Am Yisroel chai, the people of Israel live, is an oft-recited dictum, an anthem, of the Jews.
A small group of Orthodox rabbis made the news recently when they held a press conference to declare that the Orthodox alone are true Jews. It was the fact that they would say such a thing that made it news. For, traditionally, every Jew looks on every other Jew as equally Jewish, though not equally faithful. The Orthodox have always been the default definers of Jewish ways and practices, but those deviating from Orthodox practice were never regarded as non-Jewish, only as non-observant. That is, there was a comprehensive set of obligations incumbent upon them as Jews, whether or not they met those obligations.
This view of things puts the covenant before the people, and the people before the individual. Am Yisroel chai. And every Jew is born and raised to view himself as part of that people. Not for an instant may a Jew think of himself as having meaning, value, or even existence, apart from the called community. Edith Schaeffer might call this a way of seeing; Billy Joel would call it a state of mind; I call it covenant consciousness, and it is the missing element in today's Christian world.
This Jewish "way of seeing" involves three things which appear (some would say supernaturally) in the psyche of every Jew. One, the primacy of the covenant. It is the covenant which gave birth to you, not vice versa. You are a product of the promise and grace of God. The covenant he made with our ancestors has now come down to you. The covenant came first; therefore, it comes first.
Second, that covenant means there is a calling upon you, as there is upon every other covenant descendant. That calling is all-embracing and comprehensive. You may never escape that calling. Whether you obey it and abide in it, or resist it, deny it or leave it, it is that which God has placed upon you as an objective obligation, telling you what you must believe and what you must do. This is sealed forever in your circumcision. When a nonobservant Jew returns to honor his long-neglected covenant obligations, he is given an honored title: baal teshuvah, or, master of repentance. He has returned to that calling which always stood outside and above him.
Third, you cannot fulfill this calling or honor this covenant apart from the community. It is not you as an absolute individual whom God has called, but you as a member of a people. Am Yisroel chai.
This consciousness stands in rather stunning contrast to the hyper-individualism which characterizes the church at the close of the twentieth century. One might even say that we Christians have managed to reverse the order: First, me and God (my decision is the critical factor). Second, a church (if I choose to join one, which I might or might not regularly attend). Third, a word from God, a Law-Word. Today, it's every man for himself.
Rather than seeing the church as the covenant community, we tend to see it as a collection of individuals who have done God the great service of deciding to believe in Jesus. Is it any wonder that the church is virtually impotent in 1998? We have lost even the ability to say "We." Have you ever noticed that the media report the views of every conceivable segment of our society as those of a community, every segment, that is, except the Christian. "A spokesman ("spokesman"?) for the gay community said . . ."; "The science community responded with . . ."; "The African-American community is up in arms over . . ."; "The Polish community mourns the loss of . . .", and so on. Listen as you might, you will never hear, "The Christian community [insert anything here]."
This is not the fault of the media so much as it is our own, which makes it all the more a travesty. For of all discernible groups on earth, Christians are to be those who have transcended every other principle of unity, having discovered a greater unity in Christ. Of all people, we should be the very model of community. The Pentecost miracle was designed to demonstrate that the Babel curse was being reversed, and henceforth men would find "reunification" in declaring the wonderful works of God (every Christian's pleasant pastime). Christ came to destroy the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, to make one new man out of the two. How is it we have managed to fragment to the point where we cannot identify ourselves as a Christian community, while the Jew is inescapably bound up to a view of himself as part of a people?
The answers to this question are thick and complex. Surely a principal reason is that we Christians are a people convinced that it is adherence to truth which most genuinely unites. Once creed is placed above breed, unity is less easily manifested than when the standard is a skin color, a nationality or a particular behavior. But there are other factors which come into play.
After the Enlightenment in the Christian West, God was effectively made the ultimate "Outsider," assigned a place with the unknowable. He may or may not exist, but if he does he can not communicate with us. In one swoop, the word of God, as that which intelligently interprets reality, and the God of the word, who is the source of reality, were eliminated from the chessboard. It was thence left to the individual players on the board to vie for the right or power to impose meaning on life and the universe. The Age of Romanticism completed the rejection of the objective in favor of the subjective. Since then, we are allowed only to offer views which are "true for me."
Rising alongside secular subjectivism was religious subjectivism. Revivalism in the United States and elsewhere marked the triumph of the view that only they are Christian who have had some more or less remarkable (subjective) experience. Unity was henceforth to be discovered in common experience, not in common adherence to objective truth. Secularists were/are all too happy to endorse this view of religion, for nothing will more surely keep God's claims out of the public square than the common conviction that his revelational authority is to be restricted to the individual soul. "Everyone's entitled to his opinions." Religion thus becomes a matter of mere personal preference.
As the teeth of Christianity were being extracted by Western society, the church assisted in the procedure. As alien starting points of "truth" were advanced, the church largely capitulated. Evolutionism was opposed in the most meager manner before gaining wholesale acceptance, and egalitarianism was adopted as if it was what we've always believed.
Another major factor impacting our consciousness has been the concept of "true church" (as opposed to faithful, or healthy, churches). This notion, that there is one true church, has too often been interpreted to mean one true denomination.
Is there any legitimate hope that Christians can ever be a community? Yes, indeed, there is, and it is necessary that we begin working toward that end by thinking in terms of covenant. The covenant idea in Scripture sweeps us into the realm of the manageable and the objective, in terms of which the subjective then has value and meaning. It delivers us from morbid introspectionism, on the one hand, and presumptuousness on the other. It guards us from relativism, on the one side, and arrogance, on the other. The covenant is the key by which we might be enabled to think of ourselves as a Christian community, with varying expressions of the covenant found therein, some more, some less, faithful.
Such thinking begins not with subjective experience, but rather with the objective covenant calling. Every person lawfully baptized has the same objective calling placed upon him. This is the heart of the matter and must be the starting point of our thinking about Christianity and the church. For calling, you see, is God-initiated. When an adult convert or a covenant child is baptized, each is brought to a meeting with Christ wherein the Name of the Triune God is placed upon him, and at which time he is formally brought under the all-encompassing obligations of the covenant: to believe all God has said and to obey all God has commanded.
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that this obligation rests upon all covenant members alike, for this is the very foundation of discipleship, yea, the foundation of all correct preaching. Klaas Schilder has well said that "in the arena of preaching, the covenant idea has reserved all seats" and that all preaching "in fact has to take its starting point in the covenant."
All men outside Christ stand with Adam under God's wrath and curse in the broken covenant of creation. To them we declare God's command that they repent and come into the New Covenant, the new relationship established by God in Christ, in whom all promises are yea and amen. All men who are lawfully baptized in the Triune Name are in the New Covenant, the new relationship opened up by God through Christ.
This does not mean that all are elect, in the narrow sense, or that all are saved, in the subjective sense. All, however, are under the objective requirements of the new Covenant. It is absolutely essential that there be an objective ground to the covenant, else all is lost from the start. For who can speak infallibly about the election or regeneration of any other? The secret things belong to the Lord, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children, that we might believe all he has revealed, and that we might obey all that he has commanded.
Proper thinking about Christianity, therefore, must start with the covenant. To take our starting point in election is to begin with the unknowable; to take our starting point in regeneration is to begin with the unproveable. But to take our starting point in the covenant is to begin on the most solid of all ground. For in the covenant, God's conditions of favor, and God's threats of punishment, may be freely declared, without fear of contradiction. Covenant thinking begins with God's requirements, not with my experience.
It is not surprising that those who take their starting point in election stumble at the idea of conditions. Paul's "if" statements in the New Testament pose insurmountable difficulties for them. "He has now reconciled you . . . if you continue in the faith" (Col. 1:22-23). But here Paul merely echoes his Savior, who had said "to those Jews who had believed Him, 'If you abide in my word, then you are truly My disciples'" (Jn. 8:31). The condition is genuine. If you continue, you'll inherit what is promised. If you do not, you will inherit what is threatened. For the doctrine of election is not revealed to obviate the covenant, but to assure us that those who do continue, do so because of the determination and power of God himself, not because of any goodness or merit inherent in themselves. Election establishes grace, not license, and the covenant is the guardian of grace and righteousness.
If this be so, then we can see that in the New Testament era we have circumstances quite analogous to those in the Old Testament. We have a people of God, objectively considered, a New Israel, yet a people very uneven in their responses to God's calling. Some believe and obey blamelessly, as did Elizabeth and Zacharias (Lk. 1:5, 6). Some deny the sovereign Lord who bought them (2 Pet. 2:1). And there are those who occupy every point between the poles.
The Westminster Confession is undoubtedly correct when it says of the elect and the reprobate: "These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished." But just who occupies these categories is known to God alone. We are called to administer God's covenant, not God's election. And in the covenant there is movement, both in and out.
This way of seeing, this state of mind, this covenant consciousness, means that we recognize that — yes, even in the New Covenant — there are covenant keepers and covenant breakers, those who carefully observe the precepts and doctrines of our Lord, and those who do not. We cannot with certainty determine if "professors" are or are not elect; we certainly must observe if they are or are not faithful (1 Cor. 5:9-13).
Down to a case: The Roman Catholic Church is properly regarded as the New Covenant equivalent of Northern Israel which, compared to Judah, had twice the population and nearly three times the territory. But she was unfaithful. God sent prophets to her again and again, but the Northern Kingdom loved idolatry and remained apostate. Yet there were God-fearers dwelling there. Similarly, as long as the Roman Church continues to exist, she may be regarded as Northern Israel, in covenant, but daily breaking the terms of that covenant, standing in need of being called to repentance according to the terms of that covenant. (Sadly, Rome has been joined in her infidelity by perhaps the greater portion of North American mainstream Protestantism.)
Those Reformed churches which have held fast to the historic creeds and confessions must learn to think of themselves, not as the sole heirs of the covenant, but as the definers of correct covenant faith and practice. As such, they properly call upon all professing Christians to become Reformed, for the objective terms of the covenant are most diligently complied with in our communions.
We must always be open to correcting our faith and practice if it is shown to be less than God requires, or if it presumes to ask more than God demands. Until now, however, no objector has succeeded in demonstrating that the Reformed Faith, as a whole, is anything other than thoroughly God-honoring and Biblical. Thus, with clear conscience, we call all to come inhabit its halls and precincts. Jerusalem is a fair city. All the while we recognize that there are other cities in Judah, and yes, there is even a Northern Kingdom. We look forward to their repentance and the cessation of their idolatries, so provocative to our God.
In the meantime, we think it is judicious to borrow a frame of mind from the Jews. When I was a (nonobservant) boy, I was riding my bike on a high holiday. It didn't occur to me that this was contrary to Jewish practice; I was just a dumb kid with a day off from public school. I rode from Bensonhurst (where all kinds of Jews lived) over into Boro Park (where two kinds of Jews live: Orthodox and ultra-orthodox). Just about everyone in Boro Park was in shul (synagogue). But one observant Jew on his way to shul taught me a lesson in covenant I will never forget, and that without a word. An imposing figure, he was tall and wide, dressed in a white shirt with a black suit and a black silken robe, a long beard and payoth (side curls, as per their reading of Lev. 19:27). When he saw me, a Jewish boy (the face, even then, was a dead giveaway), riding through a Jewish community on one of our holy days, he stopped still in the middle of the street. With a pained look upon his face, he held out his hands, palms up and out toward me, and shouted with his eyes alone, "How could you? You're a Jew. What are you doing desecrating the day God gave us?" I was not my own.
The most orthodox Jews do not regard themselves as the only Jews, just the most observant. They long for others to join them in covenant faithfulness. So, too, in the New Israel, there are covenant observers, and (alas) covenant breakers, but also a great middle. We can't repair the walls until we know where they are. We cannot say am Yisroel chai until we know who the people of the New Israel are, and what God requires of them. Then we Reformed can look at them, square in the eye, and plead with them to become masters of repentance.
We hope to offer more on covenant thinking soon.
P. S. Those who send gifts of $150 or more to Messiah's Congregation, 2662 East 24th St., Brooklyn, NY 11235, may request a ten-tape set of sermons on The Lord's Prayer, delivered by moi in Messiah's pulpit. Simply ask for the tapes when you write. Three of the messages ("The Community of the Forgiven," "Kids Are 'Us,'" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly") deal with the subject of covenant consciousness.
- Steve M. Schlissel
Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.