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Thoughts on Covenant Obligation.

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Thoughts on Covenant Obligation.

James Dodson

To the EDITORS of the CHRISTIAN MAGAZINE.

[from no. xx., Monday, October 1, 1798.]


It is not intended to discuss the duty of what is called Social, or sometimes, from the number of those joining in it, National covenanting. It is certainly implied in the nature of society. No society whatever can subsist, but upon an agreement in certain principles, to be carried into practice for some valuable purposes. On some occasions it may be expedient and necessary, particularly for those in offices of trust in the society, to confirm their agreement by oath. Whether it be so confirmed or not, the agreement itself infers obligation, and is materially a social covenant. These are plain and incontestable principles; and I know of nothing farther or higher maintained by the most zealous friends of covenanting: so that the duty itself cannot be impugned, but upon the loose principle, that though we may fix about matters of a civil and temporal nature, we must never come to a point about spiritual and everlasting interests.

But what I propose to offer a few thoughts on, is the obligation of covenants, particularly those of a religious nature, when once entered into. And for my part, I cannot see why these should be less binding, than those of a civil kind. Leagues, agreeable to equity and reason, between two nations, must bind, so long and is so far as the purposes for which they were entered into, continue materially the same. The nation which violates such leagues, is held infamous in the estimation of mankind. Similar must be the obligation of religious covenants entered into by church-members, for doing homage to Zion’s King, in order to encourage mutual confidence, and to strengthen one another’s hands in the way and work of God. They are plainly good for nothing, except in so far as they are considered as obligatory. I consider them, however, as consisting only of matters undoubtedly conformable to the word of God: for with the obligation of vows in matters of indifferency, I do not intermeddle. If in anything they deviate from that supreme standard, the oath of all the world could not give them any obligation. For it is an indisputable rule among all casuists, that an oath is a bond of equity, not of iniquity. Only it is to be observed, that the obligation of such covenants cannot be loosed by the mere apprehension that the matters contained in them are contrary to the scriptures of truth. It is only such a contrariety in fact, that can loose the obligation. A man may have made a vow, in the matters of God: He comes afterwards to conceive, that some of the things which his vow respected are antiscriptural. His conception cannot loose him. It must be their being really so alone that can do it. When I assert the obligation of religious vows or covenants, I mean, that all the parties concerned are entitled to say to one another, that the matters contained in them are not merely such as are founded in the law and the testimony, but such as are founded in the law and the testimony, but such as they have, as members of the society of Christians to which they belong, agreed to, and sworn to maintain and prosecute. Nations in league with one another, are certainly entitled to insist with each other for making good their respective engagements, and in case of appearing to fail, to expostulate with that party, as having naturally plighted their faith. Just so here. God expostulated with his ancient people, as having entered into covenant with him, but as having failed to perform. “Of old time, thou saidst, I will not transgress.” [Jer. ii. 20.] His prophets dealt with them, and sharply reproved them, not only as having violated the law, but broken their covenant. Multitudes of passages might be quoted to this purpose. But it is sufficient for those who are acquainted with the writings of the prophets, that for a specimen, we refer to what we have in Jer. xi. 2;—8. “Hear ye the words of this covenant, and speak unto the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Cursed be the man that obeyeth not the words of this covenant, which I commanded your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, from the iron furnace, saying, Obey my voice, and do them, according to all which I command you: so shall ye be my people, and I will be your God; that I may perform the oath which I have sworn unto your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as it is this day. Then answered I, So be it, O Lord. Then the Lord said unto me, Proclaim all these words in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem, saying, Hear ye the words of this covenant, and do them. For I earnestly protested unto your fathers, in the day that I brought them up out of the land of Egypt, even unto this day, rising early and protesting, saying, Obey my voice. Yet they obeyed not, nor inclined their ear, but walked every one in the imagination of their evil heart: therefore I will bring upon them all the words of this covenant, which I commanded them to do, but they did them not.” They warned this backsliding and perfidious people, of the dreadful judgments they were bringing on themselves, by their breach of covenant. “And many nations shall pass by this city, and they shall say every one to his neighbor, Wherefore hath the Lord done thus unto this great city? Then they shall answer, Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord their God, and worshipped other gods, and served them.” [Jer. xxii. 8, 9. See Deut. xxix. 24, 25.] And whensoever this people returned truly to the Lord, they acknowledged their iniquity, as at once a violation of the law, and a breach of their covenant. At the same time that they justified God as keeping covenant, they owned themselves to have dealt perfidiously with him. This is apparent in the ninth chapters of Ezra, of Nehemiah, and of Daniel, as also in Ps. lxxviii. throughout.

The case is the same still. For, agreeable to what has been already observed, covenant-obligation is the necessary result of all reasonable society. How shall any number of people continue in union with one another, or regularly prosecute the end of their association, if they do not consider themselves as bound to stand firm to their original agreement? This is a doctrine that will hold at all times, and all the world over. So it cannot be affected by the change of dispensation from that under the Old Testament to that under the New,—but must remain substantially the same in all ages and under all vicissitudes. Certainly the church under the New Testament is a reasonable society, as well as under the Old. All arguments against covenant-obligation therefore taken from the difference of the Divine Dispensations, are quite beside the point, as not affecting the true ground upon which it stands. It might be shown, that there is nothing in the difference referred to, to invalidate what we plead for. But there is no occasion for doing so, as it stands on the broad basis common to all ages and nations.

Covenant-obligation, it has been said, is the necessary result of all reasonable society. And upon the same ground it must continue while the society subsists. Provided only the bond of their union be reasonable and equitable, no member can break through it, but at the expense of equity and reason; or be any longer of the society than he acknowledges that bond as obligatory upon him. In the case of religious vows or covenants, conformable to the will of God, the obligation must lie on the church that has entered into them. All parties have a claim to consider one another as bound: and none of them can have a right, merely at pleasure, to detach himself from such a church, or to consider himself as loosed from his covenant-obligation, by such detachment. The obligation of a covenant, in matters of sin and duty, must be perpetual, and lie on the posterity and successors, as well as the original parties. This may be illustrated by a common case. When one is ordained to the office of the holy ministry in a congregation, there is certainly a covenant entered into between him and the people; they come under mutual obligations to one another. In a course of years, many of these will no doubt be carried off by death. Perhaps all of them may be so, even during the minister’s incumbency. But other people come in their room, and they still continue the same Christian society. Now, he must be ever whit as much bound to do the duty of a pastor to the latter, as to the original members of his congregation; and they to do the duty of a people to him. The matter is particularly manifest, as to the posterity of covenanters. The children of the church-members are church-members. It must be in right of their membership, that they are entitled to baptism. And as members of the covenanted church, in coming to the years of maturity and understanding, they must find the obligation lying on that church, also lying on them. It is no doubt the duty to examine the matter; but however they may judge, provided only the engagement was right, the obligation must remain. It cannot be optional to them to continue members of the church to which they belong or not, as they see cause. And as members of it, they must be bound. Whoever desert their station, must be guilty of breach of covenant. Let children remember this, and be seriously reminded of it by their covenanted parents and pastors. They are engaged in Christ’s service. This is their great happiness. But it is their extreme peril, and they withdraw their shoulder from Christ’s yoke, which is easy, and his burden, which is light.

                                                                          ABRAHAM FEDERALIST.