see our lives, but also to hear from us the Word of their covenant God. We are to talk particularly about "the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done" (Ps. 78:4). This is primarily a matter of retelling the great story of redemption and teaching our children (1) to appropriate for themselves the redemption of God (youth tend to see sin more in others and in their world, but they can also be taught to see the significance of Jesus' blood for their own sins), and (2) to look for, and expect, similar works of God in their own time. We must observe with them, too, God's mighty works of creation, and impress upon them that he made this world for them to cultivate for his glory.
5. Enactment. We are not just to tell our children the story of the covenant God and his people, but also to enact the rituals in which that history is reenacted and brought forward. Every worship service is a reenactment of the history of redemption (God's calling his people, "passing over" his people, speaking to his people, feeding his people, blessing his people). Particularly at the Lord's Supper, we reenact the Exodus, the feast of God with his people at Sinai, the last feast of our Lord with his disciples before death, and the events of Calvary and the Resurrection; and we rehearse for the wedding feast of the Lamb. As we daily rehearse the faith of the church and the law of our God in family worship, our children will ask, as those in ancient Israel asked, "Why do you do these things?" (see Ex. 12:26-27; 13:14-16; Deut. 6:20-25).
6. Discussion. We must not just talk at our children; we must talk with them. We must ask questions, listen to the answers, and not "shut our children down" if they don't answer correctly! (Here note Jesus' example, as the master of dialogical teaching.)
7. Habits. At the heart of covenant identity is "walking with God," and there is no real walking with God without habits, patterns of life, forms, and rituals. This means regular prayer, family reading, weekly worship, tithing, catechismdoing the things over and over. Habits are inculcated by example, instruction, and even discipline.
8. Enjoyment. If anything should mark the lives of those who know their identity as blood-bought, redeemed human creatures, it is joyjoy in God, in his works, in his Son our Redeemer, and in his world. Covenant identity, and the life that flows out of it, must involve our human affections and aesthetic sense, as well as our minds. Some closing observations from Doug Jones may here be in order:
Reformed rationalism exalts the alleged precision of intellect over imagination and the mysteries of bodily sense, with the result that an anti-aestheticism dominates Reformed people. Aesthetic appreciation becomes at most a marginal, high-brow practice, not a feature of day-to-day life. Rationalism has to exclude whatever it can't efficiently capturenamely, the most interesting parts of life. And we wonder why our children turn away.... Reformed rationalism exalts duty and obedience over love and joy with the result that a deep seriousness dominates Reformed people. Seriousness is often taken to be the supreme Reformed virtue, and playfulness and childishness get pushed aside as inappropriate, as not reflective of the ultimate, serious reality, the God of gavels.... Pure duty allows no room for the exhilaration of play; it's too messy and superfluous. And we wonder why our children turn away. (To You and Your Children, edited by Benjamin K. Wikner, pp. 220-22)
The author is associate pastor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Franklin Square, N.Y. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2010.