Covenant Theology for the Covenant Service

by George Bailey.

For many Methodists, New Year is Covenant time – there are spiritual perils brought to the surface by the Covenant Prayer…

An ecumenical mentor once commented on my excessive efforts as a Methodist student minister with something like, ‘The problem with you Arminians is that your theology makes you vulnerable to the spiritual temptation of thinking it’s all down to you personally to save the world.’ It’s often noted that Methodists inhabit an ‘activist’ spirituality – great for getting on with things but can lead to stress. This was the engine of early Methodist evangelism – people may freely choose to receive God’s forgiveness and new life, if only we can help them understand this good news – and then it became the driver of Methodist social action. However, all this can lead to being so busy as to overlook the actual work of God in our midst. Some people are deeply uncomfortable with the Covenant Prayer’s heavy commitments, and too easily the Covenant Service opens the door to forms of spiritual pride – maybe we slip into thinking that, ‘it’s all down to us doing our duty’… ‘we have a very important part to play’… or ‘God ought not to leave us out this year’… and so on. The Covenant Prayer makes clear that we are not dictating what role we have, but nevertheless, even subconsciously we take on responsibilities which it would be wiser to leave with God.

The issues are actually related to the debates swirling around the 18th century revival, out of which a Wesleyan understanding of the gospel and salvation were forged – questions about faith and works, repentance and sin, what it means to become a Christian, and what it leads to. An excellent book by Stanley Rodes’ demonstrates how much John Wesley’s responses were shaped by the ‘covenant theology’ he inherited, and which was framing the issues of the time. This goes far deeper than simply borrowing a Puritan covenant prayer: ‘Wesley’s engagement in the debate—and thus his soteriology—continued to be overtly shaped by covenant theology as surely as the rock walls of a canyon dictate the course of the river flowing through it.’[1]

‘All Reformed theology involves attending to the nature of God’s covenantal life with humanity,’[2] and so ‘covenant theology’ is at the heart of Reformed understandings of Scripture and salvation. Contemporary Wesleyans must note that what came to be known as ‘Arminianism’ was itself a type of Reformed theology. Indeed, there was wide diversity of covenant theology in the 18th century, but few people saw the need to stop and explain all the basic terminology, Wesley included.

I have a growing sense that it is worth reconnecting the Covenant Service with the covenant theology tradition, to help me negotiate it with spiritual wisdom. For now, I will raise a few questions based on features of the service in the Methodist Worship Book (1999):

  • What covenant is this, and how does it relate to Scripture?

The description on p285 carefully refers to just one covenant, made first with the people of Israel, and then ‘renewed in Jesus Christ our Lord’. For John Wesley, the first ‘covenant of works’ (God makes the rules; humans obey) ended when Adam sinned, to be succeeded by this second ‘covenant of grace’ (God makes the rules; humans disobey; God mercifully helps). It is offered to all people through a series of ‘dispensations’ by which God makes the one covenant of grace more accessible (debates on this through the 16th-19th centuries are complex!). This covenant of grace gives expression to the Wesleyan emphases that salvation is available to all people – e.g., through the ‘moral law’, and then the Mosaic law – but also available in a fuller way through Christ. Wesley frequently expressed this as the distinction between the ‘faith of a servant’ and the ‘faith of a child’ (Wesley usually uses ‘son’ here). How do I relate to these different dispensations within the covenant of grace?

  • Is the covenant a transaction?

The opening rubric on p281 implies we are coming to a communal negotiation: ‘The covenant is not just a one-to-one transaction between individuals and God, but the act of the whole faith community’. This is reinforced by the role that we have in making the covenant: ‘For our part we promise to live no longer for ourselves but for God.’ (p285) How can we contribute anything when we rely entirely on God’s grace? However, our freedom to respond is upheld by that very grace (p.289), and so we do have responsibility to work in partnership with God as best we can, even knowing that we will somehow fall short. How do I understand my own contribution to this covenant?

  • What is the role of the Holy Spirit in this covenant?

The Holy Spirit could help with the problem of our human contribution to the covenant. Other key moments in someone’s journey with God focus on the Holy Spirit – baptism is in water and the Spirit, confirmation is by the Holy Spirit and the Spirit is ‘sent upon’ a person being ordained. However, the Holy Spirit does not feature so directly in the Covenant Service. In the older prayer B it only appears in the final doxology (p.290); in the newer prayer A we accept God’s purpose and call ‘by the help of the Holy Spirit’ (p287), which is a helpful addition. The only other roles for the Spirit are in the Trinitarian opening prayers, based on the Creed, and in the Eucharistic prayer as we ask that we ‘may be united by your Spirit and grow into perfect love’ (p294). This is a good description of life within the covenant of grace, and perhaps more of this earlier in the service could help with exploring what some Wesleyans have called the ‘dispensation of the Spirit’?

Through Covenant Services this January, I will be thinking more about covenant theology and seeking the help of the Spirit with my own covenant spirituality.

[1] Stanley J. Rodes. From Faith to Faith Book: John Wesley’s Covenant Theology and the Way of Salvation, The Lutterworth Press, James Clarke & Co. (2013). p.134

[2] Allen, Michael. Reformed Theology, Bloomsbury Publishing, (2010). p34

2 thoughts on “Covenant Theology for the Covenant Service”

  1. Re your footnote 1, Stanley Rodes quote.

    According to another discipline, it was the river that shaped the rock canyon in the first place. Illustrations can be misleading sometimes!

    Probably yet another ‘both-and’ in John Wesley’s case. Things are rarely simple, in geology or theology.


  2. What disturbs me about the theology of the Covenant Service is the idea of God offering us a deal, a transaction, commitment in return for Grace or, even worse, that we actually have to earn the love of God and our salvation. If the love of God and Grace are freely given then what we need is to be aware of this amazing love and Grace. And then we should respond: God has written a demand on our hearts that we respond to the needs of others. It is a good idea that the church should remind people of this demand, but do we really need a covenant of grace to enforce it?
    Wesley spoke of access to Grace and salvation as available through the “faith of a servant” and later as the “faith of a child”. Surely if we are “working in partnership with God” then this should be the faith of any human being who cares about others.
    As for the discussion about roles of the Holy Spirit in the covenant and covenant spirituality I see this as constraining and diminishing the unconditional love of God for the reasons I have expressed above.


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