The Promise of The Covenant
adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation on 24 June 2011
“For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39).
The Acts of Apostles is written by Dr Luke. It begins, in chapter 1, with an account of the ascension of the Lord Jesus. Ten days later, in chapter 2, the Jews were celebrating Pentecost, while the Christians were praying together in an upper room.
Sudden the Holy Spirit was, as it were, poured down upon the believers like a mighty rushing wind. They began to speak in many different languages praising God and testifying of the wonderful works of Christ.
All who saw what happened were amazed, though some doubted and mocked the disciples, saying that they must be drunk.
It was then that Peter stood up to address the people. He contended that the disciples were not drunk. And then he preached a very powerful gospel message, filled with references from the Old Testament.
He admonished the Jews for their unbelief and for crucifying the Lord of glory.
By the time he ended the sermon, many of those who heard the sermon were pricked in the heart. They cried out unto Peter and the rest of the apostles: “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
Peter replied, verse 38-39—
Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.
This evening, the Lord helping us, as part of our series on the Great and precious promises of God, we want to consider the promise spoken of by Peter, in verse 39—
“For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.”
Let us study this promise by asking ourselves 3 questions: (1) What is the promise? (2) To whom was the promise extended? (3) Upon whom would the promise be fulfilled?
1. Nature of the Promise
First of all, it is very clear, from the context this promise involves the giving of the Holy Spirit. Peter says, v. 38—
Repent, and be baptized… and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children,…
Now, this sounds like salvation by works, doesn’t it? Repent and be baptised, and you will receive the Holy Spirit. But Peter cannot be teaching salvation by works! That would contradict the clear teaching of Scripture elsewhere.
What then does he mean? Without going into a lot of detail, let us remember that the Holy Spirit’s work in conversion can be distinguished into two parts. The first part is known as baptism of the Spirit or regeneration. It is when the sinner is regenerated that he can exercise faith and repentance. The second part, on the other hand, may be known as Indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Now, this is received by faith which is immediately exercised upon regeneration.
When he calls upon the congregation to repent and be baptised to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter must be referring to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the continued blessing of His work of Sanctification. Baptism signifies and seals the work of grace begun and testifies of the genuineness of the gift received.
In any case, it is clear that the promise is a promise of the Holy Spirit and His blessings. This is the first thing we must know about this promise.
But secondly, we must remember that this promise of the Holy Spirit is not an isolated promise. Rather, the promise of the Holy Spirit is really, the promise of the Abrahamic Covenant referred to in Genesis 12-17.
Under the Abrahamic Covenant, which is a manifestation of the Covenant of Grace, God promised to bless Abraham and his seed, and commanded him to circumcise himself and all his sons as a token or sign and seal of the covenant relationship and promise (cf. Gen 17:9-10; Rom 4:11).
As God promised Abraham that He would bless his seed and therefore required Abraham to circumcised his children, so Peter called upon the people to be baptised—they and their children.
What about those who are afar off that Peter mentions in the promise? Well, they are also part of the Abrahamic covenant! For God told Abraham in Genesis 12 that He would make him a great nation and that in him shall “all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen 12:2-3)!
Can you see how Peter must be referring to the promise in the Abrahamic covenant?
Now, some of our Baptist friends are not convinced. They say: “Peter is referring to the promise of the Holy Spirit; he says nothing about the Abrahamic covenant!” “You are bringing the Abrahamic covenant in only to show that we should baptise infants, but there is nothing about the Abrahamic covenant in Peter’s speech,” they suggest.
Well, our answer is that the idea that the promise of the Holy Spirit is part of the blessing of the Abrahamic Covenant did not come from us. It comes from the Holy Spirit Himself. We see this in Galatians 3:13—
“13 Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: 14 That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal 3:13-14).
There you have it! The promise of the Holy Spirit is part of the blessing of Abraham! When Peter referred to the promise, he was referring to the blessing of Abraham. The Jewish audience who heard it would have understood that!
They would have understood from what Peter is saying that God now requires His people and their children to be baptised instead of being circumcised to signify and seal their membership in the covenant!
But now the know the nature of the promise, let us ask whom it is extended to?
2. Extent of the Promise
First, it was a Promise spoken to the Jews who were hearing the Gospel. So the promise was made to them.
But was the promise made to them because they were Jews or merely because they were hearing the Gospel?
We don’t know if every single one of them believed what was being preached. But we have no doubt that everyone of them was a Jew or a Proselyte, and so everyone of them was part of God’s people under the old covenant.
Peter is suggesting that the promise is for God’s covenant people. But by calling them to repent and to be baptised, he was also saying that the promise would no longer be extended to all the Jews.
It was being extended to Jewish believers. These would be baptised as a seal of the promise. Today, it is extended to all of us who are baptised and have been included in God’s covenant body.
We may not go out into the world and tell everyone that God’s promise is unto them. It is a promise made to the church, the covenant people of God.
But secondly, the promise was also extended unto the children of believers. “The promise is unto you, and to your children” says Peter.
Do you see how this naturally follows from the fact that the promise that Peter is speaking about is the blessing of the Abrahamic Covenant? In the Abrahamic covenant, a special mention is made of children. God required all His covenant people under the Old Testament to circumcise their children because He would extend His blessing to his people down the generation.
Peter is telling the people that God’s view of covenant children has not changed.
The apostle Paul likens the church to an Olive Tree. Children of believers are the shoots on the Olive Tree.
Therefore, children of believers are included in the covenant. Children of believers are part of God’s covenant people.
Therefore children of believers must be baptised too. In the Old Testament, children were in the covenant, and therefore they were circumcised. In the New Testament, children of believers are in the covenant, and therefore they must be baptised too. Those who are baptised receive the sign and seal of God’s covenant blessing, and have the assurance of the blessings of the Holy Spirit in their Christian walk.
But now, thirdly, Peter also says that the Promise is unto “as many as the Lord our God shall call.”
That is to say: The promise is not only extended unto the existing covenant people of God (which comprise of the adult believers and their children). It is extended also to others whom the Lord will call.
In the paradigm of the Abrahamic covenant, these are referred to as the nations or the Gentiles who would receive the blessings of Abraham. They would be called by the Lord into the church. They would believe. They would be grafted into the Olive Tree. They must also be baptised to signify that they are now part of the covenant body of Christ.
Do you see what Peter is saying? He is saying that the blessing of Abraham belongs to the members of the church and their children. These must be baptised. And so must anyone whom the Lord would call, who would profess faith in Christ. The blessing of Abraham would also be bestowed upon these. They must also repent and be baptised.
Or to put it simply: baptism is for God’s covenant people. You are part of God’s covenant people if you grow up on the olive tree. Or you become part of God’s covenant people when God calls you and you are converted and profess faith in Christ. Baptism does not make a person a member of God’s covenant. Baptism merely ratifies the person’s membership in the covenant. But baptism is important. No true believer will refuse to get baptised because baptism is the official seal of authenticity. Without baptism, you can have little confidence that you belong to God and assurance of the blessings of the Holy Spirit in your life.
But does everyone who is baptised receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? We know from experience and biblical accounts that this is not the case. Therefore, let us ask the question: Upon whom would the Promise be fulfilled?
3. The Beneficiaries of the Promise
We noted earlier that the promise is not extended to the world and do not find fulfilment in everyone who hears it. Indeed, we do not know if everyone of the 3000 souls were saved. Probably not.
Who then are the beneficiaries of the promise? They are the elect of Christ. Who are the elect of Christ? We don’t know. Why then did Peter extend the promise to the whole congregation? Because it is God’s will for him to do so!
Peter was preaching to the Jews. These were the external people of God. They bore the sign and seal of the covenant by way of circumcision. Peter had the divine warrant to tell them that God’s promise is unto them and their children because they bore God’s sign and seal of the covenant.
Peter could not have said the same if he were preaching to the Gentiles who were not yet converted. But he would, not doubt, have said the same to a congregation of Gentiles who have been baptised.
He could say that although there is no way for him to know if every member in the church is a true believer or an elect. For baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant.
You see, the sign and seal of the covenant provides a divine warrant for the preacher to extend the promise of the Lord regardless of their inward state. And conversely, it also is the divine warrant for the hearers to receive the promise by faith.
So those of us who are members of the church visible have the right to lay claim on the covenant promises. Who are the members of the visible church?
They are those who have made profession of faith in Christ as well as their children. These are those who have been baptised, or are seeking baptism in obedience. If we refuse baptism, we demonstrate contempt against God’s promises, so we have no right to lay claim on the promise. But if we seek baptism, then our baptism signifies and seals our relationship to Christ.
Our children should likewise be baptised as the children of Abraham were circumcised to signify and seal their relationship to Christ in the Covenant. Those who are baptised may look back to their baptism and believe that God will bless them as His covenant people.
We don’t know who the elect are, but we are firmly assured by God’s promise that those who sincerely receive God’s sign and seal will receive all the blessings promised in Christ.
And likewise, we have every reason to be confident that children who received God’s sign and seal, and come under faithful, prayerful and consistent covenant instruction by their parents and the church will come to truly believe God’s promises and come to a heartfelt personal salvation in Christ.
God has promised. But what shall we do with the promise? Let me suggest 3 things as we conclude.
First, let us receive God’s promise by faith. We are God’s covenant people. God’s promise is unto us and to our children to a thousand generations. We must not doubt God’s promise. We must receive it by faith and hope in the Lord without worrying about whether we are elect or not. Remember, Deuteronomy 29:29—“The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever…”
Secondly, let us walk according to God’s covenant mercies. We must not only receive God’s promises, we must live as a member of God’s Covenant. We must keep God’s commandment gratefully and make use of the means of grace cheerfully. We must train our children according to the way of the covenant.
We must teach them their covenant responsibility. They belong to Christ. We must never treat them as belonging to Satan. Let us call them to repentance and faith, but remind them constantly that they belong to Christ since they bear his sign and seal.
Finally, may I admonish you, directly, covenant children to SEek the Lord as covenant children. You have been baptised. You carry the sign and seal of God’s covenant and His promise. You must believe His promise. You must live for Him as members of the covenant.
You must seek all the blessings that He bestows upon His people through His Holy Spirit. You must seek the privilege of partaking in the Lord’s Supper for your spiritual nourishment. Lay hold on the promise, children. You need not doubt that you have a right to receive it. Only believe, only receive by faith all that God would give you. May the Lord help us! Amen. Ω