It is wrong to imagine that the obligation comes solely from the will of those who vow. Were not the exercise of vowing commanded, nor the law of God to hold those who engage in it bound by their own act, these should not be under obligation. By vowing, they bind themselves, not as by themselves, but by the authority of God. Or, by vowing, they submit to a requirement of his law, in yielding obedience to which they become bound, not by themselves but by his authority, to perform the duties vowed.
Personal and Social Covenanting both entail obligation on the Covenanting parties.
First. Various general representations exhibit this. Several scriptures present such as bound. In reference to the truth that a wicked ruler is destitute of right to claim the allegiance of his subjects by oath, or in any other manner, it is asked, "Shall even he that hateth right govern (bind)?" Reproaching his servants, Saul said to them, "All of you have conspired (bound yourselves) against me, and there is none that showeth me that my son hath made a league with the son of Jesse." The Psalmist said, "Thou shalt hide them in the secret of thy presence, from the pride, (or rather the binding, that is, conspiracy,) of man." And concerning an oath or vow, thus it is written, "If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth." To show how essentially the idea of binding is connected with that of Covenant engagement, it may be remarked that in the original of each of these passages, the verb signifying to bind, is different from that in the original of each of the others, and that all of the verbs are emphatic. And what should be most carefully observed here, the binding spoken of in each of these cases is connected with the voluntary actions of the parties brought under obligation. Again, other scriptures point out, that in Covenanting men are joined to the Lord. "They shall ask the way to Zion with their faces thitherward, saying, Come, and let us join ourselves to the Lord, in a perpetual covenant that shall not be forgotten." They imply not less than that the covenants made should be adhered to. The same is expressed in passages, in one of which some are said to take hold of the Lord's strength, in the other, of his covenant. A covenant is designated as sure. That of Nehemiah and Israel is so represented. And finally, those who engage in the exercise are said to cleave to the Lord. That is represented by Moses as the design of the discharge of the duty. "That thou mayest love the Lord thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him." "Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God; him shalt thou serve, and to him shalt thou cleave, and swear by his name." By the emblem of the girdle which cleaves permanently to the loins, the truth of the appointment of Covenanting as a means of securing devotedness to the Lord is taught. "For as the girdle cleaveth to the loins of a man, so have I caused to cleave unto me the whole house of Israel, and the whole house of Judah, saith the Lord." The girdle which the prophet had been commanded to hide, in process of time was marred; it was profitable for nothing. It represented not the faithful in Israel who clave to the Lord, but those who, having vowed and sworn to him deceitfully, fulfilled not their obligations. And David said, "My soul followeth hard (cleaveth) after thee: thy right hand upholdeth me." It was in the exercises of vowing to God and fulfilling his obligations that he did so, for he said, "But the king shall rejoice in God; every one that sweareth by him shall glory."
Secondly. God enjoins obedience as the fulfilment of Covenant duties. He gives command to do the words of his covenant. "Hear ye the words of this covenant, and do them." By his authority he calls on men to keep the words of his covenant. "Keep therefore the words of this covenant, and do them, that ye may prosper in all that ye do." The obedience thus inculcated was not merely made known by the glorious Lawgiver, but acknowledged as obligatory by men. In two channels, from one source, its claims proceeded. First, directly through the promulgation of the Divine law to men; and next, through the acknowledgment, by Covenant engagement, of that law as holy, just, and good. Had obedience been claimed to the duties inculcated, as if they had been merely requirements of the law, they had not been spoken of as performed in fulfilment of Covenant engagement. Because the words of the Covenant are done or kept when those are performed, they are incumbent on account of the making of the Covenant. By submitting to the rite, every one that received circumcision became a debtor to do the whole law. And in like manner, by Covenanting, each one who vows to God becomes bound, by His command, to keep or do the words of his law as the words of his Covenant. And finally, the Lord commands that his Covenant be kept as a charge. That which is kept, or to be kept, is a charge. That his law and covenant are a charge is manifest from his words, "If thy children will keep my covenant, and my testimony that I shall teach them, their children shall also sit upon thy throne for evermore." But his charge, or his law and covenant, as a trust, he explicitly gives his people commandment to keep. "Therefore thou shalt love the Lord thy God, and keep his charge, and his statutes, and his judgments, and his commandments, alway." "But that which ye have already, hold fast till I come. And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations." In such injunctions, it is implied that two things, or the same thing under two aspects, should be kept. The statutes of God are at once the commands of his law and the dictates of his covenant. These are kept as his law, when obeyed, because of his authority as righteous moral Governor of all. They are kept as the requirements of his covenant when recognised as not merely issued according to his sovereign will, but as having received the acquiescence of the heart, and been acceded to by solemn oath and vow. That the acceptance of them in Covenanting brings under obligation is therefore most manifest. They are permanently the Lord's charge. His law remains so, whether or not it be obeyed by men. It remains so when presented, and acceded to in its covenant form. But when it is accepted in vowing to God, it is so conveyed over to the believer, that at once he is called to keep it sacred to the Lord's service, and to stand chargeable in his sight for the use he makes of the precious trust. If he fail to draw upon the blessings promised therein, he is liable to rebuke; if he obey not the duties enjoined in it, he is exposed to chastisement. Both evils he is commanded and encouraged to avoid. That he may not dishonour the God of his salvation, by making little progress in the use of precious means of spiritual improvement, and that he may not be found unfaithful, he endeavours to manifest the deep-felt sense cherished by him of the reality of his obligation acknowledged, when he says, "Thy testimonies have I taken as an heritage for ever: for they are the rejoicing of my heart."
Thirdly. The Lord commands that the vow be paid. A lawful promise to men binds to performance; and why not a vow to God? If the vow made, whether in the use of the oath implicitly or explicitly, be not paid, the truth will not have been spoken; and accordingly, not merely the ninth, but the third precept of the moral law will have been transgressed. The command enjoining that truth be spoken, and that forbidding that God's name be taken in vain, both inculcate, therefore, the fulfilment of the vow. But various explicit statutes enjoin the same. Such are these -- "Vow, and pay unto the Lord your God." "When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed." "When thou shalt vow a vow unto the Lord thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the Lord thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be sin in thee." From such dictates there can be no appeal. Even were we altogether ignorant of the reason why they were uttered, we should, because of the authority of God, willingly acquiesce in them. But the ground of them he has been pleased to make known. Were it not in order that the service promised in vowing might be performed, the vow had not been enjoined. Without the paying of the vow, the vowing of the vow were unnecessary, nay, sinful. A disruption of ends from means, grosser than the separation of the fulfilment of the vow from the making of it, could not be perpetrated. The vow is nothing; yea, worse than nothing; injurious to those who make it, and dishonouring to God, if it be not performed.
Nor, because under the law, a commutation for some vows was accepted, are we to conceive that the passages in which the payment of the vow is commanded are not to be interpreted according to the utmost force of their obvious import. It is true that some things vowed might have been withheld, but not without the offering of a definite sum of money. These might have been redeemed by the payment of a price exceeding by one-fifth part of it, their value estimated by the priest, or when the parties were poor, by the giving of the amount at which the priest might value them. By whichever of the two methods that might be adopted, the vow was virtually paid. The payment actually of the vow, or that of the compensation, was commanded; and either the one or the other behoved to be made. Nor when either of them was resorted to, seeing that any one of them was warranted, was the vow left unpaid. This variety of manner in the payment of vows, was suited to the circumstances of the Church under the Levitical institutes. By using any one of the methods, the vow was substantially fulfilled, not merely according to the will of man, but agreeably to the express appointment of God. As, had there been only one way then of fulfilling the obligation of the vow, it had been incumbent to proceed by that alone; so, under the present dispensation, the single method of implementing Covenant engagements that has been inculcated, because that no other is of Divine appointment, must be adopted. Even as under the law there were some things which, having been devoted to God under a curse, could not, because of the manner of their dedication, be redeemed, so under the gospel, what is vowed to the Lord cannot without sacrilege be kept back.
Fourthly. The Lord threatens those who keep not his Covenant. Temporal and spiritual deprivations enter into his denunciations on such. "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." Nay, even eternal ruin awaits the impenitent violator of Covenant engagements. "Covenant-breakers, ... who, knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them." Were not the acceptance of the law of God in its covenant form to entail obligation, the breach of it would not be denounced as a breach of covenant; nor would his wrath descend on men as unsteadfast in his covenant, or as having broken it, but as having violated his holy law. Substantially then, by their own act, must they be brought under solemn obligation to God, who, having vowed to him, by failing to perform their promise, would become exposed to the stroke of his just vengeance. Where there is guilt there is sin, and where there is sin there was obligation, and where there is punishment, there were all. "Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?" The people of God acknowledge themselves as bound by their oaths and vows. What was uttered by Jephthah regarding a vow which was unlawful, must have been employed by the fearers of God in reference to vows of which He approved, -- "I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back." The Psalmist said, "So will I sing praise unto thy name for ever, that I may daily perform my vows." "I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all his people." "I have sworn, and I will perform it, that I will keep thy righteous judgments." The language was dictated by the Spirit of inspiration. It was therefore lawful to use it. It ought to be used by all. The principle that vows and oaths require that they be fulfilled, is implied in it. That was therefore held by the saints in former times. Because of the words of God from which they drew it, it ought to be universally maintained.
Social Covenanting entails obligation on the Covenanting society, even throughout its continued existence, till the end of the Covenant be attained.
First. Because such covenants are made, not merely in the name of the individuals who enter into them, but also in the name of posterity. On recorded occasions of warranted Covenanting, such was the manner of entering into the engagements made. In addition to what has been said before in proof of this, merely the language employed at one of these seasons will here be quoted. "Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath; but with him that standeth here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day." However, it may be necessary to add the explanation, that, by those who are represented as not present, we are to understand the descendants of the congregation of Israel; inasmuch as in reference to the duties then performed by the assembled people, it was said, "Therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live." Hence, whatever, in consequence of entering into such federal engagements, is incumbent on those who make them, is binding on their successors; and since a covenant transaction binds the parties to the making of it, it therefore binds all those, though not present, whom these parties represent, and for whom also it was made. Whatever reason the transaction affords for binding the former, it supplies for holding the latter bound. The engagement made by and for the living Covenanters, is not less explicit than that thereby made by them for those who shall succeed to their privileges and duties. And as it is the engagement which binds, the latter are, not less than the former, brought under obligation by it. The federal compact could not be made without constituting an obligation. That could not be entered into without conferring that obligation on all the parties represented at its formation. And from its acknowledged nature, those to whom the functions of the Covenanters should descend, are included among those, and those therefore are thereby bound.
Secondly. Because the Church is one in all ages. Her glorious Head is one. All her true members are spiritually united to him. All of them are united in love to one another. The Church is distinct from the world. By the ordinances given to her by the Lord Jesus, she is distinguished from civil society. She possesses a real incorporate character. The Church consists not of a limited number of those who at any time fear God, but of all of them. The individual members of the Church from day to day are changing; but she remains one. Some are constantly being added, others are removed from her communion on earth, but her characteristic absolute identity remains. Under the Patriarchal, Levitical, and Christian dispensations, she is one. As one body enduring from generation to generation by her Lord, she is spoken of, and is recognised by her members. To Jeremiah was given the commission, "Go, and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the Lord, I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown." "Israel was holiness unto the Lord." "For of old time I have broken thy yoke, and burst thy bands; and thou saidst, I will not transgress." In days long posterior to the time of Israel's deliverance from Egypt, the Church sang, "He turned the sea into dry land: they went through the flood on foot: there did we rejoice in him." The Church, posterior to the advent of Christ, is represented as a house in which Moses had served, but which Christ had built, and over which, as well in the days of the patriarch as in the last times, He ruled as a Son. And to the Church existing in all times, unquestionably belongs the inimitably beautiful description, -- "Christ also loved the Church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish." Since the Church, then, is a body, her standing is independent of the individual members who may be in her communion; as a responsible agent, even as an individual, she may come under obligation and fulfil it; and through every age of her existence, be held bound to duty by her engagements. The same principle which is applicable to the Church as a whole, behoves to be contemplated by every Section of her in given circumstances. If the whole Church might enter into covenant engagements, as in Abraham, which would entail obligation throughout successive ages, ought not every community thereof, as a part of the whole, to bind itself before the Lord to services to be performed by its successors? If a whole society may Covenant, ought not an individual of that society to do so singly? And if the obligations come under by the one person, not less than those of the whole body, ought to be discharged, ought not those of a given Section of the visible Church to be fulfilled by it, as a body forming a part of the general community, even as the covenant duties of the whole.
Thirdly. Because of the Church's social character. As it is not merely in their individual, but also in their social capacity, that her members enjoy privileges, so in both they are called to duty. The actions of an individual are not those of any society to which he may belong, except he act for them, and according to their appointment. But the deeds of a society are those of every member thereof, who does not disapprove of them; nay, of every one who, because of these deeds, does not leave its communion. The engagements of society are understood to be acceded to by every member of it existing when these are made, and of every one who may become connected with it before they be fulfilled. Every one who joins a society is understood by his act of joining it, to approve of its organization, to accept of its privileges, and become engaged to its duties. It would be impossible for society to continue, were obligation to cease so soon as the individuals who may have come under it should leave it, by death, or otherwise. Were the duties of social bodies to cease in this manner, it might be held that these communities should be re-constructed on the death of every individual member of them, and also on the accession of each one who might become connected with them. What accomplishes the same end which such practices would lead to, is secured in a far better manner by the whole body coming under, and fulfilling, obligations which do not become void either by the increase or the diminution of its members.
Every individual capable of making a choice, who, by receiving the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, becomes connected with the Church, engages to accept its privileges, and to perform its duties. In the most solemn manner, by vow before God, this is done. All that is incumbent on each member of the Church, then, devolves also on him. The obligations that bind it, may have been conferred ages before; but when he makes his profession, even then, by his own act, they descend upon him. The representation given of such a one, shews that formerly he was a heathen, or else one living in a Christian land, without the pale of the true Church. Before making his solemn acknowledgment, he was under obligation to become connected with the Church, and the evils that are threatened against those who are far from God hung over him. By entering the communion of the Church, he becomes an integral part of her society, and whatever advantage or responsibility attaches to membership within her, is extended to him.
The children of Church members, are members of the Church, and are therefore under obligation. Because of their relation to their parents, children are in possession of the peculiar privileges of the families to which they belong; and to perform the duties of these, they are under obligation. Every child of a citizen, or free member of civil society, in consequence of its birth, is entitled to the protection and other privileges of that society, and is viewed as bound by the laws of that community. In like manner, every child born of those in communion with the Church, is viewed as the care of the Church, and as under the obligations of its members. In the providence of God, children are cast upon the care of parents and of civil communities; and are they not committed to the regard of the society of the faithful? Duties are incumbent upon them, in consequence of their civil relations; and are none obligatory on them because of their relation to the Church? The Lord himself recognises the children of believing parents as the members of his Church. In order to manifest his claim upon them, and acceptance of them as such, He instituted the ordinance of circumcision in a former period, and that of baptism to be obligatory in the present. Children are, therefore, bound by the obligations of the Church. Is that moral obligation which binds the father, not binding on the son? If the parent, by Covenanting, ought to vow to observe a system of moral duties, ought not the offspring? Is what is good for the one, bad for the other? Would it be consistent for a father, after having willingly engaged to duty for himself, to say such may or may not, according to his pleasure, and in either case, too, without any blame, be done by my son? Certainly the earlier that an obligation to do good can be conferred, the better. And if a parent can lawfully act for his child in any other matter, why not in performing this?
The privileges enjoyed by the children of those in communion with the Church, manifest them to be under obligation. Duty and privilege are universally connected; and hence, where the one is awanting, the other cannot be found. In the beneficent arrangements of Divine love to the young, the latter is first extended. The enjoyment of it by them is a palpable evidence that obligation rests upon them. It is an adage among men, that what one inherits from his ancestors he owes to his descendants; and it is also manifest, that along with privilege, duty is hereditary. In regard to the things of religion, both of these things are most obvious. Would not that parent deal unjustly with his child, who, instead of bequeathing to him some privilege for his acceptance, would say, I do not know whether or not he will conform to the duties connected with it, and therefore I will sacrifice it or leave it to another? And would a child to whom some peculiarly valuable privilege has been bequeathed, and of the fruits of which he may have largely partaken, be warranted in reckoning as unlawful an entailed obligation to corresponding duty? Do not the laws of a nation find an individual bound so soon as he opens his eyes on the light of the sun? And ought not moral obligations, entered into willingly by Covenanting parents and ancestors, also, to hold the rising race completely bound? The privileges of civil society are available to youth long before they are able of themselves to take an active part in its public affairs; and thus these are brought under an obligation to support its good laws so soon as they voluntarily and effectively can. The privileges of a Christian community are, to a certain extent, enjoyed by its youth long before they can exert themselves actively for its interests; they are, therefore, under obligation, and so soon as they can perceive the importance of its voluntary Covenant engagements, they ought explicitly, to accede to them. Would it be cruel to cut off children from the privileges of civil society because of their feebleness? and would it not be cruel to deprive them of the advantages of covenants made for a defence to ourselves, which they equally need? Would it be hideously wicked to expose them to the knife of the murderer? and would it not be unspeakably criminal, by disregarding their education and failing to make engagements to instruct them, to abandon them to be poisoned by infidelity, superstition, error, or immorality? And if, by Covenanting and the fulfilment of the solemn engagements made on their behalf, the best privileges that could be bequeathed to youth, are conveyed to them, are they warranted to cast off the pleasing yoke of obligation, so gently laid upon them, and by resolving to neglect duty, to manifest themselves as unworthy of all the care that had been employed on their behalf? But it cannot be: all who have enjoyed the positive spiritual blessings that are conferred, in the mercy of God, on those who have entered into public solemn Covenants with him, will acknowledge themselves as his servants, and, far from reckoning themselves as under no descending obligation to duty, will rejoice, give thanks to him for laying a claim upon them by these, and gladly take hold on his Covenant again in their social capacity, that others to succeed them, even as they did, may gladly confess themselves to be devoted to him.
Fourthly. Because Social Covenanting, approved in Scripture, conferred descending obligation. Abimelech required Abraham to enter into a covenant with him, which the patriarch would keep, by not dealing falsely with himself, nor with his son, nor with his son's son. And accordingly that engagement, which was ratified by oath, was viewed by both parties, and unquestionably properly, as binding on all the individuals specified. By oath, the children of Israel made with Joseph a covenant, by which their descendants in fulfilling it, acknowledged themselves as engaged to carry up his bones from Egypt. The covenant made by Joseph and the princes of the congregation of Israel with the Gibeonites, was kept by the descendants of both parties: and the breach of it on one occasion by Saul, was followed by tokens of Divine displeasure. The covenant of the Rechabites, and that of David with Hiram -- which obtained also between that individual and Solomon, are other illustrations. Such covenants were lawful. The sentiments entertained concerning the descending nature of their obligations, being uncondemned, were correct. A disregard for these obligations in one case having been followed by punishment, they must have been complete. There was nothing about any of these covenants that gave to their engagements a claim to continuance beyond those of other covenants, in which the welfare of posterity is contemplated. The obligation of such, therefore, even as those of the covenants specified, behove to continue.
Fifthly. Because the ends of such covenants may not be attained during the existence on earth of those who entered into them. Nothing is more common in the providence of God, than for one to begin, and another to finish. Indeed the grand end of the Church's continuance in the world, is aspired at by the efforts of all her true members. Guided by Divine teaching, the fearers of God adopt means for declaring His glory. In His providence, however, their lawful purposes are in general carried only partially into effect. The work which he gives countenance to some to undertake, according to his own good pleasure, he commits to others. Hence his people are employed in filling up what others had designed, and also in arranging what their own successors may complete. A glorious Lord rules over every occurrence in the Church's history. Schemes of reformation set on foot by his servants he acknowledges. When he will, they are enabled to complete them; otherwise they are wound up by others. To resolve to use means to bring the Church to a state of excellence, to which, according to the promise of God, she will yet come on earth, is obligatory on them who fear him. To vow to use those means, they are under obligation. Though they may not live to fulfil all that they intended, yet they will be preserved till the work assigned to them be accomplished. Their removal does not manifest their Lord's displeasure at them, but his intention to bestow upon them a gracious reward. Nor does the blank left in the Church by their decease, manifest that the works which they had undertaken, behoved not to be fulfilled. Others, the Lord of all, will call to the service, and accept of the obedience rendered by them as the fulfilment of obligations to obey him, which had been made by others, not merely on their own behalf, but on behalf of such as he might employ to serve him. What his people lawfully vow to him, he will afford means to perform. And in carrying his purposes into effect, he will make them at once to serve him, and to accomplish what others in dependence on Divine grace had pledged themselves to use every means in their power to perform.
Sixthly. Because the people of God view themselves as bound by anterior engagements of his Church. In the land of Moab Moses said, "The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day." Many of those whom he addressed in these words were not then born. The obligations of their fathers must, therefore, have descended to them. In many passages of Scripture do the saints acknowledge themselves as included in the covenant made with Abraham, and, consequently, as brought under its obligations. By a prophet of the Lord Israel are exhibited as recognising themselves to have been represented in the covenant transaction of Bethel. "He found him in Bethel, and there he spake with us." The words of Peter to the people of Israel on this point are explicit, -- "Ye are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed." Expressing the sentiment, that their fathers had entered into Covenant engagements with God, in which they were recognised, Moses, and all Israel, on the shores of the Red Sea, thus sang, -- "The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation: he is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation; my father's God, and I will exalt him." And in language acknowledging explicitly obligation to obedience that had been transmitted by the deeds of parents or ancestors engaged to God's service, the Psalmist offers praise -- "O Lord, truly I am thy servant; I am thy servant and the son of thy handmaid: thou hast loosed my bonds. I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of all his people."
Finally. Because the Lord himself always views his Church as bound by the Covenant engagements thereof, competent to its circumstances, made in all earlier periods. By the covenant which he made with his servant Abraham, and once and again renewed to him, he held his people bound. At the ratification of that covenant the scene was impressive. It is thus described, -- "I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it. And he said, Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it? And he said unto him, Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she-goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon. And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not. And when the fowls came down upon the carcases, Abram drove them away. And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him.... And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold, a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces. In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram." The lamp of fire was an emblem of God's gracious presence as a Covenant God. The smoking furnace symbolized the people of Israel who were to be tried in the iron furnace of affliction in Egypt. These were not then born. Yet in Abraham they were present. By the lamp of fire passing between the parts of the sacrifice, the Lord's ratification of the covenant was denoted. And by the smoking furnace also, proceeding between the parts, it was pointed out, that they even then were taken into covenant with him. That covenant the Lord kept with the whole house of Israel, even as if they had all of them been then present. "Thou art the Lord the God, who didst choose Abram, and broughtest him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees, and gavest him the name of Abraham: and foundest his heart faithful before thee, and madest a covenant with him, to give the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Jebusites, and the Girgashites, to give it, I say, to his seed, and hast performed thy words; for thou art righteous." And the duties of the covenant, as if all Israel had been before him when it was made, he enjoined on them. "And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant, therefore, thou and thy seed after thee, in their generations." Moreover, he commands all to keep his covenant as made, not merely with his people at any given period, but as entered into by the faithful who went before them. "He hath commanded his covenant for ever." We have seen that these words inculcate the exercise of Covenanting. It is manifest, also, that they intimate that a covenant with God by each one, should be kept by those who make it. But the full scope of the passage is not brought out, if we do not view it as inculcating, not merely that the duty of Covenanting should be performed throughout every age, but that, until all the engagements of the people of God, made in every period, be implemented, they confer obligation on their successors. And he is angry with, and threatens those who keep not the covenants of those who represented them, as if they had broken a covenant with him made by themselves. "They are turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, which refused to hear my words; and they went after other gods to serve them: the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant which I made with their fathers. Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them."
Hence, in conclusion,
First, Covenanting entails obligation even on the unbeliever who vows and swears. Were it not to do so, then no command of God would be binding on the wicked; the moral unfitness of man in a state of nature, would shield him from the claims of God's law, and any ordinance of God might be abused with impunity. But, God will not be mocked. Whosoever attempts duty will be either accepted or found guilty. Divine institutions must be respected. Every law of God contemplates an immediate and an ultimate end. If a vow be made in sincerity, God will give grace to fulfil it in some measure; and if neglect in the supposed case follow, chastisement will be inflicted. If a vow be made deceitfully -- otherwise than which the wicked cannot make it -- a double obligation is contracted: -- an obligation to punishment for dealing falsely with God; and a debt of obedience because of submitting, though feignedly, to an ordinance appointed by him. The law of God, enjoining the duty of Covenanting, is founded on His own nature; the imperfections of man, therefore, cannot abate its claims. Even as the observation of the other ordinances of God brings under special obligations, so the exercise of attending to this confers one peculiar to itself. It is lawful to pray, but it is sinful to do so without sincerity. God will not answer the supplication that is not presented in faith; but he will demand the obedience which the grace prayed for, if asked aright, would afford strength to perform. It is necessary to read the word of God, but sinful to peruse it thoughtlessly, or in an irreverent frame of mind. But, however it may be read, he will call for the duty which a proper reading of that word by His blessing would afford a resolution to perform. Thus, also, God will not accept the vows of the wicked; but He will claim what they vow, and will punish them if they do not make it good. Thus Israel, though many of them did not enter into it with sincerity, were charged with breaking the covenant with God which they professed to make in the wilderness at Sinai, and punished for the sin thereby contracted. Thus, also, Zedekiah suffered for breaking the covenant which he made with the king of Babylon by oath. Indeed, it is the wicked alone who break the covenant of God. They never sincerely have entered into it, but their disregard of it, after having professed to accede to it, is represented as a violation of it; and over such impends a fearful woe. "The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof, because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore hath the curse devoured the earth, and they that dwell therein are desolate." How dreadful, then, is it for sinners to speak to God perfidiously! And how important, according to his commandment, to draw near unto him in making solemn vows, in dependence on that grace which it is his to give, in order that the vow may be acceptably made, and also performed!
Secondly. Though some connected with the visible church do not engage in the duty of formal Covenanting, they are not therefore free from covenant obligation. All who are not in the communion of the true Church, are exposed to the wrath threatened against those who are far from God. A connection with that Church brings under obligation. The vows of God are upon all, received by Baptism or the Lord's Supper into its communion, whether worthy members or not. The spiritual blessings promised to Abraham and to his seed -- even to all the faithful -- belong to the people of God therein; and all the duties incumbent on those to whom great and precious promises have been made, devolve on them. Till it be paid, every vow made by a member of the Church, whatever be his character, he is under obligation to perform. Till they be paid, all the vows vowed by those in the Church of God who represented him in all past time, are upon him. The vows made, and that should have been made lawfully by the Church in all past time since the days of the Apostles -- those vowed at that distinguished period, and those entered into in all preceding eras, even up till the time when the Covenant was revealed, in so far as their matter was not peculiar to given dispensations, but adapted to all, unite to bring him under one obligation. Through every age that was gathering weight. Viewed as accumulating and being transmitted through the voluntary agency of man, it is manifestly mighty; contemplated as conferred by the authority of God, it appears to be infinite. Divine grace alone can enable to pay the debt of duty. Happy they who look by faith for that! Thus, in proportion to her acquaintance with the covenant transactions of the past, the Church ought to feel herself under obligation. With her progress her real responsibility will increase. Like the force of gravitation towards a central orb, the force of obligation propelling her, will increase with time; and with a celerity due to all her solemn covenant engagements, she will enter the latter-day glory, responsive to the almighty call of Him who draws his people to himself, and who having given them to enjoy on earth such a foretaste of the future, will introduce them to the scene where the Lord himself will be their everlasting light, and the days of their mourning shall be ended.
Thirdly. A minority in a church, or that in a nation, are bound by the lawful public vows made by the whole body, even though the community as a whole, may have cast them off. Though a nation, or a body professing to be a church, after having come under obligations to duty, were to resolve that truth is error, or that duty is sin, yet such a resolution could not bind the community. No authority whatsoever will dissolve the obligation of an oath. Hence, when lawful covenant engagements are disregarded by a community, the excellence which gave it an attractive power is gone. Then the glory is departed. And the degraded society, like the robe which once covered the living body, but is afterwards cast off, is faded and corrupt. The living principle embodied in some members of such a community, behoves to become separate from it, and to show that, indeed, that body which came under obligations that are not exhausted, is in succeeding times to exist in a new but glorious sphere. It is not the invelopement, but the living faithful body, that is the care of the covenant. Each member owes a debt of covenant duty. And though apostasy may paralyze the body, so that by it as a whole, that obligation may not be felt, let that which lives, therefore, act in fulfilling it, even through a disruption and consequent re-organization. Devotedness to duty will be visited with an energy which will increase in the face of every difficulty. To flee individually from obligation, is to shun the wholesale ruin of the whole unfaithful mass, but in order to be taken and fall -- each one personally for his iniquity.
Fourthly. Covenanting does not implicate conscience. By this, it is intended that the exercise does not bring under any obligation to do what is evil, or to abstain at any future time from modifying the engagement made, so as to render it more and more perfect. It is admitted, nay, contended for, that the exercise brings under obligation: but that is only to duty. The duty is not to be abandoned because it cannot be properly performed. If it were, then, for the same reason, every other might be disregarded. No covenant engagement is perfect. Either in its matter or manner, each of these may have many defects. Indeed, were one to vow all the duty unfolded in the Scriptures, the engagement would be sound. Every believer virtually does that. But special vows are necessary. The former, exclusively, is competent only to a period of the Church's future history, when her attainments will far exceed those heretofore made by her. But in order that such a step as that may be taken, by vowing habitually and performing, the Church ought to make assiduous preparation. Men ought to enter into Covenant as duty presents itself. If we perceive that we have vowed to sin, let us not perform, but pray to God for forgiveness, and engage to what is lawful. It is foreign to the scope of the ordinance to give countenance to sin. None, however, on that account, can excuse himself for not coming under and fulfilling a good obligation. Though we cannot do other duties perfectly, we would not be warranted in refusing to perform these. We have no might in ourselves to do any good thing: nay, even the services of the saints, performed in faith, are all imperfect; but we are, nevertheless, called to duty. The dread of doing evil ought not to prevent from making efforts to perform what is good. One may be left to enter into a wrong engagement; but he is not on that account to abstain from endeavours to engage and perform aright. Man has a claim upon his brother in consequence of his engagements made with him. If one, however, promise what is evil, and another demand fulfilment, both are faulty, -- the one for engaging to do evil, the other for urging an unwarranted claim. Covenant engagements should not, however, be neglected, but be wisely made and kept. By Covenanting to do duty, we are neither foolishly nor sinfully committed. God will require what is right, and that alone. We ought to make every lawful effort to perform duty. Our best efforts to serve God are but approximations. They ought, however, to be continued. Are we to abandon any one means of doing good, because the improper use of it would do injury? The bond of a covenant with God is a holy bond: it cannot come in contact with what is evil. With various condemnation, it allows all such to pass; but it constrains to good. The evil in a bond professing to sustain that high character mars it. Better that were changed, by the removal of the evil, than to remain imperfect because of the continuance thereof. The evil impairs its dignity and excellence, nay, tends to make it void. Evil confers no obligation. The admission of it into any engagement is sinful. The good part of every compact accords not with it, but demands its expulsion. Let those who acknowledge themselves to be called to obedience not refrain from vowing: but in doing this duty, let them be cautious, and endeavouring to perform, let them fear to break, their engagement to duty, and also to keep what they ought not to have promised. To neglect either of these things is sinful. To vow, however, notwithstanding the dreadful consequences of sinfully doing so, and of not performing, is indispensable. To do so, is to use an appointed means of arriving at the knowledge of God, to make progress towards spiritual perfection, and to prepare to attain at last to the great end of all his arrangements for sinners -- even complete conformity to the will of God, and the promotion of His glory.
Finally. That men are bound by previous descending Covenant obligations, is no reason why they should not themselves engage in Covenanting. Have not all the chosen of God to be brought successively nearer and nearer to him? And ought not this exercise, designed for facilitating this, to be carefully had recourse to? Are not the Scriptures to be read? Are not all the means of grace to be used for this? Covenanting is a means of the restoration of men to Him from every imperfection, whether in an unconverted or converted state. Engaging in it, they are described as returning to God. By it, all ought to return from every departure from him. Throughout their lives, believers will be imperfect, and will be called to use this means of attaining their expected end. The obligations entailed from the past bind to the duty. The very first obligation, voluntarily accepted by personally or socially discharging it, binds additionally to it. Every new performance thereof adds to the motive to engage in it again; so that, instead of the obligation to Covenant being diminished by the doing of the duty, it is rather increased. And as the believer goes on to perform it, his call to the service will wax indefinitely great. His is the state of mind cherished by the Psalmist declaring himself cordially bound, when he vowed in these words, -- "Thy vows are upon me, O God. I will render praises unto thee."
 P.37 of "Observations on the Public Covenants betwixt God and the Church," by the Rev. Dr. Mason, late of Wishawtown, -- a work presenting a rich scriptural view of the subject.
 Job xxxiv.17.
 1 Sam. xxii.8.
 Ps. xxxi.20.
 Numb. xxx.2.
 These are, [Hebrew: chavosh, kashor, rakhosh, asor].
 Jer. l.5; see also Is. lvi.3; and Zech. ii.11.
 Is. xxvii.5; and lvi.4-6.
 Nehem. ix.38.
 Deut. xxx.20.
 Deut. x.20.
 Jer. xiii.11; see also ver.1-10.
 Ps. lxiii.8, 11.
 Jer. xi.6.
 Deut. xxix.9.
 Ps. cxxxii.12.
 Deut. xi.1.
 Rev. ii.25, 26.
 Ps. cxix.111.
 Ps. lxxvi.11.
 Eccl. v.4.
 Deut. xxiii.21.
 Lev. xxvii.1-25.
 Lev. xxvii.28, 29.
 Jer. xi.3, 4; see also v.10-12; Deut. xxix.18-21; Jer. xxxiv.18-20; Ezek. xvii.18, 19.
 Rom. i.31, 32.
 Ps. lxi.8.
 Ps. cxvi.14.
 Ps. cxix.106.
 Jer. ii.2, 3, 20.
 Ps. lxvi.6.
 Heb. iii.2, 6.
 Gen. xxi.23.
 Exod. xiii.19.
 Jos. ix.15, and 2 Sam. xxi.1, 2.
 Deut. v.2, 3.
 Some of these are, Ps. xlvii.9; Is. xiii.16; Luke i.72-74; Gal. iii.7.
 Hos. xii.4.
 Acts iii.25.
 Exod. xv.2.
 Ps. cxvi.16-18.
 Gen. xv.8-12, 17, 18.
 Neh. ix.7, 8.
 Gen. xvii.9.
 Jer. xi.10, 11.
 Deut. xxxi.16, 17.
 Ezek. xvii.18, 19.
 Is. xxiv.5, 6.
 2 Cor. vi.17, 18.
 As one of many passages which show this, see Jer. iv.12.
 Ps. lvi.12.