A Covenant Home: What Is It Like?
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This article was written by Prof. Herman Hanko in the March 1, 1984 issue of the Standard Bearer.
Some years ago, on a visit to the south, I found myself in front of a home, which had, hanging over the front door, a sign upon which were the words: "In This House Christ Is King." I found this intriguing and immediately thought of the firm statement of Joshua to Israel just before his death: "But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."
It would be equally appropriate for a covenant family to have a sign hanging over the front door of its home, with the words engraved on it: "This Home is a Covenant Home." Such a family would want all who visited it to understand that the home they were about to enter was a special kind of home, a unique home, a home which differed from countless thousands of homes throughout the country or the world.
If you saw such a sign appropriately fixed above the front door of a house, what precisely would you expect to find inside? Would you enter with some firm ideas concerning what to expect? Or would you say: "I have no idea of what a covenant home is like."
What is a covenant home?
This is not, of course, such an easy question to answer. There are at least two reasons why it is so difficult. One reason is that, while it is relatively easy to describe an ideal covenant home, no home ever reaches that ideal in this world of sin. An ideal covenant home would be a home in which all the members of the family walk faithfully and without sin in the ways of God's covenant. You won't find such a home anywhere. It might be worth our while, sometime, to describe such a home, for it is certainly an ideal for which we ought always to strive. But it is not attainable, that much we know.
The second reason why this question is so difficult to answer is that a covenant home has a certain "atmosphere" about it which, while it immediately tells you that it is indeed a covenant home, nevertheless defies analysis and escapes description. Anyone can tell when he is in a covenant home and when he is in a worldly home. But when pressed to explain precisely why the one home differs so radically from the other, he is hard-pressed to explain this difference. He might finally say, "Well, there is just something about it."
Nevertheless, it is certainly worth our while to try to explain the inexplicable, to try to define the indefinable, to try to describe that which cannot readily be defined. Our efforts are worthwhile simply because God's covenant people want covenant homes. We must, of course, take our starting point with the truth that a covenant home is a place where covenant people, covenant parents with covenant children, live. This goes without saying. But it is important to understand that these covenant parents with covenant children are what they are because God has himself established his own covenant of grace with them. They are his covenant people. This is important because God's covenant people are often described in scripture in terms of a family. The whole church is a covenant family. And the scriptures do this because our covenant families are earthly representations of the great family of the elect. Our covenant homes are, therefore, covenant homes to the extent that they reflect in their life, the covenant family of God.
There are various aspects to this, which we can briefly mention. The relation between God and his people in Christ is often pictured in scripture in terms of a marriage relation—and this is a covenant relation. So, a covenant home is one where husband and wife, in their life together reflect the relation between Christ and his church. The people of God are often described in terms of being God's sons and daughters, i.e., God's children whom he has begotten again by the wonder of regeneration. In that family God is emphatically Father, who assumes all responsibility for the care of his children, who makes a will in which his children are his heirs, heirs of the great treasures of salvation which he gives to them at the end of time. In that same family, Christ is the elder brother, the firstborn, the one who opens the way through sin and the grave into the blessedness of heaven for all his brethren to follow, who has all the rights and privileges of the firstborn because he is the heir of the birthright of the Father. It is even a home in which there is much eating and drinking, much joy and laughter, much fellowship and happiness, as the family gathers around the table to celebrate the great feast of the marriage supper of the Lamb. But it is also a family in which there is great need for instruction, for discipline, for warning and admonition, for chastisement, for encouragement, for comfort. It is that kind of a family because our Father knows that we are little children who need all these things in our "naughtiness," our struggles, our weaknesses, our sins.
A covenant home is, therefore, a home in which one finds a kind of picture of heaven's family, a reflection of the family of the church, a representation both of what things are like now while the church is in the world, and what things will be like when the church is in heaven.
What, then, specifically, does one find when one enters the door over which hangs the sign: "This Home is a Covenant Home"? What does one find if he hangs his hat and stays for a while in a home such as this?
Well, for one thing, the house has very little, if anything, to do with it. I have been in palatial houses which were not even homes, much less covenant homes. There are plenty of these in the world: houses costing tens of thousands of dollars, furnished with great taste and costly luxuries, staffed by many servants, with closets filled with many clothes, with new and powerful cars in the garage, with bars and recreation rooms, dens and fireplaces, art and tasteful decorations abounding; but such places are not necessarily homes. I have also been in very humble dwellings, in my childhood, in places where there was not even electricity, running water, inside toilets, or the conveniences of modern life; places where a family lived in great poverty and crowded conditions; but a home for all that. One of Solomon's proverbs sums it all up: "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith" (Prov. 15:17). One cannot determine whether a home is a covenant home by the house.
There are, of course, certain things about a covenant home which would be readily noticeable. You would not have to be in such a home very long before you would observe that there is a great deal of music in the home, but that the music which lies open on the piano or organ, the music which comes over the radio, the music which is sung, is all good music. It need not be Psalter music always, There may be classical music, church music, religious music; but you won't hear in such a home the music of the world—not even when the children are practicing their piano lessons. You would notice too that there probably would not be a television set, although if there was one, it was used so little that you might wonder why the people had one at all. Instead, you would see books and magazines lying around the house and on the book shelves, and both parents and children often reading and discussing what they read. But the books and magazines, while surely not all religious, are nevertheless not such reading material as has to be hidden away somewhere when the minister and elder come on family visitation.
But there are other things which one would notice, especially if one stayed for a while. One would notice, in a covenant home, that those who belong to the family enjoy being in the home. They cannot always be home—the father must go to work; the mother must attend to shopping and other obligations; the children are off to school and to work. But it would not take you long to tell that the members of the family want to be home as much as they can; they enjoy it there at home best of all; they hurry home from wherever they have been. Father looks forward to coming home after a day's work. Mother does not try to find work outside the home to increase the family income, nor does she gallivant about, eating breakfast and lunch at restaurants, sitting in idle chatter at other people's houses, traipsing around in an almost desperate effort to escape the home. The children are not always rushing off here and there for all kinds of reasons in order to escape being home and making family life together a near impossibility. The family finds in its home its greatest happiness and looks forward to those moments when all are together.
It is for this reason that mealtimes are always the highlight of the day for a covenant family. Gathered about the table, there is the opportunity to have devotions together—to read and discuss scripture and to pray together bringing the thanks and the needs of the family to God's throne; there is much laughter and joking; there is opportunity for the children to tell what has happened in school, for mother to tell about her day, and father to speak of his work. There is time for talk about the problems and burdens of the day and to share with the family the accomplishments, the disappointments, the troubles, and to find encouragement, help, and comfort from one another. Each member, after all, has his own place at the table. When one member of the family dies or is absent for a long time, we even speak of the fact that his chair is empty—and no one can fill it. Just as in the church of Christ, each has his own place which no one else can fill and in which place each member contributes to the fullness of the whole.
And so it is a family in which there is a great deal of happiness. A covenant family is a happy family. This does not mean that there are not great sorrows which drive the members closer together; this does not mean that there are not serious problems which have to be solved; nor does it mean that always and only happiness is present in the home: there are times of bickering and fighting, of unhappiness and just plain orneriness. But each knows that this is sin, and that such attitudes disrupt and detract from good home life. Nor does it mean that children always do their chores around the house willingly and eagerly. Most of the time this is perhaps not the case. But nevertheless, each knows that his part in the family is an important part and that whatever he contributes to the life of the family is a contribution to a covenant home.
Love, therefore, is the great thing. A reflection of the love of God in the family is what makes a family a covenant family—God's great love for us in Christ Jesus. It is a love between husband and wife in which each knows his own place, in which each willingly and readily assumes that place, in which each is thankful for the other as a gift of God, in which each knows God's love for him. It is a love between parents and children in which both recognize that God has given parents to children and children to parents as a great gift of grace. It is a love in which each knows and is thankful for his own place within the circle of love—which, as the apostle reminds us—is a bond of perfectness. It is a love that shows itself in each sacrificing his or her own personal well-being for the welfare of the whole. Finally, it is love which makes a home, a covenant home. Yet, love is so imperfect, and self-love and selfishness constantly intrude. So it is a home in which there are constant reminders that love must prevail. And so it is in unexpected gestures of thoughtfulness and surprising efforts to help one another.
Sin is always there, in many forms. Sometimes great sins. Sometimes the nagging sins of small thoughtless acts, of unkind words, of surliness and selfishness, of disobedience and disagreement. And so a covenant home is always a home where there is instruction and reproof, confession and repentance, encouragement and praise for the one who does well, a bearing of one another's burdens, a longing to help others do the right, but a punishment when needed. Such is also a covenant home in this sinful world.
In short, a covenant home is a reflection, in all its rich variety, of God's dealings with us. Where we are conscious of how God works in our lives, and where we attempt, by grace, to reflect these great works of grace and love, there you have a covenant home.