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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Covenant Life
February 21, 2019

Each person ordained to the office of Minister, Elder, or Deacon promises to “receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of the church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do.” (Book of Order W-4.0404c) It would be nice if those “essential tenets” were spelled out somewhere, but they are not. And there is good reason for that, something we may explore at another time. For now, I note only that there is a particularly Reformed (or, Presbyterian) way to live out the faith we learn in Scripture.

The closest thing we have to a listing of confessional tenets distinctive to Presbyterians is found in the Book of Order F-2.05:

The Book of Order identifies other key themes in our confessions, which we share in common with other Christians. But it lifts up these four as especially characteristic of Reformed faith, noting that they are rooted in the central Reformed “affirmation of the majesty, holiness, and providence of God who in Christ and by the power of the Spirit creates, sustains, rules, and redeems the world in the freedom of sovereign righteousness and love.” (Ibid) That is quite the mouthful! Central to Presbyterian faith and practice is its acknowledgment of the “sovereignty” of God.

All Christian traditions affirm God’s sovereignty. What makes Presbyterian understanding of divine sovereignty distinctive is how we draw a straight line from it to the four bullet points above. God’s sovereignty leads us to particular ways of living together and relating to the world around us.

The second of these points suggests that the Presbyterian way of ordering the church’s life is rooted in God’s sovereignty. This link is initially revealed in our commitment to order our life together in accordance with God’s Word. Our polity is rooted in God’s revelation of who God is, who we are, what God has done for us, and what God requires of us. We don’t make up our polity according to our own wisdom or to suit our own interests.

Furthermore, God’s sovereignty is the basis for our “covenant life” because God is the instigator of the covenant that binds us together. Presbyterians talk a lot about “covenant,” always with this particular sense. People often think of “covenant” as a synonym for “agreement,” “treaty,” or “contract” between two signatories. Just as the adoption of such agreements depends on the consent of both parties, so either party may rescind its participation. But that is not so for “covenant,” as Scripture teaches it. In Scripture, “covenant” is a promise that originates in God.

Since covenant life is rooted in God’s sovereign promises rather than our agreements, it cannot be rescinded by those whom it claims. We are united to each other not because we chose to be together, but because God has promised to be bound to us.

Jesus brings together covenant life and divine sovereignty in his final discourse before his crucifixion in John’s Gospel. “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” he tells his disciples. (John 15:16) He goes on to petition the Father that those whom he has chosen “may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11) We are united in covenant life not because we have made a treaty with each other, but because God has claimed us to be one holy people who reflect God’s triune identity.

We are joined to God and to one another because God has made a claim on us, not because we make a claim on God or on each other. Any break we make with one another is a movement against God’s sovereign action, and is surely destined eventually to fail.

Yours in covenant bonds,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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