What Does Covenant Theology Teach Us about Living in a Family?

Covenant Theology on Family Life

Human life usually begins in families. Whether families are stable or unstable, helpful or harmful, family connections shape who we are. Children look like their parents, whether or not they want to. Though parents and spouses cannot, and should not try to, make their children and spouses do and think whatever they want, family life inevitably shapes the speech, mannerisms, habits, and lives of everyone in the household. The covenant of grace affects people in a family even more profoundly because God not only sets the tone for the household but also promises to bring his influences into the hearts of family members in a way that no parent or spouse can do or try to do.

Covenant theology is a blessing because God brings families into covenant with himself, affecting families profoundly. In the covenant of works, Adam ruined his family. Through the covenant of redemption, Christ redeemed his family (1 Cor. 15:22), and the Spirit calls God’s children home in the covenant of grace. God separated the seed of the woman from the seed of the serpent from Genesis 3:15 onward, dividing the nations by families. Being Abraham’s God and the God of his children after him, God brought Abraham’s family into the church through circumcision as a covenant sign (Gen. 17:1–12). The truth that God has put his word and Spirit in the mouths and hearts of believers, their children, and their children’s children is one of the greatest encouragements to families under the new covenant (Isa. 59:21). God is our God and the God of our children, we are his people, and he dwells among us. Blessing families stands at the core of many of the most glorious promises of the covenant of grace. More than this, God’s covenant with families should create a gospel-driven pattern for family life.

What Is Covenant Theology?

Ryan M. McGraw

This accessible book explores the basics and blessings of covenant theology, revealing the breathtaking unity of Scripture, the glory of the Triune God, and implications for Christian living.

What does covenant theology mean for Christian families today? Though this is a broad topic with wide implications for how we live in our homes, marriage and children illustrate the point. The covenant of grace conveys the gospel to believing families, and how we live in marriage and with our children says a great deal about how we understand the gospel. For example, Paul did not merely tell husbands that they need to stop being selfish and mistreating their wives and start loving them. He said that husbands should love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). As Christ “sanctif[ied]” and “cleansed” the church “by the washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:26), so husbands should imitate Christ’s fulfillment of the covenant of redemption in loving their wives. Husbands should neither be selfish nor hate their wives; they should nourish and cherish them precisely because this reflects Christ’s relationship with his church (Eph. 5:29). Paul was so caught up in Christ’s covenant work of saving his church that this overtook his discussion of marriage, though he concluded that his application was still relevant to married couples (Eph. 5:32–33). Christ’s covenant faithfulness to his church determines what a solid Christian husband should look like.

What should this look like concretely? Like Christ, husbands must deny themselves in loving service to their wives, letting Christ’s covenant faithfulness set the tone in the home. Good Christology, or teaching about Christ, and good Trinitarian theology, comes before being a good Christian husband.1 Husbands are in Christ, and Christ died for and sanctifies the church. This means that husbands will be more ready to listen to their wives than to speak. It means that they will lead through self-sacrifice rather than by demanding submission. Husbands will repent of harsh words and help with dishes and children instead of sitting in front of the television after a hard day’s work. Every time I have asked men doing such things if they are reading their Bibles and praying consistently, they answer no. They put themselves first, over their wives and children, because they put God last. We could add examples for wives, but painting a general picture is what matters here.

The covenant presses Christ-centered perseverance through hardships in marriage as well. People with difficult marriages, even those married to unconverted spouses, will focus more on seeking Christ for his own sake in their marriages than desperately seeking to change spouses and circumstances, which are out of their control. Focusing on our circumstances leads to selfishness and anger; focusing on Christ and covenant leads to self-denial and humility. Such examples, and many more like them, are ways of putting God first, then the church, and then ourselves. The covenant is about the gospel of God, and how we live in marriage says volumes about our relationship to the God of the gospel.

The same things are true in relation to our children, who are God’s children more than ours (Ezek. 16:21). God was God to Abraham, to his children after him, and to outsiders willing to join the church in the Old Testament. Abraham’s promises still belong to us, to our children, and to as many as are afar off whom the Lord our God will call (Acts 2:38). The “blessing of Abraham” has come to the nations in Christ (Gal. 3:14). Baptizing households in the New Testament (Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Cor. 1:16), God brings salvation to the households of Abraham’s believing sons (Luke 19:9). God’s covenant promises are one reason why most of the Christian church throughout its history has baptized the children of believers. I won’t say much here about how we should view baptized covenant children but will focus instead on how the covenant transforms parenting. It is enough to say that God puts children in the church through baptism because they are in the covenant of grace through promises. They need to be born again and believe in Christ to take ownership of the covenant with God as their Father, and we need to teach them these facts. Children are not born again because they are born in Christian families, but the covenant of grace brings promises that God will ordinarily circumcise their hearts, putting his word and Spirit in them. Our children do not have fewer privileges and promises than Abraham’s children did but better promises and blessings under a better covenant. We need to encourage our children to make these covenant promises their own.

God’s covenant with families should create a gospel-driven pattern for family life.

The covenant of grace is a model for both Christian children and parents. Children need to obey their parents “in the Lord” because he is their Lord, because he has commanded it, and because he promises to bless them (Eph. 6:1–3). Fathers are obligated to rear their children in “the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4) because God gives covenant promises to children and parents, requiring covenant obligations from both. We cannot control our children’s hearts, and we cannot make them believers, both of which are the Holy Spirit’s work. What we can do is bring them to the means of grace, where they can meet Christ, and teach them to expect God’s work in their lives through his covenant faithfulness. In other words, we teach them to live by faith in the Son of God even as we do (Gal. 2:20). Teaching them how to live in utter dependence on Christ is more important than pressing for a moment of conversion.

As was the case with husbands and wives, this should make parents more ready to serve and to listen than to demand and to speak. Certainly, parents reflect Christ in their authority and teaching roles, and children need to obey them and learn from them, but parents should trust in God’s covenant promises to them and to their children more than in their own parenting methods, repenting and asking their children for forgiveness when they do wrong.2

The gospel covenant directs gospel parenting even further. On the one hand, God requires first-time obedience from us, not letting us go our own way and hardening our hearts in sin. Letting people, whether adults or children, get away with sin without consequences and calling it grace is a sad commentary on our view of the covenant of grace. The grace of God that brings salvation teaches us “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” as we look to Christ’s return (Titus 2:11–14). Christian parents, while being cautious not to require too much of their children, should require first-time obedience from their children because that is what our covenant God requires of us. On the other hand, God forgives our sins freely and unreservedly, not holding a grudge against us or calling up our past sins. So parents should forgive their children freely and move on quickly when they repent. Likewise, they should model such repentance toward their children when they sin against their children.

Lastly, as worship lies at the heart of the covenant of grace, so parents should lead their children in family worship. Simply put, this means setting apart time to worship God as a family. Simply practiced, we should set apart a brief time every day to read the Bible, pray, and sing together. What better way to show that we are in covenant with God than gathering daily to pray to the triune God, to praise him, and to read and listen to his word? Remember, however, that worship is for families and not only for children. Married couples without children, or without children in the home, are still families in covenant with God who should express covenant blessings through worshiping God together. To be profitable, family worship should be simple, short, regular, and predictable. Better to do a little bit daily and consistently than to quit because of unrealistic expectations.3


  1. For an excellent Trinitarian and Christological approach to marriage, see John Piper, This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
  2. For a treatment of precisely the question in view here, see Joel R. Beeke, Parenting by God’s Promises: How to Raise Children in the Covenant of Grace (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2011).
  3. For help with family worship, see Joel R. Beeke, Family Worship (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009).

This article is adapted from What Is Covenant Theology?: Tracing God's Promises through the Son, the Seed, and the Sacraments by Ryan M. McGraw.

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