Thoughts on Covenant Freedom

by J. Robert Hjelm

[Bob Hjelm sent this article to Pietisten in January and he died before we could print it. He was Associate Professor of Pastoral Studies at North Park Theological Seminary until his retirement. In an accompanying letter, he wrote: "This is a subject I feel is very important in our day and time. Change is inevitable, and often for the good. But it is not always for the good, and that means some of us who are becoming ‘grey beards’ need to do some backward looking to our roots to help guide as we move forward. Best for the New Year, from our Lord, and in good wishes from me." Blessings on his memory. May he rest in peace. — Ed.]

The Covenant Church was born in February, 1885. The format of that gathering was essentially a "mission meeting" as noted by Karl Olsson. Mission meetings were characterized by preaching, often several sermons per session. On Wednesday evening of that week (it was Ash Wednesday), the preachers were F. M. Johnson and C. A. Bjork. Both sermons stressed that unity is the result of divine grace at work. If those assembled were to unite, it would be because God would be at work among them. Of special note for this article is Johnson’s text from Psalm 119:63: "I am the companion of all them that fear thee." The union which would become the Covenant was, first and basically, a result of the gracious work of our Lord. That was how those Covenant patriarchs viewed it. The Lord would create "companions."

The sermons were statements about Covenant identity. At the bottom of all that might be said about us, we are the work of God. We are a fellowship of faith—God’s gift of saving faith is the essential foundation of our church. This communion of saints involves each Covenanter personally as well as our corporate entities. There is a deep union, a binding together by the divine Spirit. It is person to person, congregation to congregation, district conference to district conference, headquarters to individuals, congregations, and conferences across the world. We are a fellowship of believers in Christ. We are together in faith, gifted by God in our redemption. The door to membership is wide enough to admit all who belong to Christ, and narrow enough to exclude those who don’t. Openness to all who believe in Christ characterizes the Covenant as a corporate reality. Each does his or her own believing, indicating the personal side of our life together. Each one believes, and then we have "fellowship with one another" (I John 1:9). There are two foci to life in the Covenant: corporate and personal.

The image of "family" is often used in speaking both of a congregation and also of the Covenant Church. The identity to which those 1885 sermons point is like a successful family. There is a lot of giving and a bit of taking. There is a lot of concern for the others and not so much concern for oneself. We are our best when people experience family closeness among us and the concern for others that characterizes a good marriage relationship and a strong family. The Covenant Church is at its best when the family idea is replicated continually over the long haul of living and worshipping and serving together. A family has both corporate and personal sides and this is true of the Covenant. There is the family of faith and personal commitment.

These two concerns are related. They don’t function on separate paths but is there not perfect equality between them either. To build and to be the family at work in the Covenant, the personal side needs to serve the corporate side. This is where Covenant freedom comes on the scene. Our freedom grows and fulfills its potential when personal freedom serves the corporate reality of our life together. We are free, but most truly free to give freedom to our sister and brother.

The founding sermons are a statement of identity and they are much more. More than a century later under new conditions in which to live and work, the ideal of those sermons needs reiteration. They are a call, a call to remember and to reaffirm that what we are is the result of divine work, the work of the Gospel of Christ. We who have received of the grace of the Gospel are, therefore, called to give love and service to our Lord and the gift of freedom to our brothers and sisters. The freedom we experience in our church comes as a gift from God. The freedom we practice among ourselves is an echoing gift that we give to each other. This needs emphasis!

Freedom among us is not something a person demands for herself or himself. We must not say: "The Covenant believes in freedom so I can do what I want or believe what I wish." Such a grasping notion of freedom will doom what the Covenant has been and what we can be in our world. We are a fellowship (a family) in which people give to each other. We seek to move closer to our companions. We don’t move away from them, establishing our differences by insisting on our "right" to freedom. We seek to be the "…companion of all who fear thee…." We need to stress the idea of "companion" and there is no better way to do so than to give freedom to others. We are a communion of saints, gifted by divine grace to be who and what we are. Let us not quench the unifying, giving work of the Holy Spirit. Our prayer and practice must aim at preserving a gracious and giving spirit among ourselves, present among us because of the grace of God in Christ. First there is free grace from above, then there is bonding which comes from the freedom we give our companions. Amen.