Practical Divinity: Renewing our covenant with God in 2017

Andrew C. Thompson

The beginning of the new year often brings with it our New Year’s resolutions. Usually those resolutions are pretty predictable. We want to lose weight and get in better shape. We want to budget our money better, or perhaps finally finish that special project we have been working on for so long.

For the early Methodists, the beginning of the year was a time for a different kind of resolution—what they called “renewing the covenant.” The idea was that they would renew their baptismal covenants with God and thereby recommit themselves to lives of faithful discipleship.

Evidence for early Methodist covenant renewal shows up frequently in John Wesley’s published Journal. It was a way that he could spread the word about the importance of covenant renewal to other communities around the British Isles.

In those Journal entries, there is a kind of rhythm to the way Wesley reports on services of covenant renewal. They seem to have included elements of confession, assurance of pardon and power for future living. There is a great example of this rhythm in the entry for Jan. 1, 1775, where Wesley writes: “We had a larger congregation at the renewal of the covenant than we have had for many years; and I do not know that ever we had a greater blessing. Afterwards, many desired to return thanks, either for a sense of pardon, for full salvation, or for a fresh manifestation of his grace, healing all their backslidings.”

Wrapped up in that report is also a distinct note of thanksgiving on the part of the people involved. It’s a thanksgiving borne out of the recognition for all that God has done for us, including especially offering us the gift of salvation.

In John Wesley’s understanding, the spiritual experience that could happen within the covenant renewal service is like a microcosm of the whole experience of salvation itself. In order for us to really know and love God, we first have to get rid of all the junk of sin that piles itself up in our lives. When we confess that sin and ask God for forgiveness, we can receive the experience of true pardon. And once pardoned, we are ready to be filled with the sanctifying grace of Jesus Christ that enables us to love God fully.

That “pardon/power” dynamic appears in another covenant renewal reference from Wesley’s Journal, this time on Dec. 31, 1780. Wesley writes: “We renewed our covenant with God. We had the largest company that I ever remember; perhaps two hundred more than we had last year. And we had the greatest blessing. Several received either a sense of the pardoning love of God or power to love him with all their heart.”

One of the great things about covenant renewal is that it doesn’t have to exist just as an historical artifact. The traditional “Covenant Renewal Service” is present in our current United Methodist Book of Worship on pages 288-294. I have led multiple groups through this service over the years, and it always offers a powerful experience of renewal. It’s the type of service that often works best with small groups or class meetings that have been engaging in serious conversations about their faith together over the previous year.

However, if the full Covenant Renewal Service isn’t feasible, then anyone interested in the experience of renewing the baptismal covenant with God can draw on the “Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition,” found on page 607 of the United Methodist Hymnal:

Holy God,
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt,
  rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
   exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things,
   let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
   to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
   thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
   let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

That prayer is appropriate for use in a regular Sunday service—whether that be on New Year’s Day, Baptism of the Lord Sunday or some other occasion early in the new year.

The Rev. Dr. Thompson serves as senior pastor of First UMC Springdale. He can be reached at www.andrewthompson.com.