This week the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland held its 211th annual meeting of Synod, when all the ministers and representative ruling elders of each of the congregations in Ireland met together to review the work and finances of the church. This year was special however because on Wednesday afternoon we held a service of covenant renewal.
This biblical practice of covenanting is something that the Reformed Presbyterian Church has always engaged in throughout its history, particularly at times of revival or times of crisis (hence the name ‘Covenanter,’ often used interchangeably of our denomination). We see the church in Scripture periodically responding to God’s covenant of grace by renewing her covenant with the Lord, recommitting herself to be loyal to the demands of his Word no matter what the cost (e.g. Deut 29; Josh 24; Neh 10). Covenant renewal is an opportunity to nail our colours to the mast, both confessing our sins as a church and pledging our loyalty and love to our covenant Lord.
Covenant renewal may sound like a dry legal or commercial transaction, but nothing could be further from the truth. A covenant is a bond of love – the response of a guilty sinner saved by grace who pledges himself to walk in the ways the Lord has set out. As my fellow minister Mark Loughridge has described it, it is a little bit like a man whose wife has gone through a traumatic, life-altering car crash that has left her disabled and incapacitated in all kinds of ways, who wants to renew his marriage vows—to say to his wife and to the world ‘Our circumstances may have changed but my love for you has not and will not’.
That’s what lay behind our Synod’s covenant renewal this week. We recognise that the circumstances in which we serve the Lord have changed: our nation has departed even further from the standards of God’s holy Law by legalising the murder of the unborn, by its utter disregard for the Lord’s Day, by its redefinition of God’s institution of marriage, by its profound confusion of manhood and womanhood, by the failure of our fellow citizens to humble themselves and seek God in repentance in the face of a pandemic that has devastated the economy and the welfare of our nation. The moral and religious landscape of Ireland has changed almost out of all recognition in the space of a few decades—but it makes no difference to our covenant commitment and loyalty and love for the Lord Jesus Christ. By the grace of God and the empowering of his Holy Spirit, we will serve him gladly, faithfully and steadfastly no matter what the cost in these days of declension.
After the preaching of the Word and a period of corporate prayer of adoration, thanksgiving and confession, the members of Synod came forward to sign their names to the covenant document. You may be interested to read our solemn undertaking and so I give it here in full. May the Lord give us the strength to pay the vows we have made to him in the presence of all his people!
2022 COVENANT COMMITMENT
As members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland we believe that public covenanting with God is a biblical duty; a solemn restating of our commitment to God in the light of changing circumstances facing the church and the nation.
We live in a world of rapidly changing values, both spiritual and moral, where increasing pressure is placed upon Christians to conform. In this context we believe it is time publicly to recommit ourselves in our allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ. By His grace and strength may we be found faithful to God and to the testimony which He has committed to us.
Therefore, we resolve to engage in the solemn work of renewing our covenant commitment to the Lord, after making acknowledgement of our sins before Him.
Acknowledgement of Sins
We desire to humble ourselves before God on account of the sins of the nations in which we live. The Mediatorial Kingship of Christ over the nations is not acknowledged and the Law of God is rejected in national life.
We grieve over the secularism which has come to dominate our nations: a total rejection of God’s ways and God’s Word. We grieve over the systematic eradication of God’s design for humanity: the devaluing and destruction of human life at its beginning and end; the redefining of marriage, and the recasting of sexuality and gender as matters of personal choice rather than divine gift; the pervasiveness of pornography; the loss of the Sabbath as a day holy to the Lord for physical rest and spiritual refreshment. We grieve that these things are celebrated as progress, and the Word of God, the standard for all truth, is neglected and replaced by ideologies which lead only to darkness. We grieve that in the turmoil of the pandemic and many other trials our nations have not humbled themselves under God’s mighty hand.
The sins of our nations are very great and call down the righteous judgment of Almighty God.
We also humble ourselves before God on account of the sins of the churches in our nations.
We lament and reject the errors of liberal Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and the ‘prosperity gospel’. We lament the dishonour brought on Christ by the abuses of power carried out under the name of Christianity— evil perpetuated by those in authority against the weak and vulnerable. We lament the departure from God’s Word by some in response to the pressures of society—the eternal Word of God treated as outmoded and in need of revision. We lament that many who profess Christ live like the world. We lament the fractured nature of Christ’s church and the lack of unity that there has often been within congregations and between denominations.
In appearing before the Holy One of Israel to renew our covenant with Him, we as members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church do so with a deep sense of our own sins. We confess the lack of godliness in our own souls, the feebleness of our love for Christ and for His people, and our want of deep heartfelt interest in the advancement of His glory on earth. We have been proud of our practice and heritage, yet we have failed to submit to Christ as King of every part of our lives. We have not grown as we ought in the likeness of Christ; we have not prized the Word of God as we ought; our prayers have often been cold and lifeless; we have not been sufficiently zealous for the spread of the gospel on this island; and we have not depended as we ought on the power of the Holy Spirit in all our duties.
On account of these and many other sins of which we as a church are guilty in God's sight, we humble ourselves before God and, encouraged by the riches of divine mercy, we implore forgiveness through our Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood cleanses from all sin, and seek His grace that we might forsake sin and follow holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
Identification with the Historic Covenants
Not only do we see covenanting in Scripture, but we look back with thanksgiving to the movements of God's Spirit which led His people to enter into the National Covenant of Scotland (1638) and the Solemn League and Covenant of England, Scotland and Ireland (1643). The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland regards the principles of these covenants as still binding, unreservedly accepts the obligation imposed by those covenants and grieves because those covenants have been repudiated by the nation to its incalculable loss. Today we still recognise the duty of covenant response in the light of God's ever abiding Covenant of Grace within which we are confronted with the claims of Christ, our rightful King.
As we enter into covenant with the Lord we recognise that all these duties are required of every Christian by virtue of the Covenant of Grace and that we do not bind ourselves to anything additional to that which is required in the Word of God, but we additionally bind ourselves to that which is already our duty.
Acknowledging our proneness to failure and our on-going need for forgiving and equipping grace, we pray that the Holy Spirit would enable us to keep our covenant vows:
1. We accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith and practice. We recognise afresh that it needs no adjustment for our times, but that we must adjust in conformity to it. We will submit to the authority of the Word, give attention to the reading and preaching of that Word and with the help of the Holy Spirit endeavour to obey every commandment of the Lord willingly and joyfully. We will reject every doctrine and ideology that is contrary to the Word of God.
2. We believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the only Redeemer of men, supreme in church and state, and in dependence on divine grace we take Him as our Saviour and Lord. By His grace, we will submit to His Kingship in every aspect of life, and we believe it is best for all human beings. In particular, despite the pressure of society, we recognise His authority in the areas of sexuality, identity, marriage, the sanctity of life, and the Sabbath Day. In all things we will seek His pre-eminence. We will pray and work for the recognition of Christ and His Law in personal, family and national life, and for the continual reformation of the church according to the Word of God.
3. We adhere to the witness and testimony of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland and will by word and life seek to commend that witness to others, whilst in love, we will seek to work alongside other believers where this is possible, seeking the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ on a scriptural basis.
4. We promise that, by the help of the Holy Spirit, we will endeavour to live lives consistent with our profession. We will seek to grow in Christ-likeness and to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, creating, by God’s grace, churches where the beauty of living under Christ’s rule is seen and experienced. We will seek to share the gospel of His glorious grace and will use our gifts for the glory of Christ and the building up of His church.
We enter into this solemn engagement before the Lord, with Him who searches hearts. We seek not our own honour. Our sole objectives are the advancement of God’s glory, the growth of personal godliness, the revival of religion and the promotion of the best interests of men and women for time and for eternity. We cast the burden of this weighty obligation upon the Lord with the humble prayer, “May your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts.” (Psalm 119:173)