Letters to Our Dear Children #5
Dear Junia, Charysse, DeAnn and Greg,
Perhaps our favorite family excursion when you were children was swimming in Guntersville Lake. The lake was about a forty-mile drive from our house in Huntsville, Alabama, and we went there with a picnic lunch nearly every Monday during the summer months. We were gleefully unaware of the alleged vermin filling our “ole’ swimmin’ hole” and enjoyed many hours of rompin’ in the surf. (And, incidentally, those vermin never made us sick, well, not very sick anyway.)
My suspicion is that you still remember those trips to the lake. It was the kind of day off that a poor pastor and his family could both afford and enjoy. And enjoy it we did! All of us enjoyed the water, and each of you learned to swim and dive with very little coaching. One of our favorite stunts was for me to take you out neck-deep in the water and then throw you as far as I could. You would come up from your landing laughing hysterically and asking me to do it again. So I did, until I was so exhausted I could hardly breathe.
So, what does that have to do with “Covenant Nurture?” Your mother and I are convinced that it had a whole lot to do with “Covenant Nurture!” Such play as we so raucously enjoyed on our swimming outings was well designed to help us bond together in loving and joyful relationships – relationships which became the very foundation of Covenant Nurture in our family.
Yes, we also led the four of you in those experiences which are most clearly recognized as parts of Covenant Nurture: daily family worship, Sunday worship at church, family discussions of God and the Bible, singing hymns together on various occasions, reading good Biblical books and magazines. We even memorized scripture together and the questions and answers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. You joined us willingly as we led you through those specifically nurturing exercises.
Allow me to use a somewhat technical word at this point, the word “holistic.” You have doubtless seen that word used by psychologists, educators, doctors, and others who are trying to get us to see the big picture, the whole scope of life. Unless we are “holistic” in the appropriate sense, we are in danger of focusing narrowly on one little part of life, thus distorting the overall meaning.
Now I am going to insist that the “ole swimmin’ hole” was an important part of the “holistic” picture of the Alexander family. Without our trips to Guntersville Lake, you would not have been as well equipped either to worship with us on Sunday or to memorize your catechisms. The idea of human life that emerges from the first two chapters of Genesis is a wonderfully “holistic” picture, showing us Worship, Work, and Wedlock as a beautiful panorama of realities (Letter #3) that only the All-wise and All-loving God could conceive and create. Pardon the pun on the “ole swimmin’ hole,” but remember that God is the One who is inviting us to plunge into our world with a gusto, discovering the glory and majesty of our God and Savior through all the rest of scripture, which unfolds out of the “image of God” and the Covenant outlined in those first two chapters in genesis.
ONE MOST IMPORTANT POINT: Each of the four of you came to saving faith in Christ through Covenant Nurture. Faithful teachers and preachers at Westminster Presbyterian church and teachers at
Westminster Christian Academy joined with us, your parents, in that Covenant Nurture which you received. In your early teen years, each of you made a profession of faith to our Ruling Elders, thus becoming confessing members of the Body of Christ.
Your dear Mother and I never stop praising our Lord for this great wonder of His amazing grace. Your continuing faith in our Savior is a beautiful testimony to the effectiveness of Covenant Nurture still at work in your lives (including memories of the “ole swimmin’ hole”).
With all our love,
Mom and Dad Alexander
Your mother and I had to discover “Covenantal Nurture.” We were both raised in what might be called a “Revivalist” church culture, a culture in which both adults and children were expected to come to Christ through the kind of evangelistic preaching that always concluded with an invitation to come forward and receive Christ through the appeal of the preacher. This “Revivalist” culture showed some respect for Covenantal Nurture but primarily emphasized public response to the evangelistic appeal as the real proof that conversion to Christ was genuine. You had to make a public “decision for Christ.” If you did not know the date and hour of that decision made when you went forward to receive Jesus, you probably were not really saved. That is what the “Revivalist” culture had decreed and your mother and I lived under that decree.
Under the “Covenantal Nurture” teaching that we found for the first time at seminary, we became convinced that such “Revivalist” teaching, such “decisionism,” was a serious problem within the church. My own father was a pastor/evangelist who had been thoroughly trained in in such Revivalism. He and a numerous army of his fellow preachers often became expert guilt manipulators, skilled at convincing their congregations that they were such sinners that they should come forward after the sermon either for first-time conversion or for the rededication of their lives to Christ. The result was that many professing believers went forward frequently in response to such preaching. They were never quite sure that they had really been saved the last time they went forward and/or could be quite easily convinced that they should at least rededicate their lives by going forward again.
Dr. Buswell’s teaching on the Covenant (Letter #1) and his emphasis on the family nurture that flows out of the Covenant was a wonderful discovery both for me personally and for your mother who happily learned it second-hand through my passing it on to her. The more we discussed and studied these Covenantal ideas, the more we realized that these truths were not just an incidental part of the Bible but were crucial truths at the very heart of the Bible, truths that bring powerful assurance of God’s love to us lost sinners. We were delighted to find a growing number of Godly leaders and pastors who led us further into Covenant truths and strengthened us in our growing understanding of Covenant Nurture.
We became convinced that the Revivalism of our early years was in serious error!
Don’t get me wrong. We know that “revival” is a Biblical idea; Psalm 85:6, for instance, uses this very good and very Biblical word, but we became convinced that this word and related ideas have been misconstrued and badly misunderstood by many who call themselves “revivalists.” We became convinced that parents are the primary agents for leading their children to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and that “Covenant Nurture” is the primary means that parents must use to accomplish this important goal. I will refer to two highly respected brothers here to support my position.
Walter A. Elwell’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology refers to two famous old nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologians who had experienced Revivalism in their youth. These two theologians are Dr. Archibald Alexander (1772-1851) and Dr. Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Their opinions on Revival and Christian nurture reflect Biblical wisdom evident in this quotation from Elwell:
Many Old School men, including Alexander and Hodge, were greatly influenced by revivals in their younger days and acknowledged a continuing need for revival in the church. But they sharply criticized contemporary “revivalists”….They condemned emotional excesses and demanded that revivals be carried out within the church guided by its confessional stance on God’s sovereignty and human inability. Charles G. Finney’s theology and Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835) were thoroughly criticized. Hodge preferred Horace Bushnell’s concept of Christian nurture to revivalism as the primary means of bringing people to faith in Christ.1
I am fully convinced that Alexander and Hodge were right. Experience in my own family and congregation have further convinced me that parental use of Christian nurture is both the most Biblical and the most effective way of leading our children to Christ and keeping them in Christ.
I will have more to say about this in my next letter.
And I want to hear from you. This may be controversial with some of you. Let’s talk!
- Dr. Walter A. Elwell Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Published by Baker Books, 1984, 1996, Page 794.